Friday, April 7, 2017

March was definitely madness

Time to catch my breath. I know that may sound a little weird now that the 162-game baseball grind just started this week. I guess that shows how busy I was for the past six weeks or so during tournament time, probably the busiest time of year in the sports world, especially if you keep up with prep sports.

As a result, I haven't blogged in a while. That doesn't mean I haven't been writing; I just haven't been writing on this platform. I covered girls' section hockey, a couple boys' and girls' section basketball games, all four days of the girls' state hockey tournament for the Star Tribune, all four days of the boys' state hockey tournament for Cold Omaha/Zone Coverage, followed the Gophers men's basketball team through the end of their season in the NCAA tournament for, watched Wild games and wrote weekly columns about the team for Cold Omaha, covered two full days of boys' state swimming for the Star Tribune and along the way wrote a few feature stories for various other outlets.

It was a very busy month of March, but it's great at the same time. There's nothing better than covering some of these state tournaments, especially boys' hockey. It's the best state tournament in the country. Still, it's also nice to be done and get a little break, too. Working 80+ hours in one week is kind of a lot.

I had two weeks in between tournaments and the Twins season, so I headed to Fort Myers for a few days in the sun (OK, so I worked a game, too.) Then last week, I still did some Spring Training game work from home. I really felt like I took it easy, almost that feeling of not knowing what to do with yourself when you get some down time. I still worked 40 hours, which felt like about 20. It's easy when so many "work" hours are spent watching sports and writing/Tweeting about them.

All the sports 
Anyway, for those that keep up with me on social media, I kept my networks updated with Tweets and story links for all the work I was doing. The boys' hockey tournament didn't offer any dud games this year, which can often happen with quarterfinal blowouts. It was a great tournament from start to finish with plenty of upsets right away, an overtime thriller in the Class 1A championship and just lots of good hockey.

Section final hockey is also fun. The atmospheres are often better than the state tournament, because playing to get there is such a big deal to these high school kids. Swimming isn't one of the most popular sports around, but thanks to my brother's time on his high school swim team, I have no problem getting excited about the meets. The Gophers went on a great winning streak this season before fizzling out at the end in the Big Ten Tournament, then losing in the first game of the NCAA Tournament as the No. 5 seed. I selfishly say it wasn't all bad because if they would have advanced, that meant I was going to have to watch and write about them on my vacation.

Nothing beats a break in The Fort
Fort Myers was great. We really hit the jackpot with the weather. Sure, the winter here wasn't dreadful, but it's hard to be temps in the 80s and sunny skies every day. I got to take in a Twins game from the stands, a rarity for me the past couple seasons. If you don't need to be close to the action, go for the drink rail seats in the outfield. That's the best way to watch the ball game.

The Twins lost that game to the Phillies after a bullpen meltdown. I returned at the end of the week to work a game in the press box doing social media. The result against the Orioles was a tie, something the Twins did four times this spring. Ties in spring training make complete sense, but it's still a little weird and anticlimactic to see the teams just walk off the field at the end of the 9th (sometimes 10th) inning without a winner.

Now that the calendar has turned to April, it's time for the 2017 Minnesota Twins season. It's really hard to believe another season is here already. This past offseason went by much quicker than the year before, mostly because I had a lot more sports reporting freelance work. That's definitely a good thing.

A new season, a fresh start for the Twins 
It's no secret last year left much to be desired for the Twins, a team that lost 103 games. The good news? That's a pretty tough task to repeat again, so there's nowhere to go but up from there. The Twins have new bosses Derek Falvey and Thad Levine in the front office looking to turn the ball club around.

There's already been some uneasiness from fans that the duo didn't do enough in the offseason. Brian Dozier is back with the Twins when many thought he'd be gone in a trade. The price must not have been right for him. With catcher Kurt Suzuki gone as a free agent (with the Atlanta Braves now), the Twins signed Jason Castro, known for his pitch framing and likely a better choice for throwing out runners trying to steal. Through three games, Castro is known for taking walks; he walked four times in one game the other day.

Patience has been the key for the Twins lineup so far, with 23 walks in the opening series. I mean, Eddie Rosario walked twice Thursday. That's a big deal. Patience will also be the theme for the Twins organization as Falvey and Levine work toward bringing the club back to its winning ways that fans grew accustomed to in the early 2000s.

As you know by now, the Twins started off with a three-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals at Target Field. It's the first time they've had such a good start since 2007. They also broke a streak of eight consecutive Opening Day losses. They've had clutch hitting, strong starting pitching and the bullpen is tossed 10 scoreless innings. The only hiccup so far through the small sample size is Byron Buxton at the plate with plenty of strikeouts. But perhaps he made up for it with his center field defense.

It was a pretty fun opening series; much better than the 0-9 start of 2016. After all the stories, sports and busy tournament-time schedules, I'm definitely ready to turn the page to baseball for the summer. Play ball!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reflections on #TheTourney17

In the sports world, particularly if you pay attention to high school sports, there's no busier time in the calendar year than February and March. The term "March Madness" is no joke, and it doesn't just apply to the NCAA basketball tournament.

Last week, the greatest high school hockey tournament in the country took place at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Not only did it not disappoint, but it was one of the best tournaments in quite some time complete with upsets, close games and two championship celebrations in one game.

Hermantown went back-to-back winning Class 1A titles for their third overall. This after years of finishing as the runner-up, usually to either St. Thomas Academy (which has since moved up to Class 2A) or Breck. Cue the private school v. public school and move-up or don't move-up debates. I'm not going to get into it here, so debate amongst yourselves.

Anyway, the Hawks didn't make it easy. They needed overtime to win all three tournament games, including double-overtime to beat unseeded and surprise tourney underdog Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake. A goal review determined Hermantown's goal with 5:16 to play in double OT didn't count because of goaltender interference. So, they picked up their gear littered all over the ice, then scored in the final 30 seconds of the period to officially win.

Thunderhawks get hot; plenty of upsets
Grand Rapids succeeded in knocking off top-seed and heavy favorite Eden Prairie in the Class 2A semifinals, in a rematch from last year. Then, they beat always-a-bridesmaid Moorhead 6-3 in the championship game. Rapids was a 5 seed and a 4 seed in the stacked Section 7. As their coach former NHLer Trent Klatt said, they played their best hockey lately.

It's a great example of a team getting hot at the right time. There's something to be said for that.

Among the upsets right away in the Class 1A quarterfinals, No. 2 seed Delano was knocked out by the MAML Moose, then No. 3 seed Mahtomedi went down at the hands of Northfield. This set up a semifinal between two unseeded teams making their first state tournament appearances.

In Class 2A, St. Thomas Academy went down as a No. 2 seed at the hands of Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. Grand Rapids technically upset No. 4 seed Maple Grove, though that's a pretty tame upset when you have seeds right next to each other.

Each game was exciting, which doesn't often happen, especially in the quarterfinals when there are likely to be some blowouts. Not this year.

Tournament traditions
The tournament is more than just the games. It's an experience. It's a tradition. I was lucky enough to be there all four days to cover it for I've often said it should be state holidays during the tournament, so everyone could stay home and watch. The demand is so high that it bring out ticket scalpers and increased parking fees. For the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday, it was a whopping $25 to park at the History Center, a lot that's $10 for Wild games and a nice hike to the X. The bars nearby were packed, too. Tom Reid's was open at earlier at 9 a.m. during the tournament days.

Everybody seems to get into it, hockey fans or not. People watch and attend even if they have no connections to the teams involved. This hockey tournament is what makes Minnesota the state of hockey.

My dad recalls his tradition at the office in years past, ordering pizza to watch the tournament when it got started. I'm sure there are plenty of other offices that have TVs turned to it, too.

Hockey hair is most definitely a thing
I took in the afternoon session Wednesday, went to church in the evening, then stopped at the local Jersey Mike's to grab some late dinner afterward. I walked in and noticed the restaurant had the hockey tournament coverage on its flatscreen, with the sound up. The starting lineups were being introduced for the last Class 1A quarterfinal of the day between St. Cloud Cathedral and East Grand Forks.

Both me and the sandwich makers were pretty preoccupied with the intros as I placed my order. Normally I'd be annoyed, but this time I didn't care. The young workers chatted to each other about the tournament. One guys said something like: "Everybody either wants to get to the state tournament to win or for the hockey hair!"

That's the other part of the tradition: The Hockey Hair team. Guys try to have just the right flow to show off as they skate up to the blue line for player introductions. It's really taken on a life of its own. I'm a little neutral on it. It's cool, but could be getting a bit overdone now.

Always some great stories
The tournament brings out some great stories each year, too. From upsets to cat sweaters to coaches returning to the tournament they once played in. It's a big deal for communities, especially the small towns that have to travel for hours to make the trek to the X for a few days.

Of course, my parents still talk about what a great tournament it was when it was just one class and the private schools had their own tournament. I know they're not alone in that thinking either. They call it a diluted tournament. That's another argument I don't want to touch much on here. I've really only known the two-class tournament. I'm OK with that.

One other thing I'd like to point out to people. While I consider semifinal Friday to be one of the best days of the tournament, don't forget about section finals in order to get to state. Those games are often packed with people and the excitement level is off the charts. Just the chance to play at state is enough to create a great hockey atmosphere.

It's often a grind for sports reporters this time of year, but as I've said, it's a good grind. Hours go by and you don't even realize it. Until you get home at 1 a.m. and have to be back the next day for the early game. I'll borrow this analogy that I heard from Star Tribune reporter and friend David La Vaque who heard it from Glen Mason when he referenced the Metrodome: It's like Vegas. Being inside the X all day for the hockey tournament means the concept of time and daylight is lost.

But in such a great way. Stick taps to all the teams for an entertaining #TheTourney17.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mumps are back for Wild, but it'll be OK

As if the bye week wasn't bad enough. The Minnesota Wild took the ice against Los Angeles Monday after the new mandatory bye week that each NHL team takes. Before game time, however, there was this little announcement: Zach Parise and Jason Pominville were out of the lineup because they have the mumps.

The hot takes came flying in across the social media channels, most notably the Twitter machine. They ranged from panic, anger, the classic "we can't have nice things," Minnesota sports always get screwed, to even some people going on about the vaccines.

Then there was a "here we go again" vibe, since the mumps made the NHL and Wild rounds in 2014. Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Christian Folin and Keith Ballard.

The Wild have had a phenomenal regular season under new coach Bruce Boudreau. They kept winning, didn't collapse in January and knew how to score a ton of goals. Still, call me a jaded Minnesota sports fan, but I just had trouble committing to this team too much and getting all excited. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know?

It dropped into a big pile of mumps. Not long after I finally started to fully buy in to this team.

What a blow for this team that now has 16 games in the month of March, with a few back-to-backs. Sure, they traded for Martin Hanzal and Ryan White from the Coyotes, which will help. But the lineups are probably going to get pretty interesting the next few weeks.

First hearing this mumps news, it's easy to just throw your hands up in confusing frustration. The mumps? Again? It's something teams are susceptible to, but why just the NHL? Not that I really care. I'm not going to dig deep into some medical journal to try and find out.

It's also understandable to have the reaction "we can't have nice things." It happens with a lot of things in life. Everything is sailing along until the train comes and hits you. That's kind of what it feels like here with the mumps.

But just wait a minute. Even with Parise and Pominville out against the Kings, even with two new players on the roster who were no doubt tired mentally and physically from their recent trade, even with being off for the five-day bye week, the Wild still won the game.

Yes, they kept getting behind and needed overtime for a 5-4 victory, but they won. Just like they've done all season. They've found a way. That's what makes this team so special this year. Even if the defense isn't particularly great on a given night or the offense needs Devan Dubynk to steal a game for them, they still find ways to win.

Last night was victory No. 40 when Mikael Granlund put on a clinic for a goal 12 seconds into overtime, reminiscent of his sliding OT winner in the playoffs against Colorado. Coming off the bye week, NHL teams this season were 3-12-4. The Wild beat those odds and became the fourth team to get a win.

So, the mumps have hit at a tough time in the schedule for the Wild. First off all, let's hope for a speedy return back to health for Parise, Pommer and assistant coach Scott Stevens, plus cross the fingers that no one else from the organization comes down with the symptoms. That is what's most important.

The Wild still sit atop the Western Conference in a great position for the playoffs. They already proved last night that they won't let the mumps stop them.