Top 2017 sports stories from the campus of Murray State include another record finish for women's soccer, a hiring of a longtime local basketball coach, a host of postseason awards and a couple surprising finishes for young teams.
Soccer goes perfect -- again
For the third time in as many seasons, the Murray State women's soccer program remained undefeated in Ohio Valley Conference play (8-0-2) -- all part of an incredulous 2017 campaign that saw the Racers finish 15-2-2 and as league champions for the second time in three years.
A familiar face in Australian senior striker Harriet Withers led the way with 12 goals (six game-winners) and two assists, which was more than enough for her to garner the league's offensive MVP award for an unprecedented third-straight season.
But alongside Withers were two newcomers in freshman Rebecca Kubin (seven goals, three assists) and Samford transfer Miyah Watford (six goals, four assists), who picked up the OVC Tournament MVP after notching the game-winners in 1-0 victories against Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky.
Behind Murray State's three-headed offensive attack was a defense unparalleled in school history -- (wo)manned consistently by Lyssie Wright, Destiny White, Annamarie Arino, Izzy Heckman, Karsyn Hasch, Nyomi Devine, Caroline Ashton and a key reserve in Emma Heise -- who picked up two goals and three assists in relief.
It was a unit that allowed just 80 shots on goal and 162 shots total through 19 games, with junior keeper Alex Steigerwald coming away with 67 saves (.837) and 10 shutouts on the year.
Murray State's only two losses? A 1-0 clipping from Atlantic-10 foe Saint Louis at Cutchin Field, and a tough 2-0 loss to top-20 SEC power Tennessee in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Racers finished the season with an RPI of 27 -- easily the highest in the program's short history.
Turner hired for MSU women's hoops
Following the non-renewal of longtime assistant and head coach Rob Cross, MSU Athletic Director Allen Ward was in the market for a new leader in Racer women's basketball.
He didn't have to look very far.
On March 29, MSU officials announced the hiring of Rechelle Turner -- no stranger to the First Region.
A graduate of Marshall County High School and herself a former Racer, Turner spent the past 21 years as the coaching brains behind Murray High School girls basketball and its consistent success.
With a 460-178 record and two trips to the KHSAA Final Four, Turner and her Lady Tigers generally contended with great regularity behind defensive principles, a belief in defensive rebounding and a magnified focus at the point guard position.
"The opportunity in front of me is yet another tremendous blessing," Turner would go on to say in her inaugural press conference. "I have to thank God for opening the doors that have led me back to Murray State."
Not long after Turner inked with the Racers, so, too did three of her former players in point guard Macey Turley, larcenist Lex Mayes and hybrid guard Alexis Burpo. Former Henderson star DeAsia Outlaw and Perry Meridian High School star Sadie Hill (Indianapolis, Indiana) make up Turner's first recruiting class, while former Gardner-Webb forward Evelyn Adebayo is qualified to suit up next season after sitting for her transfer year.
The Racers hold a 5-8 record with a 1-1 start to OVC play following Saturday night's hard-fought loss to SIU Edwardsville.
Baseball bashes in OVC
For the first time since 2010, the Murray State Racers were back into the OVC Tournament -- thanks to some excellent, consistent offense from the club and a 15-15 record in league play.
As a squad, the team hit .302 with six players (Brandon Gutzler, Jack Hranec, Davis Sims, Tyler Lawrence, Ryan Perkins, Kipp Moore) belting 10 or more home runs. MSU finished with 84 dingers on the season, which also serves as a program record.
Lawrence -- Murray State's stalwart catcher -- finished his career as the Racers' all-time leader in career hits (266), RBI (189), doubles (59), total bases (432), games played (222) and at-bats (843).
Fireball reliever Derrik Watson wound up being drafted by the Colorado Rockies following the year, while Moore (Philadelphia Phillies) and Lawrence (Milwaukee Brewers) both signed professional contracts.
Perkins and Sims were both named Freshman All-Americas by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, while Gutzler -- who finished with the second-most homers (16) and RBIs (70) in single-season Racer history -- was named Second Team All-America by the National Baseball Writers Association.
Racer men's basketball
looking to rebound
Murray State men's basketball saw the end of a 29-year stretch of above .500 basketball -- where the Racers finished 16-17 overall and 8-8 in OVC regular-season play after a tough two-possession defeat to UT Martin in the league semifinals at Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
In fact, the Racers wound up being 3-11 in games decided by two possessions or less, and just 1-4 in overtime games -- the lone victory coming in an 85-84 double-overtime win over Tennessee Tech in the opening round of the OVC Tournament.
It was there that then-junior and Tulane transfer Jonathan Stark cemented his budding legacy at MSU -- going 15-for-40 and 6-for-12 from the arc for 41 points, seven rebounds, three steals and just two turnovers. His game-winning triple in the second overtime kept MSU's teetering season alive, where the Racers surprised Morehead State before eventually falling to the Skyhawks.
Returning for the Racers for the 2017-18 season was Stark and another all-conference player in stretch-four Terrell Miller, combining for one of the top-scoring duos in the nation.
Already MSU looks like a team out for blood -- today owning a 10-3 record and a 2-0 start in league play.
A strong freshman class has been quickly headed by point guard Ja Morant, who logged just the second triple-double in school history in last Thursday's 80-52 thumping of Eastern Illinois. The Dalzell, South Carolina, was averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest just 12 games into his young career.
This season's schedule also had a swift surprise, as Auburn became just the second SEC school in history to play the Racers in Murray.
More than 6,500 fans were on hand to watch as the Tigers and MSU battled for 40 minutes -- and Bruce Pearl's club barely came out on top with an 81-77 victory at the CFSB Center. The last time more than 6,500 had been in the CFSB Center? When four-year seniors and beloved stars Isaiah Canaan and Ed Daniel played Southeast Missouri State in their final home game of their careers at the conclusion of the 2012-13 regular season.
Gutted by the graduation of three-time OVC Player of the Year Scottie Ingram and a host of talent surrounding her in Hannah Stultz, Ellie Lorenz and Kristen Besselsen, the 2017 Murray State volleyball team wasn't expected to contend for a conference title -- picked fourth by league constituents when the season began.
Respectable? Sure. What the Racers had in mind? Not exactly.
Led by lone senior Olivia Chatman and a young, maturing core, MSU marched to a 22-9 record and 12-4 finish in OVC play -- falling just shy of a third title in four years after tripping up to Austin Peay in the OVC Championship 3-2 (25-21, 23-25, 25-20, 21-25, 10-15).
Returning for MSU head coach Dave Schwepker includes Rachel Giustino (469 kills, 381 digs, 33 aces), Dacia Brown (259 kills, 96 digs), Rachel Holthaus (242 kills, 210 digs), Katirah Johnson (151 kills, 13 blocks, 42 blocking assists), Courtney Radle (114 kills, 331 assists, 94 digs), Callie Anderton (639 assists, 150 digs), Ashley McBee (338 assists, 110 digs), Becca Fernandez (501 digs, 40 service aces) and Alex Kaufmann (401 digs, 39 service aces).
The "Rachels" -- Giustino and Holthaus -- were named First Team All-OVC, while Johnson earned the conference's coveted "Freshman of the Year" award.
Wade, Gandy have strong senior campaigns
Murray State football might've finished 3-8 overall and 2-5 in OVC play, but it wasn't from a lack of effort -- particularly from two seniors in defensive back D'Montre Wade and wide receiver Jordon Gandy.
Wade -- a Columbia, Tennessee, native -- became Murray State's 43rd All-American with an otherworldly performance defensively, finishing with an OVC-leading six interceptions and 13 passes defended.
For his career, he finished with 10 interceptions and 35 deflections, and because of his efforts received a prestigious invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl -- scheduled for Jan. 27, 2018, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. Wade has been mentioned in several NFL mock drafts as a potential nickel corner with high upside who could potentially be selected in one of the Day Two rounds.
Gandy, meanwhile, accounted for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns on 65 catches -- good enough for the Biloxi, Mississippi, native to earn All-OVC honors for a second-straight season alongside Wade.
For his offensive prowess, Gandy earned an invitation to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, which takes place on Jan. 20, 2018, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The bowl serves as one of the big three collegiate launching pads before the NFL Draft each year.
Receivers Marcus "Soup" Harris and Walter Powell are the only other Racers to have been picked to play in the contest.
Milkman, Racers do it again
MSU women's golf followed up a strong fall in 2016 by winning a school-record six events and a 10th OVC Championship -- led by two-time OVC Golfer of the Year Moa Folke, All-OVC pick Linette Holmslykke, OVC Freshman of the Year Lucila Puente Rodriguez de Austria, Hoptown native Anna Moore and Malaysian sensation Raeysha Surendran.
Folke earned medalist honors at the championship for a second-straight season -- firing a 73-66-69-208 to best EKU's Elsa Moberly by three strokes. Folke's Day 2 66 was the lowest round posted by any OVC player all year.
The Racers also teamed up for an OVC record low at the league's championship with a 286-290-290-866. The opening-round 286 is the best team round in OVC Tournament history, as well.
Folke (73.9, 2nd), Puente (74.3, 4th) and Holmslykke (74.4, 5th) finished in the top five of the conference in scoring average, while Jane Watts (77.1, 17th), Moore (77.2, 18th), Surendran (77.5, 21st) and Syndey Kelley (78.2, 25th) also finished in the top 25 in the league.
And in 36 recorded rounds, the Racers finished with the league's best scoring average (297.6) -- capping one of the more dominant seasons in school history.
Already winners of the Chris Banister Classic (Gadsden, Alabama) and the Fred Marx Invitational (Monroe, Louisiana) this fall, the Racers are out to try and repeat as OVC Champions in 2018.
Softball stellar in '17
In what was the most successful Murray State softball season to date, head coach Kara Amundson and her Racers accepted their first postseason bid in school history to play in the National Invitational Softball Championship at regional site Illinois State (Normal, Illinois).
The postseason bid came after a tough exit in the OVC Tournament, where the Racers had fallen to No. 4 seeded Eastern Illinois (6-5) and No. 8 seeded Belmont (5-1) -- but had posted a top-75 RPI.
MSU finished 36-20 and 11-7 in league play, thanks in no small part to a strong offense led by two-time OVC Player of the Year and first-ever MSU softball All-American Jessica Twaddle (.390, 14 HR, 13 2Bs, 46 RBIs, 46 R), freshman third baseman Brenna Finck (.380, 20 RBIs, six 3Bs, four 2Bs, three HR) and the now-transferred Kaylee Ranburger (.348, 62 hits).
All-OVC Second Team pitcher Mason Robinson finished with stellar numbers in her final season -- going 23-9 with 116 strikeouts and just 39 walks. She had seven shutouts, held hitters to a .238 average and wound up with a 2.28 ERA by season's end.
Murray State's biggest moment of the season, however, came in the opening round of the NISC. The Racers wiped out a two-run deficit against Michigan State in the bottom of the seventh inning, then got the winning run in the bottom of the ninth to take out Sparty 7-6. Twaddle, fittingly, scored the game's winning run -- sliding in safe at home on a wild pitch.
The Racers have used their end-of-season stretch to their advantage. With her 2018 recruiting class in for the fall semester, Amundson and MSU went 8-0 in fall ball -- with wins over Saint Louis, Southern Illinois and a two-game sweep of Evansville.
Racer rifle hones
in on 12th title
Another season for head coach Alan Lollar, and another title for the gunsmiths at Murray State. The Racers defended their 2016 OVC championship with another one this past year -- outgunning the competition with a 4,690 composite score at the Button Rifle Range in Morehead.
Ivan Roe was named OVC Smallbore Athlete of the Year, Alathea Sellars was named the OVC Air Rifle Athlete of the Year, Meike Drewell was tabbed as OVC Co-Freshman of the Year and Lollar earned the nod as OVC Coach of the Year for the fifth time in his illustrious career.
Murray State's postseason success followed into the NCAA Tournament, where the Racers captured a third-place finish for a second-straight season. Only West Virginia and Texas Christian bested MSU's strong year.
Roe, MacKenzie Martin, Ben Estes, Robert Broadstreet, Sellars, Barbara Schlapfer and Drewell were all named All-Americans following the season's conclusion.
This fall, the Racers have lost only to West Virginia and TCU, but are trying to close the gap for a potential shot at a national championship.
Brimlett, Lawrence bolt
Then sophomore hurdler Jabreuna Brimlett nearly made it to Eugene, Oregon, for the NCAA Track and Field Championships this past season -- setting a school record in the 100 meters with a 13.30 seconds dash in the NCAA D-I Outdoor East Regional at the University of Kentucky.
She just missed out on the cut for the final 12 contestants, getting edged by Syracuse's Tia Thevenin by three-hundredths of a second.
Fellow sophomore Tamdra Lawrence also qualified in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, but didn't advance to the finals.
Hopkinsville native Austin Knight garnered the MSU men's golf lone postseason accolade for 2016-17 after earning a nod on the league's All-OVC Newcomer Team.
Entering the 2017 OVC Tournament, Knight was 17th in the OVC in scoring average (74.4) and had two top-five finishes while leading the Racers with 11 rounds of par or better.
MSU was able to manage a fifth-place finish in the OVC Tournament at the Shoals Golf Club in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the Racers have started off the 2017-18 campaign nicely.
Knight earned his first individualist medal on Oct. 17 -- finishing first in at the Austin Peay Intercollegiate at GreyStone Golf Club in Dickson, Tennessee, with a 73-67-70-210.
And as a team, the Racers have already picked up two second-place finishes, while opening the fall by winning their home tournament -- the MSU Invitational -- by six strokes over OVC nemesis UT Martin.
Women's tennis qualified for the 2017 OVC Tournament on the final day of the regular season -- topping Eastern Kentucky 4-3 on April 15 to finish 11-7 and 4-3 in league play.
Now a team with five sophomores (Sara Bjork, Claire Chang, Anja Loncarevic, Sara Loncarevic and Mesa Trimm) and three juniors (Amina Hadzic, Jeanne Masson and Hannah Rikard), MSU head coach Jorge Caetano and assistant Mel Purcell were able to wrap their offseason with a top-25 recruiting class that saw pickups of Aarja Chakraborty (India) and Stasya Sharapova (Kazakhstan) as part of the fold.