Saturday, November 17, 2012

Enough was Enough for A-Sun Champ ETSU

There is no question that ETSU volleyball has enjoyed it share of success in the last few years. But there was that last obstacle, a hurdle that brought the Bucs to the point of, "Enough is Enough."

The Bucs have been in the A-Sun Volleyball Championship semifinals in five of the last six years. They played for a title two years ago, falling in five sets to Lipscomb. They have had recorded more than 23 wins in two of the last three seasons, and this year they have nice non-conference wins over Marshall, Charlotte, Akron, and Temple along with 13 wins over A-Sun opponents.

But, particularly in the A-Sun Championship, after a while being so close just doesn't cut it.

The Bucs released some of that frustration in the fifth set against North Florida on Saturday, jumping out to a 6-0 and leading 9-2 before winning the set 15-12.

"There were really calm today, there was a great sense of confidence from everybody," said ETSU head Coach Lindsey Devine. "To get here is a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work, and the girls realized that there are a lot of people who have supported us and counted on us, and we don't want to let anybody down."

"Now that we have gotten to this point, it is a belief that everyday that you look at scouting reports or you bring a recruit in or work hard with the team, everyday is worth it. For me personally it is the culmination of a lot of time, work, but really no more than anyone else in this program has done, from the players, staff, athletic department, trainers, etc. It is everyone wanting the same thing."

In 2010 the Bucs lost to Lipscomb in five sets in the championship final. But this year, Devine says that even when the match stretched again to a fifth set, the look in the eyes of this team was not of one that was going to lose.

"A part of me was thinking, 'Ok, I've been here, and Megan has been here, but no one else has. They have heard about the last final, but they weren't a part of it. When I looked into their faces, I just saw this look of 'we've come so far, we are not going to hand it over.' Regardless of the outcome we were going to battle, and put it all out on the floor."

This has also been a special year for Devine's daughter Megan. She began the season as the A-Sun Preseason Player of the Year, then claimed the honor just a week ago. She has been ranked among the nation's top 50 most of the season in kills and points per set, and tonight along with earning Tournament MVP honors, she helped her team get the monkey off her back.

"This is an unbelievable feeling, just to be back her again and get that win and to be a part of this ETSU team," said Megan Devine. When the match went to a fifth set, Megan's thoughts did not drift to the 2010 loss, but rather reflected a mindset that seemingly has pervaded this team all season.

"I thought the same thing that we've thought all year – we can do this, we just have to put our mind to it. We took it point by point. UNF is playing as a great team, but when we play our game we are unstoppable."

Loeswick's Ospreys Flying High by Staying Grounded

North Florida Head Coach Steve Loeswick is settling in nicely in his first year on the job.

In his first few months on the job at North Florida, Loeswick led the Ospreys to the inaugural A-Sun Sand Volleyball championship and was named A-Sun Coach of the Year.

Fast forward a few more months, and he once again has his North Florida team in position to claim another A-Sun title. On the job not even a year, and he has the potential for two A-Sun championships.

Loeswick is one of three first-year head coaches in the Atlantic Sun Conference. He has enjoyed the most early success of the trio, due in large part of the team that he inherited.

"I knew we had a talented group," he says. "I thought it was going to come down to us being able to put the pieces together and for everyone to stay grounded and be focused on the 'team-first' mentality. It took a while for me to get everyone on board, but once we did the team started playing really well."

Out of the gate the Ospreys were 1-5, but UNF picked up come momentum with a seven-game win streak just prior to the start of the A-Sun season. However, through the first half of the conference season, things turned south and Loeswick and North Florida went 3-6. 

"There was a team meeting about midseason, and we just had a heart-to-heart," Loeswick says. "I asked them to recommit to our philosophies and I told them what I thought it would take for us to be a championship team."

Whatever he listed as his keys to success, the team again bought in and the season began to turn. Since the loss to ETSU on Oct. 13, the Ospreys have won 11 of their last 12 games and are currently on an eight-match win streak.

So what is making the difference?

"We have been more aggressive recently, serving aggressively and getting people out of their system, which helps our defense out," says Loeswick. "I think our passing and our defense are our strong points. I have a lot of seniors who help take care of that, so I am a little scared for next year.

"But this whole season has been a long process, and the goal all season has been to play the best that we can in the next opportunity that we play. I am grateful that we get to play another match."

Apart from the Xs and Os of the game, Loeswick has also set out to change the culture and the outlook of the team by his approach to building relationships with his players, not just coaching them. It is an approach that stuck with him from his days as an assistant to Fran Flory at LSU.

"My personality is to care about the girls, to care about them as people and care about the choices that they make," he says. "I think that once they understood that our staff cares about them, then they gave us all that they had. This group has matured on and off the court more than any other team that I have coached.

"Coach Flory is a down-to-earth, very good person who cares about the kids that come through the program. She understands that sometimes hard decisions are necessary to help someone make good choices, and to become the best person that they can be. I really took to that philosophy and still hold to it today."

The season has certainly not come without challenges, and Loeswick admits that he is still in a bit of a learning curve.

"You can always second-guess yourself at points, like in some matches I didn't quite handle things the way I would have liked or made a different decision in a match here and there.

"The biggest thing that I have had to learn is the amount of off-the-court stuff that head coach has to take care of," says Loeswick. "I have lots of the team in the office at some point every day, and we are usually not talking about volleyball, but talking about school, about making good choices, and trying to help them become better people."

Loeswick has certainly made his group of players a better team, a team that just knocked off the regular season champion and that has a chance to secure another title of its own. Given how successful his approach has been to building and leading his team this season, what will his approach be in the program's first ever indoor championship final?

"We are not going to go out tomorrow and try and win a match," he says. "We are just going to go out and try to play the best that we can. Hopefully we will bring home a championship.

Friday, November 16, 2012

ETSU Senior Kayla Williams Makes Her Point

Five minutes was all that she asked for, but the impact that she made will likely last much longer.

ETSU senior Kayla Williams had a point to make, and ironically she made it with a pencil.

Prior to the Bucs' match with three-time defending A-Sun Champion Lipscomb, Williams petitioned her coach for some time with her teammates to share an object lesson that she believed could provide her team an extra boost.

Williams handed a #2 pencil to every member of the team, coaches included, complete with a particular message for each one of them. She explained to them that their individual pencil represented them as an individual, and then instructed them to break them. How easily they broke, she explained, is how easily each one of them could be broken.

The next object was a bundle of 13 pencils, wrapped in rubber bands. One set of rubber bands was pink and the other normal, but they could serve as a reminder of the message she was about to deliver. She then passed along the bundle of pencils to each teammate, explaining how it represented their team and challenged anyone to break the bundle. No one could do it. 

The team could not be broken. Message delivered.

"A former coach told me about  the idea, and I really liked it," says Williams. "I thought it fit our team really well. It has been a bumpy road to get here,and I felt like it would give us a boost."

The Bucs did seem particularly energized on Friday evening, as they fought from a set down to win the next three and defeat the Bisons on their home floor. It was only the second victory for the Bucs over the Bisons in their last 11 matches, a win that Head Coach Lindsey Devine says was long overdue.

"This team had basically had enough," says Devine. "After the loss in the 2010 championship and our five-set loss that kept us out of last year's championship, we basically committed ourselves to the fact that something had to be done.

"We started planning in January. This team is very driven, not that other teams don't work hard. But there is a fire burning and a will to win in this team that has gotten them to this point."

Devine also has a real appreciation for her senior's initiative.

"She wanted five minutes, and when a captain and senior asks for something like that you give it to her," says Devine. "She is so mature, and such a stable force, especially this year. She gave them something to grasp onto, something meaningful. These kids care so much about what we are about - team, family, hard work. 

"This is the expectation of every coach when they start the season, to be in the finals. This team has possessed the belief all season that we would be here."

Williams was not on the team that lost in the final two years ago, but she was watching in preparation for her transfer from Frank Phillips College to ETSU. She is looking forward to being part of the team that she felt would win a championship.

"I thought if they could see something visually, it would remind them about the message of team," said Williams. "I asked everyone if they thought it was lame, and everyone really liked it. I thnk it helped get us extra motivated.

"I am so excited to be in this situation. We feel like this is our time. We want to prove to ourselves that we can do it and we have taken it one step at a time."

Devine is in step with her senior leader, and knows that her team has taken a big step forward thanks in part to Williams' inspiration.

"The significance of what she did is amazing, because she is so in tune with her team," says Devine. "It is awesome that a captain can see that, and she is so insightful. We have come up a little short a few times, and this team has finally said, 'enough is enough. We can do it.'"

Pridegon and Baran Enjoying Their Team Now More Than Ever

North Florida’s win over Jacksonville on Thursday was hardly one of the better games by a pair of impressive seniors.

For Paige Pridgeon and Nicole Baran, however, the only numbers that mattered were 3-0.

For the last two seasons North Florida has participated in the A-Sun Volleyball championship as the No. 6 seed, and has been eliminated in the first round in both opportunities.

But this year is different. North Florida is one of the hottest teams in the A-Sun, and Pridgeon and Baran are leading the charge.

Pridgeon, a member of the A-Sun All-Conference First Team, entered the championship as the active career leader and fourth overall in career kills in the A-Sun (1,548). This season she became the third player in UNF history to total 1,000 kills & 1,000 digs in career.

She is one of only two players in the A-Sun with over 400 kills this season, and she is fifth in the A-Sun in overall kills per set (3.43) and in A-Sun only matches (3.61). She has recorded double-digit kills in 25 matches this season, including 10-or-more kills in UNF's last 19 matches. In eight of her last nine matches she has tallied a double-double, and sports a total of 17 for the year.

“This year I think we did a really good job of being a team,” said Pridgeon. “Our focus was to stay together all season, being there for each other and being supportive of each other, and we definitely peaked at the right time.”

Peaking is a good choice of words. The Ospreys are in the semifinals for the first time in program history. North Florida has won seven straight, and 10 of their last 11. In fact, they had the best second half of the A-Sun season by any member institution.

It is certain that the message of playing as a team was the point of emphasis this season, a mantra that its leaders bought into completely.

“This is a great step for us, and it is all because we started playing as a team,” said Baran. “We realized that we have to rely on everyone, that everyone is not always going to have a great game. People are going to struggle sometimes, but as long as we play 14 strong, we’ll be fine. We just work hard every day and push each other.”

This season was particularly enjoyable for Baran. She became UNF's all-time career digs leader, is the A-Sun's active leader for career digs (1,851), and ranks third all-time. This season is her second in which she tallied 500+ digs in a single season. Baran set a new single-season digs record at UNF and her 580 digs are the most in the A-Sun. She won Player of the Week honors, was a tournament MVP and she was chosen as the A-Sun Libero of the Year. So in what regard does she hold all of that success?

“The accolades and recognition is nice to have individually, but our main goal is still to win the championship as a team,” says Baran. “It is nice to be recognized, but we could not have done it without our teammates and our coaches.”

Loeswick inherited a solid team, led by two seniors who provide him the leadership and support that he needed as a first-year coach.

“Nicole runs the show in the back row,” said Loeswick. “She gets us where we need to be, because to play well and win we need to be our system. She is very emotional and a very vocal leader. She is the heart and soul of this team.

Paige leads in a different way, more through example. She works hard and is able to make some great pays for us with her athletic ability.”

So the Ospreys are flying into uncharted territory, but not into something that wasn’t expected by Pridgeon, Baran or Loeswick.

“We thought we would have a nice season, but I am excited about their growth as individuals and as a team. We have been in difficult situations and we wanted to see how they would handle that. Knowing how to get through those times are important for us to continue to pay at a high level.”

“Making it this far in the championship is certainly something that I will take away from this season,” said Pridgeon. “It is good to know that we are leaving with this team going in the right direction.

“Obviously we haven’t made it this far since I have been here, and it is a great accomplishment, but none of us could have done it without each other and without our coaches. Being here is what we expected when we began the season. And now we just have to take the next game as it comes.”

So what does this dynamic duo say is of the utmost importance on Friday?

“Stay focused, play as a team.”

Thursday, November 15, 2012

For a Quartet of ETSU Volleyballers, Home is Where the Heart Is

For Megan Devine, Jamie Rutledge, Ivey Rice and Meredith Hardy, East Tennessee State University truly is the home team.

Yes, the quartet hails from either ETSU’s home of Johnson City, Tenn., or Kingsport, Tenn., a 30-minute drive from the ETSU campus. But playing collegiate volleyball is not where the relationship that Bucs Head Coach Lindsey Devine explains as “sister-like” began.

Megan and Jamie began their friendship in seventh and eighth grade, playing club volleyball for the Kingsport Volleyball Club. Meredith Hardy soon joined them, and they all attended the same high school.

Ivey Rice was the on the outside looking in, playing with a competitor until the KVC trio convinced to join them.

“They were good,” says Rice. “I actually had fun playing against them in high school, but they seemed to have something that was a lot of fun. They looked like they really had fun playing together. So I gave up my other team to play with them.”

Megan takes credit for being the catalyst that created the relationships that each one values greatly.

“It started with me,” says Devine. “Jamie and I were playing together, then we latched on to Meredith, and then we all convinced Ivey to join us.”

Head Coach Devine appreciates the relationship that her daughter, a junior, and the three sophomores have developed and understands how valuable it is on and off the court.

“It in uncanny how they have a sense for each other on the floor,” says Lindsey Devine. “They know where each other will be, and they know how to motivate each other.

“But what also has come out of them knowing each other so well and caring for each other the way they do is that as a result our team plays as a family. They are leaders, particularly Megan, and they genuinely care for each other. There is a true commitment to team and it has translated into a family environment.”

They all agree that it wasn’t too tough of a sell to join the Bucs. “It was actually comforting to come onto campus and join a team knowing that someone already has your back,” said Jamie Rutledge, who tallied a double-double in the Bucs’ victory over Mercer Thursday night.

“We all know and understand what coach is expecting from us and what she wants from us,” says Megan. And we know that we are there for each other, and that is one of the reasons that we have been successful.
The Johnson City/Kingsport “pipeline” is one that remains active to this day, as each of the players continue to go back to their high schools and their club team, keeping track of what is happening and along with casting an eye on the local talent.

Some of that talent is Ivey Rice’s younger sister, who will be joining the Bucs next season.

“They give a lot back to the club and to their high schools. I think that is largely because of their relationships that they began in the same ways that those younger players are doing so today.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Winning Culture Being Built in Fort Myers

For six seasons, FGCU’s head coach Bob Butehorn has been building a culture in Fort Myers at the FGCU Soccer Complex.

Since the opening season in 2007 when the Eagles earned eight wins to the 2010 squad which set a program record with 13 victories, Butehorn was laying the foundation for success.

With the Eagles eligible for A-Sun Championship play for the first time last season, Butehorn and his team of nine seniors were prepped for postseason success and came away with the program’s first A-Sun Championship crown and NCAA berth.

This season, there is no comparison in championship squads except for one, “A Culture of Winning.”

“The only comparison to last year’s team is the culture that we have built here, which has carried over to this year. We have a culture here that bonds the guys as friends and they play a way we want them to play and it’s a style we like to play.”

With 12 freshmen and nine sophomores on the squad this season, FGCU worked several fresh new faces into the lineup after the founding seniors departed the program in 2011 after the Eagles first postseason appearance.

One of the holdovers from last year’s squad was senior Jeremy Vollmer, who started every game this season in the midfield after starting in 19, a year ago.

“It’s a completely different feeling this year and it’s hard to compare the two,” Vollmer said. “Last year, we were on top and had a lot of experience going into ETSU as the number one seed, but we were still playing on the road and this year to play in front of our fans was great. This year is a completely different season and we took a completely different route to the championship.”

The 2011 squad entered the A-Sun Championship as the top seed in Johnson City with a 10-5-2 record before earning a 2-1 win vs. Mercer in the semifinals and capping the championship run with a 1-0 victory vs. ETSU on an 89th minute goal by senior Scott Harrison.

On Sunday, the FGCU – Mercer final took a different tone as the top-two seeds were meeting for the second time in the past eight days as the two teams met on Nov. 3rd with the Eagles taking a 1-0 win on a Santiago Echeverri goal to claim the regular-season title for FGCU for the third-straight season.

“It was a battle out there and we were willing to take it on,” Vollmer said. “We wanted to keep the ball moving and we were hoping to get an earlier goal, but we will take the win either way.”

With Butehorn and his assistant for six seasons, Alex Aldaz, at the helm of the program FGCU expects more titles in their future as Vollmer simply stated.

“This is where we expect to be every year.”

Friday, November 9, 2012

Defending Champion Eagles Excited to Defend in the Nest

Tonight the FGCU Eagles get to go home to their own beds, wake up to familiar surroundings, go through their normal routine and defend their A-Sun Championship on Sunday in front of a home crowd that hasn’t seen them lose in Ft. Myers since the end of the 2008 season.

The host Eagles earned host duties of the entire 2012 Atlantic Sun Championships last Saturday when it defeated then-first place Mercer, 1-0, to win its third consecutive regularseason title. FGCU was able to bring the conference postseason tournament to Fort Myers by winning its final six games, including five shutouts.

The Eagles are now 10-5-2, including a 7-1-1 mark in the A-Sun. What is even more impressive is that the FGCU Soccer complex is home to a 17-game home win streak against A-Sun opponents that spans back to the end of the 2008 season. That streak also includes 13 shutouts in the Eagles’ home nest.

FGCU is just the second team to win three straight A-Sun regular season crowns since the league moved out of divisions in 1998. Mercer was the last team to accomplish the feat from 2000-02. Over the Green and Blue’s current three-year run, they are 22-2-1 in the A-Sun.

So as the Eagles prepare to defend last year’s title, where are they as a team?

“We still have some immaturity to us,” said FGCU Head Coach Bob Butehorn. “They were the more aggressive, more attacking group. For some reason we had a very passive attitude, and that is certainly something that we need to correct before Sunday.

“Some of that was to due to their competitive spirit. I want to say how amazed I was to watch Lipscomb compete the way they did (down a man in second half). They deserve a better result because we did not play well,They battled hard, and it was a really good game for those guys.”

In the second overtime, with the crowd behind them, Butehorn says that he, the crowd and Lipscomb could sense that the Eagles were getting something going.

“You could sense in the second overtime that we were putting some things together, and it seemed like they were feeling that as well. We are happy to be in the finals and looking forward to facing a good Mercer team.”

The Eagles will face the Bears for the second time in two weeks, in another game that will feature a game of contrasting styles. FGCU likes possession and ball movement, Mercer is a stronger defensive team that doesn’t allow for many scoring opportunities.

“They are a good team, a disciplined team, and their tactics work very well for them. They have some very talented players, including the Defensive Player of the Year. It will be a good game that will be contrasting in styles,” says Butehorn.

In a game that could come down to one or more plays that turn momentum, it certainly be to the Eagles’ advantage that Ol’ MO will come to the FGCU Soccer Complex wearing green and blue. Whether or not he stays true to those colors will be up to the “Dirty Birds” and the rest of the FGCU home crowd.

“It should be exciting on Sunday to play for the championship at home,” says Butehorn. “It was nice to hear them cheer tonight, especially after the winning goal.

There is no question that we feed off the fans. So Sunday afternoon we are hoping for a good group, and hoping to have the support that we expected when we earned the right to host the championship.”

Bears Rely on Ranjitsingh; Reap Rewards

Perhaps selection to the A-Sun All-Conference second team didn’t sit too well with Mercer goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh.

After all, Ranjitsingh led the A-Sun in saves percentage (.835), goals against average (.88) and tied for the most shutouts (T-7th). He finished ahead of or tied Goalkeeper of the Year Ryan Coulter in five of the six goalkeeping statistical categories, and helped the Bears to the No. 2 seed in the A-Sun Championship, their highest ranking since 2002 when they claimed the A-Sun title.

The numbers that mattered most to Ranjitsingh and Mercer supporters, however, were the numbers that he recorded Friday afternoon: eight saves, one goal allowed, and two huge saves in penalty kicks to energize the Bears and propel them into Sunday’s final.

The penalty session started well for ETSU. The A-Sun’s leading scorer David Geno slid a shot into the left corner past Ranjitsingh for the first successful PK, but then Ranjitsingh answered. He rejected the next two Bucs attempts by Nate Hodges and Alesi Osorio, while his teammates found the back of the net four times in as many attempts against Coulter. ETSU’s Luis Calzadilla also beat Ranjitsingh to keep the Bucs’ hopes alive, but Carl-Oscar Andersson beat Coulter for the final goal and Mercer had its victory.

“We knew this was going to be a tough game,” said Mercer Head Coach and A-Sun Coach of the Year Brad Ruzzo. “ETSU has a great program, and Scott Calabrese and his staff are great coaches.

“I give our team credit, they battle and fight, and tonight they played a man down for 25 minutes. I am tremendously proud of our team.”

For Ranjitsingh, success in goal, particularly in penalty kicks, is more of a science than a guessing game.

“Usually during the game I read how they shoot the ball, so I know if we get to a situation where we have penalty kicks, I can be ready and confident,” said Ranjitsingh. “I was confident before he stepped to the spot, and I made the save.

“It’s good to save one, to give your team a good boost. I am always confident, because I have a good back four in front of me. But even if someone does get past them, they know that I am behind them to have their backs.”

Ruzzo said going into the A-Sun Championship that defense is the hallmark of this Bears team, especially the back four. Ruzzo certainly provides his keeper all of the credit to which he is due, but also understands, like Ranjitsingh, that teammates like A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year Josh Shutter and Ashani Samuels deserve credit for a portion of his success as well.

“We know Greg is one of the best keepers in the country, and he proved that tonight,” said Ruzzo. “If we do break down, he will come up with a big save. The defense was phenomenal in back, and Shutter and Samuels proved why they were first-team selections.

There is no doubt that Ranjitsingh’s play energized the Bears, keeping them in the game in regulation until David Murtaugh could net the equalizer in the 79th minute, then turning away two penalty kicks to secure the win.

“I know that if I can keep them in the game, I am confident that they can score and win the game. Now we move on. We have played both of these team already this season, so we know how to prepare once the next game is over.”

“We struggled a bit in second half, and you can credit that to ETSU,” said Ruzzo. “When your goalkeeper makes a save it energizes you a bit, and Greg made two great saves in the PKs. But credit the guys, too, who took penalties, as they were 4-for-4. But ultimately penalties come down to goalkeeping, and we are happy to have him on our team.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bisons Avoid Overtime; End Program Record Run

Read a book. Check email. Post to Facebook. Visit with friends and family.

There are a myriad of things that Lipscomb men’s soccer players could have done following the conclusion of their 1-0 victory over USC Upstate in the quarterfinal match of the A-Sun Men’s Soccer Championship.

After all, they had time on their hands, between 10-20 minutes of time to which they had become unaccustomed. You see, prior to Wednesday, the Bisons had not finished a match in regulation since Oct. 19. In fact, their last five contests prior to Wednesday’s victory stretched to overtime or double overtime - a program record.

In the last 19 days, Lipscomb has played 80 minutes of extra time, or almost another entire match. During that stretch the Bisons posted a 2-2-1 record: tying Stetson 1-1 (2OT), losing 1-0 to USC Upstate (OT), defeating Jacksonville 1-0 (2OT), losing to North Florida 3-2 (2OT) and defeating Northern Kentucky 1-0 (OT).

“That experience has served us well,” said Lipscomb Head Coach Charles Morrow. “But it is nice to get one done without having to go into extra time.”

This season Lipscomb holds a 4-8-0 (.333) mark in matches played in regulation, while they are 3-3-1 (.500) overall in overtime or double overtime. Also in 2012 the Bisons played more overtime games than in their last two combined. They lead the conference in overtime games, topping ETSU by one and USC Upstate and Stetson by two.

The Bisons return to the A-Sun Men’s Soccer Championship for the sixth consecutive year, the longest active streak in the A-Sun. 

“We felt like we had the upper hand for a couple of reasons,” said Lipscomb Head Coach Charles Morrow. “We let one slip away at home (against USC Upstate) earlier in the season, but also every one of our players has tournament experience.

“Tonight we weren’t happy with the first 15 minutes of the game, and I think some of the jitters were from our younger players. It was nice to see our upperclassmen calm things down and start to move the ball.”

The Bisons now post an even .500 record (4-4-1) in A-Sun Championship matches, and move on to face No. 1 seed FGCU on Friday.

“We do well every year, and we have a good set of guys and we play as a team,” said Tyler Burkardt, who came off the bench to score the game’s only goal against the Spartans. “I think we do so more than most teams, as we don’t rely on individual effort.

“Against FGCU we are just going to look to play our system and to repeat the last time out, when we got some goals on them and were able to get the win.”

“Florida Gulf Coast is a very talented team and they are going to be tough one for us on Friday,” said Morrow. “It is nice that we had some success against them this year. We feel like there is a recipe for success and we hope to replicate that on Friday.”

Experience on the Pitch Pays Off for ETSU

Julius Caesar once said that experience is the teacher of all things.
Over the past three years, ETSU men’s soccer has certainly benefited from what it has had to offer.
Since 2010, they have posted a 35-19-7 (.631) overall record, including a 15-8-2 (.667) mark in A-Sun play. The Bucs are just two years removed from an A-Sun championship in 2010, and they have appeared in the past two A-Sun title games and the past three semifinals. They enter the 2012 A-Sun Championship with the opportunity of being the first team to appear in three straight championship finals since three-time champion UCF from 2002-04.
That experience showed on Wednesday, as a confident No. 3 seed ETSU team took the field and controlled play against No. 6 Jacksonville. The Bucs possessed the ball, never appeared in a rush, and were content to play their game while shrugging off the few real scoring threats the Dolphins sent their way. ETSU outshot JU 13-6, including 5-3 in shots on goal with a decided 10-2 advantage in corner kicks.
“Anytime you are playing an elimination game, things are tense, because of course your entire season is on the line,” said ETSU Head Coach Scott Calabrese. “Despite the pressures of the match, I thought we performed well.”
It stands to reason that the Bucs would be comfortable in the first quarterfinal game of the championship. They are now 3-0 in quarterfinal matches, outscoring their opponents 6-0. ETSU fields one of the more experienced teams in the A-Sun, a roster that boasts balance offensively and defensively. Nine of the 11 starters for ETSU against Jacksonville are upperclassmen, junior or seniors who have played in big games and have shared the A-Sun Championship experience. Six of those return from the team that was on the field to lose the 1-0 heartbreaker to FGCU in last year’s final.
“Jacksonville is always a great test for us,” said ETSU junior and A-Sun Player of the Year, David Geno. “We thought we could have some success on the wings, and that is how the goal set up for us today. We had a good amount of chances today, and we were able to put one away early.”
Offensively they are led by Geno, who ranks first in the conference in points and goals . His 30 points are the most in the A-Sun since 2007 when Jacksonville's Anton Axelsson record 36 points. He is the active leader in points, goals and game-winning goals, and his four game-winning goals are tied for most in the conference. Geno provided three shots, including on goal, and the assist in the win against Jacksonville.

“Being named Player of the Year speaks well to the team and how we’ve been able to play this year,” said Geno. “I just happened to be the one in the spot to pick up some of our goals.”
A-Sun Goalkeeper of the Year Ryan Coulter anchors the Bucs’ defense in goal. The junior owns the season’s second-best goals against average at 0.99, and posted a save percentage of .721 with 49 totalsaves. He also recorded six shutouts, the third most in the A-Sun this year.
“Ryan is steady, he is someone we can count on to make the big saves, but also to take care of the little things, to note make mistakes, and tonight he didn’t make any mistakes,” said Calabrese. “Tonight he was very confident in the back. When he is playing well and with confidence it gives our back four and our team confidence as well.”
ETSU has never faced No. 2 Mercer in the A-Sun Championship, but looks forward to avenging a 2-1 home loss to the Bears in Johnson City. The matchup could be one of the best of the championship, as Geno and other Bucs scoring threats will have to contend with Josh Shutter, the A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year, and goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh, who leads the A-Sun in Goals Against Average (0.88), Shutouts (7) and Save Percentage(.835).
“Converting our chances is the main focus for us moving forward, because that is the hardest thing to do,” said Calabrese. “I thought we created quite a few good chances tonight, in addition to the one we finished.
“Mercer doesn’t concede many chances to you. They defend you well, with Shutter in the back and a solid back four, they buy into working hard and defending well.”

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Young FGCU Squad Follows Senior Footsteps

For the second-straight season, FGCU hoisted the Atlantic Sun Women’s Soccer Championship trophy.

Last year, the feet of eight seniors guided the Eagles to its first-ever A-Sun title in the program’s first year of eligibility. This season with the departure of several all-conference and program-founding players FGCU Head Coach Jim Blankenship was forced to replenish the roster with several newcomers and freshmen.

Blankenship’s 25-person roster features 12 freshmen and six sophomores outnumbering the five seniors, who have led the way for the young group.

“We have five players who have been in the program and have dealt with several different situations, so I give our seniors a ton of credit for taking our young players under their wings and preparing them for this process,” Blankenship said of his seniors.

Midfielder Ally Kasun is one of those young players, who came away with Championship Most Valuable Player honors after netting the game-winner in the 93rd minute of the title game vs. Mercer. The final result was eerily similar to last season when then-freshman Shannen Wacker found the back of the net in overtime to give the Eagles the tournament title.

“It is huge for Ally because she has been very good for us all year long and she doesn’t play like a freshman, she doesn’t act like a freshman,” Blankenship said of his star freshman. “We have talked about her becoming the foundation of us and taking on responsibilities of leadership. These are important moments for Ally to step up and bury the goal in this fashion. It’s something we will build from with her.”

For Blankenship he notes the difference in the two squads, but also knew the remnants of last year’s title team played a key role in this year’s repeat effort.

“Last season, our team had been there for the first year of the program and there was a confidence to them because we knew how they would react in these pressure situations. This year we weren’t sure how our talented younger players would react in the same situations, but they did an unbelievable job of earning the respect of our older players by proving themselves on the field.”

For Kasun and her fellow 11 freshmen, the foundation is set for an long run of success in the Atlantic Sun and the NCAA Tournament.

Friday, November 2, 2012

FGCU/JU Series Gets a New Twist - A Win

We have a winner.

With a chance to defend its title in the A-Sun Championship Final on the line Friday evening, Florida Gulf Coast accomplished what it hasn’t been able to do even once in the last four years – defeat in-state rival Jacksonville.

This night, however, with everything at stake and the drama heightened in front of an exhilarated “Dirty Bird” home crowd, the Eagles netted a goal in each half to put an end to the drought and advance to Sunday’s final.

“This was a hard fought victory,” said FGCU Head Coach Jim Blankenship. “It is important to be here at home, and we talked about what that would mean when we began the season.

“We got the breaks we needed, and put away the goals we had to. The early goal really settled us. Hats off to them, though, and we are fortunate to be playing for the final. We’ll take it, but we will have to play better to survive on Sunday.”

“Them being able to host as the top seed is certainly an advantage. This is not a neutral site game,” said Jacksonville Head Coach Brian Copham. “I expected it to be a hostile environment, and this was like a road game for us. This is one of the most difficult places in the conference to play, because they do a great job and generate impressive support of their programs.”

Given the success of both programs, the recent history of this emerging A-Sun rivalry is intriguing. Despite the success of both programs, neither team had been able to claim a victory in the series in each of their last four meetings.

The last two previous victories belong to Jacksonville, a 4-3 win in Ft. Myers in 2007 and a 1-0 win in 2008, Brian Copham’s first season as the Dolphins’ head coach.

FGCU’s victory is its first against Jacksonville since joining the A-Sun in 2007. In fact, the Dolphins were the only current A-Sun team that FGCU has not defeated since joining the conference five years ago.

“This is a great matchup because both programs have a ton of respect for each other,” said Blankenship. “We match up well against each other and the results over the last few meetings certainly make for an interesting story.”

The previous four meetings had all ended in ties, beginning with a 1-1 deadlock in double overtime in 2009. A scoreless tie in 2010 was followed by another scoreless duel in double overtime in 2011, and this season a 1-1 tie was a pivotal component to the Eagles’ receiving the No. 1 seed.

“The programs are very similar,” said JU Head Coach Brian Copham. “I think one of the strengths of both teams is how we ask our teams to play. We try to remain organized in the back and stay defensively sound in order to not give up goals, then string together passes and possess the ball as much as possible.

“Neither of us gives up a lot of goals because we place an emphasis on defending. I guess four goals in four years is a testament to the fact that we have been able to do that.”

ETSU took a 1-0 lead into halftime, but Jacksonville gained momentum early in the second half and midway through the second half hit FGCU with everything it had in a string of near misses and great Eagle defensive play.

Because these teams know each other so well and have a mutual respect for each other, neither takes anything for granted and understand what the other brings to the field each time they step across from each other.

“You have to capitalize on opportunities, because you don’t get many good scoring opportunities against them,” said Copham. “You can’t let an opportunity go by and count on taking advantage of one in the future, because there may not be another good one. You won’t see 15 or 20 chances to score against either one of these teams.”

Blankenship concurs. “These are two good teams that battle. We knew we had to take care of the ball and eliminate mistakes. They are well coached and winning was not going be an easy feat. Over the past few years we both have walked away feeling like they were fair results. Both of our systems work, and neither of us will change what we do well.

Trailing at the break, Copham’s Dolphins began to surge in the second half and did everything they could to produce the equalizer. Down a player late in the second half, JU lost its defensive balance as it pushed forward and FGCU added its second score. Despite the result, Copham’s team displayed the same resolve with which it had played all season.

“I like the character of our team. When we are faced with adversity, and we have been on a number of occasions, our players still believe and still compete,” said Copham. “Our team has never backed down.”

On Friday night the defending champions proved why they will be back in the championship final on Sunday.

“Both teams understood what was in front of us. This season we have had opportunities to be successful, and we have a few on the table," said Blankenship. "This time there were different ramifications. We had to play well to move on. Tonight it was time to take care of business.”

New Coach, Same Results for Mercer

For Mercer women’s soccer, perhaps there is truth in the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Beginning with the latter, there are several things that remain the same for the program.

To begin, the Bears have experienced a great deal of success in the last few years. Mercer returns to the A-Sun Women’s Soccer Championship for the seventh consecutive season. Now on the strength of Friday’s 3-0 victory over North Florida, it will battle for the A-Sun title for the fifth time in the last six seasons.

The Bears also enter the championship final as the No. 2 seed for the third time, a position from which they won their 2010 title. They also have experience as the championship’s top seed, and even advanced to last year’s final as the No. 6 seed.

Additionally, Mercer’s appearance in its third straight championship final marks the first time since 2001-2004 that a team has enjoyed that accomplishment.

Like many programs that experience success over such a period of time, even with such a seemingly solid recipe for success, Mercer inevitably experienced its share of change.

Enter Tony Economopoulos. Like any first-year head coach, he began to seek the delicate balance of initiating change where necessary, while leaving other facets of the team well enough alone. After all, the Bears had become a mainstay in the A-Sun Championship, and were just one year removed from an A-Sun title. So what are some of the “things” that have changed?

“I didn’t want to change a lot,” he says. “I am an open and intense kind of guy, and I wanted my team to share in that approach while enjoying playing soccer. I understood that was one area that could be improved upon from some of the previous teams, and I wanted them playing more loose.”

Combining hard days with more “fun” types of practices, along with creating a more enjoyable experience off the field, on trips, etc., is Economopoulos’ approach to the game to which his team is responding.

“First and foremost they are college students, and I want them to enjoy the college experience,” he says. “They are creating memorable moments on and off the field, and I want them to remember those and to enjoy them while they are happening.”

Economopoulos joined Mercer understanding that while he was inheriting a team with talent, experience and recent success, he also knew that he would be behind in the recruiting process and a few key players would no longer be Bears.

“I thought we had a good squad, but I also knew that we would be missing a few pieces and that we would have some work to do. I felt like we would be in the mix if we were able to get some things right and people in the right positions, and we just continued to get more confident as the season continued.”

The turning point for the first-year head coach came on Sunday, Sept. 30, when the Bears claimed a 3-1 victory over 2011 A-Sun runner-up ETSU on Parent Appreciation Day in Macon. Sophomore forward Tess Patton scored in the win and finished with three goals and an assist in helping the Bears to two key conference wins during that weekend.

At that point the win was the Bears’ sixth straight, placing them in a three-way tie for second place in the A-Sun standings, but the win told their new head coach much more.

“I thought we made a statement in the win over ETSU at home,” he says. “They were the preseason No. 2 team, and to beat them the way we did gave me an indication that we could be a force for the rest of the season.”

Economopoulos’ approach to the game and his preferred style of play has created a team that will excite its fans literally from first touch. Mercer’s first goal against the Ospreys was the seventh time this season that the Bears have scored within the first 10 minutes of the game. It is an example of how this change has been positive, and how he has made his mark on a team with a great deal of potential.

“I want us to play fast, aggressive soccer,” he says. “I want my mark on this team that we are a team that creates a lot of chances, that we are aggressive, and that we are always competitive

“This is a team that leads by committee. We have a tremendous back line that has enables us to keep many clean sheets this season, but this is a great group of kids, on and off thefield. They have done all that we have asked them to do, they have bought in to what we are trying to accomplish and I think our record and our success is an example of the type of attitude that our team possesses.”

So one more time Mercer enters Sunday’s championship final. There are several on this team that have been there, done that, and have literally gotten the t-shirt. But if this season is any indication of how things are changing for the Bears, this is another chance for them to play fast, to play loose, to enjoy themselves and to make lots of memories that could just include another championship banner.