Hustler sports staff picks year-end Commodore standouts

A review in Vanderbilt sports

Nifae Lealao (77) and Zach Cunningham (41) as Vanderbilt lost against the South Carolina Gamecocks 13-10 at Vanderbilt Stadium September 1, 2016.

While none of the so-called revenue sports stood out during the 2016-17 school year, Vanderbilt fielded competitive teams in nearly every sport for the first time in a while.

The Commodore football team found its way back to its first bowl game since the 2013 season, while men’s basketball exceeded expectations and baseball looks on pace to make the 2017 NCAA tournament. The soccer squad finished in the SEC’s top half, while women’s tennis, bowling and men’s golf continued to dominate.

But there were a few athletes and moments that stood out since last August. Here, our sports staff picks the best.

Dansby Swanson Male Athlete of the Year Award: Zach Cunningham, football

Is there really any other choice? Cunningham was Vanderbilt’s first consensus First-Team All-American in football since 1984 and the first position player to achieve the feat since 1958. He did so by leading both his team and the SEC in tackles and being the linchpin on a defense that was the calling card for the Commodores. Coming into the season, we knew that the fortunes of the Commodores would rest on his shoulders, and he delivered week in and week out.

Perhaps what he will be remembered most for was his out of this world performance on homecoming at Georgia. He tallied 19 tackles, including the game-winning tackle on fourth-and-1 with under two minutes to play, to will Vanderbilt to its biggest win in head coach Derek Mason’s tenure as head coach, sparking the Commodores for their great finish to the season. He now has the chance to be the first Vanderbilt football player selected in the 1st Round of the NFL draft since tackle Chris Williams went to the Bears with the 14th pick in 2008. Cunningham was a program-changing player in every sense of the word. – Jack Fader, sports reporter

Runner-up: Jeren Kendall, baseball

Astra Sharma Female Athlete of the Year Award: Astra Sharma, women’s tennis

Sharma also won this award last year, so we might as well name it after her at this point. While teammate Sydney Campbell had a similarly impressive season, Sharma’s No. 4 national ranking in singles and dominant record against first-singles competition give her the edge. After leading the Commodores to a 20-5 overall record, No. 2 national ranking and SEC regular-season and tournament championships, Sharma currently holds a 29-7 overall record. Her 11-2 individual mark in SEC play trails only sixth singles player Fernanda Contreras, who went 11-1. Sharma ran up an elite record against extremely tough competition and was the best player on perhaps Vanderbilt’s best team, so she earned this award. – Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Runners-up: Sydney Campbell, women’s tennis; Courtney Clayton, track and field

Coach of the Year: Geoff Macdonald, women’s tennis

Macdonald holds the same trump card Sharma does, as he coached one of Vanderbilt’s best teams and helped continue the winning tradition he built after taking over the program in 1995. The Commodores’ head man built a tremendously challenging schedule that prepared his team for SEC competition, and the team’s results improved as the season went on — four of Vanderbilt’s five losses came before conference play started. To top that all off, Macdonald did all this despite starting freshmen at two of the six singles spots for most of the year. As long as the women’s tennis program stays near the top of the sport, Macdonald could win this award every year. – Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Runner-up: John Williamson, bowling

Rookie of the Year: JJ Bleday, baseball

With the shift of Jeren Kendall from right field to center field this year, the Commodores needed to find a replacement. They had a few options to plug in there, but head caoch Tim Corbin ultimately called upon freshman JJ Bleday to take over the position. With a batting average of .280 and an OPS of .801, Bleday has been impressive in the middle of the lineup this year. He is just one of two players on the team with more walks (23) than strikeouts (17) this season. His 29 games started are the most among any freshman on the team, as he appears destined to be a mainstay in this starting lineup for years to come. With Kendall likely gone next year, Bleday is on track to be the team’s prominent outfielder if he can keep up this season’s success. – Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief

Runner-up: Zach King, baseball

Game of the Year: Men’s basketball vs. Florida, 2017 SEC tournament

This one really could have been any of the three wins over the Gators, as the Commodores thrived against one of the top teams in the nation this year. However, the 72-62 overtime victory in the SEC tournament takes the cake.

Going into the game, Vanderbilt was projected to be one of the last teams into the NCAA tournament, likely needing a victory to clinch a spot, and it delivered in thrilling fashion. After a neck-and-neck 40 minutes, highlighted by a double-double from Luke Kornet, Joe Toye rejected Florida’s last second shot attempt to send the game to OT. From there, Vandy would never look back. Jeff Roberson’s slam in the final minute to cap off the win proved to be the iconic moment of Vanderbilt basketball’s season, and in an otherwise up and down year, this win was as sweet as they come.

The Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee football game came in a close second here, and while the excitement level for that game was just as high, it was neither a one-possession game, nor did it clinch a bowl spot like the Florida game likely did. The SEC tournament game was simply put, as clutch as it gets, and that’s why it holds the spot as the best game of the year in Vanderbilt athletics. – Max Schneider, sports reporter

Runner-up: Football vs. Tennessee

Play of the Year: Cunningham tackle saves ‘Dores at Georgia

Typically an award for Play of the Year goes to a buzzer-beating three-pointer, a walk-off home run or something flashy of that nature. But of all the great plays made by Commodore athletes this year, the best was Cunningham’s 19th tackle against Georgia.

With just over a minute to go, Vanderbilt was clinging to a one point lead when the Bulldogs decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at Vandy’s own 41-yard line. Rather than handing the ball off to star running back Nick Chubb, Georgia gave it to wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Cunningham immediately recognized the play, and flew from the middle of the formation to the outside, where he yanked down a full-speed McKenzie by using his incredible arm strength.

While this play may not have made many national highlight reels, the determination, instinct, and athleticism that Cunningham showcased on this play was too impressive to go under-appreciated. The tackle clinched Mason’s first road SEC victory in his third year as the head coach. The win also got the team out of a two-game slump and injected a jolt of confidence that helped carry the team to their first bowl game of the Mason Era. – Steve Sherk, sports reporter

Runner-up: Cunningham hurdles offensive line for field-goal block at Auburn

Meme of the Year: Hugh Freeze got his own player ejected

Vanderbilt’s meme of the year emerged from one of the most complicated and confusing plays of the football season. During Vanderbilt’s penultimate regular-season football game vs. Ole Miss, a Vanderbilt wide receiver Donaven Tennyson was carrying the ball when he was hit hard, causing him to lose control of the football. The ball went out of bounds before Ole Miss linebacker DeMarquis Gates could recover it. The officials reviewed the play to see if the fumble had truly gone out of bounds and, in the process, discovered that the original hit was actually targeting and proceeded to eject Gates.

Therefore, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze got one of his own linebackers ejected.

Now, some may say that the officials called for a booth review, not Freeze. To that, I say…Shut up.

So, never forget: Hugh Freeze got one of his own linebackers ejected.

Runner-up: Commodores take the Champions of Life Belt

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