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ETSU softball team misses A-Sun tourney again

April 30th, 2014 7:20 pm by Kelly Hodge

East Tennessee State softball coach Brad Irwin had hoped to be focused on winning conference championships by now.

Instead, he’s still trying to figure out a way to get his team into the tournament.

The Bucs will miss out on the Atlantic Sun Conference playoffs for the fifth straight year. The last four have come under Irwin, who hasn’t been able to put all the pieces together since coming to ETSU after serving as the top assistant at Chattanooga.

“We’re definitely not where we expected to be; there’s no denying that,” Irwin said Wednesday. “It’s a lot slower process than I would have hoped for. This year it seems like we take a step forward one weekend and a step back the next one.”

It all adds up to a 20-29 overall record, and 7-15 in the conference. That’s good for ninth place, ahead of only Northern Kentucky, as the Bucs prepare to finish the regular season at home this weekend against USC Upstate.

The Spartans are 19-2 in the league and ranked 23rd nationally.

Irwin says he’s seen enough glimpses of promise this season to stay encouraged about the future. It’s just been another rocky road in conference.

The Bucs have won only one A-Sun series – a sweep of Northern Kentucky – and will lose at least 30 games overall for the 11th time in the program’s 14-year history. They have posted just one winning season, 28-26 in 2003.

“This year there have been a lot of games where we started four or five freshmen,” said Irwin. “They’ve shown some positives at times, and had that deer-in-the-headlights look at other times. We’ve gotten a lot of production from two seniors that we’ve got to replace (Jackie Baird and Katie Wolff), but I like the incoming class we’ll have next year.

“We’re going to keep working at it.”

Baird, a catcher and third baseman from Ooltewah, has set school records for home runs in a season (20) and career (33). Wolfe, a pitcher and first baseman from LaGrange, Texas, leads the team with a .388 batting average.

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Maybe the fourth time will be the charm for the women’s golf team.

The Lady Bucs will try to earn their first NCAA tournament berth when they play in the East Regional next weekend in Tallahassee, Fla. Only the top eight in the 24-team field advance.

“In the past when we’ve made regionals, we looked at the list of schools and it was overwhelming,” coach Stefanie Shelton said Wednesday. “It’s not that way this time. We’ve seen a bunch of these teams, and we’re aware that a lot of them can be very streaky. There’s a familiarity that should help us.”

The Lady Bucs are ranked 44th out of 265 programs, their highest ever. They are seeded 15th in the regional, which runs May 8-10 at Southwood Golf Club.

“I’m just starting to do some research on the golf course,” said Shelton. “We played a lot of tournaments on Bermuda grass this spring, which I assume is what we’ll see down there. The girls are comfortable in those conditions.

“Of course, our sophomore who won the conference tournament, Vivienne Chin, is our shortest player. There were par-4s that were unreachable for her at conference. She’d hit a driver and a 3-wood and still have to wedge it up there. It was interesting to watch.”

Shelton said one of the keys to the team’s success has been Linda Dobele. The freshman from Latvia didn’t join the team until spring semester and came on to finish seventh at the A-Sun tournament.

“We’ve been working with her constantly,” said Shelton. “She’s a very young player, but she has stepped up tremendously.”

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There have been some outstanding performers in track and field this spring, none more so than Brett Squibbs.

The redshirt freshman from Rock Hill, S.C., has raised the pole vault record at ETSU to an outdoor level of 17-06. Continuing a trend that began indoors, it seems like Squibbs gets better with each meet.

“First of all, he’s just a student of the event. He lives for it,” said coach George Watts. “Brett picks things up so quickly, and obviously being in a college setting has helped him improve quite a bit. He has good facilities and gets a chance to vault every week against good competition.”

Watts said Squibbs’ father is a pole vault coach, which has laid the groundwork for his rise in a very technical event. ETSU jumps coach DJ Johnston has also been a major influence in refining technique. The results have been telling.

“Almost every week he’s been tying or breaking his own record,” said Watts. “When he cleared 17 feet for the first time, that was a big barrier, and I think he has a couple more bars left in him.”

Squibbs has already qualified for the first round of NCAA competition, which will include 48 pole vaulters. The top 12 move on to the national championships in Eugene, Ore.

The Bucs finish out the regular season this weekend at the Tennessee Challenge in Knoxville. The conference championships are May 17-18 in Jacksonville, and NCAA first-round competition will also be held there from May 29-31.

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Sarah Zadrazil continues to get a good feel for international soccer at its highest level.

The sophomore from Austria returned home earlier this month to play for her national team in a couple of World Cup qualifiers. She started both matches – a 6-1 victory over Bulgaria and 3-1 loss to France, the world’s fourth-ranked women’s team – but didn’t score.

Zadrazil, the reigning Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year, previously played four matches in the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March.

“She’s literally playing at the top end of international football,” said ETSU coach Adam Sayers. “She’s playing with and against the best players in the world, and with and against the best teams in the world. It’s invaluable experience that very few players will ever get to do.

“We’re really proud of Sarah, not only for performing that well on the field but doing a great job overall in the classroom. That allows her to do the amount of traveling that it takes for these international competitions.”

Zadrazil has collected 21 assists and 12 goals in her two seasons at ETSU. That ranks second and ninth, respectively, on the school’s all-time list.

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Kevin Tiggs, the former ETSU star, was recently named Sixth Man of the Year in Australia’s National Basketball League.

Tiggs plays for the Woolongong Hawks and was their second-leading scorer behind Rotnei Clarke, who was named league MVP. Clarke starred at Arkansas — and lost to Tiggs and the Bucs in Fayetteville in 2009.

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