News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 9, 2013

FROM THE PRESS BOX: Close, but no cigar, theme for ISU sports in 2012-13

Track and field and cross country programs provide exception with titles

Todd Golden
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When I covered my first event of Indiana State’s 2012-13 season — ISU’s opening football game at Indiana — I was the first one in the press box at IU’s Memorial Stadium. I’m never the first one in the press box.

Maybe the prospect of ISU’s season had me so pumped that I decided to get it started close to three hours early? (Or more truthfully, maybe I was over-vigilent about predicted traffic horrors on the Indiana 46 bypass that never came to pass.)

Had that been my line of thought, I wouldn’t have been far off the mark. The 2012-13 season produced plenty of big moments to write home about.

But if I had to pick a theme for the 2012-13 ISU athletic season — my ninth covering the program for the Tribune-Star (where did the time go?) — it would be close, but no cigar.

Football? The playoffs were one win away. Men’s basketball? The team peaked three weeks early and struggled to cross the finish line. Baseball? Injuries and inconsistency characterized the season, only to have a revival at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament come — you guessed it — one game short of the title game.

Women’s soccer was one match shy of the NCAA Tournament.

Only men’s cross country and both the men’s and women’s track and field teams were able to get across the line as MVC team champions.

Frustrating though the near-misses were for several teams, it was still a successful season. ISU was fourth in the MVC’s All-Sports trophy standings, which tied its best-ever finish in that category. The amount of truly bad teams at ISU — something common in the mid-2000s — has decreased significantly.

Here’s a rundown of the way it was for ISU in 2012-13:

Athlete of the year — Last year, I looked over a few national champions in track to give it to Shakir Bell, but that won’t happen this time. Felisha Johnson won the NCAA indoor weight throw championship, her second career title. On Saturday, the Lawrence North grad finished third in the shot put. Johnson has been a standout since her career began in 2010 and is a lead-pipe cinch future ISU Hall of Famer.

Other standouts included hurdler Greggmar Swift, baseball pitcher Sean Manaea (who had a great season despite his injuries), Bell and basketball’s Jake Odum.

Coach of the year — I’m just going to retire this bad boy in John McNichols’ name. The long-time ISU coach had another great season, claiming MVC cross country, indoor and outdoor MVC track championships. He just keeps on chugging.

Credit should also go to women’s track coach Angie Martin, who flies a bit under the radar in comparison, but whose teams have also excelled since she took over.

Of course, it’s a team effort for ISU cross country and track and field. The coaching staffs — John Gartland, Jeff Martin, Geoff Wayton, Erin Gilbreath and the graduate assistants — contribute to the success of both genders. They’re in Eugene, Ore., for the NCAA Track And Field Championships this weekend for a reason after all.

Team of the year — For many of the same reasons above, I have to go with men’s cross country and track and field teams — some of the athletes compete for both teams.

Disappointment of the year — I don’t think there’s a glaring example of a team falling well short of expectation.

Most fans would probably vote for men’s basketball. From NCAA Tournament at-large contention in early February to a late-season fizzle, the basketball team committed the sin of raising expectation and then letting fans down. An unpardonable sin in many fans’ eyes.

But I don’t think I’d pick basketball — which punched above weight more often than not. If the aforementioned standard of raising expectations and a letdown is applied to other teams, than football and baseball were both bigger disappointments as both had higher expectations than basketball did.

In terms of just sheer losing, volleyball gets the nod after Sycamore team that had just five upperclassmen and seven freshmen finished 4-24.

Biggest victory — There’s a lot of candidates here, especially from men’s basketball. Wins over Ole Miss, Miami, at Wichita State and Creighton all stood out.

But if I chose anything other than football’s 17-14 victory at No. 1 North Dakota State on Oct. 13, I’d deserve a reprimand. ISU’s defense was never better — Johnny Towalid’s two pick-six touchdowns a testament to that — and it was one of those watershed moments you never thought ISU football would experience.

Not only that, but it was the only loss the Bison suffered in 2012 as NDSU won its second consecutive national title.

Worst loss — It wasn’t the worst in terms of how it was played (though it wasn’t played well by the Sycamores), but football’s 27-6 defeat at Youngstown State in the season finale was certainly the most crushing and most emotional.

It was the last hurrah for the core group of players Trent Miles built around to make the program a success again and they bowed out without having played a playoff game. And though rumors existed, no one knew at the time that it was also Miles’ last game in charge on the ISU sideline.

Men’s basketball’s 67-56 home loss to Drake on Feb. 27 — and the distraction of the Manny Arop suspension that clouded it — is runner-up.

Game of the year — Per usual, Game of the Year and Biggest Victory are two different things.

Men’s basketball’s 76-57 victory over Creighton at Hulman Center on Feb. 6. It was a monster beatdown of the No. 13 team in the country. It was not only the best the Sycamores played last season, but the best-played game I’ve seen from the Sycamores in my nine seasons covering the team. Showed what they can be capable of.

Weirdest moment — ISU basketball’s signature victory of its nonconference season — a 57-55 overtime victory over Miami in the Diamond Head Classic third-place game in Honolulu — had the subtext of Justin Gant’s broken front tooth late in the contest.

After the game, the happy Sycamores wanted the stricken Gant to pose for Instagram photos as much as they wanted to celebrate the win. Later that day, ISU would also begin its snow-morphed three-day trek home via Phoenix, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Second place goes to Devonte “SportsCenter Top 10” Brown though his accomplishment wasn’t weird so much as unlikely. What kind of odds could someone have gotten that the unheralded freshman would make not one, but two appearances on the national highlight show? Both plays — one a circus lay-up at Wichita State, the other his block-for-the-win over Evansville at the MVC Tournament — were worthy top 10 plays too.

Out of the blue — I created this category for this season to recognize players who performed above season average in a memorable way for a game or two. This one is shared by basketball’s Lucas Eitel for his 9-for-9 shooting performance and perfect 3-point shooting against High Point on Nov. 25. Eitel scored 25 in that contest and only came within 10 points of that total again once all season.

Eitel shares the award with baseball’s Josh Negele. The hurler came on without notice in the Sycamores’ MVC Tournament opener and shut down the Creighton Bluejays in an emergency gem of a game. He later started against Wichita State in an elimination game three days later and performed well in that game too.

Team that needs to make progress in 2013-14 — The teams that are at the bottom of the ISU athletic stack right now — softball and volleyball — certainly need to make progress. Softball coach Shane Bouman is still building his program in his third season and was 16-34 this season. Volleyball coach Traci Dahl, entering her sixth season, got ISU into the MVC Tournament in 2011, but with a predominantly underclassman team, went 4-24 in 2012. It would be ideal for both teams to make the push towards .500 next year.

Things to look forward to — The Mike Sanford era begins for football. I’m fascinated as to whether the success Miles has can be sustained and improved upon. ISU baseball hosts the MVC Tournament, whch will be exciting. ISU women’s basketball will have a fresh infusion of several talented players. Can they mix with the returning veterans and continue the progress made in 2013? Finally, men’s basketball will once again have high expectations. Can the players be mature enough to practice and perform to a level that meets or exceeds those hopes?

It’ll be fun to find out.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.