MSU head athletic coordinator Bob Knickerbocker has seen many things during his 32 years at MSU, but even he is having a hard time coming up with a way to describe the most recent season in Spartan sports.
In a year when the men’s basketball team made a run to the Final Four and the football team won the Cotton Bowl, it has been many of the athletes of the sports that aren’t on ESPN every day who have helped make it a banner year for the Spartans.
“It is a great time to be a Spartan,” he said. “I’ve seen times before when they weren’t that good.”
Knickerbocker said he has seen six different athletic directors during his time with MSU, and the times haven’t always been so rosy.
“There were a lot of times when we wondered what direction everyone is going in,” he said. “Mark Hollis has really been a key to all of this.”
Whether it is Hollis or not, 2014-2015 has been a record-breaking year for MSU athletics. From cross-country and track senior Leah O’Connor winning the individual mile national championship with an MSU program record-setting time to men’s soccer goalkeeper Zach Bennett setting the record for most shutouts, it has been a year of broken records.
Winning a national championship is a seemingly impossible task. Senior Leah O’Connor didn’t just win a national championship, she did it by breaking the mile record at the indoor national championships earlier in the year.
“That’s exactly how I pictured it in my head,” O’Connor said in a previous State News article. “I had this plan coming into the race, but you never guarantee that it’s going to come together ... but it did ... just to have it all happen is an extreme feeling of gratitude.”
O’Connor set the record by running the mile in 4:27.18, which set the meet record and set her at No. 2 in the all-time NCAA record. It added to her list of accomplishments at MSU, which has included a cross country team national championship in the fall of 2014,and a national championship in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in 2014.
O’Connor said her favorite memory in her time at MSU is the team national championship the Spartans were able to win.
“That’s been the sweetest thing,” she previously told The State News. “To be able to win the national championship with the girls I came in here with as a 17-year-old ... it’s irreplaceable and better than any individual title.”
O’Connor will be leaving MSU in a couple of weeks, and she said she wants her legacy to be centered around the people that helped her get where she is, instead of just her individual success.
“If individually, people look at what I’ve done on the track and they’re inspired by that and that makes them want to chase after what they want to do, then that’s awesome,” she said. “But I hope that it’s not about me, but it’s about what has been accomplished as a whole these last five years.”
Men’s soccer head coach Damon Rensing came to MSU to help rebuild the program.
Rebuilding a soccer program can’t really be done without a cornerstone goalkeeper, and junior Zach Bennett has been that.
He has only played three seasons but still holds the MSU shutout record at 28 with another whole season to play.
Bennett’s play has been the catalyst for the team. Through his goal-keeping, the Spartans’ last season saw themselves one win away from making it to the Final Four.
“That’s something me and (senior defender Ryan) Keener talked about a lot before the year. That was a goal we set for ourselves, come to find out that Keener was a part of every shutout except one. It was cool thing for us to experience together,” Bennett previously told The State News. “It’s been something I’ve been working for, something that you come to Michigan State and dream about maybe setting records like this.”
Bennett flew past the previous shutout record of 23 set by John Spink (1984, 1986-1988) and Avery Steingate (2008-2010), and will look to add to that record this fall.
But it isn’t adding to his own shutout record that motivates Bennett — it’s how close the Spartans got to reaching the Final Four last season and their quest to get back.
“Before all that (personal records), we’re trying to get those Ws, and I would (have) much rather taken a win then tying the record for school shutouts today,” he said following MSU’s 0-0 tie with Rutgers in September.
Bennett’s teammates also have had kind words for Bennett. The defender whom he dreamed of teaming up with to break the school shutouts record was very happy for Bennett following MSU’s 1-0 win over Akron on Oct. 7, which was Bennett’s 24th, and record-breaking, shutout.
“It’s awesome to be a part of, and when you have a guy like (Bennett) that works tirelessly, off-days, every chance he gets, there’s no one that challenges themselves than he does,” former defender Ryan Keener said after the win.
When he broke the record, Bennett gave his teammates a lot of the credit.
“I think I’ve worked pretty hard, that’s what I come to Michigan State to potentially do,” he said. “It’s a special moment not only for me but for the whole defense and the whole team.”
Losing when you are used to winning can be very hard. Losing when you expect to win can be even harder.
For sophomore forward Aerial Powers and the women’s basketball team, winning wasn’t just a goal going into the 2014-2015 season, it was the expectation.
As sometimes happens in sports, the expectations and the reality were very different things.
MSU fought through a disappointing season that included a 16-15 and no post-season birth. It was clear early on in the season that MSU wouldn’t have much to play for.
You wouldn’t have known that from watching Powers play. In a season where she played like a person possessed, she set the single season scoring and rebounding records for MSU women’s basketball.
“That kid is a warrior,” head coach Suzy Merchant told msuspartans.com following their Feb. 5 loss to Michigan. “She’s doing everything she can, it’s just hard when other people aren’t helping. It makes it difficult.”
Powers dominating the stat sheet was the story of MSU in the 2014-2015 season. She averaged 21.9 points per game (also a program record) and set records in points (678), rebounds (375) and double-doubles (24).
The season was good enough for an All-American honorable mention, something that caused Merchant to put her entire legacy into perspective.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of the future in terms of record books and things like that,” she said to msuspartans.com earlier in the season. “If there isn’t a female up there in the rafters, that kid should be one eventually some day.”