By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala - From the opening weekend of SEC soccer in September, to the final night of the Women's College World Series in June, Auburn enjoyed what's become known as the "Year of the Female Athlete" on the Plains.
Soccer, for the first time, reached the NCAA Sweet 16.
Tennis matched that feat in the spring, hosting an NCAA Regional for the first time.
Gymnastics beat Alabama and earned a No. 1 NCAA regional seed for the first time.
Basketball advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Equestrian won SEC and national championships.
And softball delivered the largest comeback in WCWS history, reaching the championship finals.
"I don't think it's a coincidence," gymnastics coach Jeff Graba said. "We play off of each other here."
Graba's gymnastics program shares the McWhorter Center for Women's Athletics with the softball team.
"And I think we have a friendly rivalry in our building about not just our staff, but our athletes," Graba said. "Very supportive of each other. I want them to do as well as they can, but I also want to try to one-up them. I think that's what's going on here at Auburn. I think our athletic director, Jay Jacobs, has fostered this. That it's a support, it's a loving support, it's a family, but it's also a competitive family."
Coach Karen Hoppa's soccer team set the tone in the fall, defeating LSU and No. 9 Florida in dramatic fashion in a three-day span. Two months later, Auburn's win over No. 15 Texas Tech put the Tigers in the Sweet 16.
"We had an unbelievable year in women's athletics, and I think it starts at the top with Jay Jacobs wanting us all to be successful," Hoppa said. "Our athletes stay in the same residence hall as the football players, and we eat in the same Wellness Kitchen. I think Auburn's done a great job of providing the best student-athlete experience, and our women's sports have really built on that.
"We've been able to recruit high-level athletes. And the coaching staff we have, across the board, but especially on the women's side, is just unbelievable. And what all of the coaches have been able to do with that tremendous student-athlete experience we provide, we've been able to maximize what our female athletes have been able to do."
Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy's basketball team swept both games against its in-state rival, earned a road win at No. 7 Kentucky, beat Missouri in the first round of the SEC Tournament and knocked off St. John's in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
"For us, we've been through the war of losing, and you get tired of that, and you just want to continue to work harder," Williams-Flournoy said. "And I think our women's sports here have just taken on a 'work hard attitude,' and understand that, if one can do it, another one can do it."
Lauren Spencer's tennis team hosted and won an NCAA Regional for the first time.
"When one program starts to do well, it snowballs," Spencer said. "It is a very, very exciting time to be a female sport at Auburn."
"You have to give the administration the credit. They made the right decisions, investing in all of these programs. Jay Jacobs has invested time. He's invested a ton of resources in all of our programs. And I think you see that with the hirings that he's made. And also, the investment in facilities. The investment in sports psychology, nutrition, the residence halls. I think every female sport feels just as equal to the men," she said.
"I also attribute that to our senior staff, Meredith Jenkins and the WINGS (Women Inspiring and Nurturing Greatness in Student-Athletes) program is fantastic. It provides so many good opportunities for our females, not just in athletics, but also off the court," Spencer said.
Greg Williams led the equestrian team to its fourth national title at his alma mater. Auburn also added its first SEC equestrian championship. The SEC began sponsoring the sport in 2012.
"Winning an official SEC trophy, that's something any coach in the SEC dreams of," Williams said.
"To empower young women is our main mission," Williams said. "I love seeing it happen and you can feel it in the athletic department. Where we are and where we're headed."
Clint Myers' softball team made a stirring run to the WCWS finals, earning several comeback wins and packing Jane B. Moore Field with fans gathered for the finale, even though the team was more than 800 miles away in Oklahoma City.
"People say, 'Can you describe it in one word, or the reason you're having fun?' It's quite simple, the word is people," Myers said. "The people are phenomenal. The ability to try new things. To live outside the lines. They allow us to do these things.
"President Gogue has allowed Jay that latitude. It is a phenomenal place to work because there are so many branches to the tree that all lead to the trunk. And the trunk is, 'Hey, let's put a great product out there where everybody can have fun and we can win.'"
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer