Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Top ACU performers of the decade

Over the course of the last 10 years, fans of ACU athletics have been treated to some of the greatest athletes, individual performances and games in the long and illustrious history of the university's athletics program.

And I've now decided to try and boil those down to a top 10 in each category, starting today with the 10 greatest athletes (give or take a couple) of the last decade. Now, most of these lists usually appear at the end of a decade or right at the beginning of the next decade, but ACU's was so good it's taken me a while to sort it all out.

After all, when you see more than 750 athletics contests, witness hundreds of great performances and countless great games it's hard to boil it all down to a list of 10.

After today's list of the 10 best performers, we'll also take a look at the best single-event performances by individual athletes this decade as well as the best games of the decade.

It's almost unfair to trim a list of the decade's best athletes down to just 10 ... so I won't try. As you'll see, it's hard to break up two groups of three because they were each so integral to the success of the group. So instead of trying to break those groups, I just kept them together.

Hey, it's my list; I can make it however I see fit.

So, here are my top performers (in order) for the last decade of ACU athletics:

1. Nicodemus Naimadu, men's cross country -- When you do something no other athlete (male or female) has ever done by winning four straight individual national championships in cross country, you automatically move to the top of the class. He was also the greatest steepelechaser in ACU history, and his 10,000-meter performance at the Stanford Invitational is legendary. A no-brainer from this vantage point.

2. Billy Malone, Bernard Scott and Johnny Knox (tie), football -- Tell me how you break up this grouping? All you've got in here is the all-time leading passer in Lone Star Conference history, one of the top big-play receivers in LSC history and, arguably, one of the top three running backs in league history. They were the catalysts behind two of the greatest offensive seasons in NCAA Division II history, and they certainly made Saturday afternoons a whole lot of fun for everyone who saw them.

3. Danieal Manning, football -- Are you kidding me? The guy who made more spectacular special teams plays than any player in the LSC over the last, oh, I don't know, 30 years, is No. 3 on the list? Not a knock on Danieal, but that's just how many great performers are on the list. Just like Scott and Knox, everytime he got his hands on the ball he was a threat to score. He was a dominant special teams player, a dominating force in the secondary ... and could have been the best receiver in the league if he had played there full time. An unbelievable, unreal talent that had to be seen to be believed. If you don't believe me just ask the other players in the LSC who had to try and tackle him on kickoff and punt returns.

4. Melanie Carter, women's basketball -- The third all-time leading scorer in ACU women's basketball history and one of the top five scorers in LSC women's basketball history, Carter -- like everyone on this list -- was as great a person off the floor as she was a great player on it. Virtually unstoppable when she got the ball on the low block, Carter teamed with Lynsie Blau over their final two seasons to form one of the best front lines in the region. I'll never forget one night before a road game her freshman season when the opposing coach (and I won't say who it was) told me he didn't recruit Melanie because he didn't think she could play. Too slow. Not a good enough shooter. Not physical enough. Um, right. That coach, by the way, is no longer in the business.

5. Brad Massey, baseball -- True story. Sitting in a Wendy's in Cleveland, Miss., the night before ACU played Delta State in the NCAA Division II South Central Region championship game, ACU head coach Britt Bonneau polled those sitting at the table as to who he should start on the mound the next day against the Statesmen. Several different opinions floated across the table as Dr. Gary McCaleb, assistant coach Brian Strickland and myself tried to help Bonneau ... as if he really needed the opinion of the SID. Finally, Bonneau stopped chewing on a french fry long enough to proclaim that he knew what he was going to do. "I'm going to start Brad Massey," he said. "And he's going to win the game for us." That was a pretty bold declaration considering that it had been about two months since Massey had thrown in a game. And while he didn't win the game, all Massey did against the Statesmen was throw six scoreless innings in one of the grittiest performances I've seen in my 12 years as SID. The Wildcats lost, 3-2, falling short of the College World Series, but Massey's gutty performance that day is one of my favorite performances of the past decade. It's also the career-defining moment for ACU baseball's player of the century.

6. Amanda Slate, Michelle Bernhardt and Lindsey Martin, volleyball -- Before these three arrived on the ACU campus in the early 2000s, crowds for home matches at Moody Coliseum were usually reserved for parents, close friends and the Moody walkers who would step in, take a look at the score, stay a few minutes and then walk out. These three, however, made ACU volleyball matches "must-see viewing" their final two seasons. In 2005, they were the key performers for a Wildcat volleyball team that captured the imagination of the ACU community. The Wildcats won 31 straight matches, took the LSC championship and reached the NCAA Division II Southwest Region championship match. The power of Slate and Bernhardt combined with the gritty leadership from Martin made them a powerful trio. The Wildcats won the LSC championship in front of more than 2,000 fans at Moody Coliseum, stamping volleyball's official arrival on the ACU campus.

7. Camille Vandendriessche, men's track and field -- Much like Naimadu, when you're one of the few athletes in NCAA history to do something, you earn your way on this list. For Vandendriessche, his victory in the decathlon last May in San Angelo made him the first athlete in NCAA Division II history to win three straight multi-event championships, the third athlete in NCAA history to win three straight multi-event titles, and only the fourth athlete in NCAA history to win three multi-event titles in a career. Case closed, send home the jury.

8. Meredith Garner, women's track and field -- The pole vault didn't become a part of women's track and field until 1999, and the ACU Wildcats dominated the event in its infancy as Garner and Jane McNeill each won national championships. Garner was the first female vaulter at the NCAA Division II level to ever clear 13 feet, and she won a pair of national championships. She was, however, as gracious off the track as she was dominant on it, and she and McNeill were the leaders of a solid group of female pole vaulters that continues to this day.

9. Jameson Maj, baseball -- In 2007, the Wildcats won a program-record 47 games, but somehow failed to reach the NCAA Division II South Central Region Tournament. That didn't diminish, however, the brilliance of ACU's closer, who tied the NCAA Division II single-season record with 20 saves. ACU head coach Britt Bonneau had the luxury of giving the ball to his big right-hander anytime from the seventh inning on and the game was over. After an early lull, Maj found his stride and was almost untouchable over the last three months of the season. The only thing Maj liked better than being on the mound was sitting on his boat fishing with buddies.

10. Jerale Badon, football -- For four years, Jerale Badon was the heart, soul and conscience of the ACU football program. ACU head coach Chris Thomsen will tell anyone who will listen that he has never had a harder worker than Badon, who simply imposed his will on a program that began to turn around in 2005 when Thomsen came on board. In Thomsen, Badon found the perfect coach: a grinder like himself who had a singular focus to be the best in every aspect of life. My favorite moment of his career came in 2006, ACU's first playoff season and his junior year. Here's the scene: game at Texas A&M-Kingsville tied at 38-38 with 1:03 to play and ACU starting at its own 20-yard line. Badon, who had 131 yards receiving at the time, hadn't played since the first half because of a knee injury. However, with the season -- and ACU's hopes for a playoff spot on the line -- Badon limps onto the field after pestering Thomsen and the training staff so much that they put him on the field just so he might leave them alone. Sure enough, on first-and-10 from the Kingsville 42, Malone dropped back and found his favorite target on a slant over the middle. He broke a tackle and just beat the clock, diving out of bounds at the Kingsville 8-yard line with two seconds left. Matt Adams came on and kicked a 25-yard game-winning field goal that all but sealed the Wildcats' first trip to the NCAA Division II playoffs. It's that kind of work ethic and single-minded focus that still resonates throughout the ACU football program.

Don't forget these performers who had spectacular ACU careers in the last 10 years: Sam Collins (football); Clayton Farrell (football); Nathan Young (football); Cody Stutts (football); Matt Adams (football); Shawna Hines (volleyball); Ijeoma Moronu (volleyball); Trina Cox (cross country / women's track and field); Olha Kryv'yak (cross country / women's track and field); Alfred Rugema (cross country / track and field); John Kemboi (cross country / track and field); Peter Kiganya (men's basketball); Rodney Lee (men's basketball); Jane McNeill (women's track and field); Alex Guiton (women's basketball); Audrey Maxwell-Lively (women's basketball); Linda Brivule (women's track and field); Maresa Cadienhead (women's track and field); Irene Squillaci (women's tennis); Juan Nunez (men's tennis); Ryan Hudson (men's tennis); Jordan Schmitt (baseball); Willie Uechi (baseball); Katie Bryan (softball); Jessica Shiery (softball); Nic Alexander (men's track and field); Terrance Woods (men's track and field); Abbie Lowry (volleyball); Lauren Leone (volleyball).

I think I got them all, but if you notice a glaring omission, make sure to leave a comment. Next up in a couple of days is a list of my 10 favorite performances from the past decade.

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