Cougars women qualify for national track meet
With Ashley Shares already set to represent St. Xavier University in the NAIA Indoor Track & Field National Championships, the Cougars qualified four more athletes for the March meet out of last weekend’s NCAA vs. NAIA Challenge.
The 3,200-meter relay quartet of Leslie Rosario, Dana Martin, Jordan Wallace and Nicole Watkins gave SXU a third-place finish at Olivet Nazarene University, doing so in a “B”-standard qualifying time of 9 minutes, 51.41 seconds. The four Cougars missed reaching the “A” standard by just over 4½ seconds.
“I’m very excited to see how the 4-by-800 team progresses through the season,” SXU coach Lisa Ebel said. “The way this team has worked together in practice has laid the groundwork for great improvement throughout the season.
“I’m thrilled that this group gets the opportunity to race at the national meet and confident that it will be a wonderful experience and great challenge for them.”
One week earlier, Shares earned a spot in the 5K field at the national meet, which will be held March 6-8 at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio.
Following a No. 7 finish in the final NAIA softball poll of 2013 — the best in program history — the Cougars learned they’ll begin the 2014 season as the nation’s fifth-ranked team.
That was the position SXU occupied when the NAIA Softball Coaches Association released its Preseason Top 25 poll last week. The Cougars, who went 50-9 a year ago and posted the country’s highest team fielding percentage (.981), start play in mid-March down in Florida.
“It’s a great honor and incredibly exciting for St. Xavier University,” Cougars coach Myra Minuskin said of her squad’s early recognition. “Our 2013 team opened a lot of eyes across the country and gained the respect of the national raters, [but] the 2014 squad is on a mission to accomplish even more.”
Forty years after it first gained popularity, streaking has become the fad once again at SXU.
The Cougars are responsible for resurrecting it, but their version differs slightly from the 1974 original. These days, a group of SXU student-athletes are streaking with clothing on — specifically, their basketball jerseys.
Each of the Cougars’ last 16 games has ended in victory for them, the second-longest winning streak in school annals. The record of 17 triumphs in a row was set in the 1988-89 season and then equaled by last year’s SXU squad.
To bump that standard aside, the Cougars must win both of this week’s contests, the second of which pits them against defending NAIA Division II national champion Cardinal Stritch on Saturday.
“Everyone around here has been talking about that game,” SXU coach Tom O’Malley said. “We can’t afford to even think about Cardinal Stritch until after we play a good Holy Cross team [this past Wednesday].”
O’Malley was merely exercising a bit of leadership-style caution, but even with a big target on their back of late, the No. 4-ranked Cougars have basically thrown caution to the winds.
For the most part, SXU has left little room for doubt during its unbeaten stretch, which dates back to six days before Thanksgiving. Last week was no exception to that rule, as the Cougars downed Calumet College of St. Joseph (71-55) and the University of St. Francis (84-72) in a pair of Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference encounters.
The Fighting Saints, a longtime rival of SXU’s, gave O’Malley reason to be wary on Saturday. USF had been playing well of late, but that made no difference to the Cougars’ tandem of Brad Karp and Jack Krieger, who combined for 43 points and 18 rebounds.
Karp’s 22 points gave him 2,611 for his career and elevated him to the No. 8 position among all-time scorers in Illinois college basketball history. He passed former Eastern Illinois University standout Henry Domercant on the list.
Just as vital to SXU’s welfare, though, has been Krieger. His return from an injury coincided with the start of the Cougars’ winning streak, and O’Malley deemed Krieger’s defensive play as pivotal as his work on the offensive side.
Not to be overlooked, either, is senior point guard Michael Simpson, an offseason transfer from Stritch. Simpson produced a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds versus Calumet College last Wednesday, thereby giving SXU (20-2, 9-1) an able accomplice for the always-reliable Karp (27 points, nine rebounds).
Together, the duo spearheaded a 21-3 getaway for the Cougars that shoved the Crimson Wave into an inescapable hole. SXU, which made 10 steals and garnered 18 points off 19 Calumet College turnovers, was ahead 40-17 at intermission.
“We certainly wouldn’t be in the position we’re in without him,” O’Malley said of Simpson. “He’s given us more than we could have ever expected. Michael is a very ambitious, electrifying performer.
“From the very first time he worked out with us, the kids knew he was something special. They made sure he fit in right away.”
O’Malley hesitates to make any comparison between teams of the past and present, but he definitely believes today’s Cougars are excelling at the moment.
“It was a good week, really, because these [opposing] teams are getting better, but these guys [of ours] are all jelling together,” O’Malley said. “There’s not a guy on the floor I can say I don’t like. I’m very happy at this point.”
The return of big men Josh Mawhorr and Tony Core from minor injuries has fortified SXU’s inside game, but the Cougars remained prosperous even without them at full strength. Credit for that, according to O’Malley, goes to unsung players such as Munir Smith, Darius Draper, freshman Kyle Tackett and Kyle Huppe, all of whom gave SXU some solid minutes last week.
“The big thing for us has been that the overall group has been getting better,” O’Malley said. “The hardest thing to do is say, ‘We’re winning, but we need to play a little harder and a little better.’”
The Cougars’ best clubs under O’Malley, including the 2012-13 edition, have typically been known for their quality depth. Last season’s SXU team, for example, featured an interchangeable top six, plus a few other valuable reserves.
When asked if his current squad is a mirror image of the one that immediately preceded it, O’Malley replied: “I don’t think the teams are very similar, but hopefully the mirror continues to show a good face [this season].” — Ken Karrson
Two more wins for the female Cougars kept their own streak intact last week. By beating Calumet College (91-61) and St. Francis (67-42) on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively, No. 7-ranked SXU (19-3, 9-1) ran its unbeaten string to 14 games.
The Cougars’ last setback occurred on Nov. 30.
“We continue to play well,” SXU coach Bob Hallberg said. “We’re playing a really good zone defense. We just aren’t giving teams really good looks at the basket.
“We always get those people in the coaching world, the Bobby Knight disciples, who say you can’t win playing a zone defense and that you have to play a man-to-man defense. [But] other schools have [also] succeeded with a zone defense.”
Junior Morgan Stuut, who was recently named the NAIA National Player of the Week for the second straight week, spearheaded the Cougars’ latest success by totaling a game-high 27 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and four steals against Calumet College, then recording an 11-point, 11-rebound, six-steal stat line opposite St. Francis. Stuut now has 17 double-doubles to her credit this season.
Three teammates joined her in double figures scoring-wise versus the Crimson Wave: Niara Harris (14 points, three assists, three steals), Maloree Johnson (11 points, game-high eight assists) and Suzie Broski (11 points).
“Morgan and Suzie had good nights,” Hallberg said. “Niara Harris has been pretty consistent. She’s good enough to start, but she gives us a much-needed spark off the bench.
“A lot of [our] girls can go to the basket and hit 3-point baskets. We got both in the win on Wednesday.”
SXU shot 57 percent for the contest, a mark that included a superb 68 percent success rate prior to intermission. Among the Cougars’ 19 first-half buckets were seven from behind the 3-point arc. That, as well as 10 Calumet College turnovers that led to 15 SXU points, helped the locals construct a 53-39 halftime lead.
The Cougars finished the evening with 13 steals.
A 9-0 run to open Saturday’s contest was all SXU required to seize control of the proceedings and set the Fighting Saints up for defeat in Chicago. Besides Stuut’s aforementioned handiwork, the Cougars also benefited from the efforts of Jordan Brandt (10 points, five assists, four steals), Caitlin McMahon (10 points, four blocks), Broski (nine points) and Johnson (nine points).
SXU’s defense forced 23 turnovers — 14 of those came directly off Cougars steals — and held St. Francis to a field-goal percentage of just 23. SXU, which was ahead 33-18 at the half, connected on 47 percent of its shots.
The Cougars, whose first double-digit lead occurred 11 minutes into the opening half, had the Saints down by as many as 26 points during the second half.
“St. Francis has some nice shooters on their team, and yet they were 2-for-19 in 3-point shooting,” Hallberg said. “We’re shooting well ourselves. [With a] 19-3 [ledger] and a 14-game winning streak, you must be rolling along and doing things well.”
What pleased Hallberg greatly was that SXU never flinched even though its top guns, Stuut and Broski, had relatively quiet outings by their lofty standards.
“St. Francis did a great job of shutting down our two primary offensive players,” he said. “Your opponent thinks it’s going to beat you by shutting down your best players, [but] we played 13 players on Saturday and 11 of them scored. It was just a nice distribution and sharing of the ball, and that’s what you need to have at tournament time: a few [different] people stepping up.
“We just have nice production out of the rest of our team right now.”
And Hallberg knows the Cougars can’t afford to stop doing what they’ve been doing so well, particularly as the national tournament draws closer.
“We have a tough month coming up, with a whole bunch of key ballgames,” he said. “We have back-to-back games with Cardinal Stritch on Saturday and Purdue [University] Calumet the following Monday. They’re two of the better teams in the conference, [so] hopefully we’ll be ready for those games.” — Anthony Nasella
Two defensive backs were the latest recruits signed by the Cougars. Coming aboard for the 2014 season will be Drey Devereaux, a Class 4A All-Stater from Hobart, Ind., and Robbie Brindley, an All-East Suburban Catholic Conference performer for Nazareth Academy last fall.
“The defensive backfield was a huge priority for us in recruiting this year, and these two young men can flat-out play,” SXU coach Mike Feminis said. “Drey is a terrific all-around athlete who will also be playing baseball at SXU. He has excellent speed and quickness, but is a very instinctual player as well. We think Drey can excel anywhere in the secondary for us.
“Robbie isn’t very big, either, but he plays big. Nazareth played him all over the place, including middle linebacker. Robbie probably runs well enough to play corner, but we’re probably looking at him as more of a safety.”
Sophomore middle blocker Sam Kull delivered 15 kills, four block assists and a pair of service aces, but the Cougars still couldn’t log an entry in the win column last Tuesday.
This time, the loss occurred in SXU’s Great Lakes Conference opener as host Robert Morris University prevailed in five sets, 21-25, 25-16, 25-19, 23-25, 16-14, in Arlington Heights. The setback was the Cougars’ fourth in a row to begin the 2014 season.
SXU was ahead 14-13 in the final set, but a service error gave the Eagles new life. Two points later, Robert Morris claimed the match triumph.
Other key figures for the Cougars in addition to Kull were senior outside hitter Justin Cousin (12 kills, five digs), senior middle blocker J.T. O’Connell (six kills, team-high five total blocks), senior setter Jacob Siska (career-high total 37 assists), redshirt freshman Matthew Mead (eight kills, six digs) and senior libero Nick Piccirillo (seven digs).
SXU squared off with NCAA Division III member Dominican University this past Tuesday in River Forest.
The Cougars’ loss is St. Laurence High School’s gain.
That’s how SXU coach Ed Vucinic views the decision of former assistant coach Matt Prunkle to become the Vikings’ head coach in 2014. Prunkle, a 2008 graduate of SXU and four-year member of the Cougars soccer squad, spent the past two years helping Vucinic. That followed collegiate stints for him at Moraine Valley College and Olivet Nazarene University.
“This is a great and extremely well-deserved opportunity for Matt and I couldn’t be happier for him,” Vucinic said. “In my opinion, Matt is among the top young coaches out there, and St. Laurence will benefit from his knowledge, passion, energy and work ethic.
“At the same time, our program will miss those qualities in a big way. Matt’s work here, as a player and a coach, have left a lasting mark. Selfishly, I wish he could continue to help guide the program [here], but he is so good at what he does I always knew it wouldn’t be long before he left to put his mark on a program of his own.
“I consider myself extremely fortunate to have worked with him. Everyone associated with SXU soccer wishes him the very best.”