Top 10 Sports topics of 2015

Temple’s athletic programs saw ups and downs in 2015 on and off the field. The football team and men’s soccer team both had historic seasons, while long-distance runner Blanca Fernandez set school records and received national honors.

After a strong finish to their season, the men’s basketball team was left out of the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. The field hockey team saw its success to decline in the first year under new coach Marybeth Freeman.

Off the field, the Owls parted ways with women’s gymnastics coach Aaron Murphy. Patrick Kraft took over for Kevin Clark as Temple’s athletic director in May, and football coach Matt Rhule received a new contract.

In no particular order, here is our Top 10 list of the biggest stories in Temple athletics in 2015 …

  1. Bball team snubbed

Following a 23-win season, the men’s basketball team did not receive an invitation to the 2015 NCAA Men’s Division I NCAA Tournament.

Despite a victory over then-No. 10 University of Kansas and 13 victories in the American Athletic Conference, the team did not hear its name called on “Selection Sunday.” Instead, the Owls were named the No. 1 overall seed in the Division I Men’s National Invitational Tournament, where they lost to the University of Miami in the semifinals.

“I guess our name doesn’t hold weight in the selection committee’s eyes,” former guard Will Cummings said March 15. “It’s a disappointment. You work so hard all year and put in so much work during the year, to just not hear your name called it’s a big disappointment.”

Twelve different Power 5 schools with less wins than Temple during the year received bids to March’s NCAA Tournament despite the Owls No. 34 ranking in the NCAA’s Rating Power Index .

  1. Football earns historic win against Penn State

The first of the football team’s 10 wins in 2015 came against an opponent the team had not beaten in almost 75 years.

The Owls defeated Penn State 27-10 in front of 69.176, the then-largest crowd ever for Temple football at Lincoln Financial Field Sept. 8. It was the team’s first win over its in-state counterpart since Oct. 18, 1941.

Junior running back Jahad Thomas ran for 135 yards and two touchdown in the win, while senior linebacker Tyler Matakevich recorded seven tackles, helping the defense keep the Nittany Lions off the scoreboard after their 10 points in the first quarter.

“The reason we won is because they focused on themselves, not Penn State,” Rhule said after the game Sept. 5. “We didn’t play Penn State music, we didn’t have the scout team wear blue jerseys. We focused on us and the players bought into that.”

  1. Football team hosts Notre Dame on national stage

After a program-record 7-0 start, Temple received its first ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll since 1979 prior to its meeting with the University of Notre Dame on Halloween.

The matchup between the No. 21 Owls and No. 9 Notre Dame was chosen for ABC’s Saturday Night Football, and ESPN picked Temple to host its Saturday morning program, College Gameday.

“It was fun just for Temple, right?”  coach Matt Rhule said after the game Oct. 31. “What I said to the team before our game was this, ‘GameDay and ESPN being there and all that … that was for our fans. That was for our university, who we’re very proud to represent.’”

The Owls lost 24-20 to the Fighting Irish in front of 69,280 people, the largest attendance in Temple’s history at Lincoln Financial Field.

Sophomore kicker Austin Jones’ 36-yard field goal gave Temple a 20-17 lead with 4:45 left in the fourth quarter, but Notre Dame junior wide receiver Will Fuller caught a 17-yard touchdown pass with 2:06 left to give the Fightin Irish the win.

  1. Men’s soccer team ranked for first time in 18 years

Coach David MacWilliams’ squad won two games in 2014. His team promptly fixed its struggles early in 2015 starting 6-0-1.

The start included a win Sept. 4 against Penn State, then No. 13 in the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Division I. The victory was the first time Temple topped a ranked opponent since 2010 and the first time the Owls defeated the Nittany Lions since 1997.

A victory against Yale University Sept. 13 helped propel the Owls to No. 23 in the NSCAA Division I Sept. 15 poll—the team’s first appearance in the rankings since 1997.

Junior midfielder Jorge Gomez Sanchez scored 10 goals in the team’s first 10 games after transferring from the European University of Madrid. He finished the season with tied for seventh in Division I with 13 goals scored.

  1. Fernandez competes on national stage three times

As Blanca Fernandez toed the starting line Nov. 21 in Louisville, Kentucky she found herself among the best college runners in the United States. Fernandez became the first runner in Temple women’s cross country history to race in the Division I Cross Country Championships.

She still stood out among the talented pack of runners, finishing 29th and becoming the first United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-American in program history.

“It feels great,” Fernandez said after the race. “It feels like that can’t happen to you. Just one person can make history, and that is me. It feels wonderful.”

However, the race was not Fernandez’s first on the national stage in 2015. She competed in the 1,500-meter at the NCAA Outdoor National Championships on June 11—the first Owl to do so in 28 years. She set a school record at the meet with a time of 4 minutes and 19.62 seconds but missed the final heat by one-half second.

Prior to that, she placed 12th in the mile at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field National Championships.

  1. The Temple News sits down with Athletic Director Pat Kraft

Pat Kraft was named athletic director in 2015 after Kevin Clark, now executive vice president and chief operating officer, was at the helm for two years. Kraft, who previously served as the deputy director of athletics..

In the interview Oct. 14 with Kraft, he told The Temple News there were no discussion for an on-campus stadium after the Inquirer reported was in the initial stages of building an on-campus stadium. He confirmed that the field hockey team, the women’s lacrosse team, the track & field team and the women’s and men’s soccer teams would be moving to the old site of William Penn High School next fall.

“[An on-campus stadium] has not been discussed,” Kraft said Oct. 14. “That’s way above my pay grade. I think that’s an institutional decision. I think we explore different opportunities. We try to look and see, but right now, no it’s not, and it hasn’t been discussed at that level.”

Kraft also said he is against paying students-athletes, citing the university’s cost of attendance stipend—which provides funding to help pay the costs of living on a college campus—and the other amenities available to students.

  1.   Rhule gets new contract and Owls go bowling

Coach Matt Rhule and the Owls lost to Houston Dec. 5 in the American Athletic Conference Championship 24-13. In the two days following the loss, the program took some positive steps.

The Owls accepted an invitation Dec. 6 to the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl, eventually losing 32-17 to the University of Toledo Dec. 22 in Boca, Raton Florida. The event marked the first time under Rhule and the first time since the 2011 Gildan New Mexico Bowl that the Owls went to a bowl game—the fifth bowl game in program history.

A day after Temple received its bowl bid, the university locked up Rhule. After previously signing a contract extension, the coach and Temple agreed to a new six-year contract Dec. 7, keeping Rhule with the Owls through the 2021 season.

  1. Report on Adrian Robinson

In October, the Associated Press reported that an autopsy conducted on former linebacker Adrian Robinson revealed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to dementia, memory loss and depression.

Robinson, who graduated from Temple in 2011, committed suicide May 16 by hanging at the age of 25.

During his time as an Owl, Robinson—whose brother, Averee, is a junior defensive lineman at Temple—totaled 156 career tackles, 221/2 career sacks and 331/2 tackles for loss.

“The family noticed that he became more confrontational and on edge,” the family’s attorney Benjamin Andreozzi told The Temple News in October. “[Adrian] was generally very mild mannered and laid back.”

Pennlive.com reported the Robinson family donated Adrian’s brain to Boston University after his death and were told by researchers Oct. 12 that their findings indicated Robinson had CTE.

In a statement to the report, the family said Adrian, who appeared in 20 games in the NFL from 2012-2013, suffered from “several concussions” during his playing career.

  1. Field Hockey struggles in Freeman’s first year

In her first season as coach, Marybeth Freeman and the field hockey team struggled to continue the success that former-coach Amanda Janney left when she accepted the same position at Indiana University in February.

After starting the season 2-2, the Owls lost 10 of their next 11 games, including two conference matchups against Providence College and Drexel University in October.

But when the team faced then-No. 12 Old Dominion University, its seventh ranked opponent of 2015 in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association coaches poll, Oct. 20, the squad won its first game since Sept. 18, and proceeded to win its final three regular-season games to claim the No. 2 seed in the Big East Conference tournament.

The Owls season ended with a 7-3 loss Nov. 8 to Connecticut in the conference tournament championship game, bringing their record to 8-13 in Freeman’s first season.

“We’ve been saying, ‘It’s not where you start, but where you finish,’” coach Marybeth Freeman said following the team’s loss to UConn. “Last time we played Connecticut, we were 3-8. [Sunday], we had a really good team push on both the attack and the defense. We really kind of honed in and made things more detail-oriented for us, and that was able to put us in position to win the game.”

  1.  Aaron Murphy fired

After suspending women’s gymnastics coach Aaron Murphy in February due to an pending an investigation into violations of athletic department policy, former Athletic Director Kevin Clark announced in March that Murphy would not return to the program.

The university also did not renew the contract of assistant coach Deirdre Mattocks Bertotti, who took control of the program during Murphy’s suspension.

Murphy competed for the Owls from 1996-2001 on the men’s gymnastics team and was a four-year letterwinner and a team captain his senior season.

He became the squad’s coach in November 2006 after the retirement of coach Ken Anderson. In 2009 and 2013, Murphy earned Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year.

When asked why Murphy was fired, Athletic Director Pat Kraft told The Temple News in October,  “I can’t talk about personnel.”

Michael Guise and Owen McCue can be reached at sports@temple-news.com

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