TERRE HAUTE —
It started in State College, Pa., and ended in Eugene, Ore. Few Indiana State athletic seasons have spanned the nation in as many sports as 2011-12 did for the Sycamores’ athletic teams. And from coast-to-coast there was glory and heartbreak alike.
ISU finished fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference’s All-Sports Trophy standings, its best placing since 2006. That was one spot short of ISU’s best-ever MVC effort — the Sycamores finished fourth in 2001 and 2005.
It was my eighth season covering ISU athletics and was one of the most compelling of all. Now that it’s in the history books, here’s a look back at the highs and lows.
• Athlete of the year — As far as individual efforts were concerned, there were a wealth of ISU athletes to choose from.
Catcher Jeremy Lucas was MVC Player of the Year for the baseball team. Track and field had an abundance of choices.
Felisha Johnson finished fifth nationally in the women’s shot put and Brandon Pounds was sixth in the hammer throw. Greggmar Swift, Stacia Weatherford and Mary Thiesen also competed in the NCAA Championships. Not to be left out is Major Clay, who capped an outstanding career by winning the MVC high jump title four years running.
But running back Shakir Bell reached individual prominence no ISU athlete has ever had in football. Bell led the nation as he rushed for 1,670 yards and finished runner-up for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman. No ISU football player has come close to that kind of national prominence in any era.
• Coach of the year — There are several candidates. Rick Heller led ISU’s baseball team to glory and was MVC Coach of the Year. Volleyball coach Traci Dahl returned the Sycamores to the MVC Tournament for the first time since 2004. Several other coaches brought home winning seasons.
But men’s cross country and track coach John McNichols gets the nod. McNichols’ teams won their third-straight MVC cross country championship and second consecutive men’s outdoor track crown.
McNichols’ teams accomplished their goals in a trying year for McNichols himself. He missed part of the men’s track season after he had a benign tumor removed, but returned in short order and led the Sycamores to the kind of prominence that’s become expected of them.
• Team of the year — You always have to give a shout-out to ISU’s men’s track and field and cross country teams in this space. They both defended MVC titles and have been long-established as ISU’s most consistent winning program.
But I give the nod to baseball. ISU was picked fourth in the MVC by the league’s coaches and lower by national publications. But the 41-19 Sycamores surprised everyone but themselves with their first-ever MVC regular season championship and an at-large bid to the NCAA baseball tournament.
• Disappointment of the year — The men’s basketball team never got on script in 2011-12. Though its 18-15 record gave ISU its third consecutive winning season, more was expected from a team picked to finish third in the MVC.
Point guard Jake Odum gamely played through painful plantar fasciitis all season, but few of the rest of the Sycamores lived up to potential. Internal dissension and questionable effort gripped the players at times, especially in the first half of the MVC season. In a year in which ISU was expected to turn it on, the Sycamores turned it on and off, and paid the price for it with an 8-10 MVC finish.
• Biggest victory — Each of ISU’s signature team sports had important victories — football won at Western Kentucky, men’s basketball won at Vanderbilt and the baseball team defeated several NCAA Tournament teams.
If I had to pick just one, I’d go with ISU’s 44-16 football victory at WKU on Sept. 17. Football Championship Subdivision teams just don’t beat Football Bowl Subdivision teams that often, and for ISU, it’s exceedingly rare. And the Sycamores didn’t just beat the Hilltoppers, they hammered them. WKU went on to have a 7-5 season and contended for the Sun Belt Conference championship.
• Worst loss — ISU’s men’s basketball team’s fall-from-ahead 67-60 loss to Robert Morris in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament on March 13 at Hulman Center was just one of several times you walked out of an arena shaking your head in bewilderment as to how the Sycamores were beaten by an inferior team and why its effort came and went. An argument could be made for listless losses to MVC bottom-feeders Bradley and Southern Illinois too.
• Game of the year — Game of the year and biggest victory are two different things. Think pure excitement and/or weirdness. (I only count games I covered)
ISU was unusually bereft of weird or out-of-left field games this season. The choice for me is ISU’s 61-55 men’s basketball win over Vanderbilt on Dec. 17. ISU was down eight with 6:31 to go, but finished the game on a 16-2 run on Vandy’s home court to seal the upset.
• Weirdest moment — The postgame, profanity-laced handshake/confrontation between Evansville women’s basketball coach Oties Epps and the ISU coaching staff after ISU’s 73-54 win on Dec. 30 at Hulman Center wins hands down.
•Team that needs to make progress in 2012-13 — ISU’s women’s basketball team has been in neutral for several years now. Since 2008, ISU is 76-76 overall, 42-48 in conference play and hasn’t finished higher than fifth in that span.
Tickets sold at Hulman Center are high by national women’s basketball standards, but anyone who regularly attends the games knows that no-shows are significantly up. There’s been little buzz, and if the women’s basketball can’t make progress and move up in the MVC, the program risks becoming an afterthought to ISU fans.
• Things to look forward to — Many outside and inside observers think 2012-13 might be a rebuilding season for many of ISU’s teams. Important seniors and contributors were lost by nearly every team.
The rebuilding could play out, but there’s certainly gold to be mined too. Football returns Bell and all-world defensive end Ben Obaseki. ISU’s baseball team was not hit in the MLB Draft as hard as one might have thought and it returns a solid nucleus. Men’s basketball has a bunch of new faces, but also has more athleticism than its had in several years. If they gel early, I think they can be better than people might think.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.