With graduation approaching faster than I can keep up with, Bradley’s sports have a case to be the biggest presence in my rearview mirror when I look back at my time as an undergraduate. I’ve been fortunate to have written, broadcasted and worked behind the camera for quite a few games in the past four years.
The 2022-23 season was headlined by Bradley basketball’s incredible regular season, going 23-8 and winning its first regular season MVC championship since the mid-1990s. I’ll never forget the day of the Braves’ final game of the regular season against Drake, from waking up and interviewing fans at Crusens alongside Sports Co-Editor Matt Lucas to finishing our coverage package just before midnight.
Aside from the Braves’ success in men’s basketball, this past year has been one to forget for Bradley’s sports teams overall. More often than not, I’ve been saddened to see much more “L’s” than “W’s” when looking at many team’s schedules on the athletics website.
When I was a freshman, the Braves performed solidly across the board. The soccer, baseball, softball and volleyball teams were all decent at the very least. The men’s golf team was coming off an MVC Championship and both men’s and women’s basketball teams won MVC Championships in my underclassmen days.
Now, Bradley has finished at or near the bottom of the MVC in just about every sport besides men’s basketball and Darren Gauson’s track/cross country teams this year. I do want to shout out head coach Jeff Roche and the Bradley men’s golf team, though, who recently put together an inspired effort at the MVC Tournament and were not far off from finishing in second place.
There were no coaching changes that happened in my first two years at Bradley and I believe that gave the athletic programs some stability. This year, the Braves had three new head coaches – Kate Popovec-Goss (women’s basketball), Alicia Williams (volleyball) and Sarah Willis (softball) – replace their predecessor mainstays.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s surely understandable that these three head coaches are building from the ground up, but everyone knows that losing seasons are no fun. Given some time, I have hope that the Braves’ new coaches, along with those in other sports, can turn things around in the future.
A multitude of talented athletes that have spent time on the Hilltop have moved on too, but that’s the case for every college sport in America. Everyone’s in the same situation with another year of COVID eligibility keeping your conference opponents’ best players around longer and with the introduction of NIL too. Home of the Brave extending extra NIL opportunities down the road to Bradley student-athletes who play other sports besides men’s basketball could help remedy the situation.
The Braves have been forced to adapt and may feel like they’re still figuring out how to adjust from an on-court or on-field perspective. Finding the right recruits and establishing a program, rather than a team, is a large factor in determining the Braves’ future success, especially for their new head coaches.
Is Bradley’s down year a result of trying to punch above their weight when making their schedules? Is it because Peoria, Illinois isn’t as attractive a location for recruits as other conference schools located in Des Moines or Chicago? Is it because coaching philosophies haven’t translated from the whiteboard to the playing surface?
I wish I knew the definitive answers to those questions, but I’d like to think that some of those things play a part in it. Baseball head coach Elvis Dominguez loves to say that the pitcher’s mound hasn’t moved since Abraham Lincoln was in office – which is probably my favorite quote that I’ve heard from any Bradley coach – and maybe he’s asking the same sort of questions and wondering what the answers are too.
The happiness of most of the student body at Bradley probably doesn’t hinge on the success of a less-popular sport, but it still feels good to have some school pride when a team is succeeding. If the Braves are playing well and in the hunt for a championship, I hope that students, alumni and fans in the Peoria area pack Dozer Park, Shea Stadium, Renaissance Coliseum or OSF Healthcare Field with a capacity crowd like they did at Carver Arena for the last day of the basketball regular season.
Being an athlete is just one part of the term “student-athlete.” Both the athletic department and I are very proud of the academic achievements that many Braves bring in and from a bird’s eye view, that’s a sizable part of their college experiences. As competitive of a person as I am, I also realize that sometimes, college sports aren’t always about the wins and losses.
Peoria is a place where championships can be won. Just about all of Bradley’s athletic teams have proved that at one point or another and in some instances, they’ve boosted student enrollment and buzz around the Bradley brand. While this last year wasn’t what many wanted to see for the Braves across the board, remember that you have to fall down before you can get back up.