Athletes to watch this fall
A breakdown of the players to keep an eye out for this season
With the start of the semester drawing near, AU athletes have already started training, lifting and running in preparation for the fall sports season. For 20 hours every week, these athletes will continue to push towards their goals, but each team has a unique set of challenges ahead of them. The women’s volleyball team hopes to win its fourth consecutive conference title, while the men’s soccer team will try to build on their success from last year and try to capture its first Patriot League championship. The women’s field hockey team, a group known for its positive team culture, will strive to reclaim a league title, after falling short the last two years, and the women’s soccer team will work to secure another playoff spot. The men’s and women’s cross country team will focus on individual improvement, but both teams will race on Oct. 29 at the conference championship. Here’s a brief breakdown of the major storylines for this fall sports season.
Widely considered to be one of AU’s most successful fall sports programs, the women’s volleyball team will start its season with the traditional annual Bender Blue Out, a game designed to initiate immediate fan support. This year’s schedule opens, much like the previous seasons have, with the DC College Cup, a tournament in which AU will take on three local rivals including Georgetown, George Mason and Howard. Since 2013, the Eagles have swept the DC Volleyball Championship, and last year the team only lost one set throughout the three games. However, the Eagles graduated five core senior players in the spring, including Player and Setter of the Year Monika Smidova, so head coach Barry Goldberg will be looking to his younger team to carry on the legacy of the program this year.
“You’re always hoping that you’re always better than the year before,” Goldberg said. “This year we have a lot of new players with an unknown of what is coming, but also eight players returning who have more of a vision and can communicate what worked and what didn’t.”
The duo of 2015 PL Rookie of the Year Carmen Unzue and Libero of the Year Hoakalei Dawson should be a strong force for the Eagles this year, as Dawson now has more experience as a libero and Unzue has a year of college under her belt. 2016 will be a year of change for the AU women’s volleyball team, but the challenge will be much the same: advance further into the NCAA tournament and take home another Patriot League title.
Players to Watch: Hoakalei Dawson (Junior, Libero/Setter), Carmen Unzue (Sophomore, Middle Blocker)
Fast Fact: The women's volleyball team has won fourteen conference championships since 2000.
The AU men’s soccer team has not captured a conference championship since 2004, but the team nearly broke this streak last season when it advanced to the Patriot League finals last fall before dropping to Lehigh 2-1 in the finals. This year, the team has nine new players on the roster and eight returning seniors, and their first home game will fittingly honor one of AU’s most respected and remembered alumni, Shawn Kuykendall. Per tradition, AU will be begin the season with the Kuykenstrong DC College Cup, a local tournament that will start with a game against George Mason on Reeves Field. The Eagles won the tournament last year and will strive to capture another title in 2016, as well as advance to the Patriot League finals again later in the fall.Men’s Soccer
Players to Watch: Joe Irola (Senior, Forward), Joel Hart (Junior, Forward)
Fast Fact: Senior goalkeeper Lucas Belanger is the brother of 2016 AU graduate and former Eagles women’s soccer goalie, Charlene.
Working to reposition themselves on top of the Patriot League again as they did in 2014, the Eagles will enter the 2016 season with a field hockey schedule that looks strikingly similar to the last two seasons.
The first game of the year on August 26th will feature a matchup against Richmond as it did in 2015. This year though the game will be at home rather than on the road, and the Eagles are looking to take change things and bring home a win. AU opens conference play on Saturday, Sept. 19 against Lehigh in Bethlehem, Penn., and the Eagles will return to Reeves Field on the 26th for their first home conference game against Lehigh.
“Our biggest goal is to commit to a mental, physical and psychological focus that will allow our journey through the regular season to prepare us to be Patriot League champions and head to the NCAA tournament” Jennings said. “Our focus on process will give us the optimal chance for the best outcome.”
Players to Watch: Rafaela Rubas (Sophomore, Forward/Midfielder), Natalie Konerth (Senior, Forward)
Fast Fact: Head coach Steve Jennings served as the head coach of the 2008 US Olympic women’s field hockey team, and, in 2014, he was named an honorary member of the USA Field Hockey Hall of Fame.
A successful 2015 campaign ended last year with the women’s soccer team back in the Patriot League conference tournament, but despite the postseason bid, the Eagles have still failed to put together a winning season since 2009. Third-year head coach Anabel Hering added nine freshman to the team this year, including four-time Florida state champion Dara Magdaleno and three-time Connecticut state champion Kyanna Alleyne, with the hopes of strengthening the roster and helping the team stay competitive in the Patriot League. New assistant coach Heather Sanden will also join AU this year after working as a club soccer coach for the past four years. The Eagles start conference play on Sept. 17 against Colgate at home, but they will have to wait until Oct. 19 to take on the United States Naval Academy, the team that ended AU’s season last year in the first round of the conference playoffs.
Players to Watch: Marley Jennings (Junior, Midfielder), Allie Day (Senior, Defender)
Fast Fact: Senior Megan O’Keefe worked as an AU athletics broadcaster last semester with men’s soccer manager Nick Papadis.
Men’s Cross Country
The men’s cross country team will be a young group this year, with just two seniors, but the squad will continue to chase improvement and success. The team finished fifth in the conference last year and while head coach Matt Centrowitz said he does not have concrete place finish goals for the team, he wants every athlete to improve on their personal best and accomplish what they set out to achieve.
“As long as they are improving, I’m happy,” Centrowitz said. “I’ve talked to them over the summer, and they do a lot of growing at this stage, which is very exciting. The kids are more mature and really understand what they need to do to improve on the track, in the classroom.”
Four freshmen will join the team this year, and while the adjustment to college life and varsity Division I training can be challenging, Centrowitz said he will look to experienced runners like senior Brendan Johnson to help guide the younger athletes. Johnson and his team start competing on September 2nd at Mount St. Mary’s in a shorter 5k race that will allow the men to tune up and sharpen their speed while keeping their focus on the 8k conference championship race in October.
Runners to Watch: Brendan Johnson (Senior), Alaeldin Tirba (Junior)
Fast Fact: Head coach Matt Centrowitz’s son, a two-time Olympian also named Matt, has a tattoo across his chest that says “Like Father, like son.” The older Centrowitz said he has not ruled out the possibility of also getting a tattoo because “as a parent, I don’t close doors.”
Women’s Cross Country
The women’s cross country team will return two sophomore stars this year in Kassidy Ayres and Ariana Hooks, athletes that Centrowitz describes as some of the most enthusiastic athletes who have ever been a part of the program. Ayres immediately made a name for herself in the conference last cross country season, finishing 11th in the championship meet and crossing the line as the third freshman in the field. Hooks also ran well and finished 31st in the conference, 39 seconds behind her fellow freshman teammate. After ending the fall season sixth in the conference meet last year, Centrowitz said improvement is up to the runners individually, but he believes breakout stars will emerge.
“I’m positive that we have a great shot at kids moving up from the Patriot League championships to the regional championships,” Centrowitz said. “Most of them are going to be sophomores, so by the time they leave, I’m sure they’ll be, if they decide to be, at the national [level], doing that kind of training, and dedicating themselves to that.”
Runners to Watch: Kassidy Ayres (Sophomore), Ariana Hooks (Sophomore)
Fast Fact: Former assistant coach and World Championship qualifier Kerri Gallagher recently accepted a job as the head cross country coach at Manhattan College in New York.