Sunday, September 30, 2012

LInda Hamilton and North Florida Ready for More Success

There are only a couple of things that Linda Hamilton hasn’t achieved in her exceptional career as a player, ambassador for and coach of women’s soccer.

One was to win an Olympic medal. Hamilton has medals as a member of World Cup teams for Team USA, has been inducted into soccer halls of fame, has been an ambassador overseas for women’s soccer and has taken countless opportunities to grow and teach the game of soccer with young women as their coach. But she wasn’t able to play long enough to see her Olympic dream come true.

“I would love to have an Olympic medal, but I guess I was just a bit ahead of our time. But I certainly don’t live from regret at all,” says Hamilton. “I wouldn’t give back the gold or the bronze medals from the World Cup, and to have accomplished all that I have I am certainly blessed.”

Hamilton’s career accomplishments are impressive. She spent fall 2006 as an assistant women's soccer coach at Hofstra University in New York and previously served as head coach at Old Dominion University in Virginia from 1993-95. She was also head coach and director of player development for the Richmond (Va.) Strikers Soccer Club from 1997-2006.

She also knows something about success on the field, having played at the highest levels of competitive soccer - both in college and internationally. Hamilton's impressive playing career includes an eight-year stint on the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team from 1987-95 as a defender and marking back, when she appeared in 82 international games. She was a starter for two World Cup teams that earned medals - the 1991 gold-medal squad and the 1995 bronze-medal team.

While playing for the U.S. National team, Hamilton capped her collegiate career in 1990 as a member of the University of North Carolina squad that won the fifth of nine consecutive NCAA titles. She spent the first three years of her college career at N.C. State before transferring to play for the Tar Heels. Hamilton was a four-time All-American, four-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection and was runner-up for the national player of the year in each of her final three collegiate seasons. She was also named the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in 1988 while playing for N.C. State.

Now for Hamilton, her other unachieved goal is a pressing one – the development of her North Florida Ospreys into an A-Sun Championship team. When North Florida brought her on board in February of 2007, one of Hamilton’s main goals was to propel the program into the hunt for its first A-Sun Championship.

In her fifth season with North Florida, she has her team playing well and in the hunt for a place in the 2012 A-Sun Championship, tied for second with the cross-town rival Dolphins at 2-0-1 with seven points and just two behind A-Sun leader Florida Gulf Coast.

The Ospreys’ matchup with Jacksonville Friday night was an opportunity to stay ahead of the pack in the conference race and keep the pressure on defending champion FGCU, and for 83 minutes they did just that. But a game-tying goal by JU in the 83rd minute evened the match at 1-1, and after two overtime periods JU and UNF remained tied in the A-Sun standings.

“I love the rivalry with Jacksonville, it is fun to have a matchup like this in the same city. Typically we have this game at the end of the year, not at the beginning, but hopefully we can continue to establish something early and continue to build on it.”

So while it wasn’t a win Friday evening for North Florida, the tie provided a valuable point and another step in the right direction for the program. North Florida entered the season looking to erase the memory of coming close last season before falling to defending champion FGCU 2-1 in the 2011 A-Sun Championship semifinals.

“This is a difficult sport in which to have instant success,” says Hamilton. “We knew that our first couple of years would be spent getting a feel for everything. We were close last year, and just experienced a tragic end to the season,” Hamilton continues. “They can still taste that loss to FGCU, and they are playing like they are on a mission this year because of it this season.”

North Florida is the A-Sun leader in shots, averaging 20.67 per game. The Ospreys are also among the top three teams in the conference in points (6.67/game), goals (2.33/game), assists (2.00/game), and corners (7.67/game). Carolina Lencina is among the A-Sun leaders in shots (4.67/game), goals (0.67/game) and teammates Thea Linkfield and Lauren Hopfensperger are first (1.00/game) and third (0.67/game) in assists, respectively.

“We are off to a good start, but of course the most important thing right now is getting enough points to get into the A-Sun Championship. The JU game was certainly a valuable one, but it was not the whole season. We have seven games left, and each one is a chance to get three points.”

The Ospreys have already played in four overtime or double overtime games this season, and have battled back in two of the last three games from behind for wins. UNF has also faced tough non-conference competition in the form of No. 6 UCF and Clemson. Hamilton appreciates the spirit of this team, one that never quits, and relies on a close-knit group of six seniors to lead a team that in many respects has taken on the personality of its coach.

“We have faced adversity already this year, but our kids are finding a way to battle,” says Hamilton. “For me it is very important in every game to put them in a position to be competitive. This team never gives up. It is not about mistakes, it is about how you react to those mistakes. It takes hard work to win championships. The big question is ‘what are you willing to do – to be a teammate, to fill a role, to do whatever it takes.

“Because of that spirit, I am seeing a lot of maturity from this team,” says Hamilton. “This is a great senior class that has really come through. It is my first class that we’ve had for all four years, and that is special because they are the ones that bought in at first, choosing here to come and build something.”

Hamilton’s experience at all levels of the game provides her a unique opportunity to understand, relate to and communicate valuable insight to her team in a way that many coaches cannot.

“I think one of the things that comes with my experience and with what I have been able to accomplish in the sport is that I can have tough conversations with my team, because they can relate to me,” she says.

Her approach is also one that seeks and fosters a tremendous unity, a closeness that transcends the wins and losses. She believes that is an integral component to her team’s success.

“One thing that I took away from my all of my experiences and that I want this team to do as well is to take away great memories. I want this team to be like many that I was on in my career, one that is an environment that feels like family. This team is like that, they are close.”

The Ospreys remain at home for the next two matches, the next against A-Sun leader FGCU on Oct. 5. Hamilton has her team battling, playing with the grit and tenacity that she typified during her legendary career. And she likes it.

“I would hope that this team is viewed like I was as a player – hard working, blue collar, and dangerous at any moment.”

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Digging Deep for Success: North Florida's Nicole Baran and Mercer's Emily Rochefort

For the third consecutive week, North Florida’s Nicole Baran and Mercer’s Emily Rochefort occupy positions in rarified air.

Last week, the duo ranked second and fifth, respectively, in the nation in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball statistical rankings for digs per set. Baran averaged 5.91, while Rochefort was just below that at 5.83. The week prior in the first rankings of 2012, both ranked among the top collegiate players in the country, Baran at No. 13 and Rochefort at No. 30.

This week, although dropping a bit to No. 7 and No. 12, the pair brings additional significance to their rankings as they grant the Atlantic Sun Conference the distinction of being the only Division I conference to have two players ranked among the top 12 players nationally in digs. The A-Sun also has multiple teams in the Top 20 in digs, as Rochefort's Bears check in at No. 2, Baran's Ospreys at No. 9 along with USC Upstate at No. 19.

Along with excelling in their roles, their contributions have extended into helping their teams to win streaks of four or more matches this season. Rochefort’s Bears won four straight in a string from Sept. 15-21 that included opening wins in conference over ETSU and Stetson. Mercer now sits at 2-1 in A-Sun play, tied for third with Northern Kentucky and Kennesaw State. 

Baran’s Ospreys won seven straight from Sept. 7 to Sept. 15, which included sweeps of the Radisson/North Florida Invitational and the Winthrop Classic tournaments. North Florida has dropped its first two conference matches of the season, the first to Northern Kentucky, who is tied with the Ospreys in third, and to three-time defending champion Lipscomb, who leads the A-Sun at 3-0.

For Baran, this season’s success will be the culmination to a wonderful career. To first-year coach Steve Loeswick, the senior's experience and talent is of great benefit, allowing him to focus and shore up other parts of his team knowing that Baran is taking care of her responsibilities.

Nicole has been our libero for a few years and she's an outstanding passer and defender,” says Loeswick. "She is one of the more fiery players I have seen in a while at the libero position. She is a very competitive player and a great leader, and is someone who is not afraid to challenge her teammates when it's necessary.

"She worked hard to prepare herself for her final year and she is playing very well for us.
We knew that we would be a defensive-minded team, and so it is nice as a coach to have someone you can count on that is taking care of their half of the court like Nicole."

She has played in every indoor match and led the team every year in digs since joining the Ospreys in 2009. Last season she finished with the second highest single season dig total in school history (503) and became just the seventh player in school history to record more than 1,000 digs in her career. She has finished in the top five of the A-Sun in digs the last two seasons, and last spring she helped North Florida claim the inaugural A-Sun Sand Volleyball Championship. Off the court, she has also earned All-Academic honors the past three seasons. Baran is also currently in seventh place in A-Sun history with 1,581 career digs, and is 36 away from becoming North Florida's all-time digs leader.

In 2012, Baran has earned Player of the Week Honors (9/17), Tournament MVP honors (Winthrop Classic, 9/14-15) and leads the A-Sun in digs with 310 (5.74 per set), followed in second by none other than Rochefort with 268 (5.58 per set). She holds all of the Ospreys’ season highs, including the season high of 33 in the five-set win over Davidson (9/8). The Player of the Week honor is a microcosm of what she is providing, and Loeswick appreciates what Baran is accomplishing this season. 

“It's not often that a libero gets a weekly honor, but Nicole is an excellent player who had an outstanding week,” said Loeswick. “Thirty-dig matches are tough to come by. To get two in the same weekend speaks to the strength of her defensive ability.” 

Junior Emily Rochefort is a contrast to Baran, as she began her career with the Bears as a walk-on. First-year coach Damian Elder got his first glimpse of Rochefort during Mercer’s inaugural sand volleyball season in spring 2012, and knew he would be counting on her for the future.

“Literally the first conversation I had about a player involved placing Emily on scholarship,” says Elder. “I did it because she assured me that she would be the hardest working player on the team, and she has been. The success she has enjoyed from a statistical perspective is a bit of a surprise, not because she doesn’t have the talent to do what she is doing, but because as a first-year coach I didn’t know what to expect from her.”

Prior to this season, Rochefort had seen action in a total of 30 matches in two seasons, earning three starts. Last year she topped 100 digs for the first time, finishing the year with 136. She tallied 10 or more digs on five occasions and finished the year strong with five straight matches of five or more. She also competed as a member of Mercer’s inaugural sand volleyball team, partnering with teammate Caroline Carlton as Mercer’s No. 3 pairing. Twice she also has been named an A-Sun All-Academic honoree.

This season she trails only Baran in digs per set in the A-Sun, has recorded nearly a third of the Bears' assists, and recorded four of the team's five season highs in digs, including a 43-dig effort in Mercer's victory over North Carolina A&T on Sept. 15. As Rochefort continues to shine with her play this season, Elder says what she brings to this team is much more than what is necessarily seen on the stat sheet.

“She is all about the team,” Elder says. “You get nothing from her that isn’t sacrifice for the team. She throws her body around to make digs and she is a player that would literally run through a brick wall if it means making the team better.

“Along with her digs, there are other things like assists, passing and leadership that she provides to make our team successful. She embodies something that is making this current team successful that I think Mercer teams lacked in the past, and we are very fortunate to have her.”

By the numbers they are among the nation’s best, but the contributions from Nicole Baran and Emily Rochefort are much more than about statistics. They are leaders, they are competitors, and they are valuable team members who dig deep to lead their teams to success.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hart and NKU: The Secret(s) to Our Success


Success seems to follow Liz (Holmes) Hart.

Or, perhaps she is the catalyst for it.

It was only five years ago that NKU volleyball and Hart were having a big year. As a senior at NKU, she was named Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the Year, Great Lakes Region Player of the Year and the GLVC Scholar-Athlete of the Year for volleyball. Hart, then Liz Holmes, also led NKU to a 26-9 record and helped the Norse secure a berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament. She later was named to both the AVCA and Daktronics All-America first teams.

She finished her career as NKU’s all-time leader in kills with 1,850, and she led the GLVC in hitting percentage her final three years. In addition, Holmes finished seventh all-time in NKU history with 1,191 career digs and second in block assists with 291.
Hart was also later named the GLVC’s 2007-08 Woman of the Year. She also earned an NCAA postgraduate scholarship and was a four-time member of the GLVC All-Academic squad and named the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the Year.
Liz Holmes was an award-winning player for NKU.

Now in her second season as head coach at Northern Kentucky, Norse volleyball is enjoying another big season. NKU is off to one of the best starts in NCAA history for a team in its first season of transition to D-I, along with the best start in the A-Sun since Florida Atlantic jumped out to a 15-0 start in 2005. The Norse, now 11-1, has two tournament titles this season and the Norse handed Hart her 50th win on Friday night and they continue to dominate their competition. NKU volleyball has been stretched to five sets only once this season, that in its 3-2 loss to Manhattan on Sept. 8 at the Harvard Invitational.

So what is the recipe for success for Hart and NKU?

“I think one of the biggest reasons for the success of this team is due to our experience,” says Hart. “We have six seniors who have started since they were freshmen. They are a group that is mentally tough, that plays with a lot of pride and that is extremely competitive.

“We have been down by as many as 12 points this year, but this team continues to come back, where in the past we didn’t. This team’s mentality is one of ‘never die.’”

Seven of NKU’s 11 victories have come in straight sets, and as a team the Norse lead the A-Sun in Hitting Pct. (.248), Assists (13.33/set), Kills (14.51/set), and Service Aces (2.13/set). Individually, Jenna Ruble and Jenna Schreiver lead the conference in Hitting Pct. (.398) and Assists (11.77/set), respectively. Schreiver is leader among that unique group of seniors upon whom Hart and the team relies, a group that represents more than 60 percent of the team’s kills, assists, service aces and digs.

“Jenna Schreiver, our setter, is extremely competitive and a very smart player. Shelby Bushcur is strong in ball control and a smart hitter as well. Haley Lippert is our power hitter – she will bang it as hard as she can. Kylee Tarantino transferred in two years ago and has had a great impact on the team. And Gennie Galfano is a talented outside hitter and a tremendous athlete.”
Jenna Schreiver (7) is one of six senior leaders for the Norse.

Led by the examples and play from its seniors, Hart says her team continues to get better and improve as a team. While there have been few occasions this season in which the Norse have struggled, it is obvious that her reputation and her success precedes her. Her team believes in its coach and in what she continues to instill in them on a daily basis.

“We are getting better and improving every single day, playing as a team, and that has been a big part of our season to this point,” says Hart. “We have a great synergy because I can relate to them,
I know what they are thinking, and can verbalize to them in a way that can relate to what needs to be done.”

As the Norse volleyball program continues its meteoric beginning in Division I, it is not by accident. Despite NKU’s recent history of success at the Division II level, Hart knew that the transition period to the next level would be filled with ups and downs. She worked to prepare her team in the spring by getting work against solid Division I teams in the spring, posting acceptable results and giving her experience team a shot in the arm as it readied itself for its historic season.

“We were really excited about moving to Division I and having the opportunity to play in the A-Sun,” says Hart. “This university has a lot to give, and it is wonderful for us to have the chance to play at the highest level and show that we can compete.

“There will be ups and downs, but I am not surprised at how we are playing,” says Hart. “We played good teams in the spring and finished .500 against them. That provided a real confidence boost for us, because it was a little unexpected at that point.

What we have to guard against now is what I think happened to us against Manhattan. Taking nothing away from their effort, I think that is what happened with Manhattan. We thought we would just walk out there and get a win. In the long term that was a good loss for us. It reemphasized that they need to work hard every day.”

Hart acknowledges that what she and her team is accomplishing is important and that it holds s special place in the program’s history, but stresses that she and the team do not discuss the implications of their 11-1 beginning.

“We don’t talk about it. It is a nice stat to have, but it doesn’t mean anything until the end of the season. But with this much experience on the team, there is no doubt in my mind that they know and have probably talked about it,” she says chuckling.

NKU plays its last non-conference match of the weekend Saturday at 5 p.m. against Akron in the Bulldogs Invitational in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Then comes the new season, as the Norse open their A-Sun schedule with a three-game home stand in Regents Hall against three-time defending Lipscomb, North Florida and Jacksonville.

“You know, there is nothing like opening with (three-time defending A-Sun Champion) Lipscomb to curtail those discussions. It will be a learning experience for us, because we play everyone for the first time. We don’t know about the other teams. But the unknown will keep them working hard.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What Achievement in the A-Sun was the Most Notable in August?

Crons sponsors the monthly "Achiever Award," which is presented to the school recognized by a fan vote for the most notable achievement from the month prior. Below are the descriptions of each submission, along with the poll in the right-hand sidebar.

Jean Rivaroli, North Florida Men’s Soccer
The Atlantic Sun Men’s Soccer Player of the Week (Aug. 27), Rivaroli leads the Ospreys in scoring with five points and two goals scored. The freshman scored the first goal of the season against Siena and provided an assist for the game-winner by Teddy Mulamba in the season opener. He scored a goal against FIU and was named to the Mike Gibbs Memorial All-Tournament Team.

ETSU Women’s Soccer
The ETSU women’s soccer team tied its best start in program history posting a perfect 4-0-0 record in August. The Lady Bucs began the season on the road with a 2-0 shutout of Tennessee Tech, followed by a 2-1 overtime victory at UNC Asheville. In its home opener, ETSU won its second straight overtime game, 3-2, over Presbyterian, and completed the weekend sweep with a 1-0 shutout of defending Big South champion Radford. Freshman goalkeeper Sierra Campbell was named A-Sun Defensive Player of the Week on Aug. 20, and junior striker Ramey Kerns followed with her second career A-Sun Player of the Week honors on Aug. 27.

Jacksonville Men's Basketball
The JU Men’s Basketball team spent time during the month of August serving overseas and in the community. On Aug. 12-17, the team spent week in the Dominican Republic visiting kids at an orphanage and people in a sugar cane field. They handed out 8-10 bags of clothes donated by the JU community and bought food and other items with some of the donations. The team did without their phones for the week so they could learn to truly appreciate what they had and learn more about their teammates. The squad learned more about each other through the nightly devotions from their hosts from Nation of Coaches and Score International. In another service endeavor, the team spent their lunch today volunteering to work at in the garden of the Northside Early Head Start Center.

Anthi Chatzigiakoumi, FGCU Women’s Basketball
FGCU women’s basketball sophomore forward Anthi Chatzigiakoumi got to represent her home country and FGCU this summer, as she helped the U-20 Greek National Team claim the 2012 European Championships in the Czech Republic. Chatzigiakoumi averaged 31.6 minutes per game in the eight games of the European Championships, while averaging 7.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. She ranked in the top 20 in eight different statistical categories, helping Greece defeat host Czech Republic in the title game. It was Chatzigiakoumi’s seventh European Championship as a member of the Greek team.
Lipscomb Softball
The Lipscomb University Softball team took a mission trip to Honduras August 6-13. There they worked in conjunction with Mission Lazarus on several initiatives including laying the foundation for a house in San Marcos de Colon, making food deliveries to remote, mountainous areas near the Nicaraguan border and playing with children. By the end of the week, the team had moved more than 350 cubic yards of dirt and rock one wheelbarrow at a time.

Lauren Gassie, Mercer Women's Soccer 
Leading the Bears with 6 points (2g, 2a) Gassie is tied for third in the conference in total points. She has one game winner and leads the team in both shots (9) and shots on goal (6).

As the Official Motivation and Apparel Brand of the Atlantic Sun Conference, the Crons Brand provides what it calls “high quality motivational apparel, merchandise, and accessories to inspire people to get better and constantly strive for their goals.” It also strives to reinforce positive messages to athletes about what it takes to be a winner and the importance of working harder than anyone else in order to reach their full potential. Crons communicates this message through four separate product categories: Team Gear, Lifestyle Apparel, Nutritional Products, and School Programs. Crons is a national brand with its message-themed and motivational merchandise and apparel already in use by more than 500 schools and organizations in 25 states.

Crons perpetuates its message through its Achievers Program, designed to teach students the importance of setting and achieving goals. The program focuses on fostering skills that will help young people set smart, measurable goals now and in the future – leading to academic, personal and professional success.