2020 Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Awards

The Hustler wraps up an eventful 2020 with end-of-year sports awards.

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Simon Gibbs, Betsy Goodfriend, and Alyssa Muir

2020 was an eventful year in Vanderbilt athletics, to say the least. After an SEC Tournament title in soccer, a winless season in football, a new athletic director and a new head football coach, The Hustler wraps up its 2020 sports coverage with end-of-year awards.

Female Athlete of the Year: Haley Hopkins, Vanderbilt Soccer

Haley Hopkins entered the season as one of the conference’s most feared players, and rightfully so: after the forward was named to the 2018 All-SEC freshman team, 2018 All-SEC first team, 2019 All-SEC second team, 2019 All-SEC tournament team and much more, opposing teams were forced to gameplan for her day-in and day-out. But ultimately, their attempts to stop her were of no avail.

Hopkins in 2020 again led the team in goals with five, and by extension led the team in points with ten. She notched two goals in Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament semifinal game against Texas A&M, sending them onto the final round against top-ranked Arkansas. While she may not have scored against Arkansas, she drew a crucial foul early in the game, sending Vanderbilt to the penalty marker and enabling Kimya Raietparvar to equalize the contest. Once again, Hopkins was named to the 2020 All-SEC first team and 2020 All-SEC tournament team after an incredible season. She’s not finished on West End, either, as she announced her intentions to return next season.

Male Athlete of the Year: John Augenstein, Vanderbilt Men’s Golf

Augenstein made the most of his final year in black and gold. He kicked off 2020 with two consecutive top-25 individual finishes before he earned an individual win at the Desert Mountain Intercollegiate in Scottsdale, Arizona, in early March. The six-stroke victory was his second career individual title, and Augenstein played phenomenal golf with a 15-under 201 (63-70-68). The tournament was the last collegiate tournament of his spring season.

Augenstein was named 2020 SEC Player of the Year, and he was a finalist for the Haskins Award, which is awarded to the Most Outstanding Male Collegiate Golfer of the year. He was also honored with a spot on the 2020 GCAA All-America first team.

He competed on the amateur circuit in the summer. He finished 17th at the 2020 Southern Amateur in July. Augenstein placed seventh in stroke play at the 2020 U.S. Amateur in August. He competed as an amateur in the 2020 U.S. Open and the 2020 Masters in the fall after qualifying for the tournaments with a second-place finish in the 2019 U.S. Amateur. He missed the cut in the U.S. Open, but he made the cut at The Masters and finished 55th in the field. Augenstein announced his intention to play professionally in December. The four-time All-American’s impact on Vanderbilt’s golf program is immeasurable, and he leaves the program as arguably the best golfer in Vanderbilt history.

Female Rookie of the Year: Koi Love, Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball

Love, now a sophomore, put together a dominant freshman season in 2019-20. The 6’0” forward made her presence known immediately with a double-double in her first collegiate game. She was a force at the post for the Commodores, and her size and athleticism made her an asset on both ends of the court. Love led the team with 13.7 points per game, and she led all Vanderbilt freshmen in points, rebounds, blocks, steals and assists last season. Love had four 20-point games, including the last game of the season in the SEC Tournament. She was named to the SEC All-Freshman team for her dominant performance all year.

Love picked up where she left off in the spring, leading the team with 22.4 points and 11.0 rebounds per game this fall. In her second year with the team, she has taken a more active leadership role on the court, and she’s the best player on the Commodores. Love has garnered national attention and earned SEC Player of the Week in December.

Male Rookie of the Year: Ken Seals, Vanderbilt Football 

It was a disappointing year for Vanderbilt football to say the least, as the team went 0-9, the first winless season in history. One bright spot of the season, however, was the emergence of true freshman quarterback Ken Seals. Seals won the starting job in training camp and never surrendered it after that. He became just the third SEC true freshman to quarterback to start a season opener since 1972 and, at many points throughout the season, looked more like a season veteran. Seals finished the season with 1,928 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, with one of his best performances coming against the Florida Gators, where he outdueled Heisman finalist Kyle Trask in the first half. Seals finished that game with 319 passing yards, two touchdowns and a season-high 157.05 passing efficiency rating. 

With much of the offense expected to return for the 2021 season under new head coach Clark Lea, Seals is in a position to continue to shine as the quarterback of the future for the Commodores. Seals already started creeping up some of the Commodore record books this season, as his three 300-yard passing games are tied for third in Vanderbilt history. Additionally, his 1,928 passing yards are a Vanderbilt freshman record. This year was only the beginning for Seals, but the young quarterback’s career is certainly off to an impressive start. 

Coach of the Year: Darren Ambrose, Vanderbilt Soccer

Surprise, surprise: the head coach of Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament-winning soccer team brings in the honor of Coach of the Year. In 2015, Darren Ambrose took over for Derek Greene, who amassed just a 24-43-10 record in four seasons, and spent his first two years at the helm going 18-17-5—building the foundation of the program we see today. Since then, Ambrose has revitalized the program to the tune of a 51-20-5 record; his Commodores have broken countless records and even notched a miraculous 13-game win streak in 2018 en route to their first SEC regular season title since 1994. 

Ambrose has created the gold standard of SEC soccer. But this year, he’s even exhibited the gold standard of coaching: his Commodores struggled in a shortened season due to the pandemic, skidding their way to a 4-4 record prior to postseason play, yet he remained unfazed. Ambrose knew his team had the talent to compete with the best in the conference, and his student-athletes were a reflection of his mindset heading into the SEC Tournament; ultimately, they left their struggles behind and proceeded to match their regular season win total with ease, winning four-straight games, the program’s first SEC Title since 1994 and proving that they were, in fact, still the best in the conference. Oh, and of course, he did this all while rounding up the No. 1 recruiting class in the SEC.

Male Game of the Year: Vanderbilt men’s basketball upsets No. 18 LSU

704 days after its last win over an SEC team, Vanderbilt men’s basketball prevailed again. Memorial Magic returned, albeit temporarily, as the Commodores shocked the 18th-ranked LSU Tigers at home in February and snapped their 26-game SEC losing streak, which dated back to the 2017-18 season. Powered by career nights from Saben Lee and Maxwell Evans, who tallied 33 and 31 points, respectively, Vanderbilt was able to get “that monkey off our back,” according to Coach Stackhouse, and proceeded to notch two more SEC wins in an otherwise challenging season.

Female Game of the Year: Vanderbilt soccer upsets No. 1 Arkansas, wins SEC Tournament

When seventh-seeded Vanderbilt took the pitch against first-seeded Arkansas in the SEC Tournament finals, pundits expected Arkansas to cruise to another SEC Tournament title. And understandably so. The Commodores went just 4-4 in regular season play, and despite a three-game win streak that saw them make a miraculous run to the finals, they were heavy underdogs in Orange Beach, Alabama.

But Vanderbilt fans—and, of course, the Vanderbilt soccer team—saw things differently. Even after the Commodores conceded a goal to the Razorbacks just 46 seconds into the game, they remained poised, eventually mounting a three-goal come-from-behind victory. Their 3-1 win had earned them not only their first SEC Tournament title in the Darren Ambrose era but also their first since 1994. 

Play of the Year: Sarah Fuller’s kicks and Abi Brighton’s goals

We just couldn’t choose one.

Vanderbilt soccer’s starting goalkeeper, Sarah Fuller, shattered glass ceilings in 2020 with her performance on the football team. When Derek Mason’s team was in need of a kicker, Fuller stepped up—first, she became the first woman to log a snap in a Power Five game with a kickoff against Missouri. Then, weeks later, she became the first woman to score a point in a Power Five game when she nailed two of two extra-point attempts against the in-state rival Tennessee Volunteers. And while Fuller’s performance was both inspirational and impressive, seeing as she’d never kicked a football prior to her tryout with the team, her plays find themselves tied for Play of the Year with a soccer teammate of hers.

Abi Brighton scored not one but two magical goals in the SEC tournament. Goals that shook the nation; goals that both made it onto the SportsCenter Top Ten. In the second round of the SEC Tournament, Brighton tried feeding a pass into the box unsuccessfully—it was deflected back to her outside the box by a Mississippi State defender, but she took the deflection as a pass of sorts, rifling a volley from outside the box into the top right corner of the goal.

 

Then, a mere few days later, she did it again in the finals. 

 

Team Player of the Year: Vanderbilt’s offensive line

No person or group embodied the phrase “team player” more than the Vanderbilt offensive line did. Despite numerous, difficult obstacles being thrown their way, such as four experienced linemen opting out due to COVID-19 concerns before the season began, that unit did not make any excuses and instead sacrificed greatly for the betterment of the team. The best example of this sacrifice is senior Drew Birchmeier who, after the opt-outs, switched over to that position despite spending his first three seasons as a defensive lineman. For the last game of the season against the Tennessee Volunteers, when the defense was severely depleted, Birchmeier switched back to the defensive line with no complaints. 

It wasn’t just Birchmeier who stepped up, however. It was the entire unit. Tyler Steen switched to left tackle this year after starting all 12 games at right tackle the previous season. Bradley Ashmore played in all nine games and made four starts at right tackle as just a true freshman—against an all-SEC schedule, no less. The offensive line was often described as makeshift or patchwork but, despite how it came to be constructed, the unit was successful overall. For most of the season, Ken Seals had enough time in the pocket to make his throws. Additionally, Keyon Henry-Brooks flourished at running back, averaging 4.1 yards a carry thanks in part to some big holes opened up by the line. This group was given a near-impossible task at the beginning of the season, and they deserve tons of credit for the sacrifice and effort they put forth.