More than holding its own

From the The Brunswick News

Jeff Huebner and his College of Coastal Georgia volleyball team relish being the first Mariners athletic squad to take the court once the school year begins. In fact, the volleyball team is the only team playing until basketball season begins in November.

So when the college's programs moved to the Southern States Athletic Conference for good this academic year -- the school's second as a four-year college and competing in the NAIA -- the volleyball team got to be the Mariners' introduction to their new brethren.

"We kind of look at, and will continue to look at it, as a great opportunity to be the first to do stuff all the time," Huebner said. "We really enjoyed that process of being ambassadors for the college."

The Mariners volleyball team finished the regular season 15-19 overall and 5-9 in conference play but shined at the SSAC tournament. Coastal, the ninth seed, advanced to the semifinals before being eliminated.

It was the start of a very successful athletic year for Coastal's programs. The women's basketball team and women's tennis team both advanced to their respective NAIA national tournaments. The men's and women's golf teams and the men's tennis teams spent a good portion of their seasons ranked in the top 25 in their respective polls. Three athletes earned all-American accolades -- golfer Dylan Freeman (who was named a second team all-American this week), tennis player Nicole Faas and basketball player Crystal Chaney -- while 36 total athletes earned recognition from the NAIA or SSAC for their work on and off the field.

"It was absolutely remarkable for where we are in our transition," said CCGA athletic director William Carlton. "It was tremendously successful for our second year."

The 2012-13 school year was not only Coastal's first year in the SSAC, but the first year programs were eligible for postseason play. Every Coastal squad, with the exception of softball, made it to its SSAC conference tournament.

The choice to join the SSAC has worked out well for both parties.

"Overall, I think we're exactly in the right conference (and) the right group of schools for our progress," Carlton said. "There are still some schools above us competitively that we need to reach, and there are some schools that we compete very well with. The competition is clearly NAIA national-level competition within our league in all sports. Obviously, what we want to try to achieve is that level of competitiveness."

Tyler Hyde, the conference's sports information director, said Coastal made a significant impact in its first season.

"Coastal Georgia has been a great addition to the Southern States Athletic Conference," Hyde said.

"They entered the SSAC, one of the most competitive NAIA conferences in the country, and immediately had a big impact and a strong showing in men's and women's golf, men's and women's tennis and women's basketball. We are very excited to see what Coastal Georgia has to bring to the table for the 2013-14 academic year."

The first year of SSAC play was a learning experience for Huebner's squad. A tough schedule prepared the Mariners for conference play and had them ready to surprise their new conference foes at the SSAC tournament.

"I think we were able to embrace the underdog role," Huebner said. "We really seized the opportunity to become a performance-under-pressure program. Something we really stress here is, what does it take to be a winner, and (it takes) doing all the right things over a long period of time. Seeing it pay off in your first year in the conference was a huge deal for us."

Huebner also sees the school starting to embrace its new-found athletic identity. He said the Mariners had the best attendance during volleyball season of any school in the SSAC, and part of that credit goes to the student athletes themselves.

"I think our student athletes' performance on campus is really remarkable," Huebner said. "In the classroom, we have the most successful student population in the student demographic. I think our players' peers can see the work that goes into being an athlete at Coastal Georgia. I do think that this year, it was something where we saw the kids embrace athletics as a whole."

Carlton, too, has seen the fans begin to flock to Coastal athletic events. He said Mariner games and matches offer an inexpensive and wholesome atmosphere while providing an entertaining product.

"We've certainly done some things, and we need to do some more things, to get the fan support out that we need," Carlton said.

"If people in our community will just take a risk, if you will, to come see one of our contests -- see the quality of our play, and the caliber of our young folks and our coaching -- I think they will be hooked."

As great as the success was in Coastal's first year, both Carlton and Huebner are excited to see the Mariner programs build off that success heading into the coming school year.

"We're looking forward to turning a corner this year, not just with our team but a lot of our teams," Huebner said. "I think we're all right on the cusp of what it takes to be a perennial national contender, and now it's just about taking the steps to accomplish that goal."

Huebner's volleyball team will get the first crack at showing if it can build off the momentum of last year. It also means the Mariners netters will get a chance to earn their first berth in an NAIA tournament.

Having seen two squads already break through that ceiling, Huebner not only wants to join them but beat the other squads by becoming the first Coastal program to win a game or match in the national tournament.

"We have a philosophy in our program where it just takes one person to prove that something is possible, and everybody else can do it," Huebner said. "You see it happen, especially in athletics, all the time. I feel like there is a lot of that in our athletic department where we are looking at our women's tennis program and our women's basketball team that performed so well. While we're very happy for them, our kids felt like that could and should be us.

"The new record to set is winning something in the first round. That's something we are looking to establish as Coastal Georgia volleyball."

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Release Date: 6/22/2013
Source: The Brunswick News

By BUDDY HUGHES