Thursday, October 31, 2013

Atlantic Sun Continues Rich Cross Country History at Vaughn's Gap

In the past decade no course is more prominent to the Atlantic Sun as the Vaughn’s Gap Course in Nashville, Tennessee.

The league is on the brink of crowning its fourth A-Sun Champion on the course for men’s and women’s cross country since 2004.

Four A-Sun squads have competed on the course this year alone with Lipscomb’s men winning the team title in the common meet, while the LU women’s squad finished second only behind the SEC’s Vanderbilt.

Focusing on home course advantage, a Nashville school has won every A-Sun.

Championship on the Vaughn’s Gap Course on the women’s side, while the men have won two out of three.

The Lady Bisons have become very comfortable with the course and step in as the two-time defending A-Sun Champion. The last women’s team to win at the Vaughn’s Gap course was Lipscomb.

“The last time we ran the championship here our women’s team was just starting to emerge as the team they are now,” Head Coach of the Lady Bisons Bill Taylor said.

The Bisons’ win in Nashville in 2011 was one of the toughest titles in conference history as Lipscomb notched the win with 53 points, the fourth-highest winning total in A-Sun history and a testament to the parity and competitiveness among the field that season.

“Our course is pretty basic, it’s got good footing with a few good hills,” explained Taylor.

ETSU ran the same course earlier this season at the Commodore Classic on September 14th. The Buccaneers' Katie Hirko, last season's A-Sun Freshman of the Year, enjoyed the lay out.

“I felt that the course had a good mixture of hills but also some flat sections where you can start to develop a rhythm,” Hirko said. “This course should appeal to all runners.  It is a very demanding course but a very fair course; I enjoy how the last mile is almost completely flat.”

At the Commodore Classic, Hirko finished in the top-25 with a time of 17:49.20 against several regionally ranked competitors.

“Overall I believe the runners will like the course and have a very positive experience running on it,” Hirko claimed. 

In the 2012 A-Sun Championship, Hirko was the first freshman to cross the line to be named the A-Sun Freshman of the Year. Hirko was the only freshman to finish in the top-10 in the meet.

“I feel very fortunate to have been named the Freshman of the Year in 2012, my goal this year and for every meet is to do the very best I can for my team and school,” Hirko said. “I feel I have made normal progress from one year to the next and look forward to the conference championship. There are a lot of very talented runners in our conference; I look forward to competing against them.”

On the men’s side there has been only one team that has claimed the A-Sun title at the Vaughn’s Gap Course that was not from Tennessee and the USC Upstate squad in 2011 did so in exciting fashion.

“Two years ago when we won the title in Nashville it was a surprise, we really didn’t expect to win,” USC Upstate’s Associate Head Coach Carson Blackwelder remarked. “Our goal going in was top 3 and the guys stepped up and made it a very special meet for us.  It was the first A-Sun championship victory for our program.” 

Upstate won the title by ten points as Gilbert Kemboi crossed the line 28 seconds faster than his nearest competitor. The Spartans hold the A-Sun record for the highest winning team total with 69 points in the 2011 championship.

“I know those guys on that team will remember that day for the rest of their lives.”

Northern Kentucky’s J.J. Webber is hoping to surprise some teams this year after the Norse ran the course earlier this year at the Commodore Classic and claimed the individual title.

“I think because we ran the course earlier this year it will help us (NKU) be more competitive, we have a great team this year,” Webber said. “I think we are going to surprise some people this year.”

Webber crossed the line in 24:58.38 to defeat harriers from ETSU, Mercer and Lipscomb to collect runner of the week honors that week. Webber became the first men’s cross country runner in the A-Sun to earn four Runner of the Week titles in one season.

“I hope all of the Florida teams aren’t as prepared for the colder weather. I think that’s a great advantage for us. Our team is ready for a competitive race.”

Friday, October 25, 2013

Culture Changes Places Win Record in Sight for JU

When head coach Michelle Collier took over the Jacksonville volleyball program prior to the 2012 season, the Dolphins were in the midst of a slide from title contender status that would eventually lead to three-straight losing seasons.

With that setting, Collier began to transform the program by focusing on creating a solid culture and it has not taken long to see the results. JU owns the nation’s seventh-best winning percentage, sitting at 19-2 and atop the A-Sun standings at 9-1. With one more win, the Dolphins will achieve their first 2-win season since 2008. The Dolphins all-time win record is 34 that was set in 1977 with a 34-15 record.

“It has been a surreal season for us,” Collier said. “I am not really too caught up on the numbers of wins. Winning has really been a byproduct of not taking our opportunities for granted, working hard every day and focusing on the team and its spirit.”

One of the keys for Jacksonville has been a realization that living in the present will lead to good things.

“My strategy has been to help my players realize this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” added Collier. “They have a chance to make this experience about the right things (like) building relationships, enjoying every moment, pushing themselves, working hard and having no regrets.”

The relationship building resonates with the student-athletes as well.

“Every relationship needs to have trust and I feel that the reason we are so consistent is because we all trust each other. We have each other’s backs and pull one another through the challenges we face,” said senior Alyssa Robertson.

The results have been difficult to beat. Since losing two out of three matches from September 18-21, JU has reeled off nine straight victories highlighted by a five-set home win versus defending champ ETSU and a 3-0 sweep of Stetson to avenge their only conference loss.

Despite the success, Jacksonville finds itself in a tight race for conference supremacy with the Lady Bucs and traditional A-Sun power Lipscomb. The trio is separated by just a game in the conference standings with four weeks remaining, setting up an exciting race to the finish for A-Sun volleyball.

“We have been through so many changes with our program and finally it is our time to step up and shine,” added Robertson.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Young Eagles Continue Program's Legacy One Match at a Time

ETSU, Mercer, Stetson.

All three squads have finished runner-up in the Atlantic Sun Men’s Soccer Regular Season over the past three years, but only one element has remained constant during that span; FGCU, who is riding a 13-match unbeaten streak vs. conference foes. 

The Eagles, who have won three-straight regular season crowns, now sit in the driver’s seat at 4-0-1 after Thursday’s scoreless draw vs. Mercer. Only three matches remain on FGCU’s schedule as the Blue and Green try to become the only program in league history to capture four-in-a-row.

The feat is not lost on FGCU Head Coach Bob Butehorn, who has been at the helm of the Eagles’ program since its inception in 2007.

“When you are able to win a championship in any year it is a significant moment in your program’s history. For me it is an accomplishment that we look at and are proud of, but every year we try to find how we can succeed in that year and continue our success.”

Several records sit in the wake of FGCU’s run through the conference over the past four years. The 2010 squad, which went 9-0-0 in league play, is one of six teams to post a perfect record in A-Sun play, while last year’s senior class won 28 conference matches; most-ever during a four-year stretch.

But what makes the current squad so different than year’s past? 

No seniors adorn the 2013 roster. Only redshirt juniors, Juan Castellon and Henry Penagos, remain from FGCU’s first A-Sun title team in 2010.

“With the younger group, we had to start on a different level than in year’s past which we might have taken for granted this season,” Butehorn said, noting the early-season struggles. “We needed to figure out how the players would react to our teaching and what points to make to them while laying the foundation for the team and still looking at the bigger picture for the season.”

The Eagles started the season 0-5-1 thanks in part to a grueling schedule, two overtime losses and four one-goal losses. Despite scoring an average of 1.6 goals in the first six games, FGCU’s opponents were scoring more than three goals per contest. 

“We felt like we had a good team, but we just needed to get our players sorted out in the spots they were most comfortable and could contribute best. A lot of the games early in the season were one-goal games and we were just letting in too many goals.”

A two-match road trip to the Northeast turned FGCU’s season around as the Eagles recorded their first shutout; 1-0 at Princeton, after netting the season’s first win two days prior against Penn, 3-2.

“Our players took accountability for the critical moments in the game and have learned our system, which has guided us in our recent success.”

Despite the lack of four-year players on this team one thing has remained the same. FGCU is still producing at a high rate as the Eagles are on an eight-match unbeaten streak (7-0-1), which started with the two overtime victories.

Since sophomore striker Felipe DeSousa began the unbeaten streak with his overtime goal at Penn, FGCU has returned to the basics of what made them a dominant force in the A-Sun – not surrendering goals. The Eagles have allowed only one goal, a 63rd minute strike from ETSU’s David Geno, in the last 600 minutes of play.

In A-Sun play, FGCU has surrendered only 0.20 goals per game as the Eagles’ defense is taking shape after losing several key pieces last season. By comparison, the 2010 FGCU squad surrendered only two goals in nine league matches for an average of 0.22 goals allowed per contest.

Heading into Saturday’s matches, FGCU is in the driver’s seat with Lipscomb and ETSU not far behind holding identical 3-1 league records but limited time ahead to catch the Eagles. FGCU recorded conference wins vs. Lipscomb and ETSU earlier this month.

But for Coach Butehorn nothing is set in stone for FGCU this season and he knows anything can happen in the final three A-Sun matches.

“Each team is different, they all have their own personalities and identities and with this year’s team they are proud of the past accomplishments of our program, but we will still only look ahead to the next game.”

Next up for FGCU is Stetson on Oct. 26th, who finished as the Atlantic Sun Runner-up to the Eagles in 2011.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Turn Around: Lipscomb Women’s Soccer

From 2010-12, Lipscomb Women’s Soccer managed a combined eight points in conference action with a 2-24-2 record in those three seasons.

Nearly halfway through the 2013 Atlantic Sun conference schedule, the Bison are sitting at 4-5-4 overall with five points in conference play on a 1-1-2 record against A-Sun opponents.

The squad has rewritten the LU record books in several facets including goals scored in a season, points, wins and shutouts just to name a few.

So how have they turned the program around?

Looking at this year’s Bison roster you would never guess this would be the season they would tie the defending A-Sun Champion FGCU and defeat the A-Sun Finalist Mercer. The roster is comprised of 14 freshmen, eight sophomores, three juniors and four seniors. In total, the team consists of 20 out-of-state 
players, four international players and just five from the state of Tennessee.

“The reality is that the recruiting landscape for women’s soccer is very early, so girls are committing at the end of their sophomore year and the beginning of their junior year in high school so when I got the job here the top American players were picked over so I said we were going to get the best we could get and sprinkle in some international players,” Head Coach of the Lipscomb Kevin O’Brien explained.

LU currently has eight freshmen in its starting line-up but they are not letting that hold them back.

O’Brien has been pleased with the results from his young squad and how well they have bought into what he is trying to create with the program. 

“Did I expect the freshmen to come in and do as well as they have? No. But ultimately I am happy they have. I think they are getting experience that they typically would not get with other programs.”

Leading the charge is freshman stand-out Ellen Lundy who leads the A-Sun in goals (12) and points (27). As of October 7th, Lundy ranks in the top-ten in the nation in goals and points. 

Lundy has already crushed the Lipscomb program record for goals in a season which was six goals set in 2011 and broke the record for points in a season (14) set in 2008.

“Ellen is a funny story, her club coach told her it would be difficult to be a Division I forward and she should train to be a center back with her height, but when she came to the ID camp I knew she was a prototypical forward because you can play it to her and she can keep possession and make great decisions with the ball,” 
O’Brien said. “For me she was a perfect fit for what I wanted in a forward.”

Lundy’s jump start into her first collegiate season was a shock to many even her coach “I didn’t know Ellen would be quite as good as she is at scoring. I thought she would be setting up shots for others but she just has a knack for shaping shots.”

“The top-producing freshmen in Ellen and Caroline Springsteen both came to an ID camp and the fit at Lipscomb was what they were looking for and ultimately I could tell quickly that they were going to be impact players here,” O’Brien said.

The Bisons have never collected more than four wins in a season. As they currently stand, they have four victories with five games left in the season and stand a fair chance at earning a spot in the A-Sun Championship for the first time in program history.

“As we move forward and these players mature we will set our bar a little higher until we can reach the ultimate goal of winning an A-Sun Championship,” O’Brien stated.

Baylee Linnell is one of the upperclassmen on the squad and has seen the changes the team has gone through in the past couple of years.

“Before our team consisted of a lot of individual players, talented players but we hadn’t put it all together. Now we work off each other and put it together as a team and we are much more successful,” Linnell explained. “He (Kevin O’Brien) has set the team up to grow together and I’m really looking forward to seeing where the program is going.”

Linnell has been an important part in the Bisons season as she has six goals and five assists for 17 points. 
Linnell’s 17 points is tied for the third-most in the A-Sun.

Linnell says that the team’s success has derived from all of the players buying into the changes that have been made since O’Brien took over last season.

“You can really get kids excited if you cast the vision of ‘Hey, we want you to be part of the change,’ kids get excited about that,” O’Brien mentioned.

As part of that change Linnell remarked, “The progression I’ve seen is something I’m really proud to be a part of.”

One thing is certain, the players on Lipscomb’s Women’s Soccer squad are rewriting the program's history and it is something to be excited about.

Friday, October 4, 2013

#ASunVB Telling Good Stories Nearing Midpoint of Season

Everyone loves a good story.

Stories give meaning to something, and they usually share emotion. Often they even give us something or someone to cheer for.

There are many good stories emanating from the Atlantic Sun Conference already in 2013-14, but you have to look no further than A-Sun volleyball for some of the more intriguing story lines so far this fall.

Success always makes for a good story, and during the first month of the season there have been several developing storylines from A-Sun volleyball to highlight. In fact, look no further than recent news from the A-Sun and its top five teams in the current standings for a handful of stories that include success, drama, intrigue and suspense.

First came the A-Sun’s 16-match volleyball package on ESPN3. Through its relationship with the multi-screen sports network, the A-Sun continues to enhance its role as a leader in on-campus production. The conference became the first to adopt the conference-wide on-campus production model, and the commitment to the initiative has resulted in a 300 percent increase in television-caliber live productions since 2011. The schedule also rivals that of any of the NCAA’s 31 Division I conferences.

The A-Sun continues to provide additional original content that includes a myriad of conference and nonconference matches that has grown to a total of 19 matches. Four matches produced on campus have already appeared on ESPN3, including a pair from both USC Upstate and Lipscomb. Kennesaw State’s first on-campus production is scheduled for tonight, as the Owls host third-place Jacksonville at 7 p.m. (EST).

Like a good underdog story? Then you will love the rags-to-riches story of A-Sun leader Stetson. Picked to finish last in the 2013 preseason coaches’ poll, admittedly the Stetson volleyball team’s success has it venturing into uncharted territory. The Hatters quickly surpassed last year’s win total in just the second week of the season, and went on to post their best start in 17 years. The Hatters were 13-5 for the first time in school history (records date back to 1980, program dates back to 1970) prior to their loss to FAU on Tuesday, which was their first loss since Sept. 14. They are also 9-0 at home for the first-time ever, and 4-0 in the league for the first time since 2002.

The team has also had four A-Sun Player of the Week honorees, seven all-tournament team selections, and senior Kaley Melville is now the fifth player in school history to surpass 1000 kills and 1000 digs. Melville is also second to ETSU’s Megan Devine on the career active leader list in kills.

Win streaks also make for entertaining storylines, and the conference has a couple of those to speak of as well. Defending champ ETSU got off to a slow start in 2013, posting a 4-6 mark before finding the spark at the Lady Vol Classic in mid-September. The Bucs topped Austin Peay and host Tennessee in the last two matches of that tournament, and began a five-game win streak that continues into the weekend. Then you can throw in the unique story of Bucs’ Head Coach Lindsey Devine becoming ETSU’s leader in coaching victories this season while her daughter Megan Devine, the reigning A-Sun Player of the Year, is now 88 kills away from becoming the A-Sun career kill leader.

Through the first few weeks of the season for FGCU, the story was “What is wrong with the preseason favorites?” For the second straight season the Eagles’ start has been rocky, last year entering conference play at 4-7 and this season at 1-10. FGCU’s nonconference schedule this season was a difficult one, including three Top-25 teams in Penn State, Florida State and Ohio State. Last year the Eagles rebounded from their slow start and won 15 straight matches and 18 of their last 20 to claim the A-Sun regular season title. 

This year FGCU began the conference season 0-1 but has claimed three straight A-Sun matches to place the Eagles in a tie for third with Jacksonville. If they are looking forward to a repeat performance, however, the Eagles will have to get past a red-hot Stetson who awaits their 6 p.m. match-up in DeLand tonight.

Other than Stetson’s early success, Jacksonville’s Dolphins may be a bit of a surprise as well to those on the outside looking in. Picked to finish fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, JU jumped out to a 9-0 start and was one of only 12 remaining undefeated teams in the NCAA when they fell to UCF on Sept. 18. Since that loss they have gone 3-1 and sit in a tie for third place in the A-Sun at 3-1 and 12-2 overall.

Like Stetson, the Dolphins make it happen with outstanding play and leadership from players such as senior Kendall Courtney and sophomore Sammie Strausbaugh. Courtney is the only player who is a career active leader in two categories (assists and aces), while Strausbaugh is the current A-Sun Player of the Week and the reigning Freshman of the Year.

Then there is Lipscomb, quietly sitting at 2-1 in the A-Sun and 8-5 overall but certainly not off anyone’s radar and poised to make a charge at any time. Winners of three of the last four A-Sun titles, the Lady Bisons have led the nation for three consecutive weeks in kills per game and have ranked third in the same time frame in assists per game. Jewell Dobson and Caitlin Dotson are also among the nation’s best three offensive categories, as Dotson is second nationally in assists and Dobson is eighth in kills and ninth in points per game. The Lady Bisons could be lying in wait as they enter a five-match home stand this weekend, poised to make a move as they reach the halfway point of the 2013 season.

A writer named Joseph Campbell once explained that we tell stories because we are fascinated by the hero’s journey. For the A-Sun, there are certainly journeys worth following at the midpoint of the 2013 season. There is the conference’s story of its commitment to leadership in the area of campus production and digital delivery. The feel-good story of a team making a dramatic turnaround is always a favorite, while many choose the intrigue of which teams can sustain their success or recapture the magic that led them to recent success. Still others are most comfortable with the consistency provided by experienced teams with talented players who are focused on making another run at a championship.

Everyone loves a good story, and the A-Sun is proud to tell these and many more each Friday in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for the next story, the telling of that particular hero’s journey that is sure to keep you coming back for more from the A-Sun.