Freed-Hardeman University athletics added three regular season American Midwest Conference championships to its laurels in 2015: men’s basketball, women’s basketball and baseball.
For the Lion basketball team, it was the first-ever tournament title in the 40-year history of FHU men’s basketball. They had already claimed the regular season title. The fact that, at the beginning of the season, no one expected them to be in contention for a title made the 83-78 win over Lindenwood-Belleville all the sweeter. The fact that it was Coach Jason Shelton’s 200th win was the cherry on top.
According to John Armstrong, former FHU sports information director, “The team did what they had done all season. Take the sum of the parts and make the whole greater.”
Junior guard Evan Forhetz, a transfer from Lee University, concurred. “We all trust in each other and play so well together,” he said. “When you have a team that comes together like we do, it’s just something special.” “Special” it was for the team that had been picked to finish fifth in the conference and was totally ignored in the preseason national poll.
As the regular season champion, the team advanced to the national tournament in Kansas City. Two very unkind seconds at the end of the game led to a 71-69 loss to Missouri Valley in the opening round. Still, the Lions did not come home empty handed. Cameron Lewis, a senior guard from Nashville, was named a first team NAIA All-American and Ben Meiss, a senior guard from Memphis, was an honorable mention on the same team.
The Lions were also honored for their activities off the court. The NAIA named them the Buffalo Fund NAIA Champions of Character Award winner. The Lions were recognized for their service projects, including an ongoing relationship with Blake Rader, a young boy battling brain cancer. The team also volunteered at Youth Town, a local facility for troubled boys and participated in reading programs at local elementary schools. In addition, Coach Shelton presented the NAIA’s Core Values to approximately 125 third and fourth graders at a meet-the-team event.
The Lady Lions continued their dominance of the AMC, remaining unbeaten in the conference FHU joined two years ago. They have won the regular season and tournament championships both years. The team was led by two senior All-Americans, Haley Newby and Grace Alonso de Armino. In national tournament play, the team advanced to the Fab Four for the sixth time, defeating Cal State-San Marcos, 64-54, Benedictine, 69-62, and then Montana State-Northern, 63-50, before losing to Campbellsville, 56-52, in the semi-finals.
Despite the semifinal loss, Lady Lions took home several individual honors. Newby and Alonso de Armino repeated as All-Americans and sophomore guard Taleeah Cross was an honorable mention All-American selection. Newby was also the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and the Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association/NAIA National Player of the Year.
In addition, Coach Dale Neal was named the WBCA/NAIA National Coach of the Year. He won the 800th game of his collegiate coaching career during the season. In his 21-year career at FHU, his record is 577-163.
The baseball Lions also won the AMC regular season title by sweeping a double header over Hannibal-LaGrange. It was the 200th win in Coach Jonathan Estes’ career at FHU. His teams have won at least 30 games in five of his six years at FHU.
Estes was named the AMC Coach of the Year and Houston Looser, a sophomore second baseman from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was named the conference’s Newcomer of the Year. It was not to be Looser’s only post-season accolade; he was also named an honorable mention member of the NAIA All-American team. Five Lions were named to the first team all-conference squad: Looser, Bobby Seda, Argenis Salazar, J.C. Daily and Brandon Guske. Four additional players were named to the honorable mention team.
FHU closed out the conference tournament with a 35-14 record and a No. 23 ranking in the NAIA.
Since the team did not make it to the tournament championship game, they had to wait for an at-large invitation to the nationals. The bid came and the team went to Kingsport, Tennessee, for the first round. After an opening round 5-4 loss to Lindsey Wilson, the Lions dropped into the losers’ bracket in the double elimination tournament where they defeated Judson, 4-1, for their first-ever win in a national tournament. Jack Coleman, a junior left-hander, pitched a three-hitter for the win. Next, the Lions defeated fourth-seeded LSU-Alexandria, 10-2. The season ended with a 3-4 loss to the NAIA’s #3 team, Tennessee Wesleyan, in the 11th inning.