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Editorial: Why 2015-2016 was one of the best years ever for UNCW Athletics (Year in Review)

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June has finally arrived, and because the UNCW baseball program has come up short once again of a Super Regional (too soon?), that means all athletic seasons in Wilmington have officially wrapped until August.

Fret not, for before we know it, men’s and women’s soccer will be taking the field on campus against the rest of the CAA, volleyball will be storming the court and ready to defend its conference crown, and the student body will return to the Dub and bear the scorching weather only the late summer can bring to the Port City.

I would like to take a look and examine the year behind Wilmington, though, and tell you why I think that the 2015-2016 school year was one of the best ever for UNCW Athletics.

Work with me. I promise I’m not crazy.

Baseball

Starting with the most recent: the Diamond Hawks baseball team once again earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament—for the fourth time in five years—and came just short (again) of upsetting a national power in South Carolina. 

The way UNCW lost to the Gamecocks was not glorious, nor was it particularly easy to swallow, but it was familiar. Familiarity was not welcome in this case.

A pitching staff that had been consistent throughout the season suddenly vanished toward the end, adding to the sense of hollow doubt that fills the mind of many after witnessing the loss.

Regardless of what occurred in the end, what the team and its fans should look back on and remember fondly is the once-in-a-generation offense that propelled the team to 41 wins and a CAA regular season championship. 

This team led the conference in runs, runs per game, batting average, home runs, and a whole bunch of other categories I don’t have the room to list here. Some of those categories ranked among the best in Division I.

Ryan Foster came into his own during his senior year and defined himself as a true ace on the mound. His technical approach allowed the right-hander to set a school record for wins in a season (13) and tie the record at the conference level.

Nick Feight came out of nowhere and put on one of the greatest offensive showings in school history. Just a true sophomore, he hit 21 home runs, batted a shade under .400 for the season, and led the nation in RBIs with 91 (school record, tied CAA record) and effectively established the “Don’t pitch to Nick Feight Club,” an organization many opposing pitchers unwillingly joined.

Those two guys won CAA Pitcher of the Year and CAA Player of the Year, respectively, while coach Mark Scalf was named CAA Coach of the Year.

There were many other highlights: Scalf earned his 800th career win to open the season, Steven Linkous and Gavin Stupienski both showed up big—Linkous’s batting average floated above .400 for a while before dipping down and settling at .374; Stupienski had multiple games where the Seahawks would have lost without him hitting multiple home runs to save them—and some of the team’s role players carved out their own niches throughout the lineup and in the field as well.

To rehash: the season was glorious, end result was not as glorious. It feels like UNCW has lost in the regional portion of the tournament in every way possible, but no one seems to be able to gauge how close—or far away—the Seahawks are from breaking through the mold.

Maybe they just need to not get paired up with a top national seed.

Basketball

Here’s a sport that more obviously pushed UNCW into a national spotlight.

Year two of Kevin Keatts at the reigns of a still-developing basketball program proved to be much more successful than the analysts predicted prior to the season tipping off. For reference, the team was picked to finish middle of the pack in the CAA.

Keatts’s motto, “Run. Defend. Win.,” proved that his squad could hang with some of the best schools at the mid-major level. Starting off 6-0, the Seahawks went through most of the regular season with at least a share of the CAA’s leading spot, a place they would finish tied with Hofstra come season’s end. 

When the CAA Tournament rolled around, UNCW was the second seed and an underdog to make it out of Baltimore with a title. After mounting back-to-back comeback wins against Charleston and Northeastern, the Seahawks were faced with Hofstra for a third time.

Skipping to the end: UNCW downed Hofstra, 80-73, in overtime on the backs of Denzel Ingram, C.J. Bryce, and Chris Flemmings. Flemmings was named the tournament’s most outstanding player in retribution for losing the Player of the Year award to Hofstra’s Juan’ya Green.

Baby steps, folks.

The next step was the NCAA Tournament. It was UNCW’s first trip to the big one in exactly 10 years. Back in those days you would have seen Hall of Fame guard John Goldsberry leading the Seahawks. It had been a while.

Of all schools to get matched with, the Seahawks were paired with Duke in the tournament’s tip off game—a 12:15 start time on Thursday afternoon and 5.5 million people watching online and through television screens (the highest streamed tournament game ever, by the way).

You know the rest. UNCW fought hard. 

It led by three at halftime. Duke was sweating.

Duke denied what many thought was coming. Mike Krzyzewski’s team kept on keeping on, as the old saying goes, and was able to put the Seahawks away as the clock ticked down to zero in a 93-85 win for the Blue Devils.

Flemmings had been in charge of guarding Brandon Ingram, a presumptive top-two pick in June’s NBA Draft, and received praise from the superstar afterward. That’s a tough showing from a walk-on player that transferred to Wilmington from Division II Barton College.

Speaking of which, yes, Flemmings was a walk-on this season. The guy who literally came out of nowhere—even more so than Nick Feight did in baseball—and led UNCW to its best hooping season in recent memory was a 6-foot-5, 175-pound Cary native who did not have a scholarship.

The kid was paying his way through college and kicking ass on the basketball court at the same time.

Outstanding.

Now UNCW is poised to make a run at repeating its success in 2017. Most everyone will be returning, save C.J. Gettys and Mark Matthews transferring out, and a couple of guys will be transferring in to counter that loss. All’s well that ends well.

Anyway, Keatts’s team went from being ingloriously underrated to dominating parts of its conference schedule to winning two conference crowns in less than a week; having Keatts named the first-ever back-to-back CAA Coach of the Year iced the cake in superlatives.

Not bad.

Other Sports:

My reasoning behind grouping all the “other sports” UNCW offers and their success into one category is simply because I do not know enough, therefore cannot endlessly ramble on, about them to fill up 500-word columns discussing each team. 

Volleyball

Men and women alike love volleyball (some for other reasons than the sport itself), and I am no exception. That’s why I decided to lead off this category with the Lady Seahawks and their success in the 2015 fall season.

UNCW volleyball won its first-ever CAA Tournament crown as the second seed, defeating the College of Charleston 3-0 in the championship match. The ladies only dropped two sets in the entire event.

NCAA Championships were in order. Much like the basketball program would three months later, the Lady Seahawks faced a high-profile, in-state opponent in UNC Chapel Hill.

Not getting into the details of that, the volleyball girls finished the season with a 24-8 record and will be going into the 2016 season pretty happy with themselves.

Women’s Soccer

There was nothing particularly flashy about women’s soccer season at UNCW. An above-average 15-7-1 record and 6-2-1 conference record was enough for the Seahawks to qualify for the CAA Tournament, where they would get knocked out in the semifinals by William & Mary.

That was enough to earn them an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. What they did a week later would be a bit more significant.

A 2-0 first round upset over South Carolina acted as the program’s first tournament win. It was on a Friday night in November. I remember because I was sitting on press row in Trask Coliseum, watching the basketball team play against whatever Division II school was visiting that night.

Good on them.

Men’s Tennis

Men’s tennis had a heck of a year despite what one may initially think by looking at its regular season record. The Seahawks were ranked among the top 70 teams in the nation by the ITA for most of the year, reaching as high as the low fifties, and senior star Santtu Leskinen hovered outside the top 100 individual players in the nation well into the postseason.

UNCW entered the CAA Tournament as the top seed, earning that spot because there exists no definitive conference schedule (does that count as a regular season championship?).

The Seahawks worked their way toward the championship game before being upset by the College of Charleston.

The team’s season ended, but Leskinen’s did not. He earned a bid to the NCAA Championships, becoming the second male Seahawk to do it after Rafael Aita did it in 2013 and 2014. He fell in the first round to UNC’s Ronnie Schneider.

Men’s Golf

This one also was not as glorious as you would hope or think, but the team is worth mentioning simply because team leaders Patrick Cover and Thomas Eldridge both earned trips to the NCAA Tournament as individuals.

The two would finished tied for 14th and 39th in their respective NCAA regional appearances. 

Track & Field

Senior athletes Trey Jones and Meredith Bozzi both captured individual conference titles in track & field. A UNCW program that at this time a year ago thought it was defunct finished third overall on the men’s side.

Jones won the triple jump event with a 47’7” mark. Bozzi ran the 800 meters event and won with a time of 2:09.79, finishing only two seconds ahead of the runner-up.

Bozzi qualified for the NCAA Track & Field Championships. She finished 48th in her event with a time of 2:16.86.

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That’s my spiel. Thanks for reading. I’m glad to be sports editor at The Seahawk newspaper and hope you enjoyed this year-in-review/editorial on why UNCW Athletics should be lauded for its accomplishments in the 2015-2016 school year.

Side note: as I write the conclusion to this article, the Atlanta Braves selected UNCW pitcher Taylor Hyssong in the 8th round of the MLB Draft. He’s the first Seahawk to be taken in 2016.

Congratulations, Taylor.

 

You can follow Noah Thomas on Twitter at @iNoahT for news and updates on UNCW athletics.

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Editorial: Why 2015-2016 was one of the best years ever for UNCW Athletics (Year in Review)