In its final of 38 years in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a dozen of the school’s 15 sports programs once again qualified for national championship tournaments, with one playing on TV for a national title and two others making their respective Final Four semifinals.
With seven outright Southern States Athletic Conference titles and two more shared championships, the rest of the conference probably isn’t too sad to see the Flames move up to NCAA Division II play this fall.
Having been in the SSAC since 2004, Lee has been at or near the top of the league in most every sport on a yearly basis, the best example of which is women’s soccer coach Matt Yelton’s 92-0-1 record against conference foes during that time.
Ranked No. 1 or 2 nationally all season, coach Yelton’s Lady Flame run of NAIA national titles fell just short of five with a 1-1 tie in the national semifinals. Olivet Nazarene advances in a shootout leaving Lee with a 20-1-2 record this past fall.
Six Lee players were named All-Americans, including four on the 13-member first team. Juniors Ode Fulutudilu and Leah Fortune earned spots on the elite squad for the second straight year while seniors Amy Cochran and Caroline Scales joined the first-team list this season. Senior Kim Conrad and sophomore Laura Thacker were named to the second team.
In 11 seasons on the Lee sideline, Yelton has compiled an extremely impressive 222-34-8 record for an astronomical .841 winning percentage.
While none of the other Flame programs have had the level of complete SSAC dominance the four-time NAIA national champs enjoyed, Lee has been synonymous with success when it has comes to conference championship play the past nine seasons.
In its farewell tour Lee captured league championships in women’s soccer, volleyball, basketball, fast-pitch softball, cross country and golf, plus the men’s golf title as well as co-championships in baseball and men’s basketball.
Coach Marty Rowe’s hoops Lady Flames had the most impressive run this past season, going 34-3 with their final loss coming to Westmont, Calif., in the NAIA National title game, broadcast on the CBS Sports Network.
Led by former Polk County standout Hollie German, who earned first-team All-American honors on the court and in the classroom, the Lee ladies were ranked fifth, sixth or seventh in the NAIA weekly polls throughout the regular season before sweeping through the SSAC Tournament and the first four games of the National event in Frankfort, Ky.
Having taken 13 straight 20-plus win teams (at Lee and Brescia, Ky.) to the NAIA’s top tournament, coach Rowe, who is now 260-52 (.833 winning percentage) in nine seasons in Cleveland, had said he hoped his team’s final NAIA event would be its best and it was.
Coach Mark Brew’s baseball Flames were declared co-SSAC champions when the tournament title game against eventual national champion Faulkner was rained out.
Making their seventh straight trip to Lewiston, Idaho, for the NAIA World Series, Lee advanced to the event’s Final Four for the sixth year in a row.
They also set a school record with five players — Myles Smith, Jose Samayoa, Andy Hillis, Clint Terry and Alex Moore — taken in the annual MLB amateur draft, tops among NAIA schools this year.
Going 51-12, the diamond Flames were ranked no worse than fourth in the NAIA polls during the season, including No. 1 in the first four weekly rankings. In his seven years at the helm, Brew has an .809 winning percentage with a 377-89 overall mark.
Led by the NAIA Player of the Year Dominique Hannah, the softball Lady Flames were ranked third or fourth all season before sweeping the SSAC and National Tournament Opening round events to make their seemingly annual trip to the NAIA Championships finishing with a 47-11 record.
Coach Emily Russell is 458-167 (.733) in 11 seasons directing the squad for which she was once the star pitcher.
With a trio of All-Americans— Irene Ojukwu, Marija Zelenovic and Paula Martins — the volleyball Lady Flames won the SSAC title and made their fifth straight and 11th overall National tournament field.
Winning their pool, coach Andrea Hudson’s squad also advanced to the Elite Eight before finishing with a 30-11 mark. The dean of Lee coaches with 22 years at the helm, Hudson has a 728-238 (.754) overall record, including national semifinals finishes in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
The Lee men’s basketball team was ranked 15th in the NAIA preseason poll, but spent six weeks at No. 2 and three in third. Advancing to the NAIA Sweet 16, the Flames, led by first-team All-American Will Barnes, won the SSAC regular season race and finished with an impressive 30-4 record.
A finalist for the Don Meyer NAIA Coach of the Year Award, coach Tommy Brown has a record of 196-60 (.766) in eight seasons with the Flames, leading them to the NAIA Tournament field each of those years.
Coach John Maupin continued to work his magic with the Lee golf teams as both were ranked nationally all season long and won SSAC championships.
Led by first-team All-Americans Hunter Vest (a former Walker Valley standout) and Matt Emery, the Flames finished sixth at the NAIA Nationals.
Two-time All-American Courtney Shelton was joined on the national honor team by Sloane Skinner and Madison Alexander as the Lady Flames made their fourth trip to the top NAIA event in its five-year existence, finishing 12th this time around.
Lee also had success on the track and cross country fields.
In the fall, the Lady Flame cross country team won the SSAC crown and qualified for the NAIA National Meet, while the Flames were second in the conference and Said Ahmed finished 193rd of 309 runners at the Nationals.
In the spring, Mike Walker earned All-American honors in the 3,000 steeplechase event, while former Walker Valley sprinter Brad Davis qualified for the Nationals in the 200-meter dash.
On the women’s side, Cayce Bryan was an All-American runner in the 800-meter, and Ashley Matthews in the women’s marathon, while the Lady Flame 4x800 relay team also made the national field.
A great way to go out, the sun has set on Lee’s extremely successful NAIA legacy, but new challenges are on the horizon as the NCAA Division II and the Gulf South Conference await.
Although they will have to serve a two-year probationary period where they won’t be eligible for postseason NCAA play, the Flame teams will be able to renew an old connection with the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association) during that time, in which they will be able to continue to vie for national championships.
While the “fat lady” has sung as far as the NAIA is concerned, local sports fans will now be treated to an even higher level of competition coming to town for their enjoyment.