Friday, November 20, 2009

Lipscomb's Pursuit of Perfection hits Second Stage

Tonight, the Lipscomb volleyball team faces the last Atlantic Sun opponent to hand them a loss, their rivals from down the road, the Belmont Bruins.

That last loss came 52 weeks ago at the 2008 edition of the A-Sun Volleyball Championship in the title contest. Lipscomb, the top seed, was trying to win consecutive A-Sun Championships. However, they could not withstand the Bruins' attacks, falling in three sets.

Fast forward to 2009 - in the preseason, the Lady Bisons edged out the Bruins and the FGCU Eagles for the top spot in the coaches' poll and Alex Kelly garnered the Preseason Player of the Year accolade. The two have never once fallen out of the top position. After two weekends of non-conference tournament action, the Lady Bisons opened A-Sun action with a familiar foe, Belmont, at the Bruins' Curb Event Event Center. The Lady Bisons showed 2009 might take on a different feel for 2008, dispatching the champs in the three sets.

Home victories against Jacksonville and UNF, followed by a road conquest at Stetson, pushed Lipscomb to 4-0 with their first trip of the year to Alico Arena up next. FGCU, the league's regular-season champion in both 2007 and 2008, had never tasted a home defeat to an A-Sun opponent. All-Atlantic Sun setter Stefine "Jake" Pease registered 35 assists and 11 digs in a stunning 3-0 sweep of the Eagles - a result that resonated throughout the league.

Home victories against Mercer and Kennesaw State increased the A-Sun mark to 7-0, but perhaps even more impressively, in those seven wins, the Lady Bisons had yet to drop a set. The streak within a streak ended in a five-set thriller against ETSU. The Lady Bisons never trailed in the three sets, dropping the second and fourth, holding on by virtue of a 15-11 victory in the deciding set.

They completed the first round of the double round-robin portion play by defeating Campbell and USC Upstate. The second round brought Belmont into Allen Arena. While the Bruins picked up a set, the record moved to 11-0. As dominating as the Lady Bisons looked during the first round of A-Sun play, the second round might have appeared more impressive. Lipscomb embarked on another set streak, this time reaching 28 in a row before losing the third set to ETSU in the regular-season finale.

Along the way, the Lady Bisons as individuals and as teams have shot up the charts in national categories. They open the week placing 39th in RPI, two spots higher than their previous watershed mark, reached earlier in the season. At 26-3, their win percentage of .897 places them eighth and thanks to the play of Pease, they rank third in assists per set, a mere 0.03 behind the pace-setting Texas A&M. Juniors Alex Kelly and Meghan Hinemeyer have propelled the Lady Bisons to the top of the nation in kills per set. Pease places seventh on the individual side in assists per set while Kelly stands 15th in kills per set and ninth in points per set.

Despite the gaudy achievements, a loss this might mean that a 26-4 or 27-4 Lipscomb might be on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament. The A-Sun has never sent multiple teams to the tournament and that RPI rating of 39 sits right around the spot where teams can be passed over by the committee. Last season, Miami (FL) owned the dubious distinction as the highest ranked school not to make the field. They owned an RPI of 41. Three other top-50 schools, Houston (43), Creighton (46) and Indiana (47) did not make the cut while schools from the powerful SEC, Tennessee (50th) and LSU (51) did.

Schools with Undefeated Records In Conference Play

Lipscomb, Atlantic Sun, 20-0
North Dakota State, Summit, 18-0
Florida International, Sun Belt, 17-0
Penn State, Big Ten, 16-0
Northern Iowa, Missouri Valley, 16-0
Long Island, Northeast, 16-0
Furman, Southern, 16-0
Central Arkansas, Southland, 16-0
Hawai'i, WAC, 16-0
Notre Dame, Big East, 14-0
Albany, America East, 10-0
Maryland Eastern Shore, MEAC, 10-0
Florida A&M, MEAC, 8-0
Alabama A&M, SWAC, 8-0
Grambling State, SWAC, 8-0

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

First-Time Participants, Host Headline Volleyball Championship

For the third consecutive two-year cycle, the Atlantic Sun Volleyball Championships finds itself at a first-time host. In 2005 and 2006, Belmont's Curb Event Center served as the venue and for both of the last two Novembers, play at Mercer's University Center capped the season. In March, the conference approved a bid from FGCU to play host for this year's and next year's Championship, marking the first time that Fort Myers, Fla. would be the destination city for six teams competing for the volleyball crown.

FGCU, Fort Myers and Alico Arena welcomes five teams, Lipscomb, Jacksonville, Belmont, Kennesaw State and Campbell to town for the Championship in just its third year in Division I and in the Atlantic Sun. In both of the previous two seasons, the Eagles volleyball team won the league's regular-season title with a combined 28-3 record.

“I think some of the people that have been at [FGCU] longer, it means even more [to host]," FGCU head coach Dave Nichols said. "I came in very late, so for me its been a swift transition. Here it is, my second year and we already got [to host]. I think some of the people who have been here since the beginning and watched it go from fledgling to Division II to Division I to now postseason eligible, I think it means a great deal - this is their baby. We just happened to be pushed along a little bit and I think a lot of that is based on the success of my predecessor. They felt that volleyball could compete right away and be fairly successful”

By fast-tracking the sport, the Eagles gained access to the NCAA Tournament, and thus the A-Sun Championship after two years of reclassifying. Since the program started in 2004, they own an all-time record of 139-36, including 52-5 at Alico Arena.

"I think we have outstanding facilities which is important...for anybody," said Ken Kavanagh, FGCU Director of Athletics. "We play in these events whether [here] or on another campus. Part of the voting process we have is what will benefit the student-athlete the most. I think our weather – for outdoor events – certainly in many cases lends itself to good opportunities for us but our venue here at Alico Arena, we think is probably the finest in the conference, in both size as well as overall amenities we provide and we also have a quality volleyball team that we think will lend itself to a good tournament"

While this A-Sun Championship serves as a first for Alico Arena and the first for an FGCU team that includes and automatic NCAA bid, a second team amongst the field of six, Kennesaw State finds itself at its first A-Sun Volleyball Championship. In contrast to the Eagles, who were picked as the favorite to win A-Sun Championship, the Owls' three-year transition has not gone as smoothly and without the same level of success, picking up only 11 wins.

Enter first-year head Karen Weatherington. She came to Kennesaw, Ga., after serving most recently as the Associate Head Coach at Butler following time at Clemson, Duke and Iowa State. The Owls picked up 11 wins, in A-Sun play alone, and reached 17 wins entering the A-Sun Championship. Despite the lack of a winning tradition, Weatherington and the team set the bar high, and achieved goals not predicted by many in the preseason.

“We are thrilled to be here, we are just elated. We set our goals really high for coming into a new group," Weatherington said. "I've been really excited to take this team to a championship. We have some good background and experience between our coaching staff. [Our team is] very inexperienced, so we have talked about teaching them championship volleyball – how champions think and how they maintain themselves, how they carry themselves and how they prepare, so actually the staff has probably used the word ‘championship’ more than the players.”

Both Nichols and Weatherington acknowledged having a postseason opportunity resulted in substantial changes in the effort from their players, especially late in the season.

“It’s a big difference…when we finished last year’s final conference match, it was like with a whimper instead of a bang," Nichols said. "We had won the conference…we had already sealed it the night before, and we went in that match [against Jacksonville] flat because there was nothing left. It was odd, I had never felt that, it was my first year at [FGCU], I’ve always played for something. This year, after that final conference match, its been a whirlwind getting ready and I like it that way.”

FGCU has secured its spot in the field prior the the final weekend. Conversely, going into the final day of play, there existed remote scenarios that could have knocked the Owls out. Their win against the UNF Ospreys locked up their berth.

“We were very aware, our staff was very aware," Weatherington said. "We just tried to keep it under wraps as far as the players were concerned but the information went public on our Web site with all the different opportunities for the tiebreaker, but they really stayed focused."

One stat trend both teams will look to reverse this week: Only once has the A-Sun Volleyball Championship been won by a school making its first appearance, Stetson in 1985 at the very first A-Sun Championship. In fact among the current membership, only Stetson and Belmont, in 2004, have even reached the final in their first appearance.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stetson Looks to Erase Memory of 2006 Final

The last time Stetson reached an Atlantic Sun Conference Men’s Soccer Final the Hatters had everything going for them. They were the league’s defending tournament champs. They were the league’s regular season champs. They were at home as the top seed.

And they lost.

Fast forward three years. Stetson returns to the finals for the third time in five years after outlasting ETSU in Friday’s semifinals. A win will help erase the memories of 2006 and send this set of Hatters to the NCAA Championship.

“Our goal is to try and get to the NCAA each season,” head coach Logan Fleck said. “Personally, it is something that I have experienced before as a coach and I would definitely like for my kids to experience.”

If the Hatters are going to get there, they will need another strong effort from the quartet of seniors: Set Carpintero, Griffin Gilstrap, Robert Hodge and Kevin Munz.

Hodge, the 2009 A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year, converted a penalty kick late in the first half while Carpintero added an assist on Stetson’s first goal. Munz and Gilstrap made life miserable for the ETSU defense with their constant pressure and numerous scoring opportunities.

“As seniors, we have played in a final before and what it is like to lose,” Hodge said. “We know what it means to the team and what it means to be a student-athlete on a side like Stetson. Our collective leadership seems to help the team and that’s good.”

That leadership seems to rubbing off in a good way on the younger Hatters. If they can leave anything with their teammates, Coach Fleck hopes it will be a championship title and a tradition that sees Stetson contend annually.

“That is our whole mindset, mine, my hard-working assistant coach Eric Dutt as well as the players,” Fleck noted. “These guys give us great leadership.”

A match-up with No. 5 Mercer awaits on Sunday.

“They don’t look like a No. 5 seed to me,” Fleck said. “The way they played today and the pressure they put on was great, especially down a goal and having to come from behind. They have a couple kids healed up. I think it will be a very tough match. I’ll be losing sleep and looking at game film all night long.”

Be sure to follow the action live on

Friday, November 13, 2009

Another Inspection Passed for Mercer Building Project

Shots fired left and right. Sprawling saves bolstered spirits. That style of play characterized the first 20 minutes of the Atlantic Sun Conference Men’s Soccer semifinal between No. 1 Campbell and No. 5 Mercer.

However, few matches are won that early in a contest, but they are often won in the last 20 minutes and such was the case on Friday.

Mercer scored twice in an eight minute span late in the match to advance to their first final since 2004. Second-year head coach Brad Ruzzo seemed to relish the closing seconds of the contest as he saw his team pass another important inspection on their way to building a first-class program.

“It certainly was a goal that we had coming into this tournament,” Ruzzo said. “We left her last year with a little bit of a bitter taste, leaving in the first round. I can only credit the players, the upperclassmen in particular. We had a lot of changes from last year to this year and they continue to buy into what we are teaching them. I could not be more proud of those players. Obviously, the freshmen coming in have been such a big part of this. We had seven freshmen start the game today and they don’t really know any better which is a good thing sometimes.”

The Bears seemed to be well on their way to establishing themselves as one of the top programs in the conference, winning three straight matches to open A-Sun play. However, a late-season slide saw Mercer lose six of seven to close out the regular season.

“We started off great in conference and then, just like any other team, we had some key injuries. We made no excuses because we know other teams struggle with that as well,” Ruzzo explained. “We had a tough time fighting through that a little bit and finding a way to win those games. We have some guys back healthy which has made a big difference. It wasn’t like we were playing awful during that stretch, we just weren’t coming up with the results.”

Tournament play gives teams another opportunity to define their season, and Mercer has made the most of the chance. After trouncing UNF 3-0 in a first round match, a sky-high group scored three unanswered goals to become the first fifth-seeded team since 1999 to reach a final.

“Before this game, I said ‘the NCAA is probably in your wildest dreams right now, but let’s keep it there until we get a result’,” Ruzzo commented. Now we got the result and now we can dream. It is one game away. We’ll come as prepared as we possibly can and give it a go,”

The Cinderella story will have another chapter written during Sunday’s final.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Three Comebacks, One Championship

Within a three-day span at the Atlantic Sun Women's Soccer Championships, three comebacks fueled Kennesaw State's run to their second title in the last three years, but only one took place on the field in terms of goals.

In Saturday's title match with the defending champion Belmont Bruins, the Owls recovered from allowing a first-half penalty-kick goal to the Bruins' Jessica Rix with a pair of goals in the second half to claim the league championship. The first goal came courtesy of Maylee Attin-Johnson on a half volley to right side of the net.

Attin-Johnson had a head in the Kennesaw State attack that ultimately resulted in the Owls' second goal. Her header on net would have found goal if not for a lunging save from Rix, but with the ball still inside the penalty area, the Owls earned a penalty shot of their own after a hand ball inside the box.

For Attin-Johnson and teammate Caitlin Dingle, the goal scorer in the Owls' 1-0 semifinal overtime victory against Jacksonville, Saturday's championship completed comebacks two years in the making. As sophomores, both had been part of a championship squad in 2007 that rolled up a 17-4 record and the program's first A-Sun Championship.

The following season, Dingle opened the year as the league's preseason Player of the Year and the Owls picked up all 11 first-place votes from the coaches as the league favorite. Injuries cost Attin-Johnson her entire 2008 campaign and Dingle only played in three games. Both watched from the sidelines as the Owls' bid for a repeat title ended against these same Bruins in the semifinals on penalty kicks. In 2009, both worked their way back into the lineup and delivered a third regular-season crown and a second A-Sun Championship victory.

"To come back from knee surgeries takes a lot and they've been getting better and healthier the longer the season has gone on," Owls' head coach Rob King said. "And to cap it like that, particularly for Maylee with a fantastic goal, but both of them, on their home field in front of home fans and to go back to the NCAA Tournament, it doesn't get any better than that."

Following her goal, Attin-Johnson bolted up the near sideline, past the boisterous crowd and displayed the speed she displayed prior to her injuries.

"I think it was all adrenaline, " Attin-Johnson said. "After I ran I was tired, I was like 'what am I thinking about' but I had to do it; I had make that run, my people from the Caribbean came out [for] support, so I had to give them something to cheer about."

In the postgame awards ceremony, when it came time for the Owls to collect their hardware, the team's three seniors, Attin-Johnson, Dingle and Defensive Player of the Year, Bridget Gaughan, accepted the trophy before returning to the rest of the team

"I looked at Maylee and Bridget [Gaughan] and we were like 'this was the way it was supposed to be'...the three seniors, we're not done yet," Dingle said. "We win at home, we win our conference, our conference tournament, we're going to the NCAA tournament, it couldn't be any better."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Goal Four Years in the Making

In her four years with the Owls, Kennesaw State forward Caitlin Dingle has witnessed a full gambit of experiences at the Atlantic Sun Women's Soccer Championships.

All four, contested at the KSU Soccer Complex, have taken on vastly different meanings for Dingle. In 2006, as the regular-season champions, the Owls dropped a heart-breaking overtime game to Jacksonville. A year later, she scored in both the Owls' semifinal and title game victories to earn MVP honors as the the Owls made their first NCAA appearance. Last season, while dealing with a season-ending injury she watched from the sidelines as her teammates fell short in their bid to repeat.

“Four year the ups and down have been crazy," Dingle said. "My last thought before I took the field was the last time we were on this field against Jacksonville in the A-Sun Tournament we ended the game on the field crying. We have been through it all. We have won some great games and suffered some heartbreaking losses.”

In Thursday's semifinal contest with Jacksonville, Dingle spent much of the final 51 minutes in the corners as she fired off 10 corner kicks - many of which nearly resulted in Kennesaw State goals. Six minutes into overtime the senior played the role of finisher, connecting on a header off a feed from Thais Gibson and sending the Owls back to the title game.

“Four year the ups and down have been crazy," Dingle said. "My last thought before I took the field was the last time we were on this field against Jacksonville in the A-Sun Tournament we ended the game on the field crying. We have been through it all. We have won some great games and suffered some heartbreaking losses.”

The dramatic goal only added to Dingle's comeback story. She increased her point total to 22, good for third in the conference and boosted her points-per-game average of 1.47, which places her second. After not starting in any of the Owls' first seven games, Dingle reclaimed her rightful starting spot and finished the year back on the All-Atlantic Sun's First Team.

“It is different when you are a senior and if you lose it is your last game" she said. "It makes it mean so much more and it makes you want it that much more. When you take field for overtime you know if you don’t score you're going home and your not coming back. It puts a pain in your chest to think about it. Tournament play is hard and its tough and it is emotional.”

Following a team-wide recognition to the more than 600 fans in attendance, Dingle felt the adoration of the crowd for herself as she walked towards the ASun.TV broadcast for a postgame interview.

“I was shaking from the adrenaline” “We have fantastic fans and even on a frigid, cold night like this, we’re going to have a lot people, a lot of friends, a lot of family and even just fans from the community and that makes the difference…when you’re dead tired in overtime.”

Her returned status among the A-Sun's elite would come as no surprise based on her 2007 season. Dingle led the league in goals, points and shots as the Owls rolled to a 17-4 record and an NCAA Tournament appearance. The 17 wins ranks among the top-five single-season totals in league history. The conference's coaches voted Dingle as the Preseason Player of the Year for 2008 but her season got limited to just three games.

“As a soccer player, it those moments when you get that goal in overtime – that’s why you play," Dingle said. "That’s why you put in the hours and hours and that’s why you go through surgeries and rehab your butt off and sit out for a year and you put your body on the line for moments like this.”

A victory on Saturday afternoon against Belmont and a return trip to the NCAAs could provide Dingle and her teammates another such moment to treasure.

For the full Caitlin Dingle interview, listen here

From Spectator to Playmaker: Musacchio's Adventuresome Semifinal

In the middle of the first half of Belmont's Atlantic Sun semifinal match with Stetson, the Bruins' Annie Musacchio approached the scorer's table to enter the contest. However, in a moment of confusion, the officials ruled she had checked into the match and later pulled back, thus costing her any chance to play in the first 45 minutes.

"I went to go sub in and the fourth official told me I had already been in - and I guess the rule is that once you check in, you must enter on the next play and...they said we missed it," Musacchio said. "It was confusing because I checked in when the ball was out and they said I should have gone in on that play. The reason given was that I missed my opportunity."

Belmont's second leading score was forced to endure the final 20+ minutes of the opening half from the sidelines as she watched her teammates dominate play, but fail to net a goal. When the second half began, the senior took to the field looking to atone for lost time.

"It was pins and needles...I was excited to get on the field and do my part," she said. "We had so many great opportunities...we hit the post, we had it in the six so many times. We were going to finish, it was just a matter of time. It was a rush of emotion...I wanted to make every minute count."

In the 83rd minute, the Nashville, Tenn., native had her chance, facing a free kick from 30 yards out in a still scoreless match, Musacchio struck a perfect shot, glancing off the crossbar and into the net for the game's lone goal and sending the reigning champs back to the title game.

"When we played them in the regular season, we tied them 1-1 and that exact same play was our tying goal," Musacchio said. "It was cathartic almost to score that goal after the first half."

Should a similar situation present itself during Saturday's title game match, Musacchio will not allow for a repeat of Thursday to take place.

"Assuming I will be coming off the bench [on Saturday] I will make sure I am on guard coming in," "This is such a great feeling, I'm so proud of all our girls and we are looking forward to Saturday."

For the full Annie Musacchio interview, listen here