Disney does Cinderella, animated and live action. Conference USA doesn't.
No seed lower than No. 9 has won C-USA's men's basketball tournament. Only two such seeds made it to the third day. So, when Dennis Mavin's heaved FIU onto SportsCenter and into the second round against No. 2 seed UTEP, you knew the thrilling finish either would spark a historic, miraculous run or be an emotional Olympus before UTEP brought that day-after-ULTRA feeling.
UTEP 83, FIU 71.
On the upside, if you're going to go two and barbecue, at least they're in Birmingham, home of some darn fine barbecue. And FIU won't have to pay that local high school band to stand-in for the FIU Pep Band kept home by finances (not sure which department is responsible, but FIU should be beyond that).
FIU loses leading scorer Dennis Mavin and starter Kris Gulley among its main cogs. Mavin's ability to score one-on-one to one-on-three will be tough to replace, although that might force the Panthers to develop better ball movement, which would make for a better offense overall. Also, this season was Transition Year Part II under Anthony Evans. Next year, with a third season of recruiting, second without big NCAA sanctions hanging over his head, should be the year Evans molds and cooks the Panthers into the kind of team he wants them to be.
I don't know if I'd call FIU a Conference USA favorite next year, but I'd be surprised if they didn't reach the conference tournament above .500 overall and among the top three seeds.
Some people might not know where FIU is. But everybody at the Conference USA men's basketball tournament knows the "F" in FIU definitely isn't for "Foreplay."
Not after the Panthers won the tournament's opening game with what'll probably be the tournament's best climax, a just-inside halfcourt buzzer beater by Dennis Mavin. Texas-San Antonio got sent home 57-54 as Mavin channeled both U.S. Reed and Semi-Tough's Astronaut Jones. "Tryin' one..."
Now, FIU comes back Thursday to play a rested UTEP team in a rematch of the most incongruous game of the season. FIU got down by 14 early to what looked like, by record and play, clearly a better side. But the Panthers painstakingly made up ground as UTEP crumbled under FIU's occasional ball pressure the way the Panthers have at times this season. FIU also made its free throws (15 of 19). UTEP didn't, 18 of 32. Adrian Diaz took only seven shots in 37 minutes as the Miners put the defensive focus on the Panthers' big man. That left open chances for Daviyon Draper's 21 points, which backed up Mavin's 23.
In the end, it was a putback off an offensive rebound and a free throw off another offensive rebound that won the game for UTEP.
Some things I noted about Thursday's win:
*FIU gained three-point equivalency, hitting eight of 21 while UTSA hit eight of 23. Even subtracting Mavin's desperation shot, that's still playing on even terms behind the arc, something FIU usually wasn't doing in conference games.
*FIU got away with going five of 10 from the free throw line because UTSA shot eight of 14 and because of Mavin's shot. Ray Rodriguez missed the second of two free throws that would've made it a two-possession game. Instead, the Roadrunners tied the game with a three-pointer and were looking at overtime. Now, they're looking at home.
*Nine players saw the floor for FIU. Six played at least 20 minutes. Diaz played only 30 while Michael Phillip subbed for 10, a plus for FIU. On the other hand, guards Mavin and Ray Rodriguez played 36 and 37 minutes respectively. Thursday's only Day 2 of the tournament, but let's see if UTEP tries to step things up and force FIU's guards to play at a faster pace.
A few things about FIU's Conference USA tournament opener against Texas-San Antonio today at 1 p.m. while I try to find somewhere that'll consistently update me on the NCAA Zone Diving stuff...
*When teams see a future opposing player and say, "That right there is a problem," they either deal with the problem or figure they'll live with it and deal with everything else. FIU's opponents tend to take the latter approach.
Adrian Diaz, all 6-10 of him, is the problem FIU presents opponents. He's got good touch with decent range at the offensive end -- 60.9 percent from the field -- and is sixth in the nation in blocked shots without being so slap happy he gets way out of position.
(Digression: Is the person who nicknamed Diaz "the Hialeah Hammer," a name that belongs on a well-known thug or fantastic handyman, the same person who came up with "Paws Up," which makes it sound like the animal in question is on its back and dead? If so, stop naming stuff. Or make your next suggestion, "Sunblazers.")
Teams have learned to let Diaz get his, try to make things difficult for senior guard Dennis Mavin then say to the rest of the Panthers "And, what?" FIU needs to get an offensive answer to that from Daviyon Draper mid-range or inside, Ray Rodriguez/Marco Porcher Jimenez from three or Kris Gulley from anywhere.
*Inability to consistently move the ball for open outside shots makes FIU too reliant on Diaz inside. There's a negligible difference in success percentages in conference games -- 32.3 for FIU, 33.7 for opponents -- but the Panthers drown in the volume. Opponents have hit 136 three-pointers to 76 for FIU or 7.56 per game to 4.22. That's nearly a 10-point per game difference.
*FIU gets the defensive side of the game, tying UAB for the conference lead in allowing only 41.0 percent shooting from the field. They can't let teams shoot 25 to 30 free throws a game, however. Speaking of which...
*I don't think I've covered a season with more consistently bad free throw shooting from both teams. The only reason FIU's opponents, 64.3 percent from the line, aren't more embarrassed is that FIU sank them at only 63.5 percent. In a tournament situation, it's tough to win four games in four days without at least above average free throw shooting.
I first heard this old saw -- "My Daddy says there are two things that don't last too long -- dogs that chase cars and teams that don't hit their free throws" -- from Wyoming coach Benny Dees early in the 1987 NCAA tournament. Over the next two weeks, I watched Indiana win the national championship partially because three consecutive opponents went four of 10, 11 of 19 and 10 of 20 from the line, including missing late one-and-ones.
*It goes without saying if a 20-turnover game gets FIU tickets on a next day flight home.
Redshirt junior center Adrian Diaz's 82 blocked shots, easily an FIU single season record, boosted him onto the Conference USA All-Defensive Team, announced Tuesday morning. Diaz ranks sixth in the nation with 3.06 blocks per game.
"I just did what I thought I had to do to help the team win," Diaz said. "In hihg school, I was always an offensive threat. College made me realize it's not all about offense."
The conference named UTEP 6-7 forward Julian Washburn Defensive Player of the Year and Old Dominion junior guard Trey Freeman as Newcomer of the Year. Charlotte 6-4 guard Torin Dorn was Freshman of the Year. UAB freshman Chris Cokley was Sixth Man of the Year.
Comprising the All-Defensive Team with Diaz and Washburn were Charlotte senior guard Pierra Henry; Louisiana Tech's Michael Kyser and Kenneth "Speedy" Smith.
FIU plays Texas-San Antonio in the first game of the Conference USA tournament Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time.
Center Adrian Diaz should be on Conference USA's All-Defensive team, which will be announced Tuesday. Monday, the league honored him as Player of the Week after his triple double Saturday against Alabama-Birmingham.
And it wasn't the usual points-rebounds-assists triple double. Diaz scored 14, pulled down 12 rebounds and blocked 13 shots, tying a Conference USA single game blocks record set by Marshall's Hassan Whiteside -- yes, that Hassan Whiteside -- in 2010. It's also the most in a college game this season.
Diaz had 17 points, eight rebounds, four blocked shots against Middle Tennessee Thursday night. He's sixth in the nation in blocked shots.
The next FIU women's basketball coach gets at least one potential building block out of this year's disastrous three-win, 0-for-the-conference season -- redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound, named Conference USA Freshman of the Year Monday.
C-USA named Pound Freshman of the Week six times, by far the most of any player this season, so this is A=B, B=C, A=C stuff. Pound led FIU in scoring, 14.8 points per game, and was second in rebounding.
The men, the No. 10 seed, play No. 7 Texas-San Antonio Wednesday at 1 p.m. Eastern time in the first game of the Conference USA tournament. A win there would pit FIU against No. 2 seed UTEP at 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.
In Conference USA games, perhaps the only equitable way to use statistics to compare within the conference, FIU senior guard Dennis Mavin averaged 17.8 points per game (third in the league) and 3.28 assists per game (ninth).
That's why Mavin was named Second Team All-C-USA today.
Tuesday, the conference will announce the All-Defensive team, which should include center Adrian Diaz, sixth in the nation in blocked shots (3.06 per game).
Sunday, redshirt freshman forward Kiandre'a Pound, six times Conference USA's Freshman of the Week, logically was named to the conference's All-Freshman women's basketball team.
Senior Kris Gulley, a transfer from Long Beach State and working toward his criminal justice graduate degree, was named to the Conference USA men's basketball All-Academic team Friday.
The women's basketball season ends Saturday to the relief of all concerned. They didn't come close to qualifying for the Conference USA tournament. Don't be surprised if center Marita Davydova remembers this season more fondly than anyone else, however.
She played this season after being ineligible last season in a paperwork screwup by the previous Compliance Department. Individually, her 9.9 rebounds per game puts her among the national leaders. And, Thursday, Conference USA announced the economics major's 3.7 grade point average put her on the league's All-Academic women's basketball team.
The men end a truly weird regular season with Saturday's Senior Night, at which they'll honor seniors Gulley, Dennis Mavin, Marco Porcher Jimenez.
In conference only games, Mavin averages 17.8 points per game, third in C-USA. Jimenez averages 14.5 minutes per game as a three-point specialist. Gulley averages 4.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game.
Softball starts its conference schedule with weekend three-game series against 13-5 Marshall, a doubleheader Saturday at 4 p.m. and a 1 p.m. Sunday game.
The series features two of the conference's best hitters. From FIU, there's sophomore Stephanie Texeira, hitting .528, third in the conference, with six homers, 26 RBI and 1.057 slugging percentage. Marshall's Morgan Zerkle hits .531 with 11 RBI and goes when she gets on -- 27 steal attempts, 25 successful, almost twice as much as anyone else in C-USA.
Softball: vs. Marshall, Saturday, 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m.
Barring incredible breaking news, the forecast predicts light blogginess over the next few days as I'm sent to my yearly arranged marriage with Doral and the PGA Tour. A couple of things before I go back to cleaning out my car, Publix apple strudel and Law & Order: SVU...
Senior Johanna Gustafsdottir and freshman Silvia Scalia were selected for the NCAA Swimming & Diving Championships, Mar. 19-21, in Greensboro, North Carolina (nice people, ehh town). Gustafsdottir will swim the 200 and 400 individual medley while Scalia will handle the 100 and 200 backstroke.
Last year, Sonia Perez finished 13th in the 400 IM at the NCAAs, scoring the first swimming points for FIU at the championships.
Junior Meghan MacLaren's eight-stroke rout in the rain-shortened Amelia Island Collegiate moved her up 13 spots to No. 49 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. She was also Golfweek's National Player of the Week.
Not sure how she wasn't Conference USA's player of the week, but you know how that goes...
When Chitlin Circuit and comedy record legend Redd Foxx got the starring role in his own TV series, Sanford & Son, he took care of his friends. Lawanda Page, who played Aunt Esther, was his oldest friend and introduced Foxx to his first wife. Don Bexley and Pat Morita also benefited from their friend in the way of recurring supporting roles, valuable work to actors and comedians. Other Chitlin Circuit stars such as Slappy White did guest star one shot appearances.
The coaching business is packed with Redd Foxxes.
FIU announced the hiring of Ron Cooper as assistant head coach-defensive backs assistant. This completes the football coaching staff, although even an auto racing history geek like myself wouldn't call it a Cooper Climax.
Cooper's connection to FIU head coach Ron Turner: they were both on the Tampa Bay staff in 2012. Cooper's been a head coach at Alabama A&M, Eastern Michigan and Louisville and an assistant on enough staffs to fill a walk-in closet with coaching polo shirts.
There's some shuffling of responsibilities. Tem Lubaku, hired as linebackers' coach last month, now will handle the defensive line. Defensive coordinator Matt House takes over the linebackers.
Not a great Sanford & Son clip, but it's got Aunt Esther, The Big One and nothing that'll offend or cause too many folks discomfort in our sensitive age.
Funny what you can learn sitting around the arena on a Friday afternoon.
Executive director for sports and entertainment Pete Garcia passed with Senior Associate ADs Julie Berg and Heath Glick and invited me along to look at the choice of new chairs for FIU Arena.
At least all the lower bowl chairs in the arena will be replaced. That's the "Bleacher Project" referred to in the pre-Miss Universe e-mail to Glick as "likely scrapped."
The other project mentioned as "likely scrapped" in that e-mail, the softball/golf locker room, should be started after FIU hosts Conference USA softball championships, according to Garcia and Berg. The new practice area for the track and field throwers, also part of the Women's Sports Initiative, should be done before the year's out. Garcia said a major upgrading of the baseball stadium will be coming in the next year or two.
A major donation should be announced soon that'll pay for the baseball stadium and arena seat replacement. The other projects should be covered under what's been collected for the Women's Sports Initiative.
Recently, I heard again from someone close to the situation, as I did last fall, that the long-awaited soccer/track stadium will become a reality once FIU takes over the Youth Fair land. Don't confuse this with any drive to get Major League Soccer as a temporary FIU tenant. This pitch would be for FIU and youth teams.
Considering the amount of time we've been waiting on this project, all skepticism until dirt gets disturbed is warranted.
The Felsberg Invitational on Felsberg Field at FIU Softball Stadium went thusly for FIU: three for three against Bethune-Cookman, even 1-1 split with Michigan State (shutout win, close loss to Big Ten dregs) and a loss in their only game against Ole Miss (resident of the SEC softball's Bikini Bottom).
All of FIU's goals -- a 40-win season, conference title, NCAA tournament regional berth -- remain in play for the preseason Conference USA co-favorites when the conference season starts Friday with a three-game home series against Marshall. And after losing their Felsberg opener to Ole Miss 5-0, they came two runs from sweeping the remaining five games.
After the loss to Ole Miss, FIU coach Gator Rebhan immediately criticized sophomore Stephanie Texeira for impatience at the plate with runners in scoring position. In the next five games, Texeira went eight for 12 with three doubles, a home run and six RBI. Pitcher Corrinne Jenkins pitched a perfect 2 1/3 relief innings in the 4-3 loss to Michigan State, and gave up only two hits in five innings that comprised the 4-0 shutout.
That first game featured Rebhan-coached FIU vs. FIU Past -- Ole Miss with last year's FIU head coach Jake Schumann and a former FIU assistant Sharon Palma as assistant coaches to Mike Smith.
This wasn't just one of 54 on the schedule for FIU. Unfortunately, it wound up being closer to zero of 54 after FIU managed three hits on Ole Miss pitcher Emily Gaitan.
"Obviously, it was a little bittersweet," Schumann said. "This is my team now and I would've been really upset if we'd lost the game. Part of you really wants those kids at FIU to do well. You brought them in, you put the time in. I'm not as excited as I would be, like I was in game 1 when we came back and won that game (after four last inning runs on Bethune to send the game to extra innings)."
Ole Miss carries the same "SEC team" designation that 2014 College World Series winner Florida and runner up Alabama carry and with all that means. That's about where the similarity ends. The preseason SEC poll picked Ole Miss last and the program's history of losing almost matches that of the Florida Panthers.
"A couple of things I've had to adjust to: I've been a head coach for 14 years. So, not being the boss, but being OK with the decisions being made," said Schumann, who handles the infield and the hitters. "Obviously, going to a town of 16,000 people in the middle of a forest from Miami is a big shock. There's not much to do especially on Sunday when everything's closed."
Schumann's first coaching job above mid-major level opened his eyes about the current state of college athletics.
"It's obviously haves and have nots. The Power Five conferences definitely have an advantage over all the other conferences in the country. Coming from both, and actually seeing it, it is a big difference," he said. "Hopefully, the NCAA will do something to even it out, but I think it's just going to keep becoming a wider span (between the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences). Not that teams like FIU shouldn't beat SEC schools or ACC schools or Big 12 schools, but the resources -- from academics to food to travel to everything -- is just so vast. It takes a lot of pressure off of you as coach. All you have to do is coach."
An FIU coach told me that at most schools, they fund raise for extras. At FIU, coaches fund raise to survive.
"Don't have to fund-raise at all," Schumann said. "All I have to do is coach and recruit."
And for more money in a cheaper market.
This is why, without some of the fund-raising groups you see at Rice or snagging someone tethered to South Florida, FIU's non-baseball head coaching jobs always will have a problem avoiding being seen as stepping stones.
FIU took three of four from Manhattan College, outscoring the Jaspers 46-12. FIU got in batting practice. Manhattan got to escape the emasculating cold of New York. Call it a win-win.
FIU's Conference USA championship win last week prompted a shuffling of the CollegeSwimming.com national mid-major rankings. FIU's now No. 4 among mid-majors.
Behind them in the rankings as they were in the pool are Florida Gulf Coast at No. 5; Conference USA's second place team, Rice, dropped from No. 5 to No. 8, incongruously one spot behind the conference's third place team, Western Kentucky.
FIU's team grade point average of 3.17 put it on the College Swimming Coaches Association of America's list of Scholar All-America teams, comprised of teams with a 3.0 GPA. Earlier this week, butterflier Valerie Inghels made the C-USA All-Academic team.
FIU life didn't go well for Jakhari Gore. While sitting out the 2012 season as a transfer from LSU, the former Columbus High running back star crashed academically in 2012-13. He got arrested on a charges of robbery and false imprisonment in late August 2013. FIU coach Ron Turner jettisoned Gore, who entered a not guilty plea before the charges were dropped.
But Gore's apparently gotten things together. He Tweeted at me today that "God is Good and blessed me with another chance Marian University!"
The school on what's called "the near northwest side" of Indianapolis started football in 2007 and plays at the NAIA level. Good for him.
The spring football practice schedule got modified. This matters to those who wish to take advantage of this year's practices being open to the public instead of conducted under a giant Cone of Silence.
FIU reminds everybody attending that photos, video or live reporting is a no-no inside La Cage (because, hey, it's not like there's two years of FIU film and nine years of Chicago Bears film to clue you in on what FIU's going to do offensively).
Anyway, here's the schedule:
Mar. 19, 21, 24, 28, 31, Apr. 2, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 16: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Mar. 26: 10 a.m.
Apr. 3: 7 p.m.
Apr. 17: Spring Game, 7 p.m.
WORDS OF CAUTION
Repeat of a message to current and future student-athletes: you are representing your school, your family and yourself in your communication that's going out to your followers (and, perhaps, their followers). And while your current coach might not care, future employers could have limited appreciation for words and photos demonstrating sexist or racist attitudes. And your commentary on, say, oral sex, while entertaining to some, could be construed as showing yourself deficient in discretion (or good sense).
By the way, I'm cool with being blocked (I know FIU requested it of some teams). It doesn't change the above one bit. Nor does it change how I cover you or your sport.
The City of Birmingham, quivering like Rock Ridge before Mongo, closed all public facilities Wednesday in fear of what places in the former Confederacy consider major snowfall. This condensed the Conference USA Indoor Track & Field Championships to a one-day event.
Not so condensed were the throws of FIU junior Raquarra Ishmar, who turned today into Throw Forward Thursday by winning the women's weight throw and finishing second in the shot put.
Ishmar (63 feet, 4 inches), junior Chelsea Goburne (59-1/4) and sophomore Chandra Fullwood (56-3 1/4) gave FIU its strongest team performance of the day, a 1-4-6 finish, in the weight throw. Going into the last two throws, the 61-2 from Western Kentucky's Janessa Jackson held the lead. Ishmar cranked off a 62-footer to take the lead, then muscled out the 63-4 on her last throw to hammer home who the alpha female was in this event.
Ishmar finished a solid second in the shot, her 50-8 3/4 being 1-8 1/2 ahead of third place Rachel Polk of Southern Miss and 8-2 behind Rice blowout winner, Claire Uke.
In the men's triple jump, junior Marcus Ghent reached 50-2 3/4 to finish second by 4 3/4 inches behind Western's Cyrus Johnson. Ghent also picked up points with a sixth place long jump of 22-8 1/2.
The team standings found the women finishing ninth of 13 and the men finishing ninth of nine.
Jake Schumann, FIU's coach the last three seasons, knows the way to Felsberg Field. So does former FIU pitching assistant coach Sharon Palma.
So, the Ole Miss bus shouldn't get lost on the way to Felsberg Field at FIU Softball Stadium for Friday's opening of this weekend's Felsberg Invitational. The 8-4 Rebels are scheduled to play Bethune-Cookman at 2. Bethune will rest while FIU and Ole Miss get it on at 4:30. FIU plays Bethune at 7 p.m.
Last week, FIU saw the fourth member of last year's coaching staff (current FIU head coach Gator Rebhan was an assistant last year), current Texas State assistant coach Kelly Kretschman. It wasn't a happy reunion for the Panthers, losing 8-0.
Manhattan comes down for its four-game winter beating from FIU. Two years ago, the Jaspers got bombed in the first two games and outscored 40-17 for the three-game series.
By the way, did you know that FIU got back from last week's tournament in South Carolina around 7:30 a.m. after a 13-hour bus ride and some players had to hit class immediately? That's unfair to the student-athletes.
There should be a rule that teams have to fly if the road trip ends over a set number of hours away from the main campus and the team has class the next day.
SWIMMING & DIVING
FIU coach Randy Horner's contract is up at the end of April, two months after FIU won the Conference USA women's swimming & diving title. That's producing when the time's right.
Horner makes just over $57,000 in a contract that began when FIU wasn't close to competitive in the Sun Belt and ends with FIU being one of the nation's best mid-major teams. They've also been the top academic team on campus three of the previous four years.
That's the kind of work that'll attract attention if a Power Five school with manatees in the pool wants someone who can transform the team into motorboats. And that school will offer a significant raise. Just as an example, Michigan State clearly doesn't care about its swim program. The Spartans annually finish in the bottom two at the Big Ten meet and have for two decades. Yet, head coach Matt Gianiodis has held that job since October 2003.
All those signs of department apathy toward a sport and Gianiodis still gets paid over $76,000 while living in East Lansing, Michigan, a cheaper market than Miami. They might be paying Gianiodis extra for staying in East Lansing, which one Michigan State graduate I talked with Thursday called "Siberia" and about which Sports Illustrated writer Dan Jenkins quipped, "It looks like Stalingrad."
Anyway, that's just an example of why FIU might want to give Horner more than a little bump when it puts rings on the swimming & diving women's fingers.
Some might wonder if former FIU assistant coach Desma Thomas Bateast, now an assistant coach at South Florida, might want to come back to rebuild the program. Putting the hard hat on to deal with this catastrophe takes a relatively young, energetic coach and she's familiar with the place.
That doesn't always work in the school's favor, understand...
We know at least one FIU winter sports team will head for the Conference USA championship gathering in Birmingham.
Women's basketball? Nope. Men's basketball? Probably. The indoor track team's already in Birmingham for its conference meet, which runs Wednesday and Thursday.
FIU brings the most muscle in the field events, such as the women's weight throw, where junior Raquarra Ishmar has the top seed throw at 19.01 meters and junior Miriam Pierre ranks second at 18.26. Ishmar's also got the No. 2 seed throw, 15.35 meters, in the shot put. Junior Phillicia Fluellen's 6.13 meter long jump has her as the top seed. Tikiera Relaford, third in the high jump last year, should be in the mix again this year.
Junior Luka Mustafic holds the top seed in the men's shot put, 18.01 meters. In the long jump, junior Marcus Ghent should contend for second or third.
A rained out final round left FIU as the winners of the Amelia Island Collegiate event. Junior Meghan MacLaren's 11-under 133 got her medalist honors.
SWIMMING & DIVING
FIU's new butterfly queen, Valerie Inghels, has a 3.92 grade point average as a communications arts major in addition to her Conference USA third in the 200 butterfly, fifth in the 100 fly and place on the second place 400 medley relay, all via school records. Which is how Inghels is on the Conference USA All-Academic swimming team.
The Sunday, Mar. 8 home game against Marshall will be televised nationally on Fox Sports.
FIU announced what The Herald reported first last week: Tim Harris Jr. will coach the running backs this year.
Harris Jr., son of "Ice" Harris, served as Booker T. Washington High's offensive coordinator for several years before taking over the head coaching job last year when his father went to Coral Gables to be the Hurricanes' running backs coach.
The FIU Alumni Association put a message on its Facebook page today in semi-reaction to the statement from Alumni Association President Frank Pena calling for a change in FIU Athletic Department leadership:
"The FIU Alumni Association would like to clarify that recent statements made by Alumni Association President Frank Peña do not necessarily represent the views of the Alumni Association's Board of Directors or its members. Peña himself has said that he was expressing personal views regarding the Athletics Department leadership.
The FIU Alumni Association unequivocally support our student athletes, our coaches and President Mark B. Rosenberg, and strive to continue our mission of serving and supporting FIU's alumni by providing lifelong connections to the University. The Alumni Association is focused on furthering key University priorities such as the expansion project and FIU's Next Horizon Capital Campaign."
Conspicuous by its absence on the Alumni Association support list: Athletic Department leadership.
The worst FIU women's basketball season in memory contains at least one Crunch Berry among the soggy losses -- redshirt freshman Kiandre'a Pound. Pound won her sixth Conference USA Freshman of the Week award,
The ever-upbeat Pound scored 21 and 19 points in losses at Rice and North Texas, and grabbed 15 rebounds over the two games.
The buses fired up Sunday to bring everybody home after their wins. Well, except for the women's basketball team, which came home by plane after another two-loss road trip, leaving them zero for Conference USA.
Softball, now 11-6, came back from the EMU Madeira Beach Invitational after battering Villanova, Columbia and North Dakota by a combined 26-2, edging Wichita State 6-5 and getting mercy-ruled 8-0 by Texas State (with 2014 FIU assistant coach Kelly Kretschman).
Brianna Bartuccio threw the four-hit shutout in the opening 4-0 win against Villanova and Shelby Graves whipped a one-hit shutout on Columbia, 7-0. Gabby Spallone's grand slam accounted for all the scoring against Villanova. Stephanie Texeira knocked two out of the park against Columbia while Krystal Garcia went two for three with a homer and two RBI.
A Texeira homer provided half the scoreboard total for FIU against Wichita State. In the bottom of the sixth, down 4-3, Texeira doubled and was replaced by pinch runner Marisa McGregor. Krys Garcia singled in McGregor. After a walk to Dominique Grossman, Aleima Lopez doubled the two runs home. Corinne Jenkins went the distance, giving up only five hits. But, two were solo shots to Melanie Jaegers, two other batters reached base by being hit and defensive errors put two others on base.
This weekend's Panther Invitational opens Friday with a game against Ole Miss and associate head coach Jake Schumann, FIU head coach 2012-14.
Hours after the softball bus left Madiera, in a Carolina weekend's gloaming, the baseball bus revved to leave South Carolina. The arctic weather that sent southerners calling northern friends and family to learn about starting the car in the morning wrecked the weekend schedule for the Caravell Resorts Baseball at the Beach. So, FIU wound up playing a doubleheader Sunday against North Carolina Central before the long bus ride back.
(That's the same North Carolina Central you'll see during football season as FIU's lone non-conference opponent).
Andres Nunez got the win in the 4-0 opener after pitching six and two-thirds, striking out four and giving up four hits. All four runs came in the third inning, two on a Brian Portelli double and Portelli came on on Zach Soria's single.
The nightcap (afternoon cap?) provided fans with the one thing FIU didn't need -- bonus baseball. Better than a loss, however. That's what FIU avoided when Portelli doubled in Jack Schaaf in the bottom of the seventh. In the bottom of the 13th, a Jack Schaaf home run brought in Ray Perez and a 7-5 win. Now at 4-4 after a tough early schedule, FIU swings bats at Manhattan this weekend.
Hours before, FIU's swimming & diving team got on a bus for the three-hour ride to Atlanta with the Conference USA Championship Trophy. The trophy got prize seating and was the first off the bus when the team arrived back on campus to a nicely whipped up welcome in the Parkview Hall breezeway.
From what I gather, Senior Associate AD Julie Berg did much of the heavy lifting to organize this. She and Senior Associate AD Bobby Staub were present.
Good for President Mark Rosenberg to mention the team's athletics-leading academic accomplishments, too, because that's one of the things that really makes this the department's best all-around team.
Rosenberg handed the mike to FIU Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Jessell for a review of the Conference USA meet. Jessell, by the way, donated $4,000 to the program last fall. His son, John Jessell, was a good swimmer at Florida State for four years.
Head coach Randy Horner, named Conference USA Coach of the Year Saturday, arrived in 2010. At that time, forget a conference champion, the school hadn't had an all-conference swimmer in any event since 2007. So, no individual or relay team in the top two of the Sun Belt.
Now, a perfect dual meet season. A Conference USA title with six swimming, one diving and one relay title. The third conference Swimmer of the Year award in the last four years (should be four for four -- Gustafsdottir got ripped off in 2013 after two firsts, a second, leading off three relay winners at the Sun Belt meet). And freshman and sophomore classes that look as if they'll make FIU a mid-major problem for everybody else the next several years.
I'm sure his contract has bonus clauses for a conference title and conference coach of the year (and adidas chips in $1,000 retail of product for the latter). But it sounds like somebody needs a bump from $57,590.
FIU could've cruised to the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Saturday night. Instead of cruising to the title, the Panthers crushed to it.
They struck Rice and Western Kentucky repeatedly with inspired performances. Definitive blows never let their competition experience hope. Then, with the title clinched, the women completed the season with a team and individual flourish, a school-record victorious relay swim capped by an aquatic soul shout by the greatest swimmer in program history.
They won the Conference USA title by a British Airways First Class comfortable 103.5 points over second place Rice, the two-time defending champion.
“Everyone was crying in tears of joy," senior Jean Madison said. "Everyone was so happy. We’re happy for each other, too.”
No matter the sport or gender, you should want to see an athlete cry after a major competition.
It's an indisputable sign what just happened reached inside them, caressed the heart while opening the memory doors in the head. Whether for hours or just a few seconds, their mind's eye sees the sweep of the team's season or several seasons or their career or their lives. And that taps the emotional well. Nobody cries over just that win or that loss. They cry for the story that event ends.
Where do you want to start this story? With head coach Randy Horner's first season? With his first recruiting class, ranked No. 23 by CollegeSwimming.com, now the seniors on a championship team?
“I’m very proud of the team and the seniors who believed in us and signed with us when we didn’t have much to believe in," Horner said. "I’m also thankful for the girls who were here and helped change the culture. We had three alumni here watching. This is as much their championship.”
Senior Johanna Gustafsdottir, Conference USA Swimmer of the Year, said, "We were joking about coming from the bottom and now we’re here at the top. It shows how great our coaching staff is and how far you can come as a team in three years. This is going to help us in recruiting. I’m excited about our future. I’m ready to be a proud alumni.”
When I talked to Gustafsdottir Friday night, the first event she mentioned wasn't either of her wins or even an event FIU won. She brought up the 200 freestyle because the four point scorers for FIU were freshmen. Madison feels that kind of solidarity played a role in FIU consistently getting one or two "WHOA!" swims each event.
“The team and us being behind each other. We wouldn’t be here without each other," she said. "That’s where all the tears of joy came from.”
FIU entered Allan Jones Aquatics Center Saturday night with a 73-point lead on Western Kentucky and a 104.5-point lead on Rice for the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Saturday night. The absence of Rebecca Quesnel didn't entirely eliminate FIU's diving advantage on the other two contenders, so, really, Rice and Western had six swimming events to catch FIU.
Rice's Erin Flanigan won the 1650 freestyle, but FIU struck back with body blows. Kyna Pereira put up a 16:47.84, second best on FIU's all-time list, to finish fourth. Senior Courtney Vander Schaaf's 16:55.60, third best on that list and almost 13 seconds better than her personal best, got seventh. Freshman Skye Carey's 17:19.07 bettered her PB by just over 13 seconds and got the last points position, 16th. FIU led Rice by 101.5 and Western by 76.
Then came the 200 backstroke and a 1-2 Senna-Prost finish by freshman Silvia Scalia and junior Karin Tomeckova. Scalia broke Gustafsdottir's FIU record in 1:53.80, 2.2 seconds ahead of Tomeckova (1:56.00). Rice had two swimmers in the final, three in the consolation round and still trailed by 95.5 points. Western trailed by 72. Four events left.
“We knew coming in we had everything in our control," Horner said. "When we went 1-2 in the backstroke it was “game on.” I had no doubt we were going to finish it."
Rice pulled ahead of Western in the 100 freestyle, and closed on FIU, though FAU's Agi Bucz kept Rice senior ace Casey Clark out of first. Freshmen Paulina Zelazna (50.31, fifth) and Letizia Bertelli (51.23, eighth) and sophomore Jenny Deist (50.72, seventh) had done the job just getting into the final. Damage limited. FIU up by 75.5 and Rice running out of time.
Gustafsdottir, Madison, Jessica Chadwick and Chase Harris drained the rest of the sand from the hourglass in the 200 breaststroke.
Gustafsdottir said two years ago that breast was her worst stroke. Yeah, well, FIU used her in the 200 breast this year and she set a school record that she broke by 1.85 seconds Saturday in 2:12.35. And she came from 1.43 seconds behind to do it. Madison's 2:19.86 got eighth. Chadwick won the consolation race in 2:16.77 and Harris (2:18.94) took third. FIU's lead porked up to 88.5 points. Two swimming events left. Game over.
"She was behind after 100," Horner said. "She ran that girl (Western's Clair Conlon) down."
Junior Valerie Inghels -- "she had a great week," Horner said -- made sure of it with a third place in the 200 butterfly in 1:58.31, .07 off her school record swim in the prelims. Sophomore Jenny Alfani, who didn't even have a seed time, did 2:05.01 in the morning to make the consolation race and 2:04.93 at night. Freshman Brittney Fant came in behind her at 2:05.77.
Up on the platform, sophomore Lily Kaufmann won the event with Natalia Coronado sixth.
"I said someone would have to step up (without Quesnel)," Horner said. "That's what it takes to win by over 100 points when you have a loss like that, a total team effort."
So, time to close with a great team effort. The 400 free relay remained. FIU finished all the previous relays third in the pool, getting a second in the 400 medley relay when winner Rice was disqualified for an early start. (A goof worth 42 points, but FIU came to the meet without the conference's best diver, Quesnel, who's worth about 50 points. Cancels out.)
“We have a lot of pride. We’ve been shut out in the relays," Horner said. "That was a pride relay.”
Scalia's opening leg left FIU in fourth. Zelazna edged FIU into third. Sophomore Jenny Deist pulled away from fourth place FAU along with Rice and Western and sent off anchor Gustafsdottir in third place, 1.04 behind first place Western Kentucky.
Coming into this year, every FIU record relay started with Gustafsdottir leading off. She said teammates could see on her face her determination before the 200 breast. Now, a former swimming burnout victim who revived her career at FIU and held 10 individual conference titles, part of three relay titles and five school records launched into her final team swim as anchor.
And she swam a water version of that final note Nina Simone hits from the soul in the above video.
“I’m a relay person. I live for relays. I’m usually the first person. Being the last just pumped me up even more," she said. "I didn’t even feel any pain through the relay. As I passed the girls…I was crying before I even got on the wall.”
A win by .75 of a second in a school record 3:18.85. Gustafsdottir's anchor leg of 48.48 was .96 of a second faster than second place Rice's Melissa Konicke and over two seconds faster than all the other anchor legs.
That's getting it done. That's how you leave it all out there, tears and all.