More academic honors for fall-season athletes
The on-field success of many St. Xavier University teams wasn’t all that was notable about the fall sports season.
Mixed in with the athletic feats were some notable ones in the classroom, as a half-dozen Cougars recently got named as 2013 Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athletes. To be eligible for the honor, student-athletes must be nominated by their coaches or the sports information director at their school, have reached junior academic status and maintained a minimum cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale.
Recognized from SXU were soccer players Molly Sheehan (speech pathology) and James King (nursing), cross country runners Shane Kenney (communications), Amanda Magee (nursing) and Dana Martin (history), and volleyball player Marie Hackert (graphic design and marketing). The first three Cougars are seniors, the other three juniors.
Sheehan, who started 14 of 18 matches for SXU this past season, is appearing on the Daktronics list for the second straight year.
On the field, football linebacker Zach Dolph was named as one of 49 finalists from NCAA Division II and III and NAIA schools for the inaugural Cliff Harris Award, which will be given to the top defensive player in the country at those levels of competition.
The overall winner, chosen by a committee made up of head coaches and past greats of pro and college football, will be announced Christmas Eve. He will be officially honored at a banquet in Arkansas in February.
“Zach is very deserving to be named one of the very best small-college defensive players in the country,” Cougars coach Mike Feminis said. “He has had a tremendous playing career at St. Xavier, and an award of this magnitude would be a wonderful exclamation point for it.”
Dolph was the Cougars’ tackles leader in 2013 with 112, 46 of which were solo stops.
Several sports programs recently announced athletic signings for next season.
Among the signees are three transfer students. Softball player Jessica Arebalo, a Stagg graduate, will arrive at SXU next fall after completing the current school year at Kankakee Community College. She will pursue a degree in criminal justice.
As a freshman catcher/third baseman with the Cavaliers last spring, Arebalo helped her team post a 40-10 record and capture a National Junior College Athletic Association Region IV championship.
“Jess is a difference-maker,” Cougars coach Myra Minuskin said. “I recruited her out of Stagg, and she is even better now after her experience on a nationally ranked junior-college program. I can’t wait to see Jess in an SXU uniform.
Also switching schools next fall will be football players Mark Strbjak and Michael Mettille, who will transfer in to SXU from Northern Illinois University and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively.
Strbjak, who is a punter for the Huskies, will get a shot at quarterback with the Cougars, while Mettille is a linebacker who’ll have two years of collegiate eligibility remaining.
“Mark is a terrific athlete who, like [current SXU quarterback] John [Rhode], can sling the ball around and is also a legitimate running threat, Feminis said. “He was the best punter in Indiana coming out of high school, so we’ll certainly use him in that role as well.
“Michael was one of our top defensive recruits coming out of Joliet Catholic Academy his senior year, so to get him for his final two years is exciting. With Zach Dolph graduating, Michael has a great shot to compete for the starting ‘Will’ linebacker position. Michael is very smart, has a great knack for finding the football and is really solid in pass coverage, too.”
Also coming aboard as recruits out of high school are the Joliet Catholic trio of running back Michael Ivlow and offensive linemen Justin Hunter and Jalen Hansel, the latter two of whom are 300-pounders.
“I feel like I went to the Kentucky Derby and just hit the trifecta,” Feminis said. “All three of these kids received full-scholarship offers from NCAA I-AA and D-II programs, and turned them down to come to SXU.
“But they all told me the same thing: They wanted to go to a good school together, preferably close to home, and play in a program where they knew they would have a chance to win a national championship. I think that turned the tide our way even more so than the desire to play Division I.”
Ivlow was named the 2013 East Suburban Catholic Conference Player of the Year and an all-state selection in Class 5A by the Illinois Football Coaches Association. As a senior, Ivlow rushed for a single-season school-record 2,603 yards and scored 32 touchdowns.
“Michael Ivlow is a special player and a special young man,” Feminis said. “I’ve never seen a kid transform his body and improve his overall level of quickness, speed and athleticism from his junior year to his senior year like Michael. His stats and accomplishments speak for themselves, but he’s got an unbelievable heart and will to succeed.
“The best thing about Michael is that he is so humble and gives all the credit for his success to his offensive linemen and teammates. With the graduation of Nick Pesek, we’re expecting Michael to come in and compete right away.”
Hunter was named the 2013 Most Valuable Offensive Lineman in the ESCC, as well as a special mention on the IFCA Class 5A All-State squad. Hansel is a two-time All-ESCC performer.
“Getting Justin and Jalen was a perfect storm,” Feminis said. “I played college ball and was a good buddy of Justin’s dad [Darrin], and I knew Justin’s mom from all of us going to [the University of] St. Francis at the same time.
“When I met Justin, I was the happiest guy in the world that he was only 6-1 or 6-2 because if he was 6-4, I honestly believe the major D-I’s would have been all over him. And then I find out that the huge kid who plays next to him is his best friend and they want to go to the same school.
“Jalen had already received a full scholarship offer to I-AA North Dakota going into his senior year, and there’s no doubt if he was an inch or two taller he’d be going big-time too. These two are absolute road-graders — they’re huge, have great feet, and both play with a mean streak. They just bury guys and, like Michael, Justin and Jalen are quality young men.”
Also among SXU’s latest signees are volleyball player Anna O’Hara, from Traverse City, Mich., and basketball player Brittany Collins.
O’Hara, an outside hitter, was a third-team all-state selection in Michigan as a prep senior at Traverse City West High School. Her team was champion of the Big North Conference for the first time in seven years and a regional titlist for the first time in eight seasons.
O’Hara also served as team captain for the Traverse City Thunder 18U AAU team.
“Anna is going to come in and fill an immediate need for our team as a six-rotation outside attacker,” SXU coach Robert Heersema said. “Two of the things that stood out for me right away with Anna is that she is very coachable and has a strong work ethic. Her high school team had a huge season, and Anna was a big reason for that.
“She will be a great addition to our program.”
Collins, a senior at Maine West who is the Warriors’ career rebounding leader and No. 2 on their all-time scoring list, will join coach Bob Hallberg’s nationally ranked basketball team next winter. The 6-footer can play forward or center, and Hallberg believes Collins has the talent to make an immediate impact with the Cougars.
“Brittany is a huge signing for our program,” Hallberg said. “To land a player of her talent level from a tremendous high school program speaks volumes. It shows that all the work that our coaches and players have put into building this program over the years has paid off because the top players want to come to St. Xavier University and compete for a national championship.”
Beating Robert Morris University has not rated as mission impossible for the Cougars through the years, but the wins have definitely been scattered.
And never have they come in any sort of dominant fashion — until Saturday, that is.
When the Eagles built a 45-35 halftime lead in Arlington Heights, SXU appeared to be facing another stern challenge from the No. 8-ranked squad in NAIA Division II. That was particularly so since the Cougars’ field-goal percentage sat at a miserable 27 through the first 20 minutes of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference contest.
But four substantial second-half runs changed the game’s complexion completely. SXU used a 17-7 scoring surge to pull even, a 13-3 blitz to give itself a lead, and then responded to Robert Morris’ comeback bid by setting out on unanswered 10- and 11-point runs.
It all added up to a stunning 96-77 triumph for the No. 11 Cougars, who shot an otherworldly 80 percent (20-of-25) after intermission. That included nailing 4-of-5 3-pointers. Making that performance even more crushing to the Eagles was the hosts’ own 31 percent success rate over that same stretch.
“We played as well as we possibly could in the second half,” SXU coach Tom O’Malley said. “When you get good shots, you should hit a large number of them. But when you play a team as good as Robert Morris, it’s not easy.
“I thought we prepared well. Coach [Tony] Bates had a game plan that addressed pretty much everything [the Eagles] would do.”
Still, O’Malley didn’t expect things to unfold quite the way they did. Although his teams have garnered some success against Robert Morris, heartbreaking setbacks have tended to overshadow those fleeting moments of glory.
“There’s been a lot more of those near-misses [for us],” he said.
What kept this latest encounter from perhaps falling into that category was a yeoman effort from Brad Karp. The senior guard netted a career-high 42 points on 15-of-20 shooting and also snared 13 rebounds.
Karp was a key person in most of the Cougars’ important runs. He contributed three layups and a 3-pointer to the game-tying 17-7 spurt, added two layups and a jumper to the 13-3 blitz, and hit another basket to join Jack Krieger (3-pointer) and Tony Core (dunk) in triggering the 10-0 surge.
O’Malley cited Krieger (14 points, six rebounds, three assists) as a second-half difference-maker, and Michael Simpson (19 points, four rebounds, three assists) and Josh Mawhorr (11 points, nine rebounds, six assists) also did their part on SXU’s behalf.
“Simpson is a catalyst,” O’Malley said. “The big thing is Michael’s really starting to play as a point guard and not just being a point scorer. And Jack played pretty well — he’s been back [from an injury] for four or five games and we’ve won five in a row.”
While the Cougars (9-2, 3-0) burned the Eagles on several occasions with sizable point runs, O’Malley pegged a second-half sequence when SXU’s defense registered four consecutive stops — and the Cougars augmented those with a few easy buckets off their press-break — as the pivotal occurrence.
“We weren’t playing well defensively in the first half,” O’Malley said. “But when we got them down by 10 or 12, it was pretty easy to maintain because their guys got frustrated. I don’t remember a Robert Morris team ever losing like that.”
O’Malley admitted that, from top to bottom, neither the Eagles nor the Cougars have the same kind of overall star quality they once did.
“There were years where we’d have two or three kids and they’d have three or four who were of [an NCAA] Division I caliber,” O’Malley said. “We all had that change a little bit with the reduction in scholarships, but I think we’ve done a lot as far as getting people who can help us win.”
O’Malley rightfully termed this latest triumph as “a Christmas present for all of us,” but he’d prefer that his athletes not savor it all the way until the holiday arrives.
“You’re only as good as your next game, not your last one,” O’Malley said. “Be very thankful for it — it was a great one to get — but now we have more to do.”
A date with Roosevelt University tonight certainly deserves SXU players’ full attention, and the Cougars’ upcoming Christmas tournament does as well. Arriving in town will be several other nationally ranked programs. — Ken Karrson
For the four juniors on the Cougars’ roster — Morgan Stuut, Suzie Broski, Margaret Wildner and Maloree Johnson — Saturday’s 104-69 victory over Robert Morris University was a first.
Never before in their collegiate careers had an SXU women’s team scored 100 points in a contest. The last time the Cougars eclipsed that century plateau was in a 101-91 victory over Olivet Nazarene during the 2010-11 season. That SXU squad also piled up 100 points on two other occasions, and all three efforts came in a 10-game winning streak that closed out the campaign.
On Saturday, powered by four players in double figures and a solid shooting effort of 53 percent (43-of-81), the NAIA Division II No. 8-ranked Cougars captured a CCAC road win at the RMU Athletic & Convocation Center in Arlington Heights.
Stuut led the way with her eighth double-double of the season, boasting team-best totals of 27 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. Broski added 17 points, five rebounds and three steals.
Sophomore forward Caitlin McMahon also had a double-double performance for SXU with 14 points and 10 rebounds, while freshman guard Mikayla Leyden provided a big lift off the bench with 12 points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting from the field.
“The girls told me that fact in the locker room, and I didn’t even realize it,” Cougars coach Bob Hallberg said, referring to the new experience for his junior quartet. “It’s hard to believe that it’s the first time in three years, considering the talented juniors who have been playing for me, that we’ve scored over 100 points in a game.”
SXU jumped out to an early 10-2 edge and led by as many as 23 points in the first half. However, the host Eagles used an 18-3 run in the final four minutes to shave their halftime deficit to just eight, 47-39.
It took just a couple minutes of the second half for the Cougars to re-establish their double-digit advantage, and they continued to build on it the rest of the way. SXU took its largest lead at 104-69 on a layup by Wildner in the closing seconds.
The Cougars were dominant on the boards, racking up 53 rebounds in the game compared to just 35 for Robert Morris. SXU also did an excellent job of taking care of the basketball, committing just seven turnovers on the day.
“It was one of those games where we were hitting on all cylinders,” Hallberg said. “Everything seemed to go well. We shot the ball well and we rebounded the ball well, [although] we had a little trouble at the end of the first half on free-throw shooting that allowed Robert Morris to get a little bit back into the game.”
The 104 points were 17 more than the Cougars had managed in any game this season. They tallied 87 in a win over Trinity International University on Nov. 13.
“Everybody on the team scored, so that was nice,” Hallberg said. “I had 12 players in the game, and everyone scored. When you shoot the ball well, it clears up a lot of your problems.
“We had a lot of transition baskets. We were playing well; consequently, we scored a lot of baskets.”
Individually, Hallberg continued to be impressed by Stuut’s rebounding tenacity.
“Morgan is just unbelievable,” he said. “Everybody talks about points, but she’s just amazing on the boards. She never takes a coffee break. For 40 minutes, she plays at such a high intensity level.
“We’re just fortunate that she’s only a junior, so we still have her for a while.”
Hallberg said he was also very pleased with Leyden, who has bounced back nicely from a torn ACL suffered a year ago to become a solid contributor off the bench for the Cougars this season.
“Mikayla was 5-for-5 off the bench, and two of those baskets were 3-pointers,” Hallberg said. “She added two free throws for 12 points in 18 minutes. Her stepping up is making us even stronger.”
The only bad news for SXU was the report that freshman Revi McMahon is officially out for the season. She broke her foot in last week’s contest against Judson University.
One of the most encouraging signs for the Cougars’ performance on Saturday was that it was their only game of the week, something that Hallberg deliberately does every year during finals week so his athletes can focus on studying for them.
But he also worries there might be negative repercussions on the court later.
“Sometimes you wonder if they’re going to come out flat [in the next game],” Hallberg said. “This game turned out to be one of the best games we’ve played so far this season. Robert Morris is a good team that has [NCAA] Division I transfers and is well-coached, but we were on our ‘A’ game.”
SXU (9-3, 4-1) is in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this week for two games at the Cruzin Classic Tournament. The Cougars play No. 9-ranked Oklahoma Baptist University today at 11 a.m. and tangle with No. 15 Briar Cliff (Iowa) University on Friday.
“Oklahoma Baptist is [an NAIA] Division I, full-scholarship school which is 9-1 right now,” Hallberg said. “Briar Cliff is 15th, so they’re looking to beat us and move up in the rankings. It’s going to be back-to-back tough games. We don’t have an easy tournament, but we’ve played so many hard games, with 10 out of 12 coming on the road, that I really believe we’re prepared.
“I’m happy with the way we played Saturday, and I hope that can carry into the Florida trip. It’s a combination of business and pleasure. It was 80 degrees there this past week, so we hope that holds up, too.” — Anthony Nasella