The Eagle’s picks for AU Sports 2019-2020 MVPs
The Eagle sports staff make their selections for each team’s most valuable player
This article has been updated with a correction. AU men's basketball went 8-22 in 2016, not 6-24.
In an effort to recognize the school’s top athletes, The Eagle’s sports staff has selected the most valuable player from each AU sport.
Due to setbacks from the coronavirus, AU volleyball was the only fall sport interviewed for the selection.
Acknowledgements go to junior defender Asia Horne, who led AU women’s soccer with a third-team all-Patriot League selection, junior midfielder Noor Coenen, who was named as the Patriot League field hockey offensive player of the year and led the nationally-ranked Eagles to a PL championship, and junior forward Nick Dimitrijevic who starred for AU men’s soccer, leading the team in total goals.
Lacrosse: Casey Harkins
By Alec Branch
The AU lacrosse team started their season 7-0, the best opening in the program’s history before it was cut short. Their success is largely due to the contributions of senior attacker Casey Harkins.
In just seven games, Harkins led the Patriot League with 34 assists, 12 more than the player in second place, for an average of 4.86 per game. In those seven games, she managed to break both the AU single-season and career record for assists.
She also led the Patriot League in total points and points per game, right above teammate Emma Vinall, who also had an outstanding season. She totaled 52 points on the year, quickly surpassing the career-high of 39 that she totaled her junior year, and matched her junior year goal total of 18.
Harkins also broke two single-game records for the Eagles in a game against Presbyterian College, with 11 assists and 12 points, surpassing the previous AU single-game records held by teammate Erica Skowron.
All of these accomplishments culminated in her selection as the National Player of the Week by Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association. She was the first player in program history to receive that recognition.
Despite the season coming to an abrupt end, Harkins’ performance this year was one to remember.
Women’s Swim and Dive: Eleanor Felton
By Luke Bennett
Think of some of the greatest athletes you know. Fierce competitors and ruthless warriors; tacticians and maestros. When it comes to outstanding athletes, competition does not discriminate. That’s why The Eagle’s pick for this year’s AU women’s swim and dive MVP is an anomaly – she kills you with a smile.
Sophomore Eleanor Felton is considered one of the most positive and friendliest people on the roster by her teammates.
“She’s one of the most selfless people I’ve encountered in this sport,” said teammate Malak Hattab. She’s willing to help you 100 percent of the time, whether you asked for it or not.”
However, when amalgamated with water, Felton’s congeniality takes a turn – she is one of the fiercest competitors AU swim has to offer.
This is why her name appears throughout AU’s record books, as she has coincidentally notched 16 total top-16 times in school history. Of these times, three are school records, and another 12 are top-7 all-time performances. Just this season, she helped capture two school records – the 100 Fly (55.45) and 200 Free Relay (1:34.55) – and was one-hundredth of a second away from breaking another.
Coming off a rookie of the year season in her 2018-2019 campaign, Felton notched yet another stellar record, as 10 of her 16 top-16 performances came in her sophomore year. Moreover, at the conclusion of this year, she became the team’s fastest performer in three different distinctions – 50 free, 100 fly and 100 breast. Felton was also named GEICO Student-Athlete of the Week for her performance at the Patriot League championships, where two of her three school records took place.
“I had an amazing season and owe it all to the coaches and team,” Felton said of her MVP season. “I’m excited for next season and can’t wait to welcome a huge freshman class next season. Next year we’ll be even bigger and better.”
Men’s Swim and Dive: Liam Riebling
By Luke Bennett
In swimming, time is everything. It is the basis for which champions are crowned and the measuring stick on which talent is gauged. Simply put, time is not on your side. Luckily, for Liam Riebling, the less time he spends in the water, the better he swims … or so it seems.
Riebling, a junior from Ridgefield, Conn., has quickly progressed into one of the finest swimmers in AU men’s swim and dive history. As it stands, Riebling holds top-16 all-time program marks in seven different events including his two best events – the 100 and 200-yard butterflies. Of these seven times, three are within AU’s top-8 best including the second-fastest finish in the 100 Fly (48.66).
“There has been no one in my years on the team that has developed as quickly as Liam,” a teammate said of Riebling’s rise to greatness. “He works diligently and effectively to become one of the best swimmers this team has ever seen. But the thing that draws you to Liam the most is that he does it all – in and out of the pool – without complaining or raising any trouble.”
Riebling’s transcendence into an AU all-time great comes not without heeding his role as a student-athlete. Riebling, a public relations and strategic communications major, maintains an astounding 3.93 cumulative GPA. This grade-point average has earned him numerous distinctions, including a spot on the 2019-2020 Academic All-Patriot League team, as well as bolstering the AU swim and dive’s record of 50-straight semesters as a Scholastic All-American program.
This season, Riebling was by and large the best swimmer on AU swim and dive’s men’s side. He was named the GEICO Student-Athlete of the Week, possessed a lopsided amount of individual event victories and scored valuable points at the season’s biggest meet, the Patriot League Championships.
Women’s Basketball: Kaitlyn Marenyi
By Spencer Nusbaum
The 2019-2020 AU women’s basketball team entered the season with a slew of question marks. Patriot League Player of the Year Cecily Carl? Gone. Second-team all-Patriot League guard Elina Koskimies? Gone. Starting guard Kaitlyn Lewis? Gone.
Simply put, AU needed quite a leader to step up to the plate — and in came senior guard Kaitlyn Marenyi, who is The Eagle’s pick for 2019-2020 AU women’s basketball MVP. Marenyi blossomed into a star on and off the court during the season, and drew apt praise from her teammates and coaches.
“She’s given a lot of us sophomores and freshmen a lot of advice when it comes to overcoming obstacles,” sophomore guard Laura Graytok said. “She’s a team-first player, so I really look up to her, and I think she’s very deserving of MVP.”
Few players across the Patriot League shot as lights-out from deep as Marenyi, who knocked down nearly twice as many 3-pointers as the next best Eagle. Despite inheriting a heavy usage rate, Marenyi shot efficiently from the floor (37/30/80 splits) and led the team in scoring during conference play, with 14 points per game.
No player was as dependable night-in and night-out as Marenyi, who led the team in minutes played and registered double-digit points in 11 straight conference games.
Marenyi ends her career having added a stockpile of awards to the mantle, with selections to the all-Patriot League third-team (2020), all-academic team (2020) and all-tournament team (2019). To top it off, she ends her career with the conference’s most coveted prize: a Patriot League championship (2018).
“[She’s meant] everything,” head coach Megan Gebbia said. “Her words were gold. She understood what the coaching staff was trying to accomplish. She’s given everything to this program and you just love a kid that eats it, that breathes it … I’m so proud of her.”
Sophomore guard Jade Edwards also deserves recognition for her phenomenal season, as she led AU in scoring and rebounding and was one of the nation’s most dangerous clutch players.
“Her athletic ability is tremendous,” sophomore guard Emily Fisher said. “It’s really hard to guard her, even as a teammate it's hard — so I can’t imagine what the opponent's game plan is against her.”
Next year, coach Gebbia will likely hand Edwards the keys to AU’s offense as the team hopes to improve upon this year’s seventh-place finish.
Men’s Basketball: Sa’eed Nelson
By Jon Kolodny
Four years ago, American University basketball was in a bad place. The team had just finished up a dreadful 8-22 campaign, and a winning season didn’t seem anywhere in sight. However, on the shoulders of point guard Sa’eed Nelson, the Eagles were able to finish this season with a 16-14 (12-6 PL) record. Thanks to his inspired play, Nelson has been selected as the 2019-2020 men’s basketball Most Valuable Player by The Eagle sports staff.
Nelson, who will graduate this spring as AU’s all-time leading scorer, was one of the most well-rounded players in college basketball this past season.
“He does everything for the team, you just have to look at the stat sheet,” said senior forward Yilret Yiljep.
If one takes Yiljep’s advice and looks into Nelson’s statistics, it would show that he was the only player in Division I men’s basketball this season to average at least 18 points, 4.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and two steals per game.
Nelson’s statistical feats are even more impressive when you look at the circumstances he accomplished them under. AU’s Princeton-inspired offense often stagnated this season, passing the ball around the perimeter as the shot clock ran down. With this, the team repeatedly had to orchestrate a play out of virtually nothing.
As the only true point guard on the Eagles’ roster, Nelson put the team on his back time after time in these situations, penetrating and creating a successful play for himself or one of his teammates.
“He’s led this team in everything we do,” head coach Mike Brennan said. “He does so much throughout the entire game to make sure we’re in [the game].
In addition to leading his team on the court, Nelson’s work ethic and will to win inspired those around him to be better on a daily basis.
“There's other guys out there that are talented and good, but it’s what kind of kid he is that makes him what he is,” Brennan said. “He wants to win. And when you have a leader of a team where all they want to do is win, that’s where everybody else follows.”
Women’s Cross Country and Track: Sarah Maple
By Lee Clarke
The women’s cross country and track team similarly finds itself primarily made up of freshmen athletes. However, there is still nothing stopping the team, or freshman Sarah Maple, from accomplishing great things.
Maple had several outstanding times during the cross country season, clocking in under 25 minutes during all her 5000m and 6000m races. She also had an impressive 6th place finish in the Leopard Invitational. In track, Maple continued her excellent performance with mile times under six minutes in every meet.
“Improving every day, every month, every week,” Maple said when asked what to expect from her going forward. “I’ll definitely perform better, that’s what I’m planning on doing.”
“She’s always very upbeat, motivated and excited to get to a very high level,” head coach Sean Graham said of Maple. “Her motivation, her work ethic and her ability to take on new and more things is phenomenal.”
With so much thrown at Maple and the other freshmen, it is amazing to see what they have accomplished.
Men’s Cross Country and Track: Russell Sullivan
By Lee Clarke
For the men’s cross country and track team that is primarily made up of freshmen athletes, it is quite clear that this was a rebuilding season for the team. But this has not stopped any of the athletes from performing to the best of their abilities. Of all the amazing athletes on this team, one has stood out for his amazing running ability, freshman Russell Sullivan.
Russell has stepped up to be a leading figure on this team, finishing in the top 30 of every meet, including a first-place finish at the Leopard Invitational during the cross country season. On the track, Russell did more of the same as a top competitor in the mile, 3000m and 5000m.
“I was very happy with where I was coming in freshman year,” Russell said of what to expect from him going forward. “And I think we can take even more steps next year.”
“He is just a full-on tough competitor,” head coach Sean Graham said of Russell. “He puts himself into positions that sometimes sophomores, juniors and seniors are afraid to put themselves in.”
There is no doubt — this isn’t the last AU will see out of Sullivan.
Volleyball: Kristen Largay
By Zeke Cohen
AU volleyball has set a precedent for athletics at the University through their consistent success. The team put together another outstanding run this season, with a 24-7 record and were Patriot League champions for an astonishing 16th time in the past 19 years.
“Our team had a lot of great success,” head coach Barry Goldberg said. “This year, we were the best team.”
With a stacked roster this season, the team’s MVP looked more uncertain than in past years. Hearing athletes and coaches perspectives, however, made this MVP debate a lot more clear. Senior libero Kristen Largay was an almost unanimous pick by her teammates and coach Goldberg.
“I thought that her senior year she was just like that person who was super reliable, especially in the back row, but also on the court she was the playmaker,” said junior libero Megan Crush.
“I got to see her progress tremendously as a player and a person and I think she just became the backbone of our team this year, she was on the court almost all the time,” said senior blocker Vela McBride. “She really took on a huge leadership role.”
After winning over her teammates’ support in her past four years at AU, Largay ascended into becoming a leader this season. Largay broke both the AU and Patriot League digs record this year, with a whopping total of 2,012 in her career. Even though her playing career is over, Largay looks to still help out with the team as she continues her studies at AU next year, pursuing to get her master’s degree in accounting.
Wrestling: Sal Profaci
By Alec Branch
Sal Profaci, the redshirt senior transfer from the University of Michigan, was selected by his teammates as the team's MVP of the 2019-20 season. Profaci, the 141-pound wrestler, has had a great season in his lone year as an Eagle and managed to make a great impression on the rest of his teammates.
“I think he’s faced a lot of adversity; he came to a new team and learned how to be part of a team he’s never been a part of,” said redshirt sophomore teammate Niko Camacho. “We started or ended most of our matches with him, and there are very few times I can remember where he didn’t win the match or put himself in the very best position.”
As the lone senior on the team, Profaci also took on a leadership role in his first season at AU, leading by example for his teammates.
“Just the way he’s carried himself, I’ve never really had anyone that I can kind of look at almost like a professional,” said sophomore Ben Root. “The way they carry themselves in practice and their demeanor, and how they go about things. It’s definitely something I can look at and model myself after.”
The impact Profaci has had in his lone season as an Eagle was clear in the way his teammates spoke about him.
“You can easily be an odd guy out coming from another program, but he came in with a really different mindset than I expected,” said freshman William Jarrell. “He was really inclusive and being a freshman coming in and having to start, I was really nervous and didn’t really know how it was going to go, and he was really kind and helpful in trying to figure out the mindset that’s different from high school to college.”
Profaci finished his lone season with the Eagles with a 26-9 record, and was ranked 23rd in the nation in the 141-pound weight class. Profaci earned an at-large bid to compete at the NCAA tournament, but his season was cut short by the NCAA’s decision to cancel all sports due to the coronavirus pandemic.