Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
Greg deWerff remembers when Sherman Park once housed the premier men's softball leagues in the Milwaukee area.
"They'd get 1,000 people to watch those teams," he said. "I'd go as a kid all the time. Now, I walk on a field where I'd watch old guys playing as a kid, and now it's a girls field and put together very nicely. My parents had a great experience (living) down there."
Milwaukee is no longer a hotbed for baseball and softball as it once was, and as an adult, deWerff lives in Lake Country, where his daughter Jackie is a standout on the Lake Country Lutheran softball team. But Sherman Park, located on 43rd (Sherman Blvd.) and Burleigh St., has undergone a restoration, part of the RBI Baseball initiative run through the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee.
And deWerff, coach of the Merton Fillies youth softball team, is doing his part to help restore more than just the facilities. The Fillies traveled to Sherman Park earlier in the summer to face the Milwaukee Lady Brewers, a U16 softball team that represents what RBI Baseball hopes is the start of a softball resurgence in Wisconsin's most populous city. On July 24, Merton hosted the Lady Brewers in another meeting.
"There haven't been any fastpitch softball leagues in Milwaukee for at least five or six years," said Duke O'Keefe-Boettcher, coach of both the Lady Brewers team and the Milwaukee King varsity squad. "We're just trying to build the programs in the inner city. I'm trying to help my program get better and the other teams in the conference get better, and a good way to do that is against better competition."
The Fillies are one of several teams that have taken the Lady Brewers up on their offer. The Lady Brewers have traveled as far as Racine County and Kenosha, and the team has healthy numbers with a roster of 22 players.
"We weren't sure how competitive would be, but we were in three tournaments and were encouraged by the results," O'Keefe-Boettcher said. "We weren't really looking at wins and losses but how much the girls have improved from June until now. Some of the girls have never seen pitching or hitting as good as we've been seeing. We're just trying to get caught up with the speed of other programs in the area, and I think we've made great strides."
The players were more or less sought out by Javier Alaniz, the assistant coordinator for the RBI program, which has tried to serve as a catalyst for baseball in the inner city.
In the midst of the club's "Year of the G.I.R.L." campaign for 2014 (Growing Inspirational and Responsible Leaders), the softball team became an emphasis.
"We are celebrating the anniversary of when girls were first admitted to what used to be just the Boys Club," Alaniz said. "It coincided with the launch of our girls softball team and the opening of the new park, which is a real high-quality field and a collaboration through the Baseball Tomorrow Fund and the Brewers Community Foundation.
"We look at it as a tool for developing young leaders," Alaniz added. "We met with softball coaches and got together in the middle of the winter and talked about our goals and what we're trying to do. We were looking for something that doesn't happen very often, a very integrated organization with black, white, Latino … we wanted to engage as many of the public schools as possible."
The baseball program had already been established when Alaniz hopped on board to launch the girls team. Once O'Keefe-Boettcher signed on to be coach, Alaniz began engaging schools, scouting and talking to players, trying to get a good balance of ages as well to support the team in coming years.
The RBI program held its RBI Baseball regional tournament last weekend, concluding with the title game at Miller Park on July 28. In the past two seasons, a Milwaukee team has made the regional championship game.
At some point, the softball team could get there, as well.
"They weren't as bad as we'd thought they'd be," deWerff said. "And these kids are wonderful kids; it's not what you'd stereotypically expect from the inner city."
O'Keefe-Boettcher agreed. "What's nice is these girls are finding excuses to be at practice or be at the game. They're a special group. They're finding a way to get better at softball, and it's not just softball. It's life. We're trying to teach them good character and commitment. Hitting a softball isn't going to get you through life, but character and commitment are two aspects that can help you."
Pictured at top: Milwaukee Lady Brewers shortstop Alyssa Green stretches for a line drive during the game against the Merton Fillies on July 24. Middle: Merton Fillies pitcher Kirsten Kiepert winds up during the game against the Milwaukee Lady Brewers. Below: Sanami Fendt of the Milwaukee Lady Brewers gets a high five from assistant coach Keith Klabunde after hitting a single against the Merton Fillies.
Sticks and stones may break one's bones, but words will never hurt you. They also don't help you without an accompanying official document.
In the world of recruiting, most everyone understands that the verbal agreement between a recruit and a school isn't set in stone. Wisconsin men's basketball assistant coach Greg Gard, the recruiting coordinator under Bo Ryan, knows this as well as anyone.
"Plan for the worst and hope for the best," Gard said via cell phone during one recruiting trip. "Recruiters aren't doing their job if they don't have a backup plan, regardless of how many scholarships they have left. Maybe (the recruit) can't be admitted, something social happens with the kid, legal issues where they have to separate ways, all sorts of things that can change. You always play a game of 'what if?' What if someone leaves early for the NBA? People change jobs, people change schools, change houses. Sometimes the general spectator or fan gets wrapped up in de-commitments and transfers, but compare it to everyday life. There are a lot of people taking a job today and turning it down for a better one next week. You stop at this grocery store this week, you find a better one next week."
Gard has played a key role in assembling the groceries for a Badgers squad that went to the Final Four last year and will be seen as one of the nation's best squads in 2014-15. That's particularly true after incoming junior Sam Dekker, a Sheboygan Lutheran product, put together a great showing at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas. Big man Frank Kaminsky toyed with going pro after his junior year this April, and Nigel Hayes delivered an exciting freshman season.
For Gard, the key is knowing precisely when to pursue that commitment. Much ado is made when an eighth grader or freshman commits to a college program, or when an athlete or program severs ties without an obvious reason, such as a change in family circumstances or a new coaching regime.
"It's an inexact science," Gard said. "There's definitely no right or wrong way. Every institution varies, every coaching staff has a philosophy in how they approach it. We have a process and foundation in place and a way we do things that fit a way to be successful at Wisconsin.
"Some (programs) will encourage the de-commitment by stopping the attention (on a player). Others will sit the kid down, explain that this is not a good fit for whatever reason and help the kid find the direction they need to do. There's not a policy, not an NCAA guideline on how you handle those situations. We try to be up front, professional with it. We'd had very few (situations like that). We try to make that decision a little later than earlier in terms of when you offer because you don't know how those variables will play out."
Recently, Mukwonago girls basketball standout Bre Cera, who had committed to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay prior to her first varsity game, re-opened her commitment as an incoming junior, with UWGB and other major programs in the mix. Similarly, Pewaukee football player Derek Watt had verbally committed to Northwestern before changing his mind in his senior year, and he now starts at fullback for the University of Wisconsin. On the other side of it, Catholic Memorial volleyball standout Kelli Browning was told by Wisconsin to consider other options, and she went on to become preseason Player of the Year in the Big East in 2013 with Creighton and heads into her senior year as a returning first-team All Conference talent. Browning committed to Wisconsin before her junior season.
"With that much of a time between the time (the athlete) chose a school, a lot of things change," Gard said of an early commitment. "Obviously there is nothing binding. They can be broken on either side. Basically it's a gentleman's agreement, with nothing to hold either side to it, other than it's hurt feelings and bad PR (if a commitment gets broken)."
Two of Gard's tasks include knowing not to take the ever-changing tide nature of recruiting personally and knowing when a committed recruit needs additional attention before arriving on campus.
"It does become emotional, because you become emotionally attached, a lot is invested in the recruitment process, plus the financial resources invested," Gard said. "You can't lose sight that they're 15, 16, 17 years old … looking at making life altering decisions in terms of where to go to school. You always try to keep it in perspective. I have kids close to that age and they're not ready to go through that type of thought process.
"Some kids are lower maintenance than others (in terms of contact). They're secure enough with what they're doing that they don't need constant attention. Others need more interest and guidance and conversation. It varies from player-to-player and person to person. You wear a lot of hats. Even with the people around them, too. You have to recruit a lot of people involved. You have to weed through and figure out who the important decision makers are, the people (the recruit) leans on for advice."
Gard is told no far more than he's told yes.
"We always go back to (the idea of) the kids that want to be here and understand all the things that go into it," Gard said. "The time, the academic commitment … there are a lot of other things other than an hour and a half game twice a week during the season."
Photo: Marquette guard Vander Blue (13) and head coach Buzz Williams celebrate after Blue hit the winning basket against Davidson with one second left in their second-round NCAA Tournament game on March 21, 2013. Blue, who originally committed to Wisconsin, was one of the state’s most high profile de-commitments. (Associated Press)
Ahman Green's career has never been characterized by expected end points.
When fumbling issues in Seattle made it appear as if the third-round draft choice in 1998 wasn't going to enjoy long-term success in the NFL, a Draft Day trade in 2000 to Green Bay resuscitated his career, and he became one of the league's elite running backs. When injuries brought a two-year stint in Houston to an end, he re-signed in Green Bay in 2009 and became the franchise's all-time leading rusher.
Even now, with his NFL career behind him, Green has continued to remain active in more ways than one. The avid rugby player has spent some time working out with the U.S. national team, he has coached at the high-school level both in the Milwaukee area and in the Green Bay area where he still lives, and he's maintained a brand as one of the Packers franchise's most popular former players.
Green was slated to become a part of Packers immortality on July 19 with his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. Three days later, he'll be in Oconomowoc, helping with the annual Gilbert Brown All-Star Football Camp on the grounds at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson.
"We work with the same marketing agent (Mark Mayfield of Oconomowoc), and that's how we kind of re-connected," said Green, who was teammates with Brown on the Packers. "It's something I've wanted to do for a while, bringing more attention to it."
Current players such as Don Barclay, DuJuan Harris and Sean Richardson are also helping with the camp, which runs concurrently with a cheerleading and tumbling camp and also includes an autograph session with the players open to the public July 23.
Green has taken a page out of LeRoy Butler's book, remaining visible in a number of post-football capacities and continuing his connection with the Packers fan base.
"If someone needs help with things, I like to help out," said Green, who co-owns the D1 training facility in Green Bay and lives in De Pere. "Like LeRoy, like Gilbert Brown, like William Henderson … we know our star power and can bring attention to projects just by staying together. Success on the football field has helped our success off the football field."
On the field, Green played eight seasons with the Packers and rushed for 8,322 yards, passing Jim Taylor's mark (8,207 yards) after he re-signed with the Packers in 2009. He also set the single-season rushing mark with 1,883 yards in 2003 and holds franchise records for most 1,000-yard seasons (six), 100-yard games (33) and rushing attempts (1,851).
His earns enshrinement into the Packers Hall of Fame alongside former offensive lineman Ken Ruettgers
"It means a lot to me because it was something I didn't do myself; it was something I did with a lot of support, from my family, on the field with my teammates and coaching staff and support by fans and community," Green said. "The city of Green Bay, state of Wisconsin and all the Packers fans around the country and world (are a part of it). We played for the fans and each other. To have that type of fan support, that made it real easy to play as hard as I can every day. For me to do what I did, it was only because I had the big guys up front blocking, Aaron (Rodgers) or Brett (Favre) throwing the ball really well, wide receivers opening it up for the running backs. … The great thing is that it wasn't just me. It was my mom, my dad, my kids, my wife, all the way down to equipment managers."
It doesn't mean Green's days on the field are over entirely. In 2013, Green struck up a Twitter conversation with USA Rugby that ultimately led to him traveling to the Olympic Training Center in California for a camp with the Eagles national team. The "sevens" format of rugby (featuring seven players per side) will become part of the Olympics program in 2016 in Brazil, and though Green was not ultimately awarded a spot on the team, he remains active with the Green Bay Ball Strikers rugby team.
"It's a younger man's game but for an older guy like myself, it's still manageable," said Green, 37. "You have to stay in peak physical condition and take care of your body. … Football and rugby are not much different. For both, it's about how you prepare to make sure you become a solid team."
Green believes his involvement, and a greater cooperation between the country's football and rugby organizations, could help build the profile of the growing sport in the United States.
"When we match up with the international teams, places like Samoa and England and South Africa, they're the cream of the crop right now," Green said. "We have to get our team up to that level. Bringing in Chris Brown (as assistant coach for the national team), that's a good step toward making the US competitive."
Brown formerly served as an assistant on the Kenyan national team. In the International World Rugby rankings as of July 14, the United States is 18th. New Zealand holds the top ranking.
When he's not playing rugby, Green is still involved in football. Two seasons ago, he served as an assistant coach for Southeast Conference champion Oak Creek, where stepson Virgil Hammond was a standout running back. Last year, he served as assistant running backs coach and also assisted the track team at Green Bay Southwest.
"We had a great team that year (with Oak Creek), won the SEC, and the players are now at the college level at D1 and D2 and D3 schools. It helped me continue to go on and build my love for high school sports, and I'm able to continue that at Green Bay Southwest."
For more on the Gilbert Brown All-Star Football camp, visit MayfieldSports.com.
Pictured at top: Ahman Green stands on the sideline during a Green Bay Ball Strikers Rugby Club match in June. Green has been active in the sport since his retirement from the National Football League (Photo by Michael Sears) Below: Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green stiffarms Arizona Cardinals safety Rashas Johnson in 2009. (Photo by Mark Hoffman)
This is a column that has been written hundreds of times before by hundreds of different writers. Think of it as a public service announcement, an annual reminder that something is wrong and perhaps only a constant stream of emphasis will ever lead to the proper changes.
The farce of awarding home-field advantage for the World Series based on the outcome of the annual All-Star Game has to stop.
At first, it seemed like an intriguing response to the famous 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee that ended in a tie. After a couple years, it was apparent the knee-jerk response to an isolated (and completely tolerable, in retrospect) outcome needed amending. More than a decade later, it's exasperating that such a stupid, counter-intuitive tenet remains in place. When the annual showcase gets held July 15, the winning league will once again get to host four of seven games in baseball's great centerpiece, the World Series.
Reverting to the way things were seems particularly valuable now, with the Milwaukee Brewers as good a contender as any for the World Series and baseball commissioner Bud Selig – the champion of "This One Counts" – finally taking his final steps on the painstakingly slow path to retirement.
I love what Selig has done for the game and think he will be remembered as a visionary and one of baseball's most brilliant minds. His innovations, especially the Wild Card, have made baseball fun again for someone who cheers for a small-market franchise. I'm indebted to him for that. But whatever measure of embarrassment he felt in the aftermath of the tied All-Star Game cannot possibly outweigh the years of choosing such an important facet of the postseason based on something as arbitrary as a singular mid-July outcome featuring a majority of players from non-playoff teams.
The reasons are numerous. Here's a few:
1. The fans vote for starters. There's no need to trot out the countless anecdotes of undeserving players earning All-Star starting gigs based on the popular fan vote. But just in case you need a couple: consider that Milwaukee's Aramis Ramirez is somehow starting at third base this year for the National League (thanks, Brewers fans!) and the shell of Derek Jeter is starting at shortstop for the American League.
Then again, who wouldn't want to see Jeter starting in his final All-Star Game? It's an exhibition for the fans, and I love that they get a vote and they should be entitled to select players they want to see, even if those players aren't having awesome years. It happens every year that a few "wrong" players get starting spots, but so what? The problem is attaching tangible importance to a game featuring rosters that aren't even selected entirely by discerning baseball minds (though fans have made more educated decisions in recent years).
Pick one or the other: either embrace the exhibition nature of the experience and allow fans to vote or enhance the seriousness of it and craft rosters entirely of players who are truly stars that season.
2. Every team gets a representative. See the preceding sentence. It's for the fans, and I love that every team gets a player. How many times as a kid did I watch the All-Star Game to see the Brewers rep, even if it was Ricky Bones? But that rule means spots will go to undeserving players simply to fill a quota. Great players – who might be crucial in the chase for something so valuable – can't be left on the sidelines.
3. Players leave early. Nobody treats the game like it counts. Managers try to get as many players in as possible, which means the starters leave after three innings. Pitchers come in for one or two batters. Many players appear out of position, and nobody is locked into a rhythm that suggests a fierce competition for home field advantage.
In 2008, the game went 15 innings, and the players left on the field for the final several frames were not exactly the top line guys. Everyone thinks it's an exhibition except the league office willing to attach something of crucial importance to it. If the hope was to increase the competitive nature of the game, it's at least debatable that it happened.
4. The Jeff Samardzija situation. Samardzija was having an outstanding year for the Chicago Cubs and was selected for the National League team – the problem is that he was traded to the Oakland Athletics of the American League on July 4. He was thus ruled ineligible for the All-Star Game because he's a member of the NL roster and is no longer a member of the NL. How stupid.
If the All-Star Game fully embraced its exhibition nature, he'd be able to pitch for the NL like he deserves to. Instead, because of this ridiculous rule, it creates a conflict of interest (particularly because the A's are a viable World Series candidate).
5. New rules have led to newer problems. One of Selig's worries in 2002 was that too many pitchers weren't able to work multiple innings in the All-Star Game, which is why the game couldn't continue at Miller Park. All the pitchers had been used, and the ones left understandably didn't want to risk injury. Furthermore, Selig didn't like that the game had lost its edge with a number of players sitting out because of injury – usually players with many All-Star appearances under their belt who didn't feel like pushing it.
Now, we have a rule where pitchers who work the final day before the game get replaced on the roster – a rule that routinely negates some of the very best pitchers in the league and is on track to do so again (see points 1 and 2). The rule ensures a full, workable arsenal at the game itself but means we get larger and larger pools of selectees. It was once a great, selective honor to be in the game. Now, so many players get chosen at some point or another that it barely counts as a legitimate career milestone. It has dulled the game, in my opinion.
And still, plenty of players miss the game with injury, so it doesn't appear as if new stipulations to prevent a tie game have done the showcase favors. Furthermore, why should any team serious about contending for the World Series want its slightly-injured stars to play in a game that is treated by everyone (except MLB's league office) as meaningless.
6. We have better measures. The only possible explanation I would except for embracing "This One Counts" is that we don't have a true balanced schedule, and thus best overall record isn't necessarily a fair measure to determine home field advantage (since one team likely had an easier schedule than another). Alternating every other year between the leagues for home field advantage is just as arbitrary as using the All-Star Game. But overall record is still usable, particularly because Interleague Play has become more and more integrated into the schedule with two, 15-team leagues. In a game that celebrates the large sample of 162 games, it makes more sense than to use the one random outcome. Not only that, but expanded Interleague Play has further blurred the already-blurry lines between leagues. The very assignment of players in "leagues" has an arbitrary vibe to it. What if the All-Star Game MVP, playing for an NL team, later gets traded to an AL team?
Maybe I'm banging my head against the wall on an issue that has been visited time and time again. Maybe it really doesn't matter to fans how home field advantage is ascertained. But if the Brewers ever do get there in my lifetime, I really hope they don't get short-changed by a short-sighted rule.
Pictured: Jeff Samardzija was an All-Star for the Cubs, but after getting traded to Oakland, won't get a chance to play in the All-Star Game, and Bud Selig's ridiculous ASG rule is to blame. (AP photo)
"Specialization" has become a dirty word in United States prep athletics. It's rare to hear even the most elite coaches in a given sport preach the idea of playing only that sport, instead encouraging young people to diversify and accumulate a multitude of skills in several different disciplines.
For the well-rounded individual, seemingly a virtue in modern American culture, it makes perfect sense. But doesn't it mean the United States will always lag behind in World Cup soccer, where countries have been honing its athletes in one sport for years?
"Soccer in Brazil is by far the No. 1 sport, so most of the kids only play soccer," said Marcio Leite, a midfielder and Brazilian native playing for the Milwaukee Wave." There, we don't have a problem with the specialization, and we think that the more the kid plays, the better they are going to be. The more touches the better. I don't know anybody that got sick of the sport; I know people that weren't good enough and quit on the way."
One of the fears in encouraging a youth athlete to pursue one sport and one sport only: burnout. But in most nations, soccer has an overwhelming popularity advantage over other sports. World Cup host Brazil, perhaps the gold standard in the sport, stands out as one of the best examples.
"In Brazil, things are a lot different and the kids always take the game seriously because to become a professional soccer player is the dream of us all," Leite said. "Brazil is a big country with a big population and everyone wants to be on the national team. Clubs invest a lot of money in youth development, and a lot of the best kids leave their homes and states around the U13 age to train with the top clubs in the country. Those clubs provide everything. If you are playing for one of those top clubs in the country, then you will have a chance to go to the national team."
Major League Soccer, which has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the past few years, has begun developing academies in the United States and Canada, slowly working to build a similar model and foster greater national excellence in soccer.
"When I was growing up, players in Canada started getting noticed at around the age of U14 or U15," said Canadian and new Wave coach Giuliano Oliviero. "It starts by getting invited to play for your Provincial team; from there you participate against all the other provinces in the country. This would also be considered a National ID camp. From there, you would start getting invites to national team camps, U16,U20 and U23.You would go on international trips and it would include training and games."
Today, Oliviero said the three Canadian-based MLS teams, located in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, all have strong youth academies for players that want to represent their country, play in college or play professionally overseas.
Meanwhile, in the United States, emphasis on club athletics has been met with hesitence, as high-school and college-based athletics continue to carry broader acceptance.
Not all countries differ from that model. In South Africa, the majority of kids play in high school and college, though elite players are more likely to play academy-based soccer and can jump into the academy environment at any point in the growth process.
"I played all sports," said South African Jonathan Greenfield, also of the Wave. "I played tennis, rugby, cricket, everything. I was blessed with good hand-eye coordination and probably could have achieved in any type of ball sport. The thing about specialization is I personally believe some kids are more talented than others. Whether or not you do it every single day, there are some kids – no matter how much they train – they can step on the field and somewhat be better. It might be sad to say that, but that's how it is. Michael Jordan or LeBron James are just naturally gifted. They're working hard, don't get me wrong, but some people can just do so many things."
In that case, the United States may be more hindered in soccer by the simple availability and emphasis of other sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, rather than a cultural aversion to specialization.
But the country's success in the World Cup, including an escape from a difficult pool into the knockout round this year in Brazil, is sure to boost the already-improving national soccer identity.
"Rome wasn't built in a day," Greenfield said. "I think it's going to change as things evolve. Kids will change. Twenty-five million people watched the U.S.-Portugal game, eight times more than the NBA Finals or World Series, and it's growing from an MLS standpoint."
"Is it because we truly only got serious about the game after hosting the 1994 World Cup and then starting MLS?" he said. "Foreign countries have been focusing solely on this sport for a much longer time. Or, can the United States say that they have the best athletes in the country playing soccer? A lot goes into being a great player outside of athleticism; there's knowledge of the game and also having a competitive drive."
Greenfield has a number of rooting interests in the World Cup, even without South Africa (which hosted the 2010 World Cup) participating. His father hails from Portugal, and his mother is Dutch. He points out that one advantage other nations have over the United States is a litany of past stars now serving as coaches. In Holland, Dennis Bergkamp, considered a soccer legend, is the youth academy coach at the U12 level for the Netherlands.
"Sooner or later, that's going to change (In the U.S.)," Greenfield said. "The U.S. national team is really dominating at U17, beating all the other countries at U17. I think the U.S. will have a big turnaround."
Imagine the fervor for the World Cup in this country once the nation becomes a serious player to win the whole thing.
"The World Cup is fantastic," Leite said. "I've been trying to watch all the games. Honestly, I wish the World Cup happened every two years."
Photo: Milwaukee Wave forward Marcio Leite (77) collides with Missouri Comets player Robert Palmer (12) in March. Leite, who hails from Brazil, says his nation has no problem with specialization when it comes to soccer. Photo by Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
T.J. Schlundt already had some experience picking the road less traveled. When it came to identical offers from the two premier men's basketball programs in the state of Wisconsin, the Oconomowoc native once again made perhaps a surprising choice.
Once new head basketball coach Steve Wojciechowski arrived at Marquette University, he quickly offered Schlundt a preferred walk-on opportunity. Schlundt, a three-year standout at Oconomowoc High School who made the well-publicized move to spend his final year of high-school eligibility in the St. John's Northwestern Military Academy post-graduate program, had a similar offer on the table from the University of Wisconsin.
"Obviously, with my dad having played at Marquette, there was a little bit of bias," Schlundt said with a laugh, referring to his father Terrell, who played for MU from 1979-83. "He wasn't trying to show it, but it was pretty clear. I just wanted to make my own path instead of following in my dad's footsteps. Many people told me it was a good decision, but I'm happy with the decision I made."
Now, he's a Badger, and though it isn't a full-fledged scholarship – which was the goal when Schlundt elected to play in the post-graduate program – it's essentially the next best thing, not to mention a spot on the roster of a program that returns a healthy quotient from last year's Final Four squad.
Schlundt is already in Madison, taking two classes over the summer and participating in early-morning lifts, open gyms and coaching sessions. His roommate: the other preferred walk-on, former Appleton Xavier standout Matt Ferris, who shattered records as a quarterback on the football team last fall but pursued basketball thereafter.
Schlundt and Farris will both ultimately be competing for a scholarship. Until then, they're full members of the team, traveling on road trips and participating in every program. They just have to cover tuition at Wisconsin, as well. Schlundt made the call to play at Wisconsin over scholarship offers from other Division 1 programs like St. Joseph's and Wofford.
Schlundt could have elected to return to SJNMA as well, this time competing as an actual post-graduate in the post-grad program.
"It was time for me to take a jump," Schlundt said. "There were a lot more opportunities for recruiting (by going to SJNMA). I'm not going to regret the decision I made. I'm definitely happy with going there. Coach (Brian) Richert helped me grow as a player and a person. I got 10 credits college credit for math, calculus, so that's another positive."
In an official team release, Wisconsin hoops coach Bo Ryan acknowledged that Schlundt's decision to play for the Badgers showed he was willing to turn down other excellent options.
"TJ had an outstanding career at both Oconomowoc and St. John's Military Academy and declined numerous scholarship opportunities to be a Badger," Ryan said. "He is excited to join us and start working in June with our returning players and staff. I'm looking forward to helping him strive toward all his goals on and off the court in the coming years."
The 6-5 shooting guard left Oconomowoc after his junior year as the third all-time leading scorer (1,054 points) in program history, averaging 16.1 points per game. At St. John's, he saw a great deal of floor time and was able to acclimate to a faster speed of basketball.
"It's kind of a unique situation because it was the first year they were allowing (undergrad) players for the program," Schlundt said when asked if he would recommend the same route to a college-bound player. "If (a player) wanted to see his recruitment rise a little bit, there are definitely opportunities, but it's all in how you play. You can't go there thinking you're going to get all these (scholarships). You have to go in there and work."
Several schools entered the fray with interest, including UW-Green Bay, UW-Milwaukee and Northern Kentucky. Eventually, Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard and Richert, the coach and director of the post-graduate program, had a conversation that led to Schlundt choosing Madison. He said despite the scholarship offers, it came down to the walk-on offers at Wisconsin or Marquette.
"I talked to (former St. John's and Wisconsin standout) Trevon Hughes at my graduation; he was there and I got a few insider tips about Wisconsin and coach Ryan," Schlundt said. "They're treating me really well. They're all really good guys, very classy guys. I'm really looking forward to the year."
SJNMA finds homes for others
The post-grad program at St. John's Northwestern Military Academy enjoyed another strong year of placing players in college programs. Aside from Schlundt, players moving on were 6-11 post Fred Iduwe (Georgia), 6-8 wing Ilias Theodorou (Pacific), 6-5 guard Ryan Taylor (Ohio), 6-3 point guard Ehab Amin (Texas A&M Corpus Christi), and three others to a junior college, NAIA and NCAA Division III program, respectively.
The program, which just completed its fourth year, has previously placed players at such locations as Kansas State, Virginia Tech, Texas Tech, Missisippi State, Seton Hall and Washington. Trevor Thompson, who started at Virginia Tech, transferred to Ohio State in April.
Pictured: T.J. Schlundt takes a shot during his playing days at Oconomowoc High School. Photo by Russ Pulvermacher.
As I watched Tuesday's WIAA Division 1 state baseball tournament games on my computer at the office, it occurred to me that I bet some Madison-area coaches will be disappointed to see the end of summer baseball. With the Milwaukee area and summer season essentially synonymous – a fact that could be changing soon with Arrowhead and Catholic Memorial moving to spring next year – the Madison area is the largest metro area in the state to predominantly play spring baseball.
That's good news for the three Big Eight teams that reached the state final, including two (Sun Prairie and Janesville Parker) that faced off in one of the Tuesday semifinals, leading to Sun Prairie's berth in the state-title game.
Sun Prairie came into state as the two-time defending state champion, and the program is superior enough to win state titles regardless of Milwaukee's involvement. But it has to be nice for a subset of the state's more accomplished athletics programs to be sitting the spring game out.
Arrowhead and Catholic Memorial's decision to switch to spring have been discussed at length, with Arrowhead officials citing a number of top-flight athletes choosing the summer tournament circuit over the high-school team as a chief motivation. With the involvement of Legion baseball in parts of the state, the "sprummer" concept – a unified season for spring and summer teams starting a couple weeks later than the current spring season – just hasn't caught on. I have to think it also plays a role that coaches and personnel aren't excited about dragging the year to drag on deeper into the summer than it already does.
The moves don't mean summer baseball is dead, even if it looks like a major domino to fall in a gradual hemorrhage of teams from summer to spring. As the number of summer teams drifts below 50, it nonetheless seems like that's where we're headed. It doesn't mean everyone is happy about it, though.
"I just have a huge issue with the argument that club baseball is needed for summer kids," former West Bend East standout and current West Bend Land O'Lakes manager Craig Larson said. "College coaches come to Wisconsin in the summer. It is fact. While there is value to what a place like Stiks does and the Hitters Club teams do, to say that is the only path to college is wrong."
Stiks Academy in Oconomowoc has offered traveling teams that allow kids increased exposure by leaving the state to play in elite-level tournaments during the summer. That precludes several athletes from playing a summer season, including a handful of Arrowhead athletes who will be available to play in the 2015 season for the Warhawks thanks to the switch.
"The work (Sean Smith) does for kids is truly remarkable," Larson, said, referring to the founder of Stiks. "But he is running a business, and that is sell a dream of playing high-level college baseball or even professionally. Is club the way to go? That remains to be seen, but it shouldn't be the reason to stop summer baseball."
Larson played and coached under Doug Gonring, who led West Bend East to state titles in 1999 and 2002. He assisted at Concordia and took over the West Bend Land O'Lakes team in 2011 and will be the Western Division's All-Star Game manager this year.
The way Larson sees it, many smaller programs outside of the Milwaukee are have abandoned summer baseball because of a competitive disadvantage. Summer baseball has always been one division for all teams.
"The whole one-division in summer is a bigger deal then most lead on," he said. "In fact, look no farther than my '99 team at West Bend East that won state. We were part of the reason that many teams looked to spring due to the competition. We played Baldwin-Woodville and West Salem, both of which were having special seasons that ran into a school that they had no business playing. You started to see a decline after '99, and the end was inevitable. I really think if the WIAA would open up a Division 2 for summer baseball, you would see up to 20 to 30 schools move back."
It's a tough sell now, barring a plan that would include a contingency of several schools moving back, particularly with the numbers as low as they are.
Then, there is Legion ball, which has a small presence in the Milwaukee area but not nearly the influence it may have elsewhere.
"Legion ball is its own different animal and up in Stevens Point, where … it is king," Larson said. "Some of the teams we play in adult (baseball) talk about how some take Legion more serious then high school ball. And that is great, as long as it doesn't dictate how another organization does business. It would be like the WIAA moving the basketball season to satisfy AAU. You can't do that. Also, as that coach said, it isn't fair that graduated adults are playing against students. Let's not forget that graduated players still play Legion."
Coaches in the sprummer model would be asked to devote extra weeks into their spring break, but even if they didn't feel hindered by that, Larson pointed out that many coaches can "double dip" as high-school coaches and then collect an additional paycheck as a Legion coach.
"I see no reason why a season starting April 15 and ending the last Thursday or Friday in June wouldn't be best for everyone … everyone except American Legion Baseball," Larson said.
From the kids' perspective, football camps and the simple draw of a full summer vacation also makes spring more desirable despite the many weather-centric drawbacks.
"I think there is pressure not to miss these offseason camps (for other sports such as football), because in programs like Arrowhead and even CMH, the difference in playing time or not can be as simple as summer weight-room attendance in camps," Larson said. "Those kids, numbers 5 through 9 in the batting order, are going to do their camps over baseball, and I think that's wrong. I come from the school of thought that specialization isn't always best. One of my closest friends is Adam Rohlinger, whose brother Ryan is proof of this philosophy. He should be the poster child for the WIAA in playing multiple sports. Ryan was a four-sport All-State kid in high school who 'made it' and got to the Major Leagues."
Rohlinger saw action in parts of four seasons for the San Francisco Giants.
Larson is arguing against a cascade of pressures that can't be waved aside by any one maneuver. But that doesn't mean everyone views the slow march toward a universal spring season as a positive.
Pictured: Kettle Moraine will stay in the summer baseball landscape for now, but with conference foes jumping ship to spring ball, plenty of discussion remains about the future of summer baseball as a whole. (Photo by Scott Ash)
The extended delay was brutal, but I had to admit there was something endearing about watching state championships under the lights and night-time sky.
The 4x400-meter relay – the final event held shortly after 10 p.m. following a long weather delay at the state track and field meet in LaCrosse on June 7 – was chock full of local intrigue, with four teams from the coverage area taking part in the finals. It was one of many notable takeaways from this year's state meet, which will ultimately be characterized by rain delays on both days that pushed the action well beyond its normal time frame.
-- Oconomowoc's win (Nate Nord, Casey Bednarski, Andy Woods, Corbin Ellis) in the 4x4 came in a meet where the program had recorded its first boys track individual state title since 1990 and the first multi-title weekend since 1943 (!!). Ellis also won the 400, and it's more remarkable considering the school didn't even have a functioning track this season as it undergoes renovations as part of the Athletic Fields Forever campaign. The team's parking-lot training regimen paid off.
This year's Oconomowoc team didn't come into the state meet with the volume of entries as last year's, when the Raccoons were a legitimate contender to win the team title before a few bad breaks took them out of the running. The multiple titles seem to offer a measure of balance from that season, when the depth was greater but OHS wasn't able to snag a state crown.
-- Pewaukee runners looked visibly excited after taking third place in the 4x400-meter relay to close the state meet, even though they missed second by an eyelash and had the top seed time from preliminaries. The Pirates held their own after getting bumped up from Division 2 this season, with Dominik Johnson finding the podium in the 400 and the relay showing it was one of the best in the state regardless of division. Pewaukee always seems to be trending upward in every sport, and it seems there will be no learning curve in track and field as it transitions to the division with the biggest schools.
-- Kettle Moraine took fourth, and relay member Ryan Vinhal gets the nod for the quickest thinking at the state meet when he scooped up a dropped baton in the preliminary and still anchored the team to fifth place and a spot in the finals. KM didn't finish one relay race in the sectional, had another miss by an incomprehensibly small margin of time and ran into a number of injuries this season, so it was a rewarding end to a trying stretch.
In other aspects of the meet ...
-- I don't really understand the method by which the powers that be decided an automatic five-hour window would pass when the meet was first stopped by lightning at roughly 11 a.m. Saturday. The announcement was made that events would only begin at 3 p.m. at the earliest, and they eventually began at 4:30 p.m.
The period in between, in true Murphy's Law fashion, lacked virtually any thunder and lightning, and there's no doubt events could have been held. There was plenty of rain, but track and field events can be held in the rain and certainly have been in the past. Given the setup of the event, with many students staying in dorms right on the LaCrosse campus and many out-of-town families with nowhere to go but the immediate vicinity, it strikes me as odd that the decision was made to wait so long before re-evaluating the weather situation. Sure, there were storms in the area, but what's more unpredictable than a thunder storm? The radar was threatening but not overtly so — it wasn't a guarantee that the thunderstorms were going to do anything more than graze the area, which is what happened. So why not evaluate every hour? Presumably, the organizers didn't want to have athletes endure a series of warm-ups and cool-downs only to have events delayed multiple times by quickly-arriving lightning.
Still, it seemed like the delay was an overreaction, and a lot of families were inconvenienced pretty significantly. One writer (who shall remain nameless…for now) has been advocating for the event to even move from LaCrosse to Oshkosh (a maneuver that has been at least discussed in the past) because LaCrosse has been prone to bad June weather on several occasions in the recent history of the meet. I imagine there isn't a dramatic meteorological reason for the move, and I know the area really takes pride in that event – plus, it's a cool venue – so I'm not ready to make that endorsement just yet. But it's probably crossed a few minds.
-- The weather created an interesting situation with the pole vault moved indoors. Many spectators suddenly found themselves with time on their hands, and a much larger-than-usual crowd got to witness Brookfield East's Glen Harold set a new state-meet record with his leap of 16 feet, 1 inch when the event was the only event moved indoors to Mitchell Hall across the street from the track. It was an unusual and entertaining environment to see state history get made.
-- I've said it before, but it's impossible not to root for University Lake School distance running standout Isabel Seidel. After watching her sister win eight track and field state titles, then coming within 600 meters of her own state title in cross country before falling ill, it was a sweet moment in the spotlight when Seidel won the 1,600 and 3,200. As high-school athletes go, she's one of the most thoughtful interview subjects I've encountered in my decade covering prep sports.
-- Arrowhead seldom struggles for numbers in any sport, but the track team didn't have its usual volume this year. Still, the team once again delivered, with a senior-heavy relay lineup taking third in the 4x200 and fourth in the 4x100. Of those relay runners, only Jake Mentzer had appeared at state before. The others were Thomas McCormick, Gerry Tetzlaff, Jordan Argue and Brandon Tuchalski.
-- It was sort of a quiet finish for Arrowhead distance runners Jackie Dubnicka and Lea Patek, who scored points in the 4x800-meter relay, but the two runners have been huge components of a program that has become a dynasty in cross country, securing the last three state championships. Dubnicka has three top-five finishes at the state CC meet in her career, and they'll pass the torch now to younger runners such as Payton Wesley, Annie Hughes, Caroline Miller and Brynn Bartlett, who all competed at the state track meet, as well. They'll be remembered at the school for ages.
Above: University of Wisconsin La Crosse Landscape Services employees Heather Stacey (left) and August Lueck clear rain water off near the high jump pit during a rain deley in the afternoon session of the WIAA track and field state meet June 6. Below: Arrowhead's Jackie Dubnicka competes in the 4x800 at the state track and field meet.
On Aug. 22 at 7 p.m., Arrowhead kicks off at Kenosha Bradford, Kettle Moraine kicks off at Oconomowoc, Pewaukee opens the football season against Waterford and Mukwonago kicks off against visiting Racine Horlick.
And the Green Bay Packers kick off at Lambeau Field against the Oakland Raiders.
Granted, the latter is just an exhibition contest, the third of the four-game preseason NFL slate and first at Lambeau Field this season. For the second straight year, however, the Packers have scheduled a Friday night game conflicting directly with opening night of the football season.
The question I've found myself asking is: does that matter? And by extension, should we hold the Green Bay Packers to a higher standard than other organizations?
Some prep writers bristled at Green Bay's decision to play the game at that moment in time, noting that the home team has a great deal of control over game times during the exhibition season. Last year, John Casper, Jr., a Dousman native who now writes for the LaCrosse Tribune, penned a column last year entitled "Packers should leave Friday nights to the high schools," in which he itemizes all the potential avoidable problems the Packers have created with their timing.
I caught up with Casper for our weekly podcast Initial Reaction to talk about some of his concerns.
"Bob Harlan felt Friday night is reserved for high school football," Casper said, referring to the former Packers president who once moved an exhibition game to 3 p.m. in the afternoon Friday as a way to leave the evening open for high-school fans. "He felt the Green Bay Packers were a different organization, that they should do whatever they can to protect that and not try to compete with the high schools. It's unfortunate that the current leadership not only doesn't think that way, but I don't think they're doing anything in their power to even avoid playing on Friday nights."
I have to admit, my initial thought was that this wasn't really something to worry about. Parents and high-school students will still go to watch their children and classmates play football, and I didn't really imagine a large drop in gate attendance. Any morsel of Packers football is valuable to the state of Wisconsin, but I still didn't think fans would get too bent out of shape over missing an exhibition game, when the results barely matter. As my colleague JP Cadorin put in on the podcast, it is a preseason game, after all.
I like to think I have more of a vested interest in the prep sports scene than even the typical onlooker, whose interest probably extends to the timeframe of his or her child's involvement in high school sports, or perhaps a passive interest in his or her alma mater. Even with my close proximity to prep coverage, I totally respect that the Packers are a bigger deal than prep sports will ever be. If there is a financial benefit to playing the game at 7 p.m. Friday, then I fully expect the Packers to make that choice, and it doesn't particularly offend me that they wouldn't consider prep sports when making decisions.
Then again, the Packers love to trumpet their standing as the people's team, "owned" by a fan base so enthusiastic that season tickets take a generation to obtain. Wouldn't this cut right into the fabric of that fan base, infringing on the hometown football fan?
"I don't know if out of touch is the right word, but I don't think they realize the impact that even preseason games have on these communities," Casper said. "People are still going to go to the high school games; you're still going to get decent crowds, but it's not going to be at the level it would be at if the Packers weren't playing that night. I don't know if (Packers president and CEO) Mark Murphy really understands the impact this team has in the state. It's not just a game, it's an event. People plan family outings around Packers games. Bars have specials and bring in extra workers. I don't think he realizes how he alters peoples' lives by continuing to play."
Casper brought out how prep teams only have four home games a season in some cases, and any drop in gate attendance can be damaging. Moreover, radio stations or newspapers that might normally cover opening night of the prep season would instead divert attention to the Packers. The prep coverage would get relegated to smaller spaces. In the Green Bay area, some schools may move their games to earlier Friday or Saturday to accommodate for the traffic snarl caused by Packers stadium-goers.
Again, I still don't know if that's enough to compel a change in Packers thinking. It doesn't feel to me that the Packers have a responsibility to embrace the fan mania they've created and recognize that every decision has the potential to alter family plans for the evening.
But I go back to the original question: do we hold the Packers to a higher standard, and should we? I've always been the type of fan who prefers winning to "doing things the right way," which is why I ultimately didn't find fault with the decision to put defensive lineman Johnny Jolly in the mix last year despite a checkered past. Surely, that type of thinking has limits, but when the team brought in troubled rookie tight end Colt Lyerla this offseason, I saw a move that made sense as low-risk, high-reward, and I was frankly surprised others labeled it a move that reeked of "winning at all costs."
But if the Packers are truly special, like many fans believe they are, perhaps these are the types of things the organization could stand to think a little bit more about, particularly when it comes to decisions that have no bearing on the on-field product.
Pictured: Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy talks to fans in the south end zone on the field before their preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks on August 23, which coincided with the start of the high-school football season. For the second year in a row, the Packers will host an exhibition game at the same time as prep kickoff. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)
This is probably a fruitless exercise, but it’s fun.
Once the WIAA releases its heat sheets for the forthcoming state track and field meet, it’s pretty easy to start grading out where teams could potentially fall. It’s a pretty simple system – every first-place finisher nets 10 points for his or her team, every second-place finisher gets eight, and third place gets six (with each of the top eight scoring at least one point, decreasing in single-point increments after third place).
If entrants are tied in seed time or distance, I split the points for those spots evenly. Two entrants tied for the final point received 0.5 points apiece.
I think it goes without saying that these results can vary wildly when the races are actually held. Many teams rely on one or two supremely talented athletes to deliver the points, and a sprinter who’s favored to win, for example, the 100 and 200 can alone put his or her team in the middle of the pack (20 points). Maybe that sprinter is also in one of the relays expected to do well. If that sprinter tweaks an ankle on the first day of state, that changes the outlook dramatically.
Also, bear in mind that many of these seed times and distances are separated by only a fraction of a second or inch. Outcomes will likely differ dramatically from seeds.
Furthermore, a team might not even want to be at the top of the heap here. Consider a team like Arrowhead with 11 total entrants and points scored here in four events on the girls side. There is an opportunity for the Warhawks to “move up.” Maybe the three top-eight entrants in the 1,600 place higher than seed times or Taylor Amann breaks the three-way tie for the top seed in the pole vault with a championship (and full 10 points) or an entrant not figured in the top 8 finds her way on the podium.
That’s a better position than Kenosha Tremper, which has very little wiggle room to improve the score here, since it’s already predicted to win the 100, 200 and 100 hurdles, plus a second place in two events thanks to star sprinters Danielle Riggins and ToNaya Gulley. Obviously, Tremper has the potential to win multiple events at state and finish very well in the team scoring, but it’s almost championship-or-bust to just break even on the seed projections presented here, whereas other teams have room to grow from these projections.
1. Kenosha Tremper, 46 points
2. Brookfield East, 44 points
3. West Bend West, 25.5 points
4. Monona Grove, 25 points
T5. Sun Prairie, 24 points
T5. Whitefish Bay, 24 points
T7. Arrowhead, 23 points
T7. Milwaukee King, 23 points
T7. Racine Case, 23 points
10. Hartford, 22 points
Other area teams: Hamilton (12 points), Mukwonago (10 points), Kettle Moraine (2 points)
1. Kimberly, 53 points
2. Wisconsin Lutheran, 52.5 points
3. Racine Park, 42 points
4. Green Bay Preble, 41.3 points
5. Bay Port, 37.3 points
T6. Appleton North, 25 points
T6. West Bend West, 25 points
8. Madison Memorial, 24 points
9. Middleton, 23.86 points
10. Brookfield East, 23.5 points
Other area teams: Oconomowoc (18 points), Hamilton (12 points), Pewaukee (12 points), Mukwonago (6 points), Arrowhead (5 points)
Pictured: Alyssa Skrove competes in the long jump for Kettle Moraine at the West Allis sectional May 30.
Sean Smith does have a place in the evolving landscape of high-school baseball in Wisconsin, and he may unwittingly play a role in the demise of summer baseball as a concept altogether. That wasn't the Oconomowoc native's intent.
"I played high school baseball at Oconomowoc," said Smith, who operates Stiks Academy in Oconomowoc. "I went to two state championships in a row. High school baseball is the greatest time I remember. The guys I played with are still my best friends today. I don't want to take any kids away from their high school. But I also have a job to do to develop these kids and get them the opportunities. I don't feel like I'm part of that movement; I just see myself as providing the opportunity for those guys to advance their game."
Smith, part of two state runner-up teams at OHS before getting drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the fifth round of the 1992 Major League Baseball Draft, knows what it takes to get scouts to notice area talent, and it requires travel outside of the state. With that in mind, a handful of players have elected to skip playing summer baseball with their high schools and play instead with Smith's Stiks teams, which travel the country to showcases and top-talent events.
"For our younger ages, we want to develop them, teach our kids the right way to play," Smith said. "That's our goal with the younger teams. We want them to climb the ladder to the high-school grade teams, and that's where they're going to start getting the exposure and getting out in front of the right scouts. We're close enough to Chicago where some of them come up, but you need to be very special for those guys to come up to Wisconsin. USC and Stanford aren't coming to Wisconsin very often to see a high-school baseball player unless you're throwing 95 miles an hour or you're a 6-7 lefty. So we get out there and we want to get these kids in front of the right people, because Wisconsin does have some phenomenal athletes and players, and we want to get them out there and get them the exposure they deserve."
Included in that batch are a handful of Arrowhead High School players on the U17 team, including sophomore pitchers Nate Brown and Ryan Schmitt and junior pitcher/first baseman Chris Bernatz. The volume of players choosing this route over high-school ball was one of the specific reasons Arrowhead athletics director Kevin Flegner cited when explaining the school's reasons to convert to the spring baseball season in 2015.
"We were losing way too many kids to these up-and-coming travel teams," Flegner said. "Not just numbers, but some of our very best kids. When you start losing your top three and four pitchers and some of your top hitters, it's pretty hard to compete at a Division 1 level. We have anywhere from four to nine really good players that don't even play baseball for us. They want to play 50 or 60 or 70 games (in the summer); they want to get noticed by the summer scouts. If we did not move, I'd be faced with a situation where our program was diminished."
In other words, the reaction hasn't been to escalate the awkward tension that sometimes exists between club and varsity programs. Instead, Arrowhead and Waukesha Catholic Memorial chose to become two of the biggest dominoes to fall in the gradual exodus from summer baseball to spring.
That's in part because the WIAA baseball format is so strange to begin with, at least from a regional perspective.
"Wisconsin is the only state that has a spring high-school season and summer high-school season," Smith said. "It's hard for those kids to go out and get the exposure they need because the college coaches aren't coming up to Wisconsin in droves to watch kids. So we get them on college campuses around the country and we get them the attention they need.
"People don't look at Wisconsin as a baseball state because of the cold weather. They don't get the number of games they do in the south, but the northern kids have just as much talent as the southern kids do. They just haven't reached their potential yet. And that's why a lot of coaches will like the northern kids, because there's still a large ceiling there for those guys to get. They can catch up pretty quickly, and they might even go past some of those southern kids."
The death of summer baseball as an institution has seemed like a long time coming, though even with a reduction to 53 teams competing for the championship in 2015, the final obituary hasn't been written.
But the Classic 8 Conference, down to six teams, will now be looking for a way to address its diminished ranks, and it's easy to suggest a league-wide jump to spring ball. Multiple players from Hamilton and Pewaukee also compete with Stiks teams, so several other schools are likely to investigate the same path taken by AHS and CMH. And at some point, seeing schools with the tradition of Arrowhead jump to spring has to convince others that it's at least an avenue worth exploring.
Especially because Stiks (and eventually, more programs like it) seems to be gaining popularity. The multi-purpose Oconomowoc facility has blossomed in numerous areas, and the traveling baseball circuit is no exception.
"We started with three teams in our first year and wanted to limit it and really set the guidelines and boundaries for what we're doing," Smith said. "There was a need for something at a higher level than just what rec ball or select ball provided. There were a couple other organizations out there at the time that were offering really high-caliber baseball and we wanted to jump into it as well. There was nothing in the Waukesha and Milwaukee area; it was down in Kenosha and Madison. We wanted to try something in this area as well, and it's been very good."
Consider how the process has necessitated a push in that direction.
"A lot of these kids are working with – not technically agents – advisers and things like that. There's an elite showcase or camp every weekend. You have to go to those things to get the recognition. Before, I didn't have to do that. I would go to a couple camps or a tryout camp. The Cincinnati Reds used to run a tryout camp at Roosevelt Field every year, and that's how you got your exposure. Now it's these showcases. You have to go and pay 250 dollars to go and throw eight pitches for these guys to see you. It's kind of ridiculous."
With the June MLB Draft slated for June 7, a handful of local players could be on the radar, including Grrendale's Zack Henderson and Mukwonago's Noah Sadler. Smith is working to make sure that number get seven higher. Summer baseball, for better or worse, looks like it could be collateral damage.
Listen to Sean Smith's full interview on the Initial Reaction podcast at LivingLakeCountry.com.
Pictured: Kids play a game of baseball at Stiks Academy in Oconomowoc in April during Spring Break SportsFest. Stiks offers fitness training, performance training and a multitude of additional sports offerings. (Photo by Todd Ponath)
The 2014 spring playoff series began this week, and as is the case every season, there are a number of compelling storylines to watch as spring turns to summer for Lake Country athletes.
Pewaukee soccer is in a good place, with senior Abbey Toureene and freshman MacKenzie Schill tearing it up offensively. But even with the WIAA postseason format upped to four divisions this year, the same obstacle remains in place for the Pirates: Catholic Memorial. The soccer powerhouse has been ranked No. 1 in Division 3 all year, and the Crusaders have been a perennial thorn in Pewaukee's side on the path to Uihlein Soccer Park. Ranked No. 2, Pewaukee is still an underdog to get to state for the first time.
But it can be done. If there's a silver lining, it's that the blueprint to defeat CMH is out there. Waukesha West topped the Crusaders in Classic 8 play in double overtime May 13, and Kettle Moraine won a shocker, 2-0, on May 20.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Kettle Moraine soccer proved it belonged with the elite when it defeated CMH, and now that Waukesha West has been relocated to Division 2 in the new system, the Lasers have seen the departure of what has become a longstanding roadblock to state. This year's chief sectional obstacle is Madison West, the fifth-ranked team in the state. The Lasers could be one of the surprises of the postseason series.
And don't forget Lake Country Lutheran in Division 4, a squad that has made the past two state tournaments (with one title) in D3. The Lightning would have to deal with Ozaukee, ranked ahead of LCL, before reaching the sectional final, but the Lightning defeated Ozaukee earlier this year.
Lake Country Lutheran baseball has been flat-out dominant all year, helped along by an out-of-sight pitching staff that would be an embarrassment of riches for any D1 school, let alone the tiny D4 school in Hartland. With a cadre of aces that include BJ Sabol, Ben Wilkins, Jesse Turner and Chris Kornowski, the reigning Division 4 state runner-up is undefeated and looking every bit like a team that can win the whole thing this year and bring LCL its second state championship in any sport.
It's true, however, that the Midwest Classic Conference hasn't offered the firepower to give LCL a push, and the playoffs will provide the biggest tests of the season. No. 2-ranked Barneveld is in the same sectional.
In the Division 1 circuit, Oconomowoc baseball has enjoyed another productive year and found itself in contention for the Wisconsin Little Ten title. The Raccoons get a glimpse May 24 of Sun Prairie, a team that was ranked No. 1 in the state but fell to No. 10 in the last poll after dropping back-to-back games. The Cardinals are still the team to beat, but Oconomowoc will make a strong case to get to Appleton.
Mukwonago triple jumper Jeremy Harr took second last year in his featured event behind now-graduated Keyshawn Davis of Milwaukee King, so he will be one of the favorites to stand atop the podium this year. Mukwonago has some experience in this area – Chris Haase won the long jump title in 2010. He might get the biggest push from teammate Matt Green, who has the second-best jump in the state this year behind Harr's.
Meanwhile, Oconomowoc's Corbin Ellis will be one of the heavyweights in the 400, looking to win a title after an injury kept him out of the state meet altogether last year. Not to be outdone, Sussex Hamilton hurdles standouts Chais Blackburn and Joel Fotsch can compete for a title.
On the girls side, this could be the year for University Lake School distance standout Isabel Seidel, who took second in the 1,600 and 3,200 last year to now-graduated Breanna Colbenson of Spring Valley. Seidel possesses the top D3 times on the honor roll in both disciplines. Seidel also took third in last year's 800.
Hamilton freshman Bianca Stubler has been a revelation in the 400 with her time of 58.01 seconds at the Menomonee Falls Invite on May 14, the second-fastest time in the state this season. Arrowhead hurdler Ceanna Soper took a huge step forward from last season and will be among the favorites in the 300 hurdles. And the Mukwonago girls boast three high jumpers who scored points at state in the event last year in Steph Pladies, Alexis McKeever and Courtney McKeever.
The Arrowhead girls, in general, have a lot going for them. On the honor roll, the 4x800 is second, the 4x400 is fifth, the 4x100 is eighth, the 4x200 is 18th, Annie Hughes is ninth in the 1,600 and sixth in the 3,200, Soper is ninth in the 100 hurdles to go with her top time in the 300s, Kathleen Wartman is 18th in the 300 hurdles, Mary Bartelson is 15th in the long jump, and Taylor Amann is second in the pole vault with her leap of 12 feet, 6 inches. Could this be the year the Warhawks land that first state title on the girls side? They've taken second three times.
Kettle Moraine golfer Dylan Patscot, the reigning Classic 8 Conference Player of the Year, has lined himself up for a very strong finish to his career. He recently won the Waukesha County Invite and will make a push toward the state meet at University Ridge in the coming weeks.
The softball postseason has provided some surprising state runs in the past, notably for area programs Oconomowoc and Hamilton. Both are in the same sectional again this year along with Arrowhead and Kettle Moraine, and though none will be picked to advance to the eight-team Division 1 state tournament in Madison, they all have a very real chance in a bracket that appears winnable. 10th-ranked Watertown and honorable-mention pick Menomonee Falls are the top squads therein.
Arrowhead boys tennis will look for a return trip to the state semifinals, competing in the Oconomowoc sectional, and Kettle Moraine's Chayce Roecker stands among the top area singles players looking to work deep into the individual tournament. It has also been a breakout year for Hamilton No. 1 singles player Tony Moore.
The Arrowhead girls lacrosse team will look to cap an undefeated season, as well.
Pictured: (above) Pewaukee junior Katelyn Mistele (4) battles Wauwatosa West's Megan Stoffel (12) during the match at Pewaukee on May 20, a 5-0 win for Pewaukee in a battle between two teams undefeated in Woodland play. (below) Kettle Moraine golfer Dylan Patscot has had a standout season again. Photos by Scott Ash.
News came Tuesday that the WIAA finds itself in a position to strongly promote a change in cross country, in which the girls sport will move from 4,000 meters to 5,000, an identical distance to the boys. Mark Stewart of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel looked at the issue in his column, noting that a complaint filed to the Office of Civil Rights could force the WIAA's hand, lest it face a lawsuit it would have a hard time winning. A vote was expected by the WIAA Board of Control on May 16.
Last September, I talked to area cross-country coaches about a potential switch, and most were strongly in favor of the move. Here's a look back at that column:
Paige Patenaude wants her runners to go the extra mile, but actually not even the whole mile.
The Mukwonago girls cross country coach is one of many adamant supporters of a movement to extend the Wisconsin girls cross-country race from 4,000 meters to 5,000, aligning with the boys. Only 10 states offer a different distance depending on gender (though one state, Texas, only does so for smaller schools), and Wisconsin is among them.
"Wisconsin leads the way on many things surrounding schools and school sports, but we are archaic when it comes to cross country," Patenaude said.
"The biggest arguments (against upgrading to a 5K) are that girls would spend too long on the course and that participation will go down," she added. "Back when the girls race was only two miles, it was a great concern that if we moved to a 4K (2 1/2 miles) that participation would go down. That has been proven to be incorrect since the move to 4K as female CC participation has grown, so that theory goes out the window."
Pewaukee coach John Kashian, whose CC teams swept the Whitewater Invite on Sept. 14 in a meet that runs 5K races for both genders (and whose team was scheduled to compete again in the same format at Franklin on Sept. 21), felt a move was inevitable.
"Our kids seem to flourish and they do well at it, and when they run it, they feel just as comfortable as running the 4K," he said. "(With a change), in three years, girls coming in won't know there ever was a 4K. I'm OK with staying as is; I'd be perfectly fine. It does freak out girls to some extent when they hear 5K … D3 schools can only get a few kids out already, and it's possible you'd eliminate some kids that way. But I don't even know if (young runners) really even think about it being a 4K or a 5K, they just know they're running long. I don't think the transition will be as bad as a lot of people think."
Patenaude's home meet at Mukwonago also features a 5K for girls in a show of support for the movement, and 5K competitions have increased in popularity.
"We definitely train hard enough to handle an extra K," said Curt Kaczor, whose Arrowhead teams have won back-to-back state championships and look like the heavy favorite for at least one more. "We train about 40 to 45 miles a week, so they definitely can handle a 5K. I'm not a pusher (of the issue), but I did vote to go to a 5K (three years ago)."
Kaczor pointed out that based on the voting three years ago, a comfortable majority of Division 1 coaches favor a switch. Patenaude, the district representative for the Wisconsin Cross Country Coaches Association, said in a poll of 372 schools (of the 379 sponsoring girls cross country), 56.4 percent of coaches favored a switch to 5K.
"I believe it is only a matter of time before this change is made and in the meantime, my team will continue to train as if we are racing a 5K and will continue to change our schedule in order to attend meets that run 5K races," Patenaude said.
Some of the benefits are obvious. The 5K distance is closer to the 6K distance female college runners face, a unified distance would make meet administration much simpler, and the maneuver would create simple gender equity. WIAA distances in swimming and track and field are largely the same between genders.
"To say that my girls run 50-60 minute runs at practice but can't handle racing for 35 minutes does not make sense," Patenaude said. "Two years ago, I moved our Mukwonago home invite to a 5K in support of moving the state to a 5K race for girls. The slowest boys time on the course for the 5K race was 28:15, the slowest girls time was 32:29. To say that four extra minutes on the course is more detrimental to our sport than having girls hear they cannot run as far as the boys infuriates me."
Patenaude said former University Lake School phenom Molly Seidel, who won four Division 3 cross country state championships, wrote an open letter to the WIAA in support of the 5K race and talked about disadvantages she faced at Notre Dame when she began her college career. Patenaude feels the concession too heavily weighs the idea that some athletes run cross country to get in shape and would be turned off by the more rigorous race.
"I am more than happy to have a girl on my team who is just there to get healthy and have a connection to the school, but I will not support my sport being watered down or my serious athletes to be at a disadvantage in order to appeal to them," she said.
Kaczor, who previously coached in a Division 3 program at Sevastopol, has a unique perspective.
"Numbers (in the program) were always my concern, so I know where they're coming from (at the smaller schools)," he said. "But at the same time, those girls are running enough miles to handle a 5K and I don't think I've ever had a girl come up to me and ask me when I'm recruiting them (to go out for cross country), 'How far do you race?'"
In the meantime, the longer distance races might even provide a competitive edge.
"We went to Whitewater for a 5K, and the sectional is at Whitewater as a 4K … I know our girls think it's great," Kashian said. "It helps a little bit with the mental toughness of the girls. Some coaches love this. I could take it or leave it, but I'm sure there's some benefit to the fact we're training more for a 5K than a 4K."
Pictured: The top four finishers of Arrowhead's girls cross country team sprint through the woods during the PT Timing Invitational at the school on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013. Arrowhead dominated the girls varsity race taking the top 6 spots. Pictured (from left) Lea Patek 4th, Mackenzie Kubik, 3rd, Natalie Burant, 2nd, and race winner freshman Annie Hughes. (Photo by Scott Ash)
Hear full interviews with NFL Draft prospect Jeff Budzien and current Mukwonago High School football coach Clay Iverson in the most recent episode of "Initial Reaction," my podcast with JP Cadorin of Time Warner Cable SportsChannel, at LivingLakeCountry.com.
Former Arrowhead kicker Jeff Budzien has done his homework. He rattles off with ease the teams that might just need a kicker next year in the National Football League, teams with current kickers who might eventually get too expensive or teams with one guy for kickoffs and punts and another for field goals. Indianapolis, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are on the list.
"I'm not half in and half out on this," said Budzien as he prepares for the weekend's NFL Draft, and potentially the free-agent frenzy that follows. "My eggs are in this basket. The good thing is at Northwestern, I have a good degree to fall back on. I'm putting too much time in to just to throw it to the wind."
Budzien, who was twice named the Big Ten Kicker of the Year at Northwestern and never missed an extra-point in his career, is listed on the fringe of the seventh round by one NFL Draft resource. But he admits actually getting drafted might not yield the best result for his career.
"A free agent experience would be better for a few reasons," he said. "The money as a draft pick is a little better —not the contract itself but the signing bonus. If I was a seventh-round pick, I might get more money up front but couldn't choose the market I'd want to go to. If a team in the seventh round drafted me who had a good kicker and just wanted to bring me in and try out, that's a tough situation. I'd maybe get paid up front just by signing but have a tougher time making the team. I could choose the best situation for me (as a free agent)."
After finishing his senior year at Northwestern, he signed with an agent in Chicago and has been plotting a course to the NFL ever since. That included a tryout with the Chicago Bears, reaching out to other squads, taking the NFL's personality and intelligence tests and participating in Pro Day at Northwestern in front of scouts.
"They even measured my hands and shoulders and random things which I didn't think were too necessary," Budzien said of the Pro Day experience. "But I put up 10 reps on the bench press that I was pretty excited about. I was training for that just to show them I wasn't just a kicker."
He's realistic about certain realities, including that the NFL is a fairly uncaring, results-driven ecosystem. It's also tough to crack into the business when most of the 32 teams essentially use just one roster spot on a kicker, and most teams have incumbents.
"I have to look at kickers at the end of a contract year who will be negotiating," Budzien said. "Some teams are looking because their guys are at the end of the contract year and they don't think they can afford him or want to get cheaper at that position. That's certainly one way to cut costs, to get a new kicker. I'm looking at elements like who had a bad year last year. In the NFL, if you have one bad week, they'll be trying kickers out the next week. A lot of teams have a good kicker that struggled and will be looking at least in the free-agent market for a rookie."
Looking at himself as "more of a field goal guy," he'll wait to hear his name called when the draft concludes May 10. If it isn't, he's prepared to fly out immediately to a new destination if he can find a taker in the undrafted free-agent blitz.
Budzien also had a first-hand glimpse into another major football story, the potentially historic union vote among players on Northwestern's football team, a precursor on the road toward athlete compensation in the NCAA.
"It's very polarizing," Budzien said. "I know what happened within the program, and I think a lot of people are trying to keep everything more in house. I think a lot of players at first were misled about things from a third party that had a lot to gain personally with CAPA, which is the players' union that this guy is trying to form, so he kind of duped some of our players by telling them all the best case scenario, things they are going to promise for the sport and for our team. I think eventually when people started doing the research and found out there are some repercussions to voting a certain way … I've talked about that issue more than I ever thought I was going to, I'm kind of glad it's over. I know the team is glad that it's over and just wants to think about football. I think the vote will be a pretty strong no when and if the votes are revealed after the appeal process is over."
Iverson looks back
Clay Iverson almost didn't make it to Radio City Music Hall in New York in April of 2011 when he and Pewaukee High School defensive coordinator Mike Lecher were invited to the draft by JJ Watt and his family. After de-boarding a plane that wasn't ready for takeoff Chicago and overcoming a taxi delay in New York that included a passenger door getting ripped off by another vehicle, Iverson just made it on time.
By the end of the day, he was in the green room, watching Watt get selected 11th overall by the Houston Texans. The Pewaukee native has become a superstar since then, earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his second season. His jersey sales are the most of any defensive player in the league, and he's also been an engaging presence on social media and done boatloads of charity work.
"I don't know how he handles it, I really don't," Iverson said. "Six weeks ago, we went out to eat with him, and he's making the same jokes he made as a freshman in college … A lot of time people do things for certain reasons, and that's still OK, but he does it because he really wants to help people. I don't think I've ever been around someone who gets it like he does and is such a well known person. I'm sure it's hard, but he makes it look pretty easy."
Iverson's stories from the draft include chatting up former Packers head coach Mike Sherman, who was there to see Texas A&M standout Von Miller get taken second overall, a mishap that led to Watt's younger brother, TJ, actually answering the phone when the Texans called to inform JJ of his selection, and seeing Randall Cobb selected by the Packers on Day 2.
Iverson is now at Mukwonago but coached JJ his junior and senior year. He relayed one funny story that could have changed the course of history.
"(JJ's father) John Watt is going to kill me when he hears me tell this story, but that's OK; they've been so good to us," Iverson said with a smile. "John was great, Connie's top notch. The only thing John ever told me – and I kid him about this sometimes – when I took the job, John said … 'Just so you know, I'll never bother you again coach, but JJ's the best quarterback you have in this program.' I was 26, I didn't even know how to respond to that. The next day, we moved him to tight end and defensive end."
Iverson said he still kids John Watt about the exchange.
"John wasn't wrong. (JJ) was our best punter. He returned kicks for us. He could have been a Division 3 quarterback, but I think things worked out pretty well. We moved him right away just because of his body frame and how hard he works. He can still throw it 60-70 yards."
Looking ahead, JJ's visit to the draft might not be the last one for the Watt family. Iverson, who also coached JJ's brothers Derek and TJ at Pewaukee, expects big things from the next wave. Derek is currently a fullback at the University of Wisconsin, and TJ has bulked up considerably during his redshirt year last year with the Badgers. A third Watt will wear the Badgers jersey and play tight end this fall.
"I'd be shocked if each one of those kids didn't get their opportunities at the next level," Iverson said. "What that looks like, I don't know. The best part is you can sit there and root for them, because they're good kids and they do it the right way."
Pictured: NFL star and Pewaukee native JJ Watt speaks at the Waukesha County Business Alliance breakfast at the Brookfield Suites Hotel on April 2. Watt, who was taken 11th overall by the Houston Texans in the 2011 NFL Draft, maintains a local presence despite a meteoric rise to fame. (Photo by Todd Ponath)
There are many roadblocks and detours on the path to the Major Leagues for just about everyone involved: the players, the front-office staff, the umpires, the trainers, the broadcasters. When Chad Seely faced his roadblock at just about the earliest possible stage — college — he still found a way to get in the game.
The Sussex Hamilton graduate, now 27, is communications manager for the Reno Aces in Nevada, the Class AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, one heartbeat away from the Major Leagues. The jack-of-all-trades occasionally plays the role of broadcaster, traveling secretary and media relations point-person, and he'd love to someday return home and serve in some capacity for the Milwaukee Brewers.
The trip to the desert seems particularly compelling considering the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater product wasn't given the green light by colleagues to call baseball games for the nationally recognized NCAA Division III Warhawks baseball program.
"I tried everything possible to get on air," Seely said. "I was the sports anchor for the news station at Whitewater and did some football games on the radio but had zero baseball experience at Whitewater. For whatever reason, the kid in charge wasn't willing to give me a shot (at baseball). It was frustrating trying to get into that field; that's basically what I've wanted to do the last 15 years of my life."
He graduated in 2009, went back to school to finish a minor in multimedia to make himself more marketable, then landed a job with the Daytona Cubs of the Florida State League after interviewing at the MLB Winter Meetings.
"They really took a shot on me because I had no baseball experience," Seely said. "I gave them my football stuff."
Seely was suddenly in the pipeline. He broadcast games for the Florida State League champion Cubs that year, with the title of assistant director of broadcasting and media relations. He accepted an open position in Clinton, Iowa to call games for the LumberKings of the Midwest League, a squad affiliated with the Seattle Mariners.
"It was a chance to be close to home," Seely said. "That was the biggest part of moving out to Reno; that was difficult. Once I decided that if I could be the head of a media relations department in Triple-A and be be OK with not being on the radio, being far away from home was the biggest hurdle to get over. It basically came down to the fact that wherever my next job takes me is probably going to be far away. This was a great opportunity to move up and be one step away from major league baseball."
He's not off air entirely. When Reno games are televised locally, the full-time radio man moves over to that broadcast, and Seely fills in on radio. But he said stepping away from the microphone isn't going to hold him back.
"If that was my best shot at working in Major League Baseball, then that was what I was willing to do," he said. "I've grown to love the media relations aspect of the job just as much as radio."
The Aces franchise is relatively young, in its sixth year and featuring a stadium built in 2009. The franchise already has one Triple-A championship to its name and has hosted an All-Star Game.
"The crowds here just dwarf the Midwest League for the most part," Seely said. "There are some cities in the Midwest League which draw huge numbers, but for the most part, I'm seeing huge crowds (every night). You get a sense around town, where people have Aces hats and apparel on, that the team is really important to them."
He handles much of the day-to-day media relations work, including writing game notes and press releases and coordinating interviews, and he also plays a role in coordinating team travel. Seely also sold tickets and worked in marketing in Clinton, where the staff was roughly five employees.
It's all a dream gig for a man who grew up listening to Bob Uecker on the radio call for the Milwaukee Brewers, alongside brother and fellow baseball nut Justin Seely, now a physical education teacher at Hamilton High School.
"My playing days ended in high school when I got a pretty bad injury my junior year," Chad said. "I would have liked to play in college, but that put an end to that, and this was a way of staying in the game. I always wanted to be a radio broadcaster. Summers in Wisconsin are awesome because of (Uecker) and Brewers baseball."
He's actually been part of history on multiple occasions, bearing witness to three no-hitters during his brief tenure in baseball. Victor Sanchez, an 18-year old Seattle Mariners prospect, threw one for Clinton in 2013. In 2012, it was Jordan Shipers who threw one for Clinton, the same year that the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers combined for a no-hitter against the LumberKings (Chad Thompson and Mark Williams).
"I was just trying to stay as calm as possible (on air)," Seely said. "People asked me if I mentioned it, broadcaster's jinx or whatever, and I said, 'Yeah, you have to.' If you tune into a game in the eighth inning and nobody says anything about a possible no-hitter, wouldn't you be mad if you turned it off? ... The only time I've been nervous on air was the very first game I did in Daytona, which was an exhibition game, and the eighth and ninth innings of those three no-hitters."
Brewers, Brewers, Brewers. Even after a loss Tuesday, the team was 15-6, with the best mark in Major League Baseball. The Milwaukee Brewers have been top of mind in the early part of the 2014 Major League Baseball season, and even though most people (I think) recognize that the team hasn't accomplished anything yet, it sure has been fun.
So once again, I depart from preps discussion to focus on the hometown team, and my personal favorite conversation piece: The Milwaukee Brewers.
I do believe Carlos Gomez could have taken the high road in Sunday's brawl with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the situation illustrates one of baseball's stupidest concepts: the idea of suppressing excitement and showmanship.
Not only is this a game that's supposed to be fun (why did we love Ken Griffey, Jr.? Because he smiled all the time), but this is Major League Baseball, which is supposed to be a spectacle. Pitchers can pump their fists walking off the mound (granted, that sometimes causes ire from opposing players, but demonstrative closers frequently escape criticism), players can jump up and down like school children on a walk-off home run and catchers can throw the ball around the horn after a strikeout with nobody on base. There is nothing wrong with any of this; it's stuff that helps make the game fun to watch.
But a player taking a split second to admire a fly ball that could be a home run? For some reason, this is considered taboo and grounds for chastisement or, even worse, retaliation from the opposing pitcher. I hate that about baseball.
In football, players celebrate after the most routine of plays (you can argue the merits of that, but emotion is a big part of the sport). In basketball, a dunk can galvanize a team. In baseball, which I would argue presents the most challenging of feats in hitting a sphere traveling 90 miles per hour, it's somehow not OK to be happy with a good showing.
I don't get how professional athletes can be so sensitive. Of course, one could argue that Gomez was also being sensitive when Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole made a big deal of it, but the point remains: baseball has become the only sport that actually tries to root out fun on its own, without encouragement from a league office.
I think Gomez should be suspended for what he did, and I think he could have brushed it off. I don't think Gerrit Cole did anything that merited a suspension, even if his words "started it" (but really, Gomez's violent, childish reaction could be equally to blame, and I think it gives Cole too much credit to call his actions the match that started the blaze). But I think the environment that created this situation is stupid, stupid, stupid. Sure, you can take issue with a player moonwalking around the bases after a home run, but does a brief stare into space or a split second of walking instead of running merit some sort of violent response?
I asked a couple successful local baseball coaches their thoughts.
"Our job as high school coaches is to teach kids to play the game with class, play it the right way," said Kettle Moraine's Brian Adamczyk, who led his team to the summer state tournament last year and will head into the 2014 season with the No. 2 team in the summer rankings. "They do get upset if some of those things go on. Our job to show them retaliating isn't the right way to go about it. The best way to retaliate is to win, it's to execute. That's a classy way to go about things. Kids watch that (on TV) and see that, and our job to not let that kind of thing go on."
Adamczyk did admit there were "unwritten rules" aplenty in baseball.
"There is that fine line, and players need to understand where it's important (to show emotion) and when it's not. If there's a meaning behind it, it's all right, but they have to understand there's a time and place."
David Bahr, whose Lake Country Lutheran team is the top-ranked team in Division 4 during the spring season, said he definitely wanted his kids to play with emotion.
"We want them to get excited when they are successful and competitively angry when they struggle," he said. "But, showboating or taking it out on the other team is a whole different story than just being emotional. You can be super emotional without involving the other team or affecting the other team. It just takes self-discipline. If a kid hits a huge home run in a huge situation, he is going to be really excited or he's not human. But, he can easily celebrate that with a fist pump and then be joined by his teammates for a raucous celebration when he crosses home plate without ever showing up the other team. He doesn't need to flip his bat or jog extra slow or round the bases with a fist in the air to be emotional; that stuff all borders on drawing extra attention on one's self as if the player is bigger than the game, or on showing up the other team."
Bullpen is mightier
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 1992, and an exceptional bullpen dubbed "The Shark Tank" was a big reason why. I proposed on Twitter (@JRRadcliffe) a nickname for the Brewers bullpen this season, "Domeland Security," and I'm quite proud of it. Not sure it will catch on, but a boy can dream.
The Brewers' bullpen possessed one of the top ERAs in the league midway through the week, and that's been a big reason why the team has started the year on fire. A hot bullpen is the key to a team's success in the postseason, but it's also one of the toughest things to predict and prepare for. I like that Brewers general manager Doug Melvin hasn't tried to solve the problem by tying up too much of the team's finances in such a volatile group, and he seems to have landed on a successful batch of pitchers, anyway.
The first truly bad news of 2014 arrived Tuesday night, when it was learned that Johnny Hellweg, who dazzled at Triple-A last year but struggled in the big leagues, has a torn UCL and is very likely looking at Tommy John surgery. Hellweg didn't start the year as one would have hoped for a top-flight prospect, but he remained a very real part of Milwaukee's pitching depth.
As I said earlier this year, one of the chief, underrated aspects to Milwaukee's success in 2014 would be a pitching depth that extended to Triple-A, with guys like Hiram Burgos and definitely Hellweg and top prospect Jimmie Nelson likely to see action in Milwaukee at some point this year and beyond. It's easy to dismiss right now because Milwaukee's rotation has really done the job thus far, but Hellweg's loss is a blow the Brewers organization will have a hard time replacing this year and next. Then again, the club has been fortunate to go seven years without any pitchers requiring the surgery, which has claimed several excellent young pitchers in recent years, like Matt Harvey, Jarrod Parker, Matt Moore, Kris Medlen and Patrick Corbin.
Though the Brewers have been amazing thus far, there is one set of numbers that still resonates in my mind: 24-10.
That's the start the 2007 team. Actually, the Brewers were 25-11, though for some reason (possibly because it encompasses a sweep of Washington before hitting the road), the 24-10 mark was the oft-cited record before the Brewers slowly plummeted, ultimately below .500 before closing the year at 83-79.
I feel as though this year's rotation is a safer bet to stay strong all year as opposed to the 2007 unit of Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, Ben Sheets, Chris Capuano and Claudio Vargas. Sheets actually wasn't very sharp in that early batch of games and finished with a somewhat down year, while Capuano, Vargas and Suppan were a combined 13-2, all with ERAs under 2.65. It was reasonable to assume there would be a regression, and goodness, there certainly was. None of those pitchers closed the year at better than 4.62. Three of the starters had ERAs over 5.
But that year's team also had a formidable lineup. Prince Fielder hit 50 home runs that season, and Ryan Braun had 34, with both finishing above 1.000 in OPS. J.J. Hardy, Geoff Jenkins and Corey Hart all cleared 20 home runs, and the lowest two starting hitters had OPS counts of .699 and .740.
This year, no player has an OPS above 1.000 (Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun are the top two at .939 and .914). Starters Jean Segura (.552) and Khris Davis (.664) are both south of the worst hitter in the 2007 lineup, and Mark Reynolds (.744) can hit for premium power but also has major flaws in his offensive game. In other words, this lineup is nowhere near as good as 2007, at least not yet. You can hope the hitters lagging behind will improve, but Segura (who has struggled since his two great months to start his career last year), Davis and Gennett do not have a credible track record at the big leagues to offer comfort. The pitching, meanwhile, is likely to regress at least a little bit.
It shouldn't shock people that this start is unsustainable. I just really hope we're not headed for another 2007, which was a wildly disappointing year. It is, however, one of the many illustrations that quality starting pitching is more important than a great lineup, and I'm of the belief that the Brewers will achieve a lot if the rotation can hold up like this all season.
Pictured: Carlos Gomez tussles with Pittsburgh's Travis Snider when the teams met April 20. Gomez has been suspended three games for his role in the brawl.
Tuesday, April 22, 2014 is "Chuck Delsman Day," a local curiosity cemented by County Executive Dan Vrakas, when he stopped by our office in January with an official proclamation to honor Delsman's birthday in Waukesha County.
Delsman, as many readers of ours know, has been covering prep sports in Lake Country since … the dawn of prep sports? He celebrates 45 years with the company this year, having covered thousands of prep sporting events over the decades. He's also been an avid golfer, bowler and referee, and he's an active member of St. Charles Catholic Church in Hartland.
So what better way to celebrate Chuck Delsman day than to chat briefly with Chuck Delsman?
How'd you get into sports writing in the first place?
I was born and raised in Hartland and was always a sports junkie. I went to Waukesha County Technical College in business classes and took a journalism class. (Former Lake Country Reporter publisher) Jim McLoone was a friend of mine; I had worked part time for him as a kid stuffing papers and stuff like that. He called me up one day and said, 'We've never had a sports section here,' and I said I'd love to help out. I taught myself how to write. This was 1969. I didn't like school at all, I was a working guy. My parents were working people and weren't big on (post-secondary) school. But I loved sports, and why wouldn't I want to write in my hometown. I had a manual typewriter, Jim showed me a few things and just turned me loose."
Did you ever think about working somewhere else?
I actually applied at the Journal (Milwaukee Journal) a couple times and had an interview there twice, but ultimately I just kind of asked myself why I would want to work at a daily in Milwaukee when I can work at a weekly out here.
Did your passion for sports get handed down by your parents?
I just kind of developed it on my own. My neighbors were baseball players, basketball players. I'd be playing waffle ball in the backyard pretending we were the Braves playing the Phillies, and I knew every person on every team in the National League that year. The Pirates, Cardinals and Cubs. There wasn't youth football then, just a lot of baseball and a lot of basketball. I remember doing that forever.
What's the biggest difference you've noticed in prep sports today relative to when you started?
The biggest thing is the total speed of every game, whether it be football, baseball or basketball. The kids are so much faster now and can jump faster; that's the biggest change by far. The good players from 1969 would have a hard time making the team today because they were too slow.
It seems like overbearing parents have been an issue in prep sports for some time, and it's perceived that this problem has gotten worse over time, but has it? Were parents heavily involved back then, too?
I think it's been an issue in the last 20 years. In 1969 and 70 it wasn't as big a deal. Parent interference is a big part of a lot of things right now at grade school and high school level. I think it's evolved through the organizing of youth sports. It's no secret, the youth sports in basketball, baseball and football have created a lot of parents coaching their kids. They get to high school and maybe the kid isn't as good as dad thought he was, and he calls the athletic director and the coach. Some of these parent-coaches are wonderful coaches and can really teach kids, others not so much."
What was it like watching the arrival of girls sports on the prep level?
There were no WIAA sports forever for girls. They formed the Girls Athletic Association where they would play intramurally, basketball and maybe softball outside. I'm not going to pat myself on my back, but I've been honored a couple times for women's organizations promoting women's sports, putting a girls basketball box score or track results in the paper. I kind of felt proud of giving girls equal space in the sports section.
I don't think there was a force behind it saying, 'We have to promote the girls sports.' It was a very cautious wait-and-see by the WIAA and schools. Not all schools offered basketball right away. Once they saw this could be pretty marketable, that's when WIAA and schools got more aggressive. They played 3 on 3, with different players on the offensive and defensive end. That's how they played for a while (in the GAA). Iowa was the last state to give that up. They were still playing a halfcourt game in high school for years, with three different players on the offensive end and three on the defensive end. If you'd get the rebound, they'd stop play and bring the ball to the other end. That's how girls basketball was played in the 60s.
What are some of the best sporting events you've attended?
A really good one I was at (in 2007) was the Marquette-Arrowhead football game (in the WIAA playoffs). That game still rings a bell because of the monster crowd. It took 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot that day. Kettle Moraine's first state championship football game on a rainy, cold night (in 1988); it was fun to see Kettle Moraine get up to Madison and win a state championship. The Pewaukee boys finally making it to Madison and taking second. The run of Arrowhead's success, I got to watch the first (girls basketball) state championship team in 1988. That's the best team I ever watched, boys or girls. They were a machine.
Who's the best athlete you've seen?
Lorraine Lorenzen jumps to mind, a basketball player at Arrowhead. She could shoot as well from the perimeter as any boy I've seen play at Arrowhead. There have been so many brilliant athletes at the schools, it's hard to single one out. There are just so many.
What's your favorite sport to cover?
I still think basketball, football and hockey are my favorite three. For being not the greatest hockey connoisseur in the world, love the constant action and no timeouts. Football is very nice, and basketball is in a warm gym every night, and there are so many things that can turn a basketball game.
What's one thing you think has been a change for the worse in prep sports?
A. The thing that's really changing sports that I'm not real fond of is the ability to go to any school, even though it's certainly within the rules. Arrowhead has benefited from it; they've had many Oconomowoc football players, for example. It doesn't seem fair, plus if a kid would come over from Oconomowoc and knock my son out of a starting spot, I don't know if that would please me. The school is big enough and doesn't really need it, but again, if it's within the laws, (families) can do whatever they want. Private schools have an advantage to, but at private schools, you might pay several thousand dollars a year to go there. If you live in Watertown and want to go to Arrowhead, you pay nothing.
What's one area you think has changed for the better?
Because of the electronic world, which I'm learning and getting better at, there's so much information the coaches can give you now. I used to make 50 phone calls on Friday, Saturday and Sunday because other papers weren't covering it. The Journal wasn't covering high school sports like it is now. Nowadays, five minutes after the game, you have comments, stats, everything.
What are a couple things you expect to see change in the near future?
"I think metal bats are going to be out of high-school baseball. Wood is certainly the way to go. I know they've tuned down the metal bats a lot, but the wooden bats are the way to play. Metal bats give people a false sense of security that they can hit the ball pretty hard when they can't.
I think summer baseball is on life support right now or will be after this summer.
You're kind of an "Arrowhead guy." What would you say is the secret behind their success?
I graduated from Arrowhead in 1967, and the big thing that has changed is the outstanding coaches the athletic directors have surrounded themselves with. You can't match the Mike Mulrooneys of the world and the Tom Taraska and Greg Malling in football. The wrestling coach, John Mesenbrink, built that program. Arrowhead used to have six wrestlers. I think it's all coaching, from the administrators to the athletic director to the coaches. And you know now with the kid, the expectations are there. A guy playing football, his expectations aren't to win the conference; they're to play at Camp Randall.
I'm proud of the fact that I'm an Arrowhead guy, but in my mind, I've tried to be very fair to the other schools I've covered, like KM and Pewaukee. Everyone over there knows where I live and where I went to school, but it's been a very good setup for me to cover all the teams in Lake Country.
Pictured: Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas reads a proclomation proclaiming April 22, 2014 "Chuck Delsman Day" in Waukesha County during a celebration of Delsman's 45 years of service. Photo by Peter Zuzga.
Last July, I wrote a Preps Alcove entry called "The chance arrives for Brewers fans to exceed expectations." In the wake of Ryan Braun accepting a 65-game suspension for the use of performance enhancing drugs, I insisted that Brewers fans resist the temptation to give Braun a standing ovation on Opening Day in 2014, that it would give national writers reason to chastise Brewers fans for their simple, foolish minds and their condoning of Braun's bad behavior.
It played out exactly like I envisioned it would. Because any fan base would do the same thing for its star player, fans roared in approval when Braun returned the field March 31 in Milwaukee's win over the Atlanta Braves. But I wasn't disappointed or even really motivated to feel much of anything about the whole episode, mostly because I expected it but also because I'm tired.
I think we're probably all tired.
This was the type of complacency on the issue I half-vowed to willfully avoid, that I would never forgive Braun's sins and never for a second believe his road to contrition was anything more than a pill he's forced to swallow for getting caught. I vowed never to forget the victory lap he did when he slimed his way free from penalty, only to get caught via different means. Maybe I haven't forgiven him and maybe I'll never embrace him the way I did before, but it's become so much work to think about. When Braun hit three home runs against Philadelphia on Tuesday, I was plainly happy.
If I try to inject the moral consequences into my Brewers fandom, I wind up feeling gross for wanting the Brewers to win, and that's not fair to me as a fan and it's not fair to expect other fans to behave that way. Consider all the conflicts at hand.
-- It lingers dangerously close to the "everybody's doing it, so…" argument, but what fan base wouldn't stand behind its star player?
Grant Brisbee from McCoveyChronicles.com (a San Francisco Giants blog) itemizes numerous examples that come to mind – Barry Bonds for Giants fans, Pete Rose for Reds fans, Mark McGwire for Cardinals fans, Manny Ramirez for Dodgers fans. If Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen were in the same situation, Angels and Pirates fans would also give standing ovations when the opportunity arose. Fans want their team to win above most else, and it becomes incredibly easy to agree with the chosen course of penitence if it means the player can get back on the field and start contributing.
This isn't a Milwaukee thing; it's a human thing. It also comes back to what I've written before – it really is similar to standing by a loved one who made a grave mistake or series of mistakes. We love those close to us, and we love our team, and simply cutting the cord on them when they've erred is a difficult process to choose, in part because it requires a suffering that we don't deserve. Not to say that a sports figure should compare to a loved one, but those sentiments we feel fire along similar synapses.
-- And make no mistake, the Brewers need Braun to win. Not only is he the best offensive player the team has, his contract has begun to look remarkably team-friendly in comparison to contracts that have been handed out recently, notably to Trout and Detroit's Miguel Cabrera. It's a deal below the market value of what Braun could reasonably expect on the open market for those same years of his career, and that enables the Brewers to remain in contention in a league that inherently favors bigger spenders. Maybe I don't like that the guy still has the right to earn tens of millions of dollars when he cheated and lied, but that deal is a steal for the production the team can reasonably expect from him. It would be a terrible business decision to release Braun when his cost vs. production potential is off the charts.
-- It all comes down to the team. The Brewers were a huge part of my life before Braun and will be after he's departed, and this town loves the Milwaukee Brewers. Of course I'll be happy when Ryan Braun hits three home runs and helps the team I love win a baseball game. I can't divorce the success of the individual from the success of the team, particularly because that individual is so crucial to the team's success. Am I supposed to half-cheer because I like the outcome but dislike the player?
My brain actually wishes something like this were possible, but it's so exhausting to try and rationalize which times I need to be happy for his continued success and when I need to be outraged. It's this primary reason why I just want to throw my hands up and pretend it never happened. When Braun does well, I'm going to be happy about it, and I don't want to feel guilty about that.
-- Moreover, the bigger problem in baseball is that a guy (like Yovani Gallardo last year) can get busted for drunk driving and not even miss a game, especially as we just crossed the five-year anniversary of the death of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed by a drunk driver after a game. To me, making a mistake that threatens the lives of your fans is a graver offense than lying and cheating them.
This is a societal thing more than a baseball thing, but I don't fully buy into the hierarchy established by the national collective baseball mind. Why should I despise the steroid user who happens to be self-righteous when the guy who drove drunk gets short-term penalties with nothing close to the lasting impact? But as a quasi-Tigers fan, I've also confronted this problem the same way I look at Braun: how can Tigers fans despise the act and still embrace Miguel Cabrera? It's a challenge, another one that gets too complicated to assess in lieu of a simple "I give up. I just want to watch baseball."
-- That's where I'm at. I give up. I just want to watch baseball. And I really believe I'm not alone. I think as the season goes on, fewer and fewer fans at road parks will boo Ryan Braun, because I think they'd just assume move on, too. Some fan bases, the Giants in particular, would look hypocritical for booing, and I think they know that. It's easier to despise from afar … I know this from personal experience … but I'm not exactly screaming with rage over Nelson Cruz of Baltimore, Jhonny Peralta of St. Louis of Francisco Cervelli of New York. I'm tired of all that.
Braun is a central figure in some of my greatest sports memories, namely the 2008 and 2011 seasons. I'm not going to give up those positive memories, and I'm not giving up the Brewers.
Photo: Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun (8) scores on his three-run home run and celebrates with Carlos Gomez in the eighth inning April 8. It was Braun’s third home run of the game. (AP)
The All-Area basketball teams for Lake Country/Mukwonago Publications this season were relatively easy to choose this season, though they were nothing like the teams I would have envisioned last year.
Each year, I like to peek ahead into the crystal ball and speculate on next year's All-Area teams. As a refresher, the choices this year on the boys side were Paul Miller and Mitchell Oleson (Kettle Moraine), Bryce Nze (Arrowhead), Aaron Nixon (Mukwonago), Brady Ellingson (Sussex Hamilton) and Eric Lutzen (Pewaukee). The choices for the girls included Baylee Barker (Oconomowoc), Linley Achtenhagen (Kettle Moraine), Bre Cera (Mukwonago), Kelly Smith (Arrowhead), Mary Hirt (Lake Country Lutheran) and Abby Gerrits (Pewaukee).
For a variety of reasons, we saw three two-time selections from past years not make the list. On the boys side, Oconomowoc's T.J. Schlundt moved to a post-graduate program and Mukwonago's Dominic Cizauskas was ruled out because of mid-season suspension. On the girls side, Hamilton standout Mackenzie Latt moved to Michigan. The door was open for several newcomers.
So take this with a grain of salt. But barring injury or something unforeseen, here's a look ahead to the 2014-15 basketball season and some names to consider for the next batch All-Area teams.
Bryce Nze, just a sophomore, is the lone non-senior on the boys side, and his upside is off the charts. The Warhawks are sitting pretty for the next few years, with a superb sophomore class that also includes big men Brian Wilman and Ben Bredeson and guard John Mack. The team loses its top guards (Charlie Reuteman and Ricky Finco) and imposing post player Billy Hirschfeld, so it won't be a snap necessarily, but there's major reason for optimism at Arrowhead.
At the moment, Nze is the only player who looks like a sure bet for the 2014-15 All-Area team. The rest of the spots are plainly up for grabs.
Kettle Moraine, winners of the Classic 8 Conference this season, loses its top two seniors but will return junior Mitch Pfeifer, who was third on the team in scoring this year at 12.2 points per game.
Pewaukee, finishing the year 18-8, also picked up contributions from underclassmen, including three of its top five scores in the junior class. The leader of that bunch is lightning-quick junior guard Evan Hansen.
Three potential sleepers would be Pewaukee 6-4 freshman Wyatt Cook, St. John's Northwestern Military Academy junior Roman Manning (the team's leading scorer this year) and Oconomowoc 6-9 sophomore Spencer Treder.
Oconomowoc had an outstanding second half of the season with a collective approach, and that's likely to be the case next year again. Jason Brandl and Chris Schick, the team's third and fourth scorers this season, will both be back, and the Raccoons have a number of additional pieces scheduled to return.
Lake Country Lutheran returns its top scorer in junior C.J. Teske, as does University Lake School/Trinity in junior Hunter Bolger.
Mukwonago graduates the majority of its minutes after reaching the state tournament back-to-back years, but it will be an opportunity for junior guard Dane McDermott to seize the scoring load after starting intermittently throughout this season. Sussex Hamilton also graduates a fleet of seniors, though sophomore Jacob Hartung showed some flashes, including a huge performance in the regional semifinal.
While the boys side features a number of candidates and not many locks, the girls side is overflowing with upper-echelon talent scheduled to return for another year.
Abby Gerrits and Bre Cera are two of the area's three outstanding sophomore guards. Hamilton sophomore Taylor Klug, a first-team All Conference choice, will also be back, and all three teams should have solid 2014-15 seasons at worst. Klug narrowly missed making this year's team, along with senior teammate Hannah Menzia.
All three teams have additional talent coming back. Hamilton sophomores Molly Diehl and Natalie Hagenow will be key players, as will junior Sammy Hagenow. Mukwonago will lose several seniors, but 6-3 sophomore Morgan Glatczak became a dominant force at times in the latter part of the season and will be asked to do even more next year. Pewaukee will be just as talent-rich this year as last, with junior Lindsay Wisniewski and freshman MacKenzie Schill among the returnees.
Oconomowoc's Baylee Barker will return next year after earning Wisconsin Little Ten Player of the Year this season, and post player Erin Vande Zande will also be back for her senior season after earning second-team All Conference accolades this year. The Raccoons should be major players in next year's WLT picture.
Arrowhead, meanwhile, might be the best of all. Even though the squad narrowly missed the state tournament this year after qualifying in 2013, the Warhawks have made visits to the sectional final a routine. Classic 8 Player of the Year Kelly Smith will be gone, but junior Ally May will be one of the area's top post players next winter, and juniors Jenna Goulet and Auguste Jepsen will be among the many returnees. Even in a talent-heavy Classic 8, Arrowhead looks like the early favorite to win the league, perhaps alongside Waukesha West.
Kettle Moraine loses three key seniors next year, but junior Lindsay Weber will be big for second-year coach Mike Hamilton. Lake Country Lutheran, co-champs in the Midwest Classic this winter, boasts a strong sophomore class, including 6-2 Kaelynn Lesniak, third-leading scorer Cali Twet and 6-0 post Kelsey Kleba. University Lake School/Trinity sophomore Erika Perlewitz was named the Indian Trails Player of the Year this winter.
Teams in our coverage area reeled in four conference titles, two trips to state and six sectional visits, and next year promises to be just as strong.
Pictured: Mukwonago's Bre Cera is one of many talented sophomores in the area. (Photo by Russ Pulvermacher)
It's a great time of year to be a sports fan, but with the convergence of the NFL offseason push, MLB baseball and NCAA tournament comes some recycled topics that have irritated me over the years. I present to you: three things people should stop thinking:
When will Yovani Gallardo be an ace?
Quickly: name the Seattle Mariners ace. You got it, Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in the game for the last several years. What about the Washington Nationals? Stephen Strasburg, of course. You'd probably think CC Sabathia for the Yankees, Matt Cain for the Giants, Roy Halladay for the Phillies and maybe even Jered Weaver for the Angels or rising star Jose Fernandez for the Marlins. What did they all have in common last year? Missing the playoffs.
Next, who comes to mind as the "ace" when you think of the Cincinnati Reds, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Atlanta Braves or Oakland Athletics? You have to think about it a little, and any name you consider isn't going to be in the "ace" conversation. Heck, even Boston, last year's World Series champion, has an "ace" in Jon Lester who won't draw the same association as others.
Having one of the game's best pitchers, like Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander or Adam Wainwright, certainly doesn't hurt. But the point is that having an "ace" pitcher doesn't necessarily correlate to a playoff berth. Rather, having an abundance of quality pitching, mostly within the starting rotation, is paramount. A team of five Yovani Gallardos would make for an excellent baseball rotation, even if one Yovani Gallardo falls below the subjective "ace" threshold.
Every year, I believe baseball fans focus on the wrong thing. Trust me, Gallardo is good enough to keep the Brewers in a game, and that's the most important thing. But do the Brewers have four other pitchers healthy all year who can say the same thing? To me, that's a question that's far more important. Everyone wants to slot the starters, numbers 1-5, but over the course of 162 games, all of them will be called upon time and time again to procure wins. The wins when your ace is on the hill are just as good as the ones when he's not. I've never bought the idea of having a "stopper" in the rotation – losing streaks and winning streaks even out over the course of the season, and every game is its own unique monster.
In my opinion, one of the most underrated aspects that will determine Milwaukee's success this year is the depth of starting pitching. Can Johnny Hellweg, Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Jimmy Nelson – young hurlers who will open the year playing a smaller role – answer the bell when they are inevitably needed, both this year and to set the table for next year? Gallardo can be a little frustrating at times, but so can most pitchers. Fans shouldn't demand him to be one of the best in baseball, but they should demand that all five guys pull their weight.
When will Ted Thompson go all-in with free agency?
First of all, I have no idea why people thought this would be the offseason for change. Then, of course, things did change to a small degree, and I'll get to that.
Thompson, the Packers general manager, has given fans a lengthy track record of non-involvement on the free agent market. For some reason, fans go into denial every offseason and believe that finally this is the year where Ted will change his philosophy and add some high-priced pieces that can help the Packers. But no football team is ever "one or two" players away given the collective nature of the sport, and I don't know why anyone felt this year's Packers team was the one that most closely fit that description. Everyone was wringing their hands on Day 1 of free agency, as if Thompson was missing an opportunity (to overspend).
In baseball or basketball, when an individual can make a far greater impact on a team, I totally get why free agency might be the best path to improve. I think fans extrapolate that idea to football erroneously. Especially after all the injuries the Packers endured last year, why would Thompson put so many eggs in the basket of one player, especially one who has almost certainly already played his very best years?
Then, of course, he shocked all of us by signing Julius Peppers and fortifying the defensive line. I'd argue the low level or risk in the deal is as important as the player, in line with the shrewd type of move that makes Thompson so good. But it sure did stun the folks who believe Thompson just sits on his hands.
Here's my fundamental issue: right now, everyone points to the defense as a glaring weakness, because the Seattle Seahawks just won the Super Bowl with the No. 1 defense in the league. Of course, we forget the Baltimore Ravens won the year before with an average defense (16th in the league), and the New York Giants won a Super Bowl the year before that with the 27th-ranked defense in the league. We've seen the top offense in the league win a recent Super Bowl (the Saints) and we've seen middling offenses with Super Bowls. We've seen top seeds and bottom seeds (Packers) win the Super Bowl. Repeat after me: In the National Football League, there is no blueprint by which you can predict next year's Super Bowl winner.
With that in mind, it's all about opportunity. Get into the playoffs and you have the same shot as everyone else, barring injuries and matchups (two things outside the control of a general manager, particularly in March). Thompson has done his job in this regard as well as anyone in football. Only the Patriots and Packers have been to the last five postseasons. In other words, we have a formula that is working right before our eyes, and every year we wonder why it's not being done differently.
The same old Badgers lost again in the NCAA Tournament!
Same old Badgers, losing to Nebraska and Northwestern and Michigan State at the end of the year. Same old Badgers, can't win in the tournament when it really matters.
I hope the Badgers make a Final Four in the NCAA Tournament (as I write this Wednesday), and I think they will. But even if they don't, I can't handle the inevitable criticism that the Badgers can't win with Bo Ryan's "style," or perhaps, his recruiting acumen.
I'll throw out the obvious: the tournament is also the same crapshoot that made Final Four teams out of VCU, Butler (twice!), George Mason and Wichita State. Those teams had great runs, but nobody in their right mind considered their performance the result of many successful calculated years building into a powerhouse. Gonzaga, probably the single-greatest mid-major program on the planet, has never been to a Final Four. Perhaps there's something wrong with Mark Few's style? On the contrary, he's built a celebrated empire that just hasn't gotten lucky enough in the tourney. Ryan and Wisconsin are held to a higher standard, partially fair because they play in a top-flight conference and partially unfair because they'll never compete for the nation's top recruits, but they should get interest from mid-level players like those at Gonzaga.
More importantly, this year is not the year to criticize the modus operandi of the Wisconsin Badgers. Here's a team that has traditionally relied on defense and operated at the slow tempo demanded by the swing offense (at least, that's the reputation). But in 2014, we have a team that scores more than 73 points per game and has allowed the second-highest field goal percentage in the Big Ten on defense (behind, oddly, conference champ Michigan). This is a totally different look, and one that might be different enough to counteract some of the bad luck the Badgers have had in late March. In other words, someone looking to criticize Bo Ryan this year would be better off saying he changed too much from his bread and butter. Or, you could just argue he adjusted to what he had, and probably for the better. Even if it wasn't quite designed this way, the Badgers are doing everything in their power not to be the same old Wisconsin team.
I knew once Wisconsin beat Oregon, the Badgers would be simultaneously praised for an athletic, high-octane second half and then downgraded for "only" just surviving against a lower-seeded team. Look around at national writers before the Sweet 16 and you'll see it, too — this is still a team that the national audience (and local audience) underrates.
Someone using the "same old Badgers" critique is lazy or simply down on the Badgers because they have an overt desire to be down on the Badgers. If it goes wrong, this is not the year to say the Badgers were destined to go wrong.
Pictured: Yovani Gallardo (top) will be Milwaukee's Opening Day starter Monday and Josh Gasser (left) has helped Wisconsin reach the Sweet 16. Photos by Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Mark Stewart and JR Radcliffe discuss high school sports in this weekly video.
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