Thursday, December 31, 2009

Putting a Bow on the Non-Conference Season

In basketball the ball gets tossed up to start games, but tonight, its a ball drop that will serve as the start of a new year, so with that back "drop" and with conference play set to begin in earnest on Saturday, it's time a review of the non-conference portion of the 2009-10 Atlantic Sun Men's Basketball season.

The season began on Friday, Nov. 13 and the day proved lucky for the league, as five of the six schools competing earned victories led by Mercer and Belmont winning opening games of neutral-floor tournaments. The reigning champs, ETSU, opened its defense one day winning with a home contest against former SoCon rival Appalachian State. The day began with a memorial service for former Buccaneer Seth Coy, who died in the offseason.

Campbell jumped out to a 3-0 start and welcomed in opponents from Conference USA (East Carolina) and the Atlantic Coast Conference (Virginia Tech) into Buies Creek, N.C. for the first time in long periods. East Carolina had not played in Buies Creek since the 1940's and no ACC team had ever made the trip to Campbell's campus. While the Hokies pulled out a victory. The Camels downed the Pirates, 74-68. In five non-conference games, Campbell owns a 4-1 record.

On the day after Thanksgiving, "Black Friday" almost became "Black A-Sunday" as ETSU gave the conference it's sixth win against the SEC in the last three season and two more schools, Mercer and Jacksonville almost pulled off upsets of BCS schools. ETSU turned in the most accurate 3-point shooting night in the country, up to that point, among those schools making at least 10 3-pointers in a game, as the Buccaneers shot an outstanding 11-for-14, good for a 78.6 clip. Justin Tubbs made five in six tires and Micah Williams connected on all three of his tries. Tommy Hubbard only tried two 3-pointers, but hit on 11-of-17 overall, part of a 32-point, 10-rebound performance that earned the junior a Player of the Week award.

Who turned in the top individual Performance during the non-conference season?
James Florence, Mercer at Georgia Tech (40 pts, 14-20 FG)
Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb at Arizona (34 pts, 13 rebs, 14-21 FG)
Tommy Hubbard, ETSU at Arkansas (32 pts, 10 rebs, 11-17 FG)

Individual performances shined in the two near misses as Mercer's James Florence poured in a career-high 40 points at Georgia Tech. He shot 14-of-20 from the floor in becoming the first player in the the league to reach the 40-point mark since Troy’s Lemyan Wilson scored 43 against FAU on Jan. 12, 2002, in double overtime and the first to do so in regulation since Georgia State’s Thomas Terrell scored 42 against Jacksonville on Jan. 8, 2001. Florence became the first A-Sun player to score 40 in a non-conference game since UCF’s Mark Jones scored 42 in Dec. 18, 1997 against St. Thomas. In Columbia, S.C. Ben Smith tried to lead Jacksonville to a win at South Carolina as he scored 31 points and dished out seven assists, but ultimately, the Gamecocks survived, 97-93.

As the calendar turned to December, Belmont, a school replacing four senior starters, took a turn as the league's hottest school, winning four non-conference games as part of a six-game win streak. The Bruins' new inside tandem of Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders combined to shoot 72 percent from the floor during the win streak (36-for-50) while averaging 24.6 points and 11.0 rebounds.

FGCU also started on a three-game non-conference streak of its own on Dec. 12 against a famous first-year coach. The Eagles defeated Isiah Thomas' FIU Golden Panthers and followed up with a road win at North Carolina Central and culminated with a home triumph against DePaul, out of the Big East, on Dec. 22. The win marked the first for an A-Sun school against a Big East foe since Belmont opened the 2007-08 season with a road win against Cincinnati, 86-75, on Nov. 9, 2007. The last home win by an A-Sun school against a Big East school came on Dec. 3, 20002 when FAU defeated Miami (FL).

Which A-Sun team turned in the best performance in the non-conference season?
Campbell vs Appalachian State, 12/30 (W, 92-63, 58.6 FG Pct, 52.6 3-pt FG, 28 Assists)
ETSU vs Arkansas, 11/27 (W, 94-85, 59.3 FG Pct, 11 3-pt FG, 78.6 3-pt FG Pct)
Jacksonville at UCF Holiday Classic (2 10-pt wins vs RPI top 100, Ben Smith MVP) Jacksonville at UCF Holiday Classic (2 10-pt wins vs RPI top 100, Ben Smith MVP)
UNF at South Mississippi Christmas Classic (3 wins in 3 days, 2nd A-Sun team to ever do so, held opp to 52 PPG)

Two performances in holiday tournaments highlighted the final two weeks of 2009. The conference's pair of schools out of "The River City" provided the moments, starting with UNF at the South Mississippi Christmas Classic. The Ospreys opened the tournament having won three consecutive games only once as a Division I program. However, after defeating Canisius and New Orleans in their first two games, the Ospreys defeated Southern Miss, 53-46, the claim the title.

In winning the tournament, UNF became only the second Atlantic Sun team in league history to win a three-game, regular-season tournament in the span of three days. From Dec. 21-23, 2000 (the same three days in December as UNF’s wins), Georgia
State won the Nike Festival in Honolulu by defeating the host Hawaii, UAB and Cal-State Northridge, kick-starting a season that ended 29-5 with A-Sun regular-season and tournament titles and the most recent NCAA Tournament win for the conference.

One week later, Jacksonville stayed within the state, traveling to Orlando for the UCF Holiday Classic. The Dolphins took on Buffalo and former A-Sun rival UCF, a pair of RPI top 100 opponents and emerged the victor in both, led by Smith. The A-Sun's Preseason Player of the Year averaged 21.5 points while shooting 50 percent from the field. The Dolphins finished the non-conference portion of the year having played one of the 10 toughest non-conference schedules in nation, according the the USA Sagarin rankings.

Two players reached the 1,000-point plateau during the season and one reached ever higher marks during these opening marks. Stetson's A.J. Smith and Lipscomb's Adnan Hodzic topped the 1,000-point mark. Hodzic continued to excel as the league's top interior player as he averaged almost 23 points per game in non-conference action while shooting close to 60 percent. His top performance came in his most recent game as he scored a career-high 34 points at Arizona, extending his streak of double-digit scoring games to nations-best 37 straight games. He also pulled down 13 rebounds. Hodzic's performance got overshadowed by the finish, as Arizona's Nic Wise hit a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

Mercer's Florence topped two milestones in the Bears' final non-conference game, at Charlotte. In one game, Florence surpassed Sam Mitchell as the school's all-time leading scorer and he also reached the 2,000-point mark. He joins Centenary's Willie Jackson and ETSU's Courtney Pigram as the only three in league history to score 2,000 points.

Who has been the top A-Sun player during the non-conference season?
Daniel Emerson, Mercer
James Florence, Mercer
Adnan Hodzic, Lipscomb
Tommy Hubbard, ETSU
Jonathan Rodriguez, Campbell

Did we leave a team or individual performance, let us know in the comment section below. The conference race promises to be an exciting one. Catch all the conference action on ASun.TV and look for the return of the league's CSS television package on Friday, Jan. 8 with UNF and FGCU.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Let the Race for the Men's Indoor Title Begin

ETSU looks to claim back-to-back indoor track and field titles in 2010 and their fourth crown in five years to cement its place atop the A-Sun in track and field.

Kennesaw State sits as the only team other than ETSU to claim the A-Sun indoor team title. The Bucs won the title in 2009 besting the second-place Owls by 10.5 points. Campbell finished third, USC Upstate fourth, Belmont fifth, Lipscomb sixth and UNF seventh.

ETSU returns six Atlantic Sun Individual Champions from a season ago, including Jarrod Burton, who claimed the indoor title in both the weight throw and the shot put in 2009. Benjamin Ronoh leads the way on the track as the returning conference champion in the 3,000 and 5,000-meter run. His cousin and two-time A-Sun individual cross country champion Kenneth Rotich, placed second behind Ronoh in both events. Quentin Greenlee claimed the 200-meter crown last season for the Bucs but could not pull off the double due to a disqualification in the finals of the 60-meter dash (Greenlee posted the best time in the conference a season ago).

2009 A-Sun cross country champion Kennesaw State sits as one of the top contenders looking to knock ETSU off the top step. The Owls claimed the conference title in 2008 stopping the Bucs last bid for consecutive conference titles. Senior Joshua McNair leads Kennesaw State in throws, placing second in both the shot put and weight throw at the championships in 2009. Jerome McKinzie leads the way for the Owls in jumps claiming the conference title a season ago. McKinzie also looks to contend at the national level in the high jump after posting a leap of over seven feet a season ago. All of Kennesaw State’s 4x400-meter team returns after falling just .26 seconds short of a conference crown in 2009.

One of the key races at the 2010 Championships should be the distance medley relay. Both Kennesaw State and ETSU holds a solid group of distance runners as the Owls return the team that won the A-Sun title in 2009 while ETSU must replace two runners on its distance relay squad.

Campbell looks to track a step in 2010 as it returns 60-meter hurdles champion Adoniss Jones, who claimed the conference title a season ago by more than a full tenth of a second. (The next three runners in the finals were separated by .07 of a second). The Camels also feature Harold Sims, the reigning 400-meter conference champion. In 2009, Campbell also picked up the 4x400-meter relay title by edging out Kennesaw State this season the entire 2009 relay team will return.

The Camels’ Harold Sims returns as the best finisher from a season ago in the long jump, while Perrish Goggins of USC Upstate brings back the best finish in the 2009 championships.

Justin Crawford looks to repeat as the conference champion in the pole vault after best the field a season ago by half a foot.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

South Dakotan Family Races to a Different Tune

MACON, Ga. – There is something about a politician’s calendar that fills up quickly, but in the case of John Thune, Republican Senator from South Dakota, the first entries on his do not involve political meetings. For this Senator, priority number one has been family, and the events usually involve the cross country and track and field schedule of his daughter Brittany Thune.

Brittany Thune learned the importance of family from an early age before attending Belmont, playing a strong role in the election of her father to the senate seat, especially by starring in a series of commercials with sister Larissa. Now that re-election nears for John Thune in the fall of 2010, the family considers making more commercials for the voters of South Dakota.

“Those were a really, really big hit six years go, so I think we’re going to be doing some this spring or summer,” she said. “It will be really interesting because people haven’t seen us now for six years. We went off to college and really grew up. I think South Dakota voters will really like it too, seeing how much we have changed. I come from a really conservative smaller state, they love seeing the family involved so those were a huge hit.”

On TV, commercials aside, John Thune usually speaks on the behalf of the Republican Party, who has been looking up to him, asking him to step up much more lately. Around campus, Brittany Thune hears about her father’s appearances more often now than in the past.

“We need people paying attention, there’s a lot of stuff going on right now in the political world,” Brittany Thune said. “College students tend to not be as engaged as you’re doing your own thing. There are students that definitely pay attention, especially in the political science department, but I find that a lot of students really just aren’t that into it now. This is your future, so you should be paying attention.”

Brittany Thune knows firsthand about paying attention to the events around her. She knows her father to be very influential in the Senate right now, as John Thune has earned the respect of people not just in his home state but across the country as well.

“What I love about him is he’s super grounded in his values because he stands up so much for what he believes in,” she said. “A lot of people look up to him in the Senate, and I’ve really watched him grow and develop as a Senator and as a leader and that’s been extremely influential. I just see him making a difference because he wants to make a difference. He wants to make this country a better place.”

Though challenging at times, attending Belmont did not seem to alter these family values much, even with the variation from Sioux Falls, S.D. to Nashville, Tenn.

“I think it’s just one thing that speaks well on behalf on my parents, they just raised me very well,” Brittany Thune said. “They are very firmly grounded in their faith and in their values. The same goes for me. It’s just like at any college, you’re challenged at times and your views are challenged. If anything, they were strengthened.”

At Belmont, Brittany Thune is actively pursuing a business major and political science minor. She sometimes finds it difficult to keep the family name under wraps on campus, especially in her political science classes – her favorite, but with the help of a favorite professor, it is not difficult.

“When I came to Belmont I really wanted to keep that under cover, in South Dakota you’re kind of a star because it’s so small,” she said. “Everybody knew me because of my dad. I chose Belmont because of running and other things. But, I also wanted to go somewhere where people wouldn’t know me. I wanted to find out who I was as a person, so I really kind of tried of keep that quiet.”

A fan of John Thune, her political science professor remained very encouraging of the young academic and athlete, never using the Senator’s daughter as an example in class and respecting Brittany Thune’s desire to be an individual.

“I’m Brittany Thune, I’m not John Thune, I’m John Thune’s daughter,” the senior said. “He (my professor) respected that and knew that I was going to school. What he liked about me too was that I worked really hard. He was always really appreciative of that.”

This work ethic always translated onto the course, as Brittany Thune turned in the fastest time at the 2009 A-Sun Cross Country Championships. The reigning women’s cross country individual champion took control of the race early to finish the race in 17:17, becoming the sixth repeat women’s champion in women’s history, and the first since Campbell’s Alicia Valtin won in 2006.

In late October, John Thune took time out of his busy schedule to travel to DeLand, Fla. for the A-Sun Cross Country Championships to see his daughter cross the finish line just 14 seconds ahead of her closest competitor, Kennesaw State junior Mackenzie Howe.

“People do not understand how dedicated he is to his family, it’s incredible,” Brittany Thune said. “I think about the things that he does and how he stays so busy, especially with all the things going on in Congress right now. I am the top priority. My cross country meets are the top priority.”

As family always ranked as a priority for the young politician, scheduling Brittany Thune’s athletic events into his calendar comes before anything else.

“My dad is never too busy for his family, for his kids,” she said. “We’re behind him and he’s behind us, we’re all on each other’s team. You’re each other’s support group. He supports me in running and I support him in his job.”

Having that family support seems to propel the senior on the course as the four-time all-conference performer and 2006 Freshman of the Year turned in the fastest time at an A-Sun Championship since Valtin’s 2005 time of 16:56, and the third fastest time for a winner in A-Sun history.

“I love having them at my meets, my mom is one of my number one fans,” Brittany Thune said. “I just get butterflies when I know they’re going to be at a meet.”

As John Thune proves to be a great influence for the Republican Party in Washington, D.C, he shows himself to be an even greater influence as a father figure to Brittany Thune, as she values many of the qualities that they share.

“I’m very driven like him and I’m very motivated and determined,” she said. “In high school I was the one who always wanted to be with my dad at lots of campaign events. I just really like being involved.”

Even though Brittany Thune finds herself in the political sphere, she also attended Belmont for several other reasons, especially for the school’s location in the “Music City” and the ability to take classes in the top-rated music school.

“There was a time when I pursued something different,” Brittany Thune said. “I’ve always been really into music and was thinking of going that route. It’s funny, now I find myself going back and I just find myself really interested. I feel like my political science classes have been the classes I’ve been the most interested in, more so than my business major. I feel like if I were to do it over again, I probably would have been a political science major. But, it’s too late now.”

As Brittany Thune nears the finish line at Belmont, she looks to continue her education at law school, keeping several in mind across the country, knowing that her family hopes to have her closer to home this time around.

“Pepperdine’s definitely at the top of my list, I was so attracted to Pepperdine because it’s smaller like Belmont,” she said. “Part of me has always loved new adventures, but this time I’m looking at something a little bit closer like in Minneapolis, and I’ve thought about looking in Washington, D.C. to be near my dad. But, Pepperdine’s the one that’s been on my radar.”

If Brittany attended a graduate school in the nation’s capitol, she would return familiar to the area, having interned for a summer in the White House for the Office of Political Affairs during President George W. Bush’s second term.

“My job was to keep, in essence, the President up to date on everything that was going on in the South,” Brittany Thune said. “Every day, the first thing I had to do was look up everything that was going on, and I could not miss something. I printed out all these issues in all these newspapers and all these things that are going on and I would give them to my director. She would look through it and see what was important, and then eventually, they would probably brief him.”

The internship proved to be a great experience, helping Brittany get interested in following her father’s footsteps, however challenging as her schedule proved to be through 60-hour work weeks and two-a-day cross country training sessions.

“It was like public service for me because, in essence, politicians are supposed to be serving their state and their country, trying to do the best things for the nation,” she said. “That’s where I learned that it’s a lot bigger than just politics. It’s about service. Now a lot of times people don’t treat it that way, but that’s what you do when you get elected to office, you’re serving the people that you represent. I loved it because it was such a great experience. For me, it was just being a part of the decisions that were being made for the country. I’m serving my country by working for the White House, because the decisions that are being made here affect everybody.”

Speaking of the White House, someday Brittany Thune has hopes to see her father’s name on a ballot for President.

“There’s a part of you that would feel super, there’s probably a certain amount of pride,” Brittany Thune said. “You know you’re so proud of how much he’s accomplished. But at the same time, this is my dad. This name is my father’s, so it would be incredible. I think he deserves to have his name on a ballot like that someday, for sure. I don’t know about 2012, but someday his name should be on a ballot.”

“Watching him has really inspired me and that’s part of the reason I chose to pursue law because I want to do the same, she said. “I want to do something that’s going to make a difference, like him.”

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The Atlantic Sun Conference is an 11-member league committed to Building Winners for Life. The A-Sun stands for achievement with integrity in both the academic and athletic arenas, with a focus on the balance between the two for our student-athletes. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun boasts six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun includes a blend of the most prestigious and dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Don’t Mess With the Eagles’ Nest

National powers like Florida State, Tennessee, Texas, and UConn have dominated in women’s sports, but since the fall of 2007, none have held a better home winning percentage than the FGCU Eagles.

The Longhorns, Seminoles, Volunteers and Huskies should not feel bad though because Alabama, Arizona, Baylor, UCLA, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Ohio State and Penn State also can’t win at home like the Eagles.

FGCU entered the Atlantic Sun and NCAA Division I athletics in the fall of 2007 and its women’s team sports have been rolling opponents ever since. The Eagles women’s soccer, women’s basketball, softball and volleyball programs have been dominate at home since the start of the 2007-08 athletic season. Since the fall of ’07, FGCU holds wins in 84.3 percent of its games in Fort Myers, Fla. in those four women’s sports. The Eagles own a mark off 119-20-5 on their home turf/court.

“One thing we really have going for us is a strong vocal fan base,” FGCU women’s head basketball coach Karl Smesko said. “We know there are a lot of things to do in Fort Myers, so we never want to let them (the fans) down so we make sure we give a great effort each time we are on the floor.”

The FGCU women’s soccer team owns a mark of 14-6-5 in its three year existence on its home turf, the FGCU Soccer Complex. On the hardwood of Alico Arena, the Eagles women’s basketball team owns a mark of 30-3 since the 2007-08 season, with a record of 107-9 in the building since it opened. The women’s volleyball program owns a mark of 29-4 in Alico Arena since the fall of 2007, just one win off the women’s basketball torrent pace. Things don’t get easier for A-Sun foes come spring time in Fort Myers because the Eagles hold a mark of 46-7 on their home softball diamond.

“Even some of the places we travel with great facilities don’t get great crowds but our fans are always out supporting us,” senior Ashley Yance said. “We get a lot of locals with little or no ties to the school but they are big supporters. People in Fort Myers have really bought into this program and bought into FGCU.”

Despite moving up to Division I in 2007, one thing that has remained the same for FGCU has been its coaches in Smesko, soccer coach Jim Blankenship and softball coach David Deiros. Each started their program at FGCU and each has had amazing early success in Fort Myers, Fla.

Deiros has lead the Eagles to 33-plus wins in each of his eight seasons and posted a combined 327-90-2 record. In their first season at Division I, the Eagles won the 2008 Atlantic Sun Conference regular season championship. This past year, the Eagles finished the season ranked #23 in the nation.

“Our administration has really made a great effort to make sure that all the sports at FGCU are competitive,” Deiros said. “They especially done great work with the women’s sports. I know we have a great home record the last two years (46-7) but overall we hold a mark of 95-25 in the last two years, so I think we are better at home but overall we are just a good team.”

Smesko and the women’s basketball have never posted a season with 10 or more losses in seven seasons. Last season, Smesko, who was voted A-Sun Coach of the Year, led the Eagles to a regular-season Atlantic Sun Championship with a 17-3 record.

“We don’t approach home games any differently, we try to come into each game with the same approach,” Smesko said. “We have moved up a couple of times since I’ve been here and each time it gets tougher.”

Blankenship holds a mark of 32-16-6 since starting the women’s soccer program in the fall of 2007, earning at least 10 victories in each of his first three seasons. Also in those three seasons, Blankenship has coached two of his players to the A-Sun Freshman of the Year award.

“Looking at the University and what we have to offer here, I think we are on par with any place in the country,” Blankenship said. “We are kind of the nation’s hidden secret.”

Dave Nichols recently finished his season as the head coach of FGCU volleyball team, guiding the Eagles to a third-place finish in the conference and the A-Sun Championship final match. In his first season with the Eagles, Nichols led FGCU to the 2008 Regular Season Atlantic Sun Championship with a 20-8 overall record and an 18-2 conference record.

Since the start of the 2007-08 sports season, no school in the Atlantic Sun has posted victories against FGCU in all four of these women’s team sports in Fort Myers. ETSU sits as the only A-Sun women’s basketball team to defeat the Eagles in Alico Arena in that span. Only Lipscomb and Jacksonville own wins against FGCU volleyball at Alico Arena, leaving seven conference schools that have never posted a victory in a women’s sport in Alico Arena. During this run of female team sport dominance, Belmont, Kennesaw State, USC Upstate and Stetson have not been able to post a road victory against FGCU in volleyball, women’s soccer, women’s basketball or softball.

“We share a mentality and we are very comfortable at home and we take great pride in our play and part of that is taking care of business at home,” Blankenship said. “It is not something we talk about (protecting home turf), it is understood.”

Since the fall of 2007 no team in the A-Sun holds more victories or fewer losses at home then FGCU. The Eagles boast only 20 losses in the four major women’s team sports. No other school in the conference holds less than 50. Mercer sits as the closest team in the Atlantic Sun to FGCU in home winning percentage, during the same time frame, as the Bears hold a 60.8 winning percentage (Reminder: FGCU wins at an 84.3 percent clip). The Eagles’ 119 wins since joining the conference also ranks as an A-Sun best with no other team in the conference holding more than 91 (Mercer-second with 91).

If conference wins are not enough, the Eagles have also bested solid non-conference foes both at home and on neutral ground. FIU fell in Fort Myers to the women’s soccer team, UCF to the volleyball team. Florida, UCF, Cornell and USF have come to Alico Arena to take on the women’s basketball team and all have left with additional loss on its record. With a much longer schedule, the Eagles’ softball squad owns the most victories against “major conferences” with home triumphs against then - No. 13 DePaul, Michigan State and Boston College. FGCU softball also boasts neutral site wins against the likes of USF, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Indiana and UMass.

“I think the days of us sneeking up on people are over,” Deiros said. “We (softball) got ranked pretty high a year ago and I think we have really started to mark a name for ourselves.”

Nationally few teams hold better home marks, Florida wins home contests at a 90.3 percent clip, Stanford at 89 percent, North Carolina also wins more than more than FGCU at home scoring victories in 86 percent of its home contests.

The day may come when FGCU ranks right along with those national powers and fifth-year senior volleyball player Ashley Yance remains proud to be one of the building blocks to the get the Eagles to that level.

“Those of us that came here and started this tradition will look back in 20 years when this is a huge program and say we start that we were there when that school was Division II and helped it become a Top 25 program in the nation.”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What Drives Ford, the Muscle in Mercer’s Machine

MACON, Ga. – We know Mercer’s Courtney Ford as the only women’s basketball player in the A-Sun’s recent history to earn three consecutive Player of the Week awards. The senior guard recorded her second triple double of the season with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Belmont, but the A-Sun needed to know what drives the engine behind one of the league’s top seniors on the Mercer court.

When discussing Mercer women’s basketball from last season, senior Courtney Ford tended to fall behind the names of top scorers Dominique Chism and Natasha Doh. However, the 5-foot-8 guard made her mark on the stat sheet, as she stood as the top rebounder on the team with 180 (5.8 per game). Ford still flew under the radar, however, the communications major knew her chance to break out would come in the fall of 2009.

This season on the court, Ford knows how to play her game as the guard has already turned in three-consecutive Atlantic Sun Player of the Week awards. It makes her final season of ball at Mercer mean so much more knowing that this year is her last chance for a championship, and Ford’s in it for the long haul.

“I am definitely focused on a championship, I would really, really love that, because I have, after all my years of basketball I have not come out with any championship ring or anything like that. Every time, there’s always been something in the way,” Ford said. “My high school years there was this really good team that stood in our way my senior year, we couldn’t get around them. Then, both of years at JuCo there’s been a significant injury that kind of limited us in those last few games. So this year I’m hoping for a big win. But, we’re just taking it a day at a time.”

Even though Ford has not experienced any championships or “big dances”, the A-Sun Player of the Week accolades seem to be piling up for the modest star.

“It’s such an honor to get that award, because last year I don’t think I got anything last year. I kind of flew under the radar” Ford said. “This year I’m kind of breaking out again as in the senior year kind of thing that happened in high school. It’s kind of a fun thing to look at.”

Ford lettered three times while playing high school basketball for the Villa Park High School Spartans, earning league MVP honors during her final season in 2006. As Ford made a niche for herself on the stat sheet, the senior found herself getting to know Janell Jones, the head coach for the UC San Diego Tritons, during a series of several visits down to the university.

“She was a lot like my high school coach and I really learned a lot from my high school coach,” Ford said. “She ended up sending me to a junior college because she wasn’t sure if she was going to stay out there. I went there for two years.”

Fate brought the Orange, Calif. native to the Orange and Black, as Ford followed Jones after the head coach made the cross-country move to central Georgia and invited the guard to Mercer University for a visit.

“I honestly didn’t know very much about Mercer until she brought me over here, so I pretty much just followed her,” Ford said. “But, from what I’ve heard and what they’ve told me, this was a really good school to come to.”

Last season, Jones guided the Bears to the program’s first conference tournament victory since 2006 and highest win total since the 1991-92 season. Ford learned very quickly what kind of a basketball program that her new head coach introduced her to, as the junior played alongside two other accomplished transfers, both of whom came to Mercer from Oklahoma State. In 31 games started, Chism averaged 14.4 points per game, finished with 22 blocks and 55 steals and earned Second-Team All-Atlantic Sun honors, while Natasha Doh averaged 9.5 points and 5.0 rebounds, while leading the team with 58 steals in 30 games played.

“I knew coming into it that those two players were a key part of what we did that year,” Ford said. “I knew that it was going to run through them a lot considering what had happened the year before and then they finally they get to step in and play.”

This season, Mercer has made an early statement with a 4-2 overall record and a 2-0 A-Sun mark, after the coaches slotted the Bears fifth on the Atlantic Sun Conference preseason poll and placed senior LaToya Jackson on the Preseason All-Atlantic Sun Team. The senior has teamed with Ford to form the second-highest scoring duo in the conference, at 32.8 points per contest, behind only the pair from ETSU in TaRonda Wiles and Siarre Evans (36.3 ppg).

“Toya and I, ever since last year we’ve kind of gotten that bond, both being seniors and kind of the team leaders and stuff,” Ford said. “We try and run this team as well as we can and feed off of each other.”

The winning record aside, Ford can only look ahead to what lies in conference play, especially when considering A-Sun foes ETSU, the two-time defending A-Sun champions and FGCU, last season’s regular-season champion.

“It feels good right now, but as our coaches said, the toughest teams are going to pull out and win this one and that’s what we’ve got to work on,” Ford said. “We’ve got to work on being tougher. But, I think we’re doing OK right now.”

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The Atlantic Sun Conference is an 11-member league committed to Building Winners for Life. The A-Sun stands for achievement with integrity in both the academic and athletic arenas, with a focus on the balance between the two for our student-athletes. Headquartered in Macon, Ga., the A-Sun boasts six of the top eight media markets in the Southeast. The A-Sun includes a blend of the most prestigious and dynamic private and public institutions in the region: Belmont University, Campbell University, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University, Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, Mercer University, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Kennesaw State men’s high jumper Jerome McKinzie holds school records and individual Atlantic Sun records, with hops that could clear a flat footed Dwight Howard … with room to spare.

Last season, McKinzie posted the best high jump in the conference by three inches with a mark of 7 feet, 1/4 inches. A mark that if he would have repeated at the national indoor meet, would have earned him national runner-up honors. The native of Marietta, Ga. has a new goal this season, to clear 7 feet, 4 inches. In case you were wondering, that mark won the NCAA indoor title a season ago for Kansas State’s Scott Sellers.

“My goal for the season is to hit 7-4,” McKenzie said. “I have worked very hard with my jumps coach (Mike Goss) to getting and with him being a certified USATF level-two strength and condition coach, I know I’m going to get better in all aspects.”

A few schools recruited McKinzie, but in the end staying close to his home appealed to a kid who attended Marietta High School, which sits less than 15 miles from the Kennesaw State campus.

Family remains very important to McKinzie, whose mother passed away when he was only two years old and who was raised by his grandparents. The campus sits close enough to his hometown that his grandmother still brings him groceries. Family and friends try and make it out to every meet they can especially when he competes at Georgia Tech or Georgia.

“I know I would not be where I am today without the help and support of my grandparents,” McKinzie said. “If I am ever lucky enough to jump professionally, one of the first things I would do is get them a house to try and pay them back for all the things they have done for me. My dream is to good enough to pay them back.”

Giving back to others is not just something that resonates with this senior, but with the entire Kennesaw State track and field team as the team organized and staffed “Dodge-for-a-Cure”, a charity dodge ball tournament held on Kennesaw State’s campus on Nov. 23.

The proceeds of the tournament benefitted St. Jude Children's Research Hospital based in Memphis, Tenn., widely considered to be a world leader in treating children for all forms of cancer and other potentially life-threatening conditions. St. Jude’s is well renowned for treating any accepted patients regardless of their ability to pay.

McKinzie’s work off the track has not distracted him from his goals on the track as he opened the season with a leap of 6 feet, 11 inches, a mark topped by only seven jumpers at the 2009 NCAA Indoor Championships. The senior wants to top the 7 foot, 4 inch mark either during the indoor or outdoor season but he does have a preference.

“The NCAA Indoor Championships are in Arkansas,” McKenize said. “That would be the easiest for my grandparents to get to see me jump. I know they want to come out to every meet but we travel so far sometimes they just can’t make it but being able to do it in front of them would be special.”

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Opposites Attract Wins for Lipscomb Volleyball

“Program Changers”

Those two words tell you everything you need to know about Lipscomb juniors Alex Kelly and Stefine “Jake” Pease. Those are also the words head coach Brandon Rosenthal would use to describe the pair.

In three seasons, Kelly and Pease have racked up an overall record of 69-26 and a mark of 44-7 in Atlantic Sun Conference play. The two have also earned eight league “Player of the Week” awards, four First-Team All-Atlantic Sun honors, two A-Sun Championships, two Player of the Year trophies, one regular season conference crown and two tournament MVP selections, not to mention leading Lipscomb to two NCAA tournaments and three Atlantic Sun Volleyball Championship Finals.

Despite the fact that these two work like a well oiled machine on the court might surprise some that off the floor these two are not as close. Pease remains a soft spoken and levelheaded leader while Kelly runs the court with a fiery intensity, often putting her emotions on full display.

“It surprises people we are not best friends,” Pease said. “It is not that we don’t like each other, it is just we are very different in so many ways.”

Though the two may differ off the court, on the same side of the net they are a winning combination. It is something that their head coach knows is quite rare.

“Usually when two players move from club (volleyball) to college one shines and they other is not as successful.” Rosenthal said. “Jake came in and was so successful right away that I think it helped Alex develop and I think together they are better then they would be apart. To be honest we got lucky with two very talented young ladies.”

Pease earned all of the accolades during her high school club volleyball years, with her including being named the 2006 Gatorade High School Player of the Year. Rosenthal knew the moment he saw Pease that he needed this player in Lipscomb’s Purple and Gold. Pease committed early to Lipscomb and remained unaware she would end up playing with the same middle hitter in college. At the time Rosenthal did not know it either.

“I went to tournament with Jake early on and knew right away this is the setter I need to build around.” Rosenthal said. “We were looking for a setter first. Months later it was one of my assistants that floated the idea of adding Alex as well.”

Rosenthal saw Pease as great talent that could set in right away and be one of the best players in the conference, but in Kelly he saw a talented young player who needed to develop and who had great on court chemistry with her setter.

“Jake is a great setter and the best one I have ever had.” Kelly said. “We really mesh well on the court and I love to hit off her. I am very picky with my sets.”

Off the court the two tend to contrast, not so much as in polar opposites but more as in two sides of the same coin. Kelly and Pease have a tremendous desire to win but each approach it in different ways.

“We do not always see eye to eye on a lot of things.” Kelly said “But when we hit the court a switch flips and we both have a trust in one another that we will do anything to win.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Former All-Conference Hoops Standout Stars on Reality Show

Michelle Brutlag Hosick at The NCAA News recently published a feature on former All-Conference basketball standout Herb Lang (Centenary 1996-98). The current Harlem Globetrotter competed on CBS's "The Amazing Race", falling just one episode shy of the season finale.

"Flight Time" Lang is not the only A-Sun alum to tour with the Globetrotters. 2005 All-Tournament selection Herbert Evans from Troy also suits up for the world-class showmen.

Former student-athletes finish short in 'Amazing Race' - The NCAA News