Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Smart Play Keeps Young Athletes In The Game, Injury-Free

Photo courtesy of Hill House, Boston, Mass.

With warm sunshine returning, children will be stepping outside from hibernation and video games to play in youth sports leagues. One issue for parents and coaches is keeping them safe and preventing injury for “smaller” athletes. Experts agree that better preparation can help avoid long-term effects.

“Some injuries are with you for life,” said Curt Audin, a staff nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The best kind of prevention is having smart parents that understand the benefit of sports and keep an eye on the kids and good coaches who know the games and are students of the games.”

A 2007 study by Safe Kids USA reported that more than 3.5 million kids 14-years-old and younger have to get medical treatment for a sports-related injury, and 40 percent of sports-related injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms affect kids in the 5-14-year-old age group.

While kids will be kids and accidents happen, there are ways to prevent serious injury. A recent article in “Education Week” about girl’s knee injuries suggests warm-up exercises that focus on strength and agility to strengthen muscles around joints can be useful as well as teaching young athletes how to jump, land, and fall properly. Stretching before and after any game or practice session is important.

“Everything is instantaneous,” said Ian Moorhouse, associate director of Hill House. “Kids don’t want to stretch. They want to get right to the game.”

But stretching warms up tight muscles. Bypassing stretching, or rushing through it and doing it improperly, means you will be working out tight muscles, which can tear when you attempt to go through a joint’s full range of motion.

Hill House, located on Mount Vernon Street in Beacon Hill, provides athletic programs for kids and has several rules that ensure safety. “We have a weather plan. We cancel games if it’s too dangerous outside,” said Moorhouse. “We also changed the age groups so we don’t have 12-year-olds pitching to nine-year-olds.”

“Baseball season is coming up and we’ve put signs out that no one will be in the on-deck circles and no bats are allowed in the dugout,” said Brian Koslosky, sports coordinator at Hill House. “We also make sure that we have the right balls and bats for the age group. We use softer ball and lighter bats for younger kids.”

After his work as a nurse, Audin also serves as a youth lacrosse referee and coach and said that a referee is also essential in keeping younger athletes safe.

“One of the biggest things we stress is to keep the kids safe and to over officiate in order to control the game and help prevent a player from getting hurt,” he said. “All too often we hear from the sidelines, ‘let the kids play,’ but we have to be sharp on drawing the line between playing and a potential injury.”

And a sure way to prevent injury is for kids to be engaged and enjoying themselves.

“The fun quotient has to be relatively high,” said Michael Blanchard, president of the South Shore Lacrosse League and Hull Youth Lacrosse. “If they’re having fun, they’re less likely to do something stupid. When they’re bored is when they are more inclined to experiment and do unsafe things.”

Friday, April 24, 2009

NFL 2009 Mock Draft

Photo from foxsports.com.

What NFL fan doesn't love the draft? Because of final class projects and preparing for my lacrosse playoff game in Vermont on Saturday, I have been unable to provide any coverage of this event. However, you are in luck, as I have greatfully enlisted the help of draft fanatic and friend Dave Marella to provide you with this desired content. He did all the analysis and found all the links, all I did was clean up some of the copy. So without further ado, here is Dave's first round mock draft. Make sure to show him some love in the comments section.

Written by Dave Marella:

Hello Shore Thing Sports fans, this is Dave Marella, the very first Shore Thing Sports guest blogger, so please bare with the lack of quality sports journalism that Phil brings to every article. As a dedicated fan and longtime friend of Phil’s I am very honored that Phil would allow me to write on his blog and let me play Todd McShay (yes, I am a McShay guy over a Kiper guy) for the day. Even as a lifelong Cowboy fanatic and Rutgers student/ fan, the NFL Draft has long been my favorite sporting event of the year even though not a single ball is thrown. I have always viewed the Draft as the perfect crossover from being a collegiate star to a potential Pro Bowler. Enjoy my draft and feel free to rip it apart, and please continue to be a loyal reader of this great amateur sports journalistic blog.

1. Lions. Matthew Stafford. QB, Georgia
The consensus number one overall for the unprecedented dismal Detroit Lions ever since Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford decided to take another shot at the National Championship. Many argue constructing a team this historically terrible should occur inside-out, with a similar pick as OT Jake Long to the Fins last year, by choosing Baylor’s Jason Smith. With reports coming out of Detroit in recent days that the Lions are nearing a deal with the Georgia Gunslinger, the selection seems close to a definitive thing.

2. Rams. Jason Smith. OT, Baylor.
Choosing again in the No. 2 spot for a consecutive year the Rams look to solidifying inside by choosing the most highly rated lineman in the draft. A strong transition to the pros for Smith could extend the career span for QB Mark Bulger. I would not be shocked if Rams surprise everyone again by picking the highest overall prospect in LB Aaron Curry as they did last year in choosing Chris Long over the expected Glenn Dorsey.

3. Chiefs. Aaron Curry. OLB, Wake Forest
One word really does Curry justice— FREAK. The highest rated overall prospect according Scouts Inc., Curry will be an immediate impact player for any team with his reputation of being a high character player, and with plays like this he can cause havoc for any running back in the backfield.

4. Seahawks. Mark Sanchez. QB, USC
Everyone is talking about how no one is moving up the boards quite like Sanchez. Seattle choosing Sanchez for the future could be the perfect move for new coach Jim Mora Jr. with QB Matt Hasselback slowing down in the latter years of his career. Many scouts especially point out the personality of Sanchez, who as a fluently Spanish speaking Mexican-American can be the face that the NFL has been searching for to appeal to the new Hispanic market. If Seattle does not choose Sanchez here the Draft will be filled with trades throughout the first round.

5. Browns. Brian Orakpo. DE, Texas
Talks about WR Braylon Edwards being moved will likely provide Cleveland with another pick later in the round, yet their first selection I see them going D over picking an offensive skill player such as Crabtree.

6. Bengals. Eugene Monroe. OT, Virginia
With a franchise that is sinking fast, the Bengals look to simply take a safe pick in Monroe. My prediction is the Bengals are picking even earlier next year with Coach Marvin Lewis not even finishing out the season.

7. Raiders. Jeremy Maclin. WR, Missouri
Arguably the “best” run franchise for the last decade, so in a classic Al Davis clueless draft selection, the Raiders choose Maclin over the higher rated WR in Crabtree, for the sole reason Davis likes speed. That said, I have enjoyed watching Maclin catch the ball from Mizz QB Chase Daniels, especially his performance in this year’s Alamo Bowl. He also brings his dual threat ability in the return game.

8. Jaguars. Michael Crabtree. WR, Texas Tech
The only two time winning receiver of the Biletnikoff Award, which has had past winners in Randy Moss, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson, makes Michael Crabtree a soon to be superstar in this league. I do have questions about his size yet his playmaking ability is unmatched in this year’s draft such as in this play which eliminated Texas from the National Championship picture. I feel as though his speed will not be an issue with the amount of skill that the former Tech receiver posses. With the Jags recently acquiring, in my opinion, future HOF WR Torry Holt, Holt could not be a better mentor for the occasionally overly confident young receiver.

9. Packers. Andre Smith. OT, Alabama
Smith’s path to the draft will arguably go down as one of the worst, with his constant acts of pure stupidity. This lack of maturity is made up in his awesome skills at tackle, with Smith being ranked the number one overall prospect before he made his steady rating decline in the postseason. Having a No BS Coach in Mike McCarthy, Smith will be able to thrive as he did under similar character coach, Nick Saban of ‘Bama.

10. 49ers. B.J. Raji. DT, Boston College
Making HOF LB Mike Singletary the permanent head coach for the 49ers is most likely the right path for the 49ers who have not made a playoff appearance since 2002. Considering Singletary’s path and if Raji is still on the board, San Fran would get an awesome young talent at probably NT, and strengthen the young defense that has the up and coming star Patrick Willis.

11. Bills. Aaron Maybin. DE, Penn St
A position that needs to be drastically addressed with the Bills current pair of DE’s getting a whopping total of 3 sacks combined last season. Maybin is the best DE after Orakpo so the Bills select him here.

12. Broncos. Tyson Jackson. DE, LSU
The defense is immediately addressed for the new Broncos being that it was the downfall to the long tenure of former coach Mike Shanahan. Strengthening that side of the ball for Denver will be a theme throughout the draft.

13. Redskins. Michael Oher. OT, Ole Miss
Being the best prospect on the only team to defeat the eventual national champions— Florida— Oher enters the NFL with an impressive history. So dominant at Left Tackle, the book Blind Side: Evolution of a Game was centered upon him and Lawrence Taylor and the evolution and importance of today’s LT. Although Oher has been falling on many draft boards, the Redskins capitalize on his talent. They may very likely make a move for Sanchez if the Seahawks do not take him with their lack in confidence in current QB Jason Campbell.

14. Saints. Malcolm Jenkins. CB, Ohio St
The best CB in this year’s draft does go to the team that has been pursuing them this entire off-season. Many are not sure depending on his large frame if he will be best suited at CB or Safety. Jenkins has said in an interview that he has gotten the most interest from New Orleans and they will choose the Buckeye that has two Omega symbols BRANDED into his arm (that’s right BRANDED. Next time you watch him look for it ….Crazy).

15. Texans. Brian Cushing. OLB, USC
The first of three LBs out of the prolific USC LB corps, Cushing can be an instant addition to the best young defense in the league led by Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans.

16. Chargers. Rey Maualuga. ILB, USC
Following Cushing being taken, Maualuga is then taken by the Chargers. They only have limited need, but his addition with All Pro LB Shawn Merriman is a scary thought. Also, I really respect him after this move he put on Erin Andrews

17. Jets. Josh Freeman. QB, Kansas St
Another team that probably would love to make a play for Sanchez, however if the Jets are not able to they go with the consolation prize of Freeman, with a sense that Kelllen Clemens will never be a starting NFL QB. Jets very likely could go WR, with a huge need at that position, yet the hole left by Favre weighs out. I feel as though if Freeman does not get picked here he will be left to the second round, with the exception of someone trading into or back into the first round.

18. Broncos. Knowshon Moreno. RB, Georgia
In Knowshon’s senior year at Middletown South HS (note: Middletown, NJ)I predicted that in college he would compete for but not win the Heisman, be a Mid-First Rounder in the draft, and be a three to four time Pro Bowler when he emerges in the NFL. With those predictions I am going to go and say the new look Broncos select him—even though they have never chosen a first round RB in their offense that is notorious for putting anybody into the system and creating them into a 1000 yard rusher. Reports say that Denver, if presented with the situation where both Moreno and Wells fall to them, would prefer Moreno. Their QB situation will force them into being still a run first offense. My prediction is Knowshon’s talent will translate instantly in the Pros, and have him be the 2009 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

19. Buccaneers. Peria Jerry. DT, Ole Miss
The lack of production out of 2007 high draft pick Gaines Adams, could lead the Bucs to bring in another D-Lineman who is a big time run stopper.

20. Lions. Eben Britton. OT, Arizona
By going with Stafford as the first overall pick, Lions still need someone to protect him for his career, and Britton will be the best man on the board to do so.

21. Eagles. Chris Wells. RB, Ohio St
A complementary back to RB Brian Westbrook is a position that Philly will definitely be seeking in this year’s draft. Original projections had Moreno most likely to fall to the Eagles but the Broncos preference has allowed Wells to fall.

22. Vikings. Darrius Heyward-Bey. WR, Maryland
The need for QB Tarvaris Jackson to have a big time target to throw to, Minnesota will choose Heyward-Bey if he is available. The speedster is a great fit for the team without any high profile WRs.

23. Patriots. Brandon Pettigrew. TE, Oklahoma St
In an uncharacteristic Belicheck selection, the Pats go TE, on the fact that he is the best player available. Watson has never been a great TE in the league, but Pettigrew, who is a block first TE, can give the returning-from-an-injury QB Tom Brady some extra time in the pocket in order to distribute the ball to his prolific receiving corps. Expect other teams to go for Pettigrew including the Jets, Ravens, and Eagles.

24. Falcons. Robert Ayers. DE, Tennessee
Ayers can serve as the DE opposite to John Abraham in the Falcons defense, and replace the unproductive Jamal Anderson.

25. Dolphins. Clay Matthews. OLB, USC
A strong LB such as Matthews would be a great addition for Miami were he could grow under an aging LB corps that includes Joey Porter.

26. Ravens. Percy Harvin. WR, Florida
Sophomore QB Joe Flacco will benefit immensely by getting the Florida playmaker. Harvin can be used in multiple elements: as a WO, slot, or even a half back. Many questions have come out about Harvin’s character as well as his durability.

27. Colts. Kenny Britt. WR, Rutgers
Rutgers, the Birthplace of College Football, finally get their very first first rounder in the school’s history. The physical specimen in Britt can be a great fit for the Colts, who are in search of a new number two receiver with the departure of QB Peyton Manning’s all time favorite target, Marvin Harrison. Reggie Wayne will remain the number one receiver, but the combination of Britt and Anthony Gonzalez will give the Colts a near unstoppable air attack.

28. Bills. William Beatty. OT, UConn
Trading disgruntled OT Jason Peters to the Eagles leaves the Bills a hole to fill at his position by picking the last first round worthy OT in Beatty.

29. Giants. Hakeem Nicks. WR, UNC
New York probably anticipated having more choices here at WR, yet they are still left with the last top ranked receiver. Nicks could very well be off the board as soon as the early teens, yet desired body types leave Nicks falling to Big Blue.

30. Titans. James Laurnaitis. ILB, Ohio St
A pick that probably deep down regrets coming back for his senior year season because he was originally predicted to be taken in the top ten if he had left after his junior year. Many see him being an early second rounder, but experienced drafter, Coach Jeff Fisher, will love to add the 2007 Butkus Award winner to a defense that has a well publicized, super experienced defense.

31. Cardinals. Donald Brown. RB, UConn
Another Shore Conference (note: Shore Conference is a high school athletic conference in NJ that includes Monmouth and Ocean Counties; the other Shore Conference player in this draft is Moreno) stud, the former Red Bank Catholic (note: Red Bank, NJ) RB could be the immediate starter for the NFC Champs, having RB Tim Hightower limited to short yardage and goal line situations, and allowing Edgerrin James to get the release that he has wanted for so long. Brown has the intangibles to break into the secondary of defenses.

32. Steelers. Vontae Davis. CB, Illinois
The realization that Davis is overrated will cause Davis to drop all the way to the last pick in the first round. The overrating of his brother, TE Vernon of the 49ers, and their shared reputation of taking plays off will leave the Steelers the chance to take the CB with high skills. CB is the one position that the defending Super Bowl Champions will definitely be seeking in the draft. Under the tutelage of Coach Mike Tomlin as well as this era’s Steel Curtain, Davis could play to his potential.

Photo credits:
Stafford and Moreno: AP Photo/ John Bazemore, File
Britt: AP Photo/ Mel Evans

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Catalyst

AP Photo/ Paul J. Bereswill

Is it just a mere coincidence that the New York Rangers had a late season resurgence and now have the Washington Capitals in a 2-0 playoff stranglehold at the same time they brought back NHL pest Sean Avery?

I don’t think so.

While Avery may agitate many NHL purists with his on- and off-ice incidents, Avery has brought life to a Rangers team that was sleep walking through the regular season. He’s a feisty, scrappy player who knows how to get under his opponents skin. He gets in their heads, and while his opponents put their focus on putting Avery on the ice and shutting him up, they pay a little less attention to Avery’s teammates, freeing them up to move into favorable positions. Avery isn’t just a goon, either; he can put points on the board in times of need, with 73 career goals and 116 assists in 420 NHL contests.

Over the past decade or so, the Rangers have been known as a team high in player salaries but low in energy, effort, and efficiency. In both stints as a Ranger, Avery has been the sparkplug that has ignited the competitiveness in the team.

When Avery was first traded to the Rangers in the 2006-2007 season, he provided a jolt to the team, tallying 20 points in 29 games and helping them compile a 17-4-6 record down the stretch to just eke out the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders for the 6th seed in the playoffs, as well as helping the team win their first playoff series in ten years. The 2007-2008 saw Avery score four goals and tally 3 assists in the playoffs, aiding the Rangers reach the conference semi-finals for a consecutive year.

Avery then signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent the following summer. While Avery was suspended by the NHL for his “sloppy seconds” comments, referring to fellow players dating his ex-girlfriends, and subsequently being released, the Rangers were back to their old, lifeless ways. During a stretch from January 28 to February 22, New York had lost 10 of 12 games, including a disgusting 10-2 drubbing at the hands of Dallas.

Head coach Tom Renney was fired on February 23 and replaced by John Tortorella, in the hopes of shaking things up. Tortorella is known as a fiery, passionate coach who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks and gets the most out of his star players, which the Rangers have plenty of. He had won a Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and is also the winningest US-born coach in NHL history.

The Rangers weren’t done adding fire to the ice though—no this team had been too lifeless for too long. New York claimed Avery off waivers on March 3, and the move has paid immediate dividends. Avery again proved to be a sparkplug, helping the Rangers finish the season with a record of 11-6-1 and clinching a spot in the playoffs.

While Avery is considered an NHL “villain” or “heel”, he has not been a locker room disturbance for the Rangers. He has yet to be suspended for anything in either stint as a Ranger (and he has had his share of incidents) and plays within the rules, albeit within varying interpretations. He isn’t a Terrell Owens-type cancer in the locker room; he doesn’t call out teammates and belittle them. Think of him as more of a less funny, less liked Charles Barkley. He’s outlandish, he’s controversial, but he goes out on the ice and plays, doesn’t take a day off, and it’s just what the Rangers need. His tenacity has lit a fire underneath the team.

Now, behind the new energy from Tortorella and Avery, as well as the fantastic goalkeeping from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the favored Washington Capitals in their first round playoff matchup. Superstar Alex Ovechkin hasn’t scored a single goal in the two games. And now the series turns over to Madison Square Garden, where you can be sure the fans will be behind their team, and the Rangers will look to finish off the Caps.

Will the Rangers have a good enough combination of energy and talent to win a Stanley Cup? That remains to be seen. But vilify Sean Avery all you want, just know that’s what he wants you to do. Know that he is happy to carry all the attention, while Scott Gomez and Nik Antropov fly under the radar and put the puck in the net.

And know that Avery is the catalyst that gets the Rangers going. Their success and his return isn’t just a coincidence.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Remembering Harry the K.

AP Images/ George Widman

One of the greatest voices in baseball has left us. Harry Kalas, broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies, died today at the age of 73. He was also the voice of NFL Films.

Every fan has their childhood sports idol. My grandfather’s was Stan Musial, my dad’s was Bobby Orr, my mom’s was Willis Reed, and my brother’s was Michael Jordan. While I had my share of sports idols on the field (Shaquille O’Neal and Dan Marino are the guys that come to mind), Harry Kalas was the guy that resonated most with me. I don’t know if I can explain why exactly. Maybe it was his great pipes. Maybe it was his signature calls. Or maybe it was the fact that I knew Harry Kalas would always return next season as a Phillie. I remember the disappointment I had at the time when Curt Schilling was traded and the bitterness and betrayal I felt towards Scott Rolen. But no matter who came or left through the revolving door of Phillies players, Harry Kalas was always going to be broadcasting the games to me.

You build a certain kind of closeness with a broadcaster listening to and watching the same team day after day. Unlike the players, who are on the field for their own reasons, the broadcaster is there to talk to you and tell you what is going on. Harry Kalas joined me for every Phillies telecast and radio broadcast I ever watched and heard. We shared all the awful seasons the Phils had as I was growing up, and we rejoiced when they finally won it all in 2008. I’ll always remember how I spent my summers sitting on the beach in the sun, staring at the ocean, and listening to Kalas through the crackle of the airwaves telling me that Doug Glanville just stole another base.

I’ll remember the time my parents took my family to a Phillies game at the Vet and I got Kalas’ autograph. We had gone to the players exit behind the stadium after the game to try and score some autographs from the players. Players walked out, walked past the group of fans calling their names, and into the team bus. Then Harry Kalas came out and signed autographs for every single person in the crowd. He didn’t have to, but he did.

This isn’t just a Phillies thing. Or an NFL Films thing. This is about a man who connected the fan to the game. He had an unmatched enthusiasm and love for the sport. He is a legend. It will be strange when I go home for the summer and watch Phillies regional broadcasts (as opposed to national broadcasts on ESPN that don’t use the hometown announcers) without Harry Kalas.

So one last time: “Swing and a miss! Struck him out!”

Video from YouTube.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Problems in the Paint

Photo from orlandomagic.com. Credit NBAE/Getty Images.

The NBA playoffs are approaching and one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference is the Orlando Magic. However, they are not yet suited for playoff basketball and are sure to struggle if they are matched up with either Detroit or Boston.

Dwight Howard is the face of the Orlando Magic, but he is not the focal point of their offense. There is no argument that he is a physical force in the NBA but his shortcomings, coupled with the team’s deficiencies, can hinder the team in a long series against tough, lock down defenses.

The Magic are a shooting team. Howard is the team leader in scoring, but as a unit, they rely on their shooters. They are second in the league in both 3-point shots attempted and 3-point shots made. The problem is that shooters can have bad nights. There are times when nothing is falling. Howard can pick up some of the slack, but cannot carry the offense. When the shooters are off, the defense can then focus on stopping Howard in the paint. If it’s close, Howard struggles at the free-throw line, which makes the team resistant to give him the ball in clutch situations. The Magic also have a very limited post game, with Howard being the only real presence in the paint. That leaves the Magic with no other options if the shooters are cold or Howard is struggling.

Boston and Detroit recognize the flaws in Orlando’s game and use their own strengths to exploit them. Orlando does not match-up well with either squad.

Both Boston and Detroit are clubs with a winning attitude and great veteran leadership. What both teams do extremely well is play tough, physical team defense. They also have very deep frontcourts. The first thing those teams can do is throw a number of big bodies at Howard. Boston can trot out Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis, Kendrick Perkins and Mikki Moore. Detroit has Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Amir Johnson, and Jason Maxiel. Without an effective low-post partner for Howard, the Celtics and Pistons can rotate their big men guarding Howard and allow each to rough him up, without fear of collecting a lot of fouls on one single player. For one, fouling Howard is like deploying the old “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic; Howard leads the league in free-throw attempts, yet shoots only 60% from the line. Letting him shoot free-throws is better than letting him dunk. The physical play also tires Howard so he cannot get up and down the court as quickly, and plays into Boston and Detroit’s half-court, slow down strategies. Howard gets visibly upset when teams play him as physical as these two.

With Howard locked off, the defense can now focus on the Orlando perimeter. Shooters get hot when they get into a rhythm. These physical defenses ensure that that does not happen. The teams lock off on the perimeter and the physical play disrupts the shooter’s rhythm. Without a rhythm, the shooters fail to get off the shot they want and start forcing bad shots.

Orlando has no answer to these teams. Against these types of defenses, Howard is locked down by physical play in the post and the perimeter shooters have been knocked out of sync and go cold. Where does the team go to get its points? There are no other post players that are productive offensively for Orlando, so the space on the court opened up by the shooters goes for naught. Orlando also doesn’t have a slasher-type player on offense. They struggle to dribble, penetrate, and get their own shot off. Guys like Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Courtney Lee, and J.J. Redick do better moving off ball and receiving open looks off of screens. So players begin to force things in order to get some sort of offense moving. They play beyond what they are capable of. This causes turnovers, and adversely, easy lay-ups and more possessions for the other team, and it’s a snowball effect. The more the offense stalls, the higher the frustration level is, the more the team tries to force something that isn’t there, and more turnovers or bad shots are created.

The Magic have a decent shot of avoiding the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs this year. If the season ended today, Orlando would be matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, another young team that likes to run, but doesn’t have the size to deter Howard. However, they will most likely not be so lucky if they reach the second round, with a potential square off with Boston looming. By then, Boston also anticipates to have a healthy Garnett, which wasn’t the case the last time the teams played on March 25 and Orlando won by two points.

Orlando is a young, developing team with a lot of promise for the future, but they are still an inside partner for Howard, a playmaker, and an improved free-throw shooting Howard away from seriously contending from the NBA title.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Parting shots from Detroit

AP Photo/ Amy Sancetta

Ford Field hasn’t seen that much excitement in quite some time. The home of the putrid Detroit Lions hosted the NCAA Final Four, and although the title game wasn’t very close, there was still something to smile about at the end of the day, unlike when people leave Lions games.

Detroit hasn’t had much to smile about lately. On the playing field, the Lions couldn’t win a game, the Tigers were being picked as a possible World Series contender but wound up not even contending for a playoff spot, and the Pistons have fallen from grace and are no longer the team that went to six straight Eastern Conference finals (I would also be frowning if this was my team's logo at one point, when they were known as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons). Off the field, and more importantly, the city has been hit hard by the economic recession because of its strong ties to the automobile industry. So not only did the Final Four brighten up the city, but there was hope provided by home-state Michigan State University beating defending champion Kansas and number one overall seed Louisville to reach the Final Four. They continued their magical run by beating the University of Connecticut and moving onto the championship game. While they could not bring home the championship, they gave the city something to root for, something to feel good about, in a time where good things have been hard to come by.

The team that was cutting down the nets Monday night was the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Tar Heels. The Tar Heels were definitely the most talented team in the tournament. More important than talent, they were the hungriest team. They were the ACC regular season champions, but not everyone was on their bandwagon coming into the tournament. They had some bad losses on their resume; losing to Boston College after they had just lost to Harvard as well as losing to Florida State in the semi-finals of the ACC tournament. But that just goes to show you that one game, win or lose, does not make or break an entire season.

You see, UNC was embarrassed by Kansas in the Final Four in 2008. That left juniors Tyler Hansbrough and Danny Green—who came to the team the year after they beat Illinois—and star sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington without a championship. So instead of bolting to the NBA, they all came back for another season at Chapel Hill, determined to finish as champions. And that is exactly what they did. They dominated the field, winning each game by double digits.

However, UNC could be in a state of transition now. Hansbrough and Green will graduate, as will guard Bobby Frasor, who filled in for Lawson while he was injured during the ACC tourney. Marcus Ginyard was also a senior this year, but because he missed all but three games with a broken foot, he will petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility. Now that they have won the championship and the great senior leadership they had will be leaving, we will probably see juniors Lawson and Ellington leave early. There is also the possibility that junior forward Deon Thompson and freshman forward Ed Davis—a 6’10” big man—will also test their draft stock.

While there is the possibility that everyone who is eligible to will come back, it’s more realistic that Lawson and Ellington will leave on top. With the potential for eight players leaving, the Tar Heels could be in trouble. It wouldn’t be impossible to win—’08 champs Kansas lost their starting five to the NBA and still managed to make it to the Sweet 16 in ’09—however, it will be extremely difficult for such a young team to compete against more experienced squads, especially in the tough ACC. Head coach Roy Williams (who was a part of this hilarious commercial that aired during the tournament) will restock the team with talented recruits and will make sure they are ready to compete with the best in the nation, but expect some growing pains. A second issue to consider is how hungry will the player’s be to repeat? The team’s drive this season pushed them into the Final Four. If Lawson and Ellington return, it would be to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007, and expect them to keep the Tar Heels intensity high. If a number of players leave, however, will the younger guys be ready to take over at the same level as their former teammates?

All those questions will be answered in time. For now, the Tar Heels will enjoy their latest championship. And everybody else will put the bulls-eye on their backs as they look forward to the 2010 Final Four in Indianapolis.

And Detroit will hope the Red Wings at least stay on top in the NHL to keep their high from the ’09 Final Four.

Highlights of the 2009 Division I men's basketball championship game between UNC and MSU.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Viva Jozy

AP Photo/ Charles Rex Arbogast

Jozy Altidore had his coming out party Wednesday night against Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier, registering a hat trick in the United States’ 3-0 victory. The win came days after Altidore scored in a 2-2 tie against El Salvador. Altidore’s emergence has a huge effect on the national team.

While not as documented as another teen soccer sensation, Freddy Adu, U.S. soccer fans have had their eyes on Altidore for quite some time, and he has been considered one of the future stars for the men’s national team. At 16-years-old, he was the youngest player to score in the MLS playoffs, when he did so as a member of Red Bull New York. In the summer of 2008, he was transferred to Villarreal of Spain’s La Liga for an MLS record transfer fee of approximately $10 million. He competed for the United States in the 2008 summer Olympics and scored a goal against the Netherlands. Since then, Villarreal loaned Altidore to Xerez of Spain’s Segunda DivisiĆ³n in order to give the young player increased minutes and continue to adapt to Spanish culture, however it has not worked out so far as Altidore has yet to dress for the club. U.S. men’s national team head coach Bob Bradley still called him up for the team’s two qualifiers against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, even though Bradley is notorious for wanting his players to receive consistent minutes and Xerez’s coach’s insistence that Altidore will continue to sit if he misses time for national team duty.

As of late, Bradley has gone with Brian Ching as the team’s lone forward. Ching is excellent at collecting the ball, holding off defenders, and then distributing it. However, he is not the most efficient goal scorer, which is what a forward is judged on, especially when he is the only striker in the starting lineup. He has played well, but his lack of goal production has had fans clamoring for Altidore to take over. Saturday, down 2-0, Bradley opted to sub in Altidore in the match’s 61 minute and keep Ching in, hoping the two forwards would generate the offense needed to make a comeback. The move paid off, as Altidore scored in the 77 minute, and the team eventually came back to tie the game and earn an away point in qualifying. Altidore’s performance earned him a start against Trinidad and Tobago alongside Ching, and he didn’t disappoint.

Starting two forwards works better for the U.S., especially given the different talents of Altidore and Ching. While Ching uses his strength to hold off defenders and distribute, Altidore uses his size and athleticism to get open and attack the defenders. The two can work off of each other, which opens up the field, keeps the defense honest, and creates more attacking opportunities, rather than having the defense focus on one striker and stalling the offense.

In order to slide Altidore into the starting lineup, someone needed to be taken off the pitch. Bradley opted to remove left back Heath Pearce, who was removed for Altidore in the El Salvador game. Without Pearce, Bradley moved left midfielder DaMarcus Beasley into the left fullback spot. While not a natural defender, his defensive abilities are solid and his pace could be beneficial in leading the attack from the defensive end into the opposing teams half. Beasley played much better against Trinidad and Tobago than he did against El Salvador, and his attacking abilities helps make the defense much more of a threat to start the offense. He and right fullback Frankie Hejduk make good runs from the back to help the midfielders on the flanks push the ball. Coupled with center back Oguchi Onyewu, who stands at 6’4” and moves forward on set pieces to try and get a header on net, the defense has become much more capable of getting the offense going, which previously was a concern. Hejduk may be replaced when former starter Steve Cherundolo comes back from an injury, but he makes a compelling case. In the future, if Marvell Wynne can polish his touch on the ball, his speed could be very dangerous coming out of the back and keep the defense involved in developing the attack.

Altidore’s start also had an impact on the midfield. Because there were two forwards, Landon Donovan moved over from a central attacking midfield role to the left winger in place of Beasley. This allowed him to go at the defenders, attacking them with the ball, as well as cut the ball into the middle onto his dominant, right foot, making for better shots, passes, and crosses. Donovan assisted on all three of Altidore’s goals.

Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley remained at right wing and center midfield, respectively. Defensive minded Pablo Mastroeni replaced the struggling Sacha Kljestan as the other center midfielder, but going forward, expect Kljestan to earn his spot back, as again, he bolsters the attack and has formed a good playing relationship with Bradley.

Altidore has made things happen. A once offensively challenged U.S. squad has now been infused with new, young life. Inserting Altidore and shifting others around has created a squad that can attack from any part of the field, keeping the defense on its toes, opening up the field which allows creative players like Altidore, Donovan, and Dempsey more freedom.

It is only one game, not against prime opposition, and the lineup changes aren’t etched in stone, but the result and play was promising. If nothing else, Altidore proved he belongs on the national team, and that it’s his time to start.

Hopefully, Villarreal and Xerez were watching.

Highlights from Wednesday night's U.S. match against Trinidad and Tobago. Video from U.S. soccer's channel on Youtube.

Second photo credit: AP Photo/ Mark Humphrey

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Who should you watch in the 2009 MLB season?

The 2009 Major League Baseball season is just days away, when the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies begin their defense of the title against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, April 5. Which players are going to stand out this year, and which are going to underperform? It would be easy for me, or anyone else, to tell you that I like Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, or Johan Santana to have great years. It also wouldn’t take much to convince you not to expect huge numbers from Nick Punto or Adam Eaton. So here are some less familiar names that are in position for big years, and some really popular guys who won’t live up to expectations.

Guys to watch:

Matt Cain, SP, San Francisco. His record does not jump out at you, going 30-43 in his four professional years with the Giants. However, the Giants have been miserable the past few years, and haven’t helped their pitchers much, minus Tim Lincecum, of course. Cain’s lifetime ERA is 3.74, and last year he was on par to that, notching a 3.76 ERA. He has improved on his innings pitched each year, reaching 217.2 last year. His strikeouts also jumped from 163 to 186. In the offseason, the Giants infused their offense with some younger talent, so expect better run support and more wins. The Giants now have a surprisingly good pitching staff, and at 24-years-old, Cain will form a very good one-two punch with Tim Lincecum.

Jayson Werth, OF, Philadelphia. Werth began the ’08 season as a fourth outfielder/platoon player. He went on to earn the every day job with his gritty performance at the plate, in the field, and on the base paths. At the plate he hit a respectable .273, but really impressed with his 24 home runs. On the bases, he surprised with decent speed and base running skills, swiping 20 bases and only getting caught once. He also flashed the leather, committing only 2 errors, earning 9 assists, and just making some great defensive plays to save runs. Look for Werth to hit in the five-hole spot in the Phillies lineup to break up the Phillies’ lefty triumvirate of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Raul Ibanez. Werth will be a part of a high octane offense in a hitter-friendly park, and as the everyday starter in right field, especially with the recent release of Geoff Jenkins. Some analysts say he has the potential to be a 30 homeruns-30 stolen base guy this year, and I like those chances.

Jorge Cantu, 1B, Florida. Talk about coming out of nowhere. Cantu was signed to a minor-league deal by the Marlins in January of ’08. Out of camp he won the starting third baseman job. He showed some major pop at the plate, hitting 29 home runs and driving in 95 runs, while still hitting a respectable .277. He had a solid showing in the ’09 World Baseball Classic this spring; .360 batting average, two home runs, and six RBIs. This season he moves to first base, a position he played in 66 games last year, to accommodate rookie Emilio Bonifacio. While the Marlins can be a frugal team with their post-World Series fire sales, they do a great job of restocking their squad, and someone in the organization should be getting a raise for finding Cantu.

Gavin Floyd, SP, Chicago White Sox. Last year, Floyd finally showed why he was a top five draft pick by the Phillies in ’01. He was an electric pitcher in the minor leagues, including tossing a no-hitter in his first professional season in ’02. However, he began to struggle once he reached the majors. The Phillies grew impatient and shipped him to the White Sox. It took him some time to get his footing, but he finally broke out in ’08. He won 17 games and had a 3.84 ERA, as well as pitching a career high 206.1 innings. He’ll open up ’09 as the staff’s number two pitcher. Expect his added experience, success, and confidence to help him grow as a pitcher this season.

Guys to ignore:

C.C. Sabathia, SP, New York Yankees. I know this won’t win me over with Yanks fans back home. But what’s the last vision we have of him on the baseball field? He was getting shelled by the Phillies in game 2 of the NLDS, lasting only 3.2 innings and giving up 5 runs, including walking pitcher Brett Myers, who only had four hits all season, after going ahead 1-2 in the count in the second inning and being worked for another ten pitches in his second at-bat. While he was dominating down the stretch for Milwaukee, he wasn’t as great before he was traded from Cleveland, where he went 6-8 and a 3.83 ERA while giving up 117 hits and 34 walks in 122.1 innings, compared to 106 hits and 25 walks in 130.2 innings as a Brewer. Then he signed a huge $161 million contract with the Yankees over the summer. The Yankees don’t have a very good track record signing starting pitchers. Do the names Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson ring a bell? All were signed to large contracts, all were supposed to greatly improve the starting rotation, and all pitched miserably for New York. Sabathia may not be able to live up to the astronomical expectations the city has for him.

J.D. Drew, OF, Boston. Drew’s production as a Red Sox player, or for any other team for that matter, in no way merits the 5-year, $70 million contract he signed in ’07. Going back to his first full season in the majors in 1999 only twice has he hit for over 25 home runs and 90 RBI. His best year was in 2004 with the Atlanta Braves, where he hit .305, 31 home runs, and 93 RBI. Since then he’s only hit 20 home runs once. In two seasons in Boston, he has only played in 249 games out of a potential 324 because of numerous stints on the disabled list. His numbers don’t match his contract, he is an injury waiting to happen, and at 33, he isn’t getting any younger.

Vladimir Guerrero, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. This is a tough one. It’s not that his numbers are terrible. Vladdy can still hit for power and average. His numbers are immensely better than the aforementioned Drew. It’s the fact that Guerrero’s numbers are on a steady decline. His 2002 season was probably his best year, hitting .336, 39 home runs, and even stealing 40 bases. Since then, his average has lowered to .303. He’s down to 25 home runs last year, and hasn’t stolen more than 5 bases since 2002. Last year was also the first time he didn’t reach 100 RBI since 2003, knocking in 91. It looks like he has less and less left in the tank every year, and at 34-years-old, expect his numbers to continue to dip.

All photos from ESPN.com