Thursday, January 31, 2013

USC Upstate's Tee'Ara Copney Sets Her Sights On Records

Bounce the ball twice. Pull on the shorts. Spin the ball and take a deep breath. Shoot it. Routine.

USC Upstate’s Tee’Ara Copney has made it seem as simple as a free throw shot, but what she has done on the court in her career as a Spartan has been far from a simple routine.
 At just ten years old Copney knew basketball was a little more than just a recreational sport and looked to someday play the sport at a higher level.

The road to playing for the USC Upstate Spartans was a long and tiring one as she had to travel around the country playing AAU but Copney always had family to rely on to help her succeed.

Copney accredits a lot of her success to the support of her family who traveled her to all of her basketball tournaments while she was in high school, which ultimately led her to Upstate, where her family still goes to every home game and several away games.

Copney, a native to Asheville, North Carolina, played her high school career at T.C. Roberson where the team compiled 100 victories out of her 118 games there. She completed her high school career with more than 1,600 points and set the school record.


Tee’Ara Copney is all too familiar with setting records.

As a Spartan, Copney managed to crush season records, school records and conference records. She ranks first in Upstate history in three-point field goals made (189), three-point field goals attempted (574) and steals (258).

In the Atlantic Sun Tee’Ara ranks No.22 in the record books in career points and is tied for No. 9 in career steals, just to name a few of the records she has been chasing.

She holds a Spartan single season record in free throw percentage (.886 in 2011-12) and minutes played (1055 in 2011-12). She has recorded 270 free throws in her career, another record she is looking to grab.

Free throws are something she’s nearly perfected and explains that it all comes with having confidence within yourself and knowing that it all counts to the final score. She laughs that her father said several times before, “They are free…so you have to knock them down.”

Bounce the ball twice. Pull on the shorts. Spin the ball and take a deep breath. Shoot it. Routine.

And she’s not done yet.

Copney has high aspirations for not only herself, but her team. A Sociology major, Tee’Ara hopes to go to grad school where she can pursue a career in social work; one that her older sister inspired her to get involved in.

As for her team, she has raised the bar for them as well. With the second half of conference play left Copney sets her sights on three road games. “The hardest road swings are against FGCU, Stetson and ETSU because those are three schools we’ve never won at since I’ve been here,”Copney said. “Those are always a real challenge for us and I’d like to get past them.”

For Copney it is about getting better every day because if everyone gets better as individuals the team will improve as a whole.

The Spartans stand at No. 5 in the A-Sun standings with a record 4-5 halfway through the conference season, Copney has one goal for the team. It seems so simple to say, but it’s far from routine, perform in the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship. “You have to remember that all of the individuals on a team come together to have one common goal and I hope as the season comes to an end we’ll be traveling down to Georgia for the tournament to have one of our best showings there.”

Bounce the ball twice. Pull on the shorts. Spin the ball and take a deep breath. Shoot it and hope the little things make a big difference.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bisons' Men's Golf Building Momentum

Using the vernacular to describe the status of Lipscomb men’s golf, Head Men’s Coach Will Brewer says the Bisons’ program is “teed up” for future success.

From the top down, there is excitement surrounding this program. To begin, Director of Athletics Philip Hutcheson hired Lipscomb’s most decorated collegiate golfer to become Director of Golf Programming and to serve as the head men’s golf coach. Brewer, a 1977 graduate of Lipscomb, was the NAIA National Champion in 1976, a three-time NAIA All-American and is a member of the NAIA Hall of Fame. He is also a Lipscomb Hall of Fame inductee and was the 1998 Tennessee PGA Player of the Year. 

He has served as an instructor, teaching pro and/or director of golf at a variety of clubs and has also coached six state high school champions and several college champions. He has coached professional tour players as well. Brewer was named as Golf Digest's Instructor of the Year for the state of Tennessee and also has been presented the Lou Frank Award for cooperative service and support of the Tennessee Golf Foundation.

Upon his hire, Brewer identified and focused his attention on two key factors as he began the revitalization of the Bisons’ golf program. 

“The number one thing is we need to rebrand the golf program,” said Brewer. “Number two, we need to recruit. If we do those things well we will have the momentum to allow us to have some conversations in the golf community and the Nashville community overall. We want to have a brand that is going to be noticed.

So far in 2012-13, the Lipscomb brand is already proving to have considerable upside.

“Coming into the season I really didn’t have a lot of expectations,” said Brewer. “I wanted to observe the team and see what we needed to do. I set some goals for us at the beginning of the season, and quite honestly they were lofty goals. They got all ‘wide-eyed,’ so that told me that they didn’t have a lot of confidence mentally and that they didn’t believe that they could accomplish them. I think that has since changed some because of a new found confidence.”

Brewer’s new team recorded three top-3 finishes and finished in the top half of four of the five events in which it played in the fall 2012 season. Of course, as a coach, he also identified areas for improvement.

“We didn’t perform particularly well in the first tournament, and we were able to identify a few points of emphasis right away,” Brewer said. “We had some time between the first and second weekends of competition that we could spend a lot of time working and focusing on those, and I think that really helped us.”

Individually, Blanton Farmer posted a win and a pair of top-10 finishes and Ryan Terry added two top-fives in the fall 2012 season. Brewer also points out that in September, the Bisons were rated 239 in GolfStat and they begin the spring season rated 188. In the GolfWeek rankings the men were at 215 on Sept. 1, went as low as 146 and are now at 181 to begin the spring season.

“One positive that came out of the first tournament is that I have seen them buying into what we are trying to do,” said Brewer. “They responded quickly after the first event and realized that I did know what I was talking about, and there have been no complaints. They want to improve, and so it has simply been ‘here is what we need to do.’ The next few weeks after that first event were fruitful because they immediately saw what their needs were. It gave them a lot of confidence and the success they enjoyed has resulted in increased motivation as well.”

Brewer’s plan to rebuild the brand includes selling Nashville and surrounding communities on Lipscomb, and it is already paying dividends. He announced during the early signing period in December that he has signed a class in which four of the five are ranked in the top 36 in their class in the state of Tennessee and between 300-to-800 nationally. Two are state champions, one a city champ, and all come with multiple district, regional, state and junior golf accolades. Additionally, he has also received several verbal commitments for 2014.

“I feel that we are right on the cusp of having this program rebranded in such a way that is becomes an attractive option, particularly within 200 miles or so around Nashville,” Brewer said. “The goal is to get Lipscomb some looks now and in the near future from players that in the past would have never considered us. We are working from the inside out, rebranding this community first. We have some experienced players coming in next year and we have already received three verbal commitments for 2014, so it shows that already there is more interest to come here to play golf.”

While admittedly still feeling his way around the program, Brewer understands that one major component of its growth is the quality of available practice facilities. Recently Brewer presented a plan for a short-game project to be constructed at Nashville Golf and Athletic Club. The cost of the project is estimated at $125,000 and the deadline to complete the funding is March 31, 2013. Brewer and women’s coach Buddy Harston are overseeing the design of the facility, the impetus of which came from the shortcomings that the two coaches continued to see in recruits – the short game.

“I am excited about this facility because it will tremendously impact our games,” said Brewer. “The top programs in the country have access to outstanding facilities, and that includes teams in our own conference. An athlete who feels valued will perform better, and that is what we expect to come from the new short game facility.”

Brewer also believes that the idea of having value is resonating with his team.

“They now have someone who is dedicated full-time to their development and success, both on the course and off,” said Brewer, “and it tells them that “we have someone who cares about us.’ I think the team was ready to have some intentional coaching, to really spend some time in their development as people, along with strengthening the other aspects of the game such as mental toughness and course management.”

As a teacher, he enjoys working with young men who need leadership. With his personality trait of taking something good and making it better, Brewer is not satisfied with maintenance.

“I enjoy teaching them about accepting responsibility and what it means to live an authentic manhood,” he said. “I look at this position as a process of teaching life through golf, and about reaching that valuable balance between a competitive nature and honor. To me it is about proving to them that you can do better than you think you can. There is an element of character development woven into this rite of passage of becoming a man.”

The Bisons made great strides in the fall, performing as well as any team in a conference that is certainly not lacking in talent. Four teams – North Florida, Kennesaw State, ETSU and Mercer – are ranked in the Top 80 in the latest GolfWeek national rankings, along with several individuals in the Top 100. Brewer understands that along with shoring up recruiting in his own backyard, he also has to compete against national contenders in his own conference.

“There is no question that the A-Sun is a very difficult conference in which to compete in golf,” said Brewer. “You have a program like ETSU that has been good for years, and now UNF and Kennesaw are contending regularly for a championship and participating in the NCAAs. There you have three teams that are No. 75 or better, and there are still a lot of teams between us.

“With that said, there are plenty of positives that we can build on. We had three top-five finishes in the fall and we are ranked fourth in the country in pars. We are also top 50 in first round scores. We can build on those and correct those things that are keeping us from being better, like doing well in our recruiting and upgrading our facilities to catch up with those types of programs.

“We want to be on the same playing field like those teams in our league and others from the SEC and the PAC-12, but right now we are not there. In two to four years I think with our upgrades and intentional coaching and recruiting, we can be knocking on that door.”

Friday, January 25, 2013

A-Sun Women's Basketball Unbeatens Face-Off

Two teams stand on-top of the Atlantic Sun Women’s Basketball standings at 8-0, but on Saturday one of them will prevail as the lone unbeaten team in the A-Sun. The match-up between in state rivals FGCU and Stetson is one that is noted as key game around the country in women’s hoops. The Hatters travel to Alico Arena to tip-off against the Eagles at 7:05 PM on Saturday, January 26th. Both teams hold winning streaks that rank in the top-5 in the nation and the Eagles have won their last 26 conference games; one of the longest in the country.

The NCAA mentioned the match-up as being a game to turn your attention to in women’s hoops. ESPN has ranked the Eagles at No. 10 in the latest ESPN Mid-Major Rankings. FGCU has made the ranks in every edition of the 2012-13 Women’s Basketball Mid-Major Top 25 poll and currently rank No. 12 in the poll. Stetson has received votes in the poll and is on the brink of cracking the top-25.

The match-up between the two can prove to be crucial later in the season heading into the A-Sun Championship, but even more so could be a preview of we may see in the finale of this year's championship. Who will come out on top? Here are some notes about the two squads:

Stetson (15-4; 8-0) at FGCU (15-5; 8-0) - ASun.TV - 7:05 PM

• Three teams in the A-Sun are ranked in the top-20 nationally in current win streak with the Hatters at No. 3 (11 wins), the Eagles tied at No. 5 (9 wins) and the Bears tied at No. 19 (5 wins)
• The Hatters current win streak of 11 is the third longest streak in the country only behind Baylor (15) and Notre Dame (12)
• Both the Hatters and the Eagles are undefeated in conference play at 8-0
• FGCU has won its last 26 conference games; One of longest streak in the country behind Baylor (28)
• The Eagles are out-scoring their conference opponents by an average of 23.3 points, while the Hatters hold a scoring margin of 20.9 vs. conference opponents.
• FGCU leads the all-time series between the two squads with a 9-2 record and are 5-1 in the last two seasons, including their last meeting in the 2012 Atlantic Sun Championship.
• The two met in the finale of the 2012 A-Sun Championship where the Eagles won 67-39. Stetson defeated Jacksonville in the 2011 A-Sun Championship.
• The last time the two met during the A-Sun Championship, Stetson’s Victoria McGowan scored 17 points; the most of any player in the game
• The teams rank one and two in the A-Sun in field goal percentage with Stetson shooting .447 and FGCU shooting .416
• FGCU’s Sarah Hansen and Stetson’s Victoria McGowan both average 17.2 PPG; No. 2 and No. 3 in the league
• McGowan is No. 1 in the conference in three-point shots per game at 2.3, which ranks No. 4 in the country. FGCU’s Betsy Adams ranks No. 2 in the A-Sun with 2.1 three-pointers per game.
• FGCU ranks No. 3 in the country in three-point field goals per game with an average of nine per game. The Eagles broke a Division I NCAA record earlier this season vs. ETSU for the most three-point shots made in a single game with 22.

FGCU's Megan Van Etten Is On Par With SAAC

Megan Van Etten is looking forward to her FGCU women’s golf team being back on the course next week.

And why not? FGCU finished in the top half of three of the four tournaments in which it played in the fall, including a second-place finish in the 14-team field of the LPGA/Xavier Invitational and fourth in the 10-team field at the Courtyard Invitational. In each of those three events, the Eagles led or were in the top three after the first rounds.

“Our team did really well in the fall, and certainly we are looking for things to go nowhere but up in the spring. For us the key to being successful this spring is just to keep working hard and to not steer away from that focus. We have a solid ‘team,’ and if you look at our results there is not one standout, but everyone contributes.”

Along with contributing to the Eagles on the course, Van Etten is plugged in as a valuable member of FGCU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council.

“I joined SAAC because I feel that student-athletes should be more involved in what is going on, on campus and in the community,” said Van Etten. “We do a lot of community service, and I think my favorite has been working at the food bank. In doing those types of projects, the focus is on giving back, not about us.”

Van Etten also says that SAAC provides a valuable life lesson for student-athletes as they endure the ups and downs of competition. In doing for others and being involved in activities that are outside of yourself, she says, that often helps provide an important perspective on what is truly important.

“Being involved in SAAC is important for student-athletes because it helps to keep things in perspective, and many of the activities that we are involved with are very humbling,” says Van Etten. “It helps keeps us grounded in our own lives as well. If you go out and have a bad tournament or a bad game or whatever, it is easier to see that there are much more important things going on out there and helps you refocus.”

As SAAC representatives prepare to descend upon Ft. Myers for the January conference-wide SAAC meeting this weekend, Van Etten recalls how valuable the last such meeting was to her and her peers.

“I was very impressed with the last A-Sun SAAC meeting that I attended,” said Van Etten. “It was good to see what other schools are doing on their campuses and in their communities. I definitely saw some ideas that we can implement to get more student-athletes involved.

“I think student-athletes bring a heightened level of dedication, focus and determination to whatever it is that we are doing. We are always out showing support for our other teams, as well as for our school and our community. I think that can serve as an example that if we can do that, then the entire student body can do that as well.”

Van Etten shot her low round of the fall (75) in the final round of the Courtyard Classic that helped the Eagles finish fourth. She finished 31st in the 59-member field in that event and posted a stroke average of 79.67 at the completion of the fall season.

“I feel good about my game going into the spring,” said Van Etten. “I worked a lot with my dad over the break, who has been my coach outside of FGCU, and we worked really hard. Coach is big on being strong mentally and that has translated into my being ready and confident as the season gets ready to begin.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

New Coaches Taking Small Steps Toward Success

The A-Sun's newest women's basketball head coaches (L-R): Kennesaw State's Nitra Perry, Lipscomb's Greg Brown and Northern Kentucky's Dawn Plitzuweit.

Business coach and entrepreneur Brian Tracy was once asked about developing a winning edge.

“Small differences in your performance can lead to large differences in your results,” he responded.

Three Atlantic Sun Conference women’s basketball programs – Northern Kentucky, Lipscomb and Kennesaw State – are under new leadership this season, and achieving those small differences seems to be the order of the day.

For each of these programs, the key is improvement. From the coaches you hear words such as consistency, competing, growth, discipline and execution. Sure, each would like to have more of the success that comes in the forms of wins, but they also are grateful for the little successes and the small wins that are coming as the teams and the staffs continue to learn and trust each other.

Less than halfway through the conference season, A-Sun newbie NKU is faring the best of the trio, sitting in a tie for third at 3-4 in A-Sun play and 6-10 overall. Lipscomb is 1-6 in the conference and 2-15 overall, while KSU is 4-15 overall and seeking its first conference win.

“I have to accept the small victories as a coach right now,” said Kennesaw State Head Coach Nitra Perry. Perry joined KSU from the University of Toledo, where she spent four seasons as a member of the Rockets’ coaching staff. In 2011-12, she served as the program’s associate head coach. During her four years at Toledo, the Rockets amassed an impressive 96-40 overall record, a 50-14 mark in the Mid-American Conference and scored a WNIT title in 2010-11.

“We need to continue to find ways to have some successes in order to be able to instill that feeling that we can compete, and that has been a struggle so far,” Perry continued. “Obviously we are not where we wanted to be at this point in the season. I would give myself a four or five out of 10 at this point. We are still trying to learn each other as a staff and as a team.”

Bisons Head Coach Greg Brown, a 1993 graduate of Lipscomb, credits his familiarity with the A-Sun from his time at UCF. Brown was the associate women's basketball coach at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and is a former assistant for Tennessee’s Hall of Fame coach Pat Summit. He spent the last five seasons at UCF, helping lead the Knights to two Conference USA championships in 2009 and 2011, resulting in two NCAA berths.

“Unfortunately as a coach you always look at where you want to be,” said Brown. “From August to January we have seen a huge amount of growth. It hasn’t parlayed into the amount of wins that we want, but there has been growth. Our skill has gotten better and I like that we are getting more competitive. Over the last couple of weeks you can see that the players are listening.

“There is a great quote that says ‘everyone hears but few listen,’ and I think we have a team that is listening, and then they execute. There is no better example of that than our walk-on Kelly Smith. She is coming off a two-game stretch in which she shot 57 percent. She is not doing anything any differently than she was before, and she is not one of our better athletes, but she listens and simply executes.”

NKU Head Coach Dawn Plitzuweit’s challenge is not only one of being new to her team, but also being new to a conference and leading a team adjusting to the level of Division I basketball. However, unlike her peers Perry and Brown, one trial that she does not have to endure is that of being a first-year head coach.

Prior to her five years as associate head coach at the University of Michigan, Plitzuweit spent five years as the head coach at Grand Valley State University. Under her direction, the Lakers earned four postseason berths and won the NCAA Division II national championship in 2005-06. Plitzuweit compiled a 117-39 (.750) record at Grand Valley State, including a 68-22 (.756) mark in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

“I was fortunate to be a head coach at the Division II level and an assistant at the Division I level. I liked that because I had the opportunity to learn how to evaluate and see the game from different perspectives. I had a chance to say, ‘how would I do that?’ It definitely was a good learning opportunity and it helped me identify areas in which I could improve as a coach.

“Being back in the head coach’s seat again, I am very glad that we have the staff that we have. Each one of my assistants brings something different to the staff and the team. But even with all of that experience, it is hard to know for us exactly where we are right now,” said Plitzuweit. “Obviously we would like to have more wins, but I am happy with how our kids are competing. I do see us getting better as the season progresses.”

For first-year head coaches Perry and Brown, the evolution from assistant coach to head coach is admittedly a work in progress. From delegation to hiring the right staff to the finality of making the decisions that ultimately matter, the process is certainly one that takes time.

“I had been to these roundtables and talked to other coaches in preparation to be a head coach, and they all said that it would take 18 months to make the transition from an assistant to head coach,” said Brown. “I didn’t believe that. I thought. ‘Oh, I can do it faster than that.’ They were right.”

“I have been very fortunate in my career that I have been in positions in which I was given tons of responsibility and had my hands in a lot of things. But now instead of just being involved in things, physically you have to make a decision on everything. You have to make that adjustment – really it is more of a mindset thing. As an assistant you have one mindset, and as a head coach that is different.”

While each program is distinct in working through its transition, the teams and their new coaches are also encountering similarities. One of the most relevant is dealing with the amount of athleticism and the level of competition that takes the floor every game in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

“I have been impressed with the athleticism of the players in this league,” said Plitzuweit. “This league has a combination of players who are tremendously athletic and those who are great shooters. We aren’t as athletic as others in the conference, and that frankly has been a major challenge for us.”

Brown echoed Plitzuweit’s analysis in respect to the athleticism in the A-Sun and his team’s “lack of it at times,” and Perry simply boils it down to the fact that “every game in the A-Sun is a dog fight because it is so competitive.”

The Norse began their conference season by jumping right into the fire, playing four games in eight days against teams with which they were unfamiliar. They lost both contests on their first A-Sun road trip to Jacksonville, but won three straight before falling to A-Sun leaders FGCU and Stetson over the weekend.

“The tough part early for us was the first stretch of games, playing four games in eight days, against teams that we were not familiar with,” said Plitzuweit. “That was a real challenge, particularly for us as coaches to get our team ready to play.”

Plitzuweit likes the balance that she is finding in her squad. However, she still relies heavily on four seniors and a junior who provide valuable leadership and who put the Norse in a position to be competitive. She also likes to mix in her two pairs of freshmen and sophomores, the “energy givers” who bring charisma and excitement to the lineup.

“Overall I think we have been able to achieve a good balance,” said Plitzuweit. “Our team has brought a great level of intensity to this season. We will be good in time, because we are continually improving.

“Our players just have to find a way to compete. We need to be more disciplined, because we don’t take care of the basketball the way we need to. I think we can become more skilled and more efficient in our execution in order to get more and better shots and take advantage of our opportunities on offense.

“Defensively we are in a learning curve when it comes to the league. Obviously we can watch tape but we are not going to be able to simulate what teams like Vanderbilt and LSU do in practice, so we just have to make teams work and do our best to not give too many good looks.

“For us the biggest thing that will help us is to improve on our consistency of play. We have seen that in the move from DII to DI, and we have even seen it to be true from exhibition to regular season games. We have a very small to zero margin of error, so we have to play extremely well and very hard in every game to have a chance to be successful. We can’t take plays off and be successful, and I think so far they have responded to the challenge.”

For Kennesaw State Head Coach Nitra Perry, she is in the business of creating a culture of winning. She came to KSU because of Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams’ vision for Owls athletics, a plan she identified with and one within which she felt that she could begin to compete in the A-Sun and build a winning tradition.

“Our team plays hard every game,” said Perry, “and think we are developing that type of blue collar team that I would like. But unfortunately we have been plagued with injuries and had a couple of players leave before the season began. And right now we just don’t have the numbers to play the style of game that I would like – up tempo on both sides of the ball.

“But Kennesaw State is a place that we can build a culture of winning, because of several factors. First, our Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams has a very real and clear vision for the program, and that is one of the biggest reasons I came to KSU.

“Plus, it is also a beautiful campus and the school is really growing. From an athletics standpoint it is a place that you can recruit to, and the community is really beginning to take hold of the institution and the athletics programs.”

Brown entered his first season at Lipscomb knowing that he would have plenty of opportunity to do what he enjoys the most – teaching. A consummate student of the game, Brown helped his team identify clear goals from the outset and continues to work on those as the season progresses.

“From our team’s standpoint I didn’t know what to expect, because I was coming from entirely different offensive and defensive systems, said Brown. “I knew it was going to take some time to teach and to get them used to what we are trying to accomplish.

“I was very fortunate at UT and UCF to be able to do a lot of teaching, so not having as much time to do that now has been an adjustment as well. I still do a good bit, though, and I have to this year because we are a new staff. I do thoroughly enjoy that, and we try to be a teaching program.

“We set three goals and continue to talk about that process and get them to focus on three things: defensive field goal percentage, outrebounding the opponent by five, and keeping turnovers down. It is really not a hard game. If you do a good job of those three things, you can’t do anything but win.

“Then, within those three things we try to teach out of that. Why are we turning the ball over – Bad passes, not receiving it well? Why aren’t we getting the field goal percentage that we want – Are we not contesting shots or giving up too many second shots?  As we get better at the simple execution of those things, then we will begin to reap the rewards of that.”

So Perry, Plitzuweit and Brown continue to help their teams take those small steps toward the results they desire. Clearly they aren’t where they want to be at this point in their seasons, but the second half is just around the corner. So what do they need and expect from their teams now that they are halfway through the season?

“We’re still learning how to win,” said Perry. “Especially in this league, you don’t just go out there and win. We have played well in spurts, and that’s really been the story of our last two or three games. We’re getting closer, but we’re just not over the hump yet. We really need all six or seven players to come out and play well for us.

“I know it sounds cliché, but our expectations honestly are to be our best on a daily basis,” said Plitzuweit. “That means our best not only in practice and in the games, but in the classroom and in the community. We talk all of the time about being engaged, being in the moment, wherever that may be.”

And for Brown, it is about just doing it. “Tennis pro Vic Braden said ‘just hit the same old boring winners.’ For us that means just do what we’ve asked you to do and let things fall from there. That is the best thing that I have seen from our team over the past couple of weeks."

Friday, January 11, 2013

JU Women's Lacrosse Ready for New Challenges

Big things are in store for Jacksonville University women’s lacrosse.

To begin, the Dolphins are making a move to a new conference that carries an automatic bid for the NCAA playoffs. JU will continue to compete in the A-Sun against former National Lacrosse Conference foes and A-Sun affiliate members Detroit and Howard. The Dolphins will also face new programs Stetson and Kennesaw State in 2013, and prepare to welcome Mercer, Furman and Elon in 2014.
JU Head Coach Mindy McCord
“We are thrilled about being a part of the Atlantic Sun Conference as the A-Sun’s newest sport, and it is very exciting to have an automatic bid,” said JU Head Coach Mindy McCord. “While certainly we are going to show up at the field on game day and do what we need to do to compete for the championship and the automatic bid, we also have to do everything we can to help the newer teams succeed as well.”

This weekend the 2012 NLC champions have the honor of ushering in the A-Sun’s inaugural season of women’s lacrosse, hosting nationally ranked Syracuse on Sunday, Jan. 13, at 7 p.m. at D.B. Milne Field.

The Orange coming to town is an indication of the growth that is occurring in the Dolphins’ program. In years past, one or two of the nation’s upper level teams dotted JU’s schedule. In 2013, however, the Dolphins are scheduled to play four NCAA Final Four teams from 2011 and 2012 and six teams ranked in the top 22 according to's rankings. 

Perennial top-20 Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt comes to town followed by NCAA semi-finalist and third-ranked Florida. Up-and-comer San Diego State comes to town and other opponents include historic lacrosse programs William & Mary, Old Dominion, and powerhouses Duke and North Carolina. The Dolphins face NCAA playoff team, Navy, in a tough road contest and will see Presbyterian and Winthrop. Additionally, JU will scrimmage the world's fourth-ranked team, European champion Team England.

“Our non-conference schedule is very ambitious,” said McCord. “We have played some of the top-end teams previously, but not as many in a season as we do this year. When you are building a program you have to schedule purposefully. Early on in our program it was about building confidence and learning how to win. But we have an experienced upper class now and you can see that translating to the field. At this point we are either competing with those types of teams or we see what it takes to get to the next step.”

A-Sun Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year Rachel Hannon

With its experience and talent, JU seems ready to take the next step. In three years, McCord and her team have transformed from a squad of freshmen to conference champions and NCAA record-setters who are receiving regional and national recognition. JU was a unanimous pick as the A-Sun favorite in the inaugural preseason coaches poll, and seven Dolphins earned preseason recognition as well from the A-Sun coaches. Senior Rachel Hannon was tabbed as the preseason player and defensive player of the year.  Joining Hannon on the preseason all-conference team from JU are juniors Alexandra Hoffman, Brit Orashen, Morgan Derner  and Kayla Quint. Freshman Kelsey Wigglesworth and sophomore Taylor McCord were selected to the A-Sun’s Newcomer Watch List. 

Jacksonville set an NCAA record averaging 18.16 goals per game a year ago, which is a clear reflection of its head coach’s philosophy. 

“Our strength is speed and I like a fast-paced game,” said McCord. “I like the attacking style of game, one in which we take a lot of shots and take advantage of fast breaks and the transition game.

“The season is a lot longer this year, and so we have to temper ourselves and do everything we can to stay fresh. Our team needs to take the fundamentals that we have been building on to the next level and improve in our skills. And we need to manage the game better, which means running the system tighter. We have enjoyed success from good preparation in the past, and now we have to take that and raise our level of execution. We need to play with a confidence as a result of competence.”

So how have the Dolphins been able to achieve such meteoric success?

“First, simply every day we try to be better than the day before,” says McCord. “Now that we are at this point in our program it is all about growth, and making constant improvement. As we prepare to win an A-Sun championship that improvement becomes even more important.

“But there is a combination of reasons that we have been able to achieve the success we have so early in the program. First we are highly supported at the highest levels of our institution. Next, we have done a good job of finding the right makeup of student-athletes for our team. If you look at our team you don’t see a lot of top scorers because we are very team oriented. We may not have the best players, but they are good players who are willing to learn.”

McCord refers to her staff as being very teaching-oriented. And with her background in counseling and sports psychology, the philosophy surrounding the program is one of development, both on and off the field.

“Our staff is very teaching-oriented,” said McCord. “We want our players to come in and develop not only as players but as people. We are not necessarily focused on just developing good players, but on their development as individuals. We look for girls who are strong academically, because we find that tends to contribute to them being able to learn and assimilate what we are trying to teach. They are smart and they are coming to college to learn, and that helps on the field because they are already focused on learning.

“We are about building women on and off the field. With my background I am naturally focused on what they are thinking. We care about them as people and we want them to become comfortable learning to take risks and to accomplish what they set out to do. We reinforce the individual’s work ethic and want to encourage and drive our players to do what they do best, not how they compare to others.

As the A-Sun newest teams Stetson and Kennesaw State begin this year and Mercer, Elon and Furman next year launch their programs, perhaps in some way JU’s vision and plan could serve as some sort of a template for those newer programs. Several elements, such as commitment to values, passion, teamwork, and leadership are a few that McCord believes to be integral in building a program, particularly from the ground up.

“For new teams, you have to work hard to create a team identity and that centers around your system of beliefs and the core values of your program,” said McCord. “It is crucial to get your players to commit to that, and then to stand behind it. Plus, early on encouragement is important. While the successes may not be readily apparent on the scoreboard, they are achieving in other ways.

“One of our ideas is ‘Together we make things happen,’ emphasizing being teammates first. That means focusing on the little things, taking a daily assessment as players and as a staff. It means helping players mature as people, players and student-athletes and instilling and feeding that ambition to pursue what they are passionate about. We are passionate about not only our team, but about being excellent representatives of our institution and being an active part of our community, and you see that very clearly from our team.

McCord adds that when working with a young team or creating a team from scratch like several teams in the A-Sun, the coach has to also be a captain in terms of leadership. “Building leadership is done by never assuming that anyone knows how to lead.,” said McCord. “You hear about players being natural leaders, but when you field a team of 18 freshmen, they are not going to know what that necessary leadership looks like. We spent a lot of time on developing leaders, and it is still important that we reinforce it and identify what that looks like for them.”

Clearly this experienced and successful Jacksonville team is expected to be, and expects to be, the A-Sun’s leader as the conference’s inaugural season of women’s lacrosse gets underway. But with big things in store for the Dolphins, that can translate into bigger things indeed for all of A-Sun women’s lacrosse.

“When everyone is experiencing success and growth in their programs, that raises the profile of the conference. That helps with everything from building the legitimacy of the sport to creating awareness and recognition of the A-Sun, and we want to do everything we can to help accomplish that.”

Monday, January 7, 2013

Which of the following performances is worthy of the Crons Achiever Award for December?

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.
Stephen Hurt, Lipscomb Men's Basketball
Averaging a double-double over the course of the month, Lipscomb redshirt freshman Stephen Hurt claimed a pair of Atlantic Sun Newcomer of the Week awards for his play in December. The Murfreesboro, Tenn., native averaged 13.3 points per game and added 10.3 rebounds. After notching his first career double-double at Kentucky (12 pts., 11 reb.), Hurt scored 23 points and grabbed a Lipscomb freshman record 18 rebounds on the road at Austin Peay. His efforts led to him being named one of three "Top Performers of the Night." Hurt followed up his performance against the Govs with his third-straight double-double (15 points, 13 rebounds) on the road at Memphis.

Sarah Hansen, FGCU Women's Basketball
In FGCU's 76-70 upset of SEC foe LSU, Sarah Hansen finished with a career-high and game-high of 30 points, her 11th double-figure scoring performance of the season. She finished 7-of-12 shooting from the field, 2-of-4 from long distance and a perfect 14-of-14 from the charity stripe. Hansen registered the second 30-point performance in FGCU’s Division I history and the first since Feb. 12, 2009. The McKean, Pa., native also tallied nine rebounds, three assists and three steals. For the month Hansen averaged 17.1 points and 7.0 rebounds while leading the Eagles to a 5-2 record (including wins over Virginia Tech, Richmond, LSU).

Mercer Men's Basketball
During the month of December Mercer Men's Basketball went 5-2 and posted road wins over a pair of BCS conference schools (Alabama, Florida State). The Bears trailed with less than 10 minutes to go in Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee before rallying for wins. Mercer also posted a 2-0 mark at home, including a win over Stetson in the conference opener on New Year's Eve.

Travis Wallace, North Florida Men's Basketball
Wallace led the Ospreys in scoring and rebounding for the month of December, averaging 18.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He also paced the squad with a 69.1 shooting percentage from the field. Wallace recorded double-figure points in all seven of UNF’s games and ended the month with four consecutive games with 20 or more points. That streak was highlighted by a season-best 27 at Portland. He shot better than 50 percent from the floor in every game and had a pair of games shooting better than 80 percent while handing out 1.6 assists per game. Wallace earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Classic after helping lead UNF to the championship and was named Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Week for the first time in his career.

As the Official Motivation and Apparel Brand of the Atlantic Sun Conference, Crons sponsors the monthly "Achiever Award" to recognize what A-Sun fans deem the most notable performance from each month.

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.