Friedlander: Forget the ESPYs. Here are the Saturday Road Specials, celebrating the best in the ACC for 2022-23
ESPN handed out its annual ESPY awards on Tuesday, celebrating the best of the best in sports for the past year.
Although 2 athletes with ACC ties were nominated, current Duke lacrosse star Brennan O’Neal and former Blue Devil Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, neither was among the winners.
That’s only fitting, since it wasn’t exactly a banner year for the ACC.
Especially in the sports that matter.
But there were plenty of superlative performances worthy of recognition.
So before we turn our attention to looking ahead to the start of the 2023-24 athletic year, here’s one final look back at the best of the best in the ACC for 2022-23.
Let’s call them the SaturdayRoad.com Specials.
Wake Forest baseball
No, the Deacons didn’t win the College World Series. But that’s about the only thing coach Tom Walter’s team didn’t accomplish this season.
Wake won a school-record 54 games, earned the first No. 1 national ranking in school history, got back to the College World Series for the 1st time since 1955, energized its fan base and introduced itself to others far beyond the ACC’s geographic footprint by going toe-to-toe against the best teams the SEC had to offer in Omaha.
Its epic 11-inning battle against LSU in the CWS semifinal was an instant classic that will be remembered for years to come.
The Deacons piled up individual honors, including a 2nd straight ACC Pitcher of the Year selection for ace Rhett Lowder. Third baseman Brock Wilken became the ACC’s all-time leading home run hitter while joining Lowder as a 1st round MLB Draft pick. In all, a school-record 10 players were taken in the 20-round draft, helping the ACC finish the athletic year on a high note.
Other finalists: Miami men’s basketball, Louisville women’s basketball, Notre Dame men’s lacrosse.
Best male athlete
As Wake got set to begin its journey on the road to Omaha last month, Walter stated the obvious when he said that “every time Rhett Lowder takes the mound, we feel really good about our chances.”
He had good reason to feel that way.
Lowder might not have looked overpowering with his trademark shoulder-length hair flowing with every pitch. But he proved to be a master of changing speeds, hitting corners and sending opposing hitters back to their dugout in frustration.
The 2-time ACC Pitcher of the Year went undefeated this season, setting new school records with 15 wins and 143 strikeouts along the way while ranking in the top 10 nationally with a 1.87 ERA. Even though the Deacons lost the final game he pitched, Lowder was brilliant in trading zeroes with LSU’s Paul Skenes for 7 innings of shutout ball in the College World Series semifinals.
The Cincinnati Reds have selected RHP Rhett Lowder (15-0, 1.87 ERA). Excellent command of all of his offerings, FB will sit in the 92-95 mph range. Supplements his heater with a plus-plus changeup and plus SL. One of the higher floor arms in the class. pic.twitter.com/Tug2KsFBUc
— Peter Flaherty III (@PeterGFlaherty) July 9, 2023
Skenes ended up as the No 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft. Lowder went 6 picks later to the Cincinnati Reds, capping a dream season that saw him named the ACC’s Male Athlete of the Year.
Other finalists: North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye, Florida State defensive end Jared Verse, Duke lacrosse forward Brennan O’Neal.
Best female athlete
Even after being named the ACC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year in 2021-22, Kitley felt as though she could still do more after her team fell short of its goals during the postseason. This year, the 6-6 Virginia Tech star took her teammates along for the ride with her.
She averaged 18.8 points per game while leading the ACC in rebounds (10.7), blocks (2.3) and double-doubles with 18. While becoming only the 10th woman in conference history to win multiple Player of the Year awards was nice, she took even more pride in leading her team to a 31-5 record and the 1st Final 4 appearance in school history.
Kitley was especially good when the Hokies needed her most. Among her pest performances was a 25-point, 12-rebound 3-block effort in the NCAA Region final against Ohio State that clinched the trip to Dallas.
Other finalists: NC State distance runner Katelyn Tuohy, UNC field hockey player Erin Matson, Wake Forest golfer Rachel Kuehn.
Most coaches his age are retiring or screaming at a cloud about the changes brought about by NIL and the transfer portal.
At age 73, he’s like the cool grandfather who knows the lyrics to all the latest tunes and can name all the Marvel superheroes and gladly hands the keys to his Delta 88 to the kids when they want to go out with their friends on a Friday night.
He embraced the new realities of college sports, along with learning a few new dance moves for his postgame celebrations. It’s an approach that paid off in his 2nd and Miami’s 1st trip to the Final Four.
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) March 25, 2023
Led by ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong and key portal pickups Norchad Omier and Nijel Pack, the Hurricanes made it to Houston as a No. 5 seed, upsetting top-seeded Houston in the Midwest Region semifinals along the way. But it was hardly a fluke.
Larrañaga’s team shared the ACC regular season title during a season in which Miami won a school record 29 games. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a contract extension through 2027.
Other finalists: Virginia Tech women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks, Syracuse men’s soccer coach Ian McIntyre, Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter.
Best breakthrough athlete
It didn’t take long for the question of how the North Carolina football team would replace star quarterback Sam Howell to be answered.
Only one game.
Drake Maye ended the conversation by becoming the first Tar Heel to throw for 5 touchdowns in his debut start. A week later he put up 63 points at Appalachian State.
By midseason the redshirt freshman, whose father also played quarterback at UNC and whose brother Luke is a Tar Heel basketball cult hero, had injected himself smack into the middle of the Heisman Trophy conversation while leading his team to the Coastal Division title.
Maye finished the year completing 66% of his passes for 4,321 yards and 38 touchdowns while also leading UNC in rushing. Because of his size, toughness and arm strength, he’s being projected as the possible No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft. In other words, about 4 rounds earlier than Howell eventually went.
Other finalists: Duke men’s basketball player Kyle Filipowski, Florida State women’s basketball player, Ta’Niya Latson, Clemson baseball player Cam Cannarella.
NC State-UNC football
You’ve heard it a million times. You can throw out the record books when these rivals meet. In reality, it doesn’t always work that way. But it did when the Wolfpack and Tar Heels got together at Kenan Stadium on Nov. 25.
UNC had already clinched the Coastal Division title and led by Heisman contender Maye, was headed for the conference championship game. State, reduced to starting a 4th-string quarterback, was looking to salvage something positive from a season sidetracked by injuries.
Fourth string QB Ben Finley plants the flag at Kenan Stadium after leading #NCState to a double OT win over UNC.
This is College Football. pic.twitter.com/EgEhzIYlcA
— Jordan Crammer (@JordanCrammer) November 26, 2022
The game turned out to be a classic. One play after having a tying touchdown nullified upon review, Maye sent the game to overtime by hitting Antoine Green in the end zone on a 4th-down pass with 2 seconds left in regulation. In the end it, though, was the Wolfpack’s Ben Finley that stole the day. He completed 27-of-40 passes for 271 yards and 2 touchdowns to lead his team to a double overtime victory.
Other finalists: Wake’s CWS semifinal vs. LSU, NC State women’s basketball comeback vs. UNC, Alex Mooney’s walk-off homer to help Duke baseball beat Louisville.
Best record-breaking performance
The NC State distance runner didn’t just break 1 record in 2022-23. She put her name in the books 3 times.
In January, she ran the fastest women’s indoor mile in NCAA history with a time of 4:24.26 at the Dr. Sander Invitational in New York, bettering the old mark by a full second-and-a-half. Then 2 weeks later at the Millrose Games, also in New York, she added the NCAA 3,000-meter record to her resume, finishing in 8:51.92.
She went on to win national championships in the 3,000 and 5,000, adding the titles to the 1 she claimed in cross country during the fall season. She capped her amazing year, which culminated in her being named the ACC’s Female Athlete of the Year, by setting the NCAA outdoor record in the 5,000 meters in a time of 15:13.12.
Other finalist: Israel Abanikanda breaking Tony Dorsett’s Pitt single-game record by rushing for 320 yards and 6 touchdowns against Virginia Tech, Sam Hartman becoming the ACC’s all-time touchdown pass leader, Wilken breaking the ACC’s (and Wake’s) career home run record.
Best individual performance
Kathryn Sandercock’s perfect game
With Florida State’s season on the line in the NCAA Tallahassee Softball Regional Final against South Carolina, Sandercock retired all 21 Gamecocks hitters without anyone reaching base. She was mobbed by her teammates after the final out of a 1-0 victory.
KATHRYN SANDERCOCK IS PERFECT TO SEND FSU TO THE SUPERS‼️
First perfect game in Florida State NCAA tournament history 🤯 pic.twitter.com/QJtMAg5OJO
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 21, 2023
Sandercock’s gem was the first postseason perfect game in Seminoles history and the first perfecto by an FSU pitcher in any game since the 2016 regular season. It served as a springboard for a trip to the Women’s College World Series, where FSU advanced to the championship series against Oklahoma.
Other finalists: Abinakanda’s big game against Virginia Tech; Jordan Moore’s “perfect” game against Texas to lift Miami to the Final Four; Georgia Amoore recording the first triple-double in Virginia Tech women’s basketball history.
Best championship performance
Notre Dame, Duke lacrosse semifinals
The Irish and Blue Devils played for the national title in Philadelphia on Labor Day Monday. But in order to get to the final, both teams had to survive dramatic overtime semifinals 2 days earlier. Duke got its golden goal from Garrett Leadmon 1:05 into sudden death for a 16-15 victory against Penn State.
Adding to the drama was the fact that it appeared as though Leadmon stepped into the crease as he shot. Because it was ruled the ball entered the net before the violation occurred, the goal counted.
Eventual champion Notre Dame advanced with a goal by Brian Tevlin just 29 seconds into overtime. It completed a comeback that saw the Irish rally from a 2-goal deficit in the final 3 minutes of regulation for a 13-12 victory against ACC rival Virginia.
Other finalists: Cade Klubnick coming off the bench to lead Clemson to the ACC football title; Kyle Filipowski powering Duke past Virginia in the ACC Tournament final; Wilken’s 3 homers to beat Alabama and advance to the College World Series.
Most memorable moment
Jim Boeheim’s swansong
Some people go out with a bang. Others walk away with a whimper. When the curtain fell on Jim Boeheim’s Hall of Fame run as Syracuse’s basketball coach in March, the end came in the most appropriate way possible.
With a contentious sparring session with the media.
Boeheim almost certainly knew that he was about to be pushed out when he met the press following a season-ending 77-74 ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest on March 8. But he wasn’t about to admit it.
"I gave my retirement speech on the court last Saturday and I gave it to the press conference afterwards." – Jim Boeheim after Syracuse's 77-74 ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest pic.twitter.com/1Bc708vsY6
— Cuse Sports Talk (@CuseSportsTalk_) March 8, 2023
The transcript of the exchange is both funny and sad. And right on brand for the cantankerous Hall of Famer:
Q: Are you saying right now that you’re going to retire?
JIM BOEHEIM: “This is up to the university.”
Q: You want to come back?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I didn’t say that.”
Q: So what are you saying? You’re not saying you’re retiring?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I just said it. I don’t know.”
Q: So you don’t know?
JIM BOEHEIM: “I said this is up to the university.”
Q: You’re not sure whether … How will you make a determination about when you will come back?
JIM BOEHEIM: “You’re talking to the wrong guy.”
About 2 hours later, Syracuse announced that Boeheim had officially “stepped down” and was replaced by associate head coach Adrian Autry.
Most forgettable moment
Louisville’s basketball season
The Cardinals suffered through the worst season in the 109-year history of their once proud program by going 4-28 (2-18 ACC). They lost to Lenoir-Rhyne, Bellarmine, Wright State and Lipscomb and in doing so, dragged down the ACC’s cumulative NET ranking so low that no league team managed higher than a No. 4 NCAA Tournament seeding and Clemson got left out of the field despite winning 23 games and going 14-6 in the conference.