Three Questions Facing Blue Raiders Fall Athletics
The first 12 years in the Sun Belt Conference have been good to MT Athletics.
In 2011, the Blue Raiders took home their eighth Vic Bubas Cup, a trophy given out to the Sun Belt team that receives the most combined points across all 19 conference-affiliated sports, sometimes referred to as an “all-sports trophy.”
“This is one of our main goals as we begin each academic year,” said MT Athletic Director Chris Massaro in May after MT won its fourth consecutive Bubas Cup. “It’s a culmination of the hard work of our student athletes and their drive to compete for championships…With all of the great programs in the Sun Belt Conference, this is indeed an honor to be recognized as best overall.”
Part of continuing this success that the Blue Raiders have enjoyed since joining their new conference in 2001 is being able to maintain stability and rise to the occasion when difficult questions come up in the athletic program.
Sidelines Sports takes a look at three of the most pertinent questions facing MT Athletics this fall.
1. Can football salvage the 2012 season after its season-opening loss to McNeese State?
A veritable groan of frustration could be heard across the MTSU campus after last week’s loss to the Cowboys, as many voiced opinions that this could be another lost season like the 2-10 campaign of 2011.
While it is true that the Blue Raider football team did lose a game that many would consider a “gimme,” Head Coach Rick Stockstill contends that the team’s goals of winning the Sun Belt and making a bowl game are still very much on the table.
There are reasons for MT fans to be hopeful that this season is not a lost cause. Only four of the nine Sun Belt teams taking the field in week one came away with a victory. Troy was the only one of those four teams with a win over a team from the Football Bowl Subdivision, defeating UAB.
Furthermore, McNeese State has proved itself to be one of the FCS top programs over the last decade, and this year’s team featured four preseason FCS All-Americans.
Two things that will need to improve for this team to meet its goals will be offensive efficiency and the defense’s ability to stop the run.
Quarterback Logan Kilgore and the offense found the endzone twice during a two-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. However, the team was held without a touchdown for the game’s first three-and-a-half quarters.
On defense, an inability to stop the run led to multiple long scoring drives by the opposing offense, as the Cowboys racked up 298 yards on the ground.
The team’s ability to improve in these areas may dictate whether this season is a repeat of 2011 or a return to recent years when MT saw multiple bowl appearances and winning seasons under Stockstill.
2. Can a young women’s volleyball team continue the program’s success over the past decade?
That is the MT women’s volleyball team’s record in Sun Belt play during Head Coach Matt Peck’s first eight years with the squad. Over those eight years, the team has been to six consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, won six total Sun Belt championships and boasts nine All-Americans.
His most recent team finished 21-12 (14-2) in 2011, but only one out of the five players who started at least 18 matches last season are returning. So far, six true freshman have already started matches this season in the team’s 3-5 start.
Senior Ashley Adams returns after being named First Team All-Sun Belt a year ago and leading the Blue Raiders with 425 kills and 17 solo blocked shots.
Joining Adams at the outside hitter position is a true freshman Chelsea Ross who graduated from Riverdale High School. Ross leads this year’s team, starting all eight games and already registering 130 kills for the Blue Raiders.
This team’s youth has been tested over the first two weeks of the season, but a trial by fire for these young players could help foster future success for this Blue Raider team.
3. Will men’s and women’s basketball teams live up to high expectations in 2012?
After becoming only the second school in Sun Belt history to win regular season titles in both men’s and women’s basketball last season, it is safe to say the Blue Raiders teams that take the court in 2012 will do so with a target on their backs.
The men’s program won a school-record 27 games last season on its way to a National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals appearance.
This year’s team returns eight of its nine leading scorers, but the one player that it lost was leading-scorer and Sun Belt Player of the Year LaRon Dendy, who averaged 14.6-points and 7.1-rebounds per game last season.
The Blue Raiders will need to replace Dendy’s offensive production, as well as his presence in the paint on both the offensive and defensive end. The solution may come from a collective effort from J.T. Sulton and Shawn Jones in the paint, as well as the perimeter game of Marcos Knight, Raymond Cintron and Bruce Massey.
Those players accounted for 47.9-points per game as a group and will look to get help from guard Kerry Hammonds and forward Jason Jones who was hampered last year by injury.
The women’s team returns its entire starting lineup from last season’s 26-win team, including the its three standout senior performers: Ebony Rowe, Kortni Jones and Icelyn Elie. The three combined to average 46.8-points per game, good for over 67 percent of the team’s offensive production.
Couple those three with a strong supporting cast, including rising sophomore Shanice Cason, Laken Leonard and a pair of new players added in the early signing period, and this year’s group could have the makings of one of Head Coach Rick Insell’s best teams in his time with the Blue Raiders.
In summary, it is a new season for the Blue Raiders, bringing new challenges and new opportunities across the school’s 17 sports programs. However, answering these three questions could go a long way toward adding a fifth-straight Bubas Cup for the MT trophy case.