By Jim O'Hara
ROME--Optimism has always been a trait that Shorter Director of Athletics Bill Peterson is blessed with.
Yet the men and women student-athletes who represented the university during the 2012-13 competition year, one in which Shorter’s athletic programs faced so many challenges, went far beyond Peterson’s own positive expectations.
National championships, All-Americans, academic honors – the accomplishments came one after the other throughout the fall, winter and spring seasons during the year that marked Shorter’s historic debut competing as an NCAA Division II program.
“There’s no question that this year exceeded our expectations,” Peterson said as he looked back at what the Hawks and Lady Hawks did this past year. “You can’t look back, see what the athletes and coaches did and not be excited.”
Certainly, Peterson and everyone associated with Shorter athletics knew that there were numerous hurdles ahead of them as the program entered its second of a three-year transition period.
In addition to having to compete with a full Division II schedule, it would have to be done knowing that because of the changeover process the teams would not be allowed to advance to NCAA postseason events both nationally and within the rugged Gulf South Conference nor could the athletes earn individual athletic honors.
Yet the athletes and coaches made the most of what was available to them, proving they are to be reckoned with within the GSC – each respective season ended with Shorter’s name appearing in the upper echelon of a sport’s standings – and emerging as a contender as the top institution in their inaugural year as a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association, with the men’s basketball team and the women’s indoor track team each winning NCCAA national championships.
The bar was quickly set thanks to an impressive start by Shorter’s fall teams, the most remarkable achievement coming during the high-profile football season.
Not only did the Hawks cap their first outing on the Division II level with a winning 6-5 record, they did it within the nation’s toughest conferences – the Gulf South, which produced the 2012 national champion in Valdosta State and marks the 11th time a conference team has won it all. Significant at the end of the season were back-to-back wins over GSC foes West Georgia and former national titleholder Delta State.
“That was unbelievable. I don’t think anybody expected us to do that,” Peterson said about the football Hawks that saw senior linebacker standout Demery Hawkins become Shorter’s first football NCCAA All-American.
Shorter’s volleyball team turned some heads within the conference as well as the Lady Hawks finished second in the final standings that would have qualified them for GSC tournament, but still extended their season being a part of the NCCAA postseason where Shorter won a South Region crown and came within one win of collecting a national championship. Three Lady Hawks emerged with NCCAA All-American honors: Jordan Corder, Jasmine Crook and Leslie Welch.
Cross country runners Daniel Sorenson and Shea Spicher gave Shorter its first GSC individual championships as the pair led the field at the conference meet, and joined their teammates to represent the university at the NCCAA national meet.
Rounding out the fall surge were a pair of third place finishes at the NCCAA national golf tournament by the Hawks and Lady Hawks, women’s soccer putting together a year that would have qualified them for GSC tournament and the performance of men’s soccer that embraced the determination to win under first-year head coach Paulo Neto.
Having seen how their athletic counterparts did in the fall, Shorter’s winter teams understood that they were tasked with maintaining the momentum.
Although more or less in postseason limbo – in addition to not being able to compete in the NCAA tournament there is no NCCAA championship for the sport – the Shorter wresting team still emerged as the best program in the Peach State as the Hawks captured the inaugural Georgia Intercollegiate Championships title.
On the basketball court, Shorter’s Lady Hawks became a factor in the GSC by posting a fourth-place finish with a winning record, then made the most of the NCCAA door open to them as they opened the postseason winning the South Region championship and took fifth place at the NCCAA national tournament where standout Karisma Boykin was recognized as an NCCAA All-American.
Then there’s the way the men’s basketball team and the women’s indoor track team wrapped up the winter sports season by bringing home NCCAA national titles.
The Hawks, who finished fourth in the GSC and up until the final weeks were first-place contenders, first collected the NCCAA South Region crown and the national title in a thriller that saw them come-from-behind and win the championship in an overtime thriller.
Just how good the team was became evident when head coach Chad Warner was named Georgia Basketball Coaches Association Division II Coach of the Year, Anthony Banks earned NCCAA All-American recognition, Banks and Walter Hill were GBCA All-State picks and Dedric Ware was named the GBCA Newcomer of the Year.
On the indoor track oval, the Lady Hawks emerged as the best NCCAA team in the nation when they secured their first national championship with three athletes leading the way. Sophomore Ayana Walker was part of four national championship performances, junior Lakeisha Spikes had a hand in three and junior Shea Spicher posted a clutch national championship effort in the 3,000 meters.
“What a great year all of these teams had,” said Peterson.
So did Shorter’s spring athletes.
Picking up where they left off on the indoor track, the Lady Hawks kept up the pace on the outdoor circuit and were joined by the men in reaping honors, all of it coming in a year when more than a dozen standouts were red-shirted during Shorter’s transition phase.
On the national scene, Shorter’s women made a run at another title before settling for runner-up honors while the Hawks turned in a solid eighth-place finish at the NCCAA national meet where both teams saw more than a dozen athletes claim All-American status.
That came on the heels of the Lady Hawks’ and Hawks’ respective third- and fourth-place outings at the Peach Belt Conference Championship that Shorter hosted at Barron Stadium. Spikes was named the GSC’s co-Female Athlete of the Year and Micah Reed was selected as the conference’s Male Freshman of the Year.
Having captured the NAIA national title in 2012, Shorter’s softball team understood that the pressure was on for them to turn in the same kind of success, and the Lady Hawks responded by putting together a 46-11 record and emerging with the best record in the GSC that boasted defending Division II national champion Valdosta State.
In the NCCAA postseason, the Lady Hawks didn’t disappoint there as well as they rolled to the South Region crown and claimed national runner-up honors, plus became the program that produced the most NCCAA All-Americans in Felicia Morris, Christina Ezell, Maddie Bray and Jackie Castanada.
Shorter’s golfers made a statement at the GSC Championship with the Lady Hawks finishing third and the Hawks seventh; the Hawks baseball team earning a berth in the NCCAA South Region tournament; and the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams – neither had postseason paths open to them – holding their own with the Lady Hawks boasting an 11-5 record in their final year as a member of the National Women’s Lacrosse League and seeing Desiree Watson-Isom and Avery Armstrong claim All-NWLL honors, and the Hawks closing out the season winning their last five games.
“As well as we did in athletics,” Peterson was quick to point out, “it was a really, really good year from the academic perspective as well.”
Indeed it was as nearly 150 of Shorter’s student-athletes were named to the Gulf South Conference Academic Honor Roll thanks to their success in the classroom where they maintained a 3.0 or better grade point average during their respective seasons.
Peterson also noted that Shorter is also finishing up the year as one of the top teams in contention for the NCCAA President’s Cup that is given to the institution that has had the most success throughout the year.
However, it is the future that has given Peterson more reason to be optimistic.
Next year, Shorter will host the NCCAA’s Victory Bowl at Barron Stadium in November, a clash that pits the top two football teams against each other, and the NCCAA Outdoor Track and Field National Championship that will bring more than 1,000 athletes to Rome.
Of even greater importance next year is the fact that it will mark the third and final year of Shorter’s transition process toward becoming full NCAA member.
Once the university completes the 2013-14 calendar campaign as an NCAA provisional member, operating in full compliance with NCAA Division II legislation, Shorter will be eligible to become an active Division II member on Sept. 1, 2014.
And Peterson knows that those who are part of Shorter’s program are even more committed to making that happen – with more successes.
“They all have an understanding of what it takes to be the best in Division II, the Gulf South and the
NCCAA, including the importance of recruiting,” Peterson said, “and they are determined to make that happen.
“As I look at it, I believe everyone – all the coaches, the athletes, the department staff – feel they are part of a program that is on the rise and that’s a great place to be.”