Sunday, July 28, 2019

Paladins second in SoCon preseason polls

Furman left tackle Bo Layton, left, and linebacker Elijah McKoy represented
the Paladins at the Southern Conference's Football Media Day this year.
SPARTANBURG - For the second consecutive year, perhaps the biggest question for the Furman football team is who will be its starting quarterback. For the second consecutive year, that uncertainty hasn't fazed those predicting how the Paladins will fare this fall.

Coming off a share of its Southern Conference-best 14th championship, Furman has been picked to finish second this season by the league's media and coaches. The preseason polls were revealed at this year's SoCon Media Day. Prior to last season, Furman was predicted to finish second by the media and third by the coaches.

"We were sitting here (at Media Day) two years ago and were picked seventh, so it's nice to be (higher) in the discussion," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We want to be regarded as one of the better teams. That won't do anything for us. It won't make us a first down or stop anybody, but that's where we want to be."

Things are a little different in this year's starting quarterback battle this year. Unlike last season, those battling to replace Harris Roberts this year have some meaningful in-game collegiate experience. Thanks to last year's new redshirt rule, Darren Grainger and Hamp Sisson were each able to redshirt as freshman while they played in four and two games, respectively.

A new face is in the quarterback mix this year in sophomore transfer Luke Shiflett. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Dalton, Ga. native played wide receiver and punter at Middle Tennessee State last season and participated in all 14 games. In two-plus seasons at Northwest Whitfield High (Class 4A), Shiflett threw for more than 5,000 yards and 52 touchdowns and rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. As a senior in 2018, he was his region's player of the year in football and basketball.

"We've got a couple of guys who've been in our program now for a year and they can do everything we want them to do. We've added a guy in Shiflett and we will give him a chance to compete," Hendrix said. "I think they've had really good offseasons. It will be an interesting competition.
"We really kind of know what we have, from an ability standpoint. ... I think their supporting cast is considerably better than it has been."

Whoever emerges as the starting quarterback will have plenty of experienced protection up front. The Paladins return all five starting offensive linemen as well as four reserves. Among those returning starters is junior left tackle Bo Layton, who was Furman's lone offensive representative on the preseason All-SoCon first team.

Layton has started in 17 of the 18 games he's played in during his Furman career, including all 10 last season when he logged a unit-high 574 plays. After being just the second SoCon champion ever left out of the FCS playoff field despite a four-game winning streak to end last season, there's plenty of motivation for the Paladins this year. Another motivation is to get off on the right track after starting 0-3 each of the last two seasons.

"We kind of want to pick up where we left off," Layton said. "We've had a thing the past two years where we've gone on a (winning) streak. We just want to keep that one (from last season) alive."

A total of eight starters return on offense, while seven starters are back on defense for Furman. That doesn't include the lone defensive player on the All-SoCon preseason first team - sophomore bandit Adrian Hope. As a freshman in 2018, Hope earned second team AP All-American honors after leading the country with 15 sacks. For the season, he totaled 32 tackles, 16.5 for loss, and five forced fumbles - all after coming off the bench every Saturday.

"Having a guy who can go get you sacks consistently definitely helps the rest of the defense," said junior linebacker Elijah McKoy, who ranked second in the SoCon with 91 tackles last season. "It takes a lot of pressure off people like me when he's drawing double teams."

It will be interesting to see what Furman's defense looks like under the guidance of Duane Vaughn, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Chad Staggs left for Coastal Carolina. The Paladins piled up 61 sacks over the last two seasons under Staggs.

Along with a new coordinator, there are new faces coaching on the defensive side of the ball as Rod Ojong (cornerbacks) and Corico Wright (safeties) were hired by Hendrix this offseason.

"I think they've made us better in a lot of ways," Hendrix said. "I see losing a good coach as an opportunity to hire a better coach. I've been really pleased with what they've done."

McKoy believes it was important for Vaughn, who's been a Furman assistant since 2011, to get the opportunity to lead the defense.

"With him, we didn't have to completely change defenses. It was important more so because of who Coach Vaughn is," McKoy said. "He's been a position coach at so many different positions, he knows how things need to work. He takes the confusion out of a lot of things and he's an emotional guy. He wants us to be able to play, have fun and let loose. He definitely understands how that affects our performance."

Joining Layton and Hope on the preseason All-SoCon first team was kicker Grayson Atkins. The junior from Boiling Springs already ranks No. 10 on Furman's all-time scoring chart with 144 career points. After missing his first two field goal attempts of the year at Elon, Atkins didn't miss another the rest of the way to take a streak of 11 consecutive makes into this season. Four of those 11 were from at least 50 yards out.

Senior right tackle Andy Godwin, senior wide receiver Thomas Gordon, junior running back Devin Wynn and McKoy earned preseason All-SoCon second team honors.

The Paladins will report to preseason camp on Aug. 1 and open the season 30 days later at home against Charleston Southern.

"I like this football team. I like how we work. We've had a phenomenal offseason and we're fairly healthy starting into the year," Hendrix said. "There's just still a lot of work to do now until we start playing."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Reflecting on Furman's historic hoops season

Furman coach Bob Richey
It's been nearly four months since Furman's record-breaking 2018-19 men's basketball season ended. For those who followed the team all year, the memories of the finale are probably as clear as if it was held just four days ago.

Furman and Wichita State lived up to the mantra of "playing like there's no tomorrow." After 14 lead changes, 12 ties and no lead greater than seven, Wichita State advanced in the NIT Tournament with a 76-70 win. You can read more details about the game in the story I wrote for the Spartanburg Herald here: Wichita State outslugs Furman in NIT.

That story was written against a tight deadline, but a longer deadline - maybe even a four-month one - couldn't have helped a story do that game justice. Quite simply, it was one of the greatest games Timmons Arena has ever held.

"What a game," Furman coach Bob Richey said in the postgame press conference. "That was a big-time college basketball game out there.
"I couldn't be more proud of our team and what they've accomplished. A lot of times in this business it's really easy to lose perspective, but what they've done is incredible."

With a No. 41 ranking in the new NET rankings that were supposedly created to help seed the 68-team NCAA Tournament field, Furman was hoping to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. Instead, it was selected to host an NIT game for the first time in school history: Snubbed Furman excited about NIT No. 3 seed.

Home court was about the only advantage that the Paladins had as a No. 3 seed. In Wichita State, Furman faced a team that had went to the NCAA Tournament each of the prior seven seasons after winning the NIT championship in 2011. After seeing them up close and personal, it became pretty evident that the only thing keeping the Shockers out of this year's NCAA Tournament was an 8-11 start to this "rebuilding" season for Gregg Marshall's team.

Wichita State validated that thought by going on to win by eight at Clemson in round two and by 10 at Indiana in round three. In running their NIT winning streak to eight consecutive game, the Shockers became the first team ever to win three NIT games on the road to advance to the Big Apple. Their run ended in a 71-64 loss to Lipscomb in the semifinals at historic Madison Square Garden.

In his final game as a Paladin, Matt Rafferty capped off an incredible senior season with one of his signature stat lines. Rafferty had team-highs in points (27), rebounds (8), assists (5) and steals (5). Rafferty did all of that while still playing with a thumb injury suffered at the Southern Conference Tournament. After the game, Richey dropped the bombshell that Rafferty was also playing with a torn labrum - an injury he suffered a month-and-a-half earlier at Wofford and aggravated against Wichita.

"They don't make them any tougher than that guy," Richey said.

In a season full of chills, one last collection of goosebumps formed with Rafferty and fellow senior Andrew Brown checked out of the game with one second left. Each section of the sold out crowd - the ones in purple and the ones in black and gold - gave the winningest basketball players in school history a rousing standing ovation.

Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown embrace
after their final game at Furman.
That crowd was a big part of what made that night - even with the Paladins' loss - so special. The energy the fans provided was a perfect soundtrack to the beautiful basketball performance each team provided. Among those in the crowd were a good number of Wichita State fans, who made the long trip on short notice. (Basketball is taken pretty seriously in the Sunflower State).

For longtime attendees of Furman home basketball games, it had to be a surreal sight. This was a sold out Timmons Arena on a church night for a game that wasn't scheduled until late in the night three days earlier. That could be the best indicator yet of the incredible transformation the program has made over the last five years.

But that transformation is ongoing. After a school record 25-win season this year, Richey is confident that its another step on the journey up - even without Rafferty next season.

"I remember four years ago we won 19 games and Stephen Croone was the Player of the Year in the league. All we heard that whole offseason was, 'they're losing the player of the year. They're going to take a step back,' and all this program did was take a step forward," Richey said. "We won 21 regular season games and a share of the Southern Conference title and then it was 'they're losing Kris Acox. What's going to happen? They're going to be smaller.'
"So then last year, they match the school's win record at 23 games and then it's, 'wow, they're losing their three starting guards and four seniors. This is probably going to be a little bit of a rebuilding team.' And all this group went on to do was win a school record for overall games, wins on the national stage that haven't been done in a very long time. You can go on and on and on about what this team's accomplished.
"This journey the last four years, to be honest, was pretty unexpected. But that's the motivation, the passion and the drive moving forward."

Wins at 2018 Final Four participant Loyola (Ill.) and 2018 national champion Villanova earned Furman quite a bit of national recognition. More publicity came when Jordan Lyons tied the single-game NCAA Division I record for 3-pointers, Rafferty obliterated the school's single-season steals record and the Paladins made the top 25 for the first time ever.

Opposing coaches have noticed too. Even in the moments after his team's huge victory and his 500th career win, Marshall reflected on the Furman program.

The Greenwood native said he grew up watching the likes of Jonathan 'Stitch' Moore and Clyde Mayes play for the Paladins and attended former coach Joe Williams' basketball camps in the mid-70s. He then noted the 1991 NIT team coached by Butch Estes before turning his attention to the present.

"This is a special win because of those circumstances and because we beat a really good team that's very well coached," Marshall said. "I can't sing Coach Richey and the Paladins' praises any more.
"I think what Bob's doing here is very similar to what I saw Coach (Bob) McKillop do when he got things rolling at Davidson."

Coming soon: There's one more basketball story from this season that must be told. It's a story about how the bond of friendship between Matt Rafferty and Andrew Brown got them through hard times off the court and helped make them winners on it.