Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dolphins' Championship Another Highlight in Memorable Season

What a difference a year makes.

Last season the Jacksonville Dolphins also concluded their season in the A-Sun Championship, but with a much different result. JU dropped its first round match to cross-town rival North Florida 3-0 and finished 10-24 overall and 7-11 in the A-Sun.

But to many familiar with the JU program and A-Sun volleyball, that was the conclusion of one season and the beginning of something special.

A year later the Dolphins are the 2013 A-Sun Champions on the strength of their dramatic 3-2 victory against A-Sun perennial power Lipscomb. The defeat of the Lady Bisons was the second of the season for the Dolphins and the tournament title, their second (2004), serves as another milestone in a season that has many highlights.

“I am so proud of the way we handle ourselves as a team,” says JU Head Coach Michelle Collier. “This team has such a great chemistry, which is a huge factor in this sport, and they are completely sold out into what we are trying to accomplish and how we do that.  Last season it was almost like a relief when we won a match, and this year they step onto the court expecting to win. They play with heart and passion, and I couldn’t be more proud of them for this season.”

The Dolphins have accumulated 29 wins to tie the A-Sun record for wins in the rally-point scoring system, which began in 2001.

Dolphins senior Kendall Courtney became the A-Sun career leader in service aces while also completing her final season as the leading career active leader in assists. Courtney finished with 11 double-doubles and finished fifth and third in assists and service aces, respectively.

Collier earned A-Sun Coach of the Year honors as she led the Dolphins to a share of the regular season championship, their program’s second tournament championship and a historic season. Statistically the Dolphins were also some of the best in the conference and in the nation, ranking in the top three in the conference in five of the A-Sun’s statistical rankings. Nationally the Dolphins checked in among the country’s top 50 in five categories – W/L Pct., Aces Per Set, Kills Per Set, Hitting Pct. and Assists Per Set.

Four of Collier’s pupils were honored in the 2013 A-Sun regular season awards– Sammie Strausbaugh, Courtney, Kylie Jacob, and Rachel Miller. Strausbaugh, the 2012 A-Sun Freshman of the Year, was an All-Conference First-Team selection after leading the conference in service aces per set (.36), ranking seventh in kills per set and finishing the season among the top 10 conference players in double-doubles with 12.

Courtney and Jacob were also All-Conference Second-Team selections and Miller earned membership to the A-Sun All-Freshman Team.

So what made the difference in 2013? Strausbaugh credits a renewed work ethic, experience and a focus that stems from solid team chemistry.

“I think our success this season is a result of many things. We have a lot more experience as a team this season, led by some great players who have enjoyed solid careers in their own rights,” says Strausbaugh. “This team has a mindset to win, to come to work hard every day, when before I don’t think that type of commitment was there. Now we are not going to let anyone outwork us, and that helps us play with a lot more consistency. And I think one of our biggest strengths is our chemistry. This is a very close-knit team that enjoys each other and at the same time focuses on volleyball when it is time to do so.”

Collier is not only proud of her team’s accomplishment, but understands what their success means for the A-Sun as the conference continues to make strides and teams continue to improve and seek their place among the nation’s best.

“This has been a great year from a competitive standpoint for the A-Sun,” she says. “We saw it from Stetson and coming into the championship FGCU was playing well again, then you have a team like Lipscomb who is always going to be there. Teams in the A-Sun are coming prepared to play, and I think we will have three teams in the top 100 of the RPI ratings after this weekend. The future is definitely bright for A-Sun volleyball.”

The Dolphins now have a week to wait until the NCAA Volleyball Selection Show next Sunday, Dec. 1, to discover who and where they will continue the ride that Collier says has been a lot of fun.

“I have said this before, but the thing that makes me the happiest about this team is the fact that they are having fun,” says Collier. “They really enjoy each other, and it is so important that they enjoy this experience. I know they do because it has translated into success on the court. They want to practice, they listen to us, and they play for each other. They are in this for the right reason, and that is what makes this team truly successful.”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Lipscomb's "More Aggressive" Nature is Becoming for the Lady Bisons

Lipscomb volleyball has made quite a run in the in the last decade, as the Lady Bisons are participating in their ninth straight A-Sun Championship with tournament titles in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. It helped that Rosenthal’s teams have been blessed with talent such as A-Sun Players of the Year and Tournament MVP selections such as Katie Rose, Stefine “Jake” Pease and two-time winner Alex Kelly.

Now the Lady Bisons move into the A-Sun Championship final for the fourth time in six years, finding that the third time was the charm against defending tournament champion ETSU. Lipscomb now has its sights set on becoming the only team in A-Sun history other than UCF to win at least five Championship titles.

Yet even with the tremendous success that included two seasons of posting undefeated records in A-Sun play (20-0 in 2009-10, 10-0 in 2010-11), a look at this year’s numbers indicates that this Lady Bison team, on paper, is the best that Lipscomb has fielded under Rosenthal.

Lipscomb has a hitting percentage of .276, averages 14.22 assists per set and 15.30 kills per set, which incidentally, leads the nation. All of these numbers are better than those from any of the four championship teams, so it is an interesting prospect as the Lady Bisons prepare to battle Jacksonville for their fifth tournament title.

“I am not a numbers guy, but with the season that we have had and the success that we have had not only in the A-Sun but nationally, it made me go back and look into it a bit myself,” says Rosenthal. “It is neat to see what we have been able to accomplish on a national scale while playing most of the season without a key player or two.”

What Lipscomb has been able to accomplish is impressive. The Lady Bisons have led the nation in kills per set (15.30) every week but one of the 2013 season, and has just fallen to third in assists per set (14.22) after leading in that category for a good portion of the season as well. They are also 15th in hitting percentage (.276) and three Lady Bisons are ranked among the top 50 players individually, led by Caitlin Dotson, who is tops in the country in assists per set (12.74).

Jewell Dobson, who was a member of the last Lipscomb tournament champion in 2011, is seventh nationally in points per set (5.32), eighth in kills per set (4.66) and 34th in hitting percentage (.386). Molly Spitznagle, who missed some action due to injury, is back in the swing of things ranked 33rd in hitting percentage (.387).

So is this team one of the best teams that Lipscomb has fielded?

“When I look at this team, I think we are just starting to find out who they are,” says Rosenthal. “We have been without Molly Spitznagle and Stephanie Rex a good bit due to injuries, and we haven’t played with a full complement of players until just recently.”

“Throughout the year we really have made a huge step this year following the end of last season, and it has put us up there again to achieve one of our goals which is to win a conference championship.”

The step to which Rosenthal refers is a decision from the coaching staff and the players to be more aggressive in their play. The numbers bear out the commitment to this more aggressive style, and he says it is large part to an increased level of confidence from key players such as A-Sun Player of the Year Jewell Dobson, Lauren Ford, Molly Spitznagle and Brittnay Estes.

“This is not something that we just stumbled upon, but something that we have worked toward,” he says. “It takes time to change, but we have been able to accomplish it and move forward because of the amazing chemistry that this team possesses. This is one of the tightest teams that we have had here. I have always thought that chemistry is such a key part of success in this sport, and it is something that you can’t manufacture.

Rosenthal points to Dobson and Dotson, particularly, as two examples of how this style of play has transformed their game and that of the team. Dobson, who Rosenthal calls one of the meekest players on the team, has blossomed into a national leader. Dotson has also followed suit as she currently leads the nation in assists, and is a player whom Rosenthal credits as a catalyst for the team’s amazing cohesiveness.

“Offensively we knew that we had something special, and just look at the remarkable year that Dobson and Dotson have enjoyed,” he says. “Then you have Lauren Ford, who is quietly putting together one of her best seasons as well.

“Defensively we do a good job, and we transition so well. We typically don’t have long rallies and we dig to target, and then this year we are very efficient offensively in finishing. One area that we have worked on in the last year is our blocking, which is one of the tougher things to improve. It just takes a while.”

Along with the more aggressive style of play, Rosenthal also has a pair of new coaches in Billy Ebel and Ann Armes. Ebel has ties to some of the former and current Lipscomb volleyball athletes such as Jake Pease, Alex Kelly, Abby Fay and Meghan Hinemeyer, because they all grew up in the same area, He has also coached Lauren Ford and they both are from the same hometown of Lenexa, Kan.

Armes played outside hitter, right side and middle blocker for the University of Kentucky from 2007 until 2011, spending her freshman year as a redshirt. She served as a team captain in 2010 and 2011. During her time as a player Kentucky made five trips to the NCAA Tournament and was a key part of the all-time winning class in school history.

“Sometimes a little change goes a long way, and in the cases of both our style of play and the new coaches and the experience and different approaches that they have brought, change seems to have been a good thing,” says Rosenthal.

While there have been many things to like from this team, Rosenthal says what has impressed him the most is the team’s ability to play with consistency.

“I don’t know that we have had a team that played as well as this one has every time they are on the court,” says Rosenthal. “When you look at the schedule it is fun to look at, because there are no bad losses. We are 2-5 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI ratings, but there was no bad loss in any of those.

“Now the teams that we are beating and competing with are teams that years ago we just dreamed of taking points from,” he continues. “It takes a lot of time to change that culture, especially when you are like this team that is not overrun with personalities.

Rosenthal says that he sees that type of culture changes going on with many of the A-Sun teams and is excited to see the increased success that is occurring in the A-Sun.

“As a whole the A-Sun is undeniably on the move,” he says. “ETSU is into the mix with consistent success, and what JU has done this year is great for all of us in the conference. Then you have the Stetsons making their move and as this continues then you become very conscious of the RPI and moving the needle into the top 50.

“Tonight was a win for everyone because of the impact on RPI and soon we will begin to make someone make a very difficult decision when considering whether to invite more than one team from the A-Sun into the NCAA Tournament.”

For Jacksonville's Collier, Success Is All Part of the Experience

Second-year JU Head Coach Michelle Collier has the Dolphins as the No. 1 seed in the A-Sun Championship for the first time in program history.
If you watched the Jacksonville Dolphins in their A-Sun Championship semifinal this evening, then you saw a team having fun.

Yes, the Dolphins defeated No. 4 seed FGCU 3-1 and advanced to their fourth final in program history. Yes, the win was an important one, but the smiles and the celebrations on the court and in the locker room are the indicators that tell Head Coach Michelle Collier that this team is truly successful.

“I think what has been most rewarding to me about this season is when the girls tell me that they are having a good time,” says Collier. “I had a great college experience and I am fortunate to have a staff that also played a high level and that understands how important the experience is. You want to be a part of an experience that makes you happy, and this team is enjoying that right now.”

The on-the-court success this season of Jacksonville Dolphin volleyball is well documented.

In one season the Dolphins have gone from 10-24 to 27-3, a mark that is seventh best in the nation in wining percentage. JU is ranked in the top 50 nationally in a total of five statistical categories, and the Dolphins secured a share of the A-Sun regular season title and earned the No. 1 seed in the A-Sun Championship for the first time in program history.

The Dolphins are made up of several players who also receive their share of the spotlight, including seniors Kendall Courtney and Kylie Jacob, sophomore Sammie Strausbaugh and freshman Rachel Miller. But these players, says Collier, are where they are this season because her team has bought into a philosophy that she instituted from day one.

“This team lives and dies as a team,” says Collier. “They understand that no individual is bigger than the team. Yes, you have those who receive the attention, but there are six others making those seven better by showing up in the gym ready to work and playing with passion to make everyone better.”

That philosophy bears out clearly when looking at the A-Sun’s success in the national statistics. Jacksonville is ranked among the top 50 teams in the nation in five categories, the most in the conference. However, when looking at the individual rankings, not one Dolphin is among the top 50 players in the nation. 

As a high level player in her own right, Collier ranks among the greatest players ever collegiately. She ranks fifth in NCAA Division I history with 2,729 career kills and sits in the Bulls' top-10 in numerous career and single-season categories. She holds the top spot in USF history in two career categories (kills and digs, 1,747) and set three single-season marks during an amazing 2000 season. After coming back from an injury that forced her to the sidelines in 1999, Collier compiled 760 kills, 1,873 attacks and 6.28 kills per set.

A two-time Conference USA Player of the Year and 2002 All-American, she claimed the league's Player of the Decade in 2004. She also claimed the C-USA Freshman of the Year plaque in 1998 and led her school to three of the program's seven NCAA Tournament appearances. USF went 120-48 during her three years, claiming two C-USA titles and one C-USA tournament crown during her four playing years. Collier is the only volleyball player in USF history to have her jersey retired. She joined the USF Hall of Fame in its third class announced in 2011, the first Bulls volleyball player to earn that honor.  

Collier’s passion for the game is unmatched, and it has helped her instill the culture that now pervades Jacksonville volleyball. But it is much more than that, she says, that has enabled her to change the mindsets of her players and to get the most from her team.

“I have a good relationship with our players, and so does my staff,” says Collier. We don’t micromanage them, we do it with them. At first there were some things and attitudes that had to be addressed, but now they have bought into this culture and they realize that we are FOR them, not against them. Now it is more like a family, and they feel disappointed if they let the staff or me down. 

“At the same time they know that we have high expectations from them, and they respond to that. I am much more approachable than my coach was with me, and to be honest I don’t know the secret formula to why everything has been working this season. We are just having a good time. I won’t write about a book about it because I don’t know. But I do know that we have gone about things with the right mentality and intentions, and that is crucial.” 

The Dolphins’ roster includes the A-Sun Career leader in service aces, Kendall Courtney, and the 2012 A-Sun Freshman of the Year and member of the 2013 Academic All-Conference Team, Sammie Strausbaugh. Throw in Rachel Miller, a member of the 2013 A-Sun All-Freshman Team, and you have quite an impressive trio. Those three join senior Kylie Jacob, who ranks third among career active leader in blocks in the A-Sun, and the spotlight could remain on JU for quite some time. 

Collier’s experience of developing young players throughout her coaching career, along with her approach to her players and her passion for the game, has certainly provided immediate success for her as a developer of younger players like Strausbaugh and Miller. 

“Coach has been an incredible help to me,” says Strausbaugh. “Knowing that she was so good as a player herself, and that she played the same position as me, has really enabled me to improve my game. I can go to her with any questions and she knows because she has been there. And at times in a close match or when we find ourselves in a tough situation, she can help me out of it.” 

Miller is from Clearwater, Fla., near Tampa where Collier enjoyed a successful career at the University of South Florida.  

“I have so much respect for her and look up to her because of what she was able to accomplish and because of how she deals with us as players and individuals,” says Miller. “All of my club coaches were so excited when I made the decision to attend Jacksonville because they think so much of her, particularly in that area. 

“The way she deals with the team and the way the team responds to her was obvious to me when I visited. They included me right away and, while I also liked the school environment, I was welcomed right away and I knew that I could be comfortable spending four years in this program.” 

That experience, although certainly impressive, is not the only one that Collier has to draw from in order to teach players appreciation of the game. Growing up in Brazil and playing abroad, Collier learned the culture of high-level volleyball. She learned the passion for the game, and had opportunity to hone her skills by playing against older players who pushed her and taught her to expect high standards from herself and her teammates.

“I don’t know that I learned my approach as a coach from any one person or coach, but more through life experience,” says Collier. “I saw a lot and was a part of a lot of volleyball growing up in Brazil, and I also learned how fortunate players here in the states are when it comes to their resources. They are in an once-in-a-lifetime situation. I want to be sure that they understand that and that they are thankful for everything that they have going for them.”

The Dolphins are certainly enjoying one of their best seasons in program history. Ask anyone who is associated with the program and it is obvious that in just two short years, Collier’s impact is clear.

“This year the team chemistry is amazing,” says Miller. “We are all friends, sharing the attitude of ‘I will do anything for this team.’ I know that helps us in game situations and raises our level of play because we are committed to that idea.”

Strausbaugh agrees. “Our biggest strength is that we are a very close-knit team. When we are at work we are focused on volleyball, and we don’t let things on the outside distract us from that. But Coach has also done a great job in being both a player’s coach and a disciplinarian. She is tough on us, and that helps us to play with discipline. But she also communicated with us and we are comfortable going to her with non-volleyball stuff as well.”

Collier’s approach has clearly transformed this team into one poised for future success because she understands the importance of chemistry, particularly in volleyball.

“Chemistry is a huge factor in this sport,” says Collier. “I think that has translated into one of the most rewarding results of this season for me, which is how we handle ourselves as a team. They like being around each other, they have bought into our approach and they play with heart and passion in practice and in matches.

“I had a great college experience, and I miss it, and so does my staff. We want everyone who comes through this program to feel the same way when their careers are complete here. Sure we want to enjoy success, but success on the court is a nice by-product when you are in it for the right reason.”

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Lipscomb's Dotson Ready for Life After Lipscomb

Lipscomb's Caitlin Dotson leads the nation in assists per set, but off the court she has begun to provide a valuable service for her student-athlete peers.
Courtesy of Mark McGee and

Lipscomb senior setter Caitlin “Dot” Dotson has the ability to bring people together.

Her leadership skills are exceptional. Her confidence knows no limitations. She is aware that after she ends her volleyball career this season that there is much more of life ahead.

She has balanced the demands of her studies with being a co-captain of the volleyball team. She also writes a regular blog for And in the summers she has traveled to Haiti and Brazil on mission trips.
Dotson calls volleyball at Lipscomb a lifestyle, not just an athletic program. 

“It’s a mentality that you come to have, even if it takes a full four years to completely embrace it,” Dotson said. “The mentality not only expresses that we are elite and strong, but also deserving of rewards because we have worked hard.”  

On the court her hard work is evident. She is an All-Atlantic Sun First Team member this season and leads the nation in assists per set. She also has been named A-Sun Co-Conference Volleyball Scholar-Athlete of the Year. 

Off the court she has worked hard on a new program called “Linked Lipscomb” which she developed over the summer. She introduced the program this fall with the goal of helping her fellow athletes be better prepared for what lies ahead after they complete their careers on the court or on the field and graduate.

“It is an amazing opportunity for Dot and the rest of the girls,” Lipscomb coach Brandon Rosenthal said. “They want this to go somewhere. Our girls have jumped in with both feet. It is really neat to see.

“The basic premise is that a lot of students and student-athletes get to graduation and say, `O.K., now what?’  It is more so with student-athletes because they don’t have as much time to dedicate to internships and hunting for jobs."

“Linked Lipscomb” started with volleyball. All 14 0f her teammates signed up. But she is targeting any student-athletes that are willing to be a part of the program. Freshmen are a special priority.

“Our freshmen will not only be introduced to their school work,” Rosenthal said. “They will also get an opportunity to build their network so by the time they get to graduation it is not what’s next, but all of the different choices they may have.”

The most important thing that separates “Linked Lipscomb” from other mentor programs is that it is designed for athletes. Dotson developed the program with the assistance of Dr. Gary Jerkins, an ophthalmologist who is also a former tennis player for Lipscomb.

For the past three years a group of doctors has rented a suite in Allen Arena where pre-medical students are connected with Lipscomb alumni who are physicians.

“We call it the `Doc Box’,” Jerkins said. “It is a very non-threatening environment where young pre-med students can come and meet somebody in the medical field.”

Jerkins wanted to place an emphasis on student-athletes who might be interested in a medical career. He met with Philip Hutcheson, Lipscomb’s athletic director, and asked for a list of student-athletes who were interested in going into medicine.

“We wanted to make sure we got them to visit the `Doc Box’,” Jerkins said. “Philip sent me a list and on top of the list was the name, `Caitlin Dotson’.  And he verbally told me I needed to meet her. Philip also evidently told her she needed to meet with me."

Dotson originally planned to go to medical school to become a doctor. But she has changed her career emphasis and plans on becoming a physician’s assistant. They met in the `Doc Box’, but Dotson also spent time with Jerkins and his family at dinner.  She shadowed Jerkins at his practice and also spent time with other physicians observing their work.

“She is bright,” Jerkins said. “She is a critical thinker. She is a remarkable writer.She is a disciplined person.

“Dot was sharp enough to think that if this worked well for her why wouldn’t it work for her teammates who are going to be other professions."

Dotson and Jerkins met with Rosenthal. Dotson, as a team co-captain was given the go ahead to introduce the program to the members of the volleyball team.

Jerkins prefers to use the term “career coach instead of “mentors” when referring to those who are working with the program.

“We took great pains with trying to partner with young people with what they think they want to do professionally and people who are already in that career,” Jerkins said. “It worked with the volleyball team so Dot decided to move to men’s and women’s tennis.”

Many of the tennis players are from other countries with majors in international business. Turney Stevens, Dean of the College of Business, is overseeing connecting the athletes with career coaches. Stevens is also serving as a career coach for one student as well.

“There are different definitions of international business,” Jerkins said. “Jamie Aid (women’s tennis coach) and I met with Turney.

“I reached out to Turney and said we needed some help. He then personally came over to the tennis center and met with all of the players and got a grasp on the concept. It has been about making a personal ask - the grassroots approach - and taking the time and effort to match up career coaches with the students.”

On the education side, Dr. Candace McQueen, the Dean of the College of Education; is working with four volleyball players who want to pursue careers in education.

“Dr. McQueen paired the students with their career coaches,” Jerkins said. “It is all about knowing the right people.”

The emphasis is on personal relationships between the students and their career coaches. “It is really a grass roots approach,” Jerkins said. “It has worked remarkably well.

“Dot can see the big picture of the program. I think she has expanded something here that has legs in the long term."

The long term success of the program is the vision for Dotson. Her philosophy is that everyone should do what they can to leave something behind that will impact the future.

“Dot is very smart…very street smart,” Rosenthal said. “She is very confident, but not unapproachable.

“I have been around her for five or six years. I have been able to see her really take ownership of her life. It is awesome. It is nice to see this next big step she has taken. It is just not to benefit herself, but other student –athletes. She wants to leave this legacy for years to come.”

FGCU Seniors Holm and Mambuca Living in the Moment

If you haven’t had a chance to witness the post-play celebrations from FGCU seniors Kaitlin Holm and Karina Mambuca, you have another chance on Friday.

The Eagle duo helped FGCU move past Stetson 3-2 in its first round match on Thursday, and now the Eagles move on to face No. 1 Jacksonville in the semifinals of the 2013 A-Sun Championship at 5 p.m. on Friday on ESPN3.

The celebrations are six years in the making, and at least one of them – the block celebration as they call it– has its beginnings from the Movie “Baby Mama.”

“I don’t really know how it started, but we are both so passionate during the match that it just happens,” says Mambuca. “For both of us that moment is the biggest moment in our life, and it is even better when we can celebrate a play that we made together.”

Holm and Mambuca have shared their passion for the game since they became friends at 16, playing club volleyball together in the Fort Myers/Naples area. It was during that time that their friendship sparked, and Holm remembers exactly how it happened. Ironically, it was surrounding another scene from a movie.

“Karina was like the ‘new kid’ on the team, and so everyone was just trying to figure her out,” says Holm. “I was doing the same, and after having spent some time with her we were talking about something and we both quoted the same scene from the movie ‘Stepmother.’ I knew then that we were a lot alike. I am very close to Karina’s family and over the years we have developed that type of friendship that you know you always have someone you can ‘talk to’.”

Holm played her freshman season for Marshall in 2010, then returned home to join FGCU in its success. In her three years her hard work has paid off, as she returns to her third straight A-Sun Championship with the Eagles. She also has received her share of recognition as an A-Sun All-Academic selection in 2011, First-Team All-Conference in 2012 and All-Conference Second Team selection this season.

Mambuca played two years at Southeastern University, enjoying tremendous success as a freshman and earning First Team All-Region honors in the 2010 NCCAA South Region Tournament. She began her career with FGCU in sand volleyball, earning Academic All-Conference honors in 2012 and she has been one of the statistical leaders on the team ever since. Holm’s influence was a major reason Karina returned home as well.

“It is awesome having her here, and I hope that I had a little bit of impact on her decision to come here,” says Holm. “We are good for each other, because we know that if something has set us off, that someone is there. Our entire team is close and we all share friendships, but it is nice to have someone that close who has known you for so long.”

“Honestly, Kaitlin being at FGCU was a major influence on my transferring,” says Mambuca. “I remember when we finished our last tournament with our club team we had finished 10th in the nation, and I was thinking that I would never get a chance to play with her again. It was a dream come true when I had the opportunity to come to FGCU, because we had been through so much together. Pus, our celebrations are so much fun!”

This season the duo has been through even more, as their final season as Eagles has been a challenge. FGCU was picked in preseason voting to repeat as A-Sun regular season champs, but began 2013 with a 1-10 mark. From Sept. 21 – Oct. 8, the Eagles enjoyed a seven-match streak and looked somewhat to be en route to repeating its fortunes of 2012, when they won 15 straight.

But ETSU ended the streak at seven, and the Eagles’ success has been inconsistent since. The seniors, whose temperaments allow them to lead in different ways, decided that this was not the way they wanted to conclude their careers.

“I lot of our relationship has played into our leadership through this season,” says Holm. We have talked a lot about it, and we knew that we would not only step up and lead for our team, but that we would also be doing it for each other. This season has been really emotional for me, and we have been able to keep each other positive and at the same time push each other to make plays and get better every match.”

Mambuca agrees. “I know that Kaitlin is always there for me. We are like-minded, we share the same values and thoughts on things, and that has really helped us remain completely focused on what our job is on this team.”

Their job has been to lead the team, and they have done just that. Holm is the verbal leader, and is often the more “out-front” of the two with her passion about the game and her team’s success. She is 10th in the A-Sun in kills per set (2.99) and is also second on the team in kills.

Holm’s appreciation of Mambuca of course extends into appreciation for her game, and how it sets her up nicely for a leadership role on a team desperately seeking success.

“She is a more confident player than she was when she got here, and she is a very gifted athlete,” says Holm. Her defense is amazing, and she is so solid on serve and receive as well. She is one of the best players on this team and one of our unsung heroes.”

Mambuca’s style is to lead more by example, and her stats bear out that she can “walk the walk.” She leads the team in blocks per set (.81, 89 total) and is tied for second on the team in aces (18) and third in digs per set (2.28).

“Kaitlin is more verbal than me when it comes to that, and I have always been that in order to get someone to follow you have to ‘walk the walk.’ I think our dynamic has helped us to keep everyone focused, even in when things were disappointing and a struggle.

“We have had injuries, players not able to play for whatever reason, and we’ve even had to hear from the media and others at home that we are ‘not as good’ as past FGCU teams. But we overcame that to get to this point, and everyone entered this championship 0-0.”

Always roommates on road trips, undoubtedly Holm and Mambuca will discuss nothing much in the next 24 hours other than how the Eagles can pull the upset and knock off No. 1 Jacksonville on Friday. Ironically, it was the Eagles who were stunned last season in their semifinal match as the No. 1 seed.

“I believe that we are one of the more physical teams in the A-Sun, but we have to stay mentally focused and not take plays off, which we have done on occasion this season,” says Holm. “We definitely have a challenge.”

To simply paraphrase Mambuca – This moment will be the biggest moment.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

ETSU’s Seniors Start and End Career with A-Sun Crown

It is considered a great accomplishment to win a collegiate conference championship once let alone to start your career and end your career with a title.

With ETSU’s 3-1 win vs. North Florida in the Atlantic Sun Men’s Soccer Championship Final on Sunday the senior class get the honor of saying they came in on top and now they will finish on top.

The Buccaneers won their first-ever A-Sun Championship in 2010 after defeating Stetson 1-0 in overtime and now they add their second title victory just three years later.

“I think we definitely got spoiled our freshmen year,” Bucs senior David Geno said. “We thought it was a lot easier to win a championship than it really was. We learned later it isn’t an easy thing to achieve.”  

“I think this group as a whole is a special group,” Head Coach Scott Calabrese exclaimed.  “The seniors have worked hard for four years and they are certainly the heart and soul of the team. To have them begin and end their careers as champions is something to be proud of and they deserve it.”

Itode Fubara scored the winning goal in overtime in 2010 to earn the A-Sun Championship MVP honor as a freshman.

“I think the first one always feels a little better because there is something special about it,” Fubara said. “But this win today feels great because it is great to go through this journey with m

y class to get another ring our senior year.”

Fubara once again made the A-Sun All-Tournament team with his leadership throughout the 2013 championship.

“There’s nothing better than ending your career with a win,” he said “We won it once and we wanted it back again.”

After winning the 2010 A-Sun title, the Bucs fell just shy in the NCAA Tournament with a 3-2 loss to College of Charleston.

In looking toward their future in the NCAA Tournament the senior class and Scott Calabrese feel good knowing they have the experience under their belt.

“I think we were nervous as freshmen going into the NCAA Tournament but I think the experience will play to our advantage this year,” Geno said.

Calabrese added, “When you look for confidence as a player you look back at your experiences to guide you and with this group I know they have the confidence to have a successful time in the NCAA Tournament.”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

North Florida's Transition Sets Team Up For Championship Finale

North Florida came into the Atlantic Sun Men’s Soccer Championship as the No. 5 seed with a team compiled of several new faces and young players. The program had never found themselves in an A-Sun Championship Semifinal nor did they ever expect to land in the championship match, but they did just that with an upset victory against top-seeded FGCU.

“We aren’t going to head into the final with nerves because we know that we have nothing to lose,” Head Coach Derek Marinatos explained. “Just like tonight the only team that had something to lose was FGCU who had all the records and wins, so at the end of the day we had no pressure on us.”

No pressure.

“I was excited for the team and the program but in the game, especially those last ten minutes I could feel my nerves going through the roof,” said impact freshman Jay Bolt.
The Ospreys had to learn early on in the season how to get such a new team to mesh well as they looked to find chemistry early on.

“Chemistry comes with playing with each other. It’s never easy, but we kept sticking to what we knew best and worked through it,” goalkeeper Brad Sienkiewicz said.

“I saw the transitions and I talked to the coaches and they knew they’d have to start from scratch. I just tried to use my experience to help some of the new guys learn what it means to be a Division I athlete.”

Coach Marinatos new early on how important it was to have his team buy into the program he was looking to create.

“We had a good core to get us here. We went out and branched out all over the world to bring these guys in,” Marinatos said. “We started the season strong when we beat FIU and UCF on the road but we hit a mid-season rut when we experienced some growing pains but these guys banded together and figured it out.”

In the end when it comes to the Osprey squad entering their first ever A-Sun Championship Final there is one thing that Marinatos is sure of and that is that his team has nothing to worry about.

“We aren’t supposed to be here, we are the underdogs.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

ETSU's Senior Itode Fubara Exemplifies CLASS

Itode Fubara has been an outstanding student-athlete since arriving on ETSU’s campus in 2010. Fubara has not only proven that he has what it takes on the pitch but has been a model student and member of the community.

The senior midfielder has been selected as one of only ten finalists nationally for the Senior CLASS Award because of his efforts on and off the field. Fubara becomes the first player in the Buccaneers’ program history to reach the final stage of voting for the award.
Senior CLASS stands for “Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School” and honors the attributes of NCAA Division I senior student-athletes in four areas: community, classroom, character, and competition.
The Buccaneers’ Head Coach Scott Calabrese is glad to have a person like Itode on his team, “The things that he has been able to overcome and be such a strong role model is truly remarkable and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of an honor like the Senior CLASS award.”
Fubara grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria with a large family and had high hopes of playing collegiate soccer but nearly found his opportunity dashed before it even began. After agreeing to play at ETSU, Fubara was en route to the U.S. Embassy to try to obtain a visa when his bus was robbed at gunpoint. The bandits mugged each of the passengers on board, stealing Fubara’s backpack containing the necessary paperwork he needed at the U.S. Embassy. Thankfully for Fubara the backpack was later recovered by police and he was finally able to obtain his visa to allow him to join the Buccaneers’ squad.
“It’s a great achievement to play college soccer, I know my family is extremely proud of me,” Fubara said.
Aside from helping lead the Buccaneers to three consecutive seasons with 10 or more victories, including four wins over Top 25 opponents, Fubara has been an active member of the Johnson City community. Fubara has volunteered extensively with several local schools and youth organizations, including Town Acres Elementary School, the Hispanic-American Student Community Alliance, and ‘Sports 4 All.’

“At some point you have to give back to the community, you have to let the kids know that we are not just playing soccer,” Fubara said. “You can do so much with your life and I’m just trying to be a role model for the kids.”
Fubara, the 2010 Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year, is the only ETSU player to ever eclipse the 6,000 minutes-played mark. The senior midfielder has twice been named to the All-Atlantic Sun First Team and ranks second in program history for career assists (12) and fourth for career goals (8).
“Fubi’s influence and impact for us is something that cannot be measured,” Calabrese explained. “He’s a player that everyone looks up to and inspires us all. He’s always willing to talk to the players and give them advice.”

As of Friday November 15th Fubara collected 25.3 percent of the fan vote in the Senior CLASS vote, sitting in second-place only by a tenth of a percent. Fan balloting counts for a third of the total in determining the Senior CLASS Award Winner, while the remaining two-thirds are determined by the NCAA Division I coaches and national media members. Voting for the Senior CLASS Award ends on November 25th. You can add your vote to push Fubara to first here:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jacksonville Proves Defense Wins Championships

Coming into the 2013 Atlantic Sun Women’s Championship Final FGCU had not lost to a conference opponent in 16 games and was the top-seed facing second-seeded Jacksonville. In the regular season the Eagles came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory against the Dolphins.

The Jacksonville squad had something to prove heading into the start of the championship match.

Defense wins championships.

Boasting the A-Sun Defensive Player of the Year Ally Lee, JU focused on defense all season but understood they had to step it up a notch for the championship.

Head Coach Brian Copham explained “We had to defend a lot, but we expected that playing a really tough FGCU team. We wanted to compete and defend and we did just that.”

Lee and the Dolphins’ goalkeeper Sarah Sierra set the defensive presence on the field as Sierra grabbed ten saves in the match.

“We knew it was going to be a dog fight coming into the game but we settled down and played our defensive style in the second half, we talked ourselves through what we needed to do throughout the game,” Lee said.

Both Lee and Sierra stripped the ball off the aggressive FGCU offensive line several times. As the squad faced the top-goal scorer in the league, Tabby Tindell, Lee came in with excitement with the expectations the team had for her in the match.

“It’s always a great feeling when you face a forward who is playing well in the conference and she’s the Freshman of the Year so I knew she was going to have a great game,” Lee expressed. “I just focused on getting good positioning on her and tried beating her to the ball to help my team but a lot of it was adrenaline.”

Copham was pleased with how well his defense executed, “Ally Lee was fantastic, she tracked down several fast paced players on the Florida Gulf Coast team. To track down a few of those players and slide in for some hard tackles was huge for us.”

Tindell and Sierra went head-to-head numerous times as the freshman Eagle found seams that led to breakaways throughout the match.

“We knew Florida Gulf Coast was going to go hard but in the end we played our heart out, I knew that a lot of people were riding on me and I knew I needed to step it up,” an exhausted Sierra said.

Sarah Sierra held the shutout for the Dolphins after regulation and two hard fought golden-goal overtime periods and stood between the posts riding a wave of adrenaline in penalty kicks.

Sierra was not expected to be in goal this season after she endured a nine month recovery last season with an ACL tear.

“It took me nine months to come back from my ACL surgery,” Sierra said. “I was in the physical training room everyday over the summer. I worked my butt off and I am stronger than ever. I think today it really showed.”

After Sierra’s performance she landed the A-Sun Championship MVP Honors and more importantly a chance to play another game in the 2013 season as the Dolphins will play in the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.

“Sometimes when you come off an injury you aren’t sure where players are mentally, but Sarah came in ready to compete and her performance today was a testament to that and she earned the Championship MVP,” Copham boasted.

The defensive effort led the Dolphins to their second A-Sun Championship after a finishing penalty kicks 5-3. This marked the fourth time in A-Sun history that a Championship Final went to PKs.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Freshmen Firecrackers Keep FGCU Flying

The FGCU Eagles do not let age define them. The back-to-back A-Sun Champions lost five seniors from last year, but that is not going to slow them down.

“My philosophy immediately was that we were not going to build a program where we got some wins and then struggled the next season and then grabbed some wins and then struggled again,” said the Eagles’ Head Coach Jim Blankenship. “I found out quickly that we were able to attract high level players and keep a strong group every season.”

With seven freshmen on the squad this season and only one senior they are not losing momentum and only gaining more energy.

In the Eagles' match in the Atlantic Sun Championship semifinal a freshman had a hand in both goals as they defeated Mercer 2-0.

“Our freshmen have been phenomenal, we have high expectations and we are a driven group. We've been blessed to bring in new energy every year,” Blankenship said.

Tabby Tindell has been a spark in the Green and Blue’s lineup all season as she leads the A-Sun in scoring with 15 goals and 34 points.

“The team helped me a lot. It is hard to come in as a freshman, not living at home anymore but the team made me feel welcome,” Tindell explained. “When you feel comfortable around the group then you feel comfortable enough to play around them.”

Against Mercer, Tindell put away a gorgeous goal to give the Eagles the 2-0 advantage.

“I had a lot of anticipation all day. I was in my dorm filled with nerves.”

Nerves are to be expected especially out of the core of young players, but you’d never be able to tell by the flow of the game.

“You’re always going to feel the nerves before the game and those feelings will never go away but I like that feeling because it keeps me on my toes and gives me an edge,” Eagles’ freshman Tessa Berger said.

Berger contributed this season with three goals, three assists and nine points. Berger came in from Mahurangi East, New Zealand and took to the team rapidly.

 “There is a great family environment here and I related well with that because I’m a Kiwi,” Berger said. “I was accepted immediately and have great support.”

The Eagles are playing in their third-straight A-Sun Championship final on Sunday against Jacksonville and they hope their fast-pace works to their advantage.

“We know facing Jacksonville will be hard,” Tindell mentioned “We know it will be a grind so we've set our expectations and now we just have to go out and play.”

Competition is in Jacksonville's Mary Sturgis' Blood

Jacksonville’s Mary Sturgis is not the first of her family to play in a high pressure situation and she proved that as the freshman hit the pitch in her first Atlantic Sun Women’s Soccer Championship match on Friday night.

Mary is the sixth in the family to play a collegiate sport. Even more noteworthy, Mary’s two older brothers have made strides in the pros as Caleb Sturgis is a kicker for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and Nathan plays in the MLS on the Colorado Rapids.

“Everybody in the family was always supportive of each other. We are competitive but it’s always a fun atmosphere,” Mary said.

Brother, Caleb is a rookie kicker on Dolphins’ roster and has made 13 field goals this season with an NFL career long of 54 yards while adding a tackle.

Nathan Sturgis is in his ninth season with the MLS and has played in 105 career games; netting five goals and adding three assists. 

“The last time I watched Nathan play was in the U-21 World Cup because he’s played all over the place and it’s so hard to catch a game.”

The Sturgis’ pushed each other as a family and kept the competitive atmosphere high around the house.

Mary explained, “We would have World Cup Soccer matches in the front yard all the time and we would go all out.”

In Mary’s freshman season with the Dolphins she’s played in all 19 games and has started in 18 of them with one goal and two assists.

Sturgis made the A-Sun All-Conference Freshmen Team this season with a strong presence in the midfield.
“She’s done a great job, making the All-Freshmen Team was definitely warranted,” said Jacksonville’s Head Coach Brian Copham.

Teammates said from the first day of preseason that Mary had a competitive edge that was off the charts.
“The upperclassmen said it early on, this kid likes to compete. She’s not afraid to compete, she’s not afraid to go in hard for a tackle.”

There is no question that with Mary’s upbringing she had the perfect recipe to be successful on the field, it’s in her blood. JU is in good hands as Sturgis is ready for many successful seasons ahead with support from her family and her new soccer family.

“I think my parents are really proud, they’ve been so supportive of us in everything we do.”