Saturday, May 28, 2011

Atlantic Sun Primed for Return to Multi-Bid Status

In most years, sixth seeds at the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship don't realistically pose a major threat to walk out with the trophy. Most A-Sun sports don't feature six RPI top-90 teams however.

It had been since Jacksonville in the 2003 Baseball Championship that a sixth seed in any sport had won an A-Sun crown before Belmont ran through this year's tournament with a perfect 4-0 mark. No sixth seed had won the A-Sun Championship in undefeated fashion since UCF in 1997

The Bruins, who needed two wins at regular-season champion Stetson in the final weekend just to make the field, beat Stetson, Kennesaw State and Mercer twice to claim their first Baseball Championship. They began the week with an RPI rating of 88, according to, and following the four-game run, moved up to No. 64.

"For us, accomplishing the goal of getting into the [A-Sun] Tournament was a major feat," Head Coach Dave Jarvis said. "This is such a good league, there's so much parity in this baseball league...I mean you can see that in results every weekend. I had that gut feeling that if we got into the tournament that we were going to win it. I kept telling our players that time and time and time again and they responded to that kind of challenge. At the end of the day they got the job done."

The narrow gap in talent among the six teams exemplified itself in the fact that the lower seeded team won eight of the 10 games played. Mercer, Belmont's opponent in the title game, counted three wins towards that total - only losing when facing Belmont.

The conference stands to return to its traditional place as one of the few elite leagues that earn multiple-bids to NCAA Regional play when the 64 teams are announced on Monday. The conference has earned 19 at-large selections since 1990 and placed multiple teams in the field every year from 1999 through 2007. Only one conference in the NCAA features more 35-win schools this year than the A-Sun's five (the ACC, six). The six schools that competed in the A-Sun Championship earned more than 40 victories against RPI top 50 schools and only once conference scored more non-conference victories against the East Division of the SEC than the seven the A-Sun earned.

"I see the league very much like it was 10 years ago when we first got in the [A-Sun] and our conference was getting three teams in a lot of years," Jarvis said. "[The A-Sun] is such a strong baseball conference - and I think it's recognized as a strong conference - but realistically not to the degree of difficulty that is. There is no place that you go in this league that...won't be very difficult situations."

Belmont will be able to relax until Monday afternoon's selection show knowing its name will appear in the bracket, but Jarvis is hopeful that multiple fellow conference members will enjoy the same fate.

"I think that this league deserves a lot of due credit," Jarvis said. "I know Stetson deserves their at-large bid and I really believe that when you look at what Mercer has accomplished with 39 wins, what Jacksonville's accomplished - finishing second in our league - and some of the non-conference wins that these teams have put together - there's no way you can overlook this conference."

Friday, May 27, 2011

J.T. Odom: Mercer's Very Own Rubberband Man

Through Mercer's four games at the 2011 Atlantic Sun Championship the pitcher to have logged the most innings was not one of their four starting pitchers, but rather their sidearmed slinger J.T. Odom.

The Bears' senior closer has pitched in all four contests, working a total of 8 2/3 innings. In those innings he has struck out nine against only three hits and one walk. He has earned the save in all Mercer victories. However, one of those hits proved to be the deciding home run in their one loss - a loss that came early Friday afternoon.

"[After the Belmont loss] we just got on the bus and I just buried my head in my hotel bed to try and clear my head," the senior said. "I just tried to get ready for the next game because I knew I would probably [be] a big part in the outcome. I couldn't think any more about that game. I honestly had to pretend like that game didn't even happen."

Odom only had a few hours to forget that pitch as he was asked to face the league's top player, Adam Brett Walker while protecting a narrow 1-0 advantage in the eighth inning. Although Walker won that battle with a single, Odom again found himself on the mound recording the 27th out of the contest as he stepped on first receiving a toss from John Moreland to close the first 1-0 A-Sun Championship in 164 tournament games.

"He's been so good for us, his numbers are unbelievable - his strikeout to base-on-ball ratio (71-7 after Friday) is probably one of the top in the country," Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "[Belmont] got some good swings on him this morning, but he had success against [Jacksonville] a couple days ago so we wanted to run him out there again tonight."

With all the success Odom has enjoyed in 2011, Gibson has had to hold back on using him too much.

"I'll be honest, I want to start him," Gibson said with wide smile. "He's a guy that just goes - and this may be his last baseball - but he's going to give us everything he has and is going to leave everything between the lines for us. I'm kind of selfish...I want to use him all the time."

Mercer recently saw a former Bear, Cory Gearrin reach the majors with the Atlanta Braves. During this year, Gibson starting referring to Odom as "Gearrin" and Odom has backed up the praise with great performances each night.

"He didn't make all-conference and we thought he was one of the better relievers in the league and now he's getting the chance to show that he is," Gibson said. "I told him that he's really pitched better than Cory for us. You know we never won a championship with Cory and J.T. has given us that chance to do it."

During the Bears' run to the title in 2010, Odom only came into one game. Even with the knowledge that last year ended with a dogpile, he admitted to feeling more involved with this run.

"I would say I feel a little more a part of this [championship]," Odom said. "I've been in every game and been a key component in every game so that's been awesome. It's going to be something I'm going to remember the rest of my life."

Dolphins Keep Championship Hopes Alive

‘Survive and Advance’ is usually a term saved for March and college basketball, but it also translates to the double elimination tournament being played at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field with the Atlantic Sun Baseball Championship.

Jacksonville became the latest example of that cliché in action with its 5-3 victory against top-seeded Stetson in the tournament’s third elimination game. The Dolphins now face that same situation again with a showdown against fourth-seeded Mercer, who already earned a 2-1 victory against JU on Thursday.

The Dolphins utilized strong pitching performances from three different hurlers, which included a three-inning save by Second Team All-Conference closer Chris Anderson to finish off Stetson, the regular-season champions.

“[Chris] Anderson was outstanding for us coming in the seventh as well as Appleby by getting that double play, while Eagerton has been a force us all year long even though he got a little tired out there today,” Head Coach Terry Alexander said of his Saturday pitching staff.

JU led throughout the game by picking up four runs in the first four innings to build their lead, but with a top-20 RPI team in the opposing dugout their lead was never safe as Stetson rallied to cut into the Dolphins’ advantage to two twice.

“[Stetson] is a quality team no doubt about it, we’re just going out there and try to play games as many as we can and win as many as we can and let it all shake out at the end,” Alexander on his team’s road ahead.

With three wins over the next 24 hours separating JU from its fifth A-Sun Championship in the past 13 years, the Dolphins will need the bats to come alive after only scoring eight total runs in their first three games.

“We just have to come out [against Mercer] and try our best by stretching out some runs and get behind some quality pitching,” Adam Brett Walker, the A-Sun Player of the Year pointed out.

The Bears will be awaiting the Dolphins at first pitch at 7:05 p.m. to see who will once again survive and advance.

Belmont's Run Highlights A-Sun Depth

Belmont entered the 2011 A-Sun Baseball Championship seeded sixth in the tournament joining five other RPI Top-90 teams in field after clinching their spot on the final day of the regular season. Since securing their spot in the tournament at Lipscomb’s Dugan Field, Belmont has been a force to be reckoned with in a conference that is hoping to receive multiple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

“The parity within this league is great when you look at the fact that Stetson has been in the top-20 all year long and then you have the teams come in this week and compete the way they have it is not a surprise,” Belmont Head Coach Dave Jarvis said of the A-Sun depth. “I think you could throw the seedings out of the window for this tournament at the beginning with the way the teams were playing coming in.”

The Bruins opened with a win against top-seeded Stetson (No. 19 RPI) on Wednesday in impressive fashion pummeling the Hatters 15-3 and then showed their grit with a close 4-1 triumph against Kennesaw State (No. 88 RPI) to eliminate the Owls from Nashville.

With a spot in the A-Sun Championship final on the line against fourth-seeded Mercer (No. 54 RPI), the Bruins twice battled back from two two-run deficits during the game before Derek Hamblen’s two-run shot in the top of the ninth inning gave Belmont the lead for good at 6-4 and advances them to Championship Saturday.

For Belmont, its senior class carried the Bruins to victory against the Bears with Hamblen, Matt Zeblo both going deep, Nate Woods getting the start on the mound and Tim Egerton and Jon Ivie adding contributions in the ninth to close out Mercer. Jarvis knows without them this season would have turned out differently.

“It shows a lot of great upperclassmen leadership especially from our two senior captains Derek Hamblen and Nate Woods who have grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and how all the other upperclassmen have followed them in that pursuit.”

Jarvis knows that his team is now in the driver seat for the remainder of the conference championship by needing only one win to take their first A-Sun Championship title, which would make them the first six seed to win the conference crown since 2003.

“Anyone we face has to win three games from this point forward. It has effects on pitching on kid’s rest and ability to just stay focused but at the end of the day it’s still just baseball and we have to come ready to play in the first inning.”

Thursday, May 26, 2011

French Refuses to Surrender in Latest Gutty Win

Almost from the start of Thursday's Atlantic Sun Championship between Mercer and Jacksonville, Bear starter Justice French found himself pitching out of the stretch position. Any one mistake could have opened the offensive floodgates for the Dolphins and put the Bears in an early deficit. However, he made the necessary pitches to wriggle out of multiples to pitch the Bears to a 2-1 victory.

In his 6.1 innings of work, 12 Jacksonville hitters reached base. Only one of those runners came in to score and that came when Adam Brett Walker did the work himself, homering in the fourth inning. He stranded runners in every inning except the third and on three occasions, he stranded multiple runners.

In the first inning, with Dolphins at first and second, he struck out Kevin Lehane. An inning later, the Dolphins put a runner at third with two away but induced a ground out by Esterlin Perozo. He threw a perfect third inning but in both the fourth and fifth inning he managed to get out of bases loaded jams. The fourth inning started with the Walker home run but concluded with a fly out by Taylor Ratliff only after three reached base.

"I was able to get those 'high-energy' pitches early in the game and I was able to get in a rhythm a little bit," French said. "They're a good hitting team and they're going to get hits, but I was able to limit the damage and that's what you need to do to win games."

In the fifth, he retired the first two batters of the frame but for a third straight at bat could not retire Walker as he singled to right. Lehane singled in front of Jimmy Howick. Howick beat out an infield hit to second base but crumbled to the Dugan Field grass in immense pain. While trainers tended to Howick, French used the time to stay warm and focus in on Colin Monagle, a pinch hitter. Monagle fouled out and in the following inning, the Bear offense rewarded French's efforts by scratching across a pair of runs, the only two runs needed in the 2-1 win.

"I thought that [the injury delay] was a big moment because [prior to it] they had strung together a couple of hits and I thought it kind of slowed down their momentum," French said. "I felt like I had to take advantage of [the moment] and I wanted to get the next guy and was able to do it."

For French, in-game adversity on the mound pails in comparison to some of the real-life challenges he has already beaten. In a story featured in the Atlantic Journal Constitution and on, French was diagnosed with melanoma last summer but through surgeries he has returned to full strength.

"He's a warrior and a competitor and he's fought hard," Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "He's always given us this type of outing most of the year...and that's what we needed from a great senior leader. He gave us his best game of the year at the best time."

Belmont Offense Efficiently Effective on Day Two

The Belmont hot streak continued on Thursday as the Bruins picked up their 16th win in the last 21 games against A-Sun opponents with a 4-1 victory against Kennesaw State. On day one of the A-Sun Championship, Belmont’s offense platted 15 runs against top-seeded Stetson. In 10 of those 21 games, the Bruins’ offense registered at least eight runs to help Belmont to the six seed.

After platting 15 runs against Stetson in game one on seven extra-base hits – including three home runs – some would worry that Belmont wouldn’t be able to duplicate their run production again, but the Bruins front man Dave Jarvis didn’t want to waste the run production yesterday.

“There is an old saying about runs is that [runs] spoil so you can’t let them go to waste. You can’t keep them till the next day so you have to use them when you get them and then regenerate them again the next day and we were able to do that today.”

With Kennesaw State’s Bryan Blough (4-3, 3.51 ERA) on the bump for the Owls it looked as if the Belmont bats had gone stale early in the game as Blough retired the Bruins in order in each of the first three innings. Upon seeing Blough for a second time in the game, the Bruins started seeing success. Derek Hamblen singled leading off the fourth inning. After advancing to second a Dylan Craig sacrifice bunt, Nate Woods drove in Hamblen to give Belmont the game’s first run.

“Today we came in looking for a dogfight because we knew the kind of pitcher that Blough was and the great arm that he has so we knew we had to put things together against him to have an opportunity to score runs.”

More opportunities appeared in the sixth and eight innings to give the Bruins the 4-0 advantage and chase Blough from the game after 7.2 innings of work. With multi-hit performances coming from four different Belmont batters (Hamblen, Craig, Matt Zeblo and Jared Breen) the Bruins anxiously await their next opponent to see which batters will step up for BU again.

“This is as balanced of an offense that I have ever seen for us because we don’t have one kid that has off-the-chart average or off-the-chart power, but we have good balance throughout the lineup in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and RBI.”

Coach Jarvis and Belmont hope to continue their hot streak in the A-Sun Championship and that their two wins thus far don’t spoil and go to waste.

Hatters Down but not Out

Stetson immediately put itself up against the wall with Wednesday's loss to Belmont sending the top seed to the consolation bracket. They began their road back by receiving clutch hitting from the bottom of the order as well as when facing two strikes to defeat ETSU on Thursday by a 7-2 score.

After allowing the Buccaneers to level the score at two and with the game moving into the late innings, the Hatters rallied twice with two-out rallies. They pushed across the go-ahead runs in the sixth inning. With runners at second and third, Mitchel Brennan, the eighth-place hitter, delivered a crushing blow to right center that plated the pair. After advancing to third, Kyle Zech continued the rally by scoring Brennan with an infield single.

"At the bottom of the order, you get a lot of pitches to see because [the pitcher] doesn't want to face the top of the order," Brennan said. "I was just sitting back on off-speed and I got one I could handle and drove it into the gap. My only thought was to get the runs any way I could."

As Hatter starter Will Dorsey and later Joe Dye continued to hold the potent Buccaneers' offense at bay, the Hatters strung together a final two-out rally to push the game to its final 7-2 margin. With two down and no one on base in the bottom of the eighth again the bottom of the order came through as Ryan Lashley, Brennan and Robert Bruce strung together three consecutive hits.

"I'm glad we [got those two-out hits] because twice early in the game we had [a runner] at third base with less than two out - which early in the year, we would cash that in every time," Pete Dunn, the Stetson head coach and 2011 A-Sun Coach of the Year said. "To be able to redeem ourselves with those two-out hits were huge. Good teams find a way to do that - and I think we're pretty good. We're beat up, but you have to come up big this time of year."

The Hatters are hardly off the mat just yet. They face as many as four more elimination games to claim the title that has eluded the six-time champions the past four years.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Brandon Loves Tournament Atmosphere

Over the past two seasons Mercer's Brandon Love has made three appearances on the Dugan Field pitching mound. At the conclusion of all three trips to said mound, Love received the traditional postgame handshakes as the winning pitcher.

Wednesday's win, a 6-4 decision against Kennesaw State extended the Bears' recent run of team success on the Dugan Diamond. While Love improved to 3-0 at Dugan Field, the Bears own seven wins in their last eight contests at Lipscomb. They won the 2010 A-Sun Championship with a 4-0 record and they won last year's series against the Bisons by a 2-1 margin.

"It was huge for us to get a great start from [Brandon]" Mercer head coach Craig Gibson said. "He got in a little trouble early, but to his credit he settled in gave us another great outing. He's been good for two years and if we're going to have a chance to win this thing, you've got to have some great individual performances."

Last year, Love pitched the Bears into the title game by shutting down the potent ETSU offense. Over eight innings of work, he allowed only one unearned run. He spoke of the difference between regular-season outings and postseason starts.

"When everyone in the dugout is behind you, it's really to disappoint them," Love said. "You're out there battling for everyone else and luckily we got a win tonight. These games [have] much more energy. Everyone is ready to bring it and you really don't want to fall into that loser's bracket."

The Bears hope Love's start further continues to follow the similar path the 2010 Championship team established. Last year's team entered the tournament by winning 13 of their final 16 before rattling off the four straight wins. This year, they closed with 12 wins in their final 15 games. By beating the Owls, the Bears draw the opponent they had to beat twice during the 2010 Championship, Jacksonville, in a matchup of two Wednesday winners.

"We came into this tournament again hot and the team chemistry, we haven't missed a bit from last year," Love said. "I think this is real special group."

High-Powered Offenses No Match for Top Pitching

The second and third ranked offenses in the Atlantic Sun squared off in game two of the A-Sun Baseball Championship and it wasn’t the batter’s box that showcased the fireworks, but rather the pitching mound.

Jacksonville’s Matthew Tomshaw and ETSU’s John Long highlighted the game with 12 combined strikeouts, five hits apiece and two earned runs allowed – both by Long. However, Tomshaw came away with the win and complete game – his second of the season – to give the Bucs the 2-1 victory.

“Tomshaw was incredible today,” stated JU Head Coach Terry Alexander. “He was magnificent and that’s what you need to have in tournament play - your ace has to step up and be there for you and he was there for us today.”

A unanimous A-Sun All-Conference selection, Dan Gulbransen, who recorded the game-winning two-RBI double in the fifth inning, knew that the opening game against the Bucs (No. 32 in the RPI) would be a dogfight.

“You can’t describe what (Tomshaw) did for us today going against a good ETSU team," the sophomore said. There wasn’t much offense to be had here today so you have to scratch and claw for every run.”

Throughout the season, ETSU averaged seven runs per outing, but could only muster a run on an infield error in the fifth inning, which gave them a brief lead over the Dolphins. The win was Tomshaw’s eighth of the season, which ties him for second most in the A-Sun, but more importantly advances JU to the winners’ bracket of day two and look to claim their fourth conference title in the past nine years.

Tomshaw’s dominant performance was nearly broken up in the ninth as ETSU tallied two hits with two outs to get the JU bullpen back up into action, but the senior pitcher never faded in his confidence.

“Every outing I feel as if I can go nine innings and when ETSU got two hits in the ninth inning all I thought was they weren’t going to score.”

His thought rang true as a grounder back to the mound ended the game and put the Dolphins up against the winner of Kennesaw State and Mercer at 7 p.m.

Bruins Continue Successful Run Against Hatters

In Belmont's 15-3 defeat of Stetson in the first game of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Baseball Championships, the Bruins evened the all-time series at 16, but the recently history of this 10-year rivalry has tilted heavily northward as with Wednesday's win, the Bruins improved to 13-4 vs the Hatters over the last five years.

From the day the schedule was unveiled, Belmont knew its A-Sun regular season would conclude with a trip to DeLand. That trip looked more daunting after the Hatters opened the year with a three-game sweep of Georgia and compiled a 26-7 home record while the Bruins opened 3-8 in league play.

The Bruins got hot and won 11 of 13 conference contests and could have entered the Stetson series with a cushion on seventh-place FGCU but dropped two of three to the Eagles in the series immediately preceding the showdown with the Hatters. After a loss in the Thursday contest cut the Bruin advantage on the Eagles to one game, Matt Hamann and Nate Woods pitched the Bruins into the championship field with consecutive wins. The duo held the Hatters to only three earned runs in 13 innings of work.

"We got off to such a rough start in early conference play that we’ve almost been in a must-win situation for the last month, month-and-a-half," Belmont head coach Dave Jarvis said. "Our kids have responded to that. We’ve got really great upper classmen…and they’ve just turned our team around by their will. I think today was a reflection of that."

After beating the Hatters with is arm, Woods used his glove and bat to help secure victory. His acrobatic catch against the fence in fourth served as a prelude to his two-run home run in back-breaking fifth inning in which the Bruins extended a 3-0 lead to 7-0.

"[That catch] knocked the wind out of me, my lip almost caught on the fence like getting caught like a fish," Woods said. "I’m just glad I came out alive."

Hamann took to the mound on Wednesday and came close to matching his eight-inning, two-run effort from five days earlier. He took carried a no-hitter through 4.2 innings and turned in a six-inning, one-run effort to claim a school-record-tying ninth win.

"Matt’s mental toughness is incomparable," Jarvis said. "We took him from the back end of our bullpen in an extremely valuable role…our starting pitching was faltering and he stepped forward. We teamed [him and Josh Davis] with Chase Brookshire on our weekends and that’s been our difference."

With Brookshire waiting to pitch in Belmont's upcoming game, perhaps the Bruins could be lined up for a long week in the Championship.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Championship Team; Five Years in the Making

Five seasons ago, Jacksonville finished dead last in the Atlantic Sun Conference with a 4-14 mark and managed only 15 wins throughout the year.

That was Amanda Lehotak’s first season as the head coach of Jacksonville and also marked the beginning of a steady climb up the A-Sun softball ladder for the Dolphins. JU claimed five league wins in 2009 and finished 11th out of 12th in the first year of collegiate softball for now seniors; Katie Kelly, Kat Engler and Jackie Samuels.

The following season, the Dolphins qualified for the 2009 A-Sun Softball Championship for only the second time in program history. As the four seed in the tournament, Jacksonville dropped both of their games by a total six runs, but the team gained valuable championship experience with Amanda Schmidt, Melissa Morales and Sarah Sigrest all seeing action as freshmen.

In 2010, Lehotak and the Dolphins has a breakthrough season by winning 33 games and posting only the program’s second winning record since joining the Atlantic Sun. The team added key pieces in with freshmen Olivia Kline, Sarah Simon, Morgan Kibler and transfer Annike Don, which helped the team win their first A-Sun Championship game since 2005 after finishing the season 10-10 in conference play.

With a balanced attack throughout the lineup, Jacksonville tore up the Atlantic Sun schedule with an 18-2 record to win the regular-season title, the program’s first. JU finished on a 12-game winning streak to enter the A-Sun Championship on the campus of USC Upstate as the top-seed.

In Spartanburg, Jacksonville saw contributions from every class. Starting with the underclassmen on Thursday with sophomore Sarah Simon’s two-RBI single in the second inning to key a 4-1 victory against Mercer, which advanced the Dolphins to Friday against Lipscomb where a freshman, Karson Tuck, drove a delivery over the left-field wall for a three-run trip around the bases in the bottom of the sixth inning when it looked like Lipscomb would take down the top seed.

On Championship Saturday, it was the upper-classmen that controlled the game with three seniors seeing action in the game including Kelly starting the game at short. Schmidt, a junior, made her mark on the game with two homers, while fellow junior Sigrest dealed mowed down Lipscomb batters with a complete game three-hitter for her third win and to earn the Tournament MVP honor.

The 7-1 win completed the Jacksonville turnaround in five short seasons under the tutelage of Lehotak and the coach put it best when describing the turnaround.

“Five seasons ago, we sold the seniors of a dream of winning the conference championship and to accomplish that this season in their final year makes me feel like a proud mother.”

See the Ball, Hit the Ball

It’s a simple mantra: See the Ball, Hit the Ball

And that’s exactly what Lipscomb did on Friday in their elimination showdown with Campbell by notching seven runs on eight hits by seven different players.

Mackenzie Tucker led LU with two hits against the Camels occurring in the first and sixth frames, while her first baseman Kristen Sturdivant kicked off the game in the first with a two-RBI single to give Lipscomb a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“Our goal every game is to score first to take pressure off of our pitching and Kristen came through with a big hit in the first and battle throughout the count and got the big hit,” said LU Head Coach Kristin Ryman of their early-game strategy. “It took pressure off us early and the confidence is contagious with this team once we saw her get the hit everyone else wanted to follow.”

Having to face two of the dominant pitchers in the league in their first two contests – USC Upstate’s Morgan Childers and Jacksonville’s Sarah Sigrest – Lipscomb was held to only two runs so the offensive explosion was just what Lipscomb needed to return to the title game against Jacksonville.

“We knew that Campbell’s pitching staff was more of a changeup team and we knew they were going to keep us off balance so we had to adjust early and just stay back and get the first runs,” added Tucker.

For Lipscomb to claim back-to-back titles, they will need to defeat Jacksonville twice on Saturday in the championship showdown and if they stay true to their hitting strategy the Lady Bisons have has to like their chances.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

March Win Translates to A-Sun Success for Sigrest

Sarah Sigrest entered the March 17th showdown with No. 22 Texas A&M in the USF The Game Tournament with a 7-3 record for the 15-9 Jacksonville Dolphins. The A-Sun Pitcher of the Year, Sigrest, left that contest with a one-hit complete game 3-1 victory against the ranked Aggies and the confidence both her and JU needed to cruise to a 18-2 Atlantic Sun record.

“We realized after that game how good we actually were and that is when we started to turn it around and that we could be one of the best teams in the conference,” Sigrest said of the win.

Since the victory against the Big 12 Conference foe, Sigrest stands at 25-5 on the year with an ERA below one and the Dolphins behind four A-Sun First Team All-Conference members are 42-14. The 42 wins marks a program record as does Sigrest’s 25 wins, which helped JU to their program's first top seed in the Atlantic Sun Softball Championship.

Jacksonville entered their Thursday contest with Mercer in an interesting situation since Mercer had one game under the belt – a win against Campbell – while the Dolphins hadn’t played in a game since a week prior against Stetson.

Despite the week lay-off and early-game jitters from both Jacksonville and Sigrest; which included two-straight balls and two Mercer batters reaching base in the first inning, the A-Sun Pitcher of the Year led the Dolphins to a 4-1 victory against the Bears with a four-hit complete game and moved JU two wins away from their first A-Sun Championship title.

“Sarah is a gamer and today I was interested to see if she would come out fearless and she did," stated JU Head Coach Amanda Lehotak. "She’s confident and she went right after Mercer and wasn’t afraid to get hit and she just battled. She is a competitor.”

Following a 12-win freshman campaign, Sigrest struggled with a 6-6 record and a 3.43 ERA as a sophomore, but a dedicated summer training routine developed the junior hurler turned her into the dominant pitcher in the A-Sun this season.

“She worked really hard this summer so Sarah deserves all the credit," added Lehotak, the A-Sun Coach of the Year. "I still believe the turning point for her was the win against Texas A&M because they have a tremendous hitting team and came out fearless in that game because she knew she had nothing to lose and the win allowed her to develop into the (A-Sun) Pitcher of the Year.”

With at least two games remaining in her junior season, Sigrest and Jacksonville are sure to be a force next season as well.

Camels Digs the Long Ball

Two swings of the bat on Thursday kept Campbell’s season alive and hopes for a third Atlantic Sun Softball Championship title.

The Camels hit 51 pitches over the fence this season – 17 more than their opponents – and according to head coach Drew Peterson it was no fluke to see the long ball in play against Kennesaw State in the tournament’s first elimination game.

“The long ball is a part of what we want to do offensively. We like to mix speed with power and have that balance throughout our lineup. The main thing with our girls is we want them to make confident swings, swing at good pitches and believe in themselves we feel in the course of a seven inning game two or three of our players will connect on one and give us a chance to win.”

Campbell’s balance was on display as the third batter, Lauren Stephan, and sixth batter, Raven Lee, both connected on three-run homers to propel the Camels to the 7-1 victory. Lee’s homer in the fourth inning put CU ahead, while Lauren Stephan’s four-bagger the following inning put the game out of reach.

With four homers this season against the Owls, Stephan showcased Campbell’s batting mentality in her third at-bat after failing to connect in her first two hitting appearances.

“I struck out in my first two at-bats so I went up there in my third try and I wanted to do whatever I could to help the team and give us a few more runs so I tried to battle with (Abbey Meixel) in the at-bat and then I saw a quality pitch and I swung at it.”

With elite pitching squads on all the remaining teams in the tournament, Peterson and the Camels are confident in their hitting prowess.

“We can’t in any way give (opposing pitchers) too much credit because they have to throw the ball over the plate three times and we only have to hit one of them and we have to keep that mentality against them.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Spartans' Win Sends Coach Hawkins Packing

With their 7-5 win against Kennesaw State, USC Upstate not only advanced to the next round of the 2011 Atlantic Sun Softball Championship but also sent their head coach Chris Hawkins packing for Las Vegas in December.

The victory at Cyrill Stadium gave Hawkins his 600th victory in his 17-year career and earns him recognition at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Convention for his milestone at the end of the year.

“I have been here for 17 years and I’ve been through a lot of battles and wars and won some and lost some, but to get to 600 and still be able to walk and breathe is a good feeling and I couldn’t have done it without everyone as this program and institution,” Hawkins stated of his accomplishment.

For Hawkins, the timing of the win accumulation is more important as it advances the Spartans to a rematch with Lipscomb, who swept Upstate in the regular season, and keeps the Spartans alive for another game.

“It’s a great feeling to go to sleep tonight knowing that if we lose our next game we are still in the tournament and it’s great for our program because we are trying to build here at USC Upstate and this is a big stepping stone for us.”

Not only did Hawkins reach 600 wins, but the Spartans claimed their 42nd win of the season, a program record, just ahead of last year’s mark of 41. For an institution that made the jump to Division I in 2007, USC Upstate has already accomplished a lot with a share of the 2008 A-Sun Regular Season title and then taking runner-up at last year’s A-Sun Championship.

“In Division II we were always up there competing and I knew when we went to Division I any little mistake would hurt us, but we changed our program philosophy in what we were trying to accomplish and we really work hard on defense and luckily we have the pitching that kept us in games,” Hawkins said of the transition.

Now the Spartans’ squad stands three wins away from an A-Sun Championship title and a trip of the their own to a NCAA Regional.

Pieces Fall Into Place for Bears

The 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference season started off rough for Mercer with a 1-6 record in the first seven league games including sweeps at the hands of Campbell and Jacksonville to kick off the season.

However, the Bears rattled off nine wins in the final 14 games to clinch a spot in the A-Sun Championship as the five seed following a clutch sweep of Kennesaw State at home to finish off the slate.

“The start of the season had to do with us figuring out the chemistry of our team and how our team was going to play well together and who would fit into the right piece of the puzzle as we went from the start to today’s game there have been quite a few changes to our lineup,” said Mercer head coach Mike Raynor

One of those changes showed up in the tournament opener with senior pitcher Kari Chambers starting off the game and fellow senior hurler Jenni Holtz coming in to pick up her 12th win of the season by allowing no runs in four innings of work.

“For the first three years at Mercer, Jenni (Holtz) had been a starter for us and has most of the pitching records at Mercer, but she has taken on the role of a relief pitcher and she is doing an outstanding job there by giving a completely different look to opposing batters and she performed well today,” Raynor added.

Despite only averaging six hits a game in A-Sun play, Mercer’s bats were on fire to start the conference championship with nine base knocks through six innings but the Orange and Black were unable to convert by leaving 10 runners stranded on the base paths. Fortunately just like the early season start Raynor knew the team would turn it around and Tiffany Phillips did just that with a single up the middle to score Kassie Bailey and give Mercer the decisive run.

“You can get frustrated with that or you can continue to stay excited about it and I continued to stay excited because I knew if we continued to set the table with base runners eventually someone would step up and get a hit for us and fortunately Tiffany Phillips did for us.”

Mercer now gets a chance to prove they have completely solved the puzzle by facing top-seeded Jacksonville on Thursday.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Owls Championship Week Closes with Two Titles

Kennesaw State knocked out two birds with one stone this week at the 2011 Atlantic Sun Men’s Golf Championship.

The Owls’ Jeff Karlsson carded a 6-under 207 to give Kennesaw State its first A-Sun individual medalist, while teammate Matt Nagy added a 3-under performance to join Karlsson on the All-Tournament team and lead the Owls to their first A-Sun Men’s Golf team title.

For a program whose previous best team performance came in 2008 with a tie for third and in the same year posted their best individual finish with Oliver West taking third these wins represent big steps0 for the Owls program.

“Words can’t really describe how awesome this is for our players, program and school to take away two trophies and for Jeff Karlsson being the medalist,” Owls head coach Jay Moseley stated. “It really shows the work that we have put into this program and how much we have improved over the last couple years.”

For a team that loses only one senior, Chad Wilson, the future looks bright for the Owls to claim back-to-back team titles next year when the tournament is once again held at Chateau Elan.

“Our program is in great shape right now, the guys are working hard and they just want to keep getting better,” Moseley added. “That has been our motto all year long, but we still have work to do but we feel like this team can go a long way and we are excited about the future of the program and encouraged by our performance this week.”

Karlsson entered the day with a one-shot lead over Belmont’s Daniel Smith and learned that he earned earned a spot on the European Team for the Palmer Cup, the amateur version of the Ryder Cup, which is set to be played from June 9th – 11th at the Stanwich Club outside Greenwich, Conn.

The pressure of being the leader going into the final day as well as earning such a high honor with Palmer Cup didn’t shake Karlsson and the Owls as he claimed two individual honors and helped the Owls to four tournament titles prior to the conference championship.

“We started out the season by winning a lot of tournaments so coming into the conference championship we knew that we could do this and we could win so having those wins prior to the tournament was really huge,” Karlsson added of the team’s win.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Smith Hoping to Ace Senior Golf Capstone

Belmont’s No. 1 Golfer, Daniel Smith, entered the 2011 Atlantic Sun Men’s Golf Championship with only three top-10 finishes on the season and seven rounds at par or better. However, things have been on the upswing for Daniel as he wraps up his senior year after recently earning the title of the Belmont School of Business Student of the Year.

To go along with his academic accolade, Smith fired a 69 in the opener on Monday and followed that with a 68 in day two to put the Bournemouth, England native in second place – one stroke behind Kennesaw State’s Jeff Karlsson – going into the Wednesday finale.

“Daniel tried to prepare like any other golf tournament by staying in his routine and not do anything different once he got out on the golf course,” Belmont head coach Scott Flynn stated. “I know how excited he was to come back and play in the conference championship again.”

Smith’s hot putter sank eight birdies in the first two days and has given him a chance to etch his name into the Belmont record books by posting the best individual performance by a Bruin, besting Jeff Lanier’s seventh-place finish in 2005 as well as lead the Bruins to a new program-best finish. On three occasions the Bruins have finished in sixth - most recently in 2005.

“When you are out there and you’re in a good rhythm things start going well and eventually a couple of the putts fall and before you know it you are a few under part and are just riding the wave,” Smith said of his first two rounds.

However the 2011 A-Sun Men’s Golf Championship Final Round plays out, Smith can take solace in his improved putting and first two rounds once his college career has wrapped up.

“It would be great to put in a good performance tomorrow," he said. "If I play as well as I can and take it one shot at a time and try to hole some putts and see where we stand at the end of the day.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nagy's Return Bolters Owls Championship Hopes

In 2007, Kennesaw State played in their first Atlantic Sun Conference Men’s Golf Championship and left with a fifth-place finish. The following year, the Owls earned a tie for third place, which still stands as a program-best, behind the seventh-place performance of then-freshman Matt Nagy. However, since the 2008 tournament the Owls have only been able to muster eighth-place and a tie for seventh-place finishes in the last two seasons.

As a sophomore Nagy struggled at the 2009 A-Sun Championship finishing the three-day tournament in 40th place after a final day 81. However, that summer Nagy qualified for the 2009 US Open at Bethpage Black after running the gauntlet of local qualifying and sectional play. The experience of playing in one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world changed Nagy’s golf game forever.

“It was a life-changing experience for me - I get asked all the time about playing in it and the experience has helped out my golf game a ton,” he said.

Jeff Karlsson joined the Owls’ golf team in the fall of 2008 fresh out of Gothenburg, Sweden, where he first started playing golf as a freshman in high school. His top finish as a freshman with the Owls came at the Columbia Invitational where he claimed third place. His golf game only improved in his sophomore season as he earned an event win at the Sam Hall Intercollegiate and finished runner-up in the Samford Intercollegiate.

Like Nagy, Karlsson had the opportunity to play in a highly-prestigious event, the International European Amateur, where he competed against 144 of the best amateur players that Europe has to offer. Karlsson finished under-par in every single round en route to a 12-under par 276, good for fourth place.

Nagy and Karlsson’s experience in those tournaments helped them individually as well as the Owls’ team as Kennesaw State sits in first place after day one of the 2011 A-Sun Men’s Golf Championship at Chateau Elan. Karlsson’s four-under 67 put him in second place, while Nagy trails right behind his junior teammate with an opening-round 68. Nagy knows how much it would mean to win the conference tournament as the host school.

“I’ve been looking forward to [the conference tournament] all year,". Nagy said. "No matter the big tournaments we’ve played in against other schools it’s nothing like winning your conference and I definitely want a conference ring before I graduate and this year would make it special.”

With the continued play of Karlsson, Nagy and the rest of the Owls their dreams of a conference title could come true.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Armaly and Lawrence Push One Another in Triple Jump

Kennesaw State’s Anjoun Armaly entered the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championships as one of the favorites to win the triple jump after capturing the event at the indoor championship in February. Campbell’s Diego Lawrence and Adonnis Jones also entered as threats to win the event.

Unfortunately for Armaly, he entered the event with a foot injury that prevented him from competing since February 19th when he captured the indoor title. The layoff in time for Armaly effected his performance and Lawrence entered the finals of the triple jump with the top qualifying distance.

However, words of encouragement and the spirit of competition from his toughest competitors – mainly Lawrence – propelled him to a first-place finish in the horizontal jump with his distance of 14.9m just ahead of Lawrence at 14.79m.

“Diego Lawrence is not a competitor that is easily beaten and he went out and set a great mark and with my injury I wasn’t sure I could match him, but his performance motivated me to continue in the event and pushed me to reach him,” Armaly said of Lawrence’s performance.

With Kennesaw State fighting for the lead in the overall points with ETSU, Armaly rose to the occasion and helped the Owls to their second-straight title in spite of the risk of further injury. With Armaly being only a junior, track & field fans will be privileged to more gutsy performances next season as well.

An ETSU Championship Roundtable

For the third time in six years in the Atlantic Sun, ETSU holds the tournament champion trophies for both the men's and women's tennis. The women won back the title by beating the school that claimed the 2010 crown from the Lady Bucs, UNF. While for the fifth straight year the men denied Stetson its first Atlantic Sun title, winning a drama-filled 4-2 contest.

Following both victories, multiple members of the victorious ETSU squads participated in "round table chats" to discuss topics ranging from the Saturday victories, the program at large and preparation strategies.

For the women's round table, MVP Karina Kedzo, Kelly Holtzhausen and Paula Jaime made up the panel.

On the men's side, the participants included MVP Grega Teraz, Sander Gille, Juan Ramirez and Roger Ordeig

Saturday, April 16, 2011

'SuperBabies' to Undefeated Super Seniors

Sometimes a coach knows when he puts together a great recruiting class. Ron Grigg possessed a pretty good idea when he brought his current seniors to campus.

“Four years ago we had a group that we called the ‘SuperBabies’. In the fall we knew they were going to be special and they grew up to be very special,” stated Grigg.

All this group did was go undefeated in A-Sun championship competition, pile up nearly 100 all-conference honors and another boatload of individual titles. They added to their legacy on Saturday night. From starting out the evening with a team win in the 4x100 relay and closing it with a conference record in the 4x400 relay, the seniors led the way.

“It is hard for me to find words to describe them. I think it was fitting for us to have seniors go 1-2-3 in the 200 at the end of the meet and then have three seniors run the final legs of the 4x400 relay that set a conference record,” reflected Grigg.

The team erased a 14-point day one deficit to realize their goal of an unbeaten career for the seniors.

“It was definitely a goal for us to finish the unbeaten run,” said Track Performer of the Meet Unique Singleton. “We have battled injury and our competition has been rising so it was really tough.”

While Singleton brought home the top track award, Ronnisha Hall was voted Field Performer of the Meet and Stacey Young racked up 38 points to claim Most Valuable Performer honors. Throw in event victories by fellow seniors Danielle Davenport(4x400 & 4x100), Louise Kiernan (100m & 4x100) and J’Zotta Rolle (4x400), it will be a day to remember in a career to remember for the Dolphins.

“They are so special to me personally. We are going to have our senior speeches at the end of the meet and I know it will be tough for all of us to talk. They have never lost a championship and no one will ever be able to break that record. I hope they have created an awareness of the strength of our program to help us attract quality people like them and help the team grow,” commented Grigg.

A hungry group of competitors in the conference will be awaiting the next wave of Dolphin standouts next year.

Zaatini Brings Two Teams to Championship Saturday

In eight years leading the ETSU men’s tennis team, head coach Yaser Zaatini established the Buccaneer program as one of the Atlantic Sun Conference’s top dynasties across all sports. The Buccaneers own four regular-season championships and four tournament titles in six years in the A-Sun. With Friday night’s win against Campbell, they will go for a fifth tournament title Saturday against Stetson.

In July, his title changed to Director of Tennis at ETSU – a title that meant direct oversight of the ETSU women. Under other head coaches, the Lady Bucs put together a run in the A-Sun that closely mirrors the men, winning two titles, appearing in all five previous finals and claiming at least a share of four regular-season crowns.

Like the men, the Lady Buccaneers advanced to the Saturday’s title-game tilt. They took out the host Stetson and will take on UNF in a rematch of last year’s final, one won by the Ospreys. In just his first year at the helm for both teams, Zaatini became just the second coach in league history to be the head coach of both a school’s men’s and women’s program that made the respective title games. Pat Breen guided Samford to the finals in both tournaments in 1992.

“I didn’t get them both in the finals, they got themselves there,” Zaatini said. “I’m extremely proud of the way the players have performed throughout the year, and all the work that goes into it.”

Holding responsibilities for both teams means Zaatini has to put behind the tough defeats and refocus his coaching on his other team.

“The hardest thing is on the heart and the mind to come back after an emotional victory or a sad defeat and do it all over again,” Zaatini said. “But it’s my job, I love it, I love my school and I just hope we keep doing the best we can.”

When Breen got Samford to the finals in both sports in 1992, the team enjoyed mixed success. The men finished atop the tournament standings but the women took second to FIU. Zaatini isn’t ready to speculate how it might feel to leave DeLand, Fla., as the coach of two champions.

“I don’t want to think that far ahead,” Zaatini said. “Obviously, it would be a great accomplishment for the university, but tomorrow we’re facing huge challenges and great obstacles, and it’s just going to be tough. I can’t tell you right now where we’re going to get the four points. We’re just going to show up tomorrow, let the balls roll and hope it falls our way.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Emotional Day Capped By Record Setting Performance For Crawford

Every athlete writes a fairy tale ending to their playing days, but very few get to realize that finish.

USC Upstate’s Justin Crawford got his opportunity on day one of the Atlantic Sun Conference Track & Field Championship. And he made the most of it, matching the meet record and breaking his own school record with a vault of 4.75 meters.

“It was a real emotional day because this was my last collegiate meet,” reflected Crawford.

The senior faced some stiff competition on his way to the title.

Wind was gusting behind and across the runway at Hodges Stadium to such a degree that many potential-record breaking performances in the vertical jumps and sprints will likely be nullified.

“The wind was a real factor, but I was just in the zone. I was mentally prepared to compete today,” Crawford said.

UNF David Shepherd was the overwhelming favorite to win on paper. His vault of 4.95m is the top performance in the conference this year, but Crawford cleared 4.75m meters on his first attempt to put the pressure on the freshman. Shepherd would fault on all three attempts at the height to help seal Crawford’s gold medal.

Finally, a rough start to the season had cast some doubt on his season.

“The season started out rough for him and we were concerned,” stated Spartans head coach Jimmy Stephens. “The UNF guys have been jumping great and it was a battle with the wind, but Justin was tough and ready to go.”

That doubt all seemed to disappear today.

“I thought I could do it. Everyone will tell you they can but to actually coming out here and do it is something else. I was really proud of myself,” said Crawford. “I haven’t been jumping very well this year, but it all came together the last two weeks. I am really glad it did.”

Coach Stephens wrapped it up well as he reflected on Justin’s Friday afternoon effort.

“It’s awesome. Justin has always been one of the most consistent vaulters I have ever coached. Every time it comes down to crunch time he is there and ready to go. Obviously, it was very emotional for him and I was really happy for him,” Stephens said.

Mack Eyes Repeat and Personal Improvement

Some people prefer to be the hunted and some prefer to be the hunter, but Kennesaw State’s heptathlete Naomi Mack can deal with either.

“It motivates me to come into the meet as the defending champion, but on the other hand I never really worry about my opponents and their performances I just try to focus on performing my best in each event.”

At last year’s meet, Mack entered her first A-Sun heptathlon with her only previous championship experience being a seventh-place finish in the 400-meter dash and a runner-up spot in the 4x400m as a freshman. However, Mack performed as a season veteran in the seven events with top-three finishes in every event except one and added a first-place finish in the 800m.

Her well-rounded performance gave Mack the gold medal in the heptathlon to go along with the A-Sun Championship Meet record by 300 points. Mack narrowly defeated Jacksonville’s Tiffany Bromfield by seven points, but had to storm back as the hunter from a 221-point deficit after day one to earn the gold medal.

In this championship, Mack begins day two on the other end of the spectrum as the hunted, leading her closest competitor by 164 points only three events remaining. Her event wins in the 100m hurdles and shot put have already trumped her win total from last season, but more importantly to Mack she has performed better three of the four events thus far.

“It’s a different mindset for me because if I can go into a meet and set a personal record in each of my events, but still not win then I feel better than if I win the heptathlon but don’t set any personal records.”

Tomorrow, Mack can get the best of both worlds by wrapping up the A-Sun Championship with a heptathlon gold medal as well as new personal records.

Pilote Hopes to Turn Near Misses into Celebrations

Stetson head coach Pierre Pilote is no stranger to adversity. In his 18 years, the dean of A-Sun men's tennis coaches suffered more than seven losses just three times. The third time occurred this year, as the Hatters absorbed their most losses since 1995 - his second season at the helm.

The Hatters opened the 2011 dual match season with nine straight wins, and appeared well on their way to their fourth 20-win season in the last five years, but then junior captain Maksim Levanovic suffered a shoulder injury in the team's third conference match.

The injury sent Stetson into a tailspin, losing four of the next five matches, but with Levanovic back in time for the postseason, Pilote speaks of the invaluable experience his team gained competing without their captain.

"We started the season 9-0 and everybody was on full throttle," he said."We were looking forward to the nationally ranked teams we were about to start playing - we lost three very close matches. Then when Maksim Levanovic was about to beat the Player of the Year in the conference, [Campbell's] Davy Sum - serving at 5-3 he suffered an injury, an injury that kept him out for a month-and-a-half."

His squad's mental toughness has been forged in the furnace of heartbreak as well as injury. A year ago, the Hatters pushed the standard bearer of Atlantic Sun tennis, the (then) three-time defending champion ETSU Buccaneers, to the brink in the championship round. After finishing runner-up in the four previous A-Sun Championships, the previous three to ETSU, the Hatters finally had ETSU on the ropes, but a third-set injury to Didrik Berg severely limited the sophomore's mobility, and the Bucs' dynasty survived.

"After maybe three or four days of staying in my house, contemplating what just happened, I think everybody started looking forward to the season - a chance to show again what kind of team we have," Pilote said. "From the first practice on we didn't look back. We didn't want Didrik to feel that it was his fault in any way that we lost that conference championship. It was nothing he could have changed. It we keep bringing it up, it doesn't serve much purpose."

Through his career Pilote has coached numerous athletes, and holds a great deal of affection for all of them, but his fondness for this his 18th edition may exceed them all.

"It's a group - Maksim Levanovic, Njal Stene and Cesare Gallo - all came together as freshmen," Pilote said. "They were a group of men that look a long time to that recruiting year was very important to us. They are just great young men; they're thoughtful, they work hard, they are amazing students without much motivation from me. They think about me - tonight we were supposed to go out to dinner, but they said 'no coach, you need your rest for tomorrow' you know I don't think many teams would pass a free dinner. I would just say they care."

If the Hatters can deliver a first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, the painful memories of all the previous near-misses will wash away, and Pilote will finally celebrate an A-Sun championship with his players, his team, his friends.

New Coach Pleased with First Championship Win

Interim UNF head coach Chastity Bradley walked into a championship situation. The Ospreys had claim their first Atlantic Sun Conference Women’s Tennis Championship a year ago and entered 2011 among the favorites in the conference.

However, the team had to find a replacement for head coach Rodrigo Puebla after he left for Iowa State less than two weeks prior to the beginning of the spring season. After a 2-2 start, Bradley directed the Ospreys to nine wins in their next 10 matches – including a 4-3 victory against eventual regular-season champion ETSU.

“At the very beginning, I was hired and very next day I was holding practice,” Bradley said. “The girls were very welcoming. Every single day they showed up ready to practice at 110 percent. They did have a lot of expectations with winning the championship last year. I’ve told the girls from the very beginning ‘let’s go win one match at a time’ – which was our goal as this tournament. We didn’t worry about the seedings, but let’s just go out and win one match at a time.”

Narrow 4-3 losses to Campbell and Stetson resulted in UNF earning only the fourth seed for this week’s A-Sun Championship. After dispensing crosstown rival Jacksonville for the second time in less than a week, the Ospreys set up a rematch with ETSU. The Ospreys own the last two victories by A-Sun members against the Buccaneers. In addition to this year’s win in March, the Ospreys claimed that A-Sun Championship by toppling the top-seeded Buccaneers in the title match.

The UNF title defense opened in strong fashion starting with the teams of Victoria Krook/Melinda Doak and Danielle Day/Melanie Aguirre earning wins in doubles to snag the opening point. The lead grew to 3-0 when Aguirre and Day scored straight-set wins. However, Jacksonville scored a win from Virginia Iwinski and threatened to seize even more momentum until Krook quelled the comeback effort by defeating Flavia Nagayama in the third set after losing the second-set tie break.

“I had complete confidence in my girls,” Bradley said. “I was getting a little nervous at the end, but my senior [Krook] clinched it for me.”

Coach Bradley “one match at a time” mantra held up on Thursday, will it help carry the Ospreys back in to the final against ETSU? She and her team will find out beginning at 9 a.m.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cardiac Hats Add to Lore

The final round of Atlantic Sun Women’s Golf Championships used to be more formality or a coronation for the second-round leader. From 2003 through 2008, the second-round leader went on to claim the title.

Fortunes for those in back of the leader started changing in 2009. Stetson and Campbell swapped positions between the first and second records and the Camels entered the final round in front by three. However, thanks to a team score of even par, the Hatters became the first school to come back from a final-round deficit since Campbell rallied against UCF in 2002.

The Hatters made a more improbable comeback last year at Venetian Bay. They stood in fifth place and 12 strokes back of ETSU. Using a record-setting team score of 2-under 286, they successfully held off the competition by a single stroke, completing the largest comeback at the A-Sun Championship in 10 years.

These two comebacks all lead into today. Through the first two rounds, the Hatters fended off slow starts to stay within shouting distance of the leaders. On Monday, they played the opening nine holes in 8-over par to fall off the pace, but a closing nine score of 2-over brought them within four of first-round leader Kennesaw State. A slow front side again on Tuesday nearly cost the Hatters. The deficit within the second round approached double digits, but steadying play on the back nine, combined with other teams falling back to the pack meant the Hatters needed only to make up a deficit of three.

“I think that we always believe we have a chance to win,” junior Lauren Cate, who has been a part of all three comebacks, said. “We never stop trying and we know that we have a chance to win. We go out and leave everything on the table.”

After a four-over-par front side, the Hatters reached the top of the leaderboard, holding a one-stroke lead as they and the Camels hit the back nine. From there, the four scoring Hatters collected seven birdies, including three on No. 18, en route to shooting a 1-under par back nine and leaving the field behind, ending with a 12-stroke advantage.

“This morning [head coach Floyd Kerr] said not to play against Campbell and Kennesaw State, but more to just play the golf course and see what happens,” tournament medalist Alexandria Buelow said.

The A-Sun tournament started the day after the Masters, the tournament long associated with the phrase “it doesn’t start until the back nine on the final round.” Stetson’s back-nine charge locked up a third straight conference crown and put Hatter golf in exclusive company. They became just the third A-Sun school in the 22-year of the championship to win three straight conference titles.

The Hatters will make a third appearance at NCAA Regionals next month looking to build on consecutive 19th-place showings in 2009 and 2010.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Four¬-Way Fight in Store for Final Round

In the 21 previous editions of the Atlantic Sun Women’s Golf Championship, the conference has never had to implement the team playoff format to determine a winner. Entering the final round of the 2011 A-Sun Championship, the league’s policy manual might have to be dusted off as four teams will begin play separated by three strokes.

Campbell moved up the board into top position thanks to consistent play from its four scoring golfers. The Camels overtook Kennesaw State to lead the Owls by two strokes. Due in part to ever-changing weather throughout the back nine on Tuesday, the Camels’ leading score of 24-over-par 600 represents the highest score to lead through 36 holes in five years.

As the leaderboard tightened late Tuesday, one team already in the clubhouse saw its deficit shrink to the three strokes it must now overcome. When two-time champion Stetson finished play on Tuesday, the Hatters stood in fourth place, eight back of then-leading Kennesaw State. However, once the final putts fell and the tallies came in for Kennesaw State, Campbell and ETSU, the Hatters had forged a tie with the Buccaneers for third and only three back. As head coach Floyd Kerr informed his team of its standing and of the knowledge that sophomore Alexandria Buelow had moved to the top of the individual leaderboard, the team collectively expressed surprise.

The Hatters have claimed each of their two A-Sun crowns by staging final-round comebacks. At this same course in 2009, they found themselves also trailing Campbell by three shots. They rallied by shooting the lowest team score in event history, an even-par 288 to nip the Camels by two strokes. Last year, they faced a more daunting task, entering the final day needing to overcome a 12-shot hole and surpass four teams. The “Comeback Hats” needed every bit of a second straight record-setting final round, a 2-under 286, to edge the Owls by a single stroke.

Not to be discounted in this four-way clash is ETSU. Like Campbell and Stetson, the Buccaneers have a championship pedigree, winning in 2008 and added an at-large selection to NCAA Regional play last year. Like the Hatters, the Buccaneers have shot rounds of 10-over 298 and 17-over 305 to sit three shots in back of the pace-setting Camels. The Buccaneers could gain an advantage by owning one of Wednesday’s early tee times. ETSU’s five will go out in front of Campbell, Kennesaw State and Stetson and like the Hatters last year, could post a number for everyone to try and match.

Despite their hiccups, the closest challenger remains Kennesaw State. The Owls can point to one hole, the par-5 ninth and with proper correction could reclaim the top spot. In Tuesday’s round, the five Owls played the hole in a collective 8-over par, with everyone taking at least a bogey. Contrast those performances with Monday’s, where the five made two pars and three bogeys on the hole. That five stroke difference contributed to the Owls going from three strokes up entering the day to the two behind they find themselves following the round.

Will the never-used team playoff come into effect in the early afternoon hours on Wednesday? Follow the progress at

Monday, April 11, 2011

Owls Take First Step Towards Completing Ascent

When Kennesaw State made its first appearance in the Atlantic Sun Women's Golf Championship field - in 2009 - the Owls finished fourth. A year later, they moved up to second and during the final round found themselves atop the leaderboard only to be caught by a record-setting performance by Stetson.

The Owls returned to the site of their first A-Sun Championships, Victoria Hills Golf Club in Stetson's home city of DeLand, Fla. off a successful season that featured the first team victory under the direction of head coach Rhyll Brinesmead; the program's first A-Sun Golfer of the Month - awarded to Ket Preamchuen for November - and a ranking of No. 74 in the latest ratings - the best within the A-Sun.

“This [year] is our third competing at the A-Sun,” Brinesmead said. “We were fourth in 2009 and second last year. We’ve progressively moved up, so our goal this year is obviously to come away with the championship,” Brinesmead said.

Monday's first round saw FGCU, Mercer, Campbell and ETSU all hold the lead at various times during the day before the Owls rode a steady back nine performance to emerge from the pack atop the standings for day one. Their team total of 6-over-par 294 tied the lowest first-round score in A-Sun Championship history. History rests in the Owls’s favor as seven of the last eight first-round leaders have gone on to win the A-Sun title. Dating back to the start of the event, 1990, 14 of 21 first-round leaders went on to win the championship.

“We got off to a bit of a slow start – we turned at [6-over par] and maintained that, so a really solid back nine,” Brinesmead said. “Our goal was to come in and get off to a solid start – have a little cushion going in round two.”

A sign of the level where Brinsmead has lifted the program to comes from the fast that although it was only two years ago that the Owls debuted at the A-Sun Championship, the lineup has undergone a complete revamping as none of the players that played in 2009 made up this year’s championship lineup. Brinesmead brought pairs of sophomores and freshmen plus senior Abby Fitzgerald to DeLand this year.

The mostly young team handled early-round stumbles and with two rounds equal or better, the Owls could be flying back north with their first A-Sun crown.


When the second round wraps up, where will Kennesaw State find itself in the standings? We welcome your thoughts in a comments section, at or

Saturday, March 5, 2011

State your Case: Belmont Bruins

In its final chance to impress selection committee members, Belmont put on a clinic not seen in a General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Men's Basketball Championship title clash.

In beating UNF by an astounding 41 points, 87-46, the Bruins shattered the conference’s record for victory margin in a title game. UALR and Samford each won title games by 28 points, a decade apart in 1989 and 1999.

The 41-point margin, the 23 offensive rebounds and holding UNF to a season-low 46 points represent just some of the numbers that have amazed viewers of the Bruins over the course of this season.

First we have to look at the bench play. Head coach Rick Byrd has utilized an 11-man
rotation throughout the season with all 11 averaging double-digits in minutes while none taking on more than 24.8. During the season all 11 regulars posted a double-figure scoring game.

The productivity has proved to be the nation’s best. The Bruin back ups lead the nation in scoring, rebounding and assists per game. No team’s bench in the country has led in all three of those statistics since 1996-97. Throw in the fact that the bench also leads in 3-point field goals made per game, just for good measure.

Beyond depth, Belmont has exhibited excellence. In league games, the Bruins posted a 20.9 points per game scoring margin. No team has posted as wide a margin in 12 seasons. You have to go back to the national runner-up team of Duke in 1998-99 to find a more dominant team in conference play. While Belmont is strong, they don’t exactly feature future first-round stars like Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Trajan Langdon or Corey Maggette. After advancing to the title game in workman-like fashion in the form, the blowout win returned with tonight’s 41-point masterpiece.

With any team this strong, the wins are going to pile up. Belmont became the first Atlantic Sun conference team to post 30 wins in a season. Georgia State, in 2000-01, and College of Charleston in 1996-97 each won 29 games. Something else Belmont would also like to exceed those teams in would be NCAA Tournament wins. Both won first-round games, representing the last two for the conference.

It’s long been rumored that the committee likes teams that finish strong. If that’s the case, Belmont’s seeding has to be on the way up. Since December 24, they own a mark of 21-1, the best record in the nation and are one of just five with only one loss in that time span (Long Island, Bucknell, Utah State. Oakland). They put together win streaks of nine and 12 over than span.

Another rumored favorite stat of the committee iswith road/neutral wins. Chalk up another statistical win for Belmont. They share the national lead in road wins with 13 and now stand at 18-4 in road/neutral games. No team in the country owns as many wins away from home than the Bruins.

Lastly, the RPI. The tool long viewed as the top criteria used by the committee shows Belmont checking it at No. 50 after Saturday’s win. In five of the last six years, the No. 50-ranked team has moved on to the NCAA Tournament, and in three of the years, that team received an at-large bid. Marquette was placed as a No. 6 seed last year while VCU and Kansas State each earned No. 11 seeds in 2009 and 2008, respectively. Kansas State pulled off a first-round upset, while VCU lost by one to UCLA.

You have to dig, literally to the last page of the Atlantic Sun’s record book to find the last time the A-Sun NCAA representative received a seed better than a 14. The aforementioned Georgia State program in 2000-01 received an 11 and bested Wisconsin in the opening round. It will take quite the argument by the committee to judge Belmont not worthy of such a lofty seed.

Hatters' Three-Point Shot Equals Third Title

Prior to the quarterfinals of the General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Women’s Basketball Championship, no Stetson Hatter had hit five three-pointers in a single game since Feb. 9, 2008. Tierra Brown and Sasha Sims changed that note in twice in four days with the senior Brown going a perfect 5-for-5 from downtown, an A-Sun Tournament record, while Sims saved her best for last by nailing six first-half threes.

“Most of basketball is a mental game so for me to hit my first three it just keeps your confidence going to continue to make shots.” Sims

Sims wasted little time in the championship final to hit her first three as she struck 26 seconds into the game and continued her trifecta barrage with five more connections before finally missing an attempt late in the first half. Brown, Jessica Conner and Victoria McGowan thrived off Sims’ attack from deep by adding on one three apiece.

“We try to get off to a good start [from three] every game because we know if we do that we will feed off of each other and it makes everything easier and run smoother throughout the game.”

Things were running quite smooth for the Hatters as they led by 16 at the half and stretched their lead to 23 at the 11:27 mark of the second half on an old-fashioned three-point play by Victoria McGowan, who had her own success from behind-the-arc against Belmont in the semifinals.

Stetson’s success from three has extended past the A-Sun Tournament as the Hatters have hit six or more three pointers in 12 of 32 games this season and are 10-2 in those contests.

The Hatters 20 three-pointers throughout the three-game tournament earned Stetson their third A-Sun Tournament title (1989, 2005) and gives the Hatters a chance to make some noise the third month of the year.

Ospreys First Equals Final

The 2011 General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Basketball Championship started with UNF’s first-ever tournament victory and can now end with the program’s first-ever A-Sun Title. UNF has toppled third-seeded Jacksonville in the opening quarterfinals followed by Friday night’s four-point win against two-time defending champions, ETSU, in the semifinals.

Both wins marked program firsts for the Ospreys. It cemented the first-ever victory against the Bucs in 12 tries and propelled the Ospreys into the championship in only the program’s second appearance in the March tournament.

“Those wins are great, but we can’t be satisfied with what we have accomplished so far [in the tournament],” stated sophomore forward Andy Diaz. “We have to keep pushing until the final game to reach our goals.”

Now on Saturday, UNF and Head Coach Matthew Driscoll appear in their first-ever A-Sun Championship Final, where they will try to stretch their five-game win streak, a program Division I record, to six to clinch their first-ever A-Sun Championship.

The Ospreys’ championship opponent, top-seeded Belmont, has a winning streak of their own at 11 games, which is tied for second longest in the nation, and will give the Ospreys their toughest test of the four-day tournament.

“Coach [Driscoll] will start preparing for the game tomorrow immediately,” added Diaz. “He will have us ready to go tomorrow.”

Both teams will need to be at the top of their games in the championship final to clinch the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and for UNF their tournament of firsts just might led them to finish first.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Bruins Overcome Hostile Crowd to Return to Finals

A season ago, Belmont’s run in the General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Championships lasted all of one game as the Bruins succumb to injuries and a raucous student section in an 87-81 loss to the hosting Mercer.

Last season Belmont quickly built a 14-point lead midway through the first half, but lost Mick Hedgepeth to a leg injury and Jordan Campbell suffered a facial injury. Those losses combined with stellar performances from James Florence and Daniel Emerson sent the Bruins home in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2003.

Since that loss, Belmont’s only blemish in A-Sun play came at the hands of rival Lipscomb at a sold-out Allen Arena. Much like their 2010 Championship loss, the Bruins failed to preserve a double-digit advantage, relinquishing an 18-point advantage.

Returning to the scene of last season’s loss, the two Bruins lost to injury played key roles in the Bruins’ 80-72 victory. Jordan Campbell, who had averaged only 5.5 points in six career Championship games netted 17 while Hedgepeth notched 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds – six on the offensive end.

“We kind of expected them to come out with a lot of energy in this atmosphere and especially coming off a big win,” Kerron Johnson said. “We played our style and teams get tired, and we made our runs when we kind of took advantage of their fatigue. But they had a lot of energy at the end of the game and as well they should with that crowd, it was just a great environment to be in.”

Belmont has experienced mixed results playing on the home floors of opponents in Championship play. Prior to Friday night’s victory, Belmont’s lone win in three tries came in the 2007 title game when they used a 12-for-19 first-half shooting performance from the 3-point arc to trounce ETSU, 94-67. In addition to last year’s defeat, Belmont ‘s 2003 quarterfinal loss to Georgia State came at the GSU Arena.

Having cleared the home-town hurdle, Belmont seeks a fourth title, one that would tie UCF for the most in Atlantic Sun history. Belmont has several streaks to try and build on – the Bruins are 3-0 all-time in title games and are 16-0 this season when donning their home white jerseys.

McGowan Adds to Mystic of March Madness

The final score for the Belmont-Stetson Women’s Basketball Atlantic Sun Conference Semifinal should have read 46-45 in favor of the Bruins, but this is March and that means only one thing. Expect the unexpected.

The Hatters led the Bruins, 45-43, after McGowan knocked down two free throws following a foul on a drive with 13 seconds remaining.

Following McGowan’s heroics at the charity stripe, Belmont’s Shaunda Strayhorn hit what was believed to be the game-winner when she drove to the right side of the bucket and laid up her sixth and seventh points of the game as she was fouled on the play and hit the subsequent free throw.

So with the clock reading 1.4 seconds, McGowan took an in-bound pass from Tierra Brown bounced the ball once and then made a lasting impression on the fans in attendance for a half-court winning shot.

Her 50-foot heave on the University Center court sent the Stetson bench into a frenzy as it banked of the glass and fell through to put the Hatters into the A-Sun Championship Finals for the first time since 2005.

The shot sent the Hatters’ faithful into a roar, but left the all-conference guard speechless after the game.

“Everybody was just ecstatic after the shot. There is really no way to describe that feeling we all had.”

March Madness at its finest.

Jacksonville Knocks Out Champ; Searches for Title

At the end of prize fights, when the champion has lost, the announcer makes a pronounced declaration “the winner and NEW champion…” While Jacksonville can’t quite lay claim to the title, they did dethrone the three-time General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Women’s Champion, ETSU, and in the process, exorcised demons from Championships past.

Entering the 2008 Championship title game, neither the Dolphins nor the Lady Bucs had ever experienced a conference title or an NCAA Tournament berth. ETSU grabbed the title that season with a three-point win in Nashville. As customary in boxing, the two combatants met one year later in a rematch. ETSU retained the belt with a 58-52 victory. A UNF upset in the 2010 Championship semifinals prevented third straight finals showdown.

After the one-year hiatus, the two found themselves bracketed on the same side. After dispensing of UNF, head coach Jill Dunn and the Dolphins earned their third shot at the Lady Bucs.

“They [had] gotten the best of us the past couple years, but I think we’re ready for it,” Dunn said in advance of Friday’s contest. “I [thought] this [was] the year that we [had] to do whatever we [could] to take them out. You aren’t going to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament without facing ETSU. We [knew] that day [was] coming and we [were] looking forward to it.”

The Dolphins jumped on the Lady Bucs early and built a 13-point first-half lead. However, as the contest moved into the later rounds, the Dolphins couldn’t deliver the knock-out punch. Slowly the Lady Bucs worked their way back into the game, even taking one lead, 57-56, with 1:25 left.

“They came in on a mission and they came in with a lot of emotion and passion,” ETSU head coach Karen Kemp said. “They took us out of everything we tried to do in the first half, so I give them all the credit for that.”

Instead of throwing in the towel, Jacksonville got a critical steal and lay-up by Jessica George to give JU back the lead with one minute remaining. Despite missed free throws in the waning seconds, the Dolphins exhaled in victory when a 3-point try at the buzzer by Jasmine McIntosh rimmed off.

“I am just extremely proud of pulling that game out,” Dunn said. “Obviously we have had a huge monkey on our back with ETSU for a couple of years now. From day one I thought that this was the team that could get it done and I just like they believe in themselves, they are playing with confidence really showed the past two days.”

Having cleared the hurdle of ETSU, 40 minutes stands between Jacksonville and that elusive NCAA bid.

Mercer's Surviving Seniors Send Bears to Semis

When Jeff Smith went down with a season-ending knee injury against Jacksonville on January 20, things looked bad for the Mercer Bears. When Brandon Moore went down with a season-ending leg injury of his own in the opening minutes at ETSU on January 31, things looked down right bleak.

But not to the two healthy seniors on the roster. Mark Hall and Brian Mills stared the challenge of losing two of the team’s most valuable pieces square in the face and turned it on its head. The duo lifted Mercer to seven wins in its last nine games and a spot in the 2011 General Shale Brick A-Sun Championship Semifinals with an impressive win against preseason favorite Lipscomb.

“We knew as seniors we would have to rally the troops and bring everyone together,” Mills said.

Both players described the opportunity that existed for the entire roster, a perspective that might have been lost on others.

“I just made sure that we let everyone know we all need to step up with two of our best scorers out,” commented Hall. “Brian and I talk all the time, but especially when B-Moore went down, we knew everyone would have to take advantage of their opportunity and step up. This is the opportunity everyone wants who is sitting on the bench, a chance to come in and make a difference.”

The victory at the expense of the Bisons - in front of a raucous crowd of over 2200 at the University Center - epitomized the impact the pair have had on their team. Hall scored the game’s first two baskets on aggressive drives to the basket, setting up the tone for the entire contest. Mills finished with 27 points and six boards, again shouldering the offensive burden.

“They have done a great job keeping us together. Our young guys have followed in stride,” stated head coach Bob Hoffman.

Mills has averaged over 19 points per game since the Smith injury and has become one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league over the last six weeks.

“He is a special guy. He has gotten into a rhythm and the guys are finding him in the right spots. Brian has put in countless hours to get to this point. When you see a guy put in that time and get a chance to get a return on his deposits, it is a real blessing,” Hoffman said.

Hall continues to turn in solid performances and sparks the team with tough baskets.

“Mark keeps doing things where I look at him and go ‘Mark, what are you doing?’,” reflected Hoffman. “He’s special. He really brought the energy to help get us get going at the start tonight and remained on point the whole game.”

While the team may rely on them, it sounds like they depend on each other.

“Mark is my wingman,” said Mills. “Sometimes I don’t get as vocal as I should, so he brings that. I told him tonight to make sure this wasn’t our last game and we did.”
Hall countered with praise for his teammate.

“He is the silent type, but he gets the job done. Brian will put you on his back and carry you if he has to.”

They will need another stellar outing on Friday when Mercer looks to eliminate A-Sun power Belmont from the conference championship for the second year in a row.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Full Nelson Return Sparks Belmont’s Resurgence

Belmont’s Haley Nelson entered the 2010-11 season fresh off a breakout season in which she averaged better than a double-double and landed on the Atlantic Sun’s Second-Team All-Conference squad. Her season got delayed three games, but quickly returned to form as she averaged 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds against Tennessee Tech and Central Arkansas.

Following a two-game dip in production, she ripped of a string of 11 straight double-figure scoring games, averaging 15.5 points in that span. Her streak came to an end with a seven-point outing against ETSU. She missed the next game, only to return against Stetson to score five points.

The Stetson contest would be the last action Nelson saw for two weeks. During that time, Belmont endured its longest losing streak in program history. It reached eight games leading up to a road contest at Campbell at a time when even Belmont’s standing for making the General Shale Atlantic Sun Championships was in doubt. Although she only scored five points in minutes of action, she grabbed seven rebounds and the anchored a defensive effort that limited the Camels to 33.3 percent shooting.

“I think if you look at us statistically, Haley Nelson is by far our player of the year,” Brittney Ezell, first-year head coach at Belmont said. “The way that she plays, the way that she competes, elevates our entire team. You can’t replace a player that has Haley’s talent level and passion.”

In close home losses to ETSU and USC Upstate, Nelson regained her scoring touch, averaging 14 points per game while shooting better than 57 point from the floor. In the final weekend of regular-season play, she led the Bruins to road wins at Mercer and Kennesaw State by averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds. The two wins elevated the Bruins up to the sixth seed and thus avoiding Stetson and ETSU in the quarterfinal round of the A-Sun Championship.

I have been calling her ‘Big T’ - it stands for Big Time,” Ezell said. “We tell her all the time, big time players make big time plays in big time games. And she has really asserted herself in that role.”

Back on the University Center floor for the second time in a week, Nelson keyed a defensive effort not seen before at the A-Sun Championships. The Bruins limited Campbell, who had scored 98 points in its most recent outing, to 42 points – the fewest points ever allowed in an A-Sun Championship game.

“We also tell them before the game, we don’t have stars we’re trying to build constellations at Belmont,” Ezell said. “We want a bunch of stars.”

If’s Nelson’s star continues to rise, Belmont could very well back in the A-Sun title game for the first time since 2007.

UNF Gains Respect and Rivalry with Win

Eleven attempts in the past five seasons came up empty for the UNF Ospreys men’s basketball team against the Jacksonville Dolphins. A four-point loss back in 2006 started UNF’s 11-game losing streak to JU.

During that span, UNF twice fell in overtime, lost by 20+ points twice and this season saw both games decided by just one bucket. The feelings around the UNF camp believed that the River City Rivalry was not necessarily a rivalry but more of a one-sided affair.

Then came the quarterfinal matchup between the two teams in the 2011 Atlantic Sun Conference Basketball Championship.

It marked the second appearance for UNF in the A-Sun Tournament after falling to the Dolphins in its inaugural appearance in the 2010 quarterfinals, but this year sophomore Jerron Granberry and the rest of the Ospreys broke through with a 68-64 victory to stop the slide to their crosstown foes and advance to the semifinals for the first time in program history.

“[The win] means we are moving forward as a program,” Granberry said. “Last year, we came in and almost were satisfied to be there, but this year we came here to win the A-Sun Championships as well as gain some respect across the league for UNF.”

Nearly perfect in the game, Granberry scored 23 on 7-of-8 shooting and 8-for-9 nine from the charity stripe to not only secure the comeback victory for the Ospreys, who trailed by six at the break, but also take the River City Rivalry to another level .

“It’s a rivalry now because it’s not a rivalry when they always beat us,” he said. “So now that we got a win the series is just going to be even better.”

With the program’s second win against Jacksonville and by knocking off the three seed in the championships, UNF has now accomplished one of their goals and with two more wins they can accomplish the second.

Dolphins Finish Off One Familiar Foe; Another Awaits

Separated by less than 15 miles, Jacksonville and UNF know each other quite well. Since joining the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2005, the Ospreys have faced the Dolphins more frequently, 14 times, than any other conference foe.

In their two regular-season meetings, Jacksonville lost both contests since the two became league rivals. Dating back to last season UNF had claimed the latest four contests, including a win the 2010 Championships – a game that denied Jacksonville a chance of making three consecutive title games.

Jacksonville exhibited a stifling effort the first 10 minutes of Thursday’s contest¸ forcing 16 misses on UNF’s first 18 attempts in building a 15-point first-half margin. Despite surrendering the lead in the closing stages of the second half, the defense turned up the intensity again and held on to a 56-52 victory

“We are very disappointed because we won the two games against them in the regular season, but they won the game that counts,” UNF head coach Mary Tappmeyer said.

Jacksonville advanced to the semifinals for the fifth-straight year. Only one other school in the conference boasts as impressive a streak. That team, Jacksonville’s opponent, ETSU, has also made the semifinal round every year since 2007. In three of those previous years, the Dolphins and Lady Buccaneers collided. In 2007, ETSU knocked out Jacksonville in the semifinal round. In both 2008 and 2009, they met in the title game with berths to the NCAA Tournament on the line. In both finals, ETSU emerged victorious and established itself as the class of the conference.

“[They play] a very physical game, a very up-tempo game and they do a tremendous job on the boards,” Jacksonville head coach Jill Dunn said. “They have been here the past three years so they have experience and confidence to know what it takes to get to the championship game.”

Like those two title games, ETSU snared both victories during this year’s regular season. Jacksonville held its own with the top seed, falling by seven at home and by 10 in Johnson City, Tenn.

“They have gotten the best of us the past couple years, but I think we’re ready for it,” Dunn said. “I think this is the year that we have got to do whatever we can to take them out. You aren’t going to win the Atlantic Sun Tournament without facing ETSU. We know that day is coming and we are looking forward to it.”

Dunn’s premonition came true and now her Dolphins have a chance to flip the script of years past.

Smith and Bucs Experience Prevail in the End

Late in the game there is no doubt who is going to make plays for the ETSU Buccaneers. Against Campbell Wednesday night, Mike Smith, the unanimous Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year, contributed on the last 13 points for the Bucs with 11 points and a spectacular assist for an Isiah Brown dunk.

The fifth-year senior averaged 16.9 points per outing this season, but the most important play he made in the quarterfinal showdown against the Camels came on the defensive end. With ETSU up by one and Campbell clinging to a chance to upset the second-seeded Bucs, Smith came away with a steal from Camels point guard Junard Hartley to clinch the fifth-straight semifinal appearance for the team from Johnson City.

“I’m one of the leaders of this team so I just wanted to play great for them and the team got the ball into my hands late and I just tried to make plays to help us win. With the game on the line at the end I needed to step up and I was in the right place at the right time and came away with the steal.”

The steal, one of four for Smith on the night, complete an all-around game for the Vandalia, Mo., native, who finished with 24 points, six rebounds and three assists.

As great as Smith was in the game for the Bucs, he did not carry them on his own as fellow seniors Micah Williams added nine points and seven rebounds, while Brown, a junior, added seven points, eight rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

“When you have seniors that have been here before in these kind of situations and have been to the NCAA (Tournament) it’s great for your confidence to have that experience and it really helps your momentum in the tournament.”

The Bucs, who have won their last seven A-Sun Championship games, now face the winner of the River City showdown between No. 3 Jacksonville and No. 6 UNF, who play at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. Whomever the opponent, Smith and ETSU will be ready for their next opponent at the beginning of the game and at the end.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hatter Turnaround Moves One Step Closer to Completion

When you ask the Stetson Hatters about producing one of the nation’s top turnarounds since last year, they get a little defensive.

OK … a lot defensive. The Hatters point to the team’s defensive effort as the key to improving from six wins a year ago to 18 wins and a spot in the General Shale Brick A-Sun Championship semifinals on Friday afternoon.

“Our defensive intensity and our hard work in practice have made a big difference,” commented Tierra Brown. “Our commitment to defense really kicked in at the first of January and that has even helped our offense follow suit.”

Stetson’s shut-down performance against Kennesaw State in Wednesday night’s 65-47 quarterfinal victory certainly made the difference. The Hatters limited KSU to just 26 percent shooting for the game including a frigid 3-for-17 from the three-point arc. Throw in 20 forced turnovers and Stetson never trailed, cruising to its first tournament victory since claiming the title in 2005.

“I think we have played well. You can’t deny our body of work throughout the year,” stated third-year head coach Lynn Bria. “We want to be good defensively. We sold the kids on it and they bought into it. I told them before the year that if we play hard and play together that we’d win a lot of games.”

This team is not a one-trick pony, however. The Hatters rank second in the A-Sun in field goal percentage and shot a blistering 51 percent from the floor against Kennesaw State. Brown shouldered most of the load. The senior set a new A-Sun Championship record by drilling all five of her 3-point attempts on the way to a career-high 25 points.

“I know the end is near so I’ve been practicing and playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” said Brown

Now she has a day’s rest as she and the rest of the team prepares for their next opportunity for a statement: a match-up with either No. 3 Campbell or No. 6 Belmont with a berth in the championship game on the line.

Bruins Learn Lesson from Rival Bisons to Advance

For the second-straight General Shale Brick Atlantic Sun Men’s Basketball Conference Championship, the event opened with a regular-season champion from Nashville facing Kennesaw State as the eighth seed.

A year ago, the Owls stunned Lipscomb, costing the Bisons a postseason opportunity. Kennesaw State opened Wednesday’s first half with intentions of repeating its upset ways, taking a 23-16 lead against the favored Bruins.

True to their ways, however, the Bruins turned their depth and the 3-point shot to flip the lead and close the half up seven. Four different players hit 3-pointers and eight total players scored over the final 6:30 of the first half as the Bruins scored 19 of the final 24 points of the opening stanza to take a 35-28 lead.

The Bruins pushed the lead to 10 early in the second half and never saw their led dip back into single digits over the final 17 minutes as they advanced to the semifinals with a 72-57 win.

“Coached talked about 1-8 game and I believe that when you get to the tournament it’s 0-0,” All-Atlantic Sun guard Ian Clark said. “It doesn’t matter what your record was before hand. Anybody can win and Kennesaw knew that coming out last year and I am pretty sure they had [Lipscomb’s loss] it in mind this year.”

Head coach Rick Byrd turned to one of his favorite hobbies to find the proper analogy when describing Kennesaw State’s early effort.

“You are always told as a golfer you expect your opponent to make the putt that way you are not surprised,” Byrd, the A-Sun’s Coach of the Year said. “And that is what I told them. We need to expect their best shot and we need to expect them to play well.”

Belmont’s next opponents shouldn’t offer up any surprises. The Bruins will face either long-time rival Lipscomb or the host Mercer, a school they faced and beat last week, in the semifinals. The Bisons and Bears own the last two defeats of the Bruins. Mercer ended Belmont’s 2010 season at the A-Sun Championships and Lipscomb handed Belmont its lone conference loss of the season.