Best Athlete You've Never Heard of (cont.)
Posted: Friday August 31, 2007 12:15PM; Updated: Thursday September 6, 2007 2:43PM
Sarah Vaillancourt, Harvard, Hockey
Vaillancourt is one of the best women's hockey players in the world -- and has the international credentials to prove it. Vaillancourt, a junior winger at Harvard, plays on the Canadian national team, speaks French as her first language (she hails from the province of Quebec), and has become a collegiate star in America with the Crimson. Vaillancourt, already a fixture with Team Canada by age 18, had a breakout rookie campaign in 2004-05, finishing fifth in the nation, and first among freshmen, in scoring with 2.31 points per game. She spent the following year away from school to join the Canadian Olympic team in Torino, where she won a gold medal and contributed two goals and four assists. She came back with a 30-goal season in '06-07 and will be among the favorites to win national player of the year honors in 2008. Que magnifique!
Christina Loukas, Indiana, Swimming and Diving
Basketball is the winter king in Bloomington, but the Hoosiers' swimming and diving program is world class. Two-time Big Ten Diver of the Year Christina Loukas stars for Indiana and won her first national title in the 1-meter springboard event on Aug. 2. The Riverwoods, Ill., native is the first Hoosier to become a three-time NCAA championship finalist since 2002. Loukas will be a junior at IU this fall, and spent the summer training and competing in the World University Games in Bangkok. With her experience and talent, Loukas is a legitimate contender to represent the United States in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
Natalie Uhart, Kansas, Volleyball
Uhart was named Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year two years ago, but sat out last season with a knee injury. After taking a medical redshirt, Uhart is back for another shot at a junior season. The 6-foot-2 middle blocker has already made her presence felt in the early going, starting each of the Jayhawks' first three matches and averaging 2.3 kills per game.
Megan Falcon, LSU, Tennis
Impossible is nothing when your name is Megan Falcon. In her first year as a collegiate athlete, Falcon torched the courts on her way to the No. 2 ranking in the nation. Falcon missed her freshman season and lost a year of eligibility after choosing to travel the women's tennis world circuit in 2005. During this time she achieved a world ranking of No. 331 and ITF rankings of No. 54 (singles) and No. 28 (doubles). As a sophomore last season, she earned SEC Player of the Year honors, compiled a 38-3 singles record -- including 26 wins against nationally ranked opponents -- and a 24-10 doubles record for the Lady Tigers.
Nicole Muracco, Maryland, Field Hockey
It is tough for a freshman to join a reigning national-championship team and convince coaches and teammates she belongs. Last year, Muracco took little time to display to the Terps she would be a star. Muracco netted two goals in her first start of the season, and finished with 15 scores total, to lead the stacked, eventual repeat champions. With her team-high five game winners, Muracco was honored as the ACC Rookie of the Year, and was a third-team All-America. Although she was quiet in the postseason, Muracco will be counted on to repeat her regular-season success, as the Terps lost key scorers heading into 2007
Zach Putnam, Michigan, Baseball
Putnam, a junior who is an early favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year next spring, went to high school at Ann Arbor Pioneer, located just a block away from The Big House. The Ann Arbor native was a second-team All America last season and became the first player in Big Ten history to gain all-conference honors at two different positions (pitcher and designated hitter). Though many expected him to make the leap to the major leagues following a stellar sophomore season, Putnam announced he'd return this spring, making the Wolverines one of the early favorites to make the trip to Omaha. As a sophomore, Putnam took a no-hitter into the ninth inning of Michigan's Super Regional opener against Oregon State just days after he helping the Wolverines knock No. 1 Vanderbilt out of the regionals in one of college baseball's biggest upsets in recent memory.
Leslie Knight, Minnesota, Basketball
Minnesota women's basketball forward Leslie Knight graduated from Hopkins High School in 2004 with a Minnesota Ms. Basketball Award, state championship and stack of college offers. The 6-foot-1 hometown prodigy picked the Gophers -- a NCAA Final Four participant during her senior year -- to be close to family and friends. For two years, Knight awaited playing time and as a junior she finally got her chance. Knight started 33 games for Minnesota while registering 8.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Knight represented the Gophers on the 2006 Big Ten Women's Basketball Foreign Tour team that played in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. The senior captain figures will be crucial to Minnesota's chances this season.
Barnabas Kirui, Ole Miss, Track
School and sports have long gone hand-in-hand for Ole Miss cross country star Barnabas Kirui. Since arriving in the U.S. 20 months ago, the Kaplong, Kenya, native has been a hit on the track for coach Joe Walker's Rebels. As a freshman in 2006, Kirui won the SEC cross country championship and was named the conference's Freshman of the Year. At the 2007 NCAA outdoor championships, Kirui added to his resume with a national championship in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Kirui's accomplishments in the classroom have been equally impressive. He carries a 3.69 GPA and was named the 2007 track and field National Co-Scholar Athlete of the Year.
Rachel Dawson, North Carolina, Field Hockey
As dangerous as UNC senior field hockey player Rachel Dawson is to opponents, she's not much easier on her teammates. Field hockey coach Karen Shelton said of the uber-intense Dawson, "I say this in a kind way: She will run over and stomp on the skull of her teammate to get to the ball in practice." While that kind of ruthlessness can make her hard to handle, it has also brought Dawson plenty of accolades. Dawson is an All-ACC athlete, team MVP and the U.S. National Team's leading defender. After spending the 2006 season away from Chapel Hill and in Spain for the field hockey World Cup, she's back in blue this year in search of more success.
Jake Herbert, Northwestern, Wrestling
As a Northwestern junior in 2006-07, Herbert was arguably the most dominant wrestler in Division I-A, going undefeated (32-0) en route to a 184-pound national championship. He moved himself into fifth place on the school's all-time wins list at 115, became a three-time All-America, and was named BigElevenWrestling.net wrestler of the year. Though he led the Wildcats to a fourth-place finish in the NCAA championships last season, Herbert will not compete for Northwestern during 2007-2008. Instead, he will take an Olympic Year to train for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
Will Yeatman, Notre Dame, Lacrosse
Even if you follow Notre Dame football, you could be excused for not having heard of Will Yeatman, who saw time as a blocking tight end last year, but finished the season without a reception. On the lacrosse field, however, Yeatman is a rising star. Last year, as a freshman for the Irish, the 6-foot-6 Yeatman scored in every game, netting 21 goals and a team-high 25 assists. The Great Western Lacrosse League named Yeatman its Newcomer of the Year, and voted him first-team all-conference. Yeatman was also LaxPower's Rookie of the Year. Now back in football mode for the fall, Yeatman will compete for playing time, and catches, behind All-America candidate John Carlson.
Eric Brunner, Ohio State, Soccer
Brunner was among the initial list of names considered for the Missouri Athletic Club's Hermann Trophy award, which is given annually to the national player of the year in Division I soccer. For the first time, a Buckeye was chosen on the preseason watch list for the award. A native of Dublin, Ohio, the 6-foot-4 Brunner was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year and has started all 42 games for the Buckeyes the past two seasons, compiling four goals and four assists. Led by top defender Brunner, Ohio State went 11-7-3 last season and played for the Big Ten championship. Brunner was named to the all-tournament team in all three of the Buckeyes' early season tournaments in 2006 and TopDrawer Soccer named him a third-team All-America.
Tasha Smith, Oregon State, Gymnastics
Forget for a second that this stellar junior-to-be overcame injuries last season to score a 9.925 on the floor during regionals, securing the Beavers a second consecutive trip to NCAA Championships. If you want one reason to watch Smith, it's this: She can moon walk. Smith, the 2006 Pac-10 Vault and Floor Champion, channels Michael Jackson in what is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and unorthodox floor routines in the country, moon walking across the mat when she's not flipping through the air in jaw-dropping tumbling passes. Smith is one of nation's top gymnasts and hopes to bring an individual title back to Corvallis this season. After all, third time's a charm, right?
Kristy Borza, Pitt, Tennis
Borza was the team MVP as a freshman after breaking a 25-year-old record for most singles wins in a season with 26. She was the team MVP as a sophomore after breaking her own record and winning 27 singles matches. Now, a junior, she has the third-best singles winning percentage in Pitt history (.791), an overall singles record of 53-14 and 95 career victories in both singles and doubles. Her numbers say a lot, but the MVP awards mean more, considering the other candidates: Two of her teammates last season, Annie Davies and Carlie Smith, both surpassed the 100-career-victory mark.
Maria Hernandez, Purdue, Golf
Golf has always been called a "gentlemen's sport," but Maria Hernandez holds her own against the men. In just her second collegiate tournament appearance, the Pamplona, Spain, native posted her first victory, winning the Lady Northern Invitational. She placed second in the Big Ten Championships, was named first team All-Big Ten and earned All-America honorable mention honors. Hernandez added to her win column her sophomore year, finishing first in four consecutive tournaments. She was again named first team All-Big Ten, was named Big Ten Player of the Year, and earned first team All-America honors. Hernandez is Purdue's only first team All-America in women's golf history.
Amy Lewis, Rutgers, Field Hockey
Not even a broken nose will stop Amy Lewis. The junior midfielder for the Rutgers field hockey team traded her original in-person interview with SIOC for a phone interview when an errant ball accidentally broke her nose during pre-season practice last week. Fortunately for the Scarlet Knights, Lewis, who was named first-team All-Big East during the 2006 season, will not let a deviated septum prevent her from excelling on the field. During Rutgers's season-opener against Drexel on August 25, Lewis garnered a hat trick, including the game-winning goal six minutes into overtime, to carry the Scarlet Knights to a 3-2 win over the Dragons. While her individual performance stands on its own, Lewis is a team player at heart: "My goal is for the team to achieve as much as possible," she said. "For me, that means finding the back of the net and being a scorer.
Aaron Goldberg, San Diego State, Golf
San Diego State's Aaron Goldberg treats golf like a job and since he's been at SDSU, Goldberg's business has been booming. Earlier this month, he shot an even par to take sixth place for the U.S. at the World University Games in Bangkok. Now, Goldberg is preparing for his senior year after an All-MWC junior season. He was the top golfer for the Aztecs last year, with four top 10 finishes
Eliseo Giusfredi, Seton Hall, Soccer
This junior Argentinean forward, who can easily be spotted juggling a soccer ball around the Green, is a campus celebrity rivaled only by the basketball team. Jovial by nature, Giusfredi has been making opposing defenses queasy, with 20 goals in two years. After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years, the striker will be relied on heavily to help Seton Hall get back to national prominence. This may be Giusfredi's last season as a Pirate before he hits the pros. Taking Seton Hall back to the NCAA tournament would be a good way to sign off.
Jamie Lovemark, Southern Cal, Golf
At USC it's hard to go unnoticed if you're the best in the country at your sport, but Lovemark has done just that despite his success last year. As a freshman, Lovemark earned national and freshman of the year honors and was the individual champion in the 2007 NCAA Men's Golf Championships. But unlike members of the top-ranked football team, Lovemark still enjoys relative anonymity on campus. If he continues the success he had as a freshman, then it's unlikely he'll be unheard of for long.
Mike Leveille, Syracuse, Lacrosse
Leveille gave fans of the Orange much to be excited about when he pulled off five hat tricks during his freshman season in 2005, but he did not truly break out until his sophomore year, when he finished the season with 31 goals and a team-best 21 assists, earning honorable mention All-America honors. Leveille was a preseason first-team All-America in 2007 and a Tewaaraton Trophy nominee. As a team captain last season, he led the Orange in scoring with 38 points and extended his scoring streak to 40 games, the fourth-longest active streak in Division I. The Orange's most experienced attackman is currently recovering from a broken thumb, but will be ready for the season.
Rubin Williams, Tennessee, Track
Senior Rubin Williams has had a busy year as the Tennessee's fastest sprinter. The 12-time All-America was one of two Volunteers to represent the United States in July at the Pan American Games, where he captured two medals in the 200-meter dash and the 4x100-meter relay. Williams anchored the Volunteers' 4X100 relay team that finished second at both the NCAA outdoor championships, and individually, Williams placed second in the 200 at both events. Williams arrived at Tennessee in 2004 as a four-time high school All-America and immediately anchored the team's 100-meter relay team while winning the team's Most Valuable Freshman award.
Destinee Hooker, Texas, Volleyball/Track
Being an all-conference athlete at the Division-I level is quite an accomplishment. Being an All-Big 12 volleyball player and a two-time national champion high jumper? That just means you're Texas' Destinee Hooker.
Hooker is only a sophomore, but she's already accomplished a lot for the Longhorns. After winning an indoor NCAA title during her freshman year, Hooker repeated in June's outdoor championship meet. The improvement came as no surprise; Hooker spent the offseason playing volleyball, and leaping is just part of an outside hitter's job. In her freshman campaign, Hooker notched 373 kills, second best on a team that reached the NCAA regionals before falling to national champion runner-up Stanford.
Craig Henning, Wisconsin, Wrestling
The senior captain has single-handedly turned Wisconsin from a middle-of-the-pack team into a conference contender. During the 2006-07 campaign -- the team's best ever in terms of wins -- Henning went 31-4 overall, 18-2 in dual meets and 7-1 in the Big Ten. At the Big Ten Championships he finished third. With more still to prove, and in an effort to make amends for his disappointing eighth-place finish at the NCAAs the year before, Henning grappled his way to the championship match where he lost 6-4 to top-ranked Trent Paulson of Iowa State. Every year the two-time All-American from Chippewa Falls, Wis., has shown marked improvement. What's scary is his best could be yet to come.
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