COURTESY OF NMU WILDCATS
MARQUETTE, Mich. – The Northern Michigan University Athletic Department presents the 2020-21 Wildcat Awards. For the second straight year, the awards will be presented exclusively through the NMU Athletics website and social media accounts.
The awards will be presented over the next several days. The final day of announcements will feature the unveiling of the Gildo Canale Outstanding Seniors Award, Athletes of the Year Award, and Team of the Year honor.
| BEST PERFORMANCE ON THE NATIONAL SCENE
NMU graduate student Jesse Porter was the United States Olympic Trials Greco-Roman Wrestling Champion for the 77 kg weight class earlier this year. The victory earned him the No. 1 spot at the event and the Best Performance on the National Scene honor.
Porter picked up wins of 6-0, 10-0, and 5-3 on the way to the first-place series. In the best-of-three final, Porter defeated his opponent 8-1 in the first match and earned the Olympic Trials Championship with a 7-7 win on criteria in the second match.
| NEWCOMERS OF THE YEAR
Jacqueline Smith of NMU volleyball, the female Newcomer of the Year, had a freshman year to remember. Her regular-season marks of 193 total kills and 4.02 kills per set were second in the GLIAC for the 2020-21 season. She was named the GLIAC North Player of the Week in March and the GLIAC Freshman of the Year at the end of the regular season. The Saint Germain, Wis. native was also named to the All-GLIAC First Team. Smith had eight kill and dig double-doubles and also had 20-kills or more three times last season. She led the team in kills (242), kills per set (4.10), points (270), and points per set (4.6). The freshman was instrumental in the Wildcats’ playoff run, with her best postseason performance coming in the semifinal match against Grand Valley State where she hit .314 with 21 kills, three services aces, 11 digs, and one block assist. She finished the year being named the GLIAC Tournament MVP.
Male Newcomer of the Year Rico DiMatteo joined the Wildcat hockey program at the start of the winter semester, having been called up from the North American Hockey League in January to backstop a young NMU squad. After sitting out the first month in Marquette, DiMatteo made his collegiate debut in a 4-3 overtime victory at Lake Superior State University on February 7. The rookie netminder made 34 stops in that contest before leading the Wildcats to a road sweep at 17th-ranked Bemidji State University the following weekend to solidify his starting position between the pipes. Arguably his most notable performance came in a 0-0 tie against then 13th-ranked Bowling Green State University. DiMatteo smothered all 36 shots faced in regulation on top of making six saves in a six-round shootout to propel his team to the extra conference point. In 14 games played, DiMatteo led all Wildcat goaltenders with a .909 save percentage and a 7-6-1 record.
| HUMANITARIAN OF THE YEAR
Junior Kaffie Kurz of men’s soccer was named this year’s Humanitarian of the Year. Kurz established a charitable foundation in his native country of Liberia. The junior worked with former Wildcat men’s soccer assistant coach and current NMU women’s soccer head coach Jon Sandoval to send soccer cleats to young athletes in Liberia who were in need of them. Kurz collects the shoes in donation boxes in the men’s and women’s soccer locker rooms and cleans used pairs himself before sending them to those in need.
According to his head coach David Poggi, Kurz’s charitable and kind nature is known well outside of NMU and Marquette, “He has made an impression on not only my colleagues and his teammates but also throughout the conference.” Poggi also added, “We are very lucky to have a student-athlete at our university like Kaffie Kurz.”
For Kurz, his work collecting and sending the cleats is a way of filling a need he knows about first hand. “Being able to give one kid back home a pair of shoes so that he can play the sport he likes makes me feel like I’m giving back to my younger self,” said Kurz. “I always wanted someone to look up to and for me to be in the position to do that right now means the world to me.”
| BIGGEST UPSET OF THE YEAR
With their second championship appearance under head coach Grant Potulny on the line, the sixth-seeded Wildcats entered the rink of top-seeded Minnesota State University and handed the third-ranked team in the nation a stunning 5-1 upset. Senior captain Joseph Nardi led the team in points with a goal and two assists while rookie goaltender Rico DiMatteo stopped 28 of 29 shots.
The win sent the Wildcats to their sixth WCHA championship appearance in program history and second in four seasons with Coach Potulny at the helm.
| BRIAN FRANKS “TOO STRONG” AWARD
Brian Franks was an all U.P. dream team, all-state and hall-of-fame offensive linemen from Escanaba, Michigan. Brian later became the leader of the NMU offensive line during some of the most prolific running attacks in Wildcat football history, earning him all GLIAC first team and most valuable lineman honors. Brian was a critical senior leader on the 1987 undefeated GLIAC champions and #1 ranked NCAA Division II football team in the nation. He was a truly great football player, leader and teammate.
However, this award has nothing to do with Brian’s athletic accomplishments. In 2009, Brian was first diagnosed with cancer and began a journey of battling this horrible disease. For the next nine years, Brian endured several major surgeries, years of chemotherapy, and countless efforts undergoing experimental procedures and medications to try and hold off the effects of this mysterious and deadly disease.
Throughout this time, as he physically deteriorated, Brian continued to be an amazing father, devoted husband and special friend. He somehow managed to continue to be a highly successful business person, despite the tremendous physical and emotional hardships he faced. And although he had every right to be down, angry, and focused on himself, he was the opposite — always sharing a smile or a joke, upbeat and more concerned about his beautiful wife Ann, his amazing children, Zach, Abby, and Grace, his parents, brothers and even his goofball Wildcat friends, than he was concerned about himself.
Brian was quite simply TOO STRONG to let anything prevent him from being the man he intended to be and to make those around him better by his presence.
On February 21, 2018, Brian left this earth. At his memorial, on a card bearing Brian’s picture with his usual smile, he left us with two quotes that summed up Brian’s attitude toward his 9-year battle:
First quoting the late great NC State Basketball Coach Jim Valvano: “Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever.”
And from the late ESPN Announcer, Stuart Scott: “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer, you beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner which you live.”
This year’s winner of the Brian Franks “Too Strong” Award is volleyball student-athlete Lauren Caprini.
The junior was diagnosed with a rib injury in the winter that doctors warned could be career-ending. The injury made her unable to play in her typical role of defensive specialist and any surgery would be extensive and doctors warned could spell the end of her playing career.
Head coach Mike Lozier and Caprini agreed to move the student-athlete off the court into a mentor role to help other players on the team. While she enjoyed helping in a new capacity, she was not ready to give up her time contributing on the court. “It wore on her,” said Lozier. “She realized how much she missed the game.”
After around two weeks on the sidelines, Lozier and Caprini found a solution. The junior was moved into a serving specialist position which allowed her to continue her career on the court while minimizing the chance of making her injury worse.
“Being back on the team in the serving specialist position was awesome,” said Caprini. “I can’t put into words how thankful I am to my coach for giving me the opportunity to participate in that capacity and also how accepting my teammates were.”
At the end of the season, which began with her thinking her career was over, Caprini contributed two service aces, two digs, and an assist in the 2020-21 GLIAC Tournament Championship match that ended with the Wildcats taking home the title.
“I am so proud that she is able to receive this award and get credit for all the work she did,” concluded Lozier.
| MOST INFLUENTIAL/SUPPORTIVE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY MEMBER
Carol Johnson, the Dean of the College of Business at NMU, has been named the Most Influential/Supportive Academic Community Member. Johnson is an ardent supporter of Wildcat teams and the student-athletes that make them up.
NMU men’s soccer head coach David Poggi says, “I think Carol does a phenomenal job. I’m sure lots of other teams had her name on their list for this award. Every student we have ever had go through the College of Business speaks very highly of Carol.”
| INDIVIDUAL PERFORMANCES OF THE YEAR
The Wildcat women’s basketball team opened their season with a tough road series at the University of Wisconsin Parkside. Following a nail-biting first game in which NMU came out on top, the Wildcats went into the final quarter of night two looking for the sweep while trailing by 14. The women went on a 19-4 run to start the final period of play to take a 68-67 lead with three minutes left in regulation.
Makaylee Kuhn, this year’s women’s winner, had the performance of her career in the contest, leading the team with 38 points to lift her squad to a 77-76 victory and weekend sweep. She also picked up three rebounds and two assists in the game.
Kjetil Baanerud made the most of his appearance at the 2021 NCAA Ski Championships for the NMU Nordic skiing team. On the first day of the event, Baanerud placed 12th in the 10K classic race, the top finisher for the Wildcats, while fighting temperatures that rose above 50 degrees.
The senior from Oslo, Norway impressed on his second day with a third-place finish in the 20K freestyle in 48:49.4. His performance placed him on the podium and earned him an All-America honor and now the 2020-21 Men’s Individual Performance of the Year.
| LINDSAY GRIFFITH & TODD “STIX” HONCH FAN OF THE YEAR
With events closed to fans for the majority of the winter semester, a lifelong Wildcat enthusiast still managed to make his presence felt inside the Berry Events Center and cheer on his favorite hockey team from afar. Greg Pond has been a hockey season ticket holder for several years and any Wildcat fan can attest to his vibrant spirit at all NMU games.
Prior to fans being allowed inside the venue for games, Pond would make the trek from Munising to Marquette each weekend to cheer the Wildcats on from outside the front doors of the Berry Events Center for every Wildcat home series. When doors opened to the public for the final three games of the season, Pond was one of the first to claim his tickets.
“He’s special to our team and our program. If you think of someone who is a fan of our team and a fan of our program that’s Greg Pond,” said NMU hockey head coach Grant Potulny.
With the Wildcats traveling for all rounds of the 2020-21 WCHA playoffs, Pond knew he had to be in attendance to cheer his team on and thus made the trips to both Bowling Green, Ohio and Mankato, Minnesota to represent the Green and Gold.
Greg Pond is this year’s winner of the Lindsay Griffith and Todd “Stix” Honch Fan of the Year.
| RECORD-BREAKING PERFORMANCE
Ondrej Zach of NMU men’s swim and dive had a record-breaking trip to the 2021 NCAA Championships.
Zach, a senior, was the national runner-up in the 1650-yard freestyle with a time of 15:10.35. The performance broke the NMU record and the GLIAC record that had stood for 12 years. He also earned an All-America honor for his finish.
| TEAM AWARDS
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Max Bjorklund|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Justin Kuehl|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Max Bjorklund|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Makaylee Kuhn|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Elena Alaix|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Elena Alaix|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Elise Longley|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Emily Sterling, Chrysanthe Patselas|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Anna Kelley|
TRACK & FIELD
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Nina Augsten|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Maddie Campbell|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Calli Rechsteiner|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Carter Mason|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Jim Callahan|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Carter Mason|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Caro Els|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Paxton Johnson|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Abbie Claire Boozer|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Joe Nardi|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Andre Ghantous|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Joe Nardi|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Minnie Bittell|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Aliyah Smukala|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Tess Kostelec|
MEN’S NORDIC SKIING
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Kjetil Baanerud|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Matthew Bourne|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Tobias Moosmann|
WOMEN’S NORDIC SKIING
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Molly Miller|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Hilde Eide|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Malin Boerjesjoe|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Kaffie Kurz|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Alex Weaver|
|NEWCOMER||Pier Vito Cucciati|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Ryan Palmbaum, Emanuelle Ancione|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Caroline Halonen|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Stephanie Trujillo|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Kiera Hau|
MEN’S SWIM & DIVE
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Ondrej Zach|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Erikas Kapocius|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Grant Combs|
WOMEN’S SWIM & DIVE
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Mandy Baird|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Pilar Perello|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Riyah Rudeen|
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Jacqueline Smith|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Maddie Crowley|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Lauren Caprini|
NATIONAL TRAINING SITE WEIGHTLIFTING
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Ryland Shriver|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Hannah Alvis|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Austin Gean|
NATIONAL TRAINING SITE GRECO-ROMAN WRESTLING
|ATHLETE OF THE YEAR||Benji Peak|
|BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETE||Jesse Porter|
|SCHOLAR ATHLETE||Roy Nash|