End of Year Sports Awards

Daily Sports Staff

At the end of each school year, The Daily’s sports staff honors some of the top athletic performers from the fall, winter and spring seasons. The following are The Daily’s selections for eight such awards, as voted upon by the entire staff.

Team of the Year — Men’s Tennis

MTEN_DanielTian_WEBDaily file photo by Daniel Tian

The Northwestern men’s tennis team entered the 2015-16 season with a strong foundation, but quickly elevated its play to new heights.

Junior Konrad Zieba’s emergence as a national superstar bolstered a deep lineup already featuring big names with juniors Sam Shropshire and Strong Kirchheimer. A second place finish in the Big Ten and a dominant non-conference campaign earned the Wildcats the opportunity to host the regionals portion of the NCAA Tournament after the squad logged a program-record 24 regular season wins.

Despite a loss in the national tournament’s second round, NU enjoyed quite possibly its finest season ever.

Honorable mention: Women’s Golf

Male Athlete of the Year — Anthony Walker, football

Football_Photo-by-Zack-Laurence_WEBDaily file photo by Zack Laurence

Walker’s nickname on the football team is “The Franchise,” and for good reason.

The sophomore linebacker did just about everything for NU’s defense in his first full year as a starter, leading a unit that finished seventh in the nation in yards allowed per play. On his own, Walker led the team with 120 total tackles and 20.5 tackles for loss while also compiling four sacks, two fumble recoveries, a forced fumble and an interception. Those numbers earned Walker recognition as first team All-Big Ten and third-team All-American.

From any perspective, Walker absolutely dominated as the best player on one of NU’s best teams this academic year. That he has at least one year left in Evanston should terrify opposing offensive coordinators.

Honorable mention: Konrad Zieba, men’s tennis

Female Athlete of the Year — Hannah Kim, golf

WGOLF_NathanRichards_WEBDaily file photo by Nathan Richards

Hannah Kim had one of the best years in NU golf history this year, almost single-handedly rewriting the school record book on her way to first team All-American status, something no Wildcat had ever accomplished before.

In addition, she was named Big Ten Player of the Year for the second straight year.

Kim’s 7-under 64 at the Hurricane Invitational was the best round in program history, and helped Kim win the tournament by 5 strokes. Kim’s 14-under 199 for the tournament was the best 54-hole performance in program history by 5 strokes.

Additionally, Kim had the lowest stroke-per-round average in program history, averaging only 71.79 strokes per round.

Kim also helped the team in its second-straight split of the Big Ten Championship with Ohio State, as well as its 18-stroke victory in the NCAA Regional tournament and program-record ninth place finish at the NCAA Championships.

Honorable mentions: Nia Coffey, basketball; Dominique Masters, field hockey

Male Freshman of the Year — Clayton Thorson, football

Thorson_Daniel-Tian_WEBDaily file photo by Daniel Tian

Looking at Thorson’s freshman year stat line, it’s easy to question why he’s worthy of this award. The quarterback just barely completed 50 percent of his passes, throwing for only 1,522 yards and tossing more interceptions (nine) than touchdowns (seven).

But in spite of his poor statistical production, Thorson asserted himself as a critical cog in the Wildcats’ 10-3 machine by showing a knack for making big plays in big spots. There was his touchdown sprint against a ranked Stanford team in his first-ever start, his two long runs in a road win over Nebraska and his trio of touchdown throws to lead a comeback victory, just to name a few.

Thorson undoubtedly looked the part of a freshman quarterback all season long, but NU wouldn’t have tied a program record for wins, or reached the Outback Bowl, without him.

Honorable mentions: Carter Page, swimming; Aaron Falzon, basketball

Female Freshman of the Year — Mallory Weisse, lacrosse

Weisse anchored NU’s defense during one of the most difficult seasons in program history, leading the conference in both total saves and saves per game.

The Cats faced 12 ranked teams during the regular season, including games against both No. 1 Maryland and then-No.2 Syracuse. The team finished the year with an 11-10 mark and went 5-10 against ranked teams.

After NU spent most of the season battling back to a .500 record to become eligible for the NCAA Tournament, Weisse stepped up for the team in the postseason. Weisse led the Cats to a 15-5 rout of Louisville in the first round, recording a career-high 12 saves in the game. However, the team fell in a brutal loss to Notre Dame to end the squad’s season in the second round of the tournament. 

Although NU came up short, Weisse provided a bright spot for the team. The freshman finished No. 31 in the nation in saves per game, averaging 7.52 — seventh best among freshmen. Weisse ended the season at No. 11 in the NCAA in total saves with 158, putting her at second among all freshmen.

The Cats will graduate seven seniors this year, but, with Weisse leading the defense, the team looks to be in good hands heading into next season.

Honorable mentions: Stephanie Lau, golf; Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah, basketball

Coach of the Year — Arvid Swan, men’s tennis

Tennis-Coach_Source-Northwestern-Athletics_WEBSource: Northwestern Athletics

The ninth-year coach led NU to the best record in program history this season and has turned around a program that finished last in the Big Ten his first season. Swan and assistant coach Chris Klingemann were named ITA midwest coach and assistant coach of the year as they led the Cats to a 26-5 record, second round NCAA Tournament appearance and finished the season ranked No. 15.

NU had 6 of 7 starters from the previous season return, and those six upperclassmen and freshman Ben Vandixhorn took the team to a new level. The most dramatic improvement came from junior Konrad Zieba, who played No. 3 singles last season and after a summer of improvement with Swan became the Cats’ No. 1 singles player and went into the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 20 in the nation.

With 5 of 6 singles players returning next season, Swan and his team have a chance to make more history in Evanston.

Honorable mention: Emily Fletcher, women’s golf

Game of the Year — Football: Northwestern defeats No. 21 Stanford 16-6 in season opener on September 5, 2015

Stanford_Photo-by-Chelsea-Sherlock_WEBDaily file photo by Chelsea Sherlock

However you assess the quality of a sporting event — in terms of excitement, unexpectedness, memorable moments or impact on the season — this game had it. NU surprised almost everyone by upsetting then-No. 21 Stanford, kicking off a historic 10-2 run through the regular season.

The suddenly dominant Wildcat defense befuddled Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan and the potent Stanford rushing attack all game long, announcing the arrival of sophomores linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike as stars. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson — making his very first start ­— broke the game open with an eye-popping 42-yard touchdown sprint, and sophomore safety Kyle Queiro sealed the win with an athletic interception in the end zone.

This win announced to the rest of the college football world that the 2015 version of NU football was for real, having ditched the doldrums of the two prior 5-7 seasons. That Stanford went on to win the Pac-12 conference and post a blowout victory in the Rose Bowl was a nice transitive win for the Cats.

Honorable mention: Men’s tennis: Northwestern defeats Illinois 4-3 on March 12

Upset of the Year — Volleyball: Wildcats upset defending national champion Penn State in 5 sets

Volleyball_Photo-by-Zack-Laurence_WEBDaily file photo by Zack Laurence

A lot went wrong for NU this season. The Cats finished under .500 for the first time since 2008. Coach Keylor Chan, one of the longest-tenured coaches at the school, is not returning to NU. The Cats finished tied for 10th in the Big Ten.

Coming off a sweep at the hands of then-No. 9 Ohio State, in which it looked utterly baffled on the court, NU welcomed an even tougher opponent to Evanston: then-No. 3 Penn State. The Nittany Lions had won back-to-back NCAA Championships and six of the last eight overall, and with Welsh-Ryan Arena nearly filled to the brim with visiting fans, another bad loss seemed inevitable.

But on the evening of October 10, 2015, the Cats shocked the volleyball world. NU took the first set — its first set victory in almost a month — after rattling off 7 straight points to clinch. Following a close second set, which Penn State eked out by two points, the Cats won the third frame 26-24 despite being down to set point.

The fourth set wasn’t very competitive, with the Nittany Lions coasting, and it came down to the fifth. NU started off strong when a controversial call nearly sunk its hopes. However, the Cats didn’t let it faze them and won the last set, setting off a raucous celebration.

Defeating an elite program like Penn State, essentially the volleyball version of Connecticut women’s basketball, marked one of the most historic upsets in school history.

Honorable mentions: Women’s Basketball: Northwestern takes down No. 5 Ohio State 86-82; Softball: Wildcats win nailbiter over No. 2 Michigan 13-12