Cover story tells the Brantlys’ amazing journey

Layout 1Life has been a whirlwind for Kent Brantly, M.D. (’03), since his surreal summer of 2014, when the ACU graduate was living quietly with his family as a physician and medical missionary in West Africa, only to become gravely ill and make headlines on every major news network.

One of the few people to have contracted and survived the Ebola virus, he is now the face of efforts to help developing nations defeat and prevent one of the world’s most devastating infectious diseases.

From the White House and Congress, to the American Medical Association and medical missionary societies, to neighborhood churches and his own alma mater, Brantly and his wife, Amber (Carroll ’06), have been busy telling and showing others what it means to love and serve their neighbor. The international platform they have been given to share their experiences is unprecedented.

In the cover story of ACU Today magazine’s new Spring-Summer issue – “The Education of a Medical Missionary” traces their yearlong journey and looks at the influential people and experiences behind their time as Abilene Christian University undergrads. Robin (Ward ’82) Saylor and Paul A. Anthony (’04) contributed to the writing and award-winning Minnesota artist Ron Finger created illustrations of the Brantlys.

Amber and Kent have been ambassadors to the world on behalf of medical missions, their faith and ACU. They are well-spoken, humble and intelligent, never failing to give glory to God for healing and for the opportunities that have now marked their lives.

Kent will be on campus Aug. 24 as featured speaker at Opening Assembly (11 a.m. in Moody Coliseum), marking the first day of ACU’s 109th school year. He also will be presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. At 1:30 p.m., he will sign copies of his and Amber’s new book, Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic.

He also will sign books at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 21 during ACU’s 109th annual Summit.

Spring-Summer 2015 issue on the way

From the day Kent Brantly, M.D., was released in August 2014 from Emory University Hospital until today, he and Amber have been given an extraordinary platform on which to talk about their faith and their experiences with Ebola. (Photo courtesy David Morrison / Samaritan's Purse)

From the day Kent Brantly, M.D., was released in August 2014 from Emory University Hospital until today, he and Amber have been given an extraordinary platform in the international media from which the two ACU alumni can talk about their faith and their experiences with Ebola. (Photo courtesy David Morrison / Samaritan’s Purse)

Although it’s in the mail, you don’t have to wait for the Spring-Summer 2015 issue of ACU Today magazine to arrive. You can sneak a peak now at its 134 pages (84 from the printed edition and another 50 pages of Bonus Coverage in the online-only edition).

  • “The Education of a Medical Missionary” is our look behind the life and career preparation Kent Brantly, M.D. (’03) and his wife, Amber (Carroll ’06) Brantly, received while students at Abilene Christian University, and how the Ebola virus Kent contracted this time last summer has changed their world and their calling.
  • An additional 50 pages of Bonus Coverage this issue look back at highlights and top performers from the 2014-15 intercollegiate athletics seasons at ACU.
  • B. David Vanderpool, M.D. (’52) is a pioneering surgeon and perhaps ACU’s most accomplished graduate in the field of medicine. He’s also a dedicated servant of people in eastern Ukraine who benefit from his ability to bring valuable medical equipment from the U.S. to that conflict-torn region of Europe and to improve the lives of young people living in orphanages. Vanderpool is profiled as the university’s 2014 Outlive Your Life award recipient.
  • “Life on the Hill,” a behind-the-scenes look at a Fall 2014 marketing promotion for enrollment marketing and admissions featuring eight top students who provided a social-media-savvy look at ACU through their eyes. Learn how ACU used their webisodes of a carefully planned yet candid social experiment to better connect with high school students.
  • “Lamesa Legends” celebrates the long careers of twin sisters Patty (’67) and Tippy (’67) Browning, who recently retired after 47 highly successful seasons as girls’ volleyball coaches at Lamesa High School in West Texas.
  • “Highly Prized” is a profile of professors Dr. Donald Isenhower (engineering and physics) and Dr. Mel Hailey (political science) who each received major national awards this past school year for their teaching and mentoring of ACU students. Isenhower graduated from Abilene Christian in 1981 and Hailey in 1970.
  • A Q&A with Dr. Shaun Casey (’79), a career theologian working in the U.S. State Department for John Kerry, who helps shape how the nation considers religion in its policies with other governments;
  • A Second Glance essay by Andrea Lucado (’08) is about the late Stanley Shipp (’46) whose influence over Andrea’s father, Max (’77), shaped his ministry.

Watch this blog in the days to come for backstories of some of these major articles in the new issue.

Brantlys begin national book tour in NYC

Called-for-Life book coverOne of the busiest weeks in the lives of Dr. Kent (’03) and Amber (Carroll ’06) Brantly begins today in New York City where the two Abilene Christian University graduates begin a national book tour.

Called for Life: How Loving Our Neighbor Led Us Into the Heart of the Ebola Epidemic is released Tuesday, July 21, a year to the day Kent became ill with the Ebola virus disease while serving as a medical missionary in Liberia for Samaritan’s Purse. Co-authored with David Thomas for WaterBrook Press, the book details Kent’s and Amber’s experience and the role faith fills in their lives.

The couple appeared Tuesday on NBC’s Today show and on HuffPost Live, and will be interviewed later in the week on:

Kent, who is now medical missions advisor for Samaritan’s Purse, authored “Ebola Still Poses a Serious Threat,” an op-ed piece published in the July 18 edition of The Washington Post.

Starting July 25, the Brantlys will begin book signings in South Carolina and North Carolina that will take them to Fort Worth, Houston (The Woodlands) and Kent’s hometown of Indianapolis, Ind., in the near future. Follow their schedule here.

The couple is the subject of the cover story of the upcoming Spring-Summer 2015 issue of ACU Today magazine. “The Education of a Medical Missionary” will look at how an ACU education prepared the Brantlys for lives of service to others, and will mail the last week of July.

On Aug. 24, Kent will receive an honorary doctorate from his alma mater and be the featured speaker at Opening Assembly in Moody Coliseum.

Watch the ACU Today blog for updates and links to their media interviews.

ACU alum leads life-changing initiative at Nike

Matthew Walzer (left) wears special Nike sneakers designed by ACU alumnus Tobie Hatfield (right). The footwear system is designed for people with disabilities. (Nike photo)

Matthew Walzer (left) wears special Nike sneakers designed by ACU alumnus Tobie Hatfield (right). The footwear system is designed for people with disabilities. (Nike photo)

New footwear designed by Nike innovator and former Abilene Christian University pole vaulter Tobie Hatfield (’87) is a game-changer for people with disabilities. The newest Lebron Zoom Soldier 8 uses Flyease technology, a wraparound design allowing for rear entry with no laces to tie while still providing needed ankle support. The new sneakers will be released to consumers in limited quantities beginning July 16 through

Hatfield is director of Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, a think tank producing some of the sports world’s greatest products and technologies. In 2012, he received a copy of a letter written by 16-year-old Matthew Walzer of Parkland, Fla., who has cerebral palsy and told about the challenges he faced in his quest for independence.

This video captures the exceptional story behind Nike Flyease, an easy-entry footwear system designed by ACU alumnus Tobie Hatfield to help athletes of all abilities and ages perform better.

This video captures the exceptional story behind Nike Flyease, an easy-entry footwear system designed by ACU alumnus Tobie Hatfield.

“My dream is to go to the college of my choice without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day,” he wrote in a letter addressed to Nike CEO Mark Parker and posted online. “As a teenager who is striving to become totally self-sufficient, I find this extremely frustrating and, at times, embarrassing.”

The letter quickly went viral and eventually made its way to Hatfield, who was inspired to engineer a mass-market shoe for Walzer and others who have trouble tying shoelaces.

Hatfield is perhaps best known for creating Michael Johnson’s famous gold spikes that propelled the sprinter to double gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He also pioneered Nike Free, a technology designed to let feet move more naturally and freely than with traditional athletic shoes.

He’s designed shoes for other Olympians and top athletes as well, including tennis great Maria Sharapova, former NFL All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, fencing star Mariel Zuganis, golfer Tiger Woods, pole vaulter Stacey Dragila, beach volleyball standout Misty May-Treanor, and Olympic gold medalists Tim Mack and Tristan Gale.

The Flyease technology is not Hatfield’s first foray into footwear designed to help athletes with disabilities. In 2006, he began work with his friend Sarah Reinertsen, a professional paratriathlete, whose leg was amputated when she was 7 years old. The result of that collaboration was the Nike Sole and Spike Pad for athletes who wear prosthetic blades.

“Sarah said there would be so many more amputees who would actually get out there and exercise if they had a system like that,” Hatfield said in a 2013 interview for ACU’s WC Magazine.

Hatfield says his own experience as an athlete and coach helps him relate to the challenges of athletes he works with now.

While a student-athlete at Abilene Christian, Hatfield was part of four NCAA Division II track and field championship teams, three as a pole vaulter and one as an assistant coach.

After graduating from ACU in 1987, he followed the footsteps of his father, who was a college coach for more than 40 years. Hatfield took a full-time coaching job for Wichita State University, but when Nike offered him a position in 1990, he set off on a new career path.

Hatfield thrives on the innovative atmosphere in the Nike Kitchen, which got its name early in the company’s history after co-founder Bill Bowerman used a waffle iron filled with liquid rubber to create the first waffle sole.

“We’re constantly working on new things. It’s the nature of what we do,” he said. “We’re very passionate about how we go about it because we care. It’s exciting because we know eventually we are going to be able to help people in many respects. And it’s not just about making people go fast or high. It’s about quality of life as well. To me that’s an even bigger thing.”

ACU Remembers: Dr. David K. Lewis

David Lewis 3 3x3 96Dr. David Kenneth Lewis (’73), former assistant professor of Bible and director of Abilene Christian University’s Center for Adolescent Studies, died July 10, 2015, in Grapevine at age 66.

A memorial celebration will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, July 13, at Lake Highlands Church (9919 McCree Road, Dallas, Texas 75238).

He was born Nov. 23, 1948, in Nashville, Tenn., and graduated from Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, Ind. He married Pam Perry, on April 23, 1970, in Fort Worth.

Lewis earned two degrees from ACU – a bachelor’s in Bible and communication in 1973 and master’s in communication in 1975 – and a doctorate in marriage and family studies from Texas Tech University in 1987.

He joined ACU’s faculty as a part-time instructor of speech in 1977 and became associate professor in Fall 1985. Lewis left ACU in 1996 to re-enter full-time ministry, and has been an executive, business and life coach in Keller, Texas, since 2010. He was adjunct professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Dallas from 1999-2004 and also taught at The King’s University at Gateway Church.

A leading Christian authority on adolescent psychopathology, he originated the concept of huddle groups for mentoring young people in churches, and helped build ACU’s nationally renowned youth and family ministry program. His ministry career spanned 35 years.

Lewis directed ACU’s Center for Adolescent Studies and its annual Youth and Family Ministry Conference. He helped lead groundbreaking research to measure the influence of electronic media upon adolescent spirituality, with findings presented at a 1996 ACU conference keynoted by New York Post chief film critic and best-selling author Michael Medved.

“I stand on his shoulders and give him all the credit for leading not only the growth of a youth and family ministry program at ACU but influencing the development of those at other Christian universities,” said Robert Oglesby Jr. (’81), director of ACU’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry. “He was a great one and will be missed by all of us who believe in the importance of youth and family ministries in our churches. We wouldn’t be where we are today without his leadership and the scholarship he helped introduce in this field.”

He spoke at many conferences and workshops, wrote numerous scholarly articles and co-authored three books – Dying to Tell: The Hidden Meaning of Adolescent Substance Abuse; Shattering the Silence: Telling the Church the Truth About Kids and Their Sexuality; and The Gospel According to Generation X.

Lewis also served in youth and family ministry at Abilene’s Highland Church of Christ and South 11th and Willis Church of Christ, Lake Highlands Church in Dallas and Cross Timbers Community Church in Keller.

While in Abilene, he was a marriage and family therapist at Cunningham and Associates, a therapist and director of religious life for Woods Psychiatric Institute, chair of the Abilene Educational Force on Substance Use, a consultant and teacher for the Abilene ISD, and in private practice as a marriage and family therapist for 13 years.

He was preceded in death by his parents, William and Louise Truell Lewis. Among survivors are Pamela, his wife of 45 years; sons Christopher Lewis, David “Israel” Lewis (’93) and his wife Leslie (Mabry ’93) Lewis, and Jeremy Lewis (’98) and his wife Randie; a brother, Bobby Lewis; a sister, Billy Patton; and two grandchildren, David Caleb Lewis and John Carter Lewis.

In lieu of flowers, the family would appreciate donations to Help in David’s Healing Journey at or online to ACU’s Center for Adolescent Studies (or mailed to Gift Records, ACU Box 29132, Abilene, Texas 79699-9132).

Off-beat pageant showcases frontier skills

Miss Frontier Texas 2015 Savannah Richardson with Jeff Salmon, executive director of Frontier Texas museum

Miss Frontier Texas 2015 Savannah Richardson with Jeff Salmon, executive director of Frontier Texas museum

Four years ago, Jeff Salmon (’91), executive director for Frontier Texas, asked Abilene Christian University’s student-run advertising agency Morris & Mitchell to come up with an idea to help promote the history museum.

The result was a novel scholarship pageant for local college women called Miss Frontier Texas. It is billed as a competition for “women who prefer denim to diamonds, leather saddles to leather seats, and who believe that there’s nothing wrong with a woman that’s got a little mud on her boots.”

Savannah Richardson, sophomore nursing major from Graham, Texas, captured the 2015 title, along with a $4,000 scholarship, a cowboy-hat tiara and a pair of custom-made boots. Two of the previous winners have been from Abilene Christian, Hailey Wilkerson in 2012 and Sarah Bishop in 2013. The 2014 winner, Jamie Chitty, was from McMurry University in Abilene.

Richardson said she was researching scholarship opportunities when she came across the competition, but that wasn’t her main reason to sign up. “The whole thing, with its unique activities like rifle shooting, camping out and chuck wagon cooking, just looked like a blast to be a part of, scholarship money or not,” she said.

The experience did not disappoint her.

“It’s been such a blessing to me to meet all the girls and make all these close relationships,” she said. In fact, Richardson and one of her fellow competitors became such good friends they plan to be roommates in the fall.

Contestants get a target-shooting lesson.

Rachel Mallory gets a target-shooting lesson from gun expert Michael McCormick. American bison were often hunted on the frontier using .50-caliber rifles.

During the 3 1/2-month competition, Richardson and 14 other contestants faced such challenges as roping a calf, hitting a target with a .50-caliber rifle, chopping wood, washing clothes outside using a washboard and cooking a meal over an open fire. The pioneer cooking challenge was Richardson’s favorite.

“We had to cook pork chops and brown gravy in a cast iron skillet and blueberry cobbler in a Dutch oven,” Richardson said. “While I had researched Dutch oven cooking, I never got the chance to practice it beforehand. I remember going to get different sizes of wood to make my fire and thinking, ‘I have no clue what I’m doing!’

“It was amazing, because during the cooking challenge, Pam [Thomas], the museum educator, would walk around our stations and give us all the advice and answers we needed. She even ran to add water to my gravy when it was burning. So the cooking segment was not only a competition, but also a full out, enjoyable learning experience that I will cherish forever.”

Madison Shaw (left) and Savannah Richardson are ready for the overnight frontier life challenge.

Madison Shaw (left) and Savannah Richardson are ready for the overnight frontier life challenge.

The idea behind the pageant, said Salmon, “was to create something that could have the intensity and drama of a reality television program.”

As Frontier Texas staff and Morris & Mitchell students started creating a series of events for the competition, they realized it would be a great opportunity to engage the participants at a level not often found in traditional academic settings, Salmon said. “We wanted to give participants deep, academic and emotional knowledge of life on the Texas frontier,” he explained.

So in addition to the frontier challenges, contestants are required to learn about Texas history and demonstrate what they know.

The result has been exactly what Salmon had hoped: increased publicity for the museum, which serves as the official visitor center for Abilene and the Texas Forts Trail Region, along an increased appreciation for a colorful era of Texas history by participants and onlookers alike.

The project also served as a great learning experience for students in the Mitchell & Morris agency, allowing them to work with real clients in a professional setting.

“Miss Frontier Texas has been the ideal project, providing the opportunity to move through a classic marketing communications scenario,” said Joyce Haley (’04), faculty advisor for Morris & Mitchell. “From being presented with a client problem, to developing a big idea and creating a complete brand identity to implementing a media event, this project had it all.”

Starting a fire the old-fashioned way - no matches.

Katy Westerlage starts a fire the old-fashioned way – no matches allowed.

Yvette Torres shows off her roping skills.

Yvette Torres displays her roping skills.

Mariana Cedillo takes on the firewood relay.

Mariana Cedillo takes on the firewood relay.

Cuban-born artist makes his mark on Abilene

This colorful mural is a new landmark on Abilene's South First Street.

This colorful mural is a new landmark on Abilene’s South First Street. (Photo by Peter Larsen)

Rolando Diaz, center, talks with Tom Rose, who commissioned the mural in downtown Abilene.

Rolando Diaz (center) talks with Tom Rose (left) at the dedication ceremony for his downtown artwork. Rose commissioned the mural after seeing Diaz paint a mural in Peru. (Photo by Peter Larsen)

Internationally acclaimed Cuban-American artist and ACU alumnus Rolando Diaz (’79) has made a big splash on the city where he got his start as a professional years ago.

This particular splash is a nearly 145-foot-long ocean-themed mural along the side of an historic building on South First Street between Butternut and Cedar in Abilene. Diaz, who grew up in Miami, said he was inspired by childhood memories to create the artwork, which he calls “I See the Ocean.”

Tom Rose, owner of Thomas Everett’s Fine Furniture, commissioned Diaz after seeing him paint one on a church in Peru. Diaz had been invited to Peru by missionaries Lee (’99) and Stephanie (Grigg ’01) Fletcher, who happened to be friends with Rose.

The colorful artwork, which takes up 10 panels on the north side of Rose’s building, was dedicated May 26 followed by a reception nearby at The Grace Museum, where Diaz held his first major exhibition in 1994-95.

“I like that the mural is two blocks away from where my career began,” he said.

Mayor Norm Archibald ('76) speaks during the artwork dedication in downtown Abilene.

Dr. Norman Archibald (’76 M.S.), Abilene’s mayor, speaks during the dedication ceremony in downtown Abilene.

His career-launching show, “A Common Thread,” dealt with the poor “and the idea that we are all connected no matter where you are in life,” said Diaz, who now makes his home in Dallas. So it was fitting that during the six weeks he spent creating the mural, he met a number of Abilene’s homeless population.

“I did not realize at the time that so many would pass by there daily,” he said. “I’m never bothered by the homeless. Their insight is always real, because they have nothing to offer but themselves.” Diaz became friends with several homeless Abilenians and even gave one a ride to Oklahoma.

Although it was a steady interruption to his work, Diaz said he enjoyed interacting with everyone who stopped to watch.

“I loved seeing so many friends and people who were strangers who would stop to talk about it. That was one of my favorite experiences,” he said. “Like when I saw a father and his two daughters one day on the sidewalk taking all sorts of photos in front of the mural – laughing and just enjoying that moment so much. Or photographers showing up to take photos. Or a smile or comment. That’s when it all comes full circle. All those hours of working and sweating are not even remembered.”

The reception at The Grace was a special time for Diaz because it gave him an opportunity not only to connect with local residents, “but also give thanks to many who were extremely gracious and kind to me during my college years.”

Diaz immigrated with his family from Cuba as a young boy in 1964 and grew up in Miami, Fla. He attended ACU with his late brother, Christian Diaz (’77), who also was a talented artist and sculptor.

Fans flock to ACU at the Ballpark Night

ACUTXRangers_June15_19617 600x400 96More than 700 Abilene Christian University fans of all ages cheered for new director of athletics Lee De Leon and stayed until the bottom of the 11th inning to celebrate a Texas Rangers win Thursday night at the fifth annual ACU at the Ballpark Night in Arlington.

ACUTXRangers_June15_19358 600x400 96De Leon threw the ceremonial first pitch at Globe Life Park and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo sent everyone but the Chicago White Sox home happy when he rapped a walk-off single to give Texas an exciting 2-1 victory.

Fans gathered before the game at the Rangers Hall of Fame room for a Wildcat Caravan event, meeting ACU head coaches Ken Collums, Britt Bonneau, Julie Goodenough, Jason Bibler and Tom Shaw, and assistant coach IJ Moronu (’12) while picking up a souvenir baseball and football schedule poster, and having their photo taken with Willie the Wildcat.

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Smiley headlines conference honoring Olbricht

Tavis Smiley

Tavis Smiley

Dr. Thomas H. Olbricht won’t be present but the 35th annual Christian Scholars’ Conference beginning Wednesday at Abilene Christian University still bears his name and reflects his enthusiasm for biblical research.

Dr. Tom Olbricht

Dr. Tom Olbricht

“Tom is the academic renaissance man, with a Ph.D. in rhetoric, an M.Div. from Harvard and substantive scholarship in Restoration history,” said conference director Dr. David Fleer (M.Div. ’81), professor of Bible and communication, and special assistant to the president at Lipscomb University. “His inclusive and collaborative spirit embodies the best amongst us, and sets a high standard for our future.”

The June 3-5 event is attracting nearly 400 faculty, staff, administrators and students from 87 colleges, universities and seminaries who gather annually to hear from leading authors and researchers who study Christianity. This year’s attendees represent such universities as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Duke, Penn State, Loyola Chicago, Emory, Baylor, SMU, Rice and Vanderbilt, as well as Abilene’s three church-related institutions.

The conference is headlined by several top speakers, including best-selling author and PBS late-night talk show host Tavis Smiley who is presenting “Poverty: The Greatest Threat to American Democracy?” Other featured lecturers and plenary speakers include:

  • Dr. Robert Lewis Wilken of St. Paul Center of Biblical Theology and the University of Virginia on “The Vocation of the Christian Scholar: Love of Learning and the Desire for God”
  • Dr. Choon-Leong Seow of Princeton Seminary on “The Book of Job in its Cultural Milieu”
  • Dr. Philip Jenkins of Baylor University on “Families, Populations, and the Reshaping of Global Faith”
  • Dr. Christian Wiman of Yale Divinity School on “Hammer is the Prayer: Radical Doubt, Realistic Faith”
  • Dr. Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College on “The Quest for a Moral Presidency: Jimmy Carter, Progressive Evangelicalism, and the Religious Right”

Olbricht, distinguished professor emeritus of religion at Pepperdine University, now lives in Maine and is recovering from a health issue. He served ACU in several roles from 1970-85, including dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts, chair of graduate Bible, professor of Bible, and founding director of the ACU Press. He also was editor of Restoration Quarterly. With Olbricht as director, ACU hosted the Christian Scholars’ Conference during its early years but now it rotates from one Christian university campus to another each June.

Three major lectures and plenary presentations are named after scholars with roots on ACU’s theology faculty: Dr. Everett Ferguson (’53), Dr. John T. Willis (’55), and the late Dr. Frank Pack and his wife, Della, a former instructor of English.

Thursday night’s activity includes a live episode of “Tokens” downtown at the Paramount Theatre. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. performance are $15 and available at the door. The variety program is broadcast nationally on NPR each week from Nashville, Tenn., hosted by Dr. Lee C. Camp and featuring top musicians and scholars. The eclectic mix of participants has drawn the praise of critics who rave about it.

Wiman is the featured guest this week and the show includes performances by Buddy Greene, Odessa Settles, Brother Preacher, Abilene’s Revolution Strings, and the Most Outstanding Horeb Mountain Boys.

“ ‘Tokens’ is part great music, part university lecture, part cultural analysis, and part good conversation, featuring Nashville’s finest musicians and songwriters, provocative interviews with best-selling authors, all mixed up with enough humor and satire to keep things ever lively,” according to its website.

See the full conference schedule here. 

Silver lining: Baseball season ends on HI note

ACU head coach Britt Bonneau greets TCU head coach _______ before a recent game.

ACU head coach Britt Bonneau greets TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle at home plate. The Horned Frogs of the Big 12 Conference were ranked No. 2 in the nation when they narrowly beat ACU, 4-3, at Crutcher Scott Field.

Somewhere over the Rainbow Warriors, season No. 25 of baseball 2.0 at Abilene Christian University came to an end last weekend. There was no pot of gold awaiting the Wildcats after beating the University of Hawaii, 7-4; just a second straight victory and the first season-ending win since 1995 when the Internet itself was still 1.0.

That 1995 campaign also was the last time an ACU team won as few as 17 games, as this year’s did. The Wildcats’ fortunes flipped in 1996 – from a record of 17-36 to 41-18 – in part because new head coach Jimmy Shankle brought with him one of his former players at Lubbock Christian University, a spunky, young assistant named Britt Bonneau. There is ample evidence to suggest the future is bright now, too, and Bonneau – who took over from Shankle in 1997 and next year will celebrate his 20th season as head coach – is again in the middle of it all.

At first blush, this year’s ACU baseball team doesn’t appear to have made progress in its second season in Division I. In fact, the Wildcats won one fewer game than last year. But look a little more closely. In 2014, ACU won 18 total games, but six of those came against teams that are not D-I. All 55 games on this year’s schedule were against Division I opponents, meaning the 17 victories were actually a significant increase in the D-I win column.

Next, consider the caliber of competition. In 2014, ACU’s strength of schedule (SOS) ranking, according to college sports statistics website, was 200th out of the 301 teams in Division I. In 2015, that number shot up to 114th. In other words, this year’s schedule was almost twice as tough as last year’s. (Incidentally, ACU’s SOS is the highest of any team in the Southland Conference.)

A team’s SOS is dependent largely on the conference in which it plays. For example, every team in the Southeastern Conference will naturally have high SOS rankings because there are so many good teams in that league. (To wit: six of the top 10 in SOS are SEC teams and no one from that league is ranked lower than 58th.)

But teams can, to some degree, control their non-conference schedule by playing tough opponents. And Bonneau did. The Wildcats’ non-conference SOS was the 18th toughest in all of Division I. Again, that number is the best among Southland Conference teams.

Another important point about SOS: in no way does it reflect how a team actually performs. For example, a team could have the toughest schedule in the nation but lose every one of those games by 15 runs. That team would perhaps earn respect for playing good opponents but also not be any good. ACU not only took on all comers in 2015 – 14 games against seven nationally ranked teams – the Wildcats frequently took them down to the wire.

The first of those close calls came March 3 against then-No. 5 Texas Tech University in Lubbock when ACU was edged at the tape of a 16-inning marathon, 6-5. A month later, the Wildcats lost three more one-run games in a 10-day stretch that was as remarkable as it was frustrating.

On Monday, April 6, Bonneau hornswaggled the Horned Frogs of TCU to come to Crutcher Scott Field. At the time, they were the No. 2 team in the nation. Think about that for a second. That would be like the Duke University men’s basketball team coming to Moody Coliseum or the University of Alabama football team showing up at Shotwell Stadium. In perhaps the most high-profile game ever played on campus, ACU took a 3-2 lead on TCU into the 7th before falling, 4-3.

ACUBaseballTCU_May15_28687 7x4 96Eight days later, “The Crutch” was packed again as Tech played ACU in Abilene for the first time since 1976. Down 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th, the Wildcats scored once and loaded the bases with the tying and winning runs before falling 7-6.

Less than 24 hours and 300 miles later, ACU got off the canvas to battle another heavyweight: the top-ranked team in all of college baseball that week, the Texas A&M University Aggies, in a game televised on the SEC Network. The Wildcats scored a run in the first and third innings; the Aggies answered with a run of their own in each frame. In the bottom of the 7th, A&M pushed a two-out run across and held on to win, 3-2.

Ten days. Three games against teams ranked (at the time) second, 19th and first in the nation. Three one-run losses. And these weren’t the juggernauts’ JVs. In each case, all three opponents put their regulars in the lineup and used their closers to finish off the games.

In these two seasons as a transitional Division I member, ACU teams have had plenty of big moments. Volleyball and women’s basketball each upset Texas Tech in 2013. In January of this year, men’s hoops upset one of the highest scoring teams in the nation then played its first ever nationally televised home game on CBS Sports Network. Football capped a run of three straight nail-biters against teams either from the major college ranks or a perennial playoff contender from ACU’s new level, the Football Championship Subdivision, with a win over frequent bowl participant Troy University.

But baseball’s stretch of one-run losses to three powerhouse teams in a span of 10 days may top the list. Especially when you remember some of the scores against these teams last year. The two losses to Tech in 2014? 6-2 and 19-2. A&M? 20-2. Those results, as ugly as they look on paper, are the rule when a first year D-I team takes on an established program with more scholarships and more of nearly everything else. How ACU played this year is for sure the exception.

The Wildcats made huge strides in conference play, too, more than doubling last year’s win total in the league: from a record of 6-18 and a 13th place finish in 2014 to 13-17 and 9th. The turnaround bodes well for 2018, ACU’s first year of postseason eligibility. The top eight teams in the standings qualify for the Southland tournament. Had the team been eligible this year, ACU would’ve finished just a single win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi University shy of getting into the tournament. And who wound up winning? Houston Baptist University, the No. 7 seed. The same team ACU defeated two games to one in a series at HBU in April.

The final four games of the season last week in Arizona were a fitting end for a team that proved it could, if nothing else, take a punch. Tuesday night against No. 12 Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., the host Sun Devils jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a flurry of soft singles and added a run on a sacrifice fly in the 6th to go up 4-0. ACU got on the board in the 7th but fell, 4-1. Two nights later in Tucson in a battle of matching mascots, the University of Arizona’s Wildcats won, 9-0. ACU had two errors, a botched rundown and another handful of plays that could or should have been made but weren’t in a game coaches and some of us who have observed the team all year agreed was the ugliest loss of the season.

So what happened the next night? Only the most handsome win, a 2-1 cliffhanger that ended when sophomore third baseman Aaron Draper calmly smothered a hard grounder and threw to first to defeat the 2012 College World Series champions. In a gesture that speaks to his class and ACU’s resilience, Arizona’s legendary head coach Andy Lopez met Bonneau at home plate with his right hand extended and said, “Not many teams would have come back after last night the way you did. That’s a great win for your program.”

Lopez would know better than almost anyone. Like Bonneau, he has been the head coach at a Division II school, California State University, Dominguez Hills; and a Church of Christ-affiliated institution, Pepperdine University, which he led to the 1992 Division I national championship.

It was actually the second win in as many years against Arizona. But unlike last season’s, which was answered the next day by a 14-1 season-ending loss to those Wildcats, ACU followed this one up against a different opponent with a far different outcome. Against Hawaii – which finished .500 in the highly competitive Big West Conference and had come to Tucson to take on Arizona for a couple of weekend games – ACU got six strong innings from freshman starting pitcher Drew Hanson but fell behind the Rainbow Warriors, 4-2, heading to the bottom of the 7th, setting the stage for one final comeback. After an RBI groundout by Alex Copeland, centerfielder Colton Hall bounced a single into left to score senior slugger Tyler Eager to tie the game. Freshman catcher Mason Spracklen untied it with a single to center that scored Hall and put ACU in front, 5-4. A two-out howitzer of a homerun to center in the bottom of the 8th by sophomore Russell Crippen added a coveted pair of insurance runs, and the Wildcats bid aloha to the 2015 season with a 7-4 victory.

How many wins will this year’s progress produce in 2016? Probably not 41 as in 1996. Changing coaches is a little easier than changing NCAA classifications. But the transition period means Bonneau has four years to become an overnight success.

His and all ACU programs are now halfway through that period. Assuming the university remains on track and fulfills the necessary requirements to be approved as a full-fledged Division I member, this year’s freshmen will be seniors in 2018 when the Wildcats are finally eligible to go to the playoffs. That means the next time Hanson takes that same mound in Tucson, it could be in an NCAA Super Regional game. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might just be a ticket to the College World Series.

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