Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking back at 2015

As we turn the calendar to 2016, it's time to take a look back at some of the memorable blogs and topics I chose to share my thoughts. There's always something exciting happening in the sports world, which is perhaps why I love to write about it so much.

Sports writing kept me going
The year started out with some uncertainty for me as I tried to figure out where I belonged in the writing world. But I built up some skills and new experiences. One of the highlights was covering hockey. I covered a Minnesota Wild game and the boys' state high school hockey tournament each for the first time. I spent hours at the Xcel Energy Center, but it didn't feel like work. That was perhaps the best part.

The more stories I pounded out, the more I established myself as a freelance sports journalist. It was great to cover such a variety of high school tournaments, from hockey to swimming to badminton.

In August, I touched on what it's like to cover sports in a male-dominated field. This was after Star Tribune University of Minnesota men's basketball beat reporter Amelia Rayno told her story about then-athletic director Norwood Teague sexually harassing her. As I pointed out in my blog, I have not been sexually harassed during my career as a sports journalist, or in any other capacity. Still, it was nice to write about my experiences covering sports.

Twins made it exciting this season
The Minnesota Twins made some great strides under first-year manager Paul Molitor. They finished 83-79 and stayed in contention until the final weekend of the season. I got a front row seat to see the debuts of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. I took in the greatest game of the year, when the Twins scored seven runs in the bottom of the ninth capped with a home run from Brian Dozier.

Torii Hunter returned to the ballclub, mentored the youngsters and flashed a few smiles before he announced his retirement in November.

I recalled my journey as a Twins fan, and I got a job with Major League Baseball and had a blast last summer. I look forward to more memories in 2016.

Wild made another playoff run but lost again in round 2
The season looked over for the Wild in January. No one was optimistic halfway through the season with the Wild's complete freefall. The stats were staggering, and it was hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.

Enter Devan Dubnyk. The Wild traded for the goalie, and there's no doubt that he single-handedly saved the team's season. They rallied and snuck into the playoffs just before the end of the season, surprising all of us.

The Wild faced the physical St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs, winning that series in six games. Fans were ready for another postseason rematch with the Chicago Blackhawks for the third year in a row. For sure this was going to be the year the Wild got past the Hawks, right? Not so much. Unfortunately, this seemed to be the worst series of the three. A theory is that the Wild was essentially in playoff mode for a few months, since the January slide, so the boys were just worn out.

Facing the Blackhawks has also turned into how the Twins face the Yankees in the postseason. They just can't get past them.

Some tough news, too
This year wasn't without some tough news. In August, IndyCar lost another outstanding driver, Justin Wilson. He died after a crash at Pocono Raceway when part of a nose cone flew high in the air and made contact with Wilson's helmet. He truly was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The crash brought up a lot of debate about the safety of racing, but this was really a freak accident.

A week in October was a particularly difficult one when it came to the local sports scene. All in the same week, Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders died after battling Hodgkins lymphoma, Gophers football coach Jerry Kill emotionally announced his - somewhat sudden - retirement citing health reasons. It was also the same week Hunter announced he was retiring from baseball, but that was not completely out of the blue.

I realize now that I wrote about a lot of thoughts from the heart, going over my fan journeys, addressing controversy and sharing why I love sports writing. Thanks to all who at any time have read my thoughts in 2015, in the previous six years and in the years to come.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Wild continues the holiday-hangover pattern

On Dec. 27, 2014, the family and I attended the Wild versus Winnipeg Jets game in St. Paul. The Wild lost that contest 4-3 in overtime. It was ultimately an unlucky bounce that cost the local boys the victory.

Saturday, Dec. 26, 2015, we were back for more post-Christmas Wild action as it took on the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was another loss for the Wild, 3-1. But this time, the Wild didn't even show up. Too many Christmas cookies and eggnog for them over the NHL holiday break, I guess.

Happy holiday slump
It's really not surprising. Look at the glaring statistic that the Wild is 1-7-1 in the first games after Christmas. For whatever reason, the Wild just can't get it together and instead need a mulligan game after the holidays.

The funny thing is, and goalie Devan Dubnyk referenced this in one of his postgame comments, every team gets a break at Christmas. It's nice that the NHL gives players and teams the time off, but the Wild take a little longer to recover. Not a great excuse when the opponent had the same amount of time off.

The most recent Christmas-hangover game for the Wild was in front of the largest crowd of the season - 19,234 - at Xcel Energy Center. There was about 30 seconds of excitement, when Jason Zucker scored the Wild's lone goal. More on that later.

Slow start, slow game
Predictably, it was a slow start for the Wild. A slow start that morphed into a slow game overall. Shots on goal were a joke all night, as the Pens won that battle 11-4 in the first period and 16-8 in the second. It was definitely enough to let out a Bronx cheer whenever the Wild managed a shot that reached Pens goalie Matt Murray, who was playing in his third NHL game. The Wild didn't test him nearly enough.

One of the good things after the first period was that it was scoreless. The Pens failed to get on the board. The Wild though, couldn't connect with anything. Passes were off the mark, behind players, too hard, you name it. There was a decent chance from Marco Scandella, but he hit the post.

Anyway, the Wild couldn't hold the Pens forever, and good ol' Sidney Crosby scored early in the second period. He was day-to-day this week with an injury but got the call to play. He added an assist later and was the game's No. 1 star.

Brother Kyle was super "excited" to see Sid the Kid score.
When it rains, it pours
The last two minutes of the second period got crazy. At 18:10, the Pens took a 2-0 lead. Zucker answered with his goal 45 seconds later on a nice feed from Thomas Vanek. Zucker went for the net and scored a beauty. Here's where that little bit of excitement came in before Patric Hornquist scored a deflating, power play goal at 19:26 for a 3-1 Pens lead after two periods.

That power play, by the way, was because of a cross checking penalty on Jared Spurgeon. Tough call there. But the Pens took 16 seconds to score a goal. Don't misunderstand: I'm not blaming that call for the Wild going down 3-1.

The scoring was complete, and the final shot count was 32-26 in favor of Pittsburgh. As I noted, the Wild just couldn't get anything going all game long. Poor play, poor passing, not enough puck possession and then not enough pressure on goal when they had the puck. It's frustrating to watch that type of game as a fan, especially when you're at the arena.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Some unimportant Wild schedule gripes

There's something I've meant to blog about since the Wild season started. I just figured it'd blow over and wouldn't be an issue. But it keeps coming up and is a slight annoyance. It's the Wild's schedule and mostly the fact that the team is always behind in the number of games played.

I know, I know. It doesn't seem like a huge deal on the surface, right?

Let me be clear about something. This blog post isn't to suggest that scheduling has some great bearing on the outcome of games for the Wild. I'm not saying, "Oh, the Wild has a messed up schedule, and that's why it is lower in the standings or that's why it's not winning games or reason XYZ." That wouldn't make sense.

I just think it's worth noting, mostly because I keep noticing it. More of a gripe, if you will. Like the whole Stadium Series instead of a Winter Classic or the 3-on-3 format for the All-Star Game.

Searching the standings
The NHL season isn't half over yet, so you could argue it's too early to look at the standings anyway. There's still plenty of hockey left. However, the Wild is in the toughest division in the league, so that makes things a bit more interesting.

Anyway, this year when I look at the standings, I've noticed one thing: The games-played column. Minnesota is consistently two, three, sometimes even four games behind the rest of the teams in the division. So really, it's tough to say where they fall in the standings.

Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. As points are precious and as the end of the season comes up, teams are in a much better position if they have games in hand. They have a chance to control their own fate that way.

The issue really started in the beginning of the season. The first few weeks felt like a series of season openers because of all the long breaks in between games. They started in Colorado, opened at home a couple days later, had four full days off before three games out west, then another three days off before the second home game nearly two weeks after the home opener.

That was just October. Early November saw some breaks, too.

It was just weird. Too much time off at the beginning of the season when everyone, theoretically, is healthy and energized. Plus, it can be a huge momentum killer.

The dreaded back-to-back games
While I'm at this schedule thing, I want to touch on back-to-back games, too. The Wild will play 14 back-to-backs this season, meaning games two nights in a row. I think there's too much focus on them. I'm not sure if it's the teams that focus on it, or if it's an easy angle for broadcast teams and analysts.

The fact is, back-to-backs exist for all teams. Sometimes you'll be home-and-home, sometimes it will involve travel. Sometimes you'll be in a homestand and face an opponent traveling on the second night of a B2B. Logic can work both ways. If you play well, you have momentum from the night before. If you play slow and terrible, you're tired from the night before.

You can always spin it, but I get frustrated with hearing about it. Teams have to learn how to manage these B2B scenarios because they're around. I guess what I'm getting at is there seems to be an easy excuse for losses on the second game. I don't agree with that. You can always make excuses in losses, but I'd prefer if "back-to-back games" isn't one of them.

Of course, this all comes from a fan who doesn't have to worry about traveling and playing in a short span of time. But hey, that's what I'm here for, to give my opinion.

So there you have it. Probably not the most intriguing topics to write about, but those are my thoughts. Just wanted to put them out there.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Caruso's Tommies make great strides toward another title game

The last football season before coach Glenn Caruso came to St. Thomas was in 2007. The Tommies finished 2-8 that fall. They had their first 0-4 start since 1969 before getting their only two wins against Carleton and Augsburg. 

Now in 2015, the Tommies (14-0) are headed to their second Division III national championship game in four years. What a difference a few seasons, and a new coach, can make. 

Caruso was hired in January 2008, a news conference I, the school newspaper's sports editor, missed attending because I was studying abroad in London for the month. He turned things around right away, with a 7-3 record in 2008 (my senior semester on campus). This included a heartbreaking 12-9 home loss to rival St. John's; I remember that blown touchdown call like it was yesterday. 

Preparing for kickoff versus Linfield.
Anyway, 2009 saw great strides as well. An 11-2 team that lost only to St. John's in overtime and then to Linfield 31-20 in the DIII quarterfinals. 

2010: 12-1, with a 10-0 regular season. 

2011: 13-1, getting shutout 20-0 by DIII powerhouse UW-Whitewater in the semifinals. 

2012: 14-1, losing to dominant force Mount Union 28-10 in the title game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl. 

2013: 8-2, and a down year, if you want to call it that, with losses to St. John's and Bethel. 

2014: 8-3, again losing to St. John's and Bethel, and also to Wartburg in the first round of the playoffs. 

A milestone game
Saturday's game in St. Paul versus Linfield (Ore.) (12-1) marked game No. 100 for Caruso at St. Thomas.

The semifinal was a solid enough test for St. Thomas, but it still won by three touchdowns, 38-17. The Tommies got off to a quick start, coasting to a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. With a team that averages around 50 points a game and gives up around 10, it looked like the route was on, right? 

Well, not exactly. Linfield made some adjustments in the second quarter to stifle the Tommie offense a little bit. It was 23-3 at the break. 

Things were slow in the second half, too, as the defenses for both teams took control. The Wildcats were within striking distance, but the Tommies put up a couple fourth-quarter touchdowns to seal the deal. Turnovers, as they often are, were key elements to the game. Linfield handed the ball over five times, compared to just two turnovers for St. Thomas. After all, a fumble recovery deep in Linfield territory made the game 20-0 with three minutes to play in that first quarter. Then the teams traded fumbles back-to-back. 
Tommie touchdown!

Keys to the game
The other turnover for the Tommies was an interception, but it was on fourth down around midfield. Basically, if you're going to throw an interception, that wasn't a terrible spot for it. 

If you want to find a spot to critique, St. Thomas could clean up the penalties just a touch. I'm mostly thinking of the three delay of game penalties they took Saturday. But there were others. For instance, late in the first half they had a 2nd-and-36 play thanks to some penalties. They survived and got a field goal out of the deal.

Linfield was focused on the passing game, with 290 passing yards. St. Thomas threw for 55 yards, but its game is all about the run, with 389 yards. And how about St. Thomas junior runningback Jordan Roberts? The lad rushed for 256 yards on 33 carries. For those keeping track, he increased his totals to 1,957 yards for the season. That's good enough to be the leading rusher in school history. The previous record was 1,861 yards in 1990 set by Gary Trettel. Roberts also leads Division III in scoring. 

So yeah, Roberts is a good football player. If you like understatements.

The Mount-umentous task ahead
Next up: The NCAA DIII title game Friday in Salem, Va. to face Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl. Mount Union is in a class all its own when it comes to football. This will be the 11th straight appearance in the Stagg Bowl for the powerhouse. They're No. 1 in points scored with 53.6 while St. Thomas is No. 2 with 52.5.

As good as St. Thomas is, the past few years have shown that Mount Union, and the other semifinalist UW-Whitewater, take DIII football to a whole new level of greatness. Dominant doesn't seem like a strong enough word. But with a title game experience under their belts, let's hope the Tommies can come through with a victory. 

From 2-8 before 2008, to national champions in 2015. What a mark that would be for Coach Caruso's pride-and-passion-filled bunch.

Me and my friend Amy at the semifinal game Saturday.