Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Meet the A-Sun Grinders: New Year New Jacksonville
Jacksonville opened the season favored to win the Atlantic Sun regular season crown featuring preseason player of the Ben Smith but things did not start as planed.
The 2009-10 season looked like a chance for Jacksonville to step up to the next level after consecutive seasons of 18 or more wins. Instead the Dolphins continue to learn that nothing worth having comes easy as they gone from favorites, to last place, to the hottest team in the league. Jacksonville currently holds a six-game winning-streak defeating its last six adversaries by an average of 17 points - a welcomed turnaround after a 1-7 start.
The Dolphins welcomed the challenge of a tough non-conference schedule with road matchups against Florida State, Cal and South Carolina, not to mention a home game against Florida. If not for an eight-point victory against Bethune-Cookman the team picked to win the A-Sun would have entered league play winless.
The start of conference play looked like a refuge for the 2008-09 regular season champs, who owned the best winning percentage in conference play over the past two seasons taking 75 percent of their games against league foes. Once again things did not go as expected, Campbell knocked off JU by 16. Two days later, ETSU handed the Dolphins a 23-point setback in Johnson City, leaving the Dolphins in search of answers.
Opening the season with one win in Jacksonville’s first eight games came as a shock in the River City and an eight-day layoff came at a great time. The Dolphins headed south to the UCF Holiday Classic looking to save their season. Jacksonville drew a tough matchup with Buffalo, who owned a 7-3 record entering the tournament. Leading by eight at the half, it looked like Jacksonville had found its stride, but nothing came easy. The lead evaporated in the second half and the when the Bulls cut the lead to two with 10:19, the Dolphins turned to their juniors out of Alabama to take over.
Travis Cohn and Aaron Hardy scored or assisted on Jacksonville’s next five possessions and the Dolphins cruised to the victory. The turnaround continued the next day as Jacksonville knocked off tournament host UCF, a team it had not beaten since 2001.
As the calander flipped to 2010, Jacksonville now looked to turn around its conference record but once again things would not be simple for the Dolphins. Mercer’s Jeff Smith sent the Dolphins to their third consecutive league loss with a last-second 3-pointer and it looked like the New Year would not be happy for Jacksonville. Head coach Cliff Warren refused to make any excuses.
“It’s a shame the game came down to that call, but we have nobody but us to blame,” Warren said. “We had plenty of chances to keep the game from coming down to that shot; we just didn’t take advantage of those opportunities.”
A heart breaking home loss coupled with a 0-3 start to conference play might have broken the sprit of some teams. Jacksonville kept grinding, got angry and took its rage out on its next six opponents.
Two days after the tough luck loss to Mercer, the Dolphins ran Kennesaw State out of Veterans Memorial Arena posting a 39-point win. Jacksonville then took its show on the road knocking off Stetson by 10. Next the Dolphins humbled FGCU with a 24-point win. A-Sun leading Lipscomb became the fourth team in succession to fall to the hands of the Dolphins, losing by six. Belmont followed Lipscomb and the Bruins left Jacksonville licking their wounds from a 16-point loss.
Jacksonville pushed its record over .500 for the first time this season with a win Monday against crosstown rival UNF in the SunTrust River City Rumble. The Dolphins rallied from down seven with less than 10 minutes play to claim their sixth consecutive victory and their eighth win in nine games.
The win stands as a metaphor for the Dolphins’ season as they trailed most of the way and could not seem to get things going offensively. Jacksonville refused to quit and found a way to rally and now sits fourth in the conference standing but the season remains far from over, just ask Smith.
“I like where we are more than when we were 1-7 but it is there is still a long way to go.”