WOMEN'S TEAMS DOMINATE WALL OF CHAMPIONS AFTER THREE NCAA APPEARANCES
June 5, 2012
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MARTIN, Tenn. – The Wall of Champions, where pictures of all the University of Tennessee at Martin championship team photos are displayed, outside of the main athletics office in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center, is filled to capacity.
No problem. The wall directly across from the ominous collection of photos was converted into a new Wall of Champions in the spring of 2011 when the Skyhawk women’s basketball team and the Skyhawk women’s tennis team both claimed Ohio Valley Conference championships. Not only did the women’s basketball team win the OVC Tournament, it advanced to the NCAA Tournament, marking the first appearance in school history.
Fast forward to the spring of 2012. Success was everything but elusive at UT Martin this as five women’s teams – soccer, volleyball, basketball, tennis and softball - advanced to the championship of their respective tournaments. Soccer, basketball and softball won their conference tournaments and all advanced to the first round of their respective NCAA Tournaments.
“To my knowledge UT Martin has never had such success in advancing to the championship game of our conference tournaments or in winning championships,” UT Martin athletics director Phi Dane said. “I’m confident we will see more of this success in the future and in our men’s sports as well.”
Seven players, from basketball, soccer and softball – Taylor Hall, Brooke Robertson, Melissa Govea, Katie Imperiale, Jenny Bain, Erica Duke and Chelsea Jones - have experienced all of the championship fever. If you asked any of the seven if they expected to win as much as they did, most will tell you probably not.
For soccer’s Govea and softball’s Bain, playing at UT Martin was just a good way to get an education paid for. “Either I had to pay or play,” Govea said.
Bain was headed to another Ohio Valley Conference school, when softball head coach Donley Canary offered her a better deal. “I just wanted to play ball and not pay to go to school,” Bain said.
Soccer’s Robertson came to UT Martin from a high school that constantly flirted with championships, but never won one while she was a team member. “Playing at UT Martin my freshman year was tough,” she said. “I wasn’t getting to play much, but once that changed it made all the difference in the world.”
The three then sophomore soccer players were part of UT Martin’s first regular season championship, but fell from the pinnacle of success their junior year as they went through a coaching change.
“It was frustrating to go from winning to not going to the tournament,” Robertson said.
In 2011, the Skyhawk soccer team set a program record with 14 victories and made its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, facing nationally ranked Memphis.
Softball’s flight was similar to soccer. Bain, Duke and Jones helped the Skyhawks advance to the OVC Tournament and then win five consecutive games to earn a berth in the regional tournament at Louisville. In 2010, the softball team won the regular season and won the right to host the OVC Tournament. The Skyhawks advanced to the championship game at Bettye Giles Field, but staggered in the championship game.
For softball’s Bain, Duke and Jones 2011, or their junior season, was difficult, the team finished third in the regular season, but made an early exit from the OVC Tournament. However, this past season was the coup de grad for the trio as it won the regular season and they claimed the OVC Tournament title in front of their home crowd to advance to the NCAA Regional at No. 2 national seed Alabama.
In women’s basketball, Hall transferred to UT Martin for her junior season and helped the Skyhawks win their first OVC Tournament and advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Skyhawks landed in the Philadelphia Regional as a No. 15 seed opposite No. 2 and first-round host Duke.
The Skyhawk basketball team improved Hall’s senior season, winning the OVC regular season and once again beating Tennessee Tech in the OVC Tournament to advance to the NCAA party. This time around the Skyhawks were sent to Chicago where they were the No. 15 seed and had to play UT Martin alumna Pat Head Summitt and the No. 2 seeded Tennessee Lady Vols.
“There are tons of positives for our players,” UT Martin head basketball coach Kevin McMillan said. “We have probably established that we have come back. We marked off that novelty, now we have to figure out how we are going to win a game.”
Regardless of the sport – basketball, softball or soccer – if the Skyhawks win a game in the NCAA Tournament it will be as iconic as Brandi Chastain ripping her jersey off after scoring the game-winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
Rest assured the victors’ team picture will hang in glory on the Wall of Champions.