The Eagle 2016 Sports Awards
Eagle sports staff honors top athletes, moments and coaches from 2016
Last January’s first annual “Eagle Sports Awards” began with a quote from Olympic champion Mark Spitz about breaking records; this year, as The Eagle honors the best athletes of 2016, it seems only appropriate to quote one of AU’s own Olympians from this past year.
“Coming to American has made all the difference,” senior swimmer Caylee Watson told The Eagle in January 2016 after qualifying for the Rio Olympic Games. “I remember freshman year, I was very nervous about coming in here and swimming in general. I was just like, ‘just hold out one year, that’s all you need, just give it a try,’ and it turned out well.”
Watson finished 30th at the 2016 Olympic Games, but she is not the only Eagle athlete to shine in competition this year. Field hockey captain and two-time Scholar-Athlete of the Year Natalie Konerth helped her team capture its tenth conference championship. On the men’s side, David Terao battled his way to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA wrestling championships. AU athletes demonstrated exceptional skill in the pool, on the mat, on the field and on the track in 2016, and The Eagle chose just a few moments to recognize in this year’s awards list.
Note: In selecting the award winners, the Eagle staff only considered current student-athletes for The Eagle Athlete of the Year award. Seniors were considered for all other categories.
The Eagle Athlete of the Year:
Male: Brendan Johnson (men’s cross country)
Less than one year ago, Brendan Johnson kicked off his outdoor track season with a bang as he finished fourth in the men’s 3k run at the Armory Collegiate meet in February, and the season continued to take off from there. Johnson raced the 5000m at the prestigious Penn Relays, winning his heat and qualifying for the IC4A Outdoor Championships.
His best event in 2016, however, was neither the 3000m or the 5000m, but rather the 10000m. Johnson won his first Patriot League title in the men’s 10000m at the conference championship in May. Johnson’s success helped him earn distinction as the Patriot League Scholar Athlete of the Year for men’s outdoor track in 2016, but he knows that with the honor, and his victory in the 10000m, brings added pressure and expectations as he heads into the 2017 indoor and outdoor seasons.
“I think it’s always important after you have a successful season, to just kind of remember that people are going to be coming for you,” Johnson told The Eagle in June 2016. “After I’ve had seasons that weren’t as good as this one, I’ve always wanted to work harder to beat the person who won, or someone who did well, so I have to remember that people are going to be thinking that about me, so I just need to work that much harder to maintain my position in the top of the league.”
Female: Caylee Watson (women’s swimming)
Caylee Watson’s performance at the Patriot League Conference Championship in February alone would earn her “Eagle Athlete of the Year,” as she finished in the top ten in several events and earned Patriot League All-Conference Honors. Yet Watson added to her athletic resume when she represented the U.S. Virgin Islands at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Swimming the 100 back against the top athletes in the world, Watson finished 30th overall and represented both her country and her university well at one of the most prestigious athletic events possible. Her international participation didn’t end after the Olympics, either. Watson also competed in the 2016 Short Course World Championships in Winsor, Canada, putting up a lifetime best time in the 50-yard butterfly. In January 2016, head swimming coach Mark Davin praised Watson for her commitment to the program, and her willingness to embrace all aspects of the training.
“Whatever we do, she embraces all of it. She’s kind of like a sponge that’s soaking up everything. I think if you just tell Caylee, ‘this is going to help you,’ she’s all about it, always,” Davin told The Eagle in January 2016. “And it’s fun to be part of it. I think she likes to be with people that are having a lot of fun and working really hard and racing really well and being good teammates and doing well academically and having a full happy life.”
Record Breaker of the Year: Brianna Belo (women’s indoor/outdoor track and field)
Belo stood at the top of the podium at the Patriot League Outdoor Track and Field conference championships with a gold medal around her neck and a smile on her face. The AU sophomore, one of the few sprinters on the women’s track team, broke a school record in the women’s 800m on her way to capturing the league title in the event, a milestone for the AU program.
She defeated the second-place finisher at the conference meet by just less than a second, and her win is AU’s first for the women’s team since 2011. In addition to the 800m run, Belo also broke an outdoor team record in the spring 2016 season in the 4x200 relay and an indoor team record in the 500m dash.
Team of the Year: Women’s Volleyball
The women’s volleyball team captured the Patriot League Conference Tournament title and qualified for the NCAAs in 2016, but their journey to success was anything but given. Mentioning the team’s accomplishments without explaining the perseverance and heart of the team in the 2016 season would do a disservice to the athletes and their veteran coach. The Eagles lost several players to injuries early in the season, just before conference play, and in games against Stony Brook and Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, AU played with just eight athletes.
“With our team being down to eight players available, two of whom are playing through pain, we found a way to make things work,” Goldberg told AUEagles.com after the Stony Brook game in September, according to The Eagle. “A lot of respect is being earned between the players, as we continue to get to know each other better."
Despite the adversity and injury setbacks, AU rallied back and powered through the Patriot League tournament, winning 3-0 and 3-1 against Navy and Colgate, respectively. The Eagles also racked up major conference awards, as they have done in the past several years. Sophomore Aleksandra Kazala earned Player of the Year, Vela McBride won Rookie of the Year and Barry Goldberg was the Coach of the Year, a recognition of the team’s success and chemistry over the fall months.
Leader of the Year:
Women: Natalie Konerth (women’s field hockey)
Natalie Konerth wore the word “captain” on her field hockey socks, and she embodied the word both on and off the field. In the classroom, Konerth maintained a 4.0 GPA in her applied mathematics major, and she also earned recognition from the University Honors Department by earning the Academic Achievement Award.
Athletically, Konerth led her team in goals, points and game-winning goals, and she also earned a spot on the All Mid-Atlantic Region first team in addition to being named Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year for the second year in a row. Her commitment to the sport and her leadership on the field helped the Eagles capture a conference title against Boston in early November and she then followed up that win with a game-winning goal against Kent State at the NCAA play-in game. Although the Eagles fell to Duke in the first round of the national tournament, Konerth’s success on and off the field makes her the ideal athletes for The Eagle’s Leader of the Year.
Men: Panos Nakhid (men’s soccer)
Nakhid led by example on the field for the men’s soccer team in 2015, recording 13 points for the highest scoring offense in the Patriot League. Nakhid, a staple of the AU midfield since his sophomore year in 2014, posted a league-best nine assists as the focal point of the Eagle attack.
Nakhid helped his team post a third consecutive season with double-digit wins that culminated in the Eagles hosting the Patriot League Tournament for the first time since 2012. Nakhid earned First Team Patriot League honors, was named the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year and was voted to the All-Northeast Region team by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. Nakhid’s development as a leader as a athletes and as a teammate for the Eagles has strengthened with every year of collegiate experience, and his performance in 2016 solidified him as one of the top leaders among male student-athletes.
Moment of the Year:
Women: Field Hockey wins 10th Patriot League Title
The clouds loomed dimly over the field hockey field in Boston as the AU Eagles lined up to face the BU Terriers for the second time in two years at the conference championships. Just one week prior, the Eagles fell to Boston on Jacobs Field in a heartbreaking 2-1 loss, but on Nov. 6, with an NCAA bid on the line, AU prevailed.
A lone goal from sophomore Rafaela Rubas helped the Eagle capture the title that has eluded them the past two years, and, as the final seconds ticked down on the clock, her team responded with the excitement of a group that accomplished a goal they have been chasing for 24 months. The joy and elation seen on the faces of the field hockey players far exceeded the enthusiasm seen by the team after a regular season win, and head coach Steve Jennings summed up his feelings in a post-game interview.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Jennings said. “We are always confident. We know sometimes we have to have offense to get us the win, sometimes it’s defense. We are ready to do whatever it takes.”
Men: David Terao’s standing ovation at Madison Square Garden
In David Terao’s five-year career as an AU wrestler, the Hawaii native built an impressive athletic resume, but on March 19, the 125-pound athlete became a national name. Terao earned All-American honors after defeating UVA’s Nick Hermann, No. 2 Joey Dance from Virginia Tech, and Connor Schram of Stanford. But his defining moment of the tournament, the match that earned him “Moment of the Year,” came after his loss to defending NCAA champion Nathan Tomasello of Ohio State University.
Terao battled Tomasello through all three periods, ultimately dropping 5-3, but the crowd at Madison Square disregarded Terao’s loss. Over 10,000 fans stood up and cheered for the AU athlete, and the cameras zoomed in to capture Terao’s response and ask him a few questions. Tears trickled down Terao’s face as he responded to the interviewers, and he could hardly control his emotions even after he left the mat.
“I did not expect that at all,” Terao told The Eagle when asked about the standing ovation he received. “I was just, you know, going to run off and try and control myself, but when uh...that crowd. Oh man, it’s tough to even think about it right now. I’ll never forget it, I’ll just put it that way.”
Rookie of the Year:
Men: Sa’eed Nelson (men’s basketball)
The comparisons have already sprouted between rookie basketball guard Sa’eed Nelson, and 2015 graduate Darius “Pee Wee” Gardner. Nelson, 6-foot-1, and Gardner, 5-foot-9 each move the ball with speed, play with confidence and show genuine joy for their sport. Nelson currently averages over 20 points a game and has played six 40 minute games, an exceptional amount given head coach Mike Brennan's’ traditional hesitancy towards starting freshman. Brennan said Nelson brought “the right tools” to the game.
“He’s got a good mind for the game, good skill, coachable, tough kid, just everything you’d want in a player,” Brennan told The Eagle after AU’s win against Youngstown State.
Female: Vela McBride (women’s volleyball)
After a basketball game in early December, head basketball coach Mike Brennan suggested to reporters that his freshman players should be judged by their minutes rather than their age or experience on the team. “It does take a while just to get comfortable just playing at that pace, strength, style, intensity, and they understand what we are looking for offensively and defensively, and they are doing it over and over,” he said.
After the successful and dominant year that his freshman had as well, head volleyball coach Barry Goldberg might agree. McBride, a Virginia native, made an immediate impact on her team starting at the home-opener. She notched ten kills against Howard, but then beat her personal total with 11 kills against No.7 Washington. In mid-September, just a few weeks after the game against Howard, however, McBride struggled with knee pain and sat out a game against Hofstra at the end of the Hofstra/Stony Brook tournament. Yet, despite her injury, she put up such a strong performance against Stony Brook and Fort Wayne the day before that she still earned a spot on the all-tournament team.
"We had a lineup change to start the match as Vela needed a rest from her knee pain,” Goldberg told AUEagles.com after the Hofstra loss.” She played through two tough matches on Saturday, and without her we had some difficulty. She did a remarkable job for us this weekend, as did all of our other student-athletes.”
The all-tournament team honor was just one of many for McBride this season, as she also won Patriot League Rookie of the Week, Patriot League Athlete of the Week and Patriot League Rookie of the Year honors. McBride’s talent and quick assimilation into the college program will make a valuable asset to the team in the coming years and a threat against her opponents next fall.
Coach of the Year: Barry Goldberg (volleyball)
Giving the same award to the same person two years in a row could result in complaints from readers, accusations of laziness on the part of the award-givers, or just plain unfairness. Unless the award recipient is Barry Goldberg. For almost three decades, Barry Goldberg has served as the leading force behind the dominance of the AU volleyball program, and the head coach recently notched his 700th win, a milestone that only six other coaches have reached in Division I volleyball.
“All you’re thinking about is dealing with what is happening right now in front of [you],” Goldberg told The Eagle after his 700th win. “Before you know it, little by little, it gets bigger.”
Goldberg earned his 14th Patriot League title this year and won conference coach of the year, an award the league has presented to him six times in his career. So you can say that The Eagle cheated by simply giving the same award to the same person two years in a row.
May Graduates of the Year:
Men: David Terao (wrestling)
David Terao not only wowed over 10,000 people in New York City when he wrestled his way to a fourth place finish at the National Championships in March, but he also gave back to the program that developed him into an All-American later that same year.
Terao graduated as the winningest wrestler in AU history with 130 wins and a 29-7 record in his final year. Not long after the conclusion of his own career, Terao came back to serve as a volunteer assistant coach under the same coaches that led him to such a successful career as an athlete.
“AU has done so much for me in all aspects of life,” Terao told The Eagle in October. “I wanted to help continue to the program that has given me so much. We have a lot of young guys, half the team is freshman, so having me around helps a little bit. I’m the only one of the coaching staff that has been through [head coach] Teague [Moore]’s program, I’m close to their age, and can give them advice and stuff, so those are some of the main reasons why I stayed here versus going coaching somewhere else.”
Women: Monika Smidova (women’s volleyball)
Smidova and Terao not only share honors as The Eagle’s “May Graduate of the Year,” but they were also recognized at the AU Student-Athlete Banquet in April as the Male and Female Athletes of the Year. Smidova ended her volleyball career with three Patriot Scholar Athlete of the Year awards, two Patriot League Player of the Year awards and two honorable mention All-American honors.
Her leadership and talent on the court helped propel the Eagles to a 16-0 Patriot League regular season record in 2016 as well as three conference championships. Smidova’s recognition in the Eagle Awards is not new; she earned praise as the “Female Athlete of the Year” last year, and her recognition by the athletic department in April and her numerous accomplishments over her four years helped The Eagle staff decide to award her “May Graduate of the Year” in 2016.
Honorable Mention Senior:
- Jesse Reed (men’s basketball)