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.
FIU 765, Rice 661.5, Western Kentucky 645 and four other teams that never were in contention. Johanna Gustafsdottir was named conference Swimmer of the Year, the second such honor of her career (2012 Sun Belt Conference) and the second consecutive for FIU with Sonia Perez getting it last year.
That covers the two ways FIU might not raise the Conference USA team championship trophy tonight.
On the participant numbers, Rice remains the top threat to FIU despite being 104.5 points behind to Western's 73 points down. The Owls, as they did Friday, could take a couple of chunks out of FIU's lead early. They won't be enough chunks, however, or big enough over the course of the day.
(It could get close enough that Rice leaves deeply regretting getting disqualified in Friday night's 400 medley relay, which the Owls won solidly, but got dinged on an early departure. That's a 42-point mistake -- cost Rice 40 for the win, gave 2 points to FIU as the Panthers got second instead of third.)
Each of the top three teams put two in the 200 backstroke final. Rice has three in the consolation race. FIU and Rice each have three in the 100 freestyle final and Rice has two in the consolation race. FIU has two, Rice has two, Western has one in the 200 breaststroke final. FIU has two in the consolation race as does Western while Rice has one. In the 200 butterfly final, Rice and Western each have three while FIU has only one, but FIU has two in the consolation race.
And, remember, Rice doesn't have divers. The best divers in the platform event all wear FIU or Western colors.
Realistically, it's going to take some sweeps by Rice and some belly flopping by FIU. Neither looks likely.
Because FIU freshman Silvia Scalia had the top prelim time in the 200 back, 1:55.53, and junior Karin Tomeckova's 1:58.90 was fourth. Because the way this meet has gone, freshman Paulina Zelazna (50.37), sophomore Jenny Deist (50.54) or freshman Letizia Bertelli (50.64) will crank off a big swim in the 100 free and limit the cut there.
Because seniors Johanna Gustafsdottir (2:15.84) and Jean Madison (2:17.51), second and eighth in prelims, will be swimming their last individual events in the 200 breast and freshman Chase Harris (2:19.14) and junior Jessica Chadwick (2:20.04) should finish high in the consolation. Because freshmen Valerie Inghels, who broke her own school record in the 200 fly with a 1:58.24 Saturday morning, Brittney Fant (2:03.78) and sophomore Jenny Alfani (2:05.01) won't let Rice get what it needs.
Time for the Panthers to go get theirs on what should be their night.
Rice loaded up the truck for its Moving Day at the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Friday night. And by the time the Owls jammed the truck in gear, FIU hijacked it, unloaded it and drove it back to their house, GoodFellas-style.
And unless FIU's water women commit one of the seven deadly sins in each of Saturday's seven remaining events, they're 24 hours from winning the school's first conference title in swimming. It'll also be FIU's first Conference USA title in any sport and first Sun Belt or Conference USA title since women's golf in 2013.
But the golf team accomplished their championship without dismantling a highly-ranked, credentialed opponent. CollegeSwimming.com ranked two-time defending conference champion Rice No. 5 among the nation's mid-majors and FIU No. 22.
I asked senior Johanna Gustafsdottir what she'd say to the team as one of the senior leaders.
"Keep your head in it. We haven't won it. We all need to have a strong day tomorrow. Let's just keep having our fun and we'll do it," she replied. That said, being so close to what they've worked all year for, what the seniors watched the program build toward for four years, "I was almost halfway crying in my goggles as I warmed down."
FIU entered Friday morning's prelims 21 points to the good over Western Kentucky and 53 points up on Rice. They walked out of the Allan Jones Aquatic Center Friday night with a 73-point lead on Western and 104.5 on Rice.
Moving Day all right. FIU moved way out in front.
The wins came in the expected places from the expected people. Got an individual medley event? Got Gustafsdottir? Got 20 points for the win. Gustafsdottir took the 400 IM in 4:11.83, her personal best by over three seconds and .29 of a second under Sonia Perez's conference record set in winning last year's event for FIU. Now, Gustafsdottir owns both Conference USA IM records and nine Sun Belt or Conference USA individual titles.
She said she thought her 200 IM swim was the better of the two.
"I like the 200 better. I've been training more for the 200 this year," she said. "The 400 is definitely a good event for me. I think I can get a lot better at it. Too bad it's my last year. I died a little at the end tonight, but I brought it in and was happy to see the time."
Gustafsdottir's successor as the team's best all-around swimmer, freshman Silvia Scalia, first grabbed notice when she knocked off Gustafsdottir's long-held 100 backstroke record. That's the event she dominated Friday, resetting the record in the prelims (52.97) and the final (52.58), leading a one-three-five 50-point roll completed by Karin Tomeckova's 53.54 and Jenny Alfani's 54.39.
But just like LeBron/Jordan/Gretzky/Brady/Messi alone guarantees zip when it comes to team titles, you can't just pile up individual gold to trade in for team gold. Here's how FIU motorboated away from the field Friday:
*By getting 48 points in the 200 freestyle without making the podium. Fourth place Skye Carey (1:48.18) was followed by Brittney Fant (1:48.72) in sixth. Paulina Zelazna (1:49.00) and Kyra Pereira (1:49.39) topped the consolation race.
"Those times were exceptional for those girls," FIU coach Randy Horner said. "And those are four freshmen, which is pretty exciting."
*By getting outscored only 42-35 by Rice in the 100 butterfly instead of 71-40 like last year. Valerie Inghels and Letizia Bertelli both hit in 54.13, splitting the fifth and sixth points. Horner took note to mention sophomore Jenny Deist's consolation race-winning 54.06 lopped 1.48 off her personal best while getting FIU nine points.
*By getting 48 points in the 100 breaststroke instead of 31 as they did last year. Seniors Klara Andersson (1:03.12) and Jean Madison (1:04.29) finished sixth and seventh. But fourth place Jessica Chadwick earned a near-gush from Horner after lowering her own school record by .04 to 1:02.80.
Chadwick missed all of last season after a severe reaction to jellyfish stings. This season, "She's had setbacks and complications," Horner said. "She's been out of the water, kicking only, for a month with a perforated eardrum. To come back from all that, she's got a lot of heart."
Chadwick swam the breaststroke leg of the 400 medley relay as FIU lined up its record holders -- Scalia (100 back), Chadwick, Inghels (100 fly), Gustafsdottir (100 free) -- to shoot for their first relay title since the 2013 Sun Belt meet. They came in second to Western by .86 while their 3:38.04 undercut the 3:40.87 by the 2013 Sun Belt championship team of Gustafsdottir, Chadwick, Marina Ribi and Andersson.
Meanwhile, Rice got disqualified. Horner said the breaststroker (Rachel Moody) left less than a blink too early and the electronic start pad picked it up.
"We hate to see that," he said, noting FIU played it safe on their exchanges.
The 1-meter diving turned into, essentially, 24 bonus points for FIU. Sophomore Lily Kaufmann took second, freshman Natalia Coronado got 10th, Rice had no divers and Western's lone diver didn't score.
Asked what he'd tell the young women Friday night, Horner said, "They've set themselves up to do something special. All they've got to do is do what they've been doing -- stay loose, have fun, go out and race. Based on my gut feeling and how they are, I think they'll do that."
FIU owned Thursday at the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships. All indications pointed to Friday being when two-time defending C-USA champion Rice kicked in its Torqueedos while FIU tried to diminish, maybe even eliminate, the loss of its lead.
That's kind of how Friday morning's preliminaries played out. Still, the numbers indicate FIU still should find itself in the lead come Saturday morning.
Rice will make a push in the 400 individual medley, though FIU's Johanna Gustafsdottir's 4:18.59 topped the prelim times; the 100 butterfly, where Valerie Inghels took down Marina Ribi's FIU record 54.78 with a 53.88; and the 100 breaststroke. FIU will slow the charge in the 200 freestyle, as freshmen Skye Carey (1:48.27) and Brittney Fant (1:49.10) made the final and freshmen Kyna Pereira (1:49.14) and Paulina Zelazna (1:50.85) could finish high in the consolation race.
And the Panthers could make a late move of their own in the 100 backstroke. Silvia Scalia broke her own FIU record of 53.30 with a 52.97 that led FIU going 1-3-5 in the prelims. Sophomore Jenny Alfani (53.96) and junior Karin Tomeckova (54.13) put the Panthers into position to dominate this event the way they did the 200 IM and the 50 free Thursday.
Tonight's the 400 medley relay. FIU's seeded third behind Western Kentucky and Rice and came home fourth in this event last year. That won't happen again.
Sophomore center fielder Gabriella Spallone went one for 3 Friday against Villanova at the EMU Madeira Beach Tournament. Spallone's lone hit produced the only RBI of the afternoon for FIU. Sometimes, you only need one bullet.
Especially if it's a grand slam. FIU pitcher Brianna Bartuccio made Spallone's homer stand up for a 4-0 win by holding Villanova to four hits. Bartuccio struck out one and walked four.
Remember the first Clubber Lang-Rocky Balboa fight in Rocky III, when Rocky comes out and rips about six shots off Clubber's noggin, then gets the Philly beaten out of him by Clubber? If you don't, well, that's what happened.
FIU went all Clubber Lang on the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Thursday night.
One-two-three in the 200 individual medley. One-three-four in the 50 freestyle. And FIU went from 55 points down to exiting the night 21 points up on Western Kentucky and 52.5 points up on Rice.
"It put us into position to battle for the next two days," FIU coach Randy Horner said. "Our girls see themselves at the top of the scoreboard, which they've never seen (at a conference meet)."
Western Kentucky did its damage in the 500 free, taking first, third, sixth, seventh and 15th while FIU answered with Kyla Pereira's fourth in 4:48.49, second best in FIU history behind Sonia Perez, and Courtney Vander Schaaf's 4:55.52, only .07 off her prelim time and bettering her personal best by over two seconds. The Hill People came out with 137 points, 29 up on Rice and 55 up on FIU.
Then, FIU inflicted the pain.
Senior Johanna Gustafsdottir did what she's done twice before: won the 200 IM with a school record, this one 1:57.33, knocking .61 off her school and Conference USA meet record. Behind her were freshman Silvia Scalia in 1:59.58 and junior Karin Tomeckova in 1:59.90 in second and third. Jessica Chadwick (2:03.97) and Becky Wilde (2:04.01) got nine points by coming in 13th and 14th, respectively. Hey, those loose change points pay off when it's time to count your bank after everything's done Saturday night.
"That 200 IM time is almost certain to get her invited to the NCAA Championships," Horner said. "That kind of takes the pressure off her going into the rest of the meet."
Then, Letizia Bertelli, who laid down a 22.90 in the prelims, FIU's first sub-23.00 50 free, led the rout in that event. Her 22.94 edged FAU's Agi Bucz by the slimmest margin, one hundredth of a second. Not one tenth, one hundredth. Not a blink, the time it takes to think about blinking. Jenny Deist came in third in 23.03. Jenny Alfani and Marshall's Danica Ross dead-heated for fourth in 23.04. As they did in the morning, all three came in under what had been the school record at the start of the day, Klara Andersson's 23.24 from the 2013 Sun Belt Conference meet.
"The 50 free is a crapshoot," Horner said. "Everybody's so close in time. You can come out great or you can come out badly. This was as good as could be expected."
Freshman Paulina Zelazna chipped in 4.5 points by taking 12th in a dead heat with Rice's Cora McKenzie.
And, lo! FIU took the lead in the team points.
Lily Kaufmann's third and Natalia Coronado's ninth gave FIU a 25-3 advantage over Western in the 3-meter diving event.
After diving boosted FIU's lead, the third relay of the competition, the 200 free relay, brought the Panthers' third third place behind Western and Rice. But Alfani, Bertelli, Tomeckova and Deist came home in 1:31.72, bettering the 1:32.09 by Gustafsdottir, Alfani, Deist and Andersson at last year's Conference USA meet. Western outtouched Rice by two hundredths of a second for the win.
Horner sounded a tad disappointed again, but pointed out both Rice and Western threw their best swimmers in this relay. For example, Rice opened with senior Casey Clark, who swam the leg in Wednesday's 800 free relay that pulled the Owls back into contention.
Friday, expect Rice to make a move in the 100 butterfly while FIU should pile up points on Rice and Western in the 1-meter diving (the loss of Rebecca Quesnel is a shame. She could've won at least one of the three diving events blindfolded). Expect the depth of the three contending schools to come into play in the 100 back and the 200 free. FIU's seeded third in the 400 medley relay.
Because nobody wanted to play baseball in football or hockey weather, Friday's action at the Caravelle Resort's Baseball at the Beach tournament has been rescheduled. FIU will play doubleheaders on Saturday (Georgia Tech, North Carolina State) and Sunday (two vs. North Carolina Central).
Then, they'll bus home from South Carolina. That hindrance to the student-athletes' physical and educational well-being doesn't happen to a baseball program from a well-funded athletic department.
FIU's found more than a suitable replacement for Kerry Dixon II, running backs coach and main recruiter in Miami-Dade's inner city.
As first learned by Manny Navarro, who wrote this story) and confirmed separately by me, FIU's new running backs coach will be Tim Harris, Jr., head coach of Booker T. Washington High's powerhouse last season.
Harris succeeded his father, Tim "Ice" Harris, as Booker T.'s head coach when the father took the running backs coach job with the Hurricanes. Dixon greatly helped improve FIU's recruiting in Miami-Dade. Harris comes with deeper roots, even more respect from parents and fellow coaches; and a strong reputation among Miami-Dade's players from working with them over the years.
However long Harris is at FIU, he'll be a huge boon to the Panthers stature, locally and nationally. All due respect to the staff of FIU's two bowl teams, this could turn out to be the most important assistant coach hire in the program's history.
Before we get to this morning's prelims from the heated cement pond in Knoxville, let's get to Ron Turner moving chips around on the football coaching staff as announced earlier today.
(See the later blog post for the day's major football coaching staff hire.)
Former FIU player Greg Moss moves from defensive quality control to coaching the cornerbacks. Kort Shankweiler, who handled the tight ends, moves to quarterbacks and wide receivers, continuing the second generation tradition at the job held by Cam Turner. Jason Brooks moves from defensive backs coach to tight ends.
All this leaves two assistant jobs open. For now.
SWIMMING & DIVING
This morning in Knoxville, thermometers stopped at 1 degree. Fahrenheit, not Celsius. As local ponds froze for the first time since maybe glacier days, things got hot at the Conference USA Swimming & Diving Championships Thursday morning prelims, where FIU let Western Kentucky and Rice know things just got real.
Freshman Letizia Bertelli broke Klara Andersson's school record in the 50 freestyle with a 22.90 that led a 1-2-5 Panther romp into tonight's final. The sophomore Jennys, Alfani and Deist, also got under Andersson's 23.24 mark by swimming 23.00 and 23.14 respectively.
FIU also put three in the final for the 200 IM. Senior Johanna Gustafsdottir won this event as a freshman in the Sun Belt and a junior in Conference USA. No Scooby Snacks for guessing who had the best prelim time, 1:58.49, by almost two seconds. Freshman Silvia Scalia's 2:00.38, third fastest, beat her previous best by almost two seconds and junior Karin Tomeckova's 2:02.11 was seventh.
Western will dominate tonight's first final, the 500 free, with four of the eight finalists. FIU's lone finalist will be freshman Kyna Pereira, who swam 4:49.84.
The 3-meter diving prelims finished with FIU sophomore Lily Kaufmann in second, Abbey Spaulding in 10th and Natalia and Laura Coronado in 13th and 14th. The diving events should be a pile of good Community Chest cards for FIU as the Panthers have a clearly superior group to Western and Rice dives like NFL television revenues (they don't).
Tonight closes with the 200 free relay. FIU's seeded third. Don't be surprised if they end the night better than that -- in the relay and the team points.
While FIU Baseball couldn't get three up, three down enough in a 12-2 loss to Stetson, the swimmers sort of went one up, one down, one out on Day 1 of the Conference USA meet.
FIU sits third, appropriate as that's where the Panthers finished in each of the two relays. FIU's 64 points puts it 10 points behind Rice and Western Kentucky. Rice won the 200 medley relay in 1:38.11. Western won the 800 freestyle relay in 7:12.21, .09 ahead of Rice.
The Panthers' 1:39.28 in the 200 medley relay smashed the school record of 1:41.78 set at November's Mizzou Invite. Same cast as November -- freshman Silvia Scalia on backstroke, senior Klara Andersson on breaststroke, sophomore Jenny Deist anchoring on freestyle -- save freshman Letizia Bertelli instead of sophomore Jenny Alfani on the butterfly leg.
"It was very fast, we got out strong," FIU coach Randy Horner said. "We did pretty well. We couldn't be disappointed with that swim. Our opponents were very good."
The 800 free relay finished in 7:13.17, less than a second from Western and Rice as well as second fastest for FIU behind 7:12.70 at the 2013 Sun Belt Championships. But that's the race that put the disappointment in Horner's voice.
"I really thought we could win the 800 relay," he said. "We got behind and, in that relay, you get behind and you start to try to catch up in a 200 right away..."
After senior Johanna Gustafsdottir's leadoff leg in 1:46.96, FIU was third behind FAU by .74 hundredths and Western by .64 hundredths. Junior Karin Tomeckova left the pool in 1:49.23 with FIU behind now-leading Western by 2.51 seconds and FAU by 1.46 seconds. Freshman Skye Carey (1:49.54) lost only .09 more to Western, and made up 1.18 seconds on FAU. But Rice senior ace Casey Clark water walked down almost everybody with the race's fastest leg, 1:45.91. Scalia's 1:47.44 anchor leg pushed FIU past FAU and into third.
"We weren't flat," Horner said. "We paid the price for some inexperience and made some strategic mistakes because we were too amped up."
Thursday brings the 500 free, 200 individual medley, 50 free and 3-meter diving. Brittney Fant, Jessica Chadwick, Kyla Pereira, Nadia Farrugia, Courtney VanderSchaaf and Skye Carey will handle the 500 for FIU. Gustafsdottir, the defending 200 IM champion, Scalia and Becky Wilde should make for a happy 200 IM. If Andersson, Alfani, Deist and freshman Paulina Zelazna pile up the points in the 50 free, there's going to be some squeaky sphincters at Rice and Western going into Friday.
FIU's best diver, freshman Rebecca Quesnel, suffered a concussion at the Canadian Nationals two weeks ago and hasn't been cleared to dive yet. Obviously, that puts pieces of the piano on the backs of fellow divers sophomore Lily Kaufmann, Natalia and Laura Coronado and Abbey Spaulding.
It's a day of relays so I thought I'd close with this...
The baseball team's stopping at Stetson for a game today as they bus all the way up to the Carolinas for the Caravelle Resorts Baseball at the Beach tournament hosted by Coastal Carolina in Conway, South Carolina.
According to FIU, Friday's doubleheader against Georgia Tech and Coastal Carolina has been postponed because they're expecting the kind of weather that inspired James Naismith to invent the indoor game of basketball. FIU will practice in Jacksonville on Thursday, then in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on Friday. The Panthers will play a doubleheader on Saturday and, possibly, one on Sunday. Opponents still to be decided.
Then, they'll bus home. Yes, bus, just like they're getting there. It saves money over traveling via plane, which would get the players -- student-athletes, remember? -- home sooner and fresher for classes.
Now, some people might say the baseball program not being budgeted enough money to fly to this tournament brings up the issues of Athletics' fund-raising and where Athletics is spending the money they have.
For some reason, this clip from St. Louis Blues seemed appropriate. And not because it's hockey season or Black History Month.
The spring practice schedule came out today.
Practice 9-11:30 a.m. on Mar. 23, 24, 26, 30, 31; Apr. 2, 6, 7, 9, 13, 14, 16.
Of course FIU's swimming & diving team left Miami for Knoxville to finish the job at 6 a.m. Monday, which means a wakeup call at Really Dark Thirty. Like the armed forces and youth hockey families on the weekend, they're often on the third screen of their day when even most other diligent athletes are just finding their "Play" button.
The job sits unfinished, with one more task on the schedule: the Conference USA meet that starts Wednesday and finishes Saturday night.
Seven teams will show up. Three matter: FIU; Rice, the defending C-USA champion to whom FIU finished second last year; and Western Kentucky, to whom FIU finished second at the 2013 Sun Belt Championships but beat in last year's Conference USA meet.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly shooting for the gold.
Notice the seconds for FIU in the above paragraph. Proud accomplishments, both. The 2013 Sun Belt second represented a two-spot improvement from 2012. Last year, FIU's move to the stronger Conference USA turned the conference meet into a water version of The Red Queen's race -- it took all the swimming they could do to stay in the same place. They did.
But, this year, winning the conference, "would mean everything," according to seniors Klara Andersson and Johanna Gustafsdottir. Each said that, separately.
FIU didn't come within a Kenya of the 2012 Sun Belt title, though they swept Swimmer of the Year (Gustafsdottir) and Diver of the Year (Sabrina Beaupre). FIU pulled off the same sweep last year with Sonia Perez and Beaupre. In 2013, FIU won nine events. Beaupre won Diver of the Year. Gustafsdottir got rooked on the Swimmer of the Year call after winning two individual events and being on three relay winners. Still didn't get it done in the team standings.
What will get it done is obvious.
“We’re a more well-rounded team this year," FIU coach Randy Horner said. "Our diving is better and deeper. We have five divers this year, where we had only two on the roster last year. The quality is good as well. Our freshman class this year has been one of the best we’ve had depth-wise as well as top end talent. And, they’re performing like it. Everybody in the program has improved. That’s what it takes is a full team effort to win a title like the one we’re going after. In the past, we’ve won individual events. We’ve won stuff here and there. We’ve won Swimmer of the year, Diver of the Year. But it takes a full roster without a weakness to win the team championship."
Here's an easy example of how much more depth FIU brings to the party. Gustafsdottir is the defending conference 200 backstroke champion. Freshman Silvia Scalia now holds FIU's 100 back record that Gustafsdottir held since the 2012 Sun Belt meet. Freshman diver Rebecca Quensel, five-time C-USA Diver of the Week, leads a group that'll keep FIU from being overwhelmed on sheer numbers as it was even the years Beaupre dominated individually.
Expect FIU to get more points in the breaststroke events, where Andersson (100 breast) and Jean Madison (200 breast) scored last year and freshman Chase Harris could, too. Butterflier Valeri Inghels, a junior transfer from Auburn, should get FIU more points in the butterfly. Inghels and Scalia alone should help in the medley relays, where FIU finished sixth (200) and fourth (400) at last year's meet. If nothing else, they're one of several swimmers who give Horner options. He said other than the 800 free relay,
"The 4x100 free relay, which is the last event of the meet, I think I have eight or nine girls we could have on there and we'd do just fine," Horner said. "But figuring out who the best four are is going to be one of the toughest decisions we make. It's good to have those choices. Usually by the fourth day of a meet like that, sometimes, it's the last horse standing."
A strong freshman class gives FIU more sea horses. As usual, some of those freshmen, including the Italian Scalia, come from overseas. That spreads another layer of uncertainty onto projecting a recruit. In addition to the changes shaking the ground under American recruits feet, you've can often add a different base language and educational system.
"We’re very pleased with how our young swimmers have some in," Horner said. "I think that’s a testament to our upperclassmen for welcoming them in and kind of putting them under their wings. All of our girls live in the same dorm together. I think that goes a long way to integrating them into the team and make them feel a big part of it. We do a lot of teamwork from Day 1, team building.
"It’s something you teach and coach in the cutulre of the program year after year," he said. "We’re now in my fifth year here. We’re getting juniors and seniors who have been here so you don’t have to tell them. They understand that’s their role and it’s important. We’ve had people in the past when it didn’t happen like that, and they’ve seen the results. They understand how important that, as much as how our practices are, how we train, the culture of the team and how we work together, is huge.
Gustafsdottir said, "We have studs in every event. That’s how we won dual meets this year with our depth.”
They won them all, you know. A perfect 10-0, climaxed as if off a cliche-ridden film school script: a one-point win against the University of Miami decided by a skin tight outtouch on the final relay.
“I cried my eyes out. I was so proud," Gustafsdottir said. "It just shows you how far we’ve come from having teams, freshman year, that we were so far behind. And being undefeated this year. It’s the best feeling, leaving like that.
“When they came in and we saw the scoreboard, we all just screamed. I’m not going to say it was like winning conference, but the feeling was…I don’t know, I can’t describe it.”
Andersson said, "There’s no words. It was an awesome feeling. Beating UM in the last meet. It was just the perfect end to my last dual meet season. I have a couple of friends from home, Sweden, that swim for UM, so obviously it feels pretty good to beat them too.”
Andersson also was conscious of the recent history between the two schools. As in, none for four years.
Horner's in his fifth year at FIU. That's five years in a city where the most canonized sports team of all owes its status to "and 0." Five years at a school and department wanting to be seen at least as equals to the nearby smaller school that carries the municipal nomenclature that fits FIU more. Still, he seemed a bit puzzled by the happy hoopla, such as it was.
“It was very satisfying, very happy. I feel like we’ve gotten more praise and recognition out of those two accomplishments than we have with anything we’ve done," he said. "And I feel like we’ve done a lot of other things that may have been even more significant – sweeping swimmer and diver of the year in the past, been one of the top programs in academics on campus. We’ve won the Champs Life Skills Award. Last year, we beat Georgia Tech out of the ACC, which was a good win for us.
"For some reason, that rung louder and got more praise and recognition. I’m happy for the girls because they work their butts off. They deserve the praise and recognition for what they’ve achieved. It’s hard not to stumble somewhere so that’s a good testament to them."
Horner did take something perhaps important from that 150-149 win.
"I think one of the most satisfying things was UM came in against us blazing," he said. "They wore fast suits and everything else which really rattled our girls at first. They were like 'What’s going on?' I feel like it was a great test, in hindsight, because that’s the kind of battle they’re going to be up against for four days at the championship – that kind of heated racing, battles back and forth. So, in hindsight, coming out of that with a win, squeaking by, coming down to the last race, probably was the best thing that could’ve happened to us to prepare us for the (conference) championship.”
So now, to paraphrase the classic call by Howie Rosen, the Panthers have one more hill to climb. There's gold up on that hill awaiting the women of FIU...or Rice...or Western Kentucky.
Four days from now, we'll know who got good, bad or ugly enough to climb that hill.
You can skip this unless you're an athletics business wonk. Or just curious.
A few things about the deal with adidas, announced by FIU in January as a five-year deal worth around $2.6 million:
*FIU gets adidas footwear, clothes, equipment and accessories, but not for free. They get sort of a Costco deal on stuff -- shoes at 45 percent off retail price; clothes, equipment and accessories 50 percent off retail for everyone but baseball/softball, which gets only 37.5 percent off The Price is Right price. But baseball/softball gets theirs elsewhere, as you’ll soon see. FIU must spend at least $300,000 each year, which is air hockey money for a properly-funded Division I athletic program.
*If FIU does spend $300,000 each year, it gets an additional $260,000 retail value of adidas product (stuff) in 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18, $285,000 in 2018-19 and $310,000 in 2019-2020.
*For the football team using adidas footballs in practices and games, FIU gets $10,000 retail value of product each year.
*Under “Athletic Department Fund Raising”, adidas gives FIU $15,000 of retail product value each year.
*There’s various bonuses for team achievement and Coach of the Year. The largest realistically attainable one is $20,000 retail value product for a football team bowl appearance.
*Baseball gets the most extra stuff. Softball will get the same stuff in “an amount to be agreed upon when Adidas introduced these hardgoods” according to the contract. (Yes, I think it should be “introduces” but I’m quoting directly from the contract, so…)
Each year, FIU Baseball gets:
Up to 48 wood bats, up to 42 non-wood bats, 6 aluminum fungo bats, up to 36 fielder’s gloves, up to 40 wheeled locker equipment bags, up to 40 individual duffel bags, 6 coach’s briefcases, 5 wheeled catcher bags (two to be used for equipment), up to 96 pairs of batting gloves (replaced by wear and tear), up to 96 pairs of wristbands, up to 25 batting helmets, up to 6 sets of catching gear.
432 fitted baseball hats
$34,000 retail value of free product.
$4,000 retail value of free product for the head coach
The only other individual in the athletic department who gets free product is the athletic director, who gets $10,000 retail value of free product each year.
With three of the five polls reporting, FIU baseball made it to No. 23 in one poll and got an almost-not-quite in two others after taking two of three from Tennessee.
Baseball America put FIU at No. 23. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Top 30 dropped Tennessee from No. 29 to out and lists FIU in an alphabetical listing of others receiving votes. D1Baseball.com, which ranked Tennessee at No. 25 in its Top 25 poll, dropped the Volunteers and put FIU under "Also Receiving Consideration."
("Some I consider my girlfriends. Some I just consider." -- John Bender, The Breakfast Club)
Collegiate Baseball's rankings didn't include FIU and doesn't list any schools outside its Top 30. I'll update later as the USA Today Coaches poll gets released.
Meanwhile, FIU's sand volleyball team got ranked ninth in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll released Monday. Pepperdine's No. 1 with USC No. 2. Florida State breaks the West Coast dominance at No. 3, but between Tallahassee at No. 3 and Miami at No. 9, it's all Pacific Coast -- Hawaii, Long Beach State, Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Saint Mary's.
FIU opens its season Mar. 7 at the Stetson Spring Break Tournament.
UPCOMING HOME GAMES/MATCHES
Men's basketball, vs. Rice, Thursday, 8 p.m.
Softball, vs. Villanova, Friday, 11 a.m.
Softball, vs. Wichita State, Friday, 4 p.m.
Softball, vs. Columbia, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Softball, vs. Texas State, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Men's basketball, vs. North Texas, Saturday, 6 p.m.
Holding sophomore pitcher Chris Mourelle's start until Sunday could be described as having an ace in the hole by putting an ace in the hole.
And when Mourelle didn't get betrayed by his defense -- zero Panthers errors Sunday after 12 the first two games -- he gave up only two walks and a hit in the first five innings of a 3-0 staff shutout of Tennessee.
FIU winning two of three from an SEC team ranked in a few polls injects some interest in the next round of baseball rankings. FIU just did the equivalent of a strong showing in the Iowa primary. A small rise in the polls should be imminent.
The Pelonis Space Heater! Yes, this little baby, brought by me to Saturday's game from the home it's served since the 2009-10 winter days that dipped into the 30s, warmed fingers still chilled from Friday night at first pitch Saturday. The base temperature actually was cooler Saturday, but Friday night's wind dropped the late game temperature from the 50s to much lower.
(One swimmer from a cold weather climate told me she left Friday's game in the fourth inning. Too cold.)
Anyway, I came ready for Saturday. FIU? Nyet. Not the women's basketball team (79-56), not the men's basketball team (75-42...what?), not the baseball team, which went face down 9-2 and never challenged.
Head coach Turtle Thomas called it a game you "flush and move on." He criticized freshman pitcher Garrett Cave for falling too far behind in counts, the defense for committing seven errors, the batters for being too passive at the plate. On this last count, the best example came during garbage time, the eighth inning. Three consecutive hitters, with men on first and second, looked at strike three.
At least the softball team split, losing to Memphis 2-0 before coming from behind to mercy rule LIU 12-4 in the FIU Invitational. Freshman shortstop Ashley Balans from Plantation American Heritage made her first college home run a grand slam. Gabriella Spallone doubled in two runs. Stephanie Texeira went two for three. FIU entered the fourth inning down 4-3 and left it up 10-4.