By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Tech's Eblen Center played host to the Second Annual Golden Wings Awards Monday evening, once again engaging the population of the Golden Eagle student-athletes, faculty and staff with an ESPYs style end-of-year event.
Designed to recognize excellence by Tennessee Tech student-athletes and coaches, the night was a video-based production featuring over 20 awards and honors that reached each of Tech's 14 teams. For the first time, the banquet was opened to the public, allowing fans and dignitaries the opportunity to enjoy the festivities live. The show was also broadcast live on the OVC Digital Network, allowing fans across the nation and world to view the accomplishments of Tech student-athletes.
The timeframe of the awards period was the current season (2016-17 in this instance) except for baseball, softball and outdoor track & field. With those sports still competing with a large portion of their seasons left, the previous spring campaigns (2016 in this instance) were recognized. New to this year's Golden Wings Awards were the addition of the annual Male and Female Athlete of the Year and Man and Woman of the Year awards, Tech's original four annual athletic awards. The Man and Woman of the Year awards encompassed the 2016-17 period for all sports.
Doors opened at 7 p.m. CT, affording the student-athletes time to mingle, utilize the multiple photo booths available, conduct stand-up video interviews and enjoy a buffet of food options all in a gala "Purple Carpet" reception. The show followed at 8 p.m.
The show kicked off almost immediately, with D'Airrien Jackson and Kevin Strohschein taking home the Female and Male Freshman of the Year honors. Winning for her accomplishments during the 2016 Outdoor Track & Field season, Jackson was named the Ohio Valley Conference Outdoor Track Female Freshman of the Year and set school records in the 400-meter, 800-meter, 4x100-meter relay, 4x400-meter relay and 4x800-meter relay. She also took home OVC medalist honors in the 800-meter in the Outdoor Championships.
A right fielder for the baseball team, Strohschein put together one of the most prolific freshman campaigns in league history in 2016, becoming the first player in the 67-year history of the OVC to earn both Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors. He took home numerous All-American and Freshman All-American accolades, highlighted by the Louisville Slugger National Co-Freshman Player of the Year Award from Collegiate Baseball newspaper. He set multiple program records and freshman marks in his first season in the purple and gold.
Academic success was recognized next, with winners announced as the Large and Small Academic Team of the Year. The large team included the squads with rosters of 15 or more student-athletes, while the definition of small teams was squads with rosters of less than 15 student-athletes. The winners were determined by the highest percentage of the roster to be included on the Athletic Director's Honor Roll in each of the past two semesters (Spring '16 and Fall '16).
In the large team's category, the soccer team took first place for the second consecutive year, followed by volleyball and the track & field teams. Among the small teams, the winner was women's cross country, with tennis second and women's golf third.
Next up were the first set of Golden Eagle Awards, an honor created by members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Each team voted to select one member of the roster whom they would hold up with pride to represent the team, who is always positive and giving 110 percent, supporting their teammates, win or lose, and serving as the "heart" of the team, no matter whether they were a star or a seldom-used backup. Each winner was announced by a teammate, who explained via video why the winner was selected.
The first set of Golden Eagle Awards were that of the fall season sports. Among those honored were football's Tim Collins, women's cross country's Madison Stremler, volleyball's Shealene Little, men's cross country's Daniel Williamson and soccer's Abi Gearing.
Following closely in the program, the Female and Male Newcomer of the Year Awards were presented next, with Micayla Rennick of the indoor track & field and women's cross country teams and Michael Birdsong of the football team collecting the 2017 honors. Rennick was Tech's top performer in every cross country meet this season, placing first at the Greater Louisville Classic. She also boasted team-best finishes in the 800-meter, mile run, 3,000-meter, 5,000-meter and distance medley relay in the indoor track & field season.
Birdsong set the program record for total offense in a single season, compiling just over 2,800 yards through the air and on the ground. His season passing yards total of 2,577 ranked second all time in school history and ranked second in the OVC.
The Community Service Award was announced next, recognizing teams for their finish in a t-shirt collection competition sponsored by SAAC. The softball team claimed that honor for the second straight year.
The Golden Eagle Cheer and Dance teams were provided special recognition with a highlight video from their award-winning seasons of competition as well as their performances and appearances at the countless events, games and matches from throughout the past year.
Continuing with the program, the Breakthrough Male and Female Athlete of the Year Awards were distributed. Linebacker Josh Poplar snagged the men's honor after earning All-OVC Second Team honors in 2016. He led the Golden Eagles and ranked third in the league with 105 total tackles one year after making just 14 in limited action.
The women's honor went to Yaktavia "Shug" Hickson after her stellar junior campaign, in which she earned a spot on the All-OVC First Team. She ranked first on the team and third in the OVC in scoring (16.9 ppg) in 2016-17, more than doubling her output from the 2015-16 season.
Tech's Game of the Year Award went to the men's basketball team for its comeback victory Jacksonville State in overtime, with senior Kajon Mack and juniors Aleksa Jugovic and Mason Ramsey accepting the award on the team's behalf.
Trailing by seven points with less than 40 seconds to play, Jugovic drained a three and then Mack made back-to-back steals and layups to tie the game at 68 and force overtime. Then, with just under two second left in the extra period, Jugovic sunk two free throws to provide Tech with the winning score of 79-78 to help all-but clinch a berth to the OVC Tournament.
The second set of Golden Eagle Awards featured the winter sports. Winners included Kelly Bolton of the cheer squad, Kajon Mack of the men's basketball team, Yaktavia "Shug" Hickson of the women's basketball team, Haley Kramer of the dance team and Na'Asha Robinson of the track & field teams.
The 2017 Coach of the Year was presented to Wayne Angel for his leadership of the indoor track & field team. The squad placed second overall at the OVC Indoor Championships, the highest finish in program history and just 14 points behind the champion, Eastern Illinois. He was named OVC Indoor Track & Field Coach of the Year as well.
Presented to the student-athlete that makes the biggest impact and achieves at the highest level athletically following a season in which significant time was missed due to injury, the Comeback Athlete of the Year Award went to football's J.T. Rankin.
The senior center started every game for the football team in 2016 one year after missing all but three games due to hip surgery, often a career-ending ailment for offensive lineman. Rankin returned as a graduate student to anchor a unit that provided protection for one of the best offensive teams in school history.
A former four-year member of the soccer team and tutor in the Athletic Academic offices the past year, Taylor Sutton was honored as the recipient of the Inspiration Award. Her story was told through a video interview piece that highlighted her courageous tale. All in attendance at the Golden Wings Awards stood in ovation for the fifth-year student-athlete, honoring her as she accepted the award on stage. To watch the video on Sutton's inspirational story, click here.
Men's cross country runner Gilbert Boit earned the Performance of the Year Award, snagging the honor after his showing at the OVC Championships. The freshman became the first Golden Eagle ever to win the league title, defeating the field of 90 runners by at least 10 seconds, just one day after being named the OVC Freshman of the Year.
Kajon Mack received the Play of the Year Award for his dunk against Murray State at the OVC Tournament. Trailing the Racers by two with the clock running down, Mack found room down the lane and streaked to the rim for a thundering, last-second, two-handed slam to tie the game and force the first of two overtime periods.
The final set of Golden Eagle Awards were presented the members of the spring sports at Tennessee Tech. Baseball's Ryan Flick, men's golf's A.J. Wilkerson, women's golf's Haley Davidson, softball's Ashley McGowan and tennis' Alberto Esteban were honored.
For the second straight year, there were co-winners of the Team of the Year Award. The first to be called up to the stage were representatives from the Indoor Track & Field team, which claimed its highest finish at the OVC Championships in program history. Also for the second consecutive year, the tennis team was named a co-winner of the award, backed by the program's second OVC Tournament title and third OVC regular season title in as many years.
The final four honors of the night were new additions to the 2017 Golden Wings Awards; Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year, Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year, Woman of the Year and Man of the Year.
Sophomore goalkeeper Kari Naerdemann took home the Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year Award after claiming her second straight OVC Defensive Player of the Year honor. She led the OVC in goals against average and save percentage while registering a program-record 11 shutouts and allowed a program-low 13 goals in 21 matches. Naerdemann, who was named Female Freshman of the Year a season ago, also took home All-OVC First Team honors in her second season.
A junior on the tennis team, Eduardo Mena captured the Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year Award a year after sharing the honor with baseball's Kevin Strohschein. Mena was named the OVC Player of the Year for the second straight year, continuing his unbeaten mark in league play from last season. He was ranked among the top 100 players nationally all season, reaching as high as No. 55 while guiding the team to OVC regular season and tournament championships.
Woman of the Year, Tech Athletics' longest standing award (first presented in 1991), was bestowed upon women's cross country and indoor track & field's Sarah Brandt. Last year's Female Newcomer of the Year Award winner, Brandt has set multiple school records in her time in a Golden Eagle uniform. Academically, she has been named to the Athletic Director's Honor Roll every semester since she arrived at Tech. Her service to the community has been highly impressive, highlighted by her serving as a Petty Officer Third Class Master at Arms in the United State Naval Reserve and a mission trip to the Dominican Republic last summer.
Men's cross country runner Daniel Williamson was selected as Tech's Man of the Year. The senior served as the President of SAAC and was a three-time captain of the men's cross country during his career. He earned a place on every Athletic Director's Honor Roll and OVC Commissioner's Honor Roll in his time at Tech. Throughout the community and across campus, Williamson racked up 100s of volunteer hours serving in various roles.
Female Freshman of the Year: D'Airrien Jackson, Outdoor Track & Field
Male Freshman of the Year: Kevin Strohschein, Baseball
Large Academic Team of the Year: Soccer
Small Academic Team of the Year: Women's Cross Country
Golden Eagle Awards (Fall):
Football – Tim Collins
Women's Cross Country – Madison Stremler
Volleyball – Shealene Little
Men's Cross Country – Daniel Williamson
Soccer – Abi Gearing
Female Newcomer of the Year: Micayla Rennick, Indoor Track & Field / Women's Cross Country
Male Newcomer of the Year: Michael Birdsong, Football
Community Service Award: Softball
Breakthrough Male Athlete of the Year: Josh Poplar, Football
Breakthrough Female Athlete of the Year: Yaktavia "Shug" Hickson, Women's Basketball
Game of the Year: Men's Basketball Overtime Victory at Jacksonville State
Golden Eagle Awards (Winter):
Cheer – Kelly Bolton
Men's Basketball – Kajon Mack
Women's Basketball – Yaktavia "Shug" Hickson
Dance – Haley Kramer
Track & Field – Na'Asha Robinson
Coach of the Year: Wayne Angel, Indoor Track & Field
Comeback Athlete of the Year: J.T. Rankin, Football
Inspiration Award: Taylor Sutton, Soccer
Performance of the Year: Gilbert Boit (Men's Cross Country) at OVC Championships
Play of the Year: Kajon Mack (Men's Basketball) vs. Murray State at OVC Tournament
Golden Eagle Awards (Spring):
Baseball – Ryan Flick
Men's Golf – A.J. Wilkerson
Women's Golf – Haley Davidson
Softball – Ashley McGowan
Tennis – Alberto Esteban
Teams of the Year: Indoor Track & Field / Tennis
Outstanding Female Athlete of the Year: Kari Naerdemann, Soccer
Outstanding Male Athlete of the Year: Eduardo Mena, Tennis
Woman of the Year: Sarah Brandt, Women's Cross Country
Man of the Year: Daniel Williamson, Men's Cross Country
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information