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.