Friday, April 9, 2021

Young, unbeaten Paladins aim for SoCon title

Furman's Isabella Gutierrez has been selected as the Southern Conference
women's soccer Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the Furman women's soccer team, the wait was worth it. After having its fall season and it's scheduled new spring season opener both cancelled due to COVID concerns outside of its program, the Paladins opened the season on March 5 by diving right into Southern Conference play against Mercer.

Playing a game that counts for the first time in 480 days, Coach Andrew Burr's young squad persevered with a 2-1 double overtime win. That victory set the tone for the season as Furman reeled off four consecutive shutout wins on its way to a 6-0-2 record and a No. 2 seed for the SoCon Tournament. The Paladins will host third-seeded Chattanooga in the SoCon semifinals on Saturday at 7 p.m. Saturday's winner will play at top-seeded Samford, which defeated fourth-seeded Mercer 6-1 in Friday's semifinal, in next weekend's championship.

"When you go 480 days without playing a game, the team and coaching staff realizes it's a privilege and a blessing to get to play. We've kind of got a renewed sense of excitement for the sport," said Burr, the SoCon's all-time winningest women's soccer coach. "I think part of our success this year was that we just enjoyed getting to play soccer again. ... Furman athletics in general, with Elaine Baker in sports medicine, has done an unbelievable job in keeping 300-plus student-athletes healthy and safe. 

"We have five freshman in the starting lineup, so we're a very young team that we've tried to get up to speed quickly. Not having a full season, we've had to ask our freshmen to really mature quickly and they've done great."

While the Paladins are a young team, they have a veteran leader in junior Isabella Gutierrez. On Thursday, Gutierrez became the seventh different Paladin to earn SoCon Player of the Year honors during the women's soccer program's 27-year history. The Statesboro, Ga. native had four goals and two assists this season, including the lone goals in 1-0 wins over The Citadel and UNCG.

"Bella's been our most consistent performer all year and she's a soccer junkie," Burr said. "She's a perfect fit for Furman University. She excels in the classroom, on the field, and just excels in life. She's a great representative of our program."

Gutierrez wasn't the only Paladin to earn a league award Thursday as Nieva Gaither collected SoCon Freshman of the Year honors. The three-time Georgia Player of the Year at Parkview High had two goals and four assists this season. She had the game-winning goal at VMI and the lone goal of Furman's 1-1 double overtime tie with Samford. Gaither is the 10th Paladin to earn the honor of being named the SoCon's top freshman.

Joining Gutierrez on the All-SoCon first team was freshman Miya Poplin and 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Jasmine Greene. Joining Gaither on the second team was junior Faith Hauberg. Gaither, Poplin and goalkeeper Addison Corn represented Furman on the All-Freshman team.

Corn has an 0.56 goals against average and a 3-0-1 record. She's split time with sophomore Nora Sampson, who has an 0.31 goals against average and also a 3-0-1 record. Corn has allowed just three goals in 486 minutes this season, while Sampson has given up just one in 290.

"It's been a great battle for that starting goalkeeping spot," Burr said. "It's been good for Addison to learn from Nora, but they're both very talented."

While there's plenty of motivation as Furman shoots for its seventh SoCon Tournament title and an eighth NCAA Tournament bid, there's a little extra this season. The Paladins were in first place in the SoCon from the start of the season and had the inside track to the top seed. That all changed with the postponement and then cancellation of Furman's scheduled match at ETSU on March 28.

That match was postponed due to rain and wet field conditions. The Paladins proposed to play the match the following day, just as Wofford and Western Carolina decided to do on the same day, but the Bucs refused and the match was rescheduled for April 6. On March 31, ETSU pulled the plug on its season due to opt-outs and injuries that left the program below the SoCon's recommended guidelines at a key position.

The Bucs (1-6-1, 1-4-1), coached by Jay Yelton, have a 2-14 record all-time against Furman. The cancellation meant that the Paladins would not have a chance to catch Samford (7-1-3, 7-0-2), coached by Yelton's brother Todd, in the SoCon standings.

In addition to missing out on a chance to share the SoCon regular season title, Furman also missed out on the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the SoCon Tournament. Had the Paladins and Samford each finished 7-0-2 in league play, Furman would've gotten the top seed via tiebreaker. The teams tied in their head-to-head meeting, but the Paladins beat third-place Chattanooga while Samford's game against the Mocs ended in a tie.

If Furman had won what turned out to be its last game of the regular season against Wofford, which ended in a tie, the Paladins would've gone 7-0-1 in league play and had a higher winning percentage than Samford. However, Furman still would not have gotten the top seed as the SoCon implemented a points system this year that awarded three points for a win and one for a tie.

"We were No. 1 in the conference and ranked 23rd (in RPI) in the country at the time of the opt-out," Burr said. "Unfortunately in a no-contest, there's no access to points so we went from first place to second place without playing a game.

"That was certainly unfortunate, but it's also the crazy year of COVID. ... It certainly doesn't hurt with a motivation factor. We're just excited to still be playing."

Furman would love a rematch with Samford, which is the last team to hand the Paladins a loss. That came in the 2019 SoCon Tournament championship, where the Paladins fell 1-0.

Before another showdown next weekend at Samford for the championship, Furman must first take care of business against a Chattanooga team that has enjoyed its best season ever at 7-2-1 overall and 6-2-1 in . While the Paladins improved to 27-0 all-time in the series with a 2-0 win over the Mocs in the regular season, Burr knows this will be a challenge.

"They've really done a great job. Coach Gavin (McKinney) has recruited some big-time players and turned that program around," Burr said. "They have some international kids that are very skillful players with very high soccer IQs. ... It's going to be a tough match for us on Saturday."

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Furman men's soccer seeks NCAA tourney bid

Furman senior Ben Hale became the first Southern Conference player ever to win Player
of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year honors Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman men's soccer team put in a lot of work on their home field on Fridays in the fall. That work has helped it have the chance to play there again this Friday. That's when the top-seeded Paladins host No. 4 seed Belmont at 6 p.m. in the semifinals of the Southern Conference Tournament.

There was plenty of uncertainty when Furman opened fall practice on Aug. 10. Three days later, that uncertainty went away as did the season when the SoCon postponed all fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a roster that includes six players from England, one from Wales and another from Iceland, there were plenty of virtual team meetings via Zoom but also plenty of soccer.

"We tried to have like Friday night lights every other week where we'd at least play games against each other, but then we got sick of playing against each other by the end of the fall," Furman coach Doug Allison said. "The guys came back in the spring pretty hungry. Our British guys hadn't had a haircut in five weeks, so they came back to America and got haircuts.

"It was nice and fresh to come back and play this spring, but it's also really bizarre. The ability to adjust has been the key for us. We're just lucky every day to be training and playing and be around each other every day. We don't take that for granted."

That work paid off when the spring season arrived. After an exhibition win over UNC-Asheville, the Paladins opened the regular season in grand style with a 3-0 win over South Carolina. Allison couldn't ask for a better momentum boost to take into the league schedule.

Furman (7-1-1, 5-0-1) opened SoCon play with a double-overtime win at ETSU, an overtime win at UNCG and a double overtime win over Mercer. The Paladins clinched their league-best 21st SoCon title with a 3-0 win on a windy, wet day at Belmont on March 30.

"After the fall, we were just so happy to play someone else. ... To beat a big name and a power-five school gave us a lot of confidence, but I told them that I could see that we will have to work hard to win anything," Allison said. "We're not just going to show up and win. The work rate of our kids has been unbelievable this year."

After an eight-year regular season title drought following the 2010 season, this year's team made it back-to-back crowns for the program with the most in SoCon history. On Thursday, Allison earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors for the second consecutive season. The league's all-time winningest coach (316 career wins) has earned the award nine times.

Allison's honor was part of a historic sweep of the SoCon hardware. Since the Goalkeeper of the Year award was created in 2014, no one had ever won both Player and Goalkeeper of the Year - until Thursday. Furman senior Ben Hale earned both awards after leading the SoCon with an .850 save percentage and an 0.73 goals against average. Hale allowed only six goals all season and had four of Furman's six shutouts.

"Hale has worked and worked and worked to rehab (an injury from 2019) and is absolutely back to his best," Allison said. "We ask our goalkeepers to keep us in games. We've had four overtime games in conference and he's kept us in them completely and given us a chance to win."

Forward Jake Raine, of Stoke, England, was co-Freshman of the Year in the league. Raine leads the Paladins with 11 points (five goals, one assist), including three game-winning goals. A league-high six Furman players made the first team. In addition to Hale and Raine, forward Shaun-Chris Joash (five goals), midfielders Miles Fenton and Callum Holland, and defender Cole McLagan made the first team.

Defender Tommy Kay was a second-team All-SoCon selection for Furman. Defender Josh Hosie and midfielder Sam Miller joined Raine on the All-Freshman team.

"Captains Miles Fenton and Cole McLagan have led us really well, but it's been hard work from everybody," Allison said. "Freshman Jake Raine and sophomore Shaun-Chris Joash have scored big-time goals, particularly in overtime. They're not fazed by who they're playing."

It's the second SoCon Goalkeeper of the Year honor for Hale, who also won in 2018. Hale led the Paladins to the second round of the NCAA Tournament that season, before injuries limited him to just four games last season. Hale was one of many injured Paladins that the squad overcame to win the SoCon regular season title in 2019 before being upset by Mercer in the SoCon Tournament semifinals.

With a healthy Hale and a battle-tested team this season, Furman's goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament. A return would give the Paladins ample opportunity to prove their current No. 25 national ranking in the Top Drawer Soccer poll.

The winner of Friday's semifinal between Furman and Belmont will face the winner of Saturday's semifinal game between No. 2 UNCG and No. 3 ETSU. A win on Friday would ensure that the Paladins play for the championship the following weekend in the friendly confines of Stone Stadium.

"With embassies, visas and all the different stuff, it wasn't easy to get everybody here on time. Experiencing college for the first time is tough for any freshman, whether they're foreign or domestic. It's particularly tough during this (pandemic) time," Allison said. "It was quite a bit of work to get everyone here, but it was well worth it. They really are an unbelievable group of kids.

"To be unbeaten in the conference and win it outright in this kind of environment, where there's no doing anything else. You have to stay in your room, and you can't do this and you can't do that. You've got to be disciplined and I'm really proud of what they've done this year because they're college students. They want to visit their friends and go see things, but they realize that to be able to train and play, they've got to sacrifice."

Greenville News: Furman's offense fails to show up again in loss at Mercer

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Second-half defense delivers again for Furman

Furman's Devin Wynn trucks an ETSU defender into the end zone
on the go-ahead touchdown Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the second consecutive week, Furman rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to pull out a victory Saturday. While big plays offensively obviously put the Paladins on top, neither upset would've been possible without a great defensive showing down the stretch.

After limiting Samford to 41 yards and one first down in the fourth quarter of Furman's 44-37 overtime win on March 6, the Paladins held ETSU to just 119 yards and three points in the second half of their 17-13 win on Saturday. Those three points only came after a controversial roughing the passer penalty on fourth down that extended the drive.

These efforts are just more chapters in a trend for Furman's defense. In the last 12 Southern Conference games dating back to the 2019 SoCon opener, the Paladins have allowed six touchdowns and a total of 64 points in the second half. Twenty of those 64 came in the loss to Citadel in 2019. Of those 20 points, 17 came after Citadel drives that began at Furman's 31-, 12- and 35-yard line, respectively. In the fourth quarter at Wofford last year, a field goal by the Terriers came after a drive that started at Furman's 35.

"It's all about preparation during the week. We wouldn't be able to play like that if we didn't practice well and we had a solid week," said freshman linebacker Nick Kuzemka, who has a team-high 28 tackles and 2.5 for loss this season, after Saturday's win. "We just executed our scheme."

Two big parts of Furman's success on defense this year have been getting off the field after third downs and stopping the run. The Paladins (3-1, 3-1 Southern Conference) lead the SoCon in third-down defense as opponents have converted just 14-of-50 attempts (28 percent) this season. That figure ranks 11th nationally and each of the 10 teams ahead of Furman have played two games or less.

Furman also leads the SoCon and ranks 14th nationally in rushing defense, as it's allowed 82.8 yards per game on the ground. Again, every team ahead of the Paladins nationally has played no more than two games outside of James Madison's three.

"(Defensive coordinator) Duane Vaughn's done a phenomenal job with that group," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "They just continue to get better."

Wynn zeroes in on top 10

Furman senior running back Devin Wynn may have had the play of the day and hit of the day Saturday. The play of the day came on a beautifully executed play in which Hamp Sisson faked an option, pulled back and hit a wide open Wynn down the left sideline for a 27-yard gain. That was the Paladins' first big play and seemed to wake up the offense. A few plays later, Furman finally got on the board when Wynn muscled his way into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.

Speaking of Wynn muscling his way in for a touchdown. The Paladins' next drive culminated when Wynn sent an ETSU defender sprawling ass over teakettle into the end zone. Wynn's Herschel Walker-at-Georgia impression gave Furman the lead for good

"I just love Devin," Hendrix said. "He's matured so much and is such a competitor."

Wynn leads the SoCon and ranks 10th nationally with 104.5 yards rushing per game. His 113-yard, two-touchdown performance Saturday leaves him poised to jump into the top 10 of both categories in school history this Saturday when Furman hosts Chattanooga at noon.

Wynn is currently 11th in all-time rushing with 2,375 yards. That's 20 yards behind 10th-place Hank McCloud and 71 behind ninth-place Mike Glenn. Wynn is also 11th in rushing touchdowns with 24, one behind 10th-place Larry Robinson.

Special teams improve

After a bit of a shaky start to the season, kickoff specialist Axel Lepvreau was solid on Saturday. The freshman from La Roche Sur Yon, France, had three of his four kickoffs go for touchbacks. The only one that didn't resulted in ETSU beginning at its own 23 - two yards behind where they would've started on another touchback. Furman leads the SoCon in kickoff coverage with a net average of 43.7 yards per kickoff.

Meanwhile, Timmy Bleekrode remained solid on field goals and punting. Bleekrode nailed a career-long 47-yard field goal to cap Furman's scoring Saturday and is 4-of-4 on attempts this season. Paladin kickers have made 28-of-33 field goals dating back to last season, including 14-of-18 from 40-plus yards out.

Bleekrode put four of his six punts Saturday inside the 20 and had a long punt of 55 yards. The sophomore ranks first in the SoCon and fifth nationally with an average of 44.1 yards per punt.

Lack of sacks

While Furman's defense has played great overall and very well after halftime, Hendrix said he would like to see more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Paladins have a SoCon-worst three sacks this season, all of which came in the 14-13 loss at VMI. Defensive end Dru Seabrook has two of those three, but it currently out with an arm injury. Seabrook missed the ETSU game and is not listed on this week's depth chart.

Changing it up

Furman typically travels on Fridays for road games. However last Saturday, the Paladins made the trip to Johnson City, Tenn. on the morning of for the 1 p.m. kickoff. While things weren't going so well for Furman in the first half, Hendrix said that he didn't feel the travel change was a factor.

"In the era of COVID, I didn't want to deal with a lot of hotel protocols," Hendrix said. "Our kids managed it well. ... It was pretty smooth."