Marshall: Overall a Solid Year for AU Teams

Columnist Phillip Marshall takes a look at all of Auburn University's intercollegiate athletic teams and analyzes their peformances for the 2005-2006 season at the Southeastern Conference and national levels.

With only track and men's golf left to finish their seasons, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the 2005-2006 year for Auburn athletics and to take a glance into the future.

So here we go, sport by sport:

FOOTBALL:

The program has seldom been healthier. Coming off the unbeaten 2004 season, one that would have produced a national championship in any other year in the BCS era, the Tigers had a solid year in 2005, despite the downer of losing 24-10 to Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. They shared the West Division championship for the fifth time in Tommy Tuberville's seven seasons, a remarkable accomplishment that doesn't get as much recognition as it deserves.

Though it remains to be seen if the 2006 Tigers can answer numerous questions well enough to live up lofty expectations, the talent level on the field and on the coaching staff says the future is bright.

MEN'S BASKETBALL:

Jeff Lebo's first two seasons were difficult. That came as no surprise to Lebo or anyone else familiar with the program. Things should start to get better next season.

Other than Ronny LeMelle, last season's leading scorer, the Tigers return every player who made a major contribution last season. The addition of transfer Quan Prowell, who Auburn coaches believe is their most talented player, will help.

Jeff Lebo will be looking to put a winner on the floor for the 2006-2007 season.

It's not time to predict an NCAA Tournament appearance, though that's not out of the question. But a winning record and a trip to the NIT certainly should be within this team's grasp.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL:

Nell Fortner's first two seasons weren't quite as difficult as Lebo's, but they were difficult enough. Fortner has proved, beyond any doubt, that she can recruit with the best of them. The question is when that will translate into winning in toughest league in the game and returning to NCAA Tournament contention. It could be next season.

BASEBALL:

The bitter taste of this season is still fresh. Probably the youngest team in Auburn history, the Tigers got themselves into contention in April for an SEC Tournament berth, then collapsed down the stretch. The 10-game losing streak that ended the season was the longest in school history. Twenty-one SEC losses were the most in school history. The Tigers played the season without a single player from the 2003-2004 baseball recruiting class.

It might be hard to see, but the future is bright. The Tigers return essentially their entire pitching staff and some of the nation's most talented freshmen. Second-year coach Tom Slater and staff have already secured a second straight outstanding recruiting class.

Next season should bring a return to the SEC Tournament and a return to an NCAA regional. Look for the Tigers to be championship contenders again by 2008.

SWIMMING:

What else can be said about David Marsh's men's and women's programs, which won national championships and have combined for 10 overall? So strong is the program that it is a surprise when the Tigers don't win the national championship.

SOFTBALL:

The Tigers had a somewhat disappointing regular season but made their deepest run ever in an NCAA regional. With most of their impact players returning next season, they should be ready to make another run. Coach Tina Deese, who started the program 10 years ago, has quietly put the Tigers among the SEC's best.

SOCCER:

Coach Karen Hoppa has built one of the South's top programs. The Tigers have won four West Division championships, an unprecedented feat, and won the 2002 SEC championship.

GOLF:

The women had a disappointing performance in the NCAA Championship, but they are the SEC's dominant program. They've won the last two league championships and three of the last five. The men will be back in the NCAA Championship next week.

Women's coach Kim Evans deserves more attention than she gets, as does men's coach Mike Griffin.

TRACK:

Ralph Spry is another coach who deserves more credit. He came within an eyelash of winning a national championship with the men a couple of years back and has a shot to win one with the women this year. He's done that with the worst facility in the conference, a situation that was remedied last month with the dedication of the Hutsell-Rosen Track.

Coach Greg Williams

EQUESTRIAN:

Greg Williams is yet another coach who deserves praise. He has done more than anyone could have imagined with his young program. Though equestrian is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, the Tigers won the national championship. You can't ask for more than that.

TENNIS:

The Auburn men had a good year, going to an NCAA regional. The women struggled badly. Both programs should get a huge boost from a new tennis complex on which construction is under way.

GYMNASTICS:

Jeff Thompson has made the Tigers a contender in his seven seasons as head coach. Taking the next step is the key. The talent level has grown consistently, as has interest in the program. It's not easy operating in the same state as Alabama, one of the top programs in the nation.

VOLLEYBALL:

Laura Farina might have taken over the worst situation of any Auburn coach. When she arrived in 2002, the program was in disarray. It was, by far, the worst in the SEC, having won but one game the previous season. Rebuilding has not been easy, but those who should know say she's getting it done.

OVERALL:

In the sports that generate the most interest, Auburn fans didn't have a lot to cheer about after football season. But a year that includes at least three national championships, three SEC championships and sharing the West Division championship in football has to be viewed a good one.

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