The Middle Tennessee State women’s soccer team didn’t get off to get a great start this season, dropping seven of its first 10 games.
But the Blue Raiders believe that rough stretch led them to where they are now – in their first NCAA Tournament in school history. MTSU (13-8-2) punched its ticket to the field of 64 after it knocked off then-No. 15 Denver in the Sun Belt Conference championship game on Saturday.
The Blue Raiders open the NCAA tournament against Florida State (13-5-1 and now ranked 15th) in the first round at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Tallahassee, Fla.
A trip to the playoffs seemed doubtful at the beginning of the year when MTSU began 3-7. During that stretch, it dropped games to ACC powers then-No. 1 North Carolina and Duke – which are both in the tournament as well – SEC opponents Mississippi and Alabama as well as Denver.
“We probably played the toughest schedule in school history to date,” ninth-year head coach Aston Rhoden said. “Certainly those games were put on our schedule to prepare us for conference play and to help our team to peak at the right time. I think that is exactly what it did for us.”
The Blue Raiders’ tough early season schedule did pay dividends. They lost just once in the last six weeks and went 9-2 in the Sun Belt. They avenged a loss to Florida Atlantic with a first-round victory in last weekend’s conference tournament. They then won back-to-back games on penalty kicks, including the thriller against Denver, which was scoreless after two overtimes.
They have allowed one goal or less in 15 straight games and goalkeeper Rebecca Cushing deserves much of the credit for the low-scoring affairs. The junior from Lone Tree, Colo. has had seven shutouts, 99 saves and an 80.5 save percentage this season. She was named the Sun Belt Tournament Most Valuable Player after making 14 saves and allowing just two goals in 310 minutes.
“I think she has had a great season and I think Becca will be the first to tell you that a big part of that is the players who play in front of her, the defenders who pretty much help her solidify protecting her goal,” Rhoden said.
Along with Cushing, Fran Howells, Whitney Jorgenson, Vanessa Mueggler and Regina Thomas all earned All-Sun Belt Tournament Team honors.
• Area coaches shoot it out: Several area college head coaches will be participating in Shots From the Heart, which will benefit the American Heart Association.
The free-throw shooting competition, which starts this month, is aimed at raising awareness and funds for the problem of heart disease in the United States. The event is in conjunction with CollegeInsider.com and the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award. Prosser was the head coach at Wake Forest when he died at the age of 56 of an apparent heart attack in 2007.
There will be two 64-player fields with separate tournaments for assistant coaches and head coaches. Belmont’s Rick Byrd and Kermit Davis of Middle Tennessee State will participate in the head coach contest. Brian Ayers of Belmont and MTSU’s Al Pinkins will compete in the assistant coach competition.
The coaches will attempt 25 free throws per round at their convenience. The results can be found at www.collegeinsider.com/shots.
• TSU adds to Hall of Fame: Tennessee State inducted 10 new members into its Athletic Hall of Fame last weekend.
Probably the most notable member of the group is Anthony Mason. He played at TSU from 1984-88 and still ranks in the top five of eight career categories for the Tigers. He later played with six NBA teams in 13 years. In 1995 he earned the Sixth Man of the Year Award while with the New York Knicks. He was also named to the 2001 All-Star team as a member of the Miami Heat.
Along with Mason, Frank Lewis, Sr. and Carlos Rogers represented the men’s basketball team in the new class. The women’s basketball team had two inducted – Sharron Jarrett and Connie Swift (Thompson). Football’s George Balthazar and Jessie James and track’s Estelle Baskerville (Diehl) and Shirley Crowder (Matthews), along with Kindell Stephens (sports information) were also enshrined.
• Blue Raiders’ Kozon honored again: MTSU outside hitter Izabela Kozon earned her second straight Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Player of the Week award on Monday.
The Poland native had 31 kills and 17 digs in two victories against South Alabama and Troy over the weekend. It was the senior’s fifth player of the week honor of the season and eighth in her career. It also was the seventh time this season that a Blue Raider has earned the award, which is a new conference record.
MTSU is 24-5 and 14-1 in the Sun Belt as it enters Friday’s regular-season finale against Western Kentucky, which is also 14-1 in league play.
• Other honors: Several other area players earned conference or national honors over the past week.
Vanderbilt senior guard Jence Rhoads was named to the 2010-11 Naismith preseason watch list. She was one of 50 players named to the list, which is compiled by the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s Board of Selectors. The native of Slippery Rock, Pa. was a preseason All-SEC selection by the coaches and media and averaged 13.8 points a game a year ago.
Belmont men’s soccer players Brandon Tarr and Nico Olsak earned Atlantic Sun postseason honors. Tarr, a sophomore, earned second-team accolades and Olsak was named to the All-Freshman team.
Lipscomb had three players earn all-conference honors. Junior forward Garret Pettis was named to the first team. Senior forward Miguel DaSilva was selected to the second team. Defender Kevin Barbar was named to the All-Freshman Team.
Three Trevecca Nazarene volleyball players earned All-TranSouth Conference honors. Sophomore Cassidy Watkins was selected to the first team, senior Brooke Cannon was named to the second team, and freshman Kristen Johnson, out of Independence High School in Franklin, earned honorable mention recognition.
Lipscomb’s Alex Kelly was named to the ESPN Academic All-District third team for District IV. The senior middle blocker has a 3.87 GPA and is the two-time Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year.