By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – For the fourth straight year, Tennessee Tech's Hooper Eblen Center served as the host site of the Athletics Department's annual Golden Wings Awards Thursday evening, celebrating the achievements of Golden Eagle student-athletes and coaches from the past year.
Designed to recognize excellence by Tennessee Tech student-athletes and coaches, the ESPYs-style, end-of-year event is a video-based production featuring over 20 awards and honors that reach each of Tech's 14 teams. The show was broadcast live on the YouTube, allowing fans across the nation and world to view the accomplishments of Tech student-athletes, and can be viewed in its entirety here.
The timeframe of the awards period was the current season (2018-19 in this instance) except for those Tech programs competing in the spring, including baseball, men's golf, women's golf softball, outdoor track & field and tennis. With those sports still competing with a large portion of their seasons left, the previous campaigns (2017-18 in this instance) were recognized. The Man and Woman of the Year awards encompassed the 2018-19 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.
Following its record-shattering 2018 campaign, the Tennessee Tech baseball squad was honored as this year's Team of the Year. The baseball team, led by the nation's most potent offense, set the Ohio Valley Conference and program records for wins, finishing the year an eye-popping 53-12 on its way to a dominant run to the league's regular season title. The team's 27-3 mark in OVC play, a new record, as well as the longest winning streak in the history of the league (28 straight wins) helped the Golden Eagles earn the first-ever at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Once there, the team continued to make history, becoming the OVC team ever to win an NCAA Regional. Tech defeated No. 2 ranked Ole Miss twice on its home field, something that had only occurred twice the entire season leading up the to the Regional. The Golden Eagles advanced the Super Regionals (the first OVC team to do so), winning its first game over Texas before finally being eliminated in the best-of-three series.
The most prestigious honors presented by Tech Athletics each year, the Man and Woman of the Year Awards were presented to two most deserving individuals.
A senior setter on the volleyball team, Susie Jeziorowski was named Woman of the Year after graduating in December with a perfect 4.0 grade point average in Computer Science, with concentrations in Software and Scientific Applications, and Cybersecurity. Currently pursuing her master's degree in Computer Science from Tennessee Tech, she earned the prestigious CyberCorps Scholarship for Service for the spring semester.
She strung together countless hours of community service and campus involvement throughout her career, serving as the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee secretary for three years. She was also the vice president and public relations manager for the Love Your Melon Crew and the president of the Cyber Eagles Women's Club, a leadership group that focuses on supporting and empowering women in cybersecurity.
Tech's Man of the Year for 2018-19 was linebacker Josh Poplar, who completed his undergraduate career with a 3.97 GPA and bachelor's degree in business last spring. He currently carries a 4.0 GPA while pursuing his MBA (master's of business administration). The former walk-on also devoted several hours towards community service projects throughout his career.
After missing the 2017 season following a stroke and heart surgery, Poplar finished second on the team with 101 tackles in 2018, highlighted by an interception returned for a touchdown in his first game back with the Golden Eagles. He was named a Google Cloud Academic All-District recipient, an honorable mention for the Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award and earned a spot on the FCS ADA Academic All-Star Team, among several other honors.
Female Athlete of the Year was presented to an athlete currently in the midst of one of the greatest careers by a Golden Eagle, sophomore women's cross country and track & field member Purity Sanga. Between this year's cross country and indoor track & field campaigns alone, the youngster claimed both Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Championships between each sport.
She qualified for the NCAA Championships for the second straight year in cross country and posted the top four marks in program history for the 5K. During the indoor track & field season, she collected first place finishes in each of her four events while guiding the Golden Eagles to their second straight OVC title.
For the second time in his illustrious career, senior outfielder Kevin Strohschein was named Tech's Male Athlete of the Year. Despite being relegated to designated hitter duties for the majority of the 2018 campaign due to an injury, the slugger went on to become the first consensus All-American in program history, slashing .375/.433/.650 with 18 doubles, 18 home runs, 67 RBI and 106 hits.
He earned his second career OVC Player of the Year honor while becoming the first Tech player to be named a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award. Strohschein, along with teammate Chase Chambers, were also the first Golden Eagles to be named semifinalists for the Dick Howser Trophy.
The Coach of the Year Award was split between Wayne Angel (cross country and track and field) and former baseball head coach Matt Bragga. Under Angel's direction, Tech won the 2018 OVC Outdoor Track and Field championship (the program's first), the 2019 OVC Indoor Track and Field Championship (the program's second), as well as the OVC Athlete of the Year and Athlete of the Championship in both events and the OVC Cross Country Championship. Angel was named OVC Coach of the Year for the third straight year
Bragga led the Golden Eagle baseball team to a program-record 53 wins, an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, an NCAA Regional championship and the conference's first appearance in an NCAA Super Regional. He was also named the OVC and TBCA Coach of the Year.
Track and field's Khemani Roberts was named Tech's Female Newcomer of the Year, while baseball's John Ham was named the Male Newcomer of the Year. At the 2018 OVC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, Roberts, a Coppin State transfer, placed first as part of the 4x400m relay, second in the heptathlon, third in the high jump and seventh in the long jump.
Ham, a transfer from Dyersburg State CC, was named to the All-OVC first team, the South-ABCA/Rawlings All-Region second team and twice the OVC Player of the Week. He became just the third Tech player in the last 25 years to hit for the cycle and set program records for second basemen in home runs and RBI.
Quarterback Bailey Fisher was named Tech's Male Freshman of the Year, while Janet Kwambai (women's cross country) was the Female Freshman of the Year. Fisher was the OVC Freshman of the Year and was on the league's All-Newcomer Team, and was also a finalist for the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award, recognizing the top freshman of the year in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Kwambai was the OVC co-Freshman of the Year in cross country and posted the ninth best 5K time in school history.
Kentoria Alexander (women's basketball) was the Breakthrough Female Athlete of the Year, while Brennon Kaleiwahea (baseball) was the Breakthrough Male Athlete of the Year. Alexander finished the season ranked third In the OVC in 3-point field goal percentage, sixth in assists, seventh in assist/turnover ratio and 15th in rebounding.
Kaleiwahea was named to the All-OVC second team, the NCAA Oxford All-Regional team and was an OVC Player of the Week as he ranked 21st nationally and sixth in the OVC in runs scored, seventh in the OVC in batting average, sixth in on-base percentage and fifth in hits.
Game of the Year went to the Tech baseball team's win over Ole Miss to clinch its first NCAA Regional championship and the OVC's first appearance in an NCAA Super Regional. Tech defeated Ole Miss for the second time in the same day – against a team that had only lost two home games all season – after trailing 2-0 into the bottom of the sixth.
The game also provided another award winner as Trevor Putzig's game-tying two-run home run was named the Play of the Year.
Kesha Brady (women's basketball) was named Tech's Comeback Athlete of the Year after missing most of the 2017-18 season with an ACL tear. Brady rebounded this season, ranking fourth in the OVC in free throw percentage and 22nd in scoring.
Akia Harris (women's basketball) was named the recipient of the 2019 Inspiration Award in her efforts back on the court after a fight with DVT and blood clots in her legs that almost prematurely ended her basketball career.
Alex Hursey's complete-game three-hitter against Missouri State in an NCAA Regional elimination game, as well as Sanga's four OVC titles in the 2019 OVC Indoor Track and Field Championships were named co-winners of the Performance of the Year award.
Golden Eagle Awards to the players who were elected as the best representative of their teams, the heart and soul of their programs were awarded to a member from each team. The winners included: Brannon Cheplak (men's cross country), Shealene Little (volleyball), Josh Poplar (football), Purity Sanga (women's cross country), Kaitie Shipley (soccer), Kelsea Giantonio (cheerleading and dance), Lacy Cantrell (women's basketball), Cade Crosland (men's basketball), Lisa Wickham (track and field), Sydney Love-Baker (softball), Kevin Strohschein (baseball), Connor Golden (tennis), Will Brooks (men's golf) and Shelby Johnson (women's golf).
Photo by Thomas Corhern, TTU Sports Information