THE YEAR IN VCU ATHLETICS, FROM A TO Z

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Wrong A-B-C...whatever, close enough.

Wrong A-B-C…whatever, close enough.

June marks the conclusion of the college athletics calendar, and July’s arrival effectively signals the beginning of the 2013-14 season, at least for those of us in the biz, anyway. It all makes this week a good time to reflect back on the year that was in VCU Athletics.

A – is for Atlantic 10 Conference, in which, according to our slogan, the Rams were ‘all-in’. We were also all-in for another season of “Arrested Development” and Pop Tart ice cream sandwiches, so we’re having a good year. VCU competed in the A-10 for the first time in 2012-13, a move that has elevated the program’s national profile. The Rams’ first A-10 title came via the women’s tennis squad, followed by a men’s tennis crown days later. Meanwhile, several other sports (men’s basketball, women’s soccer, men’s soccer) reached the league’s championship final.

B – is for the Ball family, one of the driving forces behind the VCU Golf program. They’re like the Kennedy’s of VCU Golf, but with a better short game. Matt Ball may have just completed his 14th season with the Rams, but this one was surely different than the others. That’s because 40 percent of his starting lineup was occupied by sons Adam and Matt Jr. Son Adam, a freshman, led the Rams in scoring average (73.53) this year, while Matt Jr., a junior, placed seventh at the A-10 Championship and was named to the league’s All-Academic Team.

C – is for Courtney Conrad, the alliteratively named star of the women’s soccer team. Conrad led the Rams with 11 goals, including five game-winners, and received All-Mid-Atlantic by the NSCAA.

D – is for Daniels, Troy. If you are a fan of basketball players who score three points at a time (and the signed, obscure Mark Price picture in my dining room proves I am), then you would’ve enjoyed Daniels’ 2012-13 season. In 36 games, Daniels bombed a school-record 124 three-pointers, including games of 11, nine and eight.

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JOHNSON READY TO LAUNCH MLS CAREER

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VCU's Jason Johnson has signed an MLS Generation Adidas contract and awaits Thursday's league draft.

VCU’s Jason Johnson has signed an MLS Generation Adidas contract and awaits Thursday’s league draft.

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson was selected 13th overall by the Houston Dynamo at the Jan. 17 MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis.

It wasn’t until the eighth grade that VCU’s Jason Johnson first played in an organized soccer game, years after many of his peers. But his career got off to an auspicious start – Johnson scored a goal in that contest. He hasn’t slowed down since.

Earlier this month, Johnson inked his first professional contract with Major League Soccer as part of its Generation Adidas program. Generation Adidas seeks to identify and retain the best college soccer talent in the United States. Players are offered guaranteed multi-year contracts with the league and do not count against a team’s budget or roster limits. Players in the program also receive educational stipends to finish their degrees.

On Jan. 17, Johnson is expected to be one of the top selections in the MLS SuperDraft in Indianapolis. Johnson will be the first VCU Soccer player drafted since Dominic Oduro was a second round pick of FC Dallas in 2006. Some rate Johnson as the top forward in this year’s draft. He scored 13 goals this season and a total of 28 in three seasons with the Rams.

“He’s got a unique combination of size, power, strength, speed; his technique is good,” said VCU Soccer coach Dave Giffard. “He strikes the ball well with both feet. He can play in combination. He’s good in the air. I think those qualities together are, they’re not super, super unique, but you don’t see them everywhere. There certainly aren’t many guys in college that have all those qualities.”

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ACCORDING TO PLAN: THE REBIRTH OF VCU SOCCER

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Coach Dave Giffard, 31-17-11 in three years at VCU, directed the Rams back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004 this season.

RICHMOND, Va. – There were some people who scoffed at the notion presented by Athletic Director Ed McLaughlin this summer, that VCU can win a national championship. But Men’s Soccer Coach Dave Giffard has always operated with that understanding. He talks about winning a national title so naturally in conversation that it doesn’t seem like a matter of if VCU can win one, but rather when.

Giffard was an assistant coach for Akron in 2009 when it reached the College Cup Final against Virginia, and has matter-of-factly approached his job at VCU the last three years a continuous chase for a national title.

On Sunday, he’ll get his first legitimate crack at fulfilling that goal when VCU (12-3-5), the No. 14 overall seed, takes on Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA College Cup at Sports Backers Stadium at 7 p.m. The match will mark the Rams’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004, when they reached the Elite Eight.

“When it was announced, it was a little bit emotional,” Giffard said. “This group of players has never been there. They’ve never been through that. Even for our staff, our group’s been through an awful lot.”

But the team that will meet Syracuse Friday is much different one than Giffard presided over when he arrived after the 2009 season. VCU, once a nationally recognized power, sank to 5-10-2 in 2009 and finished the year 161st in RPI. From 2005-09, VCU advanced to the conference tournament semifinals just once.

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HERE’S THE (POSTSEASON) SITUATION…

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VCU’s last fall sports conference championship came in volleyball in 2005. The Rams have four chances to end that drought this fall.

VCU sports are enjoying a record-breaking fall, and for the first time since 2000, field hockey, men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball will all play in the conference tournament in the same year. A couple of them have legitimate NCAA at-large shots as well. Here’s a quick look at the postseason prospects of VCU’s fall athletic programs.

FIELD HOCKEY (13-5, 4-3 A-10)
Remaining Schedule:
Regular season complete
Atlantic 10 Tournament: The Rams are the No. 4 seed and will meet top-seeded Richmond in the semifinals on Friday, Nov. 2 at 11 a.m. in Amherst, Mass. Click HERE for the A-10 Championship page.
Conference Championships: None
NCAA Appearances: None
Current NCAA RPI: 30
The Skinny: If this were hoops, VCU’s 30 RPI would be a sure ticket to the NCAA Tournament. However, the NCAA Field Hockey Championship is 16 teams, which means the Rams need to win the A-10 Tournament to dance. It won’t be an easy task. The Rams are 0-3 against the A-10 Tourney field (Richmond, Temple and UMASS) this season.

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MEN’S SOCCER ROLLS ON

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This is a little late, but great job by VCU Men’s Soccer Friday. The Rams (10-2-4, 6-1-1 A-10) thumped 12th-ranked Xavier 4-1 and have now vaulted into first place in the Atlantic 10 Conference. VCU will try to lock up the No. 1 seed for the A-10 Tournament Friday at Richmond. It’s not that far, come out and cheer the Rams to a win.

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I’ve got to imagine the Rams are ranked again when the NSCAA Coaches Poll comes out later Tuesday. In addition, VCU is making a serious run at an at-large bid to NCAA Tournament. The Rams were 28th in RPI before their win over Xavier, who was 25th, so they’ll get another nice bump.  Hard as it may be to believe, VCU has not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 2004, when it staged a dramatic run to the quarterfinals.

Here’s a quick look at the top of the A-10 race. Note that the Rams own a head-to-head win over Charlotte earlier this season.

Conference  Overall
W L T Pts. W L T Pts.
Charlotte 6 1 1 19 12 2 3 39
VCU 6 1 1 19 10 2 4 34
Saint Louis 6 2 0 18 12 4 0 36
Temple 5 1 2 17 9 5 3 30

FALL SPORTS, SUMMED UP IN ONE PLAY

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It was another banner weekend in VCU Athletics. Fall sports were unbeaten (again). Volleyball and field hockey swept a pair of matches, women’s soccer beat Richmond, men’s soccer picked up a draw and a win. Nice, tidy 6-0-1 weekend. Heck, for good measure, 17-year-old freshman Jake McNulty fired a 69 in the first round of the OBX/ODU Collegiate Sunday morning for the VCU Golf team.

VCU fall sports (volleyball, field hockey, men’s soccer, women’s soccer) have a combined record of 50-14-7. If the regular season ended today, all four would qualify for their respective conference tournaments for the first time since 2000.

Below is a great example of how we roll at VCU. Redshirt freshman Uzoamaka Ibeh is a great kid from Jersey. Works hard. Great teammate. But she hasn’t played much as a Ram. Saturday’s match with Duquesne marked the seventh appearance of her career. That didn’t stop her from diving headlong into the scorer’s table to make this save. I was practically on top of the play and it was much better in person. All hustle.

ALL YOUR LINKS IN A PILLOWCASE

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If you don’t roll like this on Halloween, you’re doing it wrong.

Much like the day you discovered that you could get 280 percent more candy in the pillowcase from your bed than that dopey plastic jack-o-lantern they hand out to everyone, it’s best to get all your links in one place. Here’s a collection of VCUish links from the last week.

YOU LIKE ME, YOU REALLY, REALLY LIKE ME
Men’s hoops is feeling the love from the media right now. Last week alone, the Rams were picked as a preseason top-25 squad by three different major outlets.

VCU Skips Midnight Madness Fanfare, gets down to business (SI.com).

CBS’ Matt Norlander Writes:
“VCU has become one of those teams. Those “small” teams that everyone knows and instinctively roots for. But this isn’t really a small team and it’s not in a small conference. It’s move to the A10 signifies a shift that puts the league on the same plane as the other major conferences.”

In addition, two CBS pundits have picked the Rams to win the A-10 title.

At NBC Sports, Rob Dauster gushes:
“It’s almost impossible to underrate VCU at this point.”

The Sporting News is on board as well. Scott Smith says:
“there’s no reason this team shouldn’t immediately contend for the A-10 title in its first year in the league.”

Put this one in the research category. ESPN’s Andy Katz broke down and rated the non-conference schedules of every A-10 team.

Meanwhile, VCU alum Larry Sanders is getting ready for his third season with the Milwaukee Bucks. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel weighs Sanders’ chances for a breakout this season.

FOR THE ENDURANCE SET
Congratulations to former VCU All-American Bruce Berger, who competed at the Ironman World Championship this weekend in Kona, Hawaii. The 40-year-old Berger placed 589th overall out of 1982 competitors. He completed the 140-mile gauntlet of biking, swimming and running in 10 hours, 24 minutes and 42 seconds. Here’s our profile on Berger from last month. Official results are available here. The sicko guy that won finished in a little more than eight hours.

PUB ON THE PITCH
VCU Men’s Soccer jumped into the top 25 last week. Here’s Coach Dave Giffard chatting with ESPN 950’s Greg Burton on “Hardly Workin'”.

COULD DEFEAT OF CHARLOTTE BE TURNING POINT FOR VCU?

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VCU’s 4-1 win over 2011 National Runner-Up Charlotte Friday is sure to turn a few heads.

RICHMOND, Va. – Shortly after his team celebrated on the pitch in one cheering, chanting, dancing huddled mass, flanked on one side by the VCU Pep Band, horns blaring, and a crowd of students on the other, VCU Soccer Coach Dave Giffard aimed to be a voice of reason.

“It’s a good win and a good result for us,” the Rams’ third-year coach said flatly. “I think what it means to the team is we won the first game in the conference.”

Given the decisiveness VCU’s 4-1 victory Friday night over 13th-ranked Charlotte, the National Runner-Up in 2011, and the emotion that spilled onto the field following the match, could this triumph possibly be distilled into the “just another conference win” category? Charlotte (6-2-2, 0-1 A-10) had lost just once this season and returned the bulk of its College Cup squad from 2011.

Four different players scored goals for the Rams (5-1-3, 1-0 A-10), who attacked the lower third of the field efficiently and aggressively. In the process, VCU earned its first win over a ranked team since 2006 and dealt Charlotte its worst loss in three years.

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THE WRAP: SEPT. 11 – EVERYBODY’S A WINNER AT O’SHEA’S!

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R.I.P. O’Shea’s.

I had a flashback this weekend, as VCU teams were barreling through their schedules and piling up victories.

It was the summer of 2003, and I was in Las Vegas for my college roommate’s bachelor party. By 4 a.m. of the first night (because Vegas deserves a minimum of two nights, even if it kills you) we five remaining souls, including four of us who had flown cross-country that morning, found ourselves at the gritty Las Vegas Strip outpost O’Shea’s, an Irish-themed casino whose dingy carpets and worn felt underscored years of neglect.

In recent years, O’Shea’s adopted a debauched college frat-house approach, complete with loud music, cheap brew and scores of beer pong tables, a strategy that, while kitschy, earned the place a rowdy reputation and passionate following that regularly packed the house. [Note: O’Shea’s closed this summer to make way for a new, glitzy property.]

This was not that O’Shea’s.

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THE WRAP: SEPT. 4

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Senior Kelsey Scherrer became the leading goal-scorer in VCU history in Sunday’s win over Columbia.

FIELD HOCKEY (2-0; 1-0 last week)
Scherr Shot
THE story of the weekend was me, successfully cooking an unburned meal for my wife on her birthday. The SECOND biggest story of the weekend was senior Kelsey Scherrer scoring the 39th goal of her career – a game-winner – in VCU’s 2-1 win over Columbia. Scherrer, who has two goals in as many games this season, passes Alycia Yoder, who racked up 38 goals from 1991-94.

“I foam at the mouth when I get in the circle with the ball,” Scherrer said, rather colorfully, of her nose for the goal.

Opening act
With Sunday’s victory, VCU is 2-0 to start the year for the first time since 2009.

See ya when I see ya
Following a pair of victories at Cary Street Field, the Rams will hit the road for the next six matches. Only the Grateful Dead have been on the road longer.

Ram-blings
“We are playing…this is a phenomenal year. We play as a team, as a unit on the field. We come off the field and we’re not as tired as we have been [in the past] because we’re playing as a unit. We’re connecting, we’re finishing. We’re doing the things we practice. We’re doing better every game. This has been the best game we’ve played so far and it can only get better.” – Kelsey Scherrer on VCU’s 2-0 start

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