June 18, 2014
CINCINNATI - On July 1, 2013, Cincinnati's Fountain Square became Cintas Center-south for a lunch-time pep rally. Xavier coaches and student-athletes hosted demonstrations, played games and took pictures with fans as Xavier Nation celebrated its official entrance into the BIG EAST Conference. "Xavier Day," as proclaimed by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, continued into the evening as the party moved to the riverfront where the Cincinnati Reds hosted Xavier Night at Great American Ball Park.
The change in conference marked not only new branding and opponents, but a step forward for Xavier Athletics. Joining the BIG EAST put Xavier on a larger national stage and gave the school an opportunity to align with high-profile schools operating with similar goals in mind.
"You look at the mess that has been college athletics the last two-to-three years, and this is the one conference that makes tremendous sense," said Xavier Athletic Director Greg Christopher of the move to the BIG EAST. "You have 10 schools that have common ideology and the same values."
As a member of the BIG EAST Conference, which doesn't sponsor football, Xavier had an opportunity compete against traditional basketball powers like Villanova and Georgetown on an annual basis. Beyond basketball, Xavier Athletics now had the chance to raise the bar for athletics across the board. Entering the fall of 2013, the question on the minds of many Xavier coaches, student-athletes and fans was "How quickly can we compete in a major conference?"
After a year of BIG EAST membership, Xavier Nation has its answer: Immediately.
The evidence began to pile up almost instantaneously. On September 11, Abby Fischer earned the school's first BIG EAST honor, being named BIG EAST cross country Female Athlete of the Week after a dominating performance at the Queen City Invitational.
Xavier Volleyball collected the school's first BIG EAST victory over Butler on September 27. A tidal wave of BIG EAST victories followed, with men's soccer notching its first against DePaul on Oct. 9. A few days later women's soccer collected its first BIG EAST victory over Seton Hall, 2-1, on the same night the men's team knocked off No. 4/9 Georgetown, 2-1.
Men's soccer player Nick Hagglund collected Xavier's first major individual BIG EAST award, named BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being named First Team All-BIG EAST before he was selected tenth in the MLS Superdraft by Toronto FC, where he's broken into the starting lineup.
Xavier Volleyball added to the post-season honors after finishing second in the conference with three first team All-BIG EAST and AVCA All-America Honorable Mention selections: redshirt senior Alex Smith, junior Aubree Smith and freshman Abbey Bessler.
New standards were set at Xavier, even beyond conference competition. Clare Fischer set a new bar for Xavier cross country, becoming the first Musketeer to participate in the NCAA Cross Country Championship finals.
After a successful non-conference season, including convincing wins against Tennessee and crosstown-rival Cincinnati, the men's basketball team primed Xavier to carry its success into the new year by collecting a BIG EAST win in its first try, a 70-60 New Year's Eve victory over St. John's. The women's team, which had wins against Michigan and Kansas during the non-conference, bridged Xavier's success into 2014 with its own 70-65 victory over the Red Storm in early January.
The ripples Xavier made in the BIG EAST during the fall sports season became full-fledged waves going into the spring. Women's tennis earned its first BIG EAST victory against Butler, with help from Sydney Liggins, who was named BIG EAST Rookie of the Year for women's tennis. The track and field team topped off a successful indoor season with three athletes being named to the All-BIG EAST Indoor team, including Craig Krcal, winner of the 2014 BIG EAST Indoor Championship in Pole Vault.
Men's swimming announced its entry into the BIG EAST, not with a dive, but with a cannonball. At the BIG EAST Championships in February, Xavier climbed out of the 88-point hole it found itself in after not competing in the diving portion of the event. By the end of the first full day of competition, the Musketeers had overtaken the other teams, building a 60-point cushion and never looking back.
At the BIG EAST Championships, men's swimming earned not only the first conference title in program history, but the first BIG EAST team title in school history for any sport. Senior Chad Thompson, who collected six gold medals during the conference championship meet, was named BIG EAST Most Outstanding Performer and Head Coach Brent MacDonald earned the title of BIG EAST Men's Coach of the Year.
"This is a great big step for our program and shows our dedication to excellence both in the classroom and in the pool," said MacDonald. "We're very fortunate to get to where we were, but glad that we were able to make our mark historically and be a part of something big."
Xavier demanded respect in the conference's premier sport as well. To kick off the madness of March, the Musketeers' men's basketball team knocked off No. 9/10 Creighton in the Cintas Center, led by 21 points from Semaj Christon, who was unanimously voted first team All-BIG EAST at season's end. Xavier finished tied for third in the BIG EAST in its first season, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Xavier's last BIG EAST stand of the 2013-14 season might have been its most dramatic. After an extra-innings loss to Creighton on Senior Day, Xavier Baseball's season appeared to be over, but a Villanova win over Butler kept Xavier's postseason hopes afloat, giving the Musketeers the final spot in the BIG EAST Championship in Brooklyn which was televised live on FOX Sports 1.
After falling to Creighton in the first game of the BIG EAST tournament, Xavier came back to defeat St. John's and Seton Hall to earn a rematch against Creighton in the Championship game. In the fifth matchup in 10 days between the two schools, freshman Trent Astle pitched a complete-game shutout, to get the 5-0 victory. The win not only earned the Musketeers the title of BIG EAST Champions, but also earned the school a berth into the NCAA Baseball Tournament.
The team celebrated its unlikely surge into the NCAA Tournament with a quick dip in the chilly Atlantic Ocean before returning home to learn it would travel to Nashville to face host-team Vanderbilt. After falling to the Commodores in the first game of the weekend, Xavier collected the program's second-ever win in the NCAA tournament, a 6-4 victory over Clemson, before an extra-innings loss to Oregon ended its Cinderella post-season run.
Xavier capped off its outstanding 2013-14 athletic year when track and field athletes Abby Fischer and Tom Ohlman competed in the NCAA Outdoor East Regionals. Fisher finished the 10,000m run in 35:08.98 to complete her standout Xavier career. Ohlman solidified his standing as one of the best runners in Xavier history, finishing the 3000m steeplechase in a time of 9:12.90.
In addition to the two BIG EAST team titles and multiple NCAA Championships appearances, Xavier student-athletes earned 31 weekly awards from the BIG EAST. Xavier had 50 All-BIG EAST performers across its rosters in its first season in the conference, as well as a BIG EAST Conference Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Performer and Coach of the Year.
The Musketeers distinguished themselves off the field as well. Men's Tennis senior Jimmy Roebker earned the BIG EAST Michael Tranghese Postgraduate Leadership Award. The award is given to two BIG EAST athletes, one male and one female, who have been admitted to a degree-granting or professional program for the following year and who have demonstrated leadership through excellence in academic credentials, athletic performance and depth of commitment to service within the institution or the community.
Xavier Athletics also continued to be a standard-bearer in the Academic Performance Rating (APR), not just in the BIG EAST but throughout the NCAA. Four teams, men's tennis, women's golf, women's tennis and volleyball, posted perfect APR scores, marking multiple consecutive years of perfect 1000s for each program. Additionally, those four teams as well as the baseball team earned the APR Public Recognition Award for being in the top 10% of their respective sports. Xavier also posted a score of 97% for the Graduate Success Rate (GSR) which uses a six-year time frame to measure graduation rates of student-athletes. Xavier's GSR ranks first in the BIG EAST and is tied for 12th in the nation.
The Musketeers look to make an even greater impact on their new home in the coming years. No longer just testing the waters, Xavier Athletics moves towards its second season in the BIG EAST confident in its ability to perform at the level needed to win championships.