In their last year as conference foes, Belmont and Lipscomb offer undiminished rivalry

Monday, October 24, 2011 at 9:05pm
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Don Claussen/Lipscomb Athletics   

Lipscomb and Belmont just can’t seem to escape each other – even when the rivals are not in Nashville.

Two weekends ago, Lipscomb’s volleyball team boarded a flight to Florida to play North Florida and Jacksonville. Low and behold, on the same plane and later at the same hotel, there was Belmont, which played the same two Florida schools that same weekend.

Talk about awkward. 

“It is not a bitter rivalry by any stretch, but there is definitely not a whole lot of talking between the girls,” Lipscomb volleyball coach Brandon Rosenthal said. “Not in a bad way. I think that is the way it is kind of always going to be.”

Belmont is leaving the Atlantic Sun Conference next summer to join the Ohio Valley Conference. The Bruins’ departure will change the complexion of the rivalry as conference implications no longer will be at stake. But chances are Battles of the Boulevard will be just as intense and competitive as always. 

Need proof? How about three matchups in three different sports over a four-day span earlier this month that went down to the wire. 

On Oct. 6, Lipscomb edged Belmont in a five-set volleyball match. The next day, the Bisons women’s soccer team pulled out a 2-1 victory. On that Sunday, the Lipscomb men’s soccer team was victorious by the same score.

The men’s basketball games are easily the biggest draw of the rivalry — both games last year attracted more than 5,000 fans — but the other sports aren’t lost in the shuffle.

The volleyball match at Allen Arena drew a raucus crowd of 1,053. More than 900 showed up for the men’s soccer game and 833 saw the Lipscomb women’s soccer team make history.

“It was cool that they were able to just have a whole weekend where they could just focus on being good fans and coming out to support us,” Lipscomb soccer player Garret Pettis said. “Usually those are the games we get the biggest turnout for.”

Neither soccer team will meet again this season unless they face off in the conference tournament.

The volleyball teams, though, are set to reunite at Belmont at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The two have won the last five A-Sun championships (Lipscomb three, Belmont two). Both squads are atop the league again, with Lipscomb in front.

The Bruins haven’t defeated Lipscomb since 2008.

“If you lose, there is a chip on your shoulder,” Belmont outside hitter Maggie Johnson said.

Belmont had the Bisons against the wall three weeks ago when it won two of the first three sets. But Lipscomb, the two-time defending A-Sun champ, rallied to win the final three sets and handed Belmont its first conference loss.

“Emotions were high,” Lipscomb senior Katie Rose said. “I was more exhausted after that match than I have been the entire season. I think that just speaks to how hard both teams work when we play each other.”

Lipscomb’s victory in women’s soccer was sealed when Katie Wood headed in the game-winning goal in the 78th minute. It was the 10-year program’s first victory in the series.

Wood, a junior defender, had struggled on headers throughout her college career. Against Belmont, she didn’t miss.

“It was really invigorating,” Wood said. “Belmont tends to play pretty rough with us, and we get pretty rough right back. When you have just the inherent competitiveness ... it just makes the whole match more interesting and intense.

“It was a fun to game play.”

The dramatic victory set off a frantic celebration that coach Jon Ireland quietly watched from the bench as tears streamed down his face.

“Our program has been through a lot. We’ve had struggles,” Ireland, who is in his fifth year at the helm, said. “It was just overwhelming. I was just so happy after the game. Just to see the girls and the joy — we’ve had so many heartbreakers — that to finally see them do it, it was just incredible to see their faces. ... I just wanted to take it in.”

On the flip side, the Lipscomb men’s soccer team hasn’t lost to Belmont since 2005. Deven Bahadoorsingh kept that streak intact when he drove in a shot off a header from Pettis for the decisive goal with less than nine minutes left.

“A lot of us are pretty good friends actually. But whenever we get on the field, there are no friends at all. It is a bitter rivalry,” Pettis said. “I like to consider myself a gamer. That kind of atmosphere can bring the best out of me.”

Before coach Charles Morrow arrived in 2005, the Bisons hadn’t beaten Belmont in the NCAA Division I era. 

“I think the first time we beat them [in 2006] was memorable and really sort of a turning point for us and this program,” Morrow said. “Belmont was sort of the closest measuring stick for us, and we wanted to beat them. ... I think the coaches carry some pride in that we beat them the last time that it really counts.”

The rivalry will enter another chapter next season and might have a different feel since the two teams won’t be in the same league for the first time in more than a decade.

The men’s soccer teams aim to play each other at least once. Rosenthal is hopeful the volleyball rivalry continues for two matches a year. Lipscomb’s 2012 women’s soccer schedule, however, was already set when Belmont announced its move to the OVC. So next year’s match will be an exhibition contest.

“I think people are always amazed to hear of Lipscomb and Belmont and they are somewhat familiar of the rivalry,” Rosenthal said. “But when you kind of break it down you understand we are literally the closest two schools [two miles apart] in the country that play on a regular basis. I think that just adds to the mystique of it.”