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GARY | As expected, the RailCats signed Bishop Noll grad and former Whiting resident Andy Loomis to a contract, anticipating making him a closer.
To free up space, Miles Walding has been placed on the disabled list, giving the RailCats just four infielders to play the four positions (Zac Mitchell is still on crutches).
Loomis was a 16th round pick in the 2008 draft by the Florida Marlins and has been in the Baltimore Orioles organization since 2012 (he also spent a season in A-ball with the Phillies). He reached as high as Triple-A with the Orioles, until he was sidelined with Tommy John surgery last August.
Kansas City T-Bones (34-36)
GARY | The RailCats enter the second game of the four-game stand against Kansas City enjoying a win Wednesday and a loss by the Lincoln Saltdogs.
Lincoln, sitting second in the Central Division, fell to Grand Prairie and dropped to five games below the RailCats in the division race. KC is seven games behind the 'Cats in the Central.
Kansas City T-Bones (33-36)
3B TJ Mittelstaedt
GARY | The RailCats return from their two-day all-star break with the biggest of big homestand series at U.S. Steel Yard.
The 'Cats open with four games against Kansas City beginning today, and the T-Bones are in third place in the Central Division, six games behind the RailCats.
After K.C. leaves, the RailCats welcome Lincoln for four games. The Saltdogs are four games behind the 'Cats in second place in the division and play against Grand Prairie prior to making the trek to Gary.
Before the game, the RailCats placed second baseman Zac Mitchell on the disabled list, activating Kagen Hopkins. Mitchell was slated to play in the all-star game Tuesday, but didn't appear. Hopkins will start in place of Dustin Crenshaw, who will start tomorrow instead. Crenshaw pitched in Tuesday's all-star game.
GARY | The RailCats haven't lost a series since dropping three straight to Kansas City June 27-29.
In the last month, the 'Cats have recorded a sweep, two series ties and five straight series wins.
To keep that streak alive, the RailCats will have to knock off Winnipeg in a rubber match of the three-game weekend series that will take both teams into the all-star break.
Winnipeg remains in first in the North Division, two games ahead of St. Paul that ended its eight-game winning streak with a loss to Fargo-Moorhead on Saturday.
The RailCats remain in first in the Central Division, four games ahead of Lincoln, which beat Kansas City 3-1 on Saturday.
GARY | The RailCats and Winnipeg Goldeyes remain No. 1 in their respective American Association divisions, but neither is safe.
The RailCats have the benefit of Kansas City and Lincoln (the Nos. 3 and 2 teams in the Central) playing against each other this weekend, so Lincoln fell five games back with a loss last night as Kansas City is seven games behind the RailCats for first.
In the North, the Goldeyes suffered more than a loss at the hands of the RailCats on Friday as St. Paul and Fargo-Moorhead (Nos. 2 and 3 in the North) are also playing each other and St. Paul extended its winning streak to eight games, having won nine of the last 10.
The RailCats will send Stephen Bougher to the mound against Winnipeg tonight. The righty is 2-1 at home with a 2.06 ERA and has lasted at least seven innings in his last two starts at U.S. Steel Yard.
GARY | After winning five straight series, the RailCats return home from Sioux City with their first series tie since June 30-July3.
The tie, courtesy of back-to-back losses to the Explorers, comes at the same time that Lincoln won four games in a row. The Saltdogs turned their six-game deficit in the American Association's Central Division into a four-game deficit.
The RailCats, 9-10 against the Central Division this season and 2-1 against Lincoln, play the Saltdogs Aug 3-6 at U.S. Steel Yard, after the All-Star break.
Not far behind Lincoln is Kansas City, a team that comes to Gary twice more -- including after this weekend's series against Winnipeg -- and the RailCats head to Kansas City one more time in August. The T-Bones are seven games right now behind the RailCats and three games behind Lincoln in the AA Central.
Against the Goldeyes, the RailCats are facing a team that is sitting atop the Northern League's North Division standings, two games ahead of the St. Paul Saints.
GARY | Should the RailCats sweep the weekend series against Amarillo, it will be the second sweep in four series, the last against Fargo-Moorhead.
As it is, this series win -- secured Saturday with a 9-2 victory -- will be the fifth straight.
On Saturday, the RailCats added coach Joe Beck to the coaching staff and will put him at first base. Keaton Willis, who had been the first base coach, remains on the staff as the strength and conditioning coach. Beck has previously coached with third base coach Dennis Pelfrey and pitching coach Chad Rhoades.
Amarillo Sox (19-40)
son aGARY | Morgan Coombs was slated to start Friday's series opener against Amarillo, but instead was placed on the disabled list before the game with Travis McGee added to the roster.
Coombs felt discomfort during his last start in Winnipeg last weekend.
McGee pitched for the RailCats earlier in the season, working four innings and picking up a suspended game in June. He had an ERA of 2.57 in his total seven innings with the 'Cats in his first stint in Gary.
The rookie has been in Windy City since his release from the RailCats roster, appearing in two games.
Coombs holds a 5-4 record with 4.32 ERA in 14 starts. He is in his third season with the RailCats, starting 21 games with a 6-9 record in 2012, and starting 16 games with a 6-3 record last season.
GARY | The RailCats have a quick turnaround, back at the ballpark nearly 12 hours after they left Tuesday.
With Tuesday's game running 2 hours, 55 minutes, including a 49-minute rain delay, 8-minute injury delay and three ejections, the game didn't end until after 11 p.m.
Today's game is an attraction to young day campers and area retirement communities and senior groups.
Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (27-31)
GARY | The RailCats haven't lost to Fargo-Moorhead since Sept. 4, 2013, when they dropped the first of the American Association semifinals to the RedHawks.
Since then, the 'Cats have won seven straight games, including three in the postseason and three last week in North Dakota.
The season series continues with today's game against the RedHawks at U.S. Steel Yard, the RedHawks' only trip to Gary this season.
The tarp came out after 6 p.m., thanks to rain that blew through the area, but by 6:35, the tarp crew was sprinting to take it off and dry the field.
The National Federation of State High School Associations approved the use of video for coaching purposes.
While it might or might not be a good thing, coaches will have to adapt should they choose to use this technology.
Will this lead to stealing signs? I doubt if someone will put a camera in centerfield, but you can pick things up from a good angle. Now, coaches will be able to see things instantly.
Illinois Lutheran coach Mark Kjenstad said it is a matter of learning how to use this technology to your advantage. Eventually, this will be the norm in dugouts. Crete-Monee coach Gene Cahan told me he doesn't see an advantage and there may not be one, but most coaches will think the "other guy" will have an advantage, so he will use a camera.
Why is it not in softball? Basically, baseball and softball are for each gender.
GARY | The RailCats open their week of games with the announcement that the team will send five players -- and a manager -- to the American Association All-Star game in two weeks in Winnipeg.
Zac Mitchell was named to start at second base, Danny Pulfer will start at third and Drew Martinez will start in the outfield. Craig Maddox was picked as the backup catcher and Dustin Crenshaw is one of nine pitchers named to the team.
Greg Tagert will manage the team after winning the 2013 American Association Championship.
The RailCats return from a six-game road trip with a 5-1 record and have won six of their last seven games. The team plays its next six games at home, with a Thursday break in between.
GARY | The St. Paul Saints hold the season series record against the RailCats 4-2.
But the 'Cats are hoping to salvage the weekend series at U.S. Steel Yard with a win Sunday and win their first series outright since June 23-26 against Sioux Falls.
Conversely, the RailCats hold the offensive advantage over the Saints, 27-25, thanks in part to a 14-5 win on May 18 and a 7-1 win on Friday to start the weekend stretch.
St. Paul Saints (24-22)
GARY | The RailCats opened their second game of the three-game homestand with a trade.
The 'Cats sent righty reliever Coleman Stephens to Amarillo in exchange for righty reliever Ian Kadish.
Kadish played 49 games last season for the Lansing Lugnuts as part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization. He was 5-4 with a 3.36 ERA.
Kadish was signed as a free agent by the Blue Jays in 2011, with the Midwest League the highest level he reached.
Stephens played in 10 games for the 'Cats this season, including eight relief outings. He was 1-1 with a 6.23 ERA and spent eight days on the DL from June 16-24.
GARY | The RailCats are celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks, reduced tickets for veterans and active military, and outfield running.
The 'Cats hopped off a bus as soon as it returned from Sioux Falls after Thursday's 11-7 loss. Though they hold the No. 1 spot in the American Association Central Division, the RailCats' lead is three games over Kansas City and the 'Cats are 5-5 over their last 10 games.
St. Paul Saints (23-21)
2B Sam Maus
After spending Monday looking at Valparaiso's outgoing transfer situation over the last 11 years, I figured it would be good to look and see if the Crusaders have brought in better talent than they've lost in that same time period.
I'm using the last 11 years as the focal point as it represents a) when Homer Drew took over the program again and b) 2002-03 was the last season the Crusaders didn't lose a player to transfer.
2014 -- E. Victor Nickerson (Charlotte), Darien Walker (John A. Logan/Arizona Western),
2013 -- Keith Carter (St. Louis), David Chadwick (Rice), Moussa Gueye (Alabama)
2012 -- Bobby Capobianco (Indiana), Jordan Coleman (Southwestern Ill./Hawaii), Lavonte Dority (South Florida), Alex Rossi (California)
As the 2014-15 basketball season unofficially began on Monday morning with the start of summer workouts, I'll be spending each day this week examining a different topic related to the Valparaiso men's basketball team. Today we start with a look at transfers.
From Alex to Vincent and Bouchie to Yeo, the question surrounding the Valparaiso men's basketball team is really quite simple: Do the Crusaders have a transfer problem? The answer might not be so easy.
With the recent announcement that Clay Yeo was leaving the team for Bethel with three seasons of eligibility remaining, the Crusaders have now had 31 players leave the program early since Homer Drew took the Crusaders back over in the fall of 2003.
That number may be a bit misleading given that among the 31 are five walk-ons, three players that had major health issues and three players who never took the court for Valparaiso. That said, the Crusaders have given a premature goodbye to more than 20 scholarship players over the last 11 years. Valparaiso has had a player leave in every season since 2002-03.
2014 -- Clay Yeo (Bethel)
It as hard to tell who was having more fun at the Pierre Thomas skills camp at T.F. South Tuesday -- the young campers or Thomas?
In an age where you hear so much negatives about pro athletes, Thomas is a breath of fresh air. This was a free camp and it is just one way of giving back to the community.
Another is getting kids some exercise. Instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, the kids got out and ran, caught passes, attempted to kick field goals and just had fun.
His mom, Gretta Jo Thomas said she is just as proud for the way he has come back and how the young man conducts himself as she is of him playing for the New Orleans Saints.
What Thomas gives local kids is a hero who is in the headlines for his on-the-field feats and not off-the-field escapades that many pro athletes are. His ICAN Foundation is just that. It encourages kids to have a positive outlook and encourages them to do the right things. Thomas talked about hanging around with the right people, keeping grades up and getting involved in any kind of activity.
GARY | The tarp hasn't seen the field at U.S. Steel Yard for hours and the RailCats played a simulated game as well as took batting practice to open the final pregame of their home stand.
The 'Cats entered this seven-game stint at home playing almost .500 ball, having won four and lost five since a winning streak of seven straight opened June.
The RailCats lost their first home series against Lincoln, dropping a Friday game 7-4, then splitting a Sunday doubleheader. A loss to Sioux Falls -- for the first time this season -- opened the series against the Canaries, but the RailCats won the last two games: 8-3 and 9-6.
Sioux Falls Canaries (14-24)
GARY | The RailCats are finally able to take some batting practice thanks to a break in the clouds. The tarp was on the field at 4 p.m., but was extracted at 4:38 so that the team didn't miss a third straight day of BP.
The RailCats have lost to Sioux Falls just once this year -- on Monday -- and hold a 6-1 record against the Canaries. The four-game series that ends Thursday is the third of four times the two teams meet this season. The final meeting will be July 1-3, next week.
Prior to the game, the RailCats announced that they've traded first baseman Jeremy Hamilton to Lincoln for future considerations. The team then signed infielder Adam Humes, a Frontier League player last season.
Hamilton leaves tied for a team lead in doubles with 10. (He is tied with Craig Maddox.)
Humes played in Florence in the Frontier League last season and in McAllen of the United League. He played in college at Northwood University in Texas and summer wood bat in the Alaskan Baseball League.
GARY | The tarp came off the field in time for the RailCats to take batting practice.
That's good news for the hitters, who left nine on base Monday night in a 6-3 loss. Prior to the Monday game, manager Greg Tagert said that his catchers -- Craig Maddox and Ryan Babineau -- are typically most disappointed when batting practice is missed.
The 'Cats were planning to work on bunting drills with the pitching staff Monday as well as use the time to work on defensive drills with Ryan Brockett, who is coming off of a head injury after taking a line drive to the cheek bone last week.
Brockett has been activated from the DL today, his first day available, and is expected to be in the lineup tonight.
As of 5:20, it looks like BP has been scrapped for light outfield tosses, but not actual BP as the field is still being cleaned, dried and chalked. The inside batting cages will take a beating for the second day in a row.
GARY | The RailCats held an on-field team meeting at their usual "batting practice" time, but the field at U.S. Steel Yard remains tarped.
The new tarp for the infield is larger than the old, grey one. This is white and covers more area, stretching farther into foul territory and behind home plate.
The previous tarp was given an appropriate send off after Sunday's doubleheader, as the grounds crew filled it with water and invited fans to use it as a slip-and-slide.
In his pregame interview session, manager Greg Tagert said that the RailCats batters are most frustrated when batting practice is called for rain. The tarp went on the field at about 1:30 and stayed on through BP, though there was no rain between 4:30-5:30, when the 'Cats would have been hitting.
GARY | The RailCats head into today's doubleheader in a tough pitching conundrum.
The 'Cats were only able to use Stephen Bougher for two innings in Saturday's rain out. Neither pitcher gave up a hit in the first two innings, but Lincoln starter Nick Green walked two RailCats.
The RailCats left two on through two innings before the deluge began and forced the rainout.
A reminder: the two games will be seven innings each in regulation, though in the previous two doubleheaders played at U.S. Steel Yard this year, both first games have gone extras.
Today's lineups for Game 1:
It is always a good thing to see when a former player returns to his or her prep alma mater to coach.
It is even better when that person becomes the head coach as with T.F. North's LaShaunda Sandifer. Maybe it is twice as nice as she will become the girls volleyball and girls basketball coach at North.
I remember the late Don Rising, who was the T.F. North girls basketball coach, talking with me in November of 2004 about his sophomore sensation, telling me that she would be one of the area's top players. What Don didn't say was she would be great in two sports -- basketball and volleyball. You don't get many of those anymore.
Sandifer was The Times Player of the Year in 2007 for girls basketball and 2007 Female Athlete of the Year.
She went on and played volleyball and basketball at Wright State. think about that. Playing and doing well in two sports at the NCAA Division I level.
Even the Illinois Lutheran baseball team didn't think it would win the state title via the 10-run rule.
Coach Mark Kjenstad said he was not surprised how well his team hit.
"We had batting practice like we do before every game," Kjenstad said. "We hit on the grass outside the hotel. used Wiffle balls and I know that doesn't mean you are going to hit, but our guys were ready to play."
Indeed. It was a fine finish to a great season and Kjenstad proved that nice guys do finish first.
The Chargers set a goal at the beginning of the season, you know, when we didn't know if it would ever stop snowing and the fields would never thaw out, and they made sure they fulfilled it. They didn't boast about it, but kept their focus on the end. Though their only two losses were to rival Beecher, the Chargers went forward and let nothing and no one stand in their way.
GARY | Thanks to the rainout Tuesday, the RailCats are back in the position of playing a doubleheader, something that tends to force readjustments to the four-man rotation.
With last week's doubleheader against these same Sioux City Explorers, the RailCats were already planning to use a fifth man to the rotation this week, reentering Coleman Stephens into a spot start.
Stephens will instead start today in the second game of the DH. Pursuant to American Association rules, both games will be seven innings.
The lineup won't change from Tuesday's already posted order.
GARY | The RailCats are hoping to knock off the doldrums from the one-game hiccup, but to do so, they'll need Mother Nature to cooperate.
Staring at the radar, the RailCats could either be dumped on with rain in the next half hour to hour (it's 4:30 right now), or miss the weather anomalies all together.
After falling to Sioux City on Monday, the RailCats -- the best team in the American Association's Central Division -- are hoping to redeem themselves against the Explorers, who jumped from last overall to second-to-last with the win.
As the Xs are divisional foes, the 'Cats need all the wins they can muster within the division, especially early. The Kansas City T-Bones, who sit behind the RailCats three games back in the Central, didn't play yesterday and are on a two-game winning streak, having won six of their last 10.
At 5:06, the tarp comes out, interrupting batting practice.
HIGHLAND | Blase Spoljoric knows the Tour de Highland course by the soles of his feet.
"I usually run this," the Highland man said about the paved trail looping around Wicker Park complemented by an off-shoot path tunneling under Kennedy Avenue and through downtown Highland.
"I had to get my blood pressure down and lose some weight, so I started running three years ago," Spoljoric said. "It's helped, but even though you get a lot from running, it's hard on your legs."
Spoljoric found that cycling the course, as he did Saturday morning while participating in the annual community bike ride sponsored by the Highland Chamber of Commerce, is a more pleasurable experience.
"Biking is so much easier, and you get to enjoy the scenery," said Spoljoric, who participated in his first Tour de Highland.
GARY | Nursing a seven-game winning streak, the RailCats face a Sioux City Explorers team that has lost eight in a row (including four to the 'Cats).
In addition, the Explorers are losing players as quickly as games. The Xs are down to just three infielders after Sunday's retirement of third baseman Mark Sobolewski. Sioux City has just 20 players on the roster, scrambling to fill in the two openings while in the midst of a six-game road trip.
Earlier Monday, RailCats pitcher Dustin Crenshaw was named the American Association's Pitcher of the Week.
Crenshaw made two starts last week, a seven-inning complete-game win over Sioux City and a seven-inning one-run win over Sioux Falls. The righty has allowed three earned runs in his last four starts and has 19 strikeouts with five walks all season.
GARY | The RailCats are riding a six-game winning streak, the longest of the season and the longest since last year's eight ni a row to end June.
The 'Cats hope to close out their second straight series sweep against Sioux Falls with the Sunday matinee.
Sioux Falls Canaries (6-16)
CF Drew Muren
This Friday was the 75th anniversary of the first Little League game ever played. To put that in greater perspective, that's only 38 years removed from the last Cubs World Series title.
As for making it to the Little League World Series, the region has made its share of forays to Williamsport, Pa.
In 1997, Dyer Little League advanced to the LLWS. So did Edison (Hammond) in 1972, as well as Anderson (Gary) Little League the year before.
Anderson's appearance was a historic one. The team was the LLWS's first "All-Negro Team" as proclaimed in the newspapers at the time. Anderson advanced as far as the championship game where it lost to Taiwan, 12-3, in a final more closer than the score indicates -- it remains the only LLWS championship game to go nine innings.
During the series, Anderson star Lloyd McClendon earned the moniker "Legendary Lloyd" long before he became a major league player and manager when he hit five-straight home runs in five-straight at-bats -- actually, it was five-straight swings of the bat.
GARY | The RailCats return home having won four games in a row and five of their last seven. The winning streak is the longest of the season for the 'Cats.
The RailCats played the Canaries on their season-opening road trip, winning both teams in Sioux Falls.
Against the Siouxs this season (Falls and City -- also the next two home opponents) the RailCats are undefeated.
Thanks to the four-game winning streak, the RailCats lead the Central Division by 2 1/2 games over the Kansas City T-Bones and -- at 12-8 -- are two games back of overall American Association leader Wichita (15-7).
"I thought of all the games, (Thursday) was certainly the most impressive win, just because of withstanding the little challenge that a club is going to make at you in a game you could have easily lost," manager Greg Tagert said before Friday's game. "We left the bases loaded a couple times, we hadn't made an error all season, we made three in that game, a couple breaks finally fell Sioux City's way and you're thinking in the dugout, 'we'll take 3-1 on this road trip.' But we pulled it out with a pretty gutty effort, and that was something I was pretty impressed with the club about."
People have asked what is it like for us at The Times and nwi.com when a team goes to state.
Sure, there is coverage and stories leading up to the climax of that particular prep season, but there is one thing that the student-athletes enjoy a lot.
That is the "ball cards" page that we publish whenever a team sport makes it to state. In Indiana, it is to the state championship. In Illinois, it is to the state semifinals.
No, we don't put bubble gum in them, but we put a lot of effort into making sure they look good. It gives the players a chance to fill out a simple questionnaire and to have some fun. They've earned it.
A lot of times a player will ask one of us, "If we get to state, we get the ball cards right?"
Class 4A Chesterton Sectional championship: Hobart 3, Portage 2
Portage put the tying run 90 feet away in the seventh inning of Monday's championship, at which point Hobart coach Bob Glover, Jr. reminded his team of something important.
"I was hollering, 'They've still got to score,'" Glover said after the 3-2 win. "It was like they had all the momentum, but (pitcher) Brandon (Murray) is so hard to hit. It's a situation where all they need is contact, but I've watched him miss so many bats, strike out so many guys over the years, there's nobody else in the state I'd want on the mound."
Murray responded with two strikeouts, both on curve balls, to end the game. He had 10 for the game.
"We know those guys can hit," Glover said. "We knew it wouldn't be easy. They got some good swings on some fastballs. He knew this wasn't going to be a game where he could just muscle up and blow it by them. They're too good for that. He really needed to throw his curve ball for strikes."
HAMMOND | He provokes greater ovations from Chicago Blackhawk fans than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane combined.
Sometimes they're so resounding, it's a challenge for him to project through them.
"Twenty-two thousand fans can be a lot to overcome," Jim Cornelison said, "but they can always turn up the dial on the volume for me if they have to."
The former Lyric Opera tenor has been performing the Star-Spangled Banner and O Canada national anthems at Blackhawks home games full-time since 2008. He apparently is such a hit with the fans as -- what has become a tradition at the start of Hawks game -- the applause usually reaches its crescendo shortly after "O say can I see ..."
To clear his throat for Game 7 of the NHL Western Conference finals later that night, Cornelison performed the national anthem during the opening ceremonies for Leon's Triathlon Sunday morning at Wolf Lake Park.
Portage is playing in its fifth sectional final in a row Monday at Chesterton. The Indians broke through and won the title last season at LaPorte and Hobart coach Bob Glover Jr. compares his current Brickies to the 2013 team.
"They're a program that knows how to win this time of year," Glover said. "They were on the cusp, knocking on the door a lot of years and finally broke through last year, which is kind of where we are. We're looking to take that next step. Obviously, I feel pretty good about where we're at, but we're going to have come out and keep playing well. They're the team to beat until somebody beats them."
Portage is on a roll at the right time, having won 10 of its last 11 games.
"We're not beating ourselves and we're taking advantage of situations," coach Tim Pirowski said.
GARY | The RailCats have hung the buntings and massaged the field prepping for today's opener against Wichita.
Coming in with a 3-3 record, the 'Cats face the Wingnuts which old a 5-2 record.
Festivities for opening day include a ring presentation to celebrate the 2013 American Association Championship, a national anthem sung by Blackhawks anthem singer Jim Cornelison, and eventually a baseball game.
The stadium includes the addition of a new digital, LED scoreboard which was only recently installed. Among the benefits of the new board is immediate video-audio recognition and a better picture. The 'Cats front office staff is eager to sell more commercials on the board and translate that into dollars.
To incorporate the full pregame festivities, the game time has been pushed to 7:30 instead of 7:10.
Covering a coaching change may just about be the most maddening type of story in all of sports journalism.
Every person involved is operating to keep the curtain down so the general public doesn't see the messy workings that are going on behind the scenes. The best example of this comes during a high-level college football hire when the President or Athletic Director proudly boasts that State U. has landed their top (and only) candidate. Lies.
Sure, they might have landed the one guy they (President/AD) offered the job to, but that's to say nothing of the countless candidates who were courted by a corporate search firm.
What makes covering this type of story so maddening is that everyone has an opinion, but no one wants to attach their name to anything. Much like I wrote in 2012 following Bryce Drew's dance with Mississippi State, covering a coaching move is much like trying to grab hold of a shadow in the night.
Bryce Drew is going to be continuously linked to coaching vacancies. It's the price Valparaiso pays for having a young successful coach with a marketable narrative. Drew has heard from numerous programs in the last three years and those calls didn't stop just because the Crusaders failed to win the Horizon League this season.
Given Monday night's Tulsa World report that Bryce Drew has potentially ascended up Tulsa's wishlist, the Valparaiso faithful should be preparing themselves for the inevitable that Drew will no longer be pacing the sidelines at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
I'm not saying that Drew is going to end up with the Golden Hurricane by the end of the week -- my gut says he remains at Valparaiso for the time being -- but it appears that Drew will continue to do his due diligence until the right job comes along.
Could Tulsa be that job?
The initial reaction among many Valparaiso fans/alums/administrators I've spoken with over the last five days is that Tulsa is nothing more than a lateral move. The common sentiment is that Tulsa is a Conference USA program that may have a bit more money but doesn't have the family connection that Valparaiso (and presumably Bryce Drew) values so highly.
People with that line of thinking should be prepared for a rude awakening. Tulsa is a stronger program both in current and historical context.
One thing became vividly clear after a crazy Wednesday -- a guarantee that Milwaukee won't be knocking Bryce Drew out of the Horizon League tournament again next season.
Two news items -- one bombshell and one intriguing -- emerged within an hour of each other on Wednesday afternoon. First came word that Milwaukee, the defending Horizon League champion, is banned from postseason contention in the 2014-15 season because of a low Academic Performance Rate (APR) score. This is the same ban that Connecticut was hit with last season and it means the Panthers are ineligible for the NCAA tournament as well as the Horizon League tournament.
Wednesday's decision came from the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance. Milwaukee was made aware of the possible ban at an undisclosed earlier time period and filed an appeal. That appeal was unsuccessful on Wednesday, resulting in the one-year ban.
The second bit of news to come out of Wednesday could either be nothing or everything as far as Valparaiso is concerned. Bryce Drew has apparently emerged as a candidate for the Tulsa head coaching position according to various sources, including a report from the Tulsa World. This is the same position that Drew was linked to in 2012 before Danny Manning took over the program. Manning was hired by Wake Forest last week.
Word of Drew's candidacy started to roll in on Wednesday morning from an unconfirmed news tip to The Northwest Indiana Times. The rumor then picked up a little bit of steam when the Tulsa World linked Drew to the opening. This is second time in as many weeks that Drew has been linked to the position. The third-year coach was mentioned as a possible candidate last Friday by Tulsa's KOTV.
You should read the release first and then the explanation later. Here's the release that came from the Frontier League on March 31, announcing a "groundbreaking" rule change. (Hint, read carefully)
SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — The Frontier League of Professional Baseball announced today an industry leading rules change designed to speed the pace of baseball games and add to the excitement enjoyed by fans.
“We are Happy to announce the approval of this innovative decision by a 4/1 vote of our rules committee,” said League Commissioner Bill Lee. “While all of the owners in the league still need to confirm this amendment at the annual meeting in April, we’re confident we have the votes to take a leading role in putting Frontier League fans first in professional baseball.”
Beginning with the 2014 season, each turn at-bat will begin with a 1-1 count already in place. The proposed rule change is intended to speed the pace of play and deliver more excitement for fans. “Fans don’t want to watch hitters take pitches, they want to see the ball in play and action on the field,” declared Kyle Kreger, General Manager of the Normal CornBelters and a member of the rules committee. “Red Sox/Yankees games have become notorious for being four hour marathons, that’s simply too long to be of interest and enjoyable to the average fan.”
Not everyone is sold yet however, Jamie Bennett, manager of the defending champion Schaumburg Boomers and the manager’s representative on the rules committee is in the minority opposing the rule. “As a former pitcher, I know first-hand the need for a pitcher to be able to manipulate a pitch sequence to Fool a batter with an out pitch,” Bennett explained.
Valparaiso's season came to an end on Tuesday night in what seemed to be a cruel repeat of similar games from earlier in the year. Columbia delivered the third buzzer-beating defeat of the season at the Athletics-Recreation Center. Throw in a triple overtime loss at home to NCAA tourney participant Mercer and the Crusaders certainly came up short at key times this season.
Now it's time to take a step back and assess where the program goes from here. I'll do this over the next several weeks, but I wanted to provide my initial thoughts with the sting of Tuesday's loss still fresh in the minds of the Valparaiso faithful.
As the 2013-14 body of work was still warm, the vultures hit the Valparaiso message board on Tuesday night spewing venom with their fangs exposed. Posters criticized Valparaiso's final five games (warranted) and expressed doubts that this collection of underclassmen would be able to accomplish anything for the next two years (highly unwarranted).
This group of Crusaders, and I'm talking about the entire roster, was always a story of two groups. One on hand there were four transplanted seniors that entered the season with a combined seven starts in a Valparaiso uniform. Dority, Gueye, Capobianco and Coleman were certainly key to this season, but don't kid yourself, this year was always about establishing and providing a proving ground for the freshmen. Bryce Drew made it clear from the start of the year (freshmen played 78 of 200 minutes against Murray State) that he was going with the youth in key situations. We would've seen this a lot more had Clay Yeo not battled a litany of injuries throughout the year.
Drew baptized his youngsters by fire throughout the season, often throwing four of them on the floor in games when the outcome had already been decided. There is no shortcut to experience and Drew got his freshmen as much experience as possible this season. It's one of the big reasons why Valpo ponied up the money to host a postseason game. I'm sure there is plenty of grumbling about that sort of financial investment, especially after the Iona debacle in 2011, but the point of successful return was never about this season. Sure, a CIT title run would've been nice, but playing in this game, and to a greater extent, playing the freshmen big minutes throughout the year, was always about laying the foundation for the 2014-15 season.
The images of Valparaiso's last trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament are still hard to shake three years later. Whether it was Brandon Wood going through the motions in one of his lowest scoring games in a Valparaiso uniform or director of athletics Mark LaBarbera sitting high above the court with his head in his hands, the Crusaders never looked interested in hosting Iona in 2011. That says nothing of the widely-circulated rumors that members of the team were at a dance club the night before the game.
So just what will be different this time around when Valparaiso hosts Columbia on Tuesday night in the first round of the 2014 CIT?
"I think there was a lot more emotion at the end of that season," Drew said of the 2011 campaign. "In essence we were one layup away from a conference title. We got to the semis of the conference tournament and there was just a big let down. We could've won the league. We haven't quite had that emotion this year."
Drew's point is well taken and it's not as if he was saying that his current team played without feeling in the Horizon League tournament this year. The 2011 Crusaders were a veteran group with Cory Johnson, Howard Little and Michael Rogers. Throw in Wood and the Crusaders had designs on a conference title. Had Rogers hit a layup against Milwaukee, Valparaiso would've won the regular season and locked up at least a NIT bid. The Crusaders had added chances to win the title at Green Bay (Little took a bad charge and traveled on a rebound) and at home against Loyola (arguably the worst home loss in recent memory). By the time the team got to Selection Sunday and failed to lock up a NIT bid, the CIT was a distant consolation prize that few on the team took seriously. Wood had mentally checked out already, Johnson/Little/Rogers struggled to move beyond a missed NCAA tournament opportunity and Ryan Broekhoff battled a brutal virus.
Fast forward to this season and Drew is making it perfectly clear that his objective in the CIT is to get a head start on the 2014-15 season. Bobby Capobianco (back/knee) and Jordan Coleman (academics) will be held out of the tournament and Drew will be using the practice time to work with his younger players. Lavonte Dority doesn't know much about the 2011 CIT team, but when told about how that year ended on Wednesday night, Dority simply responded by saying "We want to win this thing...we want to go out the right way." Dority spoke about how playing in the CIT was another opportunity to take the court and how that shouldn't be taken for granted, regardless if the tournament wasn't originally among Valparaiso's goals for the season.
The fans had long left a darkened Resch Center when Clay Yeo walked back into the arena following Valparaiso's 74-57 loss to Milwaukee on Friday night.
The freshman paced around the empty floor, seemingly looking for answers in a room that provided a series of unthinkable questions an hour earlier.
Did the Crusaders really get outrebounded 41-19? Zero offensive rebounds? Just what provoked Keith Carter to take a swing at Matt Tiby and get ejected? Was that the quickest timeout in Bryce Drew's three years as coach?
As Yeo looked around and found nothing but a cleaning crew beginning to ready the arena for Saturday's semifinals, Alec Peters slowly made his way to the court. With the rest of their teammates already on the bus, a pair of roommates that represent a bright future at Valparaiso spent the last moments they could drinking up the past.
"This feeling is something, for the next three years that I'm here, that I never want to experience again," Peters said in the postgame press conference.
March Madness is officially upon us as the Horizon League Championship begins on Tuesday evening with a trio of games at campus sites. I figured I'd sit down and predict my thoughts on how the tournament would play out, but first I looked back on my preseason predictions.
I nailed 80 percent of the Horizon League First Team and completely whiffed on the Second Team. I'm guessing I spelled Lavonte Dority's name wrong when I typed Keith Carter into my ballot.
I had the top three teams correct in the preseason ballot, though I did switch the order of Cleveland State and Wright State. I wanted to vote the Vikings No. 1 overall, but I flinched at the last second. I was way off on Youngstown State and Milwaukee. I had the Penguins at fourth overall and the Panthers in the basement. I was close enough on Valparaiso, Detroit and UIC.
What I learned from looking back at my preseason predictions is that I don't know any more about this league than you do. That said, follow along for my guide through the Horizon League tournament. While I'm confident in who will advance, I can't say everything that follows will actually happen.
Tuesday, Mar. 4
Just when everything looked like it was going Valparaiso's way last weekend, A.J. Pacher had to throw a wrench into the mix.
Pacher's game-winner with 1.6 seconds left gave Wright State a much-needed road win at Oakland and put the Raiders within striking distance of the Crusaders for third place in the Horizon League.
Had Oakland held on, the Crusaders would've had essentially a three-game lead over the rest of the conference with four games to play. Wright State has just three games remaining including home contests with Detroit and Valparaiso as well as a road contest against UIC in the regular-season finale.
With the Raiders having beaten Valparaiso earlier this year at the Athletics-Recreation Center, Wright State currently holds the tiebreaker over the Crusaders. The tiebreaker won't likely come into play if Valparaiso beats Wright State in Dayton next Tuesday, but could certainly be a major factor in the final standings if the Crusaders fall on the road.
The difference between third and fourth place is huge in the Horizon League as the third place team receives a first-round bye and is on the opposite side of first place (currently Green Bay) and wouldn't have a true road game until the championship game (if at all). Fourth place will match up against UIC on Tuesday Mar. 4 and will have to win on Friday against the 5/8 winner in order to get a road game against the well-rested No. 1 seed in Saturday's semifinals. If the No. 4 seed wins, they'll likely have to travel for another road contest in the championship game in what would be there fourth game in seven days.
There comes a moment in every poker tournament when you're put to a decision for all of your chips and you need to figure out just what your objective is. Maybe you're nearing the money bubble and you don't necessarily want to put all your chips at risk knowing you can fold your way to a small pay day. Maybe you think if you call the bet and win the hand, you're chances of winning the tournament improve exponentially, but then again, you could lose the hand and get knocked out. Do you want to simply cash or are you playing to win the whole thing?
Welcome to the situation that the Valparaiso men's basketball team is facing in advance of Saturday's much-anticipated Horizon League tilt between Green Bay and Cleveland State.
If you're the kind of person that is gunning for the win, then you're undoubtedly cheering for Cleveland State on Saturday. The math is really quite simple: if Cleveland State wins against the Phoenix, then all Valparaiso needs to do is win out and they'll be hosting the Horizon League tournament. Now before you think this is an easy task, remember, this is five games Valparaiso must win and they include the four toughest teams in the league (with two of them on the road) as well as the best player in the league (Kendrick Perry). If you really think Valparaiso can go 5-0 down the stretch, then by all means, cheer for the Vikings.
If you're the kind of person that is content with a minimum pay day, then you want Green Bay to win on Saturday. A Phoenix victory will almost guarantee the Horizon League title for Green Bay. Brian Wardle's squad would have a two-game lead with three games to play. yes, two of those games are road contests at Detroit and Oakland, but it's not as if those programs are setting the world on fire this season. Looking at the other side, a Cleveland State loss would (for at least an hour or two) put the Vikings on even ground with Valparaiso at four conference losses. Depending on Saturday night's result with Milwaukee, the Crusaders could find themselves just a half-game out of second place with four games remaining, including the regular-season finale against Cleveland State at the Athletics-Recreation Center on Mar. 1.
Right now there are plenty more questions than answers, but this much is true: if the Crusaders want to win the Horizon League, they'll need a Wisconsin sweep over the next week. If Valparaiso wants a bye in the conference tournament, it will need at least a Wisconsin split. Losing both games would drop the Crusaders back to the pack and then we'll do this dance all over again next Thursday night.
The dust has settled on an incredible weekend of games in the Horizon League and with three days off until the next contest, it's time to take some inventory of what we learned.
Whether it was the 3-point display in Oakland on Thursday night, a pair of near buzzer-beaters in Valparaiso on Friday/Sunday or Milwaukee's dismantling of Green Bay at the Resch Center on Saturday, the Horizon League provided plenty of fireworks in a week that was integral to tournament seeding.
Cleveland State made the biggest splash over the last four days with road victories at Oakland and Wright State, two places where Valparaiso has lost. Charlie Lee was sensational this week and single-handedly kept the Vikings in the game at Wright State by scoring 17 of Cleveland State's 21 points late in the game.
The Vikings could've easily lost both games, but instead are now the team everyone is looking up at in the Horizon League, even though they're still in second place. The schedulers in the league office didn't do Green Bay any favors this season, giving the Phoenix four road games in their last five contests. The lone remaining home game is a Feb. 20 tilt against Valparaiso.
The game of the year will be played this Saturday when Green Bay travels to Cleveland State. If Green Bay wins the game, the Horizon League tournament will almost assuredly be in Wisconsin. If Cleveland State wins the game, that can make matters a bit more complicated depending on what Valparaiso can do in the final five games of the season. With games against both Green Bay and Cleveland State remaining on the schedule, it's far too early to count the Crusaders out of the title mix.
If the last week was any indication, we're in for a wild final month of the Horizon League regular season. With most teams still having six or seven conference games left, it's likely far too early to start examining how the final standings could shake out. That doesn't mean I'm not going to try.
The biggest number to look at right now is the loss column. Green Bay currently has one loss while Valparaiso and Cleveland State have three losses. All three teams still need to match up with one another in the second half of conference play. During the first half each of the three teams split with one another. Green Bay beat Cleveland State. Valparaiso beat Green Bay. Cleveland State beat Valparaiso. This actually makes a pretty easy breakdown of the final month of the season as far as these three teams are concerned in the battle for the top seed and the right to host the Horizon League tournament.
Green Bay needs to lose at least two games in order for Valparaiso or Cleveland State to have a shot at winning the regular season title. At least one of those losses would need to come at Cleveland State (Feb. 15) or against Valparaiso (Feb. 20). I'm not going to even try to get into the various tie-breaking scenarios right now, but currently Valparaiso holds the trump card with the singular win over Green Bay. Of course that means the Crusaders would need to beat Cleveland State in the regular-season finale. Valparaiso won't win any ties over the Vikings if CSU wins at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
So back to the loss column. The average number of losses for the regular-season champion over the last seven nine-member seasons (2001-07, 2012-13) in the Horizon League is three. Just twice has the regular-season champion had four losses (05-06, 01-02) during that time. That fact alone essentially eliminates every other team from winning the league this season, which means the battle for second place is where the real fireworks begin.
The average finish for second place over that same window is 4.2 losses. With second place comes the double bye. Youngstown State (currently 4-4) looks to be in play for the No. 2 seed along with Valparaiso and Cleveland State. With five losses, Oakland, Wright State and Milwaukee look to be on the outside looking in, but in 2004-05, Green Bay did have six losses and finish in second place.
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Al Hamnik has been a reporter and columnist in Northwest Indiana for 42 years and is a member of the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame, as well as a winner of the Indiana sportswriter of the year award, an IHSAA media award winner, a Corky Lamm Award winner and a three-time HSPA winner.
Steve Hanlon was the Prep Beat writer for The Times from 1995 through 2000 before he went to work at the Indianapolis Star. Upon returning to The Times in 2004, he covered Valparaiso University for one season before he took back the Prep Beat beat in 2005.
Jim Hunsley covers a menagerie of sports as a reporter in the Times.
Paul Oren is a beat reporter for Valparaiso University as well as various high school sports throughout the Region. He has covered NCAA tournaments in basketball, soccer, tennis and volleyball, along with numerous IHSAA state championship events.
Jim Peters graduated from Andrean (Class of 1981) and Purdue (1985), where he met and worked with current Porter County Assistant Sports Editor Greg Smith. He spent the first 10 or so years of his professional career at a chain of Northwest Indiana weeklies that covered Merrillville, Andrean, Hobart, Portage, Lake Station and River Forest before catching on at the Times in the summer of 1998. Jim covers high school sports in Porter County.
Hillary Smith has covered prep, pro and college sports -- and even a Dixie Baseball World Series -- for newspapers north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line since 1995.
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