The Flat Hat Sports Desk’s annual awards recognize the top players, coaches, and games of the year. Editor Nick Cipolla explains the choices of this year’s winners and talks about the defining moments of 2014-15. Replacing the Senior Player of the Year award, as it would be the same winner as the All-Tribe Athlete this year, the Rookie of the Year award was split to recognize both a male and female student-athlete.
Coach of the Year
Head coach Ed Swanson. Despite the women’s basketball team’s early departure from the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament with the 64-51 loss to Hofstra, the 2014-15 Tribe squad improved tremendously from past years. In Swanson’s second year at the College, his team held a 15-14, 9-9 CAA record in the regular season, the first time since 2007 the program held a winning record. Additionally, the program earned its first-ever postseason tournament berth, participating in the Women’s Basketball Invitational where the Tribe fell by a single point to Xavier.
Typically, a team with a starting rotation featuring two freshman, two sophomores and just one senior does not constitute a recipe for success. But after a rocky start and some growing pains, the Tribe pulled out of a seven-game nosedive midseason at 6-10 to finish the season 15-14. While the services of star senior forward Jazmen Boone will certainly be missed, the game experience provided to these young starters will likely prove invaluable in the next few years.
Swanson took advantage of the strengths of all of his players through many close games, and despite not winning all the tight matchups or making it past the CAA Quarterfinals, this year sets up a foundation for another strong run as Swanson’s second recruiting class joins the Tribe in the fall. Swanson has effectively turned what was a relatively weak program into a key conference competitor with a bright future ahead.
Male Rookie of the Year
Freshman infielder Cullen Large. Out of James River High School in Chesterfield, Va., Large has stepped up as a major factor so far in the 2015 Tribe baseball campaign. Leading the team in hits with 62 and runs with 40, he lives up to his name by being a huge part of many of the Tribe’s wins. Large earned the conference Player of the Week and Rookie of the Week awards in the same week back in March after his performance against Virginia Tech and Hofstra.
Through all of the struggles the team has faced this year in both its conference and non-conference games, Large has consistently contributed solid play for the College. While batting, Large has made more than a few key plays that determined victory. From his walk-off single against Northern Kentucky to his hit that set up the walk-off in the rubber game against Elon to his home run against Virginia Military Institute just last week, Large shows that he is a core part of the offense, especially in clutch situations. On the field, he’s had a few errors as would be expected from a rookie, but for the most part he’s played the infield well. When the upperclassmen graduate, Large could be the star of the program if his pace continues.
Female Rookie of the Year
Freshman center Abby Rendle. Coming out of Northern Virginia, Rendle quickly became an essential part of the Tribe women’s basketball defensive strategy, as she now holds the freshman record for blocks with 68 after her performance in the CAA Tournament and in the Women’s Basketball Invitational against Xavier. She played in every game except one during the season and started 22 of 30 games. Defensively, Rendle grabbed 108 rebounds, the third highest on the team and the leader of all freshmen. She averaged 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Offensively, Rendle averaged 7.7 points per game and held a 47.2 field goal percentage as well as a 49 percent in free throws.
She is a two-time Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week, earning the honor Jan. 19 and March 2. The January award came after a career-high 16-point game against conference opponent Delaware where the Tribe came back from a 17-point gap; she had seven rebounds and two blocks during the game. She earned her second award for her performance against the College of Charleston as Rendle once again put up 16 points as well as adding three blocks and four rebounds while only playing for half of the game. If Rendle is any indication of the future of Tribe women’s basketball, the foundation for another successful season next year is set.
Game of the Year
Colonial Athletic Association Tournament semifinal. There’s something about men’s basketball semifinal games that brings out the hardest efforts of the team. There is no doubt that this game was Game of the Year, as a 92-91 double overtime victory with a buzzer-beating three pointer is no small event. As the Tribe held its first No. 1 seed in program history, No. 5 Hofstra put up a fight to the very end in one of the tightest matchups of the year. Every fan at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore will remember the last moments, as senior guard Marcus Thornton saw the opportunity for the pass to sophomore guard Daniel Dixon with not even a full second left on the clock. Dixon shot, the whole arena held its breath and the shot swished in, advancing the Tribe to its second consecutive CAA Championship game. However, the final shot would have meant nothing if it weren’t for the efforts of the Tribe during the rest of the game.
In the regular season, the College defeated Hofstra 100-79 at Kaplan Arena. In the tournament, it was a whole new ballgame. The College had a 21-11 lead early, but at the half the score was narrowed to 35-32. A defensive lapse allowed Hofstra to pull away late in the game, leading by five with under a minute to play. However, Thornton hit a three and drew a foul to force overtime with the score at 73. The Tribe was poised for victory with a lead in the first overtime, but Hofstra once again rallied, and the College only was able to force the second overtime with a Thornton three and Hofstra’s missed field goals. In the second overtime, that final shot by Dixon was arguably the greatest moment in Tribe sports this year.
Over the game, Thornton scored a tournament record 37 points, followed by sophomore forward Omar Prewitt (last year’s Flat Hat Sports Rookie of the Year) putting up 33 points, combining with Thornton for 70 of the 92 points. Junior guard Terry Tarpey added 12 points and 10 rebounds while combating an ankle injury.
The intensity and determination of the game highlights it as the best of the best this year.
2014-15 All-Tribe Athlete
Using an expanded bracket from last year’s award, Sports Editors Nick Cipolla and Sumner Higginbotham determined that senior guard Marcus Thornton is the All-Tribe Athlete for the second year in a row.
In his final collegiate season, Thornton defined athleticism with his quick plays and decision-making. He was the quintessential athlete, always practicing in the gym and putting effort in during games. And it paid off. During the year, he broke the 65-year record for all-time Tribe scoring, holding the new mark of 2,178 points. Additionally, Thornton holds school records for successful three-pointers with 325, games played with 127 and threes per game with 2.56. In the CAA, he is one of two players to be selected to the All-CAA team three times as well as the First Team All-CAA team twice. Leading the team as captain twice and earning MVP honors three times, Thornton leaves an impressive legacy, and will likely have his number hanging in the rafters of Kaplan Arena for years to come.
The other members of our final four, junior Emily Stites, junior Jeremiah O’Donnell, and junior Leeza Nemchinov all had great performances this year. Despite some injuries this year, Stites placed 36th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in the fall. She earned her sixth All-American honor, tying Elaina Balouris ’14 for the school record, as she took 11th in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships 5,000-meter race in March. O’Donnell led the swimming team to the program’s first conference championship as he won six races, set five school records and four conference records during the championship meet, earning him the CAA Swimmer of the Year honor. His upset over Stites results from a combination of his domination and Stites own limitation due to injury. Tre McBride’s season was somewhat derailed for a similar reason, hence O’Donnell’s upset in the quarterfinals. Nemchinov earned distinction as the CAA’s Most Outstanding Player in the tournament as well as Player of the Year and First Team All-CAA this year as she went 27-3 in singles and 24-4 in doubles with senior Jeltje Loomans, holding national ranks of No. 54 and No. 66 in singles and doubles, respectively. However, Thornton’s records and authority on the court in the season and playoffs make him the Flat Hat Sports Desk’s choice.
Throughout the year, there have been many strong storylines or even parts of sports that have been underrated through the year. These are the top events and trends that influenced 2014-15 sports at William and Mary.
Football on the rise
In early October, in week six of Tribe football’s 2014 season, the College ranked in the top 10 Football Championship Subdivision national rankings for the first time since 2011. At the time, the Tribe was 4-1, 1-0 CAA. While short-lived, the top 10 ranking certainly sets a standard for Tribe football, and builds upon the College’s legacy on the gridiron.
The only story bigger than the national ranking during the fall for football was the announcement of renovations to Zable Stadium. Plans include improvements to restrooms and concessions as well as lighting and sound. They also call for an upper tier of seating and a new press box. $22 of the $27 million investment is funded by alumni donors and recently began construction this semester. The project is slated to be finished before the 2016 season.
Same old story
Both football and men’s basketball ended their seasons in the same place they ended in 2013-14. For football, it was a loss to Richmond that prevented the Tribe from post-season play, resulting in a 7-5, 4-4 CAA final record, identical to the 2013 campaign. For men’s basketball, another loss in the conference championship caused the Tribe to miss the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament berth for the second year in a row. Both finales were disappointing and revealed a need for some new play calling in football on the offensive side of the ball and a harder defensive focus on the basketball court to prevent the stagnation of momentum down the stretch. Football’s spring game showed promise and Tribe basketball in undoubtedly talented, returning four of five starters, so next year could certainly show positive change.
Lacrosse overtime battle
Tribe lacrosse hosted arch-rival Richmond March 20 at Martin Family Stadium and fought in one of the most intense games of the season. After trailing 4-1, the Tribe clawed back to take the lead, only to fall behind again, but then regrouped to match Richmond goal for goal, tying the game four times. A beacon of light in an otherwise dismal season, the Tribe eventually prevailed with a goal by senior midfielder Ellen Shaffrey, her fifth of the night to extend its winning streak to three games. Ultimately, the College missed the playoffs due to lackluster performances in conference play down the stretch, but this game epitomized the spirit of Tribe sports this year.
We are the champions
For the first time in program history, men’s swimming claimed the Colonial Athletic Association title. Breaking several records for both the Tribe and the CAA, the men dominated most of the events on its path to victory, spearheaded by CAA Swimmer of the Year junior Jeremiah O’Donnell. The Tribe won the championship without even having a diving section, highlighting their excellence in the lanes.
Additionally, men and women’s cross country swept the conference to earn the title for both programs this fall, marking continued control of distance running by the Tribe. Many cross country athletes are also earning postseason qualifiers for track and field as the conference meet will be held this weekend at Zable Stadium.
In another clean sweep by both men and women, Tribe tennis won both titles for the first time since 2005. The women won their 23rd title and second consecutively, while the men took their first title in a decade. Both teams defeated the College of Charleston in the finals, the men winning 4-1 and the women sweeping 4-0. The NCAA Regionals will be held in mid-May.
Breaking the records in basketball
Senior guard Marcus Thornton’s breaking of the all-time scoring record back in February is just one of many highlights of the 2014-15 basketball seasons for both men and women. For the men, 2015 marked the first time with the No. 1-seeding in the conference tournament as the College won the regular season with a tiebreaker over three other schools. On the women’s side, the Tribe made history by qualifying for a post-season tournament, showing a turnaround from previous seasons. The teams brought Tribe basketball to new heights this year on the court and in Kaplan Arena, as several promotional events as well as Thornton’s quest for the record brought in over 5,000 students, faculty, alumni and community members to Kaplan several times this year.