American’s Elijah Murphy wins ESPY Award but relishes on continuing his mentorship work

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

Photo by Jay Mutchnik

WASHINGTON – American University student-athlete Elijah Murphy recently saw his face on television being honored during the ESPY Awards and was left in awe.

Together with Howard University student-athlete Niah Woods, Murphy was one of seven recipients of the 2020 Billie Jean King Youth Leadership Award. The 157-pound wrestler said he did not know he was nominated until days before the show.

The moment his face flashed on the screen during the broadcast was “surreal,” but confirmed to Murphy that his work mentoring middle-school-aged children in the Washington, D.C. region meant that he was “doing something right.”

“[To] be in the same conversation as all those professional athletes and having people like Billie Jean King say your name and acknowledging the work that you’re putting in and saying that you’re an inspiration and that you give her confidence for the future alone, it really means a lot,” Murphy said.

The Northwestern High School alum was awarded for his work for The Grassroot Project, mentoring middle schoolers in Washington, D.C. in an array of topics, and will direct a grant to the organization to continue its outreach programs in the city.

The Grassroot Project partners with more than 50 D.C. public and charter schools to provide health education programs taught by NCAA student-athletes, which they call “non-traditional health educators.” The program chooses to work with student-athletes to build trusting relationships with the young students to discuss sensitive issues related to their health.

Topics include sexual, mental, and physical health, as well as nutrition. To break the ice, the “educators” are trained to start the conversation with interactive games before splitting into small group sessions.

While several of college friends were mentors, Murphy was unsure that his introverted personality would fit with the program’s objectives. His reservations on public speaking and being “goofy” around middle school students made him feel nervous and apprehensive initially.

“At the beginning, I didn’t see myself doing that because of the person I was, but I saw it as an opportunity for personal growth and also giving back and doing great community work,” Murphy said.

The Eagles athlete recalled the first few visits at a Washington, D.C. middle school where he was caught off-guard by their advanced knowledge levels on sexual health. Students already knew about antiretroviral drugs, the types of other medications needed to manage HIV, and the exchange of different bodily fluids can spread sexually transmitted diseases.

The District of Columbia Department of Health reported 12,322 D.C. residents, or 1.8% of the population, were living with HIV in late 2019. The humbling experience of not having answers, taught to mentors during training, moved Murphy to be a better listener and speak in a conversational tone.

“I talk to them as equals,” Murphy said. “Because I know that when I was that age, I didn’t like people talking down to me as if they were better than me or just because they’re were older than me, so they’re my equals.”

Along with his status as an American University student-athlete and a native of the area, students began to gravitate towards him.

“Being a Black student-athlete from Prince George’s County, you can go into one of the middle schools and impart to someone just basically being someone who looks like them and who is doing something that they want to do, which could potentially be a D-I athlete, or it could be to go to a college,” Murphy said.

Admittedly, having students trust him to share their lives with him can take its toll on Murphy. The discipline instilled in him as a wrestler pushes him to strive for perfection and shoulder their experiences with multiple conversations.

His journey began at Northwestern, where he went 85-30 during his career, leading him to American. The sport’s push for excellence helped him “walk the walk” in becoming a better mentor for his students.

“I wouldn’t be at American University right now if it weren’t for wrestling,” “I would never have met my coach while I was in high school, which allowed me to have that access to American University and had that connection to be able to go to American or be a part of The Grassroot Project.”

Murphy recently received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and has begun working towards his master’s degree. He plans to return to the mat for the 2020-21 season as a redshirt senior wrestler while completing the course work for his advanced degree a year early.

Murphy also plans to continue his work with The Grassroot Project as a paid internship program, while helping the organization revisit the mental health curriculum. He hopes to add listening sessions that tackle topics like systematic racism stemming from the protests fueled by the death of George Floyd.

Had the pandemic not occurred, Murphy believes students would have used the program to discuss police brutality and its effects on mental health in their community. The desire to share one’s experiences inspired him to join together with University of Maryland wrestler and Fort Washington native Jahi Jones in a two-part Instagram discussion on race in America.

His overall goal is to spread the importance of mental health in the African American community, and Murphy believes it starts with his work on a mentor. 

When asked about his thoughts of being looked up to, Murphy said his position as a role model goes beyond than his personal exploits as an athlete and relishes the opportunity to continue that path going forward.

“It’s being able to help them in any way, shape, or form, and that’s extremely important to me, as a psychology major, as a human being, and as a Black man,” Murphy said. “That’s extremely valuable to me to help when help is needed or make any type of impact, and I can.”

American signs five highly-touted playmakers to the 2020 men’s basketball recruiting class

By The Sports Pulse Staff

WASHINGTON – Five student-athletes have officially signed to join the American University men’s basketball program next season, announced head coach Mike Brennan earlier this week. 

Colin Smalls, Matt Rogers, Johnny O’Neil, Christian Lorng and Vic Brown have all signed National Letters of Intent and will add depth to a squad that finished second in the Patriot League last season. 

Smalls is a local product from St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (Potomac, Md.) and was coached by Kevin Jones, the 6-foot-2 guard helped the Lions to their best season in school history as a senior, finishing with a 24-4 mark and their first conference championship since 2015.

St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (Potomac, Md.) Colin Smalls inks his letter of intent to play for American University.

Smalls earned First Team All-Conference honors twice and finished his career and should be able to add some much-needed firepower to the Eagles offensive efforts. 

“Colin is a competitive lead guard who can really defend,” said Brennan. “An excellent decision-maker, I believe Colin will be able to run our team immediately.”

Rogers prepped at St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown, Md., where he was a member of the All-County First Team during his senior season. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks per game as a senior and was also tabbed as a Baltimore Catholic League Second Team honoree.

“Matt is a hard-playing, tough, competitive kid,” said Brennan. “He goes after every rebound, can really move on the perimeter defensively and will bring a ton of energy to the court. His offensive versatility allows him to score on the perimeter and inside.”

O’Neil joins American from Miami Shores, Fla., and Chaminade-Madonna College Prep, where he led the Lions to their first state tournament in 64 years. The sharpshooter hit 67% of his attempts from the field and 50% from three-point range as a senior while averaging 18 points per game, nine rebounds per game, and four assists per game.

The 6-foot-8 forward was named Most Valuable Player at the Martin Luther King Jr. Basketball Tournament and also earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team at the City Beautiful Invitational in Orlando. In addition to being tabbed as a Miami Herald All-County honoree, he was also recognized as one of the Top 40 high school basketball players in the state of Florida.

“Johnny is an ultra-skilled wing who can really shoot,” said Brennan. “He can guard multiple positions, block shots, and is extremely competitive.”

Lorng joins the AU program after spending two years at NJCAA D-I Chipola College in Marianna, Fla. He will be eligible to play for American immediately. Coached by Brenden Foley, Lorng earned Second Team All-Panhandle Conference in his sophomore campaign after starting all 27 games and averaging 6.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

Originally hailing from Paris, France, the 6-foot-9 center spent a postgraduate season at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., which boasts over 25 alumni that have played in the NBA, including Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier.

“Christian is a strong, aggressive post player who rebounds and finishes,” said Brennan. “He has competed and produced against high-level programs, and he will help us immediately.”

Brown arrives in Washington by way of Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Fla. The 6-foot-4 guard, who was coached by Ben Fratrik, was named to the Orlando Sentinel All-Area team after averaging 12.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, three assists, and 1.5 steals per game as a senior.

The Highlanders won district and regional championships on their way to the state semifinals in 2020.

“Vic is a multi-faceted guard. He does everything well, understands how to play and played for an excellent high school program,” said Brennan. “Vic understands what winning is about, and I look forward to him bringing that commitment to our program.

American Women’s Lacrosse team completes first undefeated season

By José Umaña/The Sports Pulse Contributor

WASHINGTON – After defeating Presbyterian 19-9 on March 10, the American University Women’s Lacrosse team was undefeated and ready to unleash its high-scoring offense on its Patriot League opposition during conference play. 

However, the spread of the coronavirus forced college sports officials to call off the rest of the lacrosse season. Interim Head Coach Maureen Breslin recalled the last meeting with her players being “filled with a lot of tears” but hopeful for the future.

“Going undefeated is an amazing thing,” Breslin said. “The way they focused on practice and worked on learning the plays and being specific with their shots. They took it seriously, and it translated into the games.” 

Despite its season being cut short, American’s undefeated 2020 record, the first in school history, is being revered as a historical one. Players and coaches hope it is the start of a more victorious era in Eagles’ lacrosse. 

American’s undefeated run consisted of seven straight victories against nonconference opponents, and the Eagles completed its first winning season since 2011. 

The record received notoriety for American as it finished the year as one of eight Division I teams to win all their games, receiving votes in the final women’s lacrosse Division I Media Poll

While it was “meaningful” to receive the recognition, Breslin called it a step forward as part of a long-term plan for the Eagles. After finishing 2019 with a 7-10 record, American entered the 2020 offseason with five returning senior players looking to make their first Patriot League Tournament appearance before graduating.  

Before the start of the season, former head coach Jenna Petrucelli was released in December for violating university policy on “misconduct and mismanagement,” according to a report by The Eagle. The athletic department hired Breslin, a former assistant field hockey coach and American lacrosse player, as an interim for the season. 

With the help of coaching staff, Breslin said the Eagles remained focus on controlling their own narrative, which was the theme of the season.

American attacker Casey Harkins. (Photo Courtesy: American University Athletes)

One of those bright spots was on offense, where American led all Patriot League teams by averaging 19.43 goals a game. Senior attacker Casey Harkins led the way, establishing career-highs in goals (18) and assists (34). 

Harkins, a former Poolesville High School three-sport athlete, became the team’s offensive leader with her passing abilities to find junior Emma Vinall and other Eagle players in perfect shooting opportunities. Breslin credits her in-game decision-making and her “commitment to the team” as reasons how Harkins broke the school’s career assist record (61) in seven games.  

“You don’t become the school’s assist leader by being selfish,” Breslin said. “And I think it was clear from the very beginning that Casey was behind the goal [during games] looking for the right person to make the right pass to, even when she could have rode the crease herself.” 

After opening the season with two crushing victories over Delaware State and Saint Francis, American earned a 20-19 overtime win over Longwood on February 22. Tight encounters against George Washington and Wofford showed their resiliency. Eleven combined goals by junior Kendall Goldblum (6) and senior Erica Skowron (5) was enough to give American their sixth straight win on March 7.  

Their final game against Presbyterian provided the most fireworks as Vinall scored nine goals, setting a new school single-game record and being named Patriot League Attacker of the Week. Harkins excelled as well, breaking three records, including single-game assists (11) and points (12), as the Eagles throttled the Blue Hose to end their shorten season on a high note. 

American standout Emma Vinall. (Photo Courtesy: American University Athletics)

“We had games that we won with a fair score gap, and then we had games where we went to overtime or goals traded until the very end,” Breslin said. “They really worked hard to finish this season 7-0.” 

Before their minds wander of dreams in qualifying for the national tournament, Breslin said the program needs to work on the basics, including finding a permanent head coach.

The team already has its 2021 recruiting class, and its successful campaign will have more players and aspiring coaching considering the Eagles. Returning Players have already begun their offseason workouts in the middle of the quarantine. 

With its new winning culture combined with its measured approach, American’s first step is to qualify for the Patriot League tournament. Facing off with likes of Navy and Loyola Maryland will indicate its growth as a team. However, Harkins said the future would not discredit the significance of finishing a season undefeated, regardless of the circumstance. 

“Going into this season, I think we all had the same mindset and goal to prove people wrong,” Harkins said. “We were definitely the underdogs this year, but the team worked so hard every single day to have the success that we did.”

Bucknell holds off American in Patriot League Tournament

By Brooks Warren/The Sports Pulse Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON – After splitting their regular-season series, Bucknell University (14-19, 9-5) outlasted American University (16-14, 12-6), 64-59, in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League conference tournament on March 5.

The Bison had a gameplan similar to the previous two matchups, switch on American ball-screens, and make everyone but point guard Sa’eed Nelson beat you.

Nelson ended up scoring a game-high 22 points, but only converted on seven of 18 attempts from the field shooting; he had seven rebounds and five steals. Guard Jamir Harris was the only Eagle to score in double-figures with 15 points and three rebounds.

March 5, 2020: American University Eagles guard Sa’eed Nelson (0) drives to the basket during the Patriot League quarterfinal game between Bucknell Bison vs. American Eagles held at Bender Arena on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C.. Cory Royster / The Sports Pulse

“Sa’eed Nelson is a great player,” Bucknell head coach Nathan Davis said. “There’s no other way around it. Our thing was, we wanted to make sure is if he scored, he had to earn it, and the other guys didn’t get set three’s.”

The rubber match between the two programs was a murky, physical showdown. Bucknell was paced by three double-digit scorers, guard Avi Toomer, forward Paul Newman and forward John Meeks.

Toomer led the charge with a team-high 18 points and four assists, followed by 12 points from the inside presence of Newman and Meeks, who both combined for 22 points. The Bison relied on stingy defense and physical play to hold the Eagles to just 36% shooting from the field.

“It’s March; it’s all about winning at this point,” Toomer said. “Especially senior season, you wanna win as many games as you can. Everybody wants to make the tournament.”

Bucknell was able to first take control late in the first half after being down by five points with a 7-0 run. After Toomer hit a 3-pointer to take a one-possession lead, the Bison held the Eagles scoreless for more than six minutes. The drought was broken by back-to-back buckets to end the half, facing a 30-29 deficit.

The Eagles fought an uphill battle after the Bisons opened up the second half with five consecutive points to give them a five-point lead.

Every time the Eagles tied the game or got to within one point, Bucknell had a response. When forward Connor Nelson gave American its first lead of the second half with a layup, guard Walter Ellis responded with a 3-pointer to provide Bucknell with a three-point lead.

When the senior Nelson nailed a 3-pointer to bring American to within one point, Bucknell guard Andrew Funk and Newman responded and decreased the deficit back down to five.

After the extended field goal drought, the Eagles had one more push in them to win the game. Harris gave American its last lead of the night at the end of a 7-0 run late in the second half.

But as Harris ran down to the other side of the court, Toomer caught him in a lousy position defensively and finished a three-point play to give the Bisons the lead. Harris tied the game up with another 3-pointer on the ensuing possession, but it was all for naught.

“Just unreal,” Nelson said while describing Harris’ impact as a shooter. “Jamir and I’ve been saying this all year, is the best shooter on our team. No matter if he’s 0-5, I’ll never tell him to stop shooting, and he knows that.”

The Bisons outscored the Eagles 6-1 in the final moments of the contest, with Jimmy Sotos sealing the deal to give Bucknell a two-possession lead with 18 seconds left on the clock.

As the clock hit zero, Toomer walked back toward the Bucknell band section and yelled out, ‘this is our sh**’ while his teammates surrounded him. Bucknell will play Boston University Saturday in the semifinals.

“They made plays…they deserved to win,” American head coach Mike Brennan said, “I thought we got decent looks but, you know, at the end of the day there switching caused us to be a little too stagnant.”