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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CINDY CHALA, FROM VERSAILLES TO VCU

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Sophomore Cindy Chala will be the first VCU woman to play in the NCAA Singles Championships since 2006

Sophomore Cindy Chala will be the first VCU woman to play in the NCAA Singles Championships since 2006

RICHMOND, Va. – It’s been a spring of change for Cindy Chala. Since January, she’s forged ahead in a new country with a new culture. School has been different, the people are new and the tennis has been a revelation.

All that change has added up to a pretty successful debut for the VCU sophomore, who will compete in the NCAA Singles Championships this week. Play begins in the singles draw on Wednesday, May 22 at the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex in Urbana, Ill.

Chala, ranked 76th nationally by the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), earned the Atlantic 10 Conference’s automatic bid for the field of 64. She’s the first VCU woman to earn a berth in the NCAA Singles Championships since Tatsiana Uvarova in 2006. Draws for the singles bracket will be released following the NCAA Team Championship on Tuesday evening. If Chala reaches the quarterfinals, as Uvarova did in 2006, she’ll earn All-America status.

It’s been a busy few months for the native of Versailles, France. Chala had been home schooled since she was 13 as she focused on her tennis career. But chronic back injuries led her rethink her options. As is the case for many European athletes, Chala eyed the unique opportunity provided by colleges in the United States to marry their academic and athletic pursuits.

The decision has paid off on both fronts for Chala, who is majoring in Business and Psychology, although she had to get used to the inside of a classroom again.

“It’s tough to stay focused,” she joked. “But I like it. The school is different here in the U.S. We have so many different classes, and I like it. It’s not like in France. You can touch on everything.”

She’s gotten acclimated on the tennis court quickly as well.

Chala finished 14-4 in singles play this spring for the VCU Women’s Tennis squad, which won the A-10 Championship. Chala’s losses have come to players currently ranked seventh, 12th, 53rd and 77th, respectively, by the ITA. Three of those four have qualified for the NCAA Singles Championships. Chala was named the A-10’s Most Outstanding Player, as well as the ITA’s Atlantic Region Player to Watch, awarded to student-athletes expected to contend for a regional crown in 2013-14.

She credits the work of the VCU training staff, as well as Rams’ Assistant Tennis Coach Yana Carollo with keeping her healthy this spring. She also says VCU’s schedule, which usually features one or two matches a week, is easier on her compact frame than the five or six matches a week she played in France.

“It’s been a long time [since] I’ve played a few months in a row without injury,” Chala said. “I didn’t think I’d play that much, so I’m very happy.”

Chala began playing tennis when she was six years old, but jokes that she was “clumsy” and that “nobody wanted to teach me because I was so bad”. But she’s not clumsy anymore. Although she says she’s battled back trouble since she was 13, Chala is healthy as she looks ahead to the NCAA Singles Championships. Like most things during her first year at VCU, from the food, to school, to the people, to the tennis, she says she’ll keep an open mind.

“We’ll see,” she says. “I don’t have expectations because it’s my first year, but hopefully I’ll do well.”

Fans can follow VCU’s Cindy Chala, as well as Rams’ senior Max Wennakoski in the men’s draw, at http://www.fightingillini.com/ncaatennis2013/.

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