Welcome back for another installment in Talking 10’s “Michigan State Week” series. Although most of our articles for “Michigan State Week” are focusing on football, this is our weekly chance to check in on all the other athletic success stories going on in East Lansing.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of 2015-16 and how that will project forward for Spartan fans in 2016-17. It may not have been a great year across the board for this athletic department outside of football, but there are still a few high points worth recognizing and appreciating.
(Alexis Wiersma at the NCAA Championships, courtesy msuspartans.com)
Although Michigan State did not take home any individual NCAA championships (to date, as some spring sports are wrapping up during MSU Week), Alexis Wiersma was a solid anchor on the women’s cross country team and earned All-American honors this season. Led by her efforts, the MSU women placed well at NCAA Regionals and earned an at large qualification to the national championships.
Wiersma specifically finished 3rd at Regionals by breaking away from the primary chase pack near the end of that race. That was good enough to maintain a top-20 national ranking, and the Spartans lived up to that billing with a 13th place finish out of 31 teams at the NCAA Championships. Wiersma finished individually in 21st out of over 200 runners in this final race, which was good enough to cap a season and earn All-American honors.
Although the Big Ten Championships did not go as well for the team, Wiersma finished 2nd in that race, perhaps setting herself up to be the top finisher in some of these races next season. Still, individual honors are more than good enough to merit mention in this article series when athletic departments are vying for “The Delany” award.
Looking ahead to next season, the top of the line-up for the Spartans remains solid as Wiersma and fellow junior Shelby Jackson (also an all-Region honoree) are back as the top two runners on the squad. That should help overcome the loss of their regular number 3, Katie Landwehr. I would expect an even better finish at Regionals and Nationals next season.
(Denzel Valentine, photo courtesy theonlycolors.com)
With how strong Tom Izzo’s basketball program has been over the last two decades, this team can almost always be counted on to show up as a bright spot in this Around the Campus article series. Of course, the monsters of March truly fell on their face in the NCAA Tournament for one of the first times in recent memory, which may sour the reputation of this team.
However, that one bad game simply should not have that effect. The Spartans finished up 29-6 with a 13-5 Big Ten record in regular season play, good enough for a second-place finish. Michigan State finished the season on a huge roll, including winning the conference championship in the postseason Big Ten tournament.
Add to that a couple of huge individual honors as well. Senior Denzel Valentine was a consensus All-American and earned AP and NABC national player of the year honors. On the coaching side, Tom Izzo was elected to the college basketball hall of fame shortly after the season.
With a player and coach duo like that, this team was all set for a repeat Final 4 run. Those hopes were dashed by an incredible effort out of 15-seed MTSU, but as mentioned earlier, this sometimes happens to great teams and it’s the nature of the madness. Still a championship season and some strong individual hardware to be happy about in 2015-16.
Next season Valentine is gone, which will be a huge gap to fill. Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello are also gone to graduation, which will mean other role players like Tum Tum Nairn, Jr. and Eron Harris will have to step up and lead this team next season. Although that looks like a reload in 2016-17, never count out Coach Izzo and this program from being near the top of the conference come February and March.
(Aerial Powers, photo courtesy msutoday.msu.edu)
The Spartan women’s basketball team may not have garnered the same amount of attention as the men, but this team was just as much a point of pride for the MSU athletic program this school year. If nothing else, the women can hold it over the men that they went farther in the NCAA Tournament, which is definitely not always the case when Tom Izzo coaches your men’s basketball squad.
A good starting point to discuss is junior Aerial Powers, who was blessed with great ability as well as a perfect name for basketball stardom. Powers averaged 20.9 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, and she ranked in the Top 5 in the conference in both those statistics. That season and her rise over the past three years led to her being picked 5th overall in the WNBA Draft.
The Spartans finished 25-9 overall and 13-4 in conference play, which ranked just behind Maryland and Ohio State during the regular season. Nevertheless, Michigan State knocked off OSU for the second time in four games during the Big Ten Tournament and was only stopped from winning a Big Ten postseason championship by the dominant Maryland Terrapins.
The NCAA tournament appearance started with a win over Belmont, but then a narrow defeat in one of those tight 4-5 seed match-ups occurred in the second round vs. Mississippi State. This program continues to have positive momentum, and the development and WNBA draft success of Powers should open the door to more high-level players to fill the ranks going forward.
Speaking of next season, the Spartans return their top three guards in Tori Jankoska, Branndais Agee, and Morgan Green. However, the big holes to fill will be inside, where Powers and Jasmine Hines were so dominant this season. If the high amount of freshman and sophomores on the 2015-16 roster can develop one or two good inside players, this team should compete at the top tier of the Big Ten again next season.
Be sure to continue to support and enjoy these other achievements that the student athletes are bringing home to Spartan Nation now and in the near future.