With the 2014-2015 school year in the rear view mirror, it’s time to hand out the 3rd annual Examiner Rice Sports Awards. These honors are meant as a fun way to look back on some of the great individual and team performance from the past 11 months.
There was no shortage of memorable performances to choose from, including three Rice teams winning Conference USA titles and a fourth just a couple of volleyball points away.
Before we get to this year’s recipients, here’s a rundown of the 2013-2014 awards: Male Athlete Blake Fox (baseball), Female Athlete Jessica Kuster (baseketball), Coach of the Year David Bailiff (football), Freshman of the Year Katherine Ip (women’s tennis), Team of the Year Men’s Golf and Game of the Year men’s basketball beats South Alabama in three overtimes.
With an overabundance of qualified options, picking winners this year wasn’t easy. Feel free to share your thoughts about which athlete, coach, team or game was most deserving.
Without further adieu, here are the list of nominees and winners of the 2014-2015 Examiner Rice Sports Awards in these six categories:
- Male Athlete of the Year
- Female Athlete of the Year
- Coach of the Year
- Freshman of the Year
- Team of the Year
- Game of the Year
Male Athlete of the Year
Male Athlete of the Year nominees
- Scott Fillip, track and field
- Seth Gearhart, basketball
- Brian Nordstrom, football
- John Clay Reeves, baseball
- David Warren, tennis
Little distinguished the talented athletes in this category. Brian Nordstrom recorded the second most tackles for loss in school history, while Seth Gearhart was a leader of basketball’s resurgence. But it was John Clay Reeves’ production at the plate, particularly in the category known as Runs Batted In, that gave him the slight nod over the field.
In helping Rice win its 20th straight conference championship of some sort, Reeves, a senior from Monroe, La., drove home 55 runners in 56 games he played in during the 2015 season. The next highest total on the team was Leon Byrd’s 35. Reeves hit an outstanding .448 with runners in scoring position and .387 with Owls on base. The regular Rice clean-up hitter led the team with eight home runs and recorded 14 multi-hit games. Behind the plate, he called pitches and threw out four runners attempting to steal.
The accolades Reeves picked up included being named All-Conference USA First Team, ABCA/Rawlings NCAA Division I South Central All-Region First Team and American Baseball Coaches Association third-team All-America. In addition, Reeves was honored on the 2015 C-USA Baseball All-Academic Team.
The season was capped by the Washington Nationals calling Reeves name in the 20th round of the 2015 MLB Draft.
Female Athlete of the Year
Female Athlete of the Year nominees
- Natalie Beazant, women’s tennis
- Casey Clark, swimming
- Lauren Hughes, soccer
- Jillian Humphrey, volleyball
- Cali Roper, cross country
Lauren Hughes had an incredible season, setting records, scoring 14 goals and piling up accolades. She’s arguably the favorite for Female Athlete of the Year next time around. But the flourish with Natalie Beazant finished her Rice career made it difficult to choose anyone else.
During her senior season, Beazant went 31-7 overall in singles, including a 19-3 record playing No. 1 singles. She was 12-4 in tournament play and recorded a 9-5 mark against nationally ranked opponents. She was 19-10 in doubles, including an 11-4 mark with Liat Zimmerman in No. 1 doubles.
She led the Owls to another Conference USA Title and a fourth consecutive opening round win in the NCAA Tournament. At the NCAA Women’s Singles Championship in Waco, the Leigh, England native, knocked off Texas’ Breaunna Addison 6-4, 6-2. She then won a 6-2, 6-4 decision over USC’s Giuliana Olmos, the No. 14 ranked player in the nation, to reach the Sweet 16.
Beazant was named the Conferences USA Player of the Year for the second time and named an All-American for the second time. She also was the recipient of the Joyce Pounds Hardy Award as Rice’s top female student athlete and the ITA/Cissie Leary Sportsmanship Award for the Texas region. She also won the Female Athlete of the Year for 2012-2013.
“She’s had one heck of a career and is one of the most decorated players in Rice history,” said Rice women’s tennis coach Elizabeth Schmidt. “She really helped turn our program around, not just with her play, but with her attitude, spirit and how she lives life.”
Coach of the Year
Coach of the Year nominees
- Nicky Adams, soccer
- Jim Bevan, women’s track and field
- Mike Rhoades, men’s basketball
- Elizabeth Schmidt, women’s tennis
- Efe Ustundag, men’s tennis
There was no denying VCU was playing havoc with opponents during Mike Rhoades’ tenure as an assistant basketball coach from 2009 to 2014. But it was a little difficult to ascertain if and how the Rams success would translate when Rhoades took over Rice’s men’s basketball program in March 2014.
A year, and a dozen wins later, it was clear Rice rising is more than a marketing slogan. Rhoades took over a program that had won 12 games combined the previous two season and had managed a 3-29 mark in Conference USA games. The Owls went 8-10 in C-USA games in 2015, including picking up road wins at Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, UTSA and most improbably, Western Kentucky.
The Owls arrived in Bowling Green on Feb. 7 riding a four-game losing skid. The Hilltoppers entered the game in first place at 9-1 in C-USA games. Rice built and then lost a 19-point lead, only to outscore WKU 10-4 in the game’s final minutes to walk out with a 72-68 win.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be involved in some pretty cool stuff in my 19 years of coaching basketball, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a team because of their fight than I am of this team tonight,” Rhoades said after the game.
While it’s still a small sample size, it appears Rice is fortunate to have Rhoades at the helm. He is giving the Owls a fighting chance at rebuilding.
Freshman of the Year
Freshman of the Year nominees
- Ryan Chandler, baseball
- Savannah Durkin, women’s tennis
- Mitchell Meissner, men’s golf
- Portia Okafor, volleyball
- Glen Otto, baseball
The Conference USA baseball Freshman of the Year was a fixture at the top of the Owls lineup. Houston native Ryan Chandler had a stellar season, hitting .302, patrolling centerfield at a .993 fielding clip (zero errors in regular season) and leading the team with 17 doubles.
But it was the postseason spotlight that brought out the best in Chandler. He hit .444 in NCAA regional games, drove in four runs and scored three times, including the game-winner in the 20th inning against Houston. He then threw out the potential tying run at second base in the bottom of the 20th, one of six outfield assists Chandler recorded in 2015.
Hitting lead off 51 times, Chandler did his job. He reached base safely for 21 straight games and scored 43 times. After the season, he was named to Collegiate Baseball’s 2015 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-America Team.
The other three Owls to win C-USA Freshman of the Year, Austin Kubitza (2011), Anthony Rendon (2009) and Ryan Berry (2007) all played professionally.
Along with fellow freshman nominee reliever Glen Otto (1.52 ERA and 65 strikeouts) and starting shortstop Tristan Gray, the Owls have a core group of aspiring stars for at least the next two seasons.
Team of the Year
Team of the Year Nominees
- Women’s Tennis
Conference championships and NCAA postseason appearances are the norm for Rice baseball and women’s tennis. While those two programs continue to be the cream of the crop in the Owls sports landscape, the choice here is women’s soccer.
The Owls went from a losing season of 7-8-3 in 2013 to a 14-4-3 Conference USA championships season in 2014.
The fourth game found the Owls in Baton Rouge to face LSU. Rice freshman Samantha Chaiken scored the only goal of the game in the 86th minute. The Owls didn’t lose a match for the next five weeks (including an improbable win over Vandy that shows up in the next category) and beat its first three C-USA foes by a combined score of 13-0.
On Sept. 28, Rice junior forward Holly Hargreaves scored four goals to become the all-time leading goal-scorer in school history. That record fell again later in the season, when teammate Lauren Hughes scored one of her 14 goals. She now has the career record of 32.
Hughes was named the C-USA Offensive Player of the Year while Quinny Truong was named the C-USA Midfielder of the Year. Nicky Adams won the honor for top conference coach.
A few days later, the Owls shut down top seed North Texas 2-0 in the C-USA Tournament title game in Charlotte to advance to the NCAA Tournament. It was the first tournament appearance in nine years for the program.
Game of the Year
Game of the Year nominees
- Rice soccer stuns Vanderbilt 2-1 with goals in 90th and 91st minutes
- Rice and Western Kentucky play dramatic 5th set for C-USA Tournament volleyball title
- UTSA and Rice men’s match decided by final set in George R. Brown Tennis Center opener
- Rice men’s basketball upsets Charlotte in overtime to end 17-game C-USA road losing streak
- Rice baseball outlasts Houston in 20 innings in NCAA Regional elimination game
The win-or-go-home games rise to the top of the list. In most years, a thrilling, 5-set volleyball match to decide the conference tournament title and C-USA’s NCAA bid would be a shoo-in. But this wasn’t most years.
The last time the Rice baseball team had seen its crosstown rival, the Cougars were celebrating scoring two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Owls 2-1 on May 12 in Sugar Land. Houston thought they had just won the season series 2-1.
But 19 days later, the teams were together again on the diamond to decide which squad stayed alive in an NCAA Regional hosted by UH.
Charlie Warren’s two-RBI single put Rice ahead in the fifth inning. The Cougars got one back in the bottom of the frame and tied it in the eighth. It remained tied after nine… and 10 and 11, and you know the story.
After 20-innings, six hours and two minutes, a Leon Byrd RBI double, countless tweets, a few yawns, Ryan Chandler crossing home plate, countless checks of the clock (is it really 2 a.m.?), the fourth longest game in NCAA Tournament history, and nine innings of shutout relief pitch by Austin Orewiler, Rice stood victorious 3-2.