(Posted July 9, 2009)

By Pete Lefresne, Juniata Sports Information Director

Finally, the top five in my list of my ten favorite moments from this past year - and the decisions were far from easy. There was much to celebrate in 2008-09, but these five moments have left me anxious for the 2009-10 year to start. Tomorrow would be fine with me.

Again, these are my personal favorites, nothing more. There was no voting and no committee in their selection - and I ignored the input of the only other person who saw the list ahead of time. At the end of this column, I'll let all of you know how to offer your thoughts and opinions on the best 10 moments in Juniata athletics from this past season.

No. 5 - Men's volleyball downs 13th-ranked Ohio State at Kennedy S+RC
In any other year, a win over a ranked Division I program might have been a few places higher than fifth on a list of season highlights, but such was the kind of season enjoyed by Juniata men's volleyball.

With Matt Werle setting the offense to near perfection and Zach Wanner and Evan Halteman finishing shots all over the court, Juniata looked nearly unbeatable on March 4 against visiting Ohio State.

A raucous crowd was into the match from start to finish. In the fifth set, that crowd was on its feet much of the time, as the Eagles slowly began to pull away from the Buckeyes and the upset finish drew closer.

Werle finished with 60 assists and five total blocks against Ohio State, while Wanner and Halteman notched 19 and 18 kills respectively. Anthony Damiano turned up 10 digs, while Dan Powers anchored the middle with 11 kills and four total blocks.

As the match wound down and the Juniata win became evident, I told Brittany Carr and Erin Bean, two of the women's volleyball players on the stat crew for men's volleyball, to take a good look at those Ohio State uniforms - they would never see them in Memorial Gym again.

I was wrong.

Ohio State has already agreed to a home-and-home series against Juniata in 2010, with the Buckeyes making their return to Huntingdon on January 18, 2010. Even without the graduated Werle and Powers in the lineup, it should be a hootenanny. Be there - and bring a friend.

No. 4 - Men's volleyball captures Molten title with win over Stevens
The first time Juniata and Stevens met on the court last season, on February 12, it was an epic match that required nearly two full hours to play and went the full five games - including a 21-19 score for the Eagles in the deciding game.

The second matchup may have had the same level of drama, but the outcome was much less in doubt almost from the very first serve.

Juniata required just under an hour-and-a-half and only three sets to trounce Stevens, 30-26, 30-25, and 30-19, and win the program's sixth Molten Division III Championship, on April 18 in Mahwah, N.J.

Again, it was Zach Wanner and Evan Halteman leading the way as Juniata coolly and efficiently dispatched the Stevens Ducks, hitting .387 for the match while containing Stevens to a .244 attack percentage. Wanner tallied 15 kills for the Eagles with Halteman chipping in with 14, and Anthony Damiano again covered the backcourt to turn up nine digs.

Matt Werle had just 37 assists - what almost qualifies as an off-night for him - but again ran the Juniata offense to perfection and earned Molten MVP honors. Wanner and Damiano were tapped for the All-Tournament team.

A five-point Eagle run to break a 6-6 tie in the third game seemed to take the wind out from beneath the Ducks' wings. A pair of Brian Jaron service aces to put Juniata on match point all but finished the job, and three points later the celebration began.

I've been an SID for... well... quite a while, and have been at institutions that have won national championships while I was there - but I've never been the sports information contact for a single one of them. This was my first national championship team.

Thanks guys. It was a privilege being along for the ride this season.

No. 3 - Women's basketball beats Wesley College to win ECAC South Region Championship
Juniata's 2008-09 women's basketball season was characterized by a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. They ranged from the passing of several close relatives of team members in December, to a 64-58 win over #16 Moravian at the end of January.

With hindsight, that just set the table for the final act: Juniata's 72-52 crushing of Wesley College on March 8 to win the ECAC South Region Championship, and capture the Eagles' first post-season championship of any kind.

Juniata entered the ECAC tournament as the eighth seed with a 15-11 record, after falling to Moravian in the Landmark tournament semifinals.

But once in the ECACs, senior Claudia McDowell elevated her game and averaged 15.3 points and 6.5 assists - both well above her career averages - on her way to Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Juniata averaged a +16.3 scoring margin and a +9.3 rebounding margin over its three opponents in the ECAC South tourney, and shot .512 from the field while holding opponents to just .415 shooting.

Beyond McDowell, Juniata presented a balanced offense that was impossible to shut down. Ashton Bankos (12.0 ppg), Kelly Ashcraft (11.7 ppg) and Jen Hnatuck (11.7 ppg) simply gave the Eagles and Head Coach Danny Young-Uhrich too many weapons for opponents to stop.

In the championship game against Wesley, three Eagles scored in double figures led by Bankos with 22. McDowell added 13, and Hnatuck logged a double-double with 11 points and 11 boards.

No. 2 - Juniata faces Penn State in the EIVA Championship match at Rec Hall
The odds for Juniata in this match were admittedly not great. But since the odds of Juniata even getting this far weren't exactly high either, who's to say there wasn't a chance?

No Division III program had ever reached the championship match of one of the three conferences with automatic bids to the NCAA Men's Volleyball Championship - until Juniata faced Penn State in the title match of the EIVA Tournament on May 2 at Rec Hall.

As it turns out, the heavily favored and top-seeded Nittany Lions made short work of Juniata. Penn State hit .396 for the match while the Eagles were held to a .155 attack percentage. Penn State libero Dennis Del Valle seemed to be everywhere, turning up digs on what would normally be kills for Zach Wanner, Evan Halteman, and Dan Powers.

But nobody who witnessed the match will ever forget it.

Approximately 600 Juniata students, faculty, staff, parents, and fans were in the stands to see the Eagles go against the Nittany Lions. They gave the approximately 1,500 Penn State faithful a run for their money, as spirited chants of "Ju-ni-a-ta" echoed around Rec Hall against the cries of "We are... Penn State".

I heard from several students in attendance (and even third-hand from some student-athletes) that it was the first time they had ever felt such a surge in pride in wearing the Juniata blue and gold, at the sight and sound of so much support. I was even told one player said he had chills going up-and-down his spine during one of the cheering battles back-and-forth between the Juniata and Penn State fans, as the Eagle backers tried to give their team a lift.

The bar was raised for Juniata men's volleyball in their achievements this season. In a parting message to his teammates in the locker room afterwards, Matt Werle urged those returning to accept this challenge and make sure that Juniata was back battling for the automatic bid next year - and to do what it would take to win. Appropriate that the exhortation came from Werle, whose own final collegiate season lay in doubt exactly a year earlier after he tore his Achilles tendon in a game of pick-up basketball.

While the ending to the match could have been a little better, it was a fitting capstone to both a special season and the splendid careers of a great pair of seniors in Werle and Powers.

No. 1 - Athletic Awards Night
I've got to be honest on this one - when athletic director Larry Bock first offered me this job nearly two years ago, the thought of hosting the department's annual awards ceremony struck terror in me. One of Professor Donna Weimer's first semester freshman Communications students probably has better public speaking skills than I do. In spite of that, this has become a highlight of the annual calendar for me.

No, it's not an athletic contest. But it's the one night where most of the nearly 425 student-athletes who proudly wear the Juniata blue and gold gather in one room, and celebrate a year of successes and achievements. For me, it's a humbling experience to host that event, in complete awe at what each student-athlete in the room has achieved athletically and academically - especially knowing the effort all of them put forth in pursuit of those achievements.

Think there are no role models left in collegiate athletics? Stand in the middle of Baker Refectory on Athletic Awards Night, and look in any direction. In an age where athletic icons are tainted on an almost weekly basis, thank God we have the likes of Kelsey Buffenmyer, Claudia McDowell, Pam Mansell, Amber Thomas, and Matt Werle - the recipients of Juniata's "big five" awards for 2008-09 - who exemplify heart, skill, dedication, and character with their achievements on the track, on the court, on the diamond, and, most of all, in the classroom.

I'll also confess that presenting one of those "big five" awards to a student-athlete who had worked in Sports Information for much of the past two years, one I had come to admire for her character and integrity, was a career highlight for me and a special moment I'll never forget.

So that's my best ten memories from 2008-09. In a year loaded with highlights, these were the ones that will stick with me.

Have some favorites of your own that didn't make the list? E-mail them to me at sid@juniata.edu, and I'll post the best submissions at the end of next week. Please be sure to include your complete name on your submission.


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