By Chris Chaney
When Michael Jordan was asked during the recent run-up to his 50th birthday about the best players in professional basketball, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant dominated the conversation. However, it was a more under-the-radar star that Jordan had his eye on – Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant. Of the lanky 6-foot-9 small forward Jordan simply said, “he’s coming.”
The same could be said of the UC-Clermont Lady Cougars. Coming off their sixth-consecutive National Tournament appearance, the little-known regional campus of the University of Cincinnati is gaining the national recognition that head coach Michael Matthews has worked so hard to garner.
“I’m proud of our school and the quality of education that our professors are giving,” Matthews said. “Our program is right there with the schools that give scholarships. Our administration has a commitment to allow us to travel four to six hours away to play schools. The effect that has is that we’re playing at the USCAA Division I level, but we’re Division II and it has a great effect on our team.”
Playing higher divisions has allowed the Lady Cougars to excel and grow as athletes, which in turn grows the program.
This year that growth rate was recognized at the USCAA National Banquet during the USCAA National Tournament week from Feb. 26-March 2. Five individuals were honored at the ceremony, including three with Clermont County roots.
“That means that one half of our team received recognition for athletic or academic excellence at the USCAA National Tournament – what a great representation for UC Clermont College!” said Director of Student Life Kim Ellison.
Headlining the awards was Felicity graduate Marisa Stutz. Stutz was named a First Team All-American for the second consecutive year. A leader both on the court and in the stat book, Stutz has been a key component to the Lady Cougars run of success during her four years at UC Clermont.
“The interesting thing about Marisa is that there are two parts to her game,” Matthews explained. “One is the mental and the other is the physical. Regardless of what kind of game Marisa has mentally, physically, she does everything else. Game in and game out, she’ll have 10 rebounds, five to seven assists, five to seven steals, four blocks. Everything clicks with her. She’s focused and she scores it well.”
Joining Stutz in All-American honors were Ashley Keith and Stacie Lee who were both named to the Second Team.
Keith, a 5-foot-7 guard/forward out of Clark Montessori, was another go-to scorer for the Lady Cougars. Keith and Stutz manned the backcourt and forced their opponents to respect both of them as scorers as opposed to keying in on one of them defensively.
“She comes from a winning background and oftentimes when the game is on the line, Ashley can score whenever she wants, she’s a scorer,” Matthews said. “When the games on the line, we think it’s Ashley Time. We get the ball to Ashley and she gets it done.”
Lee was the Lady Cougars answer in the middle. At 6-foot-1, Lee faces some taller opponents, but she zigs to the zag of the perimeter-oriented Stutz and Keith.
Despite missing the USCAA Tournament due to an infection, Lee is only a junior and will be a key piece to Matthews puzzle going forward.
Milford graduate Alex Junker was honored as well at the awards ceremony as an Academic All-American for her hard work in the classroom. The 5-foot-10 sophomore also returns to the lineup next year.
Finally, Bethel-Tate graduate Tess Jenike earned her award during the tournament week, competing in and winning both the three-point shootout and the free throw contest. Jenike became the first dual winner of the competition.
On the mens’ side, freshman guard Kendall Beamon was named to the Second Team All-American list for his stellar play in his first season as a Cougar out of Withrow.