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LIU volleyballers cap 'Decade of Dominance'

The LIU Brooklyn women's volleyball team captured its eighth NEC championship in the past decade on SundayPhoto courtesy of LIU-Brooklyn Athletics

Blackbirds sweep past CCSU for eighth NEC crown in 10 years

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Perhaps it's time for the LIU-Brooklyn women's volleyball team to move up to a higher league.

They've certainly mastered this one.

After sweeping through Central Connecticut State in front of 300 jubilant fans at Downtown's Steinberg Wellness Center on Sunday, the Blackbirds captured their second consecutive Northeast Conference title.

Along with it came a record eighth league championship in the past decade as LIU improved to an astounding 34-0 against NEC opponents over the past two years.

Junior Vera Djuric was named the NEC Tournament MVP after helping top-seeded LIU sweep past No. 4 Robert Morris, 25-14, 25-13 and 26-24, on Saturday and contributing 41 assists to Sunday's title-clinching 25-12, 25-19, 25-14 rout of the second-seeded Blue Devils.

Coach Kyle Robinson grabbed his fourth championship in six years at the helm.

The Brooklyn school's all-time leader in coaching wins watched as NEC Player of the Year Annika Foit amassed 18 kills with a .556 hitting percentage in the final.

"It's fantastic," Robinson said as his team celebrated on the court while "We Are the Champions" boomed once again from the gymnasium speakers. "The girls have put in such hard work, not to just win championships but to build a program."

They've built it on the shoulders of great players past and present, as well as the coaching tactics of Robinson and his predecessor Toby Rens, who led the Blackbirds to their first four crowns in consecutive seasons from 2004-2007. Robinson picked up titles in his first two years on the job, giving LIU an astounding "Six-Peat".

Though they failed to win it all in 2010 or 2011, the Blackbirds have reassumed their perch atop the conference in breathtaking fashion the past two campaigns, beating each and every NEC opponent on the path to greatness. LIU only dropped two sets against conference foes this year.

Though he's becoming somewhat used to watching his players celebrate at this time of year, the uniqueness of capturing a championship never gets old for Robinson.

"Quite honestly, it's always special for me," he said. "From last year, the girls committed to winning another championship. They spent the summer working hard. We had a great conference season. We were running on all cylinders [Sunday night]. It's not their first championship, so they were a lot more mature than last year."

Sophomore Tamara Ignjic added 15 kills and grad student Jessica Rice, the only player Robinson will lose from this squad, had seven kills and five blocks for the dynastic Blackbirds, who will find out their first-round NCAA Tournament opponent this coming Sunday during the annual Selection Show.

Foit and Djuric were both named to the NEC All-Tournament team for their performances, which guaranteed LIU an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

"It feels awesome," Djuric gushed. "I'm really really proud of everyone on my team and all the coaches. [Our success] definitely [comes from us] working as a unit. We're great friends off the court, which is very important."

With another championship trophy in their possession, the Blackbirds would like to make some serious noise in the NCAA Tournament after being ousted in the first round by then-No. 7 UCLA last November.

"Well, this is what we work for," Robinson said of the opportunity to take on the nation's elite volleyball teams. "We want to play the best. We are always looking for more, to test ourselves and see how far we can take this program."

***

After winning their first NEC Championship since 1998, the St. Francis Brooklyn men's soccer team gave No. 16 Penn State a tough opening-round challenge in the NCAA Tournament last Thursday night.

But the Terriers (12-6-1) were unable to sneak past the Nittany Lions, suffering a season-ending 1-0 loss to cap a momentous year in St. Francis soccer history.

Not only did the Terriers end their 15-year NEC title drought, but they also moved into their new digs at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where they amassed an impressive 4-1-1 record.

The emergence of senior forward Gabriel Bagot and junior striker Kevin Correa also gave St. Francis arguably the best 1-2 scoring combo in the region.

Coach Tom Giovotto, in his eighth season at the Remsen Street school, guided his team to three do-or-die victories en route to Happy Valley, Pa., where the Terriers were ultimately beaten by Eli Dennis' goal from eight yards out in the 37th minute.

"First, I'd like to say that Penn State did a first class job in hosting," Giovotto said. "As for the game, the boys played really well. We turned up the intensity in the second half.  We did a great job keeping the ball and creating some chances, but unfortunately, we couldn't find the back of the net.  Penn State is a very good team.  I am happy that the guys, especially our seniors, got to experience this and we can head back home with our heads held up high."

Bagot, who finished with 25 career goals and 63 points as a Terrier, also relished the chance to test his skills against a perennial NCAA power, even if the match ended before he could provide an equalizer.

"It was a great experience to play in a big game like this," he noted. "We came out more aggressive in the second half, but just couldn't capitalize on some chances. It was a great experience to play in the NCAA's."

Junior goaltender Jack Binks was credited with two saves in the season finale, including an impressive stop on a blast from 15 feet out in the opening minutes of the contest, helping the Terriers brave an early storm.

"This season has been a very successful one," Binks said. "The success brought us closer together as a team. Winning the NEC Championship created a bond that we will always remember and cherish. It was an amazing experience to represent our school, our conference and each other."

Team co-captain Andy Cormack, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime off a free kick in last week's NEC Final, also is looking forward to defending the Terriers' league title and getting another chance at the NCAAs.

"I'm extremely proud of our team," said Cormack. "We now have this experience under our belts and our focus will be to work harder in the offseason and train harder to come back and experience this again next season."

***

The St. Francis Brooklyn men's basketball squad will return home on a high note after a game-ending 6-0 run helped them to a dramatic 68-62 victory over Oakland University on Sunday afternoon in the consolation game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational Mainland Tournament in Conway, S.C.

Jalen Cannon poured in a career-high 21 points and fellow junior Brent Jones added 11 points and a career-high 10 assists for his first career double-double as the Terriers (3-3) evened their season record entering Wednesday afternoon's home opener against Mount Saint Vincent.

"This might have been our best win of the season," said head coach Glenn Braica, despite the fact that his team opened the campaign with a stunning upset of defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Miami. "That team {Oakland} is off to a slow start, but they have played an extremely tough schedule. I expect them to be a favorite to win their conference.  I thought we played extremely well and our guys showed a lot of toughness down the stretch."

St. Francis squandered an eight-point lead with just over three minutes remaining and traded baskets with the winless Grizzlies before Cannon's three-point play with 33 seconds showing on the clock put them ahead to stay. Jones and Cannon combined for three clutch free throws down the stretch as the Terriers warded off Oakland's bid for yet another late comeback.

***

The three-time defending NEC basketball champs from LIU-Brooklyn suffered their fourth consecutive defeat Sunday afternoon with a 72-57 setback against Boston University in the finale of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Wounded Warrior Project in Irvine, Calif.

Sophomore sensation E.J. Reed had 21 points and eight rebounds and senior standout Jason Brickman handed out 12 assists for the Blackbirds (1-4), who shot a dismal 0-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half en route to a 14-point deficit at intermission.

LIU hopes to get back in the win column during Sunday afternoon's home opener at the Wellness Center against Norfolk State.

***

The St. Francis Brooklyn men's water polo team is going home...to Palo Alto, Calif.

The 13th-ranked Terriers knocked off No. 18 Princeton, 11-9, on Sunday afternoon to win their second consecutive Collegiate Water Polo Association Championship at Brown University's Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatics Center.

One of the best kept secrets in Brooklyn, the Terriers have emerged as a national powerhouse in the pool, often receiving more attention and notoriety when they travel out west for the NCAA Championships than they do right here on Remsen Street.

With Sunday's come-from-behind triumph, in which they scored three goals in the final three minutes to rally past the rival Tigers, St. Francis earned a coveted spot in an NCAA Play-In Game on the Stanford University campus.

One more win will get the Terriers a return trip to the NCAA Final Four. They finished third in the national championship tournament last year after posting their first-ever win in the competition with a 14-8 victory over the Air Force Academy.

Reigning CWPA Player of the Year Igor Mladenovic made eight saves against Princeton to grab Tournament MVP honors as St. Francis became just the sixth program ever to capture back-to-back league championships.

November 26, 2013 - 1:00pm


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