Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Vault to redemption

Issue date: 4/22/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

The sound exploded throughout the indoor track - the kind of unusually loud, 'something just happened' sound that can capture an entire crowd's attention at any given moment.

It was Jan. 11, 2008, at the Chippewa Open. Athletes and spectators alike stopped what they were doing, turned toward the center of the track and wondered what just took place.

What was it? Where was it? Who was it?

Folded up in the vault box, underneath an unchallenged cross bar and out of nearly everyone's sight was pole vaulter Ashley Esparza. She was not hurt because she just smacked her head on the box, nor upset because she did not come anywhere close to the bar in her first collegiate attempt - but angry.

The once overanxious and hyped-up freshman's season ended prematurely, only one jump into her first season.

"I was pissed off," she said. "I still don't really know what happened."

Esparza then explained the injury in "pole vaulting language." She planted the pole, got into the air and rocked back, ready to go over the bar. Suddenly, she was upside-down and realized she was not anywhere close to the bar. She tried to bail out of the jump; she flipped and twisted and turned all the while trying to land onto the mat.

She missed her mark, landing on an angled part of the mat, which was just enough for her to bounce off and hit her head on a metal box.

"So I guess," she joked, "pole vault is a fun sport in the fact that you can hurt yourself pretty easily."

The scene

As she laid there, trainers, coaches and teammates huddled around. Her parents, Mike and Suzanne, came down from the stands, and they were followed by the arrival of a back board, neck brace and ambulance, ultimately sending her for a short stay in the hospital.

"I wanted to hurt somebody at the time because it was really stupid," she said. "I remember thinking, 'Why is everyone overreacting?' I didn't think it was that bad, then I saw the ambulance and thought, 'Oh, great, I broke my neck.'"

"It barely hurt at all, I swear," she continued, laughing. "It felt like maybe I stretched my back out really far when I had folded in half ... maybe I pulled a muscle or something, but it didn't really feel like I did anything."

Head coach Karen Lutzke had a differing opinion.

"It was scary," she said. "Regardless of who the athlete is, the hope is they're OK and can keep doing what they love to do."

At the hospital, X-rays came up negative, but Esparza then learned of her season's fate after a CT scan revealed a fractured vertebra.

Her dad, Mike Esparza, tried to put a positive spin on the situation and had a box of tissues thrown at him as a 'thank you.'

"She was frustrated to say the least," he said. "That was the hardest part as a parent, not being able to do anything about it."

Mother Suzanne Esparza, a nurse, said of the injury: "She could have been paralyzed if she would have landed more pressure on her neck or cervical spine."

Back to the runway

Esparza was off the track for the rest of the year, but was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA.

This March, Esparza stood on the runway at the Mid-American Conference Championship, the same nerves wreaking chaos in her body that she felt just a year earlier.

"I just had to tell myself to relax," she said. "It wasn't like getting pumped up, it was like 'OK, I've done this for six years now, just breathe.'"

Moments later, she found herself in the vault box again, this time on her feet, without making a sound and unnoticed to everyone around.

"I did something weird and landed in there again," she said. "It was almost the same thing that happened last year."

Not fazed, she walked back to her start position, refocused and ran back at it, this time clearing high over the box that had once proved to be an obstacle.

"People don't understand that pole vault is as much mental as it is physical," Lutzke says. "But she kept pushing, she doesn't give up and she's come a long way."

A gymnast for 10 years before taking up track, Esparza is used to throwing her body around and tapped into her gymnastics roots post-injury for help.

"Now, I visualize things again, which is what I always did in gymnastics," she said. "I have a specific mental routine that I go through before each vault."

Ashley finally realized her dad may have been on to something that night in the hospital.

"If I have a bad day vaulting now," she said. "I think to myself 'Well, you're still vaulting and that's a lot better than not vaulting, so you might as well make the day worth it.'"

Today, Mike still puts a positive spin on Ashley's injury, this time without the risk of being hit with a box of tissues.

"You have to go through some adversity," he said. "I think it was probably good for her. It makes you re-evaluate how much you want to do something."

Monday, April 20, 2009

Radcliff, Rifenbury battle for backup quarterback gig

Issue date: 4/20/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Whenever redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Radcliff was not on the field navigating the offense, he could be found by starting quarterback Dan LeFevour, taking in whatever he could.

Radcliff and sophomore Derek Rifenbury ended the spring portion of their competition for the backup job by taking turns leading the offense up and down the field. Head coach Butch Jones liked what he saw from the sidelines during the position battle.

"I saw some good things and I thought for the most part they did a decent job taking control of the offense and letting the team know who is in charge," he said, noting he would have to look at the film to make an absolute assessment of the two.

The duo took the reins from LeFevour after the first drive and tied the defense 29-29 at the end of regulation.

Radcliff went 13-for-19 for 149 yards and Rifenbury went 7-for-10 for 42 yards. Both quarterbacks took plays from Jones, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and even young kids in the stands.

Early in the first quarter, Radcliff connected with junior wide receiver Sean Skergan downfield for the biggest gain of the game. The pass split the seam between the two safeties and Skergan broke a couple tackles to get in the red zone.

Radcliff said it was good to take snaps in an atmosphere different from a practice setting.

"It was finally nice to get out on the field, in live game situations, in front of fans and compete," he said. "I felt good and it was a great experience."

The play was called in from the stands, where Jones was moving around throughout the first quarter.

"It felt great to get on the field," Rifenbury said. "All the spring practice and sitting behind (LeFevour) for two years, it was great to get out there and play."

Admittedly, Rifenbury wanted to throw some touchdown passes, but he said he executed the offense well and did his job.

LeFevour, once a nervous freshmen playing in the spring game himself, thought both quarterbacks carried themselves well.

"Honestly, they did a great job," he said. "They threw the ball around well and once they got hit for the first time they settled in well and guided the offense."

After the game was over, both Radcliff and Rifenbury competed in a one-on-one drill, with Rifenbury winning.

Rifenbury said Radcliff had his number earlier in the spring.

"That was great," he said. "It was nice to be able to get him back."

Men's track team excels in California, Ypsilanti

Issue date: 4/20/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

The men's track and field team welcomed the warm temperatures in California and this weekend's mid-70 degree weather in Michigan.

While a small group of athletes competed in California, the majority of the team competed in Ypsilanti.

Across the country at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays, considered one of the premier events in men's track and field, CMU took home two victories and set three season-best marks.

"They went out there and did a great job," head coach Jim Knapp said. "It was impressive."

Junior Greg Pilling continued his torrid run in the discus, winning the event with a distance of 183 feet, three inches, while junior pole vaulters Marcus Breidinger and Mike McGregor followed suit with first and seventh place finishes, respectively.

Pilling said he struggled with his technique early in the season, but after a warm-up round on Thursday, it started to click.

"I'm excited to see everything coming together," Pilling said. "I'm finally starting to see some results and it's good to get that monkey off my back."

Both pole vaulters set season highs, Breidinger with a winning height of 16'6 ¾" and McGregor with 15'7".

"This weekend they put some better vaults together," said assistant coach Troy Irvine, who was accompanying the group to the west coast.

"The weather was great for a change and everything meshed together."

The rest of the team competed against Eastern Michigan and University of Detroit-Mercy at the EMU Twilight Invitational.

Again, CMU field athletes performed well, with freshman Kevin Mays - also a member of the football team - winning the discus and fellow freshman Joe Jankowski winning the pole vault.

Knapp said the performances of sophomore Sammy Kiprotich (1,500-meter run) and sophomore Branden Post (400-meter hurdles) were impressive, with both athletes finishing in the top 10 in their events.

Senior Riak Mabil made his outdoor debut for the team, returning from injury to post a 12th place finish in the 1,500-meter run.

"It felt really good to get back out there," Mabil said.

Pilling is looking forward to a weekend off after traveling to Tennessee and California on back-to-back weeks.

"All the traveling makes you kind of tired," he said. "It will be nice to relax."

Less than a month from the MAC Championships, the rest of the team will compete at the Oregon Relays in Eugene, Ore., next weekend.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Men's track team splits up, travel across country

Issue date: 4/17/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

For the second time in two weeks, the men's track team is splitting up during a weekend. This time, the two groups will compete nearly 2,500 miles away from one another.

Four athletes will have their hand in another elite meet, traveling to Walnut, Calif., to compete in the 51st annual Mt. San Antonio College Relays. The four competing are junior thrower Greg Pilling, freshmen sprinter Dave Ashcraft and junior pole vaulters Marcus Briedinger and Mike McGregor.

Last weekend, Pilling led the Chippewas' group at Tennessee's Sea Ray Relays with a fourth-place finish in the discus with a throw of 175 feet, two inches. Before the meet, he said his expectations included competing well against defending national champion Rashaud Scott of Kentucky.

Scott didn't qualify for the finals, while Pilling did.

"I don't think I can say anything about Greg that I haven't said before," head coach Jim Knapp said. "He's a great competitor, he practices just as hard as he competes in the meets and this was a great example of that."

"He's got lofty goals, a great work ethic and he works hard."

The rest of the team will head to Ypsilanti where the team will compete in the Eastern Michigan Invitational. It will mark the second competition against EMU this year.

Their first meeting, on April 4 at Lyle Bennett Track, saw the Eagles come away victorious with a score of 92-81.

"We're looking forward to the weekend," senior distance runner Riak Mabil said. "It's going to be nice to have some good weather."

This weekend will be especially nice for Mabil, who is returning from an injury that has ailed him for the beginning portion of the outdoor season.

Knapp said Mabil will be competing in the 1,500-meter run, a shorter event than he's used to because it's his first time back competing on the track in more than three weeks.

"This might be like a sprint to him," Knapp said. "He's a true distance runner and this is a shorter distance for him."

Knapp echoed Mabil's thoughts on the weather and said the throwers will appreciate it more than anybody on the team.

Friday night, the throwers stood at Miami University in the pouring rain, until coaches convinced track officials to postpone the hammer throw until the morning. When they woke up, the weather did not cooperate.

"They were in the bitter cold and it just wasn't good," Knapp said.

However nice the weather is in Ypsilanti, chances are good that the quartet of athletes in California will have it even better. Pole vaulter Mike McGregor said the focus cannot be on the weather.

"Yeah, I'm sure the weather will be nice," he said. "But we're going there to compete."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sox poke holes in Tigers |

Carlos Quentin hit two home runs and Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko each hit their 300th career home runs on back-to-back shots as the White Sox beat the Tigers, 10-6, this afternoon at Comerica Park. Here's Anthony Fenech's account of the game.

Much like the start of my day, both starting pitchers looked rocky early on, but only one was able to right the ship. Gavin Floyd put together a couple of solid innings when the game was still in balance, but the White Sox were more than prepared for Miner today.

In the second, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko went back-to-back for their 300th wins and in general, drove the meat of the Chicago lineup which included Carlos Quentin smacking two home runs.

Obviously, not a good day for Miner, who looked to continue to establish his rotation candidacy with a strong performance, but the Tigers still hit the ball well and pushed some runs across although there were squandered opportunities.

The series continues tomorrow at 1:05 with the probable starters being John Danks for Chicago and rookie Rick Porcello in his first home start for the Tigers.

Bottom of the ninth inning

4:20: Santiago leads off with a made-for-TV drag bunt that slips under the glove of Linebrink. His speed draws no throw from Lillibridge at second. Just a perfectly executed drag bunt. I like those as much as I like perfectly executed slides.

4:25: Jeff Larish steps up as a pinch-hitter after Inge and Anderson strike out swinging, the Tigers hopes for this game on ice.

4:27: Larish flies out to center and nearly three and a half hours later, the White Sox wrap this Monday matinee up, 10-6.

Top of the ninth inning

4:18: Nothing really notable in the top half of the ninth. Looking at the scoreboard, it seems as if the White Sox have had 16 hits for the past three innings. Last call for the Tigers, Santiago-Inge-Anderson in the bottom of the ninth.

4:19: Chicago brings in reliever Scott Linebrink.

Bottom of the eighth inning

3:59: After a couple hours of merciless typing, I have finally caught up with the game and can refill my water.

4:00: Granderson strikes out swinging on three consecutive 94 m.p.h. fastballs and it is announced in the press box that Wise left the game with a separated shoulder.

4:01: Polanco splits the left-center gap, hustles in with a triple and Ordoñez walks, putting two men on for the almighty bobblehead boy

4:03: Cabrera quickly falls behind in the count, 0-2. I’m guessing slider in the dirt, check-swing strikeout.

4:04: Slider in the dirt but no swing.

4:05: Battling back to even the count at two, Cabrera fouls off a pitch then swings through a high 95 m.p.h. Thornton fastball. Guillen’s up with two outs and possibly the Tigers last chance to claw back into the game.

4:08: Guillen lines a grounder off of the dirt right into the backhand of Fields at third base, who took one step to the left and made a nice outstretched snag. “He plays like Joe Crede there … against the Tigers,” Lowe says and Morosi adds, “That’s what you call a Bobby Jenks exit.” Going to the ninth, it’s 10-6 Chicago.

Top of the eighth inning

3:49: Dye is having a day. Following a Thome single through the shift, Dye delivers his third hit of the game, a line drive up the middle.

3:53: Konerko flies out to right, Pierzynski is caught looking at too many strikes.

3:55: Ramirez grounds out 6-4 and Rincon pitches his second scoreless inning of the game. With two at-bats left, the Tigers are down four and need to get some offense going.

3:57: Chicago is bringing left-handed flame thrower Matt Thornton into the game.

Bottom of the seventh

3:46: The catch doesn’t carry over. Tigers go down in order, just the way I kind of hoped they would because I’m writing a live blogging emergency manual.

Other stuff maybe to put at the beginning, I don't know. I just had to write about it.

For those of you keen blog followers out there, you’ll notice there’s a little something missing on today’s game blog: the first inning.

Well, during that time, both nothing and everything happened. On the field, nothing happened. In the press box, everything happened.

Here is an actual (sort of) live blog of my journalistic crisis:

12:45: I arrive and stare blankly at my brother’s laptop, wondering how to turn it on, much like that scene in "Zoolander," where they’re trying to physically get the files out of the computer.

12:52: After two frantic phone calls, I am informed that the power button is, logically, hidden in the back right.

12:57: I realize I am completely and utterly behind in technology, can’t find the wireless controls, can’t connect to the Internet and nervously feel like I’m living out every live-bloggers nightmare of showing up to the ballpark with an Internet-less computer

1:02: Free Press writer John Lowe attempts to figure out the monster that is Windows Vista. No dice.

1:03: At this point, I’m contemplating life after live-blogging. A Tigers attendant comes around, offering Miguel Cabrera 2008 AL home run champion bobbleheads. I jokingly ask her if she’s got a laptop, too. No dice.

1:05: First pitch. No Internet. My life is officially over. But then I run into WXYT's Jeff Riger, who I used to dub “Brother Riger” back when interning there.

1:07: I convince Riger to let me use his non-Vista Dell. Now that’s a brother.

1:10: Scrambling to put together my thoughts on the first inning, something weird happens. I breathe. Normally. For the first time in about a half an hour.

So if Zach Miner thinks he got off to a bad start today, tell him to look no further than the mop-headed kid in the press box.

Top of seventh inning

3:38: Anderson walks, Lillibridge strikes out and Fields does the same as Anderson swipes second during the at-bat.

3:40: Detroit’s Anderson – Josh – makes a spectacular diving catch on Quentin’s hooking line drive. He laid out in a dead sprint. Maybe his catch can ignite the Tigers offense after the stretch much the way it just did the crowd.

Bottom of the sixth inning

3:21: D.J. Carrasco relieves Gavin Floyd, who yet again appears to have the Tigers number. In his career, he’s 4-0 against the Tigers with a 3.23 ERA and in Detroit, he’s 2-0 and 2.62.

3:22: Granderson is retired and life is injected into the Comerica Park crowd once again, thanks to Polanco's walk and two back-to-back singles from Ordoñez and Cabrera.

3:28: Guillen is mesmerized by a very un-mesmerizing pitch. Trying to gain footing, he stares at a Carrasco fastball right down the heart of the plate for strike three.

3:30: The once-promising rally ends with Santiago grounding out to the pitcher.

Top of the sixth inning

3:06: After a Josh Fields groundout to begin the inning: “Eddie Bonine has done a good job of playing with the cards he’s been dealt and keeping the Tigers in the game.”

Can you say backspace? One full count later, Quentin hits a towering shot that elevates just enough to get over Anderson’s outstretched glove and bounces straight off the bullpen ceiling.

3:09: Thome’s thrown out on a check-swing by third base umpire Tom Hallion. It was a pretty amusing sequence of events, as Thome took off jogging towards first base before Hallion’s call. It was almost as if Hallion threw him out for running before he made the call.

3:12: I don’t know if it’s just me, but it seems Jermaine Dye likes the Tigers – a lot. He doubles off the scoreboard in right center.

3:15: Same is true with Konerko. He doubles to the same spot without the roll to the scoreboard. Second inning, back-to-back homers to left. Sixth inning, back-to-back doubles to right. Sticking with the theme, is that considered a milestone?

3:16: After an intentional walk to Pierzynski, Bonine strikes out Ramirez, who is trying to muddle out of an early-season slump.

Bottom of the fifth inning

2:48: Ordoñez walks for the second time today, followed by a very unhappy Miguel Cabrera – on his bobblehead day, nonetheless! – walking back to the dugout after a check-swing strikeout. Afterwards, Cabrera voices his displeasure with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

2:52: Guillen walks and there’s two on and one out for the of the third inning three-run home hitter, Ramon Santiago.

2:55: Santiago laces a 1-1 fastball to the right center gap where Dewayne Wise sprints and sprints and sprints some more before catching up to a ball that appeared to be over his head. It was an absolutely great catch, Wise making the grab in a dead sprint. Both Ordoñez and Guillen have to retreat, while Wise lays on the ground in pain.

2:57: Wise is removed for Brian Anderson.

2:59: Inge walks, loading the bases for Josh Anderson.

3:00: He delivers with a base hit to right center, plating two Tigers and cutting the four-run lead in half.

3:02: Treanor works Floyd but flies out to Dye in right. I think the writers want him to get this hit more than he does, for a perfect handful of milestones. After five, White Sox by two.

Top of the fifth inning

2:38: Chicago has put on their hitting shoes today, moving into the double-digit hit category with a Konerko single to center followed two batters later by Wise’s single to right.

2:43: Lillibridge flails at a Bonine sinker, leaving two on the bases for the White Sox in the fifth.

Bottom of the fourth inning

2:33: Alexei Ramirez makes a very nice snag on a line drive off Treanor’s bat, ending his bid for his first hit in a Tigers uniform.

2:34: Konerko follows with a nice play of his own before Polanco grounds out to end the inning. For the first time today, Floyd doesn’t allow any runs after his offense padded the lead. Going into the fifth, White Sox 8, Tigers 4.

Top of the fourth inning

2:23: Lillibridge leads off the first by grounding into the dime-a-dozen 1-5-3 groundout. The ball came directly for Miner, ricocheted off of his glove right in the direction of Inge, who was hustling in at third to make his dime-a-dozen barehanded, off-balance throw. More impressively, the throw pulled Cabrera off of the base at first, who miraculously kept the big body on the bag long enough for an out.

2:24: Fields walks, and Quentin goes deep. Very deep. Over-the-bullpen-in-left deep. Not surprisingly, boos follow, Leyland emerges from the dugout, cheers follow and just like that, Eddie Bonine is on the mound.

2:27: Miner’s final line looks eerily similar to the last Tigers pitcher that took the mound on a Monday: 3 1/3 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 3 BB, 3 HR.

2:31: Bonine retires his first two batters. Tigers down four but something tells me there will be some more runs scored.

Bottom of the third

2:07: Sad news from up in the press box, Phillies radio voice Harry Kalas has passed away at the age of 73.

2:09: After Polanco flies out to center, Ordoñez walks before Cabrera flies high and deep and way back and into the glove of Wise in left center.

2:12: Floyd issues his second walk of the inning to Guillen on four straight pitches. Two on, two out, Santiago at the plate.

2:14: Count is full and Santiago has fouled two good pitches off as the runners continue to start. He’s just missed solid contact twice.

2:16: Floyd dries sneaking a fastball inside to the lefty and Santiago pulls a line drive into the service cavern in right for a three-run homer. Floyd was working him outside and then went inside and clearly, that was a mistake.

2:19: Inge walks, Anderson grounds out to short to end the inning and as we head to the fourth, it seems as if neither pitcher wants to win the game.

Top of the third inning

1:48: Brent Lillibridge leads off the third with a double that squeezes just inside of the line at third. Lillibridge’s claim to fame could be that he was teammates with Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum at Washington.

1:51: Josh Fields walks one pitch after Miner just misses the outside corner, much to the dismay of the crowd.

1:51: Speaking of the crowd, it looks relatively healthy considering it’s a 37-degree overcast Monday afternoon. For those of you seat-squatters following at the game, there are huge patches of empty seats in both corners.

1:54: Miner is giving Treanor a workout behind home plate and he falls behind Quentin before allowing a single up the middle, scoring another run.

1:56: So that’s why there was so much hoopla over Dye and Konerko’s back-to-back home runs last inning: BOTH Dye and Konerko hit their 300th home runs on those swings, the first time in history that two teammates have hit milestone home runs in the same game.

1:57: As I furiously type to catch up to Miner’s grand idea to load the bases, Lowe turns to me and says “You might want to watch here, Anthony, this could be the ballgame.”

1:58: Miner falls behind 2-1 to Dye with no outs and the bases loaded.

2:00: After hooking one just foul down the left field line, Dye swings through a very nice Miner pitch, a sinking fastball that cut inside on him.

2:01: The momentum stops there, as Konerko hooks one off the chalk in left. Two runs score and Miner’s pitches look to be numbered now. Thome on third, one out.

2:03: Pierzynski grounds to Polanco, playing in, and Thome runs on contact. He’s thrown out by a couple of feet at home.

2:04: Ramirez drops a base hit inside the line in left and Konerko scores despite some hesitant two-out baserunning.

2:05: Miner escapes – OK, maybe not escapes – the inning with a 6-3 putout.

Bottom of the second

1:38: Tigers beat writers John Lowe and Jon Paul Morosi are next to me, giddily talking about the possible milestones in today’s game, noting it’s Brandon Inge’s 1,000th game and both Josh Anderson and Matt Treanor have opportunities to record their first Tigers hits today.

1:38: Miguel Cabrera leads off with a pop-up – yes, he is human – followed by a pair of singles by Carlos Guillen and Ramon Santiago.

1:41: Milestone Man No. 2 – Inge – pops straight up the elevator chute for out No. 2. Two on, two outs, Josh Anderson up.

1:42: “Hey!” Lowe says as Anderson lines a RBI single to right, the first hit of his Tigers career. Carlos Guillen scores and now it’s Matt Treanor’s turn to go for a milestone.

“And in the not-so-obvious department,” he continues. “The game in Pittsburgh has been delayed for weather.” I smile for the first time today.

1:44: Treanor works the count full – a passed ball moving the runners up – and walks, loading the bases for Curtis Granderson. Both starting pitchers have labored through their second innings after relatively breezing through the first.

1:45: Gavin Floyd induces a weak groundout from Granderson to end the inning. After two, White Sox 2, Tigers 1.

Top of second inning

1:30: Zach Miner, oh how I can relate to what you’re going through right now.

After an easy first inning of work, Miner starts the second by giving up back-to-back home runs to Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko, both to left field.

Dye’s home run is significant on a couple of fronts. It’s the 300th home run of his career, and his third against Miner, making him the player most likely to awake Miner in the middle of the night.

The 2-1 pitch sent to left-center also puts Dye in a tie with Twins third baseman and noted Tiger killer Joe Crede for the most home runs in Comerica Park history by a visitor with 15.

One full count later, Konerko disposes his second of the year into the Tigers bullpen.

2-0, White Sox. (Blogger’s note: Coming into the game, Dye was hitting .417 off of Miner in his career and Konerko .462)

A.J. Pierzynski singles sharply to center and this half inning quickly looks like it could become one of the ugly variety.

Miner escapes, with Alexei Ramirez grounding into a double play followed by Dewayne Wise flying out to center.

(More on how we relate later.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Men's track team splits for two invites

Issue date: 4/10/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

This weekend, the men's track team will get into two buses and head south on Interstate 75. One bus will stop in Oxford, Ohio. The other one will continue to Knoxville, Tenn.

The Chippewas send eight of their top competitors to attend the Sea Ray Relays, hosted by the University of Tennessee, while the rest of the team heads to the Miami Invitational.

"I'm really looking forward to it," said junior thrower Greg Pilling. "It's my first big-time meet since I've been back. I checked the wind and it looks perfect for throwing."

Pilling said he is anxious to compete against the defending discus national champion, Kentucky senior Rashaud Scott.

Already in Knoxville is freshman Josh Kettlewell, who is competing in the decathlon, which started Wednesday.

As of Thursday afternoon, through five events, Kettlewell stood in ninth place with 2,775 points. Joining him will be throwers George Flanner and Greg Pilling, pole vaulters Marcus Breidinger, Joseph Jankowski and Mike McGregor, and high jumpers Joe Mielke and Branden Post will compete in hurdles.

"I would hope this can motivate some of our younger athletes," said head coach Jim Knapp.

Knapp will accompany the group competing at Miami because the higher number competing, many of which need more developing.

"You think that, as a young runner, if you get on the track and get slammed by better competition, it's going to motivate you to do better, but sometimes it doesn't," he said. "Sure, I'd love to be in Tennessee where the weather will probably be 20 degrees warmer. But it's my job to be where I'm needed."

The Sea Ray Relays is a "very elite" competition, Knapp said. Several Southeastern Conference and Florida schools will take part, as well as schools throughout the country.

No sprinters are traveling to Tennessee with the eight-man squad because of academic concerns. The group travels to Walnut, Calif., next week for Mount San Antonio College Relays, another event considered to be amongst the upperechelon in collegiate track.

Knapp said he is very impressed with Post so far this season and is excited to see how the freshman fares against top-notch competition.

Today's events in Tennessee will kick off at 12:15 p.m. and in Miami, things will get underway at 5:00 p.m.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

FENECH | An awkward night in Sparty Land

Issue date: 4/8/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

She sat directly to my left on the armrest of a couch, amidst a crowd of green-and-white clad Michigan State fans crowded around a life-size projection screen.

They were standing and yelling, sitting and screaming, laying and laughing as their team comfortably led Connecticut in the second half of Saturday's national semifinal.

But not her. She was asking.

"What, you don't want State to win?"

Not one time, not two times, not 10 times, but certainly somewhere close to that.

"What," she'd turn to me, the only person in the room without green, white, Michigan State or Spartans emblazoned across my chest.

"YOU don't want STATE to WIN?"

"No, I do," I replied the first handful of times, more of an absent-minded-shoo-fly-don't-bother-me answer than accurate statement.

Then, she spilled half of her drink on me. Then, she pierced my ears with high-pitched shrieks of Sparty sensation. Then, I realized, she was the poster child of a text message I sent earlier in the night.

"This is gonna be annoying," I wrote to a friend as I navigated through Michigan State's famed Cedar Village, under a parking garage with police parked outside, through a building with police on top and across a street with, you guessed it, police all around.

"Yeah it is," he said, commenting on my unfortunate situation of watching a Michigan State game with Michigan State fans at Michigan State.

The game began, halftime came and went, she asked, I answered, the Spartans shot, the Spartans slammed. But late in the second half, she stopped.

Not now, I thought to myself. Not after the spilled drink. Not after hours of pent up green anger, green disgust, and yes - green envy. "No, I do," would not be my final answer to the question of the night.

Grab another drink, start another chant, hit another sho--"OHHHHH!"

Michigan State sophomore Durrell Summers found himself with the ball, fast-breaking down the court and closing in on Connecticut's much-taller Stanley Robinson. Summers leaped, powerfully slammed the Spartans to a double-digit lead, and East Lansing joined him in celebration.

The apartment erupted. Drinks flew, chants started, people started filing outside in anticipation.

I sat there silently, a Wolverine in Sparty Land, the half-smile on my face partly in awe of Summers' high-flying act and partly because I had a good feeling about what was coming next, as one of two people still seated amongst the chaos.

Out of the corner of my eye, she inched away, high-fives and hugs all around. She turned towards me, took a sip of her drink and said, "Why are you sitting there?"

She cut me off before I could answer.

"What, you didn't want State to win?"

"No," I replied with a smile. "I didn't."

Monday, April 6, 2009

FENECH | Dear classmate, You're on your own today -- it's opening day

Issue date: 4/6/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Dear Katie,

I'm sorry.

I know that our project is due in 48 hours and we haven't started it yet. I know that we had last Monday, Thursday and now today pegged to get most of the work done. We haven't and I know you're frustrated.

I also know that what I'm about to say could be, for lack of better words, irresponsible, completely irresponsible, utterly irresponsible or a combination of the three.

But something has come up and I can't work on the project today.

That something is baseball, and it is opening day (I probably should have told you about this sooner, but telling someone "Something's come up" when that something is "Watching baseball all day" is actually harder than it seems).

Today, I'll wake up with a permanent smile on my face and probably just take in the moment. I might laugh, I might scream and honestly, I might even get a little emotional. The Rice Krispies Treats will snap, crackle and pop a little bit more, the weather will be warmer and the wind will feel like a summer breeze.

You see, as I write this - at 5:41 p.m. on Sunday, to be exact - I have the exact same feeling in my stomach that I used to have sitting atop the stairs on Christmas Day with my little brothers, waiting for our parents to say it was time to come down and get gifts.

Opening Day isn't just a holiday to me, it's the best day in the history of the world and it only happens once a year. There will never be more baseball to be played this year than on Opening Day. It kind of all goes downhill from there.

I'll watch baseball non-stop from the time it comes on until the time it goes off. I'll watch games on television while I'm flipping between 10 games on the computer and simultaneously checking the live scoring on the five fantasy teams I own.

I'll even dust off the best baseball video game ever made, MVP Baseball 2005, update the rosters and start a season.

I'll indulge in baseball much the way the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera indulges in food. Today's a day I dream of during every long walk home in the blistering cold winters of Mount Pleasant.

"One day," I'll say to myself. "All this walking is going to be worth it."

And every year, it is. It's not as much about the grass being greener or the sun shining more - it's about loving life more than any day of the year.

Today, I'll talk baseball, I'll watch baseball, I'll breathe baseball. One thing I won't do is that project.

So once again, I'm sorry, Katie. How about Wednesday? The Tigers don't play until 7 p.m.



Friday, April 3, 2009

It's go time

No Final Four team believes in destiny more than Michigan State

Issue date: 4/3/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Three weeks ago, 65 college basketball teams set out with one dream, one goal and one destination - Detroit.

Now, all but four have been dismissed.

The remaining teams meet starting Saturday at Detroit's Ford Field, where college basketball's top event will take place.

Four teams, four dreams, four teams of destiny. The pressure is immense. The crowd: likely a record-setting 72,000-plus.

But none of the participants - Connecticut, North Carolina or Villanova - believe they are meant to be there more than Michigan State.

Now, only two wins away from the school's third national championship, the Spartans are nearing a special moment in Final Four history.

"But they would have to win this thing," said Detroit sports radio host Mike Valenti. "Whenever you look back at stuff, you see it and you say 'They were a team of destiny,' you know it worked.

"But while it's happening, it's harder to say it."

The Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo have eyed the chance to compete in their home state for years. Now, they have traveled arguably the toughest road, which included beating the No. 1 seed Louisville, to play this weekend in what has been dubbed "Southeast Lansing."

Standing in their way, however, are the Connecticut Huskies, led by 7-foot, 3-inch Hasheem Thabeet.

Consider UConn's path. Star player injured. Six-overtime losses. Allegations of recruiting violations in the middle of its tournament run. If injuries and a savage-hungry media weren't going to finish them, how could any team expect to?

"They have the most imposing presence inside with Thabeet," said Central Michigan men's basketball coach Ernie Zeigler. "They do a great job on defense of funneling into him and putting pressure on the ball."

Both the Spartans and Huskies are balanced, play defense and have good depth. Both teams don't have a shot-blocking, game-changing center that looks to put his stamp on the Final Four in much the way Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing have in the past.

"He's an equalizer," Zeigler said. "That allows them to put more pressure on the ball and to not worry about beating them off the dribble."

Defense is both teams' strength going into Saturday's first national semifinal, beginning at 6:07 p.m.

"(Connecticut) hasn't faced a lot of teams that play defense the way Michigan State does," Valenti said.

In Saturday's second semifinal, scheduled for 8:47 p.m., North Carolina takes on Villanova in a game that could solidify Tyler Hansbrough's place as one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.

Hansbrough, a four-time All-American and the ACC's all-time leading scorer, came back for his senior season for one opportunity - to play for a national championship.

He will look to exploit Villanova's lack of height inside, putting more pressure on the guard play of the Wildcats.

"They might be small, but they're probably the quickest of the four teams left," Zeigler said. "They're not very physical, but they're a very tough team to play."

Zeigler said he thinks North Carolina will prevail against not only Villanova, but also the team it matches up with in the finals.

"I think Ty Lawson's presence is just such a huge presence that he'll put them over the top," he said.

Weaver steps into offensive line role on football team

Issue date: 4/3/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Near the end of the third quarter of the football team's 38-28 win against Western Michigan last season, Rocky Weaver caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Antonio Brown.

But if Weaver wants celebrate with the football in the end zone this season, head coach Butch Jones will need to dig deep into his playbook.

Weaver, a sophomore, is in the process of transitioning from tight end to the offensive line this spring to plug the holes left by senior departures.

"It's been different," Weaver said. "At tight end, you can get away with more stuff. Here, you're playing against guys 50 pounds bigger than you."

As a freshman tight end last season, he played sparingly in 11 games, catching eight passes for 65 yards and one touchdown.

"I kind of knew it was going to happen eventually," he said of the switch.

Jones, who occasionally joked with Weaver about the move during his redshirt and freshman years, lost two senior starters on the line in All-MAC performer Andrew Hartline and Greg Wojt.

"He's done a great job of handling it," Jones said about Weaver. "Every day there's something new, but he's learning fundamentals and nuances that go with the position and I expect him to get better in the future.

"But anytime you have to replace two very talented football players like that, it's a process."

Redshirt freshman Jake Olson joins Weaver on the line this spring, leading Jones to give the offensive line a theme of "growing up."

"Every day there is a process of growing up and maturing," Jones said.

Juniors Jeff Maddux, Colin Miller and Allen Ollenburger will flank the freshmen and Olson said they are serving as the leaders of the group.

"We're all really close together and we all push each other to help each other out and do better," Olson said.

Recently, they have been hanging out together, watching film and going out to eat. Last weekend, the running backs and offensive lineman gathered at Miller's house for a cookout after practice.

Olson said Maddux is the biggest eater on the offensive line, and that it's rubbing off on the two youngsters, both of whom trying to adjust their weight accordingly to the position.

"When we go out to eat together, we actually push each other to eat more," he said.

Weaver said he's weighing in at about 250 pounds now, said he wants to get as high as he can on the scale before the season starts.

"Obviously, they both do have to put weight on to play the position," Jones said. "But they've been doing a great job at that and they need to continue to do so."

Men's track set for first outdoor meet

Issue date: 4/3/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Men's track head coach Jim Knapp is entering the home stretch of his final season. After an encouraging end to the indoor season, CMU begins the outdoor season Saturday at home against Eastern Michigan.

The meet was originally scheduled to start at noon but will most likely begin closer to 11 a.m. at EMU's request.

The team last competed just over a month ago, when it finished fourth at the MAC Championships at Kent State.

"Our position at that meet was my fault because we don't have the numbers," Knapp said. "But the guys that we took to that meet did a great job and they are getting the job done."

The early weather of the outdoor season hasn't been cooperatative with the team's plans. Saturday's forecast calls for a high of 46 degrees.

"This is a real tough time of the year," Knapp said. "Not having any competition, it's difficult to get things done and it's tough on the guys but they're working out quite well."

Two factors equate into Knapp's optimism for the outdoor season. First, the schedule of events favor the Chippewas with the steeplechase, discus and 10,000-meter run added.

Secondly, junior Greg Pilling will rejoin the team for the outdoor season after missing last year to train for the Olympic trials.

"I'm interested to see what he does," Knapp said about Pilling's return in the discus. "He's done everything for us in terms of gaining points, but he's a discus thrower at heart."

Sophomore jumper Oz Lifshitz is very excited about the outdoor season.

"It's my favorite," he said. "I practice very hard through the indoor season and I bring all that hard work into the outdoor season."

Lifshitz is looking to take home the triple jump championship this season after he finished runner-up in 2008.

"We all know what we need to do and how to get it," he said.

CMU may be short-handed to begin the season, as All-American distance runner Abraham Mach remains injured.

When asked how he is recovering from the hamstring injury that kept him out of the indoor championship, Knapp replied, "He's not."

"He hasn't been able to work out in quite a while," he said, noting that he did not have a timetable on the senior's return. "I don't want to seem optimistic or pessimistic, we'll just have to play it by ear and see how it goes."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Field of Four: MSU faithful prepare for semifinals

Issue date: 4/1/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Writer

Ten years ago, Jeff Miller found himself inside a dressing room in St. Petersburg, ready to begin his usual pre-game routine.

Eventually, he’d put his game face on, head out to the court, shake a few hands and take a few pictures before putting on a show for a crowd.

But before that, he’d always head to the bathroom first.

“So before the game, I’m going there before I put my costume on,” Miller says. “I look over, and [former UNLV coach] Jerry Tarkanian is at the urinal next to me.”

Right then and there, in a bathroom located in the bowels of Tropicana Field, a stark contrast from the bright lights that awaited him on the court, Jeff Miller realized there was going to be nothing usual or routine about this game.

It was the 1999 Final Four and Miller was in his final basketball game as Sparty, Michigan State’s official mascot, as Trajan Langdon, Elton Brand and Duke outlasted Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and the Spartans, 68-62.

“The Final Four,” he said, “Is just a spectacle.”

On the court, Miller walked by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson. He found Magic Johnson in one corner of the court and shook his hand.

“And I thought I recognized the two guys next to him. It was [rappers] P. Diddy and Mase.”

“It was awesome,” he recalls. “Everywhere you looked there was someone you recognized. You would just see a bunch of random famous people walking the streets of St. Petersburg.”

But this time around, when Miller takes the much shorter, 90-minute trek down Interstate 96 to Detroit, the hometown flavor will taste that much sweeter to him.

“This one will mean a lot more to me,” he explains. “Because it’s at home and I’m taking my dad with me.”

The Spartans are headed to their fifth Final Four in the past ten years under head coach Tom Izzo and in the days since Sunday’s defeat of top-seeded Louisville in the Midwest regional finals, have been the talk of the sporting nation because of their abbreviated home game in Detroit.

At Ford Field – a place the Spartans have played, and lost, twice previously – they will be joined by Connecticut, North Carolina and Villanova.

“It means a lot,” Michigan State graduate and Detroit sports radio host Mike Valenti said. “It re-cements the program to being elite. Winning the Big Ten then going to the Final Four with the toughest road there, it’s very satisfying.”

Both Miller and Valenti envision heavy Spartan crowds not only at Ford Field, but in Downtown Detroit.

“It will be packed,” Valenti said. “If the weather is nice, there will be good foot traffic and the people of Detroit will get the metropolitan experience that Chicago and New York does.”

“I’d be surprised if there was less than 40,000 Spartans fans there Saturday night,” said Miller, who lives in East Lansing.

Although the makeshift home-court advantage should benefit Michigan State, Central Michigan men’s basketball coach Ernie Ziegler points out some potential speed bumps the team must guard against.

“I think the coaching staff’s focus will be getting the team prepared and staying focused, because you will have distractions that are ten times what the other three participants have,” Ziegler said.

As for the home crowd’s influence on the game, Valenti thinks the crowd can have an influence on the first five minutes of the game and the last five minutes, but in the middle it comes down to the players.

“I think it can help, but the players must take care of their end of the bargain,” he said. “Michigan State fans didn’t help much when North Carolina came in there and beat them by 40 earlier this year.”