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.
Former Lake Country Publications associate Joshua March wrote this a few weeks ago, looking at just how much coaches get compensated at the high-school level. We compiled data from the area high schools from the 2013-14 school year and tried to arrive at some numbers. As you might expect, coaches aren't doing what they do for the love of money.
Mike Gosz said the saying goes "a quarter an hour." Or perhaps a "dime an hour."
That's how it works when calculating the stipends paid to coaches in prep athletics.
"If you do it right, I think, (the coaches) have a passion for it and they want to give back," the Hamilton athletics director said.
Those sentiments are the universal response when asking different athletic directors and coaches about the pay scale at the high school level. Jay Christiansen, who coaches multiple sports at Mukwonago, said coaches of football and basketball should expect to have a commitment to their sport throughout the year. Coaches are expected to commit 40 hours a week during the season and around 12 hours a week outside of the season.
The end result might not be a dime or quarter per hour, but it's low. After collecting data for the 2013-14 school year at schools in the coverage area (Mukwonago, Oconomowoc, Kettle Moraine, Pewaukee, Arrowhead, Sussex Hamilton), most coaches are bringing in between $2 and $5 per hour.
"The (sports) that are different pay are going to relate to the longevity of the sport," said AHS athletics director Kevin Flegner. "There are some sports that are longer. You take fall sports, for example, most of those coaches are starting already in the first week of August and if they're successful, they're going into November, so that gets to be a long season. I think definitely the length of the season determines how much money each of the sports are being paid."
Title IX has also been huge, as sports with both a boys and girls component naturally feature equal pay for both coaches.
The Club Conundrum
"If you're not employed as a teacher and you have the choice between getting involved with the local high school and coaching or getting involved with an area club, I think you would be crazy to take the high-school job," said Christiansen.
The obligations of a high school coach and a club sports coach are two very different things. High-school coaches must aid in the overall mission of the school, with academic considerations as important as wins and losses. The higher levels of pay relate to longevity in the position and not track record of success.
"We do have a scale that's based on experience to get extra money, and we try to retain those coaches, obviously," said Gosz. "If you look at any program in any district, those coaches that have been there the longest probably have the most success because of a lack of turnover. When you turn a coaching staff over, you set your whole program back a whole 2 to 3 years.
"I think when coaches that decide to switch over to the club, pay is part of it," said Flegner. "I think having more latitude to work with the elite athlete and then not having all the restrictions put on them, like schools have restrictions on certain contact dates … I think there are different pieces to that."
When an athletic director does decide that a coach deserves a pay raise, that determination is usually made based on what is happening around the district. The athletic director then takes the request through different channels, including the principal, superintendent and school board, to gain approval for the new contract.
"We try to stay competitive with what our neighboring districts do and I think every district is similar," said Gosz. "Before they do any proposed increases, they're going to do a survey on what everybody else is doing so that they're in line."
Most of the schools that were contacted had incentives based for longevity.
"Most schools are tied into the master contract," Flegner said. "Most of these pay scales have been around for a long, long time."
A balancing act
"You have to be flexible," Gosz said. "I'm not a micromanager. I allow the coaches to set up their practices and their game schedules."
The best coaches for the job are no longer only coming from the school district. Now, coaches can come from other schools or jobs outside of education. This can make the job more difficult for athletic directors. However, Gosz said they sometimes need to loosen their restraints on coaches for the benefit of the kids and the school district.
"(Coaching) is becoming a dying profession," said Flegner. "It's harder and harder each year for us athletic directors to get coaches just because of the pay, the time constraints, family, jobs; there are so many X-factors that go into it and you really have a (full-time) job. You need a boss who understands what high school athletics is all about and is willing to be flexible in allowing their folks to leave early or come into work late. It's getting harder and harder every year, but at the end of the day, we have to do our very best to seek out the best coaches."
Coaches are asked to balance a full time job with their coaching responsibilities and a social life and for the most part, it comes down to the individual coach to maintain that balancing act. However, Flegner said schools have had to become more flexible over the years in terms of being flexible with practice schedules and other obligations.
"When you're married, your spouse needs to know up front that you're putting in 70 or 80 hours in a week and you're not going to be making that much money to do it," said Christiansen. "(Working) 80 hours a week, you better both enjoy athletics and from my perspective, I've been lucky enough to have a wife that enjoys that, but it's a tough balancing act, it really is. It takes a special situation to make it work."
Gosz and Flegner stressed that high school sports are educational based and thus they would not base a coach's pay on a wins and losses base.
"Sometimes some parents believe that there is a line from here to Timbuktu for coaches that are willing to coach, and that is not the case," said Gosz. "Parents sometimes are taking the life out of coaches, and the pool is getting to be less and less."
Gosz said they have to stay within their budgets and cannot just throw $15,000 into a stipend for coaches, adding that for the time that coaches put in, the pay is minimal.
"It's something that I think about all the time," said Christiansen. "You better enjoy what you are doing because it's definitely not about the money."
Average stipend pay for head varsity coaching positions (starting pay) by sport during the 2013-14 school year. Schools surveyed include Oconomowoc, Arrowhead, Mukwonago, Kettle Moraine and Sussex Hamilton (Pewaukee bases its pay on percentage of base salary and is not included in these numbers):
Cross country: $3,362
Track and field: $3,974
Considerations for differences include amount of time spent coaching (including length of season), as well as specialized skills required.
On the clock
Counting first week of practice through first week of WIAA playoff participation, a look at estimated wage per hour for fall varsity head coaches, operating on estimate of 30 hours per week during season and 10 hours per week outside season.
Girls golf (8 weeks in season): $4.39/hr
Girls tennis (9 weeks): $4.51
Boys soccer (9 weeks): $4.96
Girls volleyball (10 weeks): $4.71
Girls swimming (13 weeks): $5.41
Football (12 weeks): $6.06
Every day, I've been waking up believing the Milwaukee Brewers were finally going to turn it around. Every night, I go to bed disappointed.
Perhaps the most frustrating element to the Brewers' stunning second-half meltdown (losing 13 of 14 heading into Wednesday) is that they haven't yet ruled out a playoff berth, still just 1 1/2 games out of a spot despite now threatening to finish the year with a losing record. It's just enough to keep Brewers fans hopeful, and yet the product has been miserable.
I'm tired of feeling this way about it. So I went back to one of my Preps Alcove columns from 2010 and dug out what I considered some of the great Wisconsin sports moments of all time. There are plenty of downer moments to discuss as well, but for the time being, I'm reminiscing about these:
1. The 2008 Brewers season finale. Only a few sports happenings resonate with me as "I remember where I was when..." moments, but Ryan Braun's home run in the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs in late September of 2008 was one of those moments. Milwaukee defeated the Cubs on the last day of the season, 3-1, with a typical Herculean effort by pitcher CC Sabathia leading the charge, and the Brewers clinched their first playoff berth in a generation. It was the end of years and years of Brewers fan frustration.
2. Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay's 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers capped an unbelievable postseason run that really began in the regular season, when the Packers needed wins in their final two regular-season games and then went on the road to top the Eagles, Falcons and — who can forget — Chicago Bears en route to a date in Dallas, where Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Nick Collins and others solidified their places in Packers lore.
3. Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. There was no finer drama. I remember clearly pacing the area behind the Arrowhead High School press box as I tried to watch a huge clash between Waukesha West and the Warhawks while simultaneously keeping an eye on this insane game, one whose details are burned into my mind. Nyjer Morgan (pictured above), a popular, controversial player having a career year, singled up the middle in the 10th to score Carlos Gomez and send the Brewers into the NLCS over the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Brewers had blown a one-run lead in the ninth but held on to avoid further damage and reach the NLCS for the first time since 1982 after a 96-win season. What a night.
4. The 2014 Final Four. It's pretty high on the list because of the recency factor, but this was one of those rare occasions where I truly embraced the positive outlook. I really believed Wisconsin was good enough to win the whole thing, and though it fell an eyelash short thanks to a heroic final shot by Kentucky in the Final Four, the Badgers still delivered a stirring run all the way to Dallas. Who will forget the second-half blitz to top Oregon in Milwaukee during the second round or the thrilling win against Arizona in the regional final? I can't wait to see what 2014-15 brings with many of the same players coming back, including big man Frank Kaminsky (pictured).
5. Super Bowl XXXI. It gets bumped down the list because it happened so long ago and the Green Bay Packers were, after all, supposed to win, but nothing is sweeter than a championship. Bolstered by the obvious standouts (Brett Favre, Reggie White) and a special day for special teamer Desmond Howard, Green Bay marched past New England in New Orleans for the franchise's third Super Bowl crown.
6. The 2000 Final Four. Nobody on the planet Earth expected the eighth-seeded Badgers to find their way onto the greatest stage in college basketball. Without any true stars and putting forth relentless defense hatched by coach Dick Bennett, Wisconsin stormed through star-studded programs such as top-seeded Arizona, LSU and Purdue before falling in the national semifinals to eventual champ Michigan State.
7. The 2003 Final Four. It wasn't the same level of improbability, but it was just as satisfying for Milwaukee. Marquette University, led by a phenomenal performance from future NBA star Dwyane Wade, charged into the Final Four and blew through top-seeded Kentucky in dominating fashion. Players like Travis Diener, Steve Novak and Robert Jackson became permanent staples of the Marquette basketball consciousness, even if the Golden Eagles were slaughtered by Kansas in the semifinals.
8. The 2001 Eastern Conference playoffs. Most see this as a negative time in Bucks history — a finals series loss in seven games that was marred by missed opportunities and questionable officiating. But few remember that the Bucks actually DID win a Game 7 in the Eastern semifinals over Charlotte to reach the conference finals for the first time in 15 years, and it was the last time the Bucks had created such a local buzz until the 2009-10 team.
9. "The Oakland game." On Dec. 22, 2003, Brett Favre played one of the most memorable games in Monday Night Football history. With the recent passing of his father lingering over the game, Favre carved up the Oakland Raiders in a borderline magical 41-7 win. Though Favre's legacy has been fractured since his days with the Packers, few can deny the emotional attachment they felt that day to the future Hall of Fame superstar.
10. Badgers football goes back-to-back. It turned out that whole Y2K virus wasn't worth the hype, but Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne sure was. On Jan. 1, 2000, the powerhouse running back was named Rose Bowl MVP for the second straight year and Wisconsin defeated Stanford to take its second consecutive Rose Bowl crown. Dayne, who still holds the NCAA Division 1 record for career rushing yards, was later rewarded with the Heisman Trophy.
11. Fear the Deer. Backed by a crowd participation that made national media take notice, the upstart Bucks — longshots by some to even reach the playoffs — picked up the sixth seed in the East and pushed the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The momentum from the occasion didn't last, but it was a great time to be a Bucks fan for a moment or two.
12. The 2007 Packers season. On the first play of overtime, Brett Favre hit Greg Jennings down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown that gave the Green Bay Packers a thrilling Monday Night victory in Denver, one of the great games in the 2007 season. Again, this can be seen as a negative thing after the Packers choked in the NFC title game, but the season was a compilation of best-case scenarios as the Packers surprised everyone and won 13 games in a renaissance for Favre.
13. Russellmania. He played only one year in a Wisconsin uniform, but given how his NFL career has played out, it will seem longer to Badgers fans. He was a revelation after transferring from North Carolina State, quarterbacking the Badgers to a win in the first-ever Big Ten Championship Game, a 42-39 shootout on Dec. 3, 2011 over a Michigan State team that had defeated the Badgers on a Hail Mary earlier in the year. All three of Wisconsin's losses that year were decided on ridiculous final plays, leaving many to wonder "What If," to a degree, but Wilson will always be celebrated in this state. One year later, the Badgers won the Big Ten title again in a stunning 70-31 win over Nebraska.
14. Twice as nice on ice. The Wisconsin hockey team recently lost to Boston College in the national championship game, but in 2006 the roles were reversed, when Bucky scored a 2-1 victory at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee to secure a national title in the Frozen Four. It might not be as mainstream as the others on this list, but throw in a national title for the Wisconsin women's team in the same year, and it's pretty noteworthy.
15. The 15-1 team. The Packers' 2011 season will be viewed as a disappointment after they were thwarted in an attempt to defend their Super Bowl title in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Giants, a team on their own magic carpet ride to the Super Bowl title. But it's the most dominant regular-season performance a state sports team has ever enjoyed, with only a head-scratching loss to the Chiefs preventing utter perfection. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (right) was named the league's MVP following the season.
For the third straight year, I'm stealing the "Talking Sports With Some of My Friends" format employed by colleague Chuck Delsman and riffing on sports beyond the varsity scope. I wish these were happier times, but Labor Day weekend has to rank among the worst in Wisconsin sports history.
-- The Wisconsin Badgers loss to LSU has gone from supremely disappointing to bizarre when coach Gary Andersen announced early Tuesday that quarterback Joel Stave — last year's starter who seemed like a logical option when new starter Tanner McEvoy demonstrated that he wasn't effective throwing the ball Saturday — was still experiencing shoulder discomfort dating back to last year and wasn't available in the game. News came later that Stave wasn't injured but had struggled in recent practice and thus wasn't available. Stave himself addressed the injury questions and reiterated that he was not hurt.
At best, this is a poorly-communicated method of hiding Stave's downturn in practice, inventing an injury as a cover story. If that's the case, Stave and Andersen weren't on the same page about that objective. At worst, this is Andersen presuming he can mislead the media and the fans about what's really going on.
I know fans get irritated when a coach tells half-truths (or bold-faced lies) about injuries and other elements of the team, yet the reality is that if coaches see an advantage in shielding the outside world from certain info, then they should do it. Because ultimately, what do most fans really want? A coach who's honest about every behind-the-scene detail, or a coach who wins?
The problem here is that not only did the Badgers not win, this episode calls into question Andersen's explanation for why running back Melvin Gordon, who was huge in the first half, didn't play much in the second half. A slight hip injury was cited, but it sounds at least debatable whether Gordon could have continued at mostly full strength. Not only that, Gordon played a few snaps in the second half, absorbing a vicious hit in pass protection at one point. If he's hurt, why did he play at all? The Stave situation at least makes us ask whether something else isn't at work here. What is it, and is it worth keeping Gordon benched during the most crucial game of the season? We may never know.
Bottom line: the Andersen honeymoon is over. The Badgers were decent despite some close losses in 2013, but this loss and the aftermath are going to make many Badger fans sour on a hire who looked like a very promising newcomer at this time last year.
-- I'm at a philosophical crossroads with the Milwaukee Brewers and how I should look at their month of April.
A 20-7 start to the season is the reason why the Brewers — 53-58 since after they lost a seventh consecutive game Sept. 2 — entered Sept. 3 holding the second Wild Card spot and why they're still within shouting distance of the division lead despite a massive dry spell. Everyone knew that level of April play was unsustainable, particularly from a lights-out bullpen. And it was, but they've been in first place ever since, giving them a chance to make appropriate roster upgrades and stay in the national conversation.
When the team lost its hold on first place for the first time since April 5, it actually felt somewhat relaxing to me. Finally, I could genuinely feel like the Brewers weren't "barely hanging on" anymore; now they had to go get something. It's a different vibe, even if I know it means they're at red alert when it comes to their hold on any playoff spot.
Of course, objectively, I have to be happy that the team started so well, allowing the Brewers to still be in the hunt despite below-average baseball ever since. But if the team had played this well in August instead of April, I wouldn't have suffered through May, June and July, knowing full well that the team had too many warts to run away with the division. I would have been much calmer about the season and would have enjoyed baseball a lot more. Even in 2012 and 2013, when the Brewers were a non-factor, baseball was the pastime it's supposed to be for me and not a daily stress.
This is purely because I'm a manic baseball fan, of course. The moral of the story: don't raise your kids to love baseball unless you want them to stress right alongside you. This is not a journey for the faint of heart. Go Brewers.
-- I acknowledge that the "Fail Mary" game in 2012 — which was back in the news in advance of Green Bay's season-opening NFL game Sept. 4 in Seattle — did have negative consequences for the Packers, who would have been the No. 2 seed instead of the No. 3 in the postseason and hosted San Francisco in the conference semifinal instead of the other way around.
But particularly after the way San Francisco was able to replicate playoff victory in Green Bay last year, does anyone really think a change of venue would have altered the outcome? There's always a chance, of course, but I've always felt that game could have changed the Packers' course for the worse far more than it actually did, and Green Bay still could have attained the No. 2 spot had it not fallen to the Vikings in the regular-season finale, 37-34.
The Packers won some close games that year, including a 1-point win over the New Orleans Saints. Who's to say if "Fail Mary," in which replacement referees ruled a final heave by Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was a touchdown (despite near-unanimous disagreement) doesn't happen, the Packers don't lose other games on account of officials? That game is the unquestioned watershed moment leading to labor peace with the full-time refs, and it was the last game overseen by replacements.
-- Push For the Playoffs (mycommunitynow.com/push) is back with tons and tons of content about area football. We'll be rolling out our Pigskin Picks contest soon enough in addition to elements such as Player of the Week, Surprise of the Week, rankings, photos, standings, "You Make the Call," our podcast and more.
Pictured: Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon walks off the field after a 28-24 loss to LSU on Aug. 30. Gordon spent much of the second half on the sideline. He finished the game with 140 yards on 16 carries. Photo by Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
One of my favorite elements on the "Push for the Playoffs" page (mycommunitynow.com/push) that we produce every year to cover the Lake Country and Now Newspapers football teams is "Coach's Confidential," which asks area coaches anonymously about their thoughts on various football topics.
The site includes a link to an archive of past answers, so take a look back at some of the responses from past years (starting with Week One of this season), and check back at Push for the Playoffs each week this year for new entries. While you're there, you'll see standings, a Player of the Week, photos, "You Make the Call," updates on former area players in college, rankings and so much more.
Imagine you've just scored a touchdown to pull within one point in the final minute of the game. Under what circumstances, if any, would you go for 2?
Coach 1: If we have no kicker ... or we are heavy underdogs trying to pull off the big upset.
Coach 2: I would prefer to go for two. (Homestead coach) Dave Keel once told me, 'Don't put it on your kicker, he is a kid. Have the guts to make the call and take the blame.' Now there are some things that might alter that, but in general, under a minute, put it on the coach.
Coach 3: If for the balance of the game we were chasing the action and playing catch-up, this might be the best chance we have to ice it. Momentum is on our side, and we are riding high. Strike while the iron is hot! If we are the better team, and haven't played as well, I play for overtime and take my chances there.
Coach 4: I would go for two if I feel that the opponent is physically superior to us.
What one element does a team most need to contend for a state title?
Coach 1: A lot of luck. Avoid injuries, hope your star player's girlfriend doesn't dump him on a Friday, hope the flu that's going around school misses your team, etc. Belief and preparation are huge, of course, but you can't overlook good fortune.
Coach 2: Talent. You can't get there without great players
Coach 3: The team that can combine good chemistry with stud players wins state.
Coach 4: Talent. Teams that win state championships, especially in D1 when you get to the big-boy level, it's very rare when you see a team that makes it without at least one Division 1 (college) player. A great coach makes sure he gets the most out of the talent, but traditionally it helps when you have great players. A good coach takes advantage of it.
With the advancements of sports video games, have you ever been able to apply any playcalling concepts from said games to actual football coaching?
Coach 1: I notice it with youth coaches. A lot of times they brag they've got 35 plays in their youth office and 25 are from John Madden (video games). I think guys get too many bad ideas. It all looks good on paper, but it matters what the kid is able to remember.
Coach 2: I'm not a video game guy and see no crossover between the two.
Coach 3: I don't see it, but then again, I haven't played video games in 12 years or so.
Coach 4: The last game I played was Madden 96. Is Barry Sanders a concept?
Artificial field turf has become more and more prevalent; do you feel there remains a place for good old fashioned grass?
Coach 1: If you want to standarize outside elements and leave the game to the players on the field, turf is awesome. I don't think anything is really lost without grass.
Coach 2: Grass is terrible.
Coach 3: Yes, if your district can maintain it. Otherwise, turf is better than grass.
Coach 4: We don't have it and would love to have it. You can practice on it all the time, and we have a huge youth football organization and they're always wanting to get on our game field. In an ideal world, it would be great for every high school to have it.
Are you for or against names on the back of high school jerseys, and why?
Coach 1: Against it. Football is the one opportunity we have to suppress our individual ego for something bigger. Why the hell would we bring the individual back into it?
Coach 2: I'm OK either way. I do like the idea of playing for the name on the front of the jersey though.
Coach 3: I'm for it. I want as many kids out for football, and it's a pretty big deal on Friday to have jerseys in the hallway. If that can be a recruiting tool for me to get more kids out, I'm fine with that. We introduce ourselves as a team, and we come up with other ways to build the team aspect. I think it's a big deal Fridays in schools, and parents love it, too. Mom loves seeing her kid's name on the jersey.
Coach 4: For. Love it.
What's the strangest complaint you've ever received from a parent or overzealous onlooker?
Coach 1: I've heard someone compare our team with what they see on TV on Saturdays and Sundays. "Why don't you run the back-shoulder fade? The Packers run it."
Coach 2: Maybe not the strangest, but something negative is when you do something extra like have a senior poster and somehow a name is omitted or you make a nice banquet program and someone accidentally doesn't get typed in ... those are the moments I see parents get more upset. That can be really draining because you tried to do something extra and the parent thinks it's done on purpose.
Coach 3: "We need to do more 'playonics' in the offseason." Not sure if he meant plyometrics or what, but we did plenty of those, anyway.
What's the best part about the job?
Coach 1: Being a difference maker in someone's life. Watching boys come into the program and exiting it a better person because of your guidance and leadership.
Coach 2: Creating a relationship with kids and friendships, getting invited to weddings, getting invited to a bachelor party, just them coming back and visiting you or calling up asking for advice. I've got kids that I coached that are now coaches for me, and I've become good friends with a lot of former players.
Coach 3: I'd be lying if I didn't say winning.
What's the best method of dealing with an over-eager parent who reaches out to you on a regular basis with unwanted feedback?
Coach 1: Be very direct in response; before that, try to address any such potential issues at a pre-season meeting. I tell parents that they are free to contact me about playing time, scheme, play calling, or our depth chart, but that in calling, they need to be ready to hear the raw truth, as I see it.
Coach 2: Follow the chain of command and if they want to meet with me, they have to bring in their son as well. Non-negotiable. I never talk playing time or play calling.
Coach 3: We have a parent meeting in May, and I explain to the parents they're young men; a year or two from now, they'll have a job or be in the military and can't talk to the boss or drill sergeant or professor like that. The best thing you can do is let your son handle problems. They're old to have their parents involved. Most parents do a great job of understanding that.
With the Aug. 21-22 kickoff, the 2014 football season is under way, and there are plenty of potential storylines in Lake Country. Consider these:
1. Rebuild or reload. In general, area teams don't have the firepower on paper that they've had in years past. Sussex Hamilton, Pewaukee, Mukwonago, Oconomowoc and Arrowhead all graduated tremendous senior classes from 2013, a big reason why those programs were among the area's elite last year. Arrowhead, the two-time defending state champion, may still have enough in the tank to challenge for a third consecutive title. The Warhawks head into the season ranked No. 1 in Division 1, a familiar perch.
2. The rematch. Which brings us to the game of the year, Homestead vs. Arrowhead, this time played at Taraska Stadium on the Arrowhead campus. Last year, Homestead won in a stunner, 13-7, handing Arrowhead the only loss it has incurred in the past two years. The level of anticipation for that game was considerable given that it pitted the reigning Division 1 and Division 2 champion against each other. This time, despite the fact that Arrowhead won gold last year again, the Highlanders look very good on paper and might just be the favorite to win the rematch.
3. A Nicolet effect? News broke late last week that the Nicolet football team would be canceling its varsity season, citing a safety concern given a lack participation within the program. Playing in the North Shore Conference, the Knights have struggled to compete for years despite a current enrollment of nearly 1,100 students, making it the largest school in recent memory to drop football. Nicolet hopes it's a one-year situation, but it could prompt greater discussion about other issues facing the football world, such as ...
4. Concussions. The emphasis on head trauma has been ongoing for years, and though football remains extremely popular, a slight decline in overall participation could be at least partially related to the concussion fear. PBS documentary "League of Denial" took a scathing look at the long-term effects of concussions (and how the NFL took the scientific findings too lightly) last fall, and the technology to assess and prevent the ailment continues to improve. Arrowhead players were all fitted with SpeedFlex helmets by Riddell, with the InSite Impact Response System designed to disperse energy and reduce risk of trauma. Several college programs will try the helmet as well, but AHS becomes the first high-school team in the nation to fully embrace the product.
5. New fields. Improved technology isn't just limited to the medical side. Synthetic field turf, long in play at Arrowhead and Kettle Moraine, has become more universal in the state, with 65 high schools believed to be using the surface this year. Pewaukee finished its surface last year, and Oconomowoc and the three Waukesha public schools join the fray in 2014. Waukesha South's first game on the turf, scheduled for Aug. 22, was canceled — Nicolet was the scheduled opponent.
6. New everything. Artificial field turf is just part of the arms race on which high-school athletics programs have been engaged when it comes to state-of-the-art facilities. It's a race in which Oconomowoc has taken the temporary lead, with the massive Athletic Fields Forever program nearing completion and touching numerous outdoor sports, including track and field, tennis, baseball, softball, soccer and, of course, football. Oconomowoc now has state-of-the-art video boards for the soccer and football stadiums, an automated organic fertilization system for the soccer stadium, a superb track and field facility and a brand new visitor bleacher/press box area as part of its football bowl. Throw in a world class field house, and you'd be hard pressed to find anything better than Oconomowoc High School. For now.
7. The Pfeiffer Effect. Kettle Moraine was slated to face Oconomowoc in Week 1 for the opener at the new-look stadium, and it's an interesting year for the Lasers. Under second-year coach Dave Pfeiffer, a successful coordinator at Arrowhead before moving to KM, the Lasers won only two games last year. But still, KM had a couple fascinating outcomes. They included a 21-14 loss to a Catholic Memorial team that was really an eyelash away from knocking off eventual state champion Monona Grove in Level 3 of the playoffs and a 21-3 loss to Arrowhead, which went on to win the state title but didn't score in the second half against the Lasers. Regardless of circumstances, those are two intriguing outcomes that get lost in the shuffle because KM didn't ultimately win. But could the Lasers be a sleeping giant?
8. Lightning strike in Madison? The Lake Country Lutheran football program returns a ton of talent from a squad that reached Level 4 last year before falling to eventual state champion Black Hawk. With a sports program coming off its first state baseball title and its third consecutive appearance in the girls soccer state tournament, it has been well documented that the athletics programs at LCL have officially arrived at state powerhouse status, at least among the smaller schools in the state. The football program under coach Greg Brazgel has been knocking on the door, and this could be its year.
9. On the schedule. The last two seasons, several teams with losing conference records have reached the playoffs, and it appears as if we've arrived at a point in time where that's going to be common. The tiebreaking criteria to reach the postseason (for squads without winning conference records) has been changed to conference winning percentage, meaning many games between teams with losing records will carry greater importance. With the WIAA analyzing disparity in competitiveness (an ad hoc committee was created in the wake of a "multiplier" conversation for private schools last year), conference realignment becoming an increasingly common trend in the state and a proposal to create football "districts" still feasible down the road, the football postseason process remains in light flux.
10. Smelling roses, or better? A new playoff format in college football has given programs like Wisconsin a better shot at getting involved in the national title conversation, and even though the Badgers remain longshots, a favorable Big Ten schedule coupled with an early upset of LSU would set them up nicely. Several former area players are part of the Badgers front line this year, including linebacker Derek Landisch (Arrowhead), linebacker Joe Schobert (Waukesha West), fullback Derek Watt (Pewaukee) and punter Drew Meyer (Arrowhead). Younger players such as Arrowhead grads Billy Hirschfeld and George Panos or Pewaukee's T.J. Watt wait in the wings.
Pictured: (above) The synthetic turf field is ready for action at Waukesha South on Aug. 16. (Below) Kettle Moraine coach Dave Pfeiffer will try and lead the Lasers to the playoffs this season. Photos by Scott Ash.
It's too early to write the summer baseball obituary, but if the writing on the wall isn't foretelling the demise of summer ball within the next five years, then it's at least suggesting that the sport will continue to hold a smaller and smaller niche of the market.
Steven L. Tietz penned his column this week focusing on some of the great moments in greater Milwaukee history in the summer baseball series. John Rechtalked to several coaches about how they see the summer/spring situation shaping up, as well.
Tietz's moments don't focus on Lake Country, but certainly this area has had some good ones, as well. The two that stick out in my mind include a game I've written about in the past, when upstart Kettle Moraine flat-out shocked defending champion West Bend West in a 2008 quarterfinal, backed by curveball specialist Cody Smith and limiting the damage against a powerhouse lineup. The other would be Arrowhead's dramatic run to the title in 2009, with a walk-off home run by Brian Crook in the quarterfinal and a walk-off base hit by Karl Sprung to beat Marquette in a championship thriller.
That win came 30 years after coach Tim O'Driscoll piloted Arrowhead toanother state title in 1979. The Kettle Moraine team in 1988 also won a state crown and still holds the record for most runs in a game (23 vs. Lakeland) and in a tournament (41 over three games). That squad was led by future Major Leaguer Joe Randa and head coach Stu Pease. Sussex Hamilton won the state title in 1981. Scott Dunn hit .575 in the tournament and freshman Jim Waupoose delivered the win over West Bend West in the title game.
Steven L. Tietz gives even more color to the 50 years of summer baseball:
From the cozy, ivy-covered fences of West Bend, to the storm-spattered beauty of Stevens Point to the still very recent state-of-the-art glory that is Kapco Park in Mequon, the 50 years of WIAA summer baseball have seen it all.
This version of the sport, unfortunately, is on the wane, as it dropped in participation from its peak of 110 schools in 1999 (a very dominant West Bend East team was the champ then) to about half that number right now.
The power of spring ball, uncertainty due to the influence of traveling teams and the relentless pressure of Legion ball in the summer throughout the more rural portions of the state have made its future a tenuous one at best, but for as long as it has been around, it has been a marvelous and instense showcase for area teams and talent.
Oak Creek and Brookfield Central have four state titles apiece, while Brown Deer, Greendale and Homestead have three apiece and Franklin and Nicolet two each.
Through it all, the moments have been distinct and strong for area teams, from Homestead's Randy Rennicke throwing a no-hitter in the 1974 state finals against New Holstein (he was coached by his father, Don), to future major leaguer Lance Painter of Nicolet throwing an 18-strikeout perfect game against Amery en route to the Knights' first title in 1985.
You had Germantown's tenacity in winning the longest game ever, a 14-inning quarterfinal decision over Onalaska that was decided at 1 a.m. in 1986 at old Regner. Paul Frey pitched 10 brave innings for the Warhawks that time out. Then there were the dueling last-moment home runs in the fog-drenched final of Bukolt Park in 2002 that had West Bend East dog-piling on the mound in celebration while Muskego players crouched in despair so close to the trophy they so coveted.
There were also coaches to remember.
You had Mark Rohde's "Mad Bombers" from Brookfield Central clubbing their way to a state title with power times 10 in 2000 and Dave Weber of Falls pulling out the six-man infield in a thrilling semifinal win over New Richmond in 2001.
You had great coaching legends with out-sized personalities like Frank Benevides of Greenfield, Tom "Whitey" Grafenauer of Whitnall, Jerry Toubl of Wauwatosa East, John Galewski of South Milwaukee and Dick Sykes of Nicolet all seizing their one chance at glory. Sykes' Nicolet squad had to win three road games for a regional title, including a 1-0 "rat-tail" victory over Brown Deer just to get into the full bracket.
Two weeks before that game, Sykes had threatened to demote the entire varsity after a disturbing loss to Germantown.
Record-setting coach of great character Jim Hughes of Franklin finally getting back-to-back titles in 2010-11 was a perfect way to close out the summer tourney's time in Point.
Yup, this is one fun tournament, despite the rain, the storms and the fact that it was too long in Stevens Point (1989-2011), where hardly anyone saw many of these great moments. So, here to catch you up on things is my short list of my "Best Of" summer state baseball tournament (disagree if you must):
TEAMS: Brookfield Central 2000 (way too many offensive weapons for anyone to check); Oak Creek 2004 (three complete-game pitching efforts plus three total runs allowed equals state title); Homestead 1974 (Randy Rennicke and pitching to burn), Franklin 2010-11 (character-driven over-achievers led by a legendary coach).
COACHES: Robin Schrank of Greendale (state titles 1980, 1987 and 1995; runner-up in 1985); Don Rennicke (runner-up with Brown Deer in 1965, titles with Homestead 1974 and 1978); Earl Gengler of Brown Deer (titles in 1975 and 1977, runner-up in 1982); Hughes of Franklin (three games in one day runner-up in 2000, titles in 2010 and 2011); and Peter Dooley and Scott Holler of Oak Creek (two titles each, 2003 and 2004, and 2005 and 2012, respectively).
PLAYERS: Painter of Nicolet 1985 (single greatest state pitching effort, no argument); Butler of Oak Creek 2003-2005 (stymied a great Homestead team in state finals as a freshman, also contributed to 2004 and 2005 crowns); Justin Schweikert of Brookfield Central 2000 (teammate Shane Davis was Player of the Year in the state, but Schweikert knocked in a record nine runs in state tourney); Jake Penegor of Franklin 2011 (six runs scored, eight hits and four RBIs in three-game title run); and Mike Mushall of Brown Deer 1982 (had a record nine hits in three-game state runner-up effort).
GAMES: Germantown 4-3 over Onalaska in 1986 (14 innings, longest game in tourney history and all worth it); Menomonee Falls 7-6 over New Richmond in 2001 (11-inning game with Falls' rally-thwarting six-man infield); West Bend East 7-6 over Muskego 2002 (nine-inning effort with walk-off home run into the fog); Oak Creek 3-2 over Homestead 2003 (Butler forecasting future greatness by no-hitting Highlander coach Ernie Millard's best team over the course of the first five innings of title game).
None of this is all-inclusive and is just the tip of the iceberg of the excellence that has marked what will hopefully continue to be one of the great annual events in high school sports. We'd all do well to support it in the future.
Pictured: (Above) Arrowhead's Karl Sprung celebrates after a game-winning hit in the seventh inning to cap a four-run rally and lift AHS to a 5-4 win over Marquette in the 2009 state title game. Below: Kettle Moraine's Cody Smith leads his team to a stunning 4-1 win over West Bend West in 2008 en route to the state final.
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)
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