PEMBROKE — With six of the 16 programs making NCAA postseason appearances during the 2016-2017 athletic year for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, and some new Peach Belt Conference hardware making its home in the trophy cases, it certainly was a banner year for the Braves.
Among the programs that made the NCAA postseason, football, men’s basketball and baseball all made the NCAA playoffs in the same season for the first time in program history. In doing so this year, the Braves were one of two programs nationally to accomplish that feat.
With all the high’s on the playing field, there was also news that shook the athletic department landscape off the field as well. Here are 10 of the top story lines from UNCP athletics this year:
1. Men’s basketball undisputed conference champions
By claiming a share of the Peach Belt Conference regular-season title and then following it up with a win in the PBC tournament championship, the men’s basketball team marked off two new accomplishments for the program. The Braves went 24-8 and 14-5 in the conference, a tie with Augusta for first in the East division and first overall in the conference. The 20-win season is the third under coach Ben Miller.
Freshman Akia Pruitt was named tournament MVP as UNCP advanced past North Georgia, Lander and Columbus State. Pruitt quickly became a force inside for the Braves and led the conference in blocks with two a game. He was one of four UNCP players to average double figures this season, with Nigel Grant, Brandon Watts and Alex Bradley also big contributors on the offensive end.
After earning the program’s fourth berth into the NCAA Southeast regional hosted at Queens this year, the postseason trip was cut short as the third-seeded Braves lost to No. 6 Limestone, 100-85.
2. Football top 10-win plateau; wins first postseason game
Despite Hurricane Matthew displacing the team in the middle of its season, the football team carried on without a hitch and closed the regular season at 9-1 to head to the NCAA playoffs for the third time in school history. This time, the Braves weren’t one game and done as they defeated Valdosta State 24-21 for the program’s first playoff win in three tries.
The season started off with the first win in Bowman Gray Stadium against Winston-Salem State and UNCP finished the year undefeated at home to move its home win streak to 10 games. Ten wins this year was also a new program high for victories in a season.
Senior kicker Matt Davis broke most of the school’s scoring and kicking records during his final campaign and won the Fred Mitchell award for the top kicker in FCS, Division II, Division III and NAIA that also puts effort in causes outside of football. Senior receiver B.J. Bunn, in the win over Valdosta State, became the first pass catcher to grab over 1,000 receiving yards in a year, and had a diving one-handed catch against Shaw that was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays.
3. Baseball makes NCAA regional for second time
A program-best 14-game win streak helped the baseball team seal their second bid in the NCAA Southeast regional. This season, the Braves went 5-3 against ranked opponents, including a 2-1 mark against then No. 1 North Georgia in the regular-season series that sparked a turnaround for the team. The Nighthawks won the regional hosted at Mount Olive, but UNCP finished this season 3-1 against their PBC counterparts.
To seal up the postseason bid, UNCP made a run to the championship game of the Peach Belt tournament, before Georgia College pulled out a 6-5 victory to claim the title. The 41 wins the team had was the second most in program history.
Pitcher Anthony Burke, infielders Ethan Baucom and Jarratt Mobley, along with outfielders Nick Debo and Roberto Rivera all earned an honorable mention on the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association all-southeast region team.
4. Men’s track grabs first PBC title
Behind the performances of several young contributors, the UNCP men’s and women’s track and field teams each grabbed high finishes at the PBC championship, with the men taking its first PBC track title in school history and the women finishing second. Freshman Silas Kipoech was named the men’s overall and freshman track athlete of the year after taking first in the 10,000- and 5,000-meter events. Jeanna Cube was named female field athlete of the year and Kelsi Sheldon was named freshman field athlete of the year. Coach Peter Ormsby was named coach of the year.
The Braves also sent Christian Ceccato to the NCAA national championships in Bradenton, Fla. over the weekend to compete in the 110-meter hurdles. He finished 17th in the event.
5. Men’s soccer program cut
For the second time in two years, budget issues led to a program being cut and men’s soccer went to the chopping block in January. The move came after the department realized shortly into the new year that the reserve account was not going to last before the deficit could be overcome. The men’s soccer team followed the men’s golf and women’s tennis teams that were cut in March 2015.
6. LREMC donation leads to naming rights of soccer field
Lumbee River Electric Member Corporation donated $500,000 to the UNCP athletics department in September and the naming rights to the soccer facility was granted to the company. The 15-year partnership will lead to improvements to the facility’s bench area, fencing and signage, and construction on a new entry way to the field has begun.
7. Two wrestlers make nationals, Shade finishes runner-up
Mikey Thomas and Blaze Shade kept the streak of UNCP wrestlers that qualified for the NCAA national championships to close out their college careers.
Thomas lost his two bouts, but Shade got a rematch with in the national title bout with Nick Becker for the second year in a row, but once again lost the bout by an 8-4 decision. Shade ended his career with four trips to nationals and as a three-time All-American.
8. Women’s soccer strong September and October
The women’s soccer team went over a month without taking a loss as the Lady Braves lasted 12 matches without a loss starting with a 3-0 win against Peiffer on Sept. 14, and ending with a 3-1 loss to Flagler on Oct. 28. The streak was enough for UNCP to climb to a tie for second in the Peach Belt standings at the end of the season before falling in the PBC semifinals.
9. Women’s basketball nabs two ranked wins
As the women’s basketball team had its first winning season since 2011-2012 this year, the Lady Braves also knocked off top level competition at home on their rise in the Peach Belt Conference standings.
UNCP topped then No. 15 Clayton State on Dec. 17 by a 76-61 score and followed up nearly a month later by defeating No. 17 North Georgia 79-66. Point guard Jasmine Huntley had 14 points in the win over the Nighthawks and 24 against the Lakers.
10. Pridgen sets school records
Volleyball senior and Laurinburg native Caroline Pridgen ended her career by setting program marks in four categories. She became the only Lady Brave to pass the 1,000-kill mark for a career and closed with 1,103 kills, and also set the school record with 2,997 attacks, 304 block assists, 348 total blocks and 494 sets played.
Her laurels helped her earn a spot on the North Carolina Collegiate Sports Information Association All-State team.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.