Thursday, April 25, 2013

SHOUP SHOTS: Looking at the year that was, and the year that will be

By Nathan Shoup, Sports Editor
The sun is coming out. The days are getting longer. And procrastination is being taken to the next level. Summer must be around the corner.
So it’s that time. The time we get to take a look back at the year in Pacific Lutheran University athletics and the storylines that dominated it.
Yes, the baseball team and track and field are still competing, but the major storylines in PLU sports this year have been told.

1. Immediate future is bright for football program

The 2012 season treated the Lutes well and certainly set the table for the coming years.
Finishing 7-3, the Lutes advanced to the 32-team NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002. Two of the losses came to conference-foe and national powerhouse, Linfield.
The Lutes finished the season ranked No. 25 in the final American Football Coaches Association national poll. They were ranked No. 17 in the final national poll.
Drawing the Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Lutes trailed by three in the final minute. After driving into Linfield territory, a costly sack ended the Lute’s comeback effort and their season. Linfield eventually lost in the quarterfinals.
The Lutes are bringing back eight offensive starters to the sophomore-laden squad. Quarterback Dalton Ritchey and wide receiver Kyle Warner will once again lead the offense. Both were named First Team All-Northwest Conference (NWC) selections in 2012 and will be juniors next season.
In addition to Ritchey and Warner, the Lutes are also bringing back key wide receiver Kellen Westering, a sophomore, who was named Honorable Mention All-NWC after missing a chunk of the season with an injury. Also a sophomore, the NWC named Lucas Sontra to the honorable mention squad compiling more than 60 yards per game at the tight end spot.
With receiving weapons to choose from for Ritchey, running back and senior Brandon James, honorable mention selection, is also returning.
Another running back, sophomore Niko Madison, will split carries with James for the second straight year. Madison tied for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with seven and averaged a team-high 5.2 yards per carry.
Defensively, defensive lineman Mychael Tuiasosopo will lead the Lutes. He will be a senior next season. Tuiasosopo was named a Second Team All-American in 2012 after racking up 46 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He has already been named a 2013 team captain by Head Coach Scott Westering.
2013 prediction: The Lutes finish the regular season 8-1, dropping only the season-opener at California Lutheran en route to winning the conference championship, meaning the Lutes end a 12-game losing streak to Linfield. The two teams meet Oct. 5 at Linfield — circle the date.
I said the Lutes would knock off Linfield in the playoffs last year and was within a few big plays of being correct. Next year is the year. The Lutes are bringing back too much talent.

2. Not the same softball team

Just one year removed from a national title, the softball team hardly resembled its 2012 form.
Last year, the Lutes finished 45-11, 24-4 in the NWC. This year, the Lutes finished 27-17, 18-10 in the NWC.
The difference is simple: Stacey Hagensen graduated. Among numerous accolades, Hagensen was named a Second Team All-American, the NWC Pitcher of the Year and the National Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
In 216.1 innings, Hagensen amassed a record of 28-5 with a 0.97 ERA to accompany it. No that is not a typo. She also hit .363 and led the team with 65 hits.
That is a huge hole to fill. And the team struggled to fill it this year.
As a whole, the pitching staff’s ERA jumped from 1.68 last season to 3.07 this season. Opponents’ batting average also jumped from .236 to .275.
The Lutes weren’t able to muster any momentum this season with their longest winning streak, reaching five games and going 0-5 against conference champion, Linfield.
Losing in the championship round of the NWC tournament last weekend, the Lutes must hope to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
In the regional rankings that were released last Thursday, the Lutes were ranked eighth in the west region, which likely leaves the reigning national champions out of the NCAA tournament.
2014 prediction: Next year will be a challenge for the Lutes. Seven seniors are graduating, four of which led the Lutes in batting average this year: Montessa Califano .395, Kaaren Hatlen .386, Melissa Harrelson .365 and Amanda Hall .362. The softball team will finish third in the conference next season and will miss out on the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.


3. Volleyball team remains most consistent on campus

The Lutes won their fifth conference title in seven years and continue to be the biggest conference powerhouse on campus.

In 2012, Pacific Lutheran was coasting at 15-3. An NWC championship felt secure, and an NCAA tournament run seemed likely.

But with seven conference matches remaining, All-American setter Samantha North, a sophomore, went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Lutes hung on to the conference title, but their NCAA appearance was brief.

Pacific Lutheran went 5-3 in the next eight matches, being swept aside by Puget Sound, Saint Martin’s and Chapman in the first-round of the NCAA tournament.

After the 20-6 season, the final American Volleyball Coaches Association Division III Poll ranked the Lutes at No. 21 in the country. They were ranked as high as 14th.

The Lutes have a deep, talented group of underclassmen coming back next year led by First-Team All-Northwest Conference selections junior Bethany Huston, middle blocker, and North. Junior Haley Urdahl, outside hitter and honorable mention selection, will also be returning.

They will have to fill the void left by graduating seniors First Team All-NWC libero Blair Bjorkman, outside hitter Kelsey Pacolt and setter Brianne Vincent, whose job replacing North after the injury was applauded by teammates.

2013 Prediction: It will be a different year but the same story for the volleyball team, which will win its sixth conference title in eight years. The returning talent on the Lutes’ roster is talented enough to get the Lutes past the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Don’t be surprised to hear serious tournament-run talk about the volleyball or football team next fall.