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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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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CAA TITLE HOPES DASHED, BUT BRIGHT FUTURE AHEAD FOR WOMEN’S SOCCER

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – Across the field, William & Mary staged a jubilant celebration. The public address system piped in canned pop music; light, energetic, joyous. Players grabbed the water cooler and dumped it over their coach. Moments later, CAA Championship trophy in hand, they huddled together to hoist their prize towards the brilliant sunshine above.

Half a field and a seemingly world away, VCU players milled about, expressionless. They would eventually make their way off the muddy field towards the team bus, waiting outside the nearby fence. There was hardly a glance over at the victory party at midfield. No one said a word.

Earlier, they had stood on the edge of the Rams’ first CAA title in seven years, only to watch it vanish in a blur when William & Mary’s Mallory Schaffer zipped a laser shot into the goal from 18 yards away just 2:20 into overtime.

VCU Co-Head Coach Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak was one of the last to leave the field, wearing a tired smile. While she was full of pride, it was tough to hide her disappointment. As she spoke, the strain of 93 minutes of coaching and the weight of the moment were apparent in her voice.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “We played very well. It’s going to hurt for a while, but we have a good team and the only thing that I’d like to do is focus on all the positives that happened this year and move on. That’s all you can do.”

For the second time in two weeks, VCU went toe-to-toe with the ranked Tribe. The Rams were every bit as good as William & Mary, and often better, on Sunday, just as they were in a 1-0 victory Oct. 23 at SportsBackers Stadium.

In the second half VCU’s aggressive defensive style wore on William & Mary. The Rams controlled possession and outshot the Tribe 9-1 in the period. Although they did not score, there was a sense that VCU carried a measure of momentum into the overtime period. But Schaffer, who has 17 goals this season, made it a mood point.

What was not lost on Roberts Sahaydak was the remarkable progress the Rams made this season. After three straight non-descript seasons, VCU returned to contention this year. Following a seemingly disastrous 2-7-2 start, the Rams morphed into a defensive juggernaut.

VCU rolled into Sunday’s matchup as a confident bunch. The Rams hadn’t lost since Sept. 25, a span of nine games (7-0-2). They allowed just two goals during that period and were coming off three straight shutouts.

The program appears to be on the rise. Although VCU loses six seniors, the Rams were a young, deep squad in 2011. Top scorers Cristin Granados and Courtney Conrad are both scheduled to return, as are a number of defensive standouts. In addition, VCU proved that its defensive philosophy is for real.

“We’ve come really far this year. I’m nothing but proud to be the co-head coach of this team,” Roberts Sahaydak said. “They gave it everything they had this whole year. Even when we weren’t getting the results earlier in the season, they stayed persistent and believed in what we were doing and put a lot of trust in each other and in their staff and…you win some, you lose some.”

On Sunday, they lost, but there’s reason to believe that the Rams still have some climbing to do.

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