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A Job Well Done

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Lost last week among all the basketball hoopla was the departure of longtime Bearcat volleyball coach Reed Sunahara. At a time when Bearcat volleyball is routinely making national noise, Coach Sunahara was the architect who brought the program to that level of stature.

For those of you who might not know his background, Coach Sunahara came to Clifton back in 1997 as the top assistant to then-head coach Laura Alford. He took over as head coach for the 2000 season and never looked back from there. He's the winningest coach in the Bearcat program, led the Bearcats to two BIG EAST Conference titles and the conference tournament championship. Before that the 'Cats were regulars at the top of the Conference USA standings.

I've had the chance to interview Coach Sunahara a couple of times--the last time, just a few weeks ago as the Bearcats prepared to go into the conference tournament. You can listen to the interview here, courtesy of WVXU. We talked about the growth of high school volleyball, as well as his success on the collegiate level, and how the Greater Cincinnati area was blessed to have so many good girls, as well as boys, volleyball teams in high school.

But before that, he was a panelist on an event we had on UC's campus for the Special Olympics of Hamilton County. Each panelist was asked a question from the audience, and Coach was asked what he thought his greatest accomplishment was. No surprise, it wasn't a conference championship or a win over a heated rival. He said, "When I see our student-athletes graduate as accomplished, poised adults, that's my biggest accomplishment."

It's been a lot of fun watching the UC women's volleyball team have big accomplishments over the last 15 years, with Reed Sunahara leading the way. We wish you all the best in the future, and we're sure you'll have many more big accomplishments down the line.

 

A Happy New Year

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During this holiday break there's not much of a break for the Bearcat women's basketball team, as is usual for a lot of basketball teams during this time of the year. While we won't see the 'Cats in action back home until next week, they're playing this week in the Hokie Classic--follow the action on gobearcats.com. But when they come back home, the Bearcats will have a new look, and perhaps a new attitude, heading into BIG EAST play.

First, Dayeesha Hollins should be closer to full strength. After injuring her shoulder in the Louisville game, Dayeesha had to sit out for a couple of games. She was able to play in the 'Cats last home game before Christmas, though, and with any luck will be closer to returning to her pre-injury form in January.

Second, Jeanise Randolph is returning from her back injury. She also got some minutes in during the Longwood contest to knock the rust off her game a bit before BIG EAST games in January. Jeanise's low post presence was missed, especially during that tough Louisville game, and it will be good to see her back in action.

Third, and it's a combination of the two aforementioned points, the Cats should be healthier overall. Bumps and bruises are the cost of doing business in basketball, but after a few days of holiday break, with any luck those will start to heal. Besides, you don't feel them as much when you're coming off a win!

January and February are important months for Coach Jamelle Elliott and the Bearcats, becase it's during those two months that we'll see how the first two months of games prepared this team for the rigors of conference play. While the BIG EAST is in flux, and some of these teams we'll see this year won't be back after realignment, it's also a great opportunity for the 'Cats, both now and in the future.

South Florida comes to visit Fifth Third Arena on January 3rd. Make plans to be there and support the Bearcats on what might be their most important conference season to date.

It's Exam Time

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With the UC Bearcat student-athlete family studying hard and taking finals these next few days, it's a good time to look back at the fall and see what's been accomplished, and what lies ahead.

First, congrats to the Bearcat volleyball team for its terrific season and the NCAA bid. Although the tournament didn't turn out the way the 'Cats would have liked, it still bodes well for the future.

Now, to a look back at the Women's Skyline Crosstown Shootout. Looking at it on paper, it sure looked to be UC's year. But as we've seen in this annual city battle, top teams can get knocked off by the underdog. Just ask the UC men when they faced Xavier as the top team in the country and left as the second best in the city. Or the UC women almost five years ago when they faced a top 20-ranked Xavier team, with the same five players for the entire game except for a few seconds at the end, and came away with the Kendle Cup. That's why the games aren't played on paper.

With an early Louisville game yet this month ahead to open the BIG EAST season, the Cats got a good test as to what will face them in conference. It's a valuable lesson in confidence, in staying within the game plan, in not relaxing for even a moment.

But the most important thing that came out of last Sunday's game was that it was a terrific contest. If you were there, you saw two very good teams, with lots of local talent, battle it out for city bragging rights. It was basketball at its best, and it was good to see as many youth teams there to watch how these two teams played. It was tough but it was fair with good sportsmanship. And with any luck, some of the folks who attended liked what they saw and will be back.

Because that's what the Crosstown Shootout is all about--letting people sample, for the first time, some great women's basketball. Because once you sample it, there's a good chance you'll come to a second game--and a third--and more.

Good luck to all the student-athletes during test time. We'll see you back on the court soon.

 

Celebrate Cincinnati

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In the season of celebration, it's time to celebrate some of the successes this past week in Clifton.

First, big shoutout and congratulations to Coach Reed Sunahara and the volleyball team on its first BIG EAST title, taking out Notre Dame 3-0 in the finals. The Bearcats were led in the match by tournament Most Outstanding Player Missy Harpenau from Cincinnati's Mother of Mercy High School. The win means the Bearcats get an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament-they'll find out who they play next weekend.

UC has managed to mine several players from the volleyball talent in this area. I had the chance to interview Coach Sunahara on WVXU's "The Front Row" a few weeks ago and he talked about not just the success of his own team, but the successful high school programs in the area. Here's the link to the interview: http://198.234.121.108/cincinnatiedition/102211_FrontRow.mp3 

On the basketball side, senior guard Bjonee Reaves was selected to the season's first BIG EAST Weekly Honor Roll for her performance against Dayton and Evansville. It is the first time Reaves has been named to the league's honor roll.

 Reaves has averaged 16.0 ppg and 5.0 apg in a 3-0 start for the Bearcats. She scored one-third of the team's offense with a career-high 25 points against Dayton on November 16 then continued her success against Evansville two days later, leading three double-digit scorers with 18 points after shooting 7-of-8 from the field. In her last two games, she's had 11 assists and two turnovers.

While the volleyball team will find out this weekend where it will be for the tournament, the basketball team heads to Cancun for the Thanksgiving holiday for a tournament there. Follow them all on www.gobearcats.com as their seasons get exciting!

 

Friday Night Lights

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During my time covering sports I've had the privilege to watch the University of Connecticut women's basketball team play several times. The one thing I've always taken from their games is that whenever the basketball's in the air, the Huskies believe it's theirs. On a rebound, offense or defense, they don't wait for the ball to come down to them, they go up and get it. On defense, they're always diving to pick off a pass, slapping at the ball, working for the steal.

Now it's only the first game of the season, and an exhibition at that, but we saw a lot of that UConn ball hawking from the Bearcats against NKU last weekend.

The tempo that this team plays is markedly faster than last year, much of that because of the speed of play of transfer guard Dayeesha Hollins. When she gets the ball from a defensive rebound or turnover, she's headed to the other end of the court quicker than you can say 'UC.' She flies to the front court and if there's an opening in the lane, she's not afraid to take it. If not, she'll pull back and help set up the play.

Dayeesha had a lot of her Winton Woods supporters at the game on Friday, but Dayeesha's not the only new face to watch this season-Lesha Dunn, all six-foot-four of her, will be a great help underneath once she gets used to the pace of the BIG EAST.

And then, of course, there's the 'veterans' -- Kayla Cook, Tiffany Turner, Jeanise Randolph. I say 'veterans' tongue in cheek, of course, because, despite their names being familiar, remember, they're only sophomores. Pressed into action last season, these three got unbelievable experience facing the BIG EAST -- more experience than most freshmen get, playing at this level. That will only pay off for them this season, and seasons to come.

So the regular season starts on Friday against IPFW. Then next week, a big test against I-75 rival Dayton. It's going to be fun to see Jamelle Elliot and her revamped staff put more of a Coach Elliott-inspired UConn stamp on this team. It can only mean good things down the road.

Let the games begin.

Legion of Excellence Gala Shows Off Best of Bearcats

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It was my honor earlier this week to be the MC for the annual Legion of Excellence gala on campus, where the University of Cincinnati honors its alums, supporters and student-athletes for their dedication and hard work to support and represent Bearcat athletics. You can read a preview of the event here but I especially hope you were among the 250 or so who attended the event.

Honorees include present student-athletes, all the way back to pitching great Sandy Koufax and the 1961 National Championship basketball team. All had amazing stories about their time at UC and why they were so loyal to the athletic program.

It was especially fun to see so many of the student-athletes in a setting other than how we usually see them, on the court or on the field. They certainly are a group for which the university can be proud now, and when they graduate and go out into the world.

So let's celebrate the young men and women who are Proudly Cincinnati on their Legion of Excellence awards:

2011 Legion of Excellence Inductees
Justin Ridell, Baseball
Alex Eppensteiner, Men's Basketball
Elese Daniel, Women's Basketball
Chase Beckmann, Men's Cross Country
Lilian Jelimo, Women's Cross Country
Alex Apyan, Football
Zach Bates, Men's Golf
Jenny Linville, Women's Golf
MacKenzie Parsons, Lacrosse
Sam Klosterman, Men's Soccer
Kelli Pawelko, Women's Soccer
Stephen Cunningham, Men's Swimming and Diving
Anna Bersani, Women's Swimming and Diving
Elise Woulfe, Tennis
Brian Zimmerman, Men's Track and Field
Ashley Arnold, Women's Track and Field
Annie Fesl, Volleyball

Exciting Times for UC Women's Sports

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With all the talk about what school is going to end up in which conference, it's sometimes easy to overlook what's going on in the here and now on campus. These are exciting times for female student-athletes in Clifton, and if you haven't been following, here's a quick look:

The women's soccer team has a big Friday-Sunday BIG EAST doubleheader at home this weekend, first with Seton Hall Friday, then Rutgers Sunday. Friday, all soccer alumni are invited back (for free!) to see what Coach Michelle Salmon has done with the youngsters. Talk about tough competitors, this team has played six, count 'em, six double OT contests. Two of the team's freshmen, Kristina Utley and Mackenzie Grause, have been conference Rookies of the Week. Bodes well for a bright future.

The volleyball team just lost its first conference game of the season and will go on the road Friday to face an undefeated Louisville team. Expect good things during tournament time from Reed Sunahara's group, as well as Janet Carl's golf team. These two coaches have proven track records for getting the most from their student-athletes.

And the women's basketball program is stirring up interest on campus with an open practice for UC faculty and staff, along with Basketball 101. Coach Jamelle Elliott has some exciting  enthusiastic assistants by her side who promise to make this season a fun one, and what better way to bring in new fans than to show just how hard these ladies work?? Can't wait for the exhibition game against NKU November 5.

S before we get too wrapped up in the 'what might happen,' let's enjoy what's happening now in women's athletics. And go see 'em play-you won't be disappointed.

 

Women's Soccer Young, Talented

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Welcome back to campus, everyone! Whether you're moving in this weekend in Clifton or an alum returning for Saturday's football game, we're glad to see you back. And with all the other things going on this weekend, including Oktoberfest downtown, I suggest you take a little time to stick around campus Sunday afternoon and watch a little soccer.

It's a big weekend for the women's soccer team, going on the road Friday for the first BIG EAST game of the season against DePaul, then coming home to play #8 ranked Notre Dame Sunday at 3:30 p.m.

And here's why this is special: Two of the team's players already have won BIG EAST weekly awards. First, freshman goalkeeper Kristina Utley was Goalkeeper of the Week late August, then another freshman, Mackenzie Grause, was just named Rookie of the Week. The team is just coming off a 2-0-0 College of Charleston Tournament.

Not bad for two Bearcats, and especially not bad for two freshmen. Yes, this team is young. Five freshmen routinely start. It's an exciting style of play. This team, early in the season, plays a fearless brand of soccer. It's a lot of fun to watch, and fans are coming, whether it's the record crowd to see UC and Xavier, or local youth teams watching the Wisconsin matchup.

So stick around after the football game and before you hit Oktoberfest and watch the UC-ND matchup Sunday afternoon. I think you'll enjoy the product Michelle Salmon has put together and I bet it won't be your last visit to Gettler Stadium this season.

Lacrosse Legacy

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This weekend wraps up the regular season for the UC lacrosse team as the Bearcats face BIG EAST foe Notre Dame to close out the home schedule. After that, it's the conference championships in Washington, D.C.

As the program wraps up its fourth season, it's the end of one era of lacrosse, and the beginning of another, as the team prepares to move to its new home at the Jefferson Avenue complex. And while the successes of the lacrosse team might not be measured in wins and losses, there are signs that the sport is growing here locally.

The last home game against Rutgers was youth lacrosse team day, and throughout Nippert Stadium were scattered a number of local lacrosse players, dressed in their uniforms. Let's face it, we probably wouldn't have seen that many teams four years ago, before the Bearcats started playing. Every coach knows that your recruiting starts in your back yard, and to have youth players take up the game bodes well for the UC program.

Speaking of players in your own back yard, one senior certainly has shown her commitment to the UC lacrosse team. Natalie Starvaggi from Mount Notre Dame in Cincinnati, wasn't going to let anything like a knee injury keep her from finishing her last year of eligibility. Through rehab and determination, Natalie is back on the field when most athletes would have had the surgery and settled for the sidelines for six to nine months of rehab.

But when you're a senior, you don't have the luxury of six to nine months. So Natalie is back on the field, braced knee and all, for her Senior Day this Sunday at home. It's an example of the type of student-athlete UC brings in, but it's also an example of the passion these players have for the game.

It's a good sign of how this program has the opportunity to succeed and grow in the coming months. Congratulations to Natalie and all the seniors who have helped set the foundation for great things to come.

One Last Thank You

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This is, of course, the time of year when, except for one team, the season ends in a loss. It's tough to get over the initial sting of disappointment, but it's easier when you can look back at the body of work that led up to the end. For the women's basketball team, Sunday will be the day at the Women's Basketball Banquet when we can pause, look back at the accomplishments, and thank the team, especially the seniors, for what they've done.

Was it the kind of season Coach Jamelle Elliott would have wanted for her second time around? Well, no. Let's face it, she has had enough trials and tribulations to make the biblical Job feel sorry for her. Injuries have been the constant presence, enough so that for much of the middle of the season, Coach Elliott had only seven healthy players taking the court--and I use the word 'healthy' loosely, since one player (Shareese Ulis) has had chronic knee problems and another (Shelly Bellman) has had way to many knee surgeries. (When Shelly played her final home game with a knee brace AND shoulder brace, I told myself I'd never gripe about my toe hurting again)

But that final home game gave the Cats their first win under Elliott over a Top 20-ranked team. The pure emotion that spilled onto that court after that win was something to behold--like a weight had been lifted off the entire team. It should go down as a landmark turnaround for the program. The way the team played Xavier at the Women's Crosstown Shooutout also was a seminal moment, as the Cats showed that teamwork, hustle and belief in themselves can go a long way.

And, the fabulous freshmen are certainly no longer rookies. Pressed into action, they performed admirably and, more importantly, picked up valuable experience in the BIG EAST that will pay off when they're sophomores, juniors and seniors. They already are so much more experienced than many of the other freshmen in the league, and we'll be reaping the benefits in the future.

So join us Sunday to celebrate the season, and look forward with anticipation to the future. It will be a great time to say thanks to Shareese and Shelly, wish them well, and invite them to come back to campus to see the kind of foundation they've set for this program.