Friday, December 19, 2014

KSU's Vaughn Williams: Perspectives on Service, Success and More

Spend time with Kennesaw State University Director of Athletics Vaughn Williams and you quickly discover how key the role of servant leadership is to Williams’ mission for all involved with KSU Athletics.

Williams’ most recent opportunity for such leadership comes in his selection to the inaugural NCAA Division I Council that is set to convene for the first time on January 15, 2015, during the opening day of the NCAA Convention in Washington, D.C.

Williams will represent the Atlantic Sun Conference on the Council which is charged with conducting the day-to-day business of NCAA Division I Athletics. Appointed at the recommendation of a Division I Board of Directors’ subcommittee, the Council replaces the current Legislative and Leadership councils.

The Council consists of a diverse group of 40 individuals comprised of athletics directors (AD), conference office delegates, faculty athletic representatives (FAR), senior woman administrators (SWA) and two student-athletes. The group’s first order of business will be to design the subgroups that will assist in developing legislation, running championships and performing other necessary functions within the operations of Division I Athletics.

Williams’s selection is the latest news in what has been a big year for Kennesaw State University Athletics. KSU reached new heights particularly in during 2014 as three teams (baseball, men’s indoor track and field and men’s outdoor track and field) captured Atlantic Sun Conference titles. The baseball team’s championship was the first-ever at the Division I level and vaulted the Owls to the Tallahassee Regional title and a trip to the Super Regional in the program’s first NCAA Division I postseason appearance and the A-Sun’s second Super Regional appearance in conference history.

The postseason run by the baseball team, combined with the men’s golf program advancing to the NCAA Championships and junior Kaew Preamchuen earning women’s golf’s first-ever individual berth to an NCAA regional helped to bring well deserved national exposure to KSU and the A-Sun. That national exposure continued through the summer as two rising seniors on the men’s golf team, Jimmy Beck and Austin Vick competed in the U.S. Amateur Championship that was held at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

Kennesaw State student-athletes also excelled in the classroom as they combined to record a 3.07 cumulative grade-point average and 154 individuals earned A-Sun Conference all-academic honors.

Insider: What are you most proud of in your three years now at KSU?

Williams: I am most proud of our student-athletes’ response to all of the demands on them and how they go about handling their business. I can obviously point to their academics, as they are consistently reaching the 3.0 threshold. I can point to their growth in the community, and how they have really taken it upon themselves to understand what service is and how to become servant leaders. We continue to build on our hours in the community and we are really doing some good things and that, I believe, is very valuable to their experience. Also I can point to them buying into being representatives and taking full advantage of the experience as student-athletes at Kennesaw State.

We have been able to put a great team together here at KSU and the community has really gotten behind us. I think our coaches have done a great job. We have a great group of coaches and I am really excited about the future because it is through those coaches that we can impact lives. We also continue to have success in competition, which really makes it a lot of fun.

Adding women’s lacrosse and football to the arsenal has been tremendous, because you don’t get to do that every day. Being able to add those marquis programs is very important.

Insider: What are some obstacles that you and KSU Athletics have been able to overcome?

Williams: Really it has been about educating people in our internal campus community along with the external community as to what athletics is all about. It is about educating them as to where we fit on this campus, and where we fit in in regards to being a part of this great community in Cobb County/Northwest Georgia. We are always educating about that.

Obviously the football hurdle was huge. It was huge getting that approved. First it was also important for our students, because if our students didn’t support it then we would never have football. Then getting the Board of Regents to support it, followed by the partners that gave us financial support. I think that also speaks to this community. We had a certain timeline that we had to operate within and obviously that was a huge hurdle to overcome.

Insider: You began three years ago armed with a vision. Has that changed or adapted at all?

Williams: I think it hasn’t changed, but rather it has become a part of us. It is about being champions in the classroom, champions in the community and champions in competition. I do believe that as far as champions in the classroom, we have really begun to build that foundation. All of the coaches understand that is a part of reaching our potential and everyone involved understands how important it is to be at the 3.0 mark.

As far as champions in the community, it includes everything that we have done athletically which has helped in so many ways. It is not just about athletics, but the institution. We have really made it our business to go out and be in the community, get to know people and to spread the “Black and Gold Gospel” of KSU to the public.

Insider: How nice is it to have institutional administration that totally buys into your philosophy?

Williams: The quality of leadership that we have at Kennesaw State definitely impacts my job. We can’t do the things that we have done for the last three and half years without the student support and without the support of our president and our board of trustees. Dr. Papp has been monumental in his leadership in helping and assisting us get things done in the right manner, which is what we want to do. I would say that it is his leadership, his vision, and I carry out what he wants me to do and how athletics will fit in to the master plan of how KSU reaches excellence.

Insider: What are your expectations of and what do you bring to this newly created NCAA Division I Council?

Williams: I go into this committee with obviously an open mind. I do think, I hope that I can bring my experience and background to contribute. From my time at Utah, Toledo, Boston College, Connecticut and now at Kennesaw State, I have seen Division I at many levels. I can bring that experience, that real-life understanding of the issues and challenges that those campuses faced as we get ready to do what is best for Division I in its entirety. I have never been as excited to serve on a committee as I am now. This is a moment in our history in the NCAA and in Division I, a juncture in time that we will look back and see “how were these things developed?” As we move forward with all of the things that are happening with the Big 5, I do think I will be able to represent the A-Sun, mid-major conferences and other conferences in a very formal, just and educated way.

Insider: KSU played a role in a historic 2014 for the A-Sun, so talk about where you see the A-Sun right now.

Williams: The A-Sun has a lot of momentum in multiple areas, including in meeting our mission of Building Winners for Life. You see it in the classroom, in what we are doing in and for our communities and certainly on the playing field in multiple sports. You can talk about volleyball, soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, baseball and softball – you can talk about an array of sports in which the momentum is building. Our brand is in a good place right now, and I am looking forward to us continuing that momentum moving forward.

Insider: How goes the transition to life in the South?

Williams: This is an unbelievable community. I couldn’t have dreamed my situation up any better. I love the state of Georgia and this community in the Metro Atlanta area offers a very diverse cultural experience. This community has embraced my family, and me and we have embraced it, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else at this time. I work for a great university and a great president and KSU is a member of a great conference, many things are on the horizon, so the transition has been very easy. There have been many facets of my experience that have made me feel very fortunate to be here and I can’t wait to see what can be done as we move forward.

Insider: What is next?

Williams: We are excited about basketball right now and are looking forward to another successful spring season for KSU. We have a consolidation that is happening with another institution that should be finalized over the next month or so, and we will be a bigger and better institution. That is exciting for athletics because it offers another array of educational outlets and opportunities for student-athletes like computer science, architecture, engineering, and construction management. Full-fledged educational opportunities will be available in more disciplines and I can’t wait to see the day when we have student-athletes graduating from the school of engineering or architecture or the others that I mentioned. It opens up a whole new level of service with a student population of 6,000 additional students. As we continue to create a more robust program, that will lead to pride, energy and synergy among the students, alumni and the community. It is a great and rewarding experience that is continuously evolving for those who currently attend and who will attend in the future.  It is a great time to be at Kennesaw State.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Community Service Looks Good on the Hatters

Spend a little time with many student-athletes from Stetson University and you discover quickly the culture of community service and involvement that helps define the Hatters’ programs.

Take women’s lacrosse for instance. Senior Samantha Akl has participated in many projects and events with her team, from helping clean up a local beach to helping out at the Habitat for Humanity Thrift Store.

“It is amazing to represent Stetson women’s lacrosse at something that helps our community, because it gives us a chance to tell them who were are, what we do and why we are there,” said Akl. “Because we are a sport not known for its fan base, it is so much fun to get out and hopefully create new fans. We have had some ask us back and said to be sure next time to bring our sticks.”

Then there is women’s soccer, whose service ranges from volunteering and teaching in local churches to working with the humane society and participating in walks against domestic violence. One student-athlete, junior Jenna Premo, also spent two weeks as a missionary in Guyana, working to provide clothing and food to children and families.

“That was an incredible experience,” says Premo. “I was in the jungle for a week and then in a very poor city for another week. It really put into perspective the amount of things that we get as student-athletes. Plus, watching the kids play soccer and playing with them really reinforced how much I love the game.” 

Along with participating in a certain amount of hours of service with their teams, many Hatter student-athletes go above and beyond that time as well. Some will often discover needs and serve for their own personal satisfaction, while others share the intentions to serve on social media and are soon joined by a teammate or fellow student-athlete or two, at the very least.

“Being able to play a sport is great, and it is a privilege, but we have great fans and being able to show them that we are supporting the community in return is a big deal,” says Premo. “As student-athletes we have a unique opportunity to serve as models for athletics and the university, and that is important.”

A board member in Stetson’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), Akl understands and praises the advantages of student-athlete involvement in organizations such as SAAC.

“I was a transfer to Stetson, and so beginning to participate in different forms of community service made me feel like a part of the community,” she said. “I had always wanted to be a part of SAAC, even to the point of assuming a leadership role, and so once I decided to join I was ‘All In.’"

 Next up for Akl, Premo and Stetson’s SAAC is the Me Strong 5K, an event organized to help raise money for cancer research and to support families dealing with cancer. The Hatters’ SAAC will play major roles in the planning and execution of the event, in which student-athletes are encouraged to participate either by running or volunteering in some facet of the race. 

Last year’s event was held in honor of a local resident and a supporter of Stetson athletics who was in the third battle against cancer in her life.

 “As a student-athlete and a new member to SAAC, I am enjoying the time that we spend together, whether it is learning personal facets of personal development through our meetings or investing in our community,” said Premo. “Of course you always feel like your efforts can be increased a bit, but the level of desire among our student-athletes to do good and to get out there is high.” 

“The Me Strong 5K is the biggest and most exciting community service event that SAAC in particular participates in,” said Akl. “Along with the other community service projects that we participate in throughout the year, this event provides such a good influence on me and my teammates. Stetson is such a small school in a tight-knit community, and so the results of this type of service is very satisfying.”

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Volleyball Adds to Atlantic Sun's Historic Year in 2014

Earlier this week, Lipscomb and Jacksonville earned bids to the NCAA Volleyball Championship giving the Atlantic Sun multiple teams for the first time in conference history as the Bisons secured the A-Sun's first-ever at-large bid.

The ground-breaking accomplishment by A-Sun Volleyball only adds to the best year in league history as conference student-athletes are performing at a record level when it comes to postseason play.

Few other conferences can compete with the level of success A-Sun teams  & student-athletes have produced over the past 12 months. In fact, only the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC can claim the postseason success of the A-Sun during 2014.

This is only part of what the A-Sun has combined to accomplish since Jan. 2014;
- Posted a victory in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament
- Secured four postseason bids apiece in men's & women's basketball
- Had a team appear in NCAA Baseball Super Regional (Kennesaw State)
- Three softball teams earn victories in NCAA Regional play (Stetson, USC Upstate & Lipscomb)
- Landed four teams in NCAA Men's Golf Regional Tournaments
- Two teams in the 2014 NCAA Volleyball Championship

Out of the 32 NCAA Division I conferences, only the above mentioned four conferences match or exceed the previous six accomplishments since the start of the 2014 calendar.

In addition to the previously mentioned feats, A-Sun teams have achieved several other memorable moments this year;
- FGCU became first A-Sun team to host an NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament match
- North Florida's doubles team of Jack Findel-Hawkins and Norbert Nemcsek joined FGCU's Jordi Vives in winning a match in the NCAA Men's Tennis Championship
- Lipscomb's Gemikal Prude and Kennesaw State's Andre Dorsey both earned NCAA Indoor Track & Field All-America status; first time in A-Sun history with multiple All-Americans in same year.
- A conference-best three sand volleyball teams (Stetson, Jacksonville & North Florida) were represented at AVCA Championship.
- Highest-ever individual finish by a women's golfer at the NCAA Championship as Gabriella Wahl tied for 50th.
- Kennesaw State reached the NCAA Men's Golf Championship as the A-Sun has been represented at the last five national tournaments.

With 2014 nearing its conclusion, A-Sun teams can look back at the historic year that was and continue to build for the year to come in 2015. Before the New Year begins, Jacksonville and Lipscomb try to expand the historic year with runs of their own in the NCAA Tournament.

Monday, November 24, 2014

North Florida Making Community Service Consistently Meaningful

Last summer, University of North Florida Director of Athletic Communication Brian Morgan and former UNF men’s Golfer Joey Marino began discussing the impact of the Ospreys’ service to its Jacksonville, Fla., community.

What resulted was an understanding that while the Ospreys’ student-athletes enjoyed community service, they weren’t necessarily educated about the myriad of opportunities that were available to them.

“We have great student-athletes who want to be involved in community service, but we found that they didn’t have the outlets for that service,” said Morgan.

The discovery was one that prompted a regularly monthly initiative through which all of North Florida’s student-athletes have the opportunity to benefit others and themselves. This idea of regular monthly service was also presented to all of North Florida’s coaches prior to the beginning of the fall semester, and according to Morgan it was received with an overwhelming show of support.

“On the first Monday of every month an activity is now scheduled, and so the week prior we send an email to our coaches and also make sure to include the SAAC. Usually within an hour of the email going out, the signup list is full.”

That was the case in one of the Ospreys’ most special and recent activities, a visit to Wolfson Children’s Hospital. The UNF student-athletes toured several wings of the hospital visiting with patients of various ages ranging from five to those in their teens. The student-athletes don’t focus on the illnesses of the children they visit, but rather The North Florida Athletic Department has partnered with Wolfson's for student-athletes to visit several times during the 2014-15 academic year, the next of which is scheduled for the first Monday in February.

“Our student-athletes get excited about going to see the kids at the hospital” said Morgan. “The hospital has strict rules as to how many we can bring, so usually it ranges from six to 12. Also we can only bring certain things to give them, like the last time we took a plastic ball and had our student-athletes sign one for each of the kids.”

Matching the A-Sun’s mission of helping student-athletes strike the proper balance between student and athlete, North Florida’s new program of community service helps develop what Morgan calls the “whole person.”

“We do a good job at our institutions of developing the students in the classroom and the athletes in the competitive arenas, but this gives them the chance to grow even more,” Morgan said. “We are called to help them be a whole person, and to help them discover for themselves what it means to give back and how that impacts others.”

Projects have also included working at homeless shelters and participating in Habitat for Humanity, and a hopeful future initiative has eyes set of the local Ronald McDonald House that ministers to parents of seriously ill children.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Dolphins Come Together At Right Time

Fort Myers, Fla. - When the defending A-Sun Volleyball Champions began practice for the 2014 season they had a new head coach and wondered how they would be able to duplicate last season's championship run.

Despite being voted No. 2 in the preseason poll by the coaches, the Dolphins squad needed to find itself and learn how to become a new team in 2014. Head Coach Julie Darty, who began her first season as head coach, said that "early on in the season we needed to learn how to play together and we focused on teaching the game to our kids every day."

Jacksonville struggled early on to find consistency as they started the season 2-4 and on defense Darty was looking to find a libero that could play the way she was looking for. A five-game winning streak in September was followed by a four-game losing streak in October as the Dolphins found themselves with a 1-4 record in conference play.

One of the mainstays from last season's success, Sammie Strausbaugh, was one of the players Darty could count on every night the Dolphins stepped on the court. Strausbaugh had 19 straight matches with 10 or more kills, and she also was a defensive standout leading the team in digs. She was voted A-Sun Player of the Year in the regular season and picked up Tournament MVP honors as well.

Through games played by November 19th, Strausbaugh was one of only a handful of players in the nation with 500 kills and 300 digs. With her defensive performance in the Championship, she now has over 400 digs to along with 550 total kills. Alongside her other players stepped up as the conference season progressed.

Emily Laskelle, an academic all-conference selection, and Kelly Koop, a transfer from North Florida, showed tremendous improvement over the course of the season to help out Strausbaugh. Darty also highlighted another player saying, "Jizzy Gesualdo became more consistent as the season went on, and she really figured out how to run the offense and stepped up in the second half of the season."

Coach Darty noted that the win against Northern Kentucky on November 7th really gave the team confidence and began a run of six wins in seven matches, leading to the team's second A-Sun Championship in a row. Sophomore libero Rachel Miller played with more confidence and consistency giving the Dolphins great play along the back row defensively.

After the final, Darty reflected on how far the team had come since September, "From our first match at Bethune I never thought we would be here. But we played our best volleyball in November and always trusted the process hitting our peak at the right moment."

That process has led the Dolphins back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. They will watch the selection show on November 30 at 8:30 p.m. on campus and look to continue this ride they are on.

Friday, November 21, 2014

New Head Coaches Reach A-Sun Championship

Fort Myers, Fla. - When the 2014 Atlantic Sun Volleyball Season began this fall, several new head coaches embarked on their first journey in the conference. For two of them the journey has led to the A-Sun Championship, while Northern Kentucky also makes its first appearance at this year's championship. 

NKU head coach Liz Hart has guided the team to two winning seasons since joining the A-Sun, and this year the Norse were rewarded with a spot in the A-Sun Championship. Unfortunately Coach Hart is not able to join her squad in Fort Myers, Fla as she is expecting to deliver a baby any day now. Assistant Coach Randi Raff guided the Norse to their first A-Sun Championship victory on Thursday. The team now prepares for a showdown with perennial league power Lipscomb in the Semifinals today.
Defending Champions Jacksonville are back in the championship with a new head coach in Julie Darty. A former player in the A-Sun, Darty took over the squad and has led them to the No. 3 seed in this year's Championship. The Dolphins will try to become the fifth team in A-Sun history to win back-to-back titles, first since Lipscomb did it in 2010-11. They took down cross-town rivals North Florida in the first round on Thursday. Now the Dolphins face a tough test against the A-Sun Championship hosts FGCU. 
The Eagles also feature a new head coach in Matt Botsford, who guided them to the No. 2 seed in his first year in the A-Sun. He coached a total of five All-Conference selections this season after taking over a squad with several seniors and upper classmen. The Eagles have bought into their new coaches philosophy and went 19-10 overall, including 11-3 in conference play. Being the two-seed represents the second highest seed for FGCU in the A-Sun Championship, they were No. 1 back in the 2012 Championship. 
The A-Sun Championship Semifinals begin today at 5 p.m. All of this year's Volleyball Championship can be seen live on ESPN3. The winners will advance to tomorrow's Championship Final which is set for 3 p.m. also live on ESPN3.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Upper Classmen Shining In A-Sun Men's Soccer

MACON, Ga. - The journey of a student-athlete can take many turns as you try to manage the balance of academics and athletics. Often you don't find the right balance until your final season. This year the A-Sun has seen many upper classmen step up for their teams and lead them to new heights.

In a league where teams shared the regular-season title and all teams remained alive for a Championship spot until the final whistle, coaches will lean on experience and seniors to guide their squads through the ups and downs. As teams face different obstacles throughout the season, its the seniors and juniors that keep a team on the path to the ultimate goal of winning a championship.

The top-seeded Lipscomb Bisons are led by senior captain Luke Gearin. Gearin, the 2014 Defender of the Year, has played and started along side fellow senior Robbie Johnson for a majority of the past three seasons. This year Gearin showed his leadership on both sides of the ball, scoring eight goals, many of them on set pieces.

Northern Kentucky is leaning on its senior class more than ever as the Norse find themselves in unfamiliar territory, the A-Sun Championship semifinals. Cian McDonald and fellow Irish senior Ian O'Reilly are two  of seven seniors who committed to NKU when the Norse were still in Division-II. As the Norse moved up and entered the transition period, it was this senior class that helped guide the team to new heights. It was only fitting that McDonald and O'Reilly combined for the game-winner in the Norse' first ever A-Sun Championship match.

The quality of play has also improved tremendously due to players staying and growing with their teams. North Florida Head Coach Derek Marinatos believes the quality of upperclassmen is helping the conference strength, "I attribute a lot of the parity to the talent that returned to the league, especially among the top four teams. For example a team like Stetson had so much to overcome, and the seniors have taken them to the next level."

FGCU continues to lean on the experienced players on its squad, including Henry Penagos. The redshirt-senior, is tied for the team league in goals (4) and points (8), He has scored some crucial game-winners this year to help give the Eagles a share of their fifth-straight A-Sun regular season title, a new conference record. 

This year's group of upperclassmen  has performed well on and off the field. FGCU's and North Florida's seniors now get the chance to cap off this season with a championship on Sunday.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Men's Soccer Regular Season A Roller Coaster Ride

MACON, Ga. - The 2014 Atlantic Sun Men's Soccer season can best be described as a roller coaster ride you would see at an amusement park. With several twists and turns as the season progressed, it was only fitting that every team was alive until the final whistle of the regular season.

Preseason co-favorites Lipscomb and FGCU embodied the ebb and flow of this season, as both secured a share of the regular season title on the final match day. For the Bisons, this title means taking the next step for Coach Charles Morrow and his squad. They are hosting the A-Sun Men's Soccer Championship for the first time in program history, and with a veteran squad the Bisons look to make more history at home.

For the Eagles, the final result represented a share of their fifth straight regular-season title, after leading the conference for the majority of the season. FGCU’s season showed that with one match, the entire complexion of the league changed. All teams in the tournament have recruited and developed players and the strength of the league is showing this season.

Last season’s A-Sun Championship finalist North Florida is back in the tournament and head coach Derek Marinatos talked about the parity in the league saying “"I attribute a lot of the parity to the talent that returned to the league, especially among the top four teams.”

After being the fifth-seed a year ago, the Ospreys will challenge for the title as the fourth-seed. Coach Marinatos went on to say, “A year like this shows that we, as a conference, keep getting stronger. Even some of the new coaches in the league are already making the right steps to become a real force in this league. “

One of those new head coaches is the 2014 A-Sun Coach of the Year Ernie Yarborough at Stetson. After taking over the team only weeks before the season, Yarborough guided the Hatters to their best season since 2011. Yarborough came from Big Ten powerhouse Indiana to Stetson, and he believes that the A-Sun as whole is becoming more competitive due to tough scheduling, “The parity among the teams in the Atlantic Sun conference also goes to show that the challenging pre-conference schedules we are able to develop are going a long way to helping us compete more favorably.”

With the regular season title decided on the final match day, Yarborough acknowledged the depth in the A-Sun, “It’s always great to see a conference where there are multiple teams in contention for the title throughout the regular season.  It shows there is a depth of quality among those teams competing for the conference title.”

This year's championship welcomes a newcomer as Northern Kentucky advanced as the sixth seed to the postseason. In the first year of eligibility for conference championships, the Norse earned their way with a victory over Stetson on the second to last match day. For Norse head coach John Basalyga this means everything, “It means a lot to NKU to be able to play in the conference tournament. Through the transition, this opportunity is a big boost to our program."

The Norse gaffer added about their chances coming in as the sixth-seed into the championship, "The excitement of conference tournaments is that anything can happen and whoever is hot at the right time can be the one to advance.”

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Eagles Make Strong Case for NCAA Home Match

It was all about redemption for Jim Blankenship’s women’s soccer squad. After a heart-breaking loss to Jacksonville on penalty kicks in last year’s Atlantic Sun Women’s Soccer Championship, the Eagles had something to prove.

Once conference play began, it was all business for FGCU. The Eagles went a perfect 7-0 against A-Sun competition – the sixth team in A-Sun history with an unblemished conference record – and earned the right to host the championship. Throughout the season, the idea of hosting an NCAA match transformed from a dream to a strong possibility.

“We all knew what to expect coming in to this season. Last year, it was my first A-Sun Championship, now we knew the intensity we had to bring all season,” stated sophomore Tabby Tindell – the 2014 A-Sun Player of the Year and Championship MVP.

After capturing the A-Sun Championship with a 3-1 victory against Kennesaw State, FGCU is excited for the opportunity to host the first NCAA Tournament match in A-Sun history. They carry a 17-3 record, a program-best winning streak of 13 matches and an RPI of 31 before the A-Sun Championship weekend began.

“We’re happy to do everything we needed to do to get back to the dance,” said head coach Jim Blankenship. “Last year, was a huge letdown. So this year, that was motivation for this whole team.”

The Eagles placed six student-athletes on the All-Conference First Team and claimed the Player of the Year (Tindell), Defensive Player of the Year (Emma Blackwell) and Coach of the Year (Jim Blankenship) superlative awards. Tindell has been the driving force behind FGCU’s offensive attack. She has 20 goals and 48 points for the Eagles, both tops in the A-Sun and high among the NCAA ranks.

“It would mean everything for this team. Playing in the NCAA Tournament was one of our goals,” said Tindell. “To come back here and get the support of our classmates and our fans, it would just be an amazing feeling.”

Blackwell led an FGCU back line that allowed just 13 goals in the season. The junior defender realized what it meant to the program, but knows it would also be great for the conference.

“This isn’t just for our school, it is for the Atlantic Sun. We want to get that recognition out there,” mentioned Blackwell. “For our team, it was a main goal. We play well at home and know having it here would be awesome for our program.”

For head coach Blankenship, a chance to host an NCAA match would mean much more than just one more match in 2014.

“It would put our program on a different level,” said Blankenship. “Based on our body of work with the schedule, opponents and results, these players deserve that chance to host.”

FGCU awaits its future destination during Monday’s NCAA Selection Show at 4:30 p.m. ET.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Brown's Focus Key to FGCU Success

FGCU has been setting program records all throughout the 2014 season. Most of the program-bests involve offensive statistics and scoring milestones. That leaves FGCU goalkeeper Brittany Brown to have one of the best and quietest years of her collegiate career.

Brown, a junior, started the year with top honors as she was voted to the Preseason All-Conference Team and was the Preseason Goalkeeper of the Year. Brown has not disappointed, holding the best numbers in the conference for GAA and save percentage.

For Brown, she appreciates having the top-scoring offense and one of the best backlines in the A-Sun in front of her.

“It makes my job a lot easier,” joked Brown. “They are all great in front of me. You can’t ask for much more. My job is to stay on my toes and come through with the save.”

However, it does not change how she prepares mentally for each match. Her maturation at FGCU for Brown has been the key to her success.

“I would say when I was younger it was more difficult to prepare,” reminisced Brown. “I’ve grown so much here with the help of Erin (Switalski) and Jim (Blankenship). I just have to make sure I stay fully focused.”

Brown’s focus as FGCU’s keeper makes it easier for A-Sun Coach of the Year Jim Blankenship and he realizes how much a strong goalkeeper means to a team’s success.

“She’s been rock solid for us. There’s not a ton of opportunities she faces,” mentioned Blankenship. “She’s been more than up to the task. In the most crucial of moments, she can be counted on for this team.”

Brown continues to crawl up the A-Sun record books, posting multiple successful seasons with FGCU, but that does not mean this year is different.

“The maturity is the biggest thing,” stated Brown. “From the beginning in freshman year to now, I feel more confident, smarter about the game.”

FGCU takes on Kennesaw State in the A-Sun Championship Final at 1 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. Brown will be ready for anything and when asked about feeling any weight on her shoulders to perform, “I like the pressure. I really like it.”

The Comeback Kid; Nicole Calder

Nicole Calder came into the season with high expectations for Kennesaw State women’s soccer in 2014. She was named to the Atlantic Sun Preseason All-Conference Team and was the captain of a KSU squad that made the semis of the A-Sun Championship in 2013.

In a turn for the worse, the senior went down with an ACL injury early in the year and her final season as an Owl was in jeopardy.

“The first thing that ran through my head is I have to have surgery as soon as possible,” mentioned Calder of the injury. “The sooner I could get through the whole process, the sooner I could get back out there with my team.”

It was not an easy thing for head coach Rob King to deal with in such a young season. The Owls were young and looked to Calder for leadership.

“We have some great, talented kids on this team,” said King. “We don’t have anybody more mentally tough than Nicole, she is hardcore.”

Calder thought her season was over, but her progression in the recovery process opened up a door for her in the 2014 season, something that surprised Calder herself.

“The trainers asked, ‘How about you try playing on it’ and I thought that is a really stupid idea,” stated Calder, “but I worked hard in the weight room and was able to get back out there.”

Calder is also known for her work off the field. Her coach mentioned her dedication to being a great student and role model.

“Academically, she will be going to get her doctorate and is impressive in the classroom,” stated King.  “It’s not just about team leadership with her. She makes sure to speak to each player individually and truly pays attention to each one.”

The senior is the driving force behind Kennesaw State’s high morale down the stretch of the 2014 campaign.

“My teammates get excited to see me out there and a few of the parents tell me I have a presence the team builds off of out on the field,” said Calder. “I guess it gives them something to look up to.”

Calder and the Owls went on to defeat Lipscomb in the semifinals in double overtime, 1-0, and now focus on the A-Sun Championship Final on Sunday at 1 p.m. in Fort Myers, Fla.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Rise of the Lipscomb Lady Bisons

One week before the start of the 2007 season, Bill Taylor took over as the head coach of the men’s and women’s cross country programs at Lipscomb. As the Bisons entered their fifth year in the Atlantic Sun back in 2007, Lipscomb’s best finish at an A-Sun Cross Country Championship came in 2005 with Lipscomb’s men placing fifth and women racing to sixth place from 2005-06.

Nowadays, Lipscomb owns six A-Sun Cross Country titles (four women, two men) after the Bisons swept the league trophies in 2013 and 2014, while the women own four-straight championship titles dating back to 2011.

The change didn’t occur overnight for the Nashville based program as Lipscomb’s first top-three performance didn’t come until 2010, when the women’s squad finished as the runner-up to North Florida at Spartanburg, S.C.’s Milliken Research Park.

“It has been a group effort to really grow this program,” said Taylor. “There are plenty of runners who have stepped up for us over the years. Dani Walker has been huge. She was part of a class that really saw this program make a turnaround.”

Dani Walker was a member of the 2010 A-Sun Championship Runner-Up team as she earned Freshman of the Year honors by placing fourth as the Bisons set program records for best team & individual finish.

“It’s amazing from when I came in the program. When Coach Taylor was recruiting me, he stressed that Lipscomb was so close to a Cinderella type story. He stressed how close we really were to being that top team,” Walker stated. “Now, Nationals is the true goal for our team.

One year later, the 2011 A-Sun Championship headed to their home course, Vaughn’s Gap at Percy Warner Park, where the Lady Bisons placed seven runners among the top-21 competitors including All-Conference performances from Tessa Hoefle (5th), Ashley Lehman (6th) and Minna Fields (9th) to defeat the Ospreys by 14 points and capture the conference crown.

“The first one is always special. It put us on the map and made the student-athletes believe,” reminisced Taylor of 2011. “This year, although completely different, is still truly special. We won and we ran our best race. I could not ask for anything more.”

Since that first title, the Lady Bisons haven’t looked back at the field as Lipscomb won the 2012 A-Sun Championship by 23 points and the 2013 meet by an impressive 52 points; tied for the largest margin of victory in conference history.

Lipscomb’s 2014 edition has reached new levels with the Lady Bisons earning a third-place ranking in the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Association (USTFCCA) Division I South Region poll on Oct. 6th and nearly cracking the top-25 national poll.

“We want to be that top team in the region. That is the next goal for this program,” mentioned Taylor. “We are so close and that goal is in sight for this women’s team.”

At this year’s A-Sun Cross Country Championship, Lipscomb became the third program in A-Sun history to win four-straight conference titles. The Lady Bisons dominance at the conference and regional level could continue for quite some time as Lipscomb’s roster features several talented juniors and underclassmen.

“Right now, when we’re all out there, it does not matter who is an upperclassman or underclassman,” said Walker. “The team is so close and that is what helps us compete with these teams.”

Lipscomb and Walker head to the South Regionals in Tallahassee, Fla. In the latest Regional Poll, the Lady Bisons ranked No. 4.

Exceeding Expectations: J.J. Webber and Northern Kentucky

Northern Kentucky has only been a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference since 2012, but has had multiple student-athletes push for top A-Sun honors. J.J. Webber of the Norse’s Men’s Cross Country team is a prime example of NKU’s student-athletes using drive and determination to reach the top of the A-Sun record books.

“Compared to last year, I just feel more experienced. The training has been harder and the benefits are showing by running faster and longer,” mentioned Webber of his cross country season.
The Liberty Township, Ohio native was not always the top runner for Northern Kentucky. Before coming into the program, Webber did not stand out amongst his teammates. Many of them outran Webber on the course.
“Many of J.J.’s NKU teammates came from the same areas, Greater Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Southeast Indiana, and were beating him or keeping up with him in high school,” said head coach Steve Kruse. “J.J. was good in high school, but once he changed his training at the college level, it has been miraculous.”

Webber and his classmates stuck with Northern Kentucky through the transition from D-II to D-I and Kruse saw a transformation in Webber as the NKU Cross Country program made the divisional jump in the NCAA.
“It has been fun to coach. To see J.J. go from an All-Region runner at the Division II level to where he is today, it is a great transition,” stated Kruse. “I take my hats off to not only J.J., but the rest of the upperclassmen who stuck with the program. It has been a true joy to watch this team grow.”
As a team, Northern Kentucky finished second out of the eight teams in the 2014 A-Sun Championship, exceeding everyone’s expectations.
“The team chemistry on this year’s squad is amazing,” said Kruse. “I am truly proud of how far each runner has come.”

Webber ended his A-Sun Cross Country career as the seventh student-athlete in A-Sun history to win back-to-back individual championships. The last runner to complete the feat was USC Upstate’s Gilbert Kemboi who won three years in a row between 2010 and 2012.
“It went as planned, but the team performed so well. It is a great feeling,” Webber said after the race. “I wanted to keep pace in the first mile and then pull away after that.”

Webber almost set a personal record at the A-Sun Cross Country Championship, on a course many coaches deemed to be too difficult to set any records. The NKU senior went out in winning fashion.

Friday, October 17, 2014

FGCU Trio Keeps Eagles Soaring on Offense

FGCU was primed to be contenders in the Atlantic Sun for women’s soccer in 2014 in the preseason, returning three of its top scorers, placing six players on the Preseason All-Conference team and looking to bounce back from a 2013 A-Sun Championship Final shootout loss to Jacksonville.
Moving forward to today, FGCU sits 5-0 in the conference standings and has already clinched a spot in the 2014 A-Sun Championship, while owning a 12-3 overall mark for the season. There is no shortage of offense for the Eagles, thanks to FGCU’s top scoring trio.
Sophomore Tabby Tindell, 2013 A-Sun Freshman of the Year, already matched her goal total from last year of 15 and leads the conference with 36 points. So what is the difference between this year and the 2013?
“I feel like last year, my freshman year, I was still getting into the swing of things and getting used to everything,” mentioned Tindell. “Coming in this year I’m playing with mostly the same girls so it helps a lot to still have that chemistry we had last year. It has been working really great and I just hope it continues.”

The chemistry shows in Tindell’s numbers. The Ocala, Florida-native is tied for second in the conference with six assists and leads the A-Sun with 15 goals.
“We only lost one starting senior off last year’s team so it’s mainly the same group of girls and I think that’s helped a lot with the way we play on the field,” Tindell explained about team chemistry and her comfort level on the field.
Tindell is not the only Eagle surpassing her 2013 numbers. Paulina Speckmaier has seen improvements in the program ever since she transferred to FGCU from Florida.
“Last year was my first year here as well and coming from Florida and not playing, I kind of had to get back in the groove a bit,” said Speckmaier about the transition. “This year it’s just finding the love for it again and playing the way I know how to play.”

Speckmaier, third in the A-Sun with 17 points and has six goals this year, also cites the chemistry as a factor to her successful second season at FGCU.
“I guess as the season is progressing we’re learning how each other play and I can kind of anticipate now where Tabby and [Shannen] Wacker are going to be before I even pass the ball.”
Anticipation is a key to Shannen Wacker’s contributions as well for the FGCU attack. One of six total seniors on the squad, Wacker leads the conference with a season-high 10 assists.
“The chemistry, especially between the three of us has gotten so much better now that we have Paulina in the attacking third most of the time. It definitely helps having that one extra person that you can find in the box.”

Wacker has no issue being the one to set up the scoring chances for the Eagles. To her, it all comes down to wins.
“It’s cool that I’ve got something that will help these two [Tindell and Speckmaier] get goals and as long as it makes us better and helps us win games then it puts me in a way happier place than just trying to be selfish about it.”
FGCU, clinching a spot in the A-Sun Championship last Friday, has an opportunity to stay at home for the A-Sun Championship if the Eagles remain as the No. 1 seed.
“We know that we’re not going to let up just because we’ve achieved something,” stated Wacker about the possibility of relaxing after clinching a spot for the postseason. “That’s not good enough for us so we’re just going to keep playing our game and getting better at it so that we can continue winning.”
Wacker, playing in the final season of her collegiate career, wants to leave a statement with this year’s FGCU squad by the end of the year.
“I want to go out with a win and go as far as we can go because I know that we’re better than the first round of the NCAA Tournament and we’ve had three years to prove that,” said Wacker on her goals for the season. “I think this is finally going to be the year that we’re going to exceed the goals we’ve had in the past.”
FGCU closes the conference season with matches against Jacksonville and Stetson at home and then prepares for the A-Sun Championship.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Who's Hot in the A-Sun?

In case you missed them, several players and teams have produced impressive performances as the A-Sun heads into its second full month of the season. This list of "Who's Hot" includes several performances from Lipscomb athletics along with a number of student-athletes and teams whose efforts place them among the best in the conference and in the nation.
Lipscomb Men's Soccer/Luke Gearin
The Bisons are 7-2-0 overall and 1-0-0 in the A-Sun, beginning 1-0 in conference play for the first time since 2006. Luke Gearin scored game tying goal in A-Sun opener with USC Upstate and now has a total of six scores for the season to lead the conference in goals scored. Gearin was also a member of the Hyatt Place Select Lipscomb Invitational All-Tournament Team, which the Bisons won just over a week ago.

Sammie Strausbaugh, Jacksonville Volleyball
Strausbaugh continues to compete at the highest level for the Dolphins, as the junior now sits in sixth place on the NCAA kills per set list (4.98). She leads the A-Sun with 254 total kills and enters this weekend first in the A-Sun and ranked among the NCAA leaders in points per set (5th), kills per set (6th), total kills (16th) and aces per set (17th). She is also one of only three players in the country to have recorded at least 23 kills in more than one three-set match this season.

Strausbaugh is already a two-time A-Sun Player of the Week this season and helped JU to an 8-4 record during the month of September. She broke a 14 year-old school record by posting 24 kills in a three-set match vs Dayton on Sept. 19, also becoming just the fifth player in school history to record over 1,000 career kills in the same match.

Lauren Ford/Lipscomb Volleyball
A perennial standout for the Lady Bisons, Ford has helped Lipscomb into the lead in the A-Sun overall in kills with 699, an average of 13.19 per set. The Lady Bisons also lead in conference matches only with 69 and an average of 17 per set.

Ford has double figures in kills in 11 of her 13 matches this season. Now with 1,341 kills, she is only the third Lipscomb player to pass 1,300 career kills and is also tied for seventh on the A-Sun all-time career kills list. Currently Ford is second overall in the conference in kills with 203 (3.83 per set) and second in conference matches only with 23 (5.75 per set).
She is also fourth in hitting percentage in conference play (.327) and eighth overall (.253).

Lipscomb Women's Soccer
Outscoring all opponents 20-8 this season, Lipscomb ranks second in the A-Sun for shots (154) and goals (20) and sports a 0.667 shutout percentage, ranking the Lady Bisons 13th in the nation in shutout percentage.

With its win over Kennesaw State in the conference opener, Lipscomb added to its streak of record-breaking performances, increasing the record for most shutouts in a season to eight as well as breaking the record for most wins in a season with seven.

Tabby Tindell, FGCU Women's Soccer
Tabby Tindell certainly has the Eagles' wings up as her latest game-winner against La Salle brought her season total to six game-winning goals. The sophomore forward now ranks tied for fourth in the A-Sun record books for game-winners in a single season.  

Nationally she ranks first in game-winning goals (6), third in points (28) and points per game (2.55), is tied for third in goals (12) and is tied for fourth in goals per game (1.091). With her dozen goals already this season, she is just three scores shy of matching her own single-season record of 15 and has already matched her 2013 total of four assists. She leads the A-Sun with those 12 goals and 28 points.

Twice this season Tindell has been named the National Team of the Week which recognizes the top performances of players nationwide. Individuals from national powers, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Arizona State, Wisconsin, Duke, UCLA, Florida, Penn State, Boston College, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Kansas and Georgia are all represented on the list alongside the A-Sun standout.

J.J Webber, NKU Men's Cross Country
"Running well and getting faster each week" is how NKU Cross Country Coach Steve Kruse described J.J. Webber's 2014 season thus far. Webber won the Rhodes Invitational last week and also led the Norse to a first-place team finish at the event. Webber turned in a time of 24:37.40, winning the 8K race by margin of 36 seconds. He also claimed his third A-Sun Runner of the Week honor this season and eighth overall in his career at NKU.

Daniel Garcia, KSU Cross Country
Garcia joins Webber as one of the top men's cross country runners in the conference this season. A two-time A-Sun Runner of the Week, Garcia most recently ran in the Mountain Dew Invitational hosted by the University of Florida. The Owls' freshman stayed with the front of the pack and finished in second (24:25.70), just eight seconds behind the winner of the men's 8K. He outran 86 other runners in a field that contained Florida, Georgia Tech and five A-Sun teams. His 8K time ranks second in the A-Sun this season, behind J.J. Webber's 24:14.55 at the Bluegrass Invitational.

Anna Buhigas, Lipscomb Women's Soccer
In denying Kennesaw State a goal in the Lady Bisons' conference opener, Buhigas dropped her season GAA to 0.67 and is now tied for eighth nationally for the lowest GAA in a single season. The sophomore goalkeeper also has a 0.94 career GAA, putting her sixth in the A-Sun record books. Buhigas has helped Lipscomb to eight shutouts thus far in 2014.

UNF Men's Golf/Joey Petronio
Senior Joey Petronio fired a career low of 66 (-6) in the final round and helped North Florida Men's Golf overcome a six-shot final round deficit to capture the Shoal Creek Invitational hosted by Graeme McDowell last week.

The Ospreys fired the lowest score of the final round (287) to rally
past two-time defending national champion Alabama and finish with a 54-hole total of 859 (-5). Petronio claimed the second individual medalist title of his career after blistering the course for a three-round 205 (-11). The total bettered Petronio's previous tournament best by three strokes while the tournament crown marked the 45th team title in UNF program history. Two others, MJ Maguire and Taylor Hancock, joined Petronio with top-10 finishes.

Fans can follow all of the A-Sun action at, by selecting their favorite sports' twitter handles here, or at the conference's Facebook page.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Atlantic Sun Fall Teams Off to Historic Start

Only a few weeks into the 2014 Atlantic Sun fall season and already program record books are needing to be readjusted as several teams are off to a blistering start to the year.

Overall, A-Sun men's soccer (10-6-6) and volleyball (29-23) teams have a combined winning records, while four women's soccer teams own winning records after three weeks of competition.

Starting with volleyball and ending with women's soccer get a rundown of some of the hot starts for league teams in 2014.

Atlantic Sun Volleyball
Lipscomb (5-1):
With five wins in six matches, Lipscomb is tied for first in the A-Sun for wins with Northern Kentucky and Stetson. More impressive is all five victories have come away from Allen Arena including a road win at No. 22 Kansas and at SEC's Missouri. The 5-1 start is the best in the program's NCAA era. Lipscomb sits just outside the AVCA Top-25 in 27th place.

Stetson (5-1): The Hatters fell in the third contest of the season, but have battled back to win three-straight games for the best start in program history dating back to 1980. Under first-year Head Coach Kristina Hernandez, Stetson has posted all of its victories on neutral or road courts.

Northern Kentucky (5-1):
After starting the season at 5-0 for the second time in the past three seasons, NKU finally dropped a match on Saturday against Eastern Michigan. The Norse remain undefeated on the road at 3-0. Three of NKU's victories have been sweeps.

Atlantic Sun Men's Soccer
FGCU (1-0-2): 
The Eagles have battled a tough opening schedule to remain unscathed with an undefeated mark. FGCU began the year with a 2-0 victory vs. South Florida - a 2013 NCAA Tournament Participant - before adding ties vs. Akron and Portland. Akron reached the Second Round of last year's NCAA Tournament. Under Head Coach Bob Butehorn, the Eagles are off to their best three-game start in program history. The Eagles earned a national ranking this week at No. 24 in the Soccer America Top-25 Poll.

Lipscomb (3-0): Not only has Lipscomb landed victories in its first three matches, but all three of them have come in true road games. The Bisons' 3-0 start is the best in program history. Now Lipscomb returns for six-straight home contests including its conference opener on Oct. 1st vs. USC Upstate.

Northern Kentucky (1-0-2): 
One of three remaining undefeated teams in A-Sun men's soccer, NKU is off to its best start as a member of the A-Sun. The Norse have posted ties against Cincinnati and High Point, while landing a overtime victory vs. Detroit.

Stetson (2-1-1): Under first-year head coach Ernie Yarborough, Stetson owns its best record after four matches since the 2010 season when they also began 2-1-1. The Hatters have yet to play at home but own wins vs. Elon and FIU with a tie at FAU.

Atlantic Sun Women's Soccer
FGCU (4-1):
Behind six goals and 14 points from Tabby Tindell, FGCU has matched the 2011 squad for best five-game start. The Eagles have outscored their opponents 10-3 and posted shutouts in their last two victories. FGCU already owns victories against Arizona, Miami (Fla.), FIU and Murray State.

Jacksonville (4-2-1): Riding a two-game winning streak, the Dolphins are off to their fastest start since 2011 with an identical 4-2-1 mark. Before posting victories vs. UAB and College of Charleston this past weekend, Jacksonville had defeated Coastal Carolina and Lafayette with a tie vs. High Point. JU's two losses came by the smallest margin (1-0) to Boston College and Miami (Fla.).

Lipscomb (4-2-1): In their past three games, the Lady Bisons have registered shutout victories to give Lipscomb three-straight wins for the first time in program history. To match that, Lipscomb's 4-2-1 start is the best in program history through seven games. The Bisons have victories vs. Austin Peay, Western Carolina, Chattanooga and Alabama A&M and tied Memphis on the road.

Northern Kentucky (2-1-1):
NKU joined the A-Sun for the 2012 women's soccer season, but this season marks the best start as a conference member as the Norse own a 2-1-1 record to begin the year. The Norse recently defeated IUPUI in overtime and opened the season 1-0-1 with a win vs. Eastern Illinois and tie vs. Morehead State.