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June 25, 2014

Steady success: ISU continued to climb ladder with one of its best overall seasons ever

TERRE HAUTE — First of all, if you’re an Indiana State fan, stand up and applaud.

The Sycamores collectively went where only one Sycamore athletic department went before in 2013-14. ISU finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference All-Sports Trophy standings. ISU recorded a score of 3.538, its highest in school history.

Women’s basketball, women’s indoor track and men’s outdoor track each won or shared championships. ISU dominated the second-place tally as the Sycamores were runner-up in baseball, men’s basketball, women’s golf, women’s soccer and women’s outdoor track and field.

If you’ve been around for a while, as I have, the overall steady performance of ISU’s athletic department is impressive, but it’s gotten to the point where it shouldn’t surprise you anymore. ISU Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman has done a wonderful job raising the standard in nearly every sport, and the Sycamores are beginning to reap the benefits.

The words “Sycamores” and “success” are no longer a novelty. They’re synonymous.

Oddly, in ISU’s best-ever campaign, it was kind of hard to pick candidates for some of my annual honors. ISU had a bunch of good teams, but not a bunch of dominant teams.

The characteristic of most of ISU’s teams was a steady, consistent success that rarely deviated into surprising wins or deflating losses.

That’s a good thing if you’re an ISU fan, of course. It’s a bad thing if you’re trying to cite athletes of the year, teams of the year and bizarro tales from the coverage trail.

That’s why they pay me the big bucks, though. So here goes.

• Athlete of the Year — Per usual, there’s plenty of candidates. Track and field/cross country usually have their share and John Mascari — an All-American in both sports — would be the choice from there. Greggmar Swift finished fourth in the NCAA’s 110 hurdles finals and was an All-American. Elsewhere, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir was first team All-MVC in women’s basketball and was fun to watch.

Those athletes were all excellent, but I’m going to go with Jake Odum. ISU never failed to make the postseason in his four-year career and he brought an immense amount of respect to the program. He went about his business with a seriousness, but also, with a flair that made him extremely fun to watch. Tonight, he has an outside shot at getting chosen for the NBA Draft. He’s one of the best-known athletes in ISU history, and he had a fine season to boot, so Odum is getting this honor.

• Coach of the Year — Once again, you could give this award annually to men’s track and field and cross country coach John McNichols and not go wrong. But it’s time to start giving women’s coach Angie Martin credit, too. After all, she won a conference championship too. So did women’s basketball coach Teri Moren, as she grabbed a share of the MVC title.

All of the above programs were projected to succeed in 2013-14, and sometimes, coaches get graded on a curve in these things, and as such, I’d choose baseball coach Mitch Hannahs as my Coach of the Year.

Nothing was expected out of ISU baseball this season, but Hannahs’ calm demeanor and ability to get his players to buy into a no-excuses attitude took ISU all the way to a most unexpected NCAA regional appearance. One of the best instances of maximizing talent by an ISU coach in my 10 years on the beat.

Lets also give it up for women’s golf coach Greg Towne. His sport doesn’t get a lot of attention, but ISU’s women’s golf team — runner-up in the MVC — has advanced quite a lot in its first decade of existence.

• Team of the Year — Again, grading on a curve and on preseason expectation? Hard not to choose baseball for this honor.

• Disappointment of the Year — The elephant in an otherwise happy ISU room was football’s abysmal 1-11 campaign.

Everything that could go wrong did. Injuries, defections, dissension, changes that didn’t pan out. It all contributed to a season that probably did less to set ISU back on the field than it did off of it. The days of being able to single-handedly count the number of ISU fans in the stands made an unwelcome return by the last half of the 2013 season.

Mike Sanford faces a major task to get ISU pointed back in the right direction. If ISU doesn’t, the whispers of whether football is viable at ISU (already being heard again) will start to become loud once again.

• Biggest win — Sigh. The paradox of ISU’s successful seasons is that there really wasn’t a signature win by any one team. It seemed basketball had one in November at Notre Dame. While it’s always good to beat an in-state, big-school rival on the road, the Fighting Irish proved to be quite average. I suppose if I had to pick, that would be the one, but really, this category might have to go blank this season.

• Worst loss — Hate to pile on football, but the tone of the season was set in a 73-35 loss at Indiana on Aug. 29, 2013. One year after ISU could (should?) have beaten the Hoosiers on their home field, Indiana humiliated the Sycamores. Bad as the score was, it could’ve been worse. ISU gets what is likely to be its last-ever shot at the Hoosiers on Aug. 30.

• Game of the Year — Again, in such a wonderful season for ISU as a whole, I have to go off board and pick a loss for his honor, but ISU’s 65-58 defeat at the hands of Wichita State on Feb. 5 was an outstanding game. The eyes of the nation were on Terre Haute. It was exciting, the Hulman Center atmosphere has never been better, and the men’s team played like it belonged in the national conversation. If only some of those free throws would have fallen …

• Weirdest moment — Shakir Bell’s departure from the football team in October 2013 was bizarre and dropped a bomb of controversy on an already bad football season. The entire he-said, he-said nature of the business was unseemly, and it left many wondering whether they could trust Bell or Sanford in its wake.

ISU’s decision to go through the fiction of saying Bell wasn’t dismissed, even though he wasn’t at practice, on a team roster, or part of Senior Day activities was strange and not the best way to go about things.

Though Bell has left and ISU football has moved on, this will never completely go away. Like him or not, Bell remains one of the best football players in ISU’s history. That legacy isn’t just going to be erased from memory. It’ll be interesting to hear what he has to say when Bell finally decides to deliver his long-delayed “side” to the story.

• Out of the blue — Reserved for players who step up beyond expectation to put forth a great performance. I’ve said some blunt things about football, so let’s cite something positive and give quarterback Trent Lancaster his due.

The Brazil native finally got a chance to perform in ISU’s penultimate game against Western Illinois on Nov. 16, 2013, and nearly helped ISU break its losing streak in a 21-14 loss to the Leathernecks. I’ve watched Lancaster for years at ISU (and before that at Northview), and no player has had a better attitude in the face of limited opportunity. He kept his attitude up and got his reward. Always good to see that.

Football had several players step up despite the poor season. Running back Buck Logan and linebacker Jameer Thurman jump to mind. Given expectation, any who could throw exceeded the preseason expectation for the baseball team, so tip a cap to Ryan Keaffaber, David Stagg and Brad Lombard, who turned a question mark into a strength.

• Things to look forward to — Quite a lot. Volleyball, a sport I haven’t mentioned and a sport that needs to join the winning party at some point, brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Women’s soccer has gradually become one of the MVC’s better programs. Softball didn’t have the breakthrough it wanted, but it’s in better shape than it once was.

Men’s and women’s basketball will have the always-exciting challenge of mixing and matching a lot of new contributors. Football will try to see if 2013 was a one-year bump and if injuries, which were so rampant, were the real cause of problems or whether there are deeper-seated issues at work.

The NCAA Cross Country national championship meet returns again, and of course, ISU’s cross country and track teams are perennial powers.

Most of all, can ISU match or — heavens — even exceed its second-place MVC All-Sports finish? At this point, why doubt it?

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


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