Saturday, January 21, 2017

Pigskin Picks: NFL Conference Championships

Sunday, Jan. 22
NFC Championship – 2:05 p.m. (CT)

Pack 30, FALCONS 27 – If last week’s game in Dallas wasn’t exciting enough, this one should be. Atlanta showed its well-deserved to be the NFC’s No. 2 seed, as it gave Seattle no chance at all in defeating the Seahawks 36-20 last weekend. After giving its home fans plenty to cheer for in the Seattle win, the Falcons now welcome Green Bay to its Georgia Dome home. Once again, the Atlanta faithful should have plenty to cheer for in tomorrow's matchup. However, while the "Dirty Birds" have a strong artillery on offense, its defense just doesn’t stack up well against the Packers. Jordy (Nelson) or no Jordy, Aaron Rodgers yet again finds a way to play inspired football and galvanize his team. After defeating the No. 1 seed Cowboys 34-31 in Dallas last week, the Packers find themselves in another hotly contested game on the road… and as the final tick of the game clock expires, Green Bay emerges victoriously and advances to Super Bowl LI.

AFC Championship – 5:40 p.m. (CT)

Steel 24, PATS 20 – Two for two on Championship Sunday for the road teams... Why not? In the bigger upset of the two games this weekend, the mighty Patriots fall at home to Pittsburgh. Head coach Mike Tomlin has prepared for this moment, this challenge – defeating Bill Belichek, Tom Brady and the Patriots on their home turf in New England. The Steelers use the same recipe for success as it did last week – deploying a steady dose of its star-studded trio on offense, while doing enough on defense to get the job done. Le’Veon Bell has the game of his life tomorrow night, as Pittsburgh takes down the AFC’s top seed.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Minnesota marches into Penn State in mens hoops

The Penn State Nittany Lions have one of the poorest overall records among its Big Ten mens basketball competitors. Led by sixth year head coach Patrick Chambers, the Lions have, however, compiled a 2-2 conference record heading into its home contest today against Minnesota.

Coach Richard Pitino, suffice it to say, could not have been pleased with his Gophers performance Wednesday night. Playing at Michigan State, the Spartans ended Minnesota’s three-game winning streak by delivering the Gophers its biggest loss of the season – a 65-47 defeat (Minnesota’s previous largest loss was 75-67 at Florida State on November 28). Now, the challenge for this team will be to regroup and focus on Penn State.

Minnesota (12-3, 3-2 conference) had few bright spots in its loss Wednesday against the Spartans. But perhaps the loss – particularly the margin of loss – will serve as a wake-up call and inspire the team to dig deep and fight back. It will have its hands full, though. Penn State (10-7, 2-2) features five players who average double figures in scoring and is coming off a win against Michigan State – a team the Gophers have lost to twice.

There’s little doubt the Gophers have had a brighter season than Penn State, overall, but it’s these current conference matchups that count more than ever now.

Minnesota enters today’s contest led by junior point guard Nate Mason (averaging 14.3 points and 5.4 assists per game). Penn State is led in scoring by junior Shep Garner – who averages 12.8 points per game – while freshman Mike Watkins has a team-high 8.4 rebounds per game.

The Gophers and Nittany Lions tip off at 11:00 a.m. (Central Time) at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Early season rematch: Gophers get second shot at Spartans

Of each team’s 18-game conference schedule, tonight’s contest will mark Minnesota and Michigan State’s fifth. Yet even with the Big Ten’s fourteen teams, the matchup in East Lansing will also represent a rematch from two weeks ago.

Following the team’s 75-74 overtime defeat to the Spartans in Minnesota’s conference home opener December 27, the Gophers look to avenge its lone Big Ten loss tonight. Michigan State, meanwhile, has had its share of struggles this season and sees an opportunity to host a team it just defeated not long ago.

Coached by Tom Izzo, Michigan State (11-6, 3-1 conference) has yet to play up to its perennially lofty expectations. Case in point, the Spartans lost a home contest to lesser-known Northeastern earlier this season. Izzo’s squad has since responded with three consecutive wins to open up conference play; but then suffered its first Big Ten defeat in its last game – a 72-63 loss to Penn State on Saturday.

As for Minnesota, third-year head coach Richard Pitino has his squad playing well in the early portion of its Big Ten schedule. The Gophers (15-2, 3-1) loss to the Spartans aside, Minnesota has recovered for three straight wins. This includes a road win over then-No. 15 Purdue, a Boilermakers team which delivered Wisconsin its first defeat in conference play – a 66-65 win on Sunday which ensured that every Big Ten team has incurred a conference loss.

The Gophers and Spartans will tip off at Michigan State’s Breslin Center tonight at 6:00 p.m. (CT)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Mason, Lynch look to guide Gophers past Northwestern

The Minnesota Gophers mens basketball team defeated a 15th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers team on New Year’s Day on the Boilers’ home court. Next up, the Gophers face Northwestern on its home floor tonight in Evanston, Illinois. Following its Big Ten-opening loss at home, Minnesota hopes to rebound with consecutive road wins. But this task most definitely will not be simple…
While the Gophers (13-2, 1-1 conference) have reason to be confident, Northwestern (12-3, 1-1) has plans to win its first Big Ten home contest and improve its season record at Welsh-Ryan Arena to a perfect 10-0. But while the Wildcats hope to enjoy its home court advantage, the team lacks two particular weapons its road foes have: juniors Nate Mason and Reggie Lynch.

Minnesota will rely on freshman Amir Coffey and sophomores Jordan Murphy and Dupree McBrayer in order for its team to enjoy success this season. But the veteran leadership of Mason and impressive front court play from Lynch were on full display at Purdue - and consequently will be counted on tonight as well.

While it’s unlikely Mason can replicate his masterful performance against the Boliermakers – a game in which he scored a career-high 31 points and dished out a team-high 11 assists – the junior guard’s court vision and leadership are virtues his team leans upon.

As for Lynch, the player head coach Rick Pitino has said is the best center in the Big Ten, Minnesota needs his durability under the hoop. The 6-foot-10-inch Illinois State transfer recorded 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks against Purdue. However, Lynch played only 26 minutes before fouling out in overtime.
Mason, Lynch and the Gophers face the Wildcats this evening at 8:00 p.m. (Central Time).

Northwestern is led by junior guard Scottie Lindsey and sophomore forward Vic Law. Lindsey enters tonight’s contest as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, averaging 15.7 points per game. Law, meanwhile, ranks second on his team in both points (13.7 per game) and rebounds (5.9).

Junior guard Bryant McIntosh leads Northwestern in assists – dishing out 5.6 per contest.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Royals edged by Chaska at state

ST. CLOUD — Rochester received a spirited effort by its starting pitcher but a win was not to be had in the team's first appearance at the Minnesota amateur baseball state tournament since 2010.

Despite a complete-game effort from pitcher Josh Conley – following three scoreless innings of relief the night before - the Royals lost 4-3 to Chaska at the Class B tournament Saturday afternoon in St. Cloud.

Royals SP Josh Conley
While the loss drops the team for one night, it is not out. With this season's tournament featuring a new double-elimination format, the Royals' season will continue.

Rochester faces the Class B defending state champion Cold Spring Springers at 5 p.m. Thursday at Cold Spring Baseball Park.

"We've got a great team and we're not out of it by any means," said veteran Royals catcher Dave Rojo. "We're capable of winning multiple games in a row and get back in this thing."

Rojo's belief in his team is valid. After all, it's a Royals team that punched its first trip to state in five years by holding onto an 8-7 win over a gritty Savage Outlaws team Sunday night – a game the Royals led by five runs entering the eighth.

Postgame hope and optimism brimmed for the 39-year-old seasoned veteran Rojo despite disappointing himself and his team minutes earlier. With his team struggling to piece together any semblance of offense, Rojo delivered a clutch hit in the top of the ninth … However, a moment later, a base-running blunder proved costly.

"Rojo had a big hit for us there," said Royals manager/first baseman Drew Block, regarding Rojo's key at-bat. "[But] when we're down two [runs] in the ninth, you got to play a bit smarter. I think if we had to do it again we'd take [runners on] first and third with no out, rather than a runner on third with one out."

Down 4-2 entering the final frame, Rojo's hit followed a leadoff single by Block. However, Rojo was gunned down at second by Chaska leftfielder J.T. Canakes. After the tag, a stunned Rojo proceeded to the dugout to process what transpired.

Royals LF Matt Stubbs (left), Royals 3B John Opdahl 
Prior to Rojo's out, Chaska pitcher Pete Ohnsorg had been firing on all cylinders – surrendering Rochester's lone runs on a two-run double by Royals leftfielder Matt Stubbs in the fifth.

But after coming up empty in his first three at-bats, Rojo found a pitch to his liking and hammered it down the left field line. The hit advanced Block to third, but Rojo then suddenly found himself rifled down at second by Canakes.

"He threw me a sinker inside and he's been throwing it to me all day, but I finally got him," said Rojo regarding his final at-bat against Ohnsorg. "It went through, I rounded first and thought I could get [to second] and then I couldn't … It kind of killed the rally at that point. It's a tough one to take."

With one out, Rochester still had hope. But a Conley ground ball to first and strikeout of Royals second baseman Jordan Martini brought the game to a close.

In a game with no substitutions (offensive, defensive or on the mound), Conley was a bulldog for his team today. After earning the victory with three scoreless innings of relief Friday in the tournament opener against Blaine, the Royals hurler threw a complete eight innings today.

Conley, who began the season as a pitching coach/assistant, has played a vital role in the Royals' run. Besides notching the win over Blaine, the eighth-season Royals veteran tossed his first complete game this season August 20 against Savage – a 3-1 win in the first of a best-of-three section showdown.

Despite the recent run of success, however, Conley was critical of himself after the game.

"I wasn't quite as on as I was [Friday] night," said Conley, relating his performance against Chaska to the previous night against Blaine. "I missed my spots on the inside half [of the plate] and it cost me a few times"

The loss may have set back Conley's Royals for one night, but with the new double-elimination tournament format the Royals live to play another day.

** This story was written as coverage of the Rochester Royals amateur baseball team for the Rochester Post-Bulletin newspaper (published online 8/30/15) ... The photos were contributed by Royals co-manager Kevin Ness.

Opdahl tags out Chaska player at third
Royals 3B John Opdahl
Royals SS Buzz Hannahan

Monday, September 1, 2014

Skis are state champs

Jordan, MINN.

By Jeff Barthel

It took the Sobieski Skis 16 state tournament trips to make it to the title game.

This afternoon at the Mini Met in Jordan, when the Skis were finally able to make it there, they made it count.

Sobieski Skis - 2014 Class C state champions
“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Skis manager Brad Czech said of his team’s 2-0 victory over New Ulm for the Class C amateur baseball state championship. “It’s such as special feeling; for our fans, for our players and for the entire community of Sobieski.”

Czech’s Skis were led all tourney long by ace pitcher Tyler Jendro. Simply put: The 6-1 righthander out of Royalton, Minn. was …

“Unbelievable,” said Skis centerfielder Beau Hanowski.

Jendro shutout the Region 2 champion Brewers (28-8), going the distance for his fourth complete game of the tournament.

It was a miraculous weekend for Jendro, who blew a sigh of relief after retiring New Ulm’s final batter in a game that truly came down to the wire.

After two quick outs to start the ninth, New Ulm’s Judd Davis reached base on an error. The Brewers’ Aaron Pfaff followed with the game’s first extra base hit, a ringing double to the right-center gap.

Sobieski fans could hardly hold their breath, as suddenly New Ulm’s Garret Fischer came to the plate with the tying run, the speedy Pfaff, at second base. But then Jendro, rubber arm and all, kept his composure and was able to get Fischer to swing underneath a ball. Seemingly frozen in time, the ball finally found a home in rightfielder Aaron Hennes’ glove and the game was over.

“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” said manager Czech, describing the moment. “You see that pop fly in the air to the right fielder and everybody steps to the top step of the dugout and [Hennes] squeezes it for the final out and I don’t think I remember what happened [after that].”
SP Tyler Jendro

The Sobieski lifer was delirious, he could not have been happier.

Five years of coaching, following 15 years playing for the Skis, it was obvious the 36-year-old schoolteacher Czech was proud of his pupils; in particular, Jendro, who was phenomenal all weekend – earning four wins in three days.

“Tyler works so hard,” Czech said of his ace pitcher, who earned the win in all six games Sobieski played in the tournament. “After starts, between starts. He does his lifting, his running, his icing … I’ve never seen someone work as hard as he does. He deserves every bit of credit that he gets.”

On Saturday, Jendro tossed a no-hitter against New Market. He followed that up yesterday, finishing a 4-1, 11-inning win over Fergus Falls with three innings in relief. This morning he capped off a rain-delayed semifinals game against Faribault with two and two-thirds scoreless innings … and finally, his championship gem.

“Everything’s been electric,” Skis centerfielder Beau Hanowski said of Jendro - who was named tournament MVP following the game. “The velocity, the movement; [opponents] have been off-balance and behind him all tournament.”

If you’re keeping score, all-tournament includes this past weekend (described above) plus another 18 innings from complete-game efforts the previous two weekends.

Jendro had a lot of tremendous performances, but none more special than today's title game - being the state championship and climatic end to his weekend.

Jendro labored today. He labored and escaped trouble time and time again, keeping New Ulm scoreless on seven hits. And he never had much padding to work with either – as Skis bats managed just six base hits for the game, all singles.

Through the first four innings, the stadium atmosphere was tense. With an announced crowd of 562, avid spectators on both sides were often caught silent – sitting and staring with eyes agape in hope of some offense.

In the fourth inning, Sobieski broke through with the game’s first run, a sacrifice fly by designated hitter Andrew Gurbada. The Skis then followed it up with a run in the fifth on an RBI single by Joey Hanowski.

That would be it, however, as the rest of Sobieski’s hopes were piled onto Jenro’s shoulders.

At times, it seemed Czech might take his tired ace out – times like the seventh inning, when a wild pitch allowed New Ulm’s Matt Suess to reach second with one out. But Jendro fought and persevered throughout any pain his overused right arm held.
Skis and Brewers shake hands

Mentally and physically exhausted, the final out was the toughest of all. One batter after allowing the game’s hardest hit ball – the two-out double in the ninth by Pfaff – Jendro recorded the final out and passed his last test.

“I just told [manager Czech] that I’ll go as many innings as you need me to,” Jendro said, regarding his extensive effort today and throughout his all-time tournament record 41.2 innings pitched. “I’ll ice [my arm] I’ll stretch it as much as possible to get it ready, and in any situation I’m going in [thinking] 'let’s go' for each and every win we have a chance at.”

Players from both sides exchanged hands following the game. The all-tournament team was announced and awards were issued. The Skis then took its victory walk, toward the scoreboard in right with several Skis fans and family members in its wake.

It was quite a day for Sobieski, quite a tournament played in Jordan and Belle Plaine. And at day's end, for the small town’s population of 200, for its fans and for its players, the 130-mile trek from home was certainly worth their while.

New Ulm shocks Jordan, advances to Class C championship

Jordan, MINN.

By Jeff Barthel

It was a battle of Brewers  last night at Jordan’s Mini Met ballpark.

The Jordan Brewers led the game through eight-ninths of the way. But it was an incredible five-run ninth by the New Ulm Brewers that sealed a 5-3 victory and advanced its team to the Class B amateur baseball state championship game this afternoon in Jordan.

““Unbelievable, it was the most hyped I’ve seen our team,” New Ulm starting pitcher Wade French said. “To come back in that game tonight, you know you can do it, but when it actually happens it’s just a great feeling.”
New Ulm SS Judd Davis

French was a big part of the ninth-inning rally and an even bigger part on the mound.

Following a two-run homer by Jordan’s Scott Hollingsworth, French found his groove. The right-hander threw eight strong innings, allowed three runs (two earned) and was rewarded with a well-earned win in the end.

New Ulm veteran and French’s catcher, Brady Ranweiler, described his battery mate’s effort.

“In the first inning he made a couple mistakes, he left some balls up and [Jordan] capitalized on them,” Ranweiler said. “But when he settled in, he was throwing his curveball, slider and change-up for strikes. His fastball wasn’t missing either. And when you can get four [pitches] over for strikes, he’s tough to hit.”

Jordan bats concurred, as their Brewers struck out nine times against French.

Inning after inning, French continued to hold Jordan at bay while his team’s offense could not scratch out a single run. And when New Ulm finally made it’s run, it was French who keyed the big rally with a booming double.

“I was just trying to get on base … I got a nice pitch and put a good swing on it,” French said. “When we got the bases loaded and nobody out, I knew we could do it.”

New Ulm 2B Landon Rewitzer
New Ulm’s Jason Shaul began the Brewers ninth inning rally, deadening a beautiful bunt toward third. Then came French, who pounded a line drive to left that got past Jordan outfielder Mitch Ries. The double put runners at second and third, lit up the New Ulm contingent and suddenly shifted the pressure onto Jordan and its pitcher Joe Lucas.

Lucas was removed after French’s hit in favor of Hollingsworth, who came in from right field. Hollingsworth couldn’t answer the bell, however, as he plunked New Ulm’s Landon Rewitzer to load up the bases with nobody out.

Then the runs poured in.

Shortstop Judd Davis sliced a single up the middle to score a run. Then, following a groundout to the pitcher that prevented the tying run, Brewers rightfielder Garret Fischer came up with a line drive singled to left. Drew Pfaff scored easily on the play, while Davis sped around third and slid into home with the go-ahead run.

“I give a lot of credit to Garrett Fischer,” manager Al Flor said after the game. “He came in [to the dugout] before the ninth inning and he said ‘whatever we do, however we go to the plate, we always want to get to the next guy.’”
New Ulm RF Garret Fischer

Fischer’s message caught on with his team and he was able to capitalize on it himself with his clutch hit.

New Ulm plated one more run to make the score 5-3, before Mitch Kelly came in for the bottom of the ninth to put a bow on his team’s victory and earn the save.

It was a team effort, but the star of the game had to be French. Flor said he felt cautious about French prior to game time because he hadn’t pitched in a long time.

It’s been Kelly, who’s been the team’s ace all season, but it was a hidden gem French who was polished off to play the lead role in last night’s game.

“We were a little worried because [French] hasn’t thrown in about a month,” Flor said. “But his slider, when it’s on, it’s one of the best …  Mitch Kelly been our No. 1 all year, but you could say French was our ace in the hole today.”

New Ulm’s victory means it will advance to its first state championship game since 1980, when the team defeated Dundas for the Class B title.

The Brewers will vie for the championship against the winner of the Sobieski/Faribault game, which was postponed in the third inning last night due to rain. The game will be continued at 11 a.m. today at Jordan with the championship game beginning shortly after.

Ranweiler and Flor have the belief in this team and feel the time is now.

“This is the best team I’ve ever been around,” Flor said. “Gelling-wise, we’ve got a good crew of kids, good veteran presences and the pitching has showed up well.”

“I’ve been involved with New Ulm baseball for 20 years and right now we’re playing the best baseball I’ve ever been a part of,” said Ranweiler, the team’s elder statesman – at 37 years of age.

“I’ve just got the feeling that the momentum we have this year … that we’re going to figure out a way to win.”

* Photos for this story were contributed by Chandrasekar Umathurappan. Thanks, Uma!