The inevitable return to Cullowhee every fall brings new changes from year to year. New eateries, campus activities, buildings, and curricular catch the eye as one begins to become reacquainted with college life.
One of the biggest new wrinkles for Western Carolina this fall, however, may be the one that no student can yet recognize: the athletic program. The purple and gold warriors have been, overall, a mediocre team at best in the Southern Conference over the last few seasons.
There have been exceptions, don’t get me wrong. Our miracle NCAA tournament berth in 1996 was a feat unparalleled in our basketball squad’s history. “The Game” nearly three years ago for football where we defeated Appalachian State for the first time in thirteen years and finished with a 6-5 record.
These moments will live forever in our school’s sports history. However, over recent years events like this have become an exception to the rule. Our feats seem that much more remarkable because this school, barring a strong tradition in track & field, has become a perennial underdog overlooked by fans and the media alike.
So, what does this year hold in store? Well, according to Dr. Bardo’s “Welcome to the 2001-2002 Academic Year,” he promises that the athletic program will vastly improve their performance this year as a whole. He claims the athletics department began, “a process of strategic planning that involved coaches, students, faculty, members of the Catamount Club, and outside facilitators.”
What does this mean exactly? It’s tough for one to tell this early in the year. At the same time, there are several promising factors that could boost Catamount athletics into the upper echelon of the Southern Conference by year’s end.
The football team, as always, will be one of the key measuring sticks for the athletic program as a whole. Though the Cats lost star quarterback David Rivers, now with the St. Louis Rams, Brian Gaither will assume the helm of a very talented offense.
With preseason all-Southern Conference wide receivers Michael Banks and Lamont Seward on the flanks and all-SoCon running back Fred Boateng leading a deep backfield, the Cats will have one of the most potent and explosive offensive attacks in the Southern Conference.
Though a tad lower in the headlines, the women’s volleyball squad may have a Southern Conference title in their hands by year’s end. In the Southern Conference’s preseason coach’s poll, WCU was picked to finish fourth, but received two second-place votes and three third-place votes.
Returning five of six starters from the conference tournament semifinalists from a year ago, experience should prove to be a key factor for the netters this year. The Lady Cats will be led by preseason all-SoCon selection senior Christy Attebury, who led the conference in kills last year and holds the Western career mark in that same category.
Women’s soccer looks to pick up where they left off last season, surprising the conference by advancing to their first ever tournament semifinal game. Once again, nobody is looking for the Lady Cats to win, selected to finish seventh in the SoCon. However, all-tournament selections midfielder Nardia Moore and goalkeeper Mandi Tinsley will try to lead WCU back to the postseason.
The success, or lack thereof, of these fall teams could drastically change the sports program of this school, or solidify it’s space in the drudges of the Southern Conference. If this is in fact the year for change, fans soon shall find out.