It was a year of firsts for several teams for their nationals' experience. For the first time, both the men's and women's basketball teams made it to the big dance in the same year, and the softball team competed for the first time in the program's history.
"It's been a banner year for Forester Athletics," said Lori Culler, athletic director and head women's basketball coach. "From start to finish, we have had many successes to celebrate and many reasons to give thanks to the Lord."
After a six-year absence, the Forester men made the trip back to the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., for the 23rd annual Division II Men's Basketball National Championship where they dropped an 84-76 decision to Southeastern University in the opening round.
It was HU's eighth trip to nationals, its first appearance under the tutelage of Coach Ty Platt. The Foresters, ranked as high as 12th in the national poll during the regular season, wrapped up the season with an overall record of 24-8. And now that the Foresters have had a taste of so much success at the national level, Coach Platt isn't satisfied with just getting to the tournament.
"Basketball in the Crossroads league is extremely competitive so it will take everything we have to get back there next year, but I know our players and coaches will do all we can to make that happen," he said.
For Coach Culler and the women's squad, it marked the fourth trip in six years to the national stage in Sioux City, Iowa. HU finished in the Sweet Sixteen by outlasting Menlo College 77-72 before being ousted by defending champs Northwestern University 92-68. The Foresters finished 24-9 on the year.
March proved to be a busy month. In addition to the basketball teams' jaunt to nationals, later that month the HU women's bowling team also made some noise at the national level by finishing seventh out of 20 teams at the NAIA Invitational Team Championships.
The program's first berth to nationals was that much sweeter for Coach Jim Bischoff and his crew of underclassmen as the 2013-14 season marks only the second year of Huntington's bowling program.
"Qualifying for nationals in their second year is really special and I am very, very proud of Ayla, Casandra, Emily, Shelby, Emerald and Brooke for what they accomplished this year. They are a young team with three sophomores and three freshmen, and a phenomenal group of young ladies that love to compete," Bischoff said. "Great experience and confidence to build to the future."
The Forester softball team made history this year by securing the school's first-ever bid to the NAIA National Softball Championships where they fell short against fourth-ranked Olivet Nazarene University (15-10) before being bumped out of the tourney by 19th-ranked William Woods College (9-1).
Huntington wrapped up the season by posting 31 wins, the most in program history, against 23 losses.
"Going to the national tournament was a great opportunity for our program. Our Foresters got to see awesome talent, coaching and great facilities. … We discovered ourselves (and) realized that we belonged there," Gower said. "Good things lie ahead for the Forester softball program."
In addition to four teams making it to nationals, seven individual Foresters representing four different teams punched their ticket to a national tournament.
This fall, sophomore Tyler Herber and junior Gretchen Spahr both finished seventh at the Crossroads League Cross Country Championships to earn a spot at nationals.
For Spahr, it was her third consecutive trip to the national platform. The Huntington native crossed the line in 19:09.41 to finish 88th out of 319 runners. She averaged a 6:10.0 mile and finished fourth out of her Crossroads League foes.
It was Herber's first trip to nationals, and it proved to be an impressive outing for the Fremont, Ind., native. Claiming 64th out of 313 runners, he was the highest-finishing area runner. He posted a career-best time of 25:34.65 to register the third best time among other league runners. He averaged a 5:08.8 mile.
This spring, sophomore Jake Nash and freshman Christine Sparks enjoyed their first experience at the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Nash turned in a personal-best performance of 6-9 in high jump where he outleaped his 12th place seeding by finishing sixth and for his efforts earned All-America honors. Nash currently holds the HU indoor record in high jump.
Sparks toed the line as the 13th-seed in the 1,000 meters and ran a 3:03.12 to claim that same spot in the race.
Fast forward a few months to the Outdoor Track & Field Championships where Sparks again packed her bags along with sophomores Daniel DeBoni and Krista Wood to represent HU at the national level.
After slashing her previous personal best by nearly six seconds in the 3,000-meter steeplechase trials, Wood turned in her team's top finish by finishing 13th in the steeplechase finals. Wood's time of 11:10.46 in the trials is the fastest time recorded in school history.
Sparks joined Wood in the 3,000 steeplechase where she clocked a 12:16.84 to finish 32nd overall.
DeBoni represented HU in the 100- and 200-meter dashes where he finished 26th in both events by posting times of 10.84 and 22.29, respectively. He is the fastest Forester in program history, holding the record in both sprints.
From national coverage on ESPN to performing on the national stage, this is a year that the history books won't soon forget.
"It's tremendously rewarding for our coaching staff and our athletes to see their hard work pay off by earning the opportunity to compete on the national level," Culler said. "They're creating memories that will last a lifetime."