The following was written Thursday, April 18 for my Socci On The Sox blog. As I work to add fresh content to this site, I invite you to read more of my writing for the Pawtucket Red Sox at www.pawsox.com.
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a ballgame. But I know, and will never forget, the one day in my lifetime that I drove to the ballpark sensing no reason whatsoever to smile. It was today, despite the bright sunshine that welcomed me at the end of my commute from the outskirts of Boston to Pawtucket.
I walked into McCoy Stadium, toting my rolling briefcase, as well as the emotions all of us feel the day after Patriots’ Day 2013 — deep sadness and regret, raw anger and resolve, even pride and gratitude in and for the good who still outnumber the cowardly evil in our world. The news reports and press conferences I’d been listening to all morning continued rewinding in my head.
They were still playing, as if on a loop, when I dropped my bag off at the press box, and headed toward the front office downstairs. To get there, I walked through the stands, high above the left-field line. About the time I passed the third-base bag, I glanced left and saw two youngsters on a small plot of grass near the main entrance to the parking lot.
One of the kids was throwing. The other receiving. Waiting for the PawSox to play, they were having a catch.
I stopped, pulled my phone from a pocket and snapped a photo. Watching them made me think of my own childhood, and the simple, sheer pleasure of tossing a ball back and forth.
And of innocence, before it is lost, or taken away.
As you’ve (hopefully) noticed, I’ve been away from this blog for a while, wrapping up Patriot League basketball for CBS Sports Network and embarking on my new radio role with baseball’s Pawtucket Red Sox. And as part of the latter, I’ve been writing for the team’s website www.pawsox.com and my new blog, “Socci On The Sox.” Before long, however, I look forward to sharing more observations about my sports world at large here. Meantime, I’ll soon be copying past posts for the PawSox to this space, while generating fresh content for their site. As always, thanks so much for reading.
Practice began and ended the same way for Zach Spiker and the Army Black Knights. The young coach huddled his team around him at midcourt, and reminded them of their goal for the following afternoon.
“Six bricks,” he said. “We need six bricks.”
To the uninitiated, the sound of such a notion seems more than a bit strange. Here was the coach of a basketball team that since the start of conference play has led its league in scoring, primarily because of its proficient three-point shooting, asking for — demanding, really — more bricks.
But at West Point, since the youthful Spiker became the Cadets’ head coach a week and a half before the start of practice in the fall of 2009, a brick connotes a much different meaning than anywhere else basketball is played. Inside your local ‘Y’ or outdoors on nearby asphalt, the word is a universal descriptor for an ugly-looking shot.
A jumper from the wing so errant it, unintentionally, bangs off the backboard? A brick. A free throw that lands on the back iron with a loud thud, before rolling off right or left? Uh-huh, a brick. It never looks good, and usually sounds worse.
In Spiker’s way of thinking and speaking, the brick is raw material used to lay the foundation of a successful program. It has nothing to do with offense, and everything to do with defense.
To Army under Spiker, a brick means three straight stops. Hold the opposition scoreless on back-to-back-to-back possessions, and you’ve earned a brick.
The Black Knights led the Patriot League by averaging 71.2 points and 8.4 three-pointers per game, while shooting 39.5 percent outside the arc, in conference games this season. But until a final score is reached, the real measure of their effort — applying full-court pressure on the ball with a deep rotation of well-conditioned Cadets — is the brick.
All year long there’s been a correlation. Six bricks amount to victory. Back in October, the overall objective for the coming campaign was 160.
By Spiker’s official count, the Cadets had 154 of them through their first 28 games, entering last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Lehigh. Thus, to achieve both single-game and year-long goals, they needed six more bricks to add to all the others, labeled and stacked inside their locker room back at West Point.
Concretely or metaphorically, Spiker and his staff appear to be building something special. He was hired off the Cornell staff, as an assistant to then-Big Red coach Steve Donahue, following the bizarre exit of his predecessor. Weeks after signing a contract extension, Jim Crews was fired. Little was said at the time — and less since, though Crews has gone on to succeed the late Rick Majeris at Saint Louis — about the reasons behind it.
Whatever they were, Spiker’s reality was obvious. He inherited a veteran team in a program that hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1984-85 and had never reached .500 in Patriot League play, dating to 1990-91. Though the Black Knights were 6-8 in conference each of Crews’s final two years, Spiker needed to create a pipeline of young talent that could withstand the rigors of service academy life and compete successfully at Division I.
Just as Navy had done under former Army assistant Don DeVoe in the 1990s, when the Midshipmen won three Patriot League titles, Spiker started recruiting to two rosters: the one at West Point and another at the academy’s prep school. The latter would be essential for long-terms success. It’s where players could form on-and-off-court bonds, become exposed to strict military and academic standards and improve their skills in a basketball system similar to the one Spiker was implementing on the Hudson.
Three years later, that effort is finally paying off. In the form of bricks — productively, not pejoratively — and victories.
When Spiker addressed his team last Friday on the eve of its nationally-televised appearance at Lehigh, the Cadets were riding a school-record five-game Patriot League winning streak. They were assured of Army’s first non-losing finish in 28 seasons. And they already clinched the academy’s first winning league record since 1987, when Kevin Houston led the country in scoring and West Point belonged to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Spiker complemented the outstanding senior Ella Ellis, a first-team All-Patriot League choice last year, by starting four freshmen. Five others saw game action. Three of those nine plebes, as they’re known on the academy post, earned conference Rookie of the Week honors.
None more than five-time winner Kyle Wilson, Army’s highest-scoring freshman since 1992-93. On Monday, he was announced as the Patriot League’s Rookie of the Year. Classmate Kyle Toth joined Wilson on the All-Rookie team. That same day, Ellis repeated as a first teamer and Spiker was recognized as conference Coach of the Year.
The Cadets came up short of six bricks on Saturday, falling by six points, 81-75. Nonetheless, at 15-14 overall and 8-6 in the Patriot League, their pieces are in place to keep building on what Spiker started.
“When we returned from our (late-December) trip to Texas, I told our guys that I believe we’re on the verge of something good here,” Spiker said last week. “When we were 1-3 in the Patriot League, I told them that every goal we’ve set can still be achieved.”
Some, Spiker admits, would seem “a little lofty” to outsiders. One has remained unrealized throughout the academy’s history.
Five schools who’ve played Division I basketball since 1947-48 have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament. They include St. Francis (N.Y.), Northwestern, William & Mary and The Citadel. And, of course, West Point, despite a history highlighted by the likes of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski. Knight left as Army coach to lead Indiana to three national titles. His former point guard, Kryzewski coached the Cadets to the 1978 NIT, before guiding Duke to four NCAA championships.
The idea of this year’s Black Knights finally playing well into March is more than a little lofty. But thankfully for the rest of us, everything at service academies is a little loftier than everywhere else.
Starting Wednesday, when it hosts American in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament, fourth-seed Army is three wins from the unprecedented. Or, to see it as Spiker does, at least 18 bricks away.
Two weeks ago in Washington, his Cadets beat the Eagles, 72-58. By doing so, they snapped a 14-game losing skid at AU’s Bender Arena.
They did it with a season-high eight bricks.
Bob is the radio voice of Navy football and called play-by-play for the Midshipmen in basketball for 12 years. He and partner Chris Spatola (West Point ’02) will call a Patriot League semifinal Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on the CBS Sports Network.
Shortly before stepping into the center circle for the opening tip-off, Jeff Clark nodded, smiled and extended his right hand. Wearing his black-and-white stripes, with a whistle hanging from his neck, Clark was dressed and accessorized for work.
So was I, standing at mid-court, in my navy blue, network-issued blazer. Any minute now, I was going to turn to a camera, raise a microphone affixed with a “CBS Sports Network” flag, and welcome a national cable audience into the intimate Kirby Sports Center in Easton, Pa.
Pleasantries taking precedence, I first reacted to Clark’s cue, and stuck out my own right hand.
“I saw you working Georgetown-Syracuse yesterday,” I told him, approvingly. “Wow, that was quite an atmosphere.”
Sixteen hours earlier, and several hours to the north, Clark was one of three officials who took the floor with the Hoyas and Orange in front of 35,012 — the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history — at the Carrier Dome. In, presumably, Georgetown’s final visit to Syracuse, due to the unraveling of the Big East as we knew it, the Hoyas triumphed, 57-46.
True to the history of one of the most star-studded and compelling rivalries in the game’s modern history, Otto Porter scored 33 points to help end the Orange’s 38-game home winning streak. Thirty-three years ago, G-town closed the ‘Cuse’s prior hoops residence, Manley Field House, by halting a string of 57 straight home victories.
Clark’s smile, like his eyes, widened. He circled his finger, pointing to the wooden bleachers overlooking both sidelines and one of the baselines. They were filling fast in the final minutes of last Sunday morning, as longtime adversaries Lehigh and Lafayette went through warm-ups.
“So is this,” Clark replied, enthusiastically.
So what if there are 31,000 fewer fans than where he worked the day before. In its own way, this environment is equally exciting. In every way, this game is equally important. That’s what Clark seemed to be saying, without actually saying it.
He was right, of course.
The game we were both about to call — with Clark’s version, unlike mine, impacting the event — wasn’t one of the last episodes of a long-running series. It wouldn’t affect national rankings. And no attendance records were being shattered.
Yet it included every element of what made Georgetown-Syracuse, well, Georgetown-Syracuse. Longtime adversaries. Great players. Emotion and excitement that can’t be contrived; but only cultivated through competition.
There also just so happened to be a common ingredient off the court. At each venue — one a cavernous stadium, the other an intimate gymnasium — humans masqueraded as fruit. In Syracuse, Otto the Orange bobbed around behind the backboard. In Easton, kids literally went as bananas in the student section.
Meeting for the 216th time, in a series summed up along a short stretch of Pennsylvania highway as ‘The Rivalry,’ Lehigh and Lafayette staged a performance worthy of their predecessors. The Mountain Hawks led at the half, living mostly on the inside. The Leopards rallied, relying in large part on their outside shooting.
In their final regular-season appearances opposite an arch rival, Lehigh’s Holden Greiner scored a career-high 27 points and Lafayette’s Tony Johnson matched a personal best with 29 points. Greiner made 10-of-14 shots, while Johnson converted 10-of-12, including all five three-point tries.
Less than 11 minutes left, the Hawks led by 10. Another 9 1/2 minutes later, the Leopards held a 10-point lead. The final was 79-71, giving Lafayette a sweep of the season series and a hold on second place in the Patriot League standings.
There’s a strong possibility of a rematch in the upcoming conference tournament. Just as there was three years ago, when Lehigh beat its cross-Valley foe to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament. If such circumstances realign, whether in the Patriot League semi’s or championship game, we’ll be treated to great theatre again.
Exactly as fans enjoy in the small gyms that house annuals like Calvin and Hope, and the mammoth arenas that stage made-for-TV spectaculars like Georgetown-Syracuse. The Patriot League has Lehigh-Lafayette, as well as Army-Navy, which occupies a place made unique by both the history and meaning behind it.
The last few years, a third matchup within the conference has become worthy of marquee billing: Lehigh vs. Bucknell. They first met in 1902, and have since accounted for the last three league championships. They too could be headed for a tournament collision, like last March, when the Hawks won a thriller for the conference title.
Whether or not 2012 repeats itself in 2013, the next couple of weeks will lead us to a special place. Whomever is at play. Wherever they meet. And whoever is there to see it.
That’s the nature of these great games, this wonderful time of year.
Rivalries may all be relative. But the beauty in each is absolute.
On Saturday, March 2, Bob and broadcast partner Chris Spatola return to the Lehigh Valley to call the Patriot League regular-season finale between Lehigh and Army. Coverage begins at noon, on the CBS Sports Network.
During his Hall-of-Fame career with the Indiana Pacers, Reggie Miller scored more than 25,000 points as one of the most lethal long-range shooters in basketball history. More impressive are the points he makes about a rivalry I’ve been fortunate to experience since the winter of 1997. Now a commentator for TNT and CBS, Miller, who is a self-described “service brat,” asked to be included on CBS Sports Network’s Army-Navy coverage each of the last two years. In January he joined Chris Spatola (West Point ’02) and me for our telecast from Christl Arena. Following is a recent CBS feature re-living Reggie’s visit high on the Hudson, as well as highlights of our broadcast (courtesy of navysports.com and CBS Sports Network).
Out of sight of the CBS cameras, Miller has graciously and generously interacted with hundreds of Midshipmen and Cadets. In Annapolis last year, and again at West Point last month, he shook hands, signed autographs and posed for countless stills long after the traditional playing of the post-game Alma maters.
For the record, the Black Knights got even with February’s 56-55 triumph at Alumni Hall in Annapolis.
On February 16, I’ll rejoin Chris Spatola, a two-time All-Patriot League guard at West Point (’02), to broadcast the Army-Navy men’s basketball Star Game in Annapolis for the CBS Sports Network. Last month Chris and I enjoyed the opportunity to call the season’s first encounter of Midshipmen and Black Knights with basketball Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. Following are highlights (courtesy of navysports.com and CBS Sports Network).
A half minute earlier, Army head coach Rich Ellerson took the one timeout he’d left his team for the waning seconds of the 113th football encounter of West Point Cadets and Navy Midshipmen.
If only to delay the inevitable. And for half of the 69,607 at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, prolong the misery. During the stoppage, the stadium’s massive video boards featured a close-up of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy, which for the 16th straight year would belong to someone else.
When the break ended, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who was about to be named most valuable player, took the game’s penultimate snap. There was need for merely one more kneel-down to seal the Mids’ 11th consecutive win in the series.
In that moment, as the final seconds elapsed, Ellerson’s counterpart, Ken Niumatalolo, was compelled to do two things. The first involved one of his veteran leaders. The second, one of Army’s.
As a sophomore, John Howell caught the longest pass in Army-Navy history, running the last of his 77 yards toward the same south end of The Linc where the Mids now aligned in victory formation. Howell had shredded the ligaments stabilizing his right knee in late September, suffering an injury sure to be career-ending. For weeks, he rehabbed from surgery mindful of a single goal: to recover enough to run out of the locker room with his Academy brothers one last time, in time for Army-Navy.
Howell made it. He was at the head of the line forming in the stadium tunnel, carrying a Marine Corps flag. Emerging into the open air of South Philly, Howell jogged — as his teammates charged — along the Mids’ sideline.
That remained his vantage point for the football theatre ongoing into early evening. Howell had watched Navy rally for a late 17-13 lead, before seeing Army threaten to eclipse that advantage.
But 14 yards from possibly stopping their skid against the Mids and recapturing the CIC title for the first time since 1996, the Black Knights fumbled their chance away. In the sudden change of circumstances, Niumatalolo saw an opportunity to give Howell more than he could ever wish for.
Reynolds knelt twice, before and after Ellerson’s last timeout. Then, for the final act of Army-Navy: Episode 113, Niumatalolo sent Howell onto center stage to stand over Reynolds’ right shoulder.
In the third line of fine print in the game summary, as part of the Mids’ participation report, “33-Howell, John” will always mark the time Niumatalolo helped a senior re-define the end of his playing career.
To the surprise of no one who knows him, it was a classy gesture by Niumatalolo. So was his next. Once Reynolds’ knee dropped to the ground, Niumatalolo sought out Ellerson and went searching for Trent Steelman.
Steelman was Army’s four-year quarterback and career touchdown leader. And in the eyes of the rival coach, an all-time competitor. When Niumatalolo finally got to Steelman, he said as much.
“To be honest, I don’t really remember much, I was pretty torn up,” an understandably emotional Steelman told reporters. “I think he said that I was one of the toughest players he’s ever seen and just a great player, and I respect him for that. He’s a great coach.”
“We should all be proud as Americans that that guy is going to go protect our country,” Niumatalolo explained in his own press conference. “They don’t get any tougher than Trent Steelman. Four years starting at West Point, a military service academy. I know everyone in our locker room has nothing but respect for that young man.”
This was Niumatalolo’s 15th Army-Navy game. His first two ended as Steelman’s last two, in absolute anguish over an excruciatingly close outcome.
In 1995, he was an assistant to Charlie Weatherbie, who eschewed a late chip-shot field-goal try that could have separated the rivals by two scores. The Black Knights mounted a goal-line stand and marched 99 yards to a 14-13 triumph.
The following season, again with Niumatalolo assisting Weatherbie, the Mids relinquished an 18-point lead and failed to score on two late, deep drives. They fell by a 28-24 final.
Fifteen years later, Niumatalolo’s fourth Army-Navy experience as head coach ended with a six-point victory, thanks to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in Landover. After his fifth, last Saturday, he expressed the kind of bittersweet emotions evoked only when Cadets compete with Midshipmen.
Brother of an Army colonel, Niumatalolo understands that while other rivalries are fueled by differences, this one is defined by commonality. He preaches humility and respect, for the competition and the game itself. As do his players.
“It’s amazing because we have the utmost respect for those guys,” senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said, as a member of the eighth straight class of Mids to record a career sweep of their mirror images. “I tell them when I pick them up, ‘I love you brother,’ and I don’t even know them.
“You can see it in their eyes that they go through the same things that we do. They are from the same backgrounds, the same families and they fight and claw the same way that we do. To beat those guys is a privilege and an honor. Nobody out there is going to give anybody an inch.”
Per usual, Wetzel, an Academic All-American, is correct. Army earned every one of the more than 14,400 inches amounting to its 400-plus yards of total offense, including 203 more rushing yards than Navy. And the Mids earned what they got against a high-pressure defense, despite being frustrating into six punts and a fumble that led to the Black Knights’ lone lead.
Navy also earned the win. It made more plays and fewer mistakes. In the end, performance equaled precedent.
The precocious Reynolds rallied his offense, exactly as he’d done at Air Force in early October. He prolonged the go-ahead drive with a throw to Geoffrey Whiteside — freshman to sophomore — converting a 3rd-and-8. Two plays later, he deked a pair of pass-rushers to escape up the right sideline for 11 yards. He then dropped a perfect pass onto the sure hands of Brandon Turner.
The 49-yard strike set up one more Reynolds run, from eight yards out, with 4:41 to go. He slipped a hit and beat an Army cornerback to the pylon, angling right toward the Brigade of Midshipmen in the stadium’s northeast corner.
On the ensuing drive, the Mids lived up to their defensive credo, to make `em snap it again. Freshman cornerback Kwazel Bertrand made the first of two touchdown saving tackles. Senior Tra’ves Bush delivered the other.
Bertrand slipped in pass coverage, yet lunged from all fours to trip receiver Chevaughn Lawrence at the Navy 40. Further downfield, at the Mids` 19-yard line, Bush reached out for a one-handed takedown of Raymond Maples. For the umpteenth time in his Navy career, he was the right man in the right spot.
After Bush’s stop, the Black Knights had to snap it again, and again. The gritty Steelman picked up a first down at the 14-yard line. But on the next play, the 11th of the series and Army’s 72nd of the contest, the Cadets dropped the ball.
Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon mishandled the mesh. The football squirted loose. And Barry Dabney, in his only rep of the day, got his hands around it, to help the Mids hold on. Army was undone again by a fumble.
It was the Black Knights’ fifth of the game and third recovered by Navy. It was their eighth lost this season inside the opposition’s 20-yard line.
Not long after, with little time to stop the tears that flowed from such a heart-wrenching end to his career, Steelman asked the press to pin the turnover on him. Dixon did the same. Filling the unenviable duty of answering for the indescribable, each `manned up’ to spare the other of fault.
Then, you expect nothing less of a Cadet or Midshipman.
And what of Ellerson? In his post-game presser, he was succinct.
“It was a mesh fumble,” he said. “It was a quarterback-fullback mesh; it’s fundamental.”
To a subsequent query about the Reynolds throw and Turner catch, Ellerson replied with his unhappy recap of what, in his view, decided the outcome.
“That wasn’t the difference,” Ellerson asserted. “The difference is the kicking game and turnovers. Those are the things that correlate with success; those are the things that are fundamental to the game. The scoreboard will reflect those things. It will reflect the kicking game; it’ll reflect turnovers.”
And it will reflect the fact that Navy ensured itself at least eight wins for the ninth time in 10 years and claimed its eighth CIC title in that same span. Already, the Mids had earned a ninth bowl bid in those 10 seasons.
It will also reflect a 2-10 finish to the Cadets’ 12th season of four or fewer victories in the last 15 years. They are now 17-32 overall under Ellerson; 5-19 since posting their only winning record of the past 16 seasons (7-6 in 2010).
Yet in the weeks before, and minutes after the scoreboard went final, there was scant acknowledgement by Ellerson of what Navy’s accomplished, remarkably, for so long. Already, as evidenced by pre-game comments Niumatalolo made to a radio audience, the Mids sensed a disrespect uncharacteristic of Army-Navy.
Shortly after Ellerson returned to his locker-room office, he gave them their first bulletin board pin-up for 2013. Speaking to reporter Sal Interdonato of the Middletown, N.Y. Times-Herald Record, here is some of what Ellerson had to say:
“Give (Reynolds) some credit. He made some good plays and he’s hard to tackle. But, he’s not that hard to tackle…We were there. We have people in position to make plays in that game. If we do those things that are fundamental, we beat them by three touchdowns. We’re better than that bunch. We lose the turnover by two.
“We are playing a good football team. We have them right by the throat. We could have put them away in the first half. We didn’t have to wait until the end…They are better than Air Force, but they are a touchdown better than Air Force. We are better than they are. It’s (expletive). It’s (expletive).”
You can be the judge of whether Ellerson’s implications are an indictment of others, but not himself.
On CBS, analyst Gary Danielson found Army’s play-calling “questionable” on two crucial drives, when it appeared Ellerson was willing to put the onus solely on a placekicker in only his second start.
Ellerson’s been steeped in Army-Navy his whole life. His father and two older brothers were West Point grads; one of them the captain of the ’62 Cadets. He’s also experienced it from the other side, as a Naval Academy plebe.
He’s obviously a bright coach, good enough to go 56-34 in his prior stint at Cal Poly and smart enough to understand the fallacy inherent when comparing results. He should also beware of the hypocrisy of such analysis.
The Mids who faced Air Force on the road were 1-3, had yet to launch the Reynolds era and had to defend 200-yard-a-game Cody Getz on two healthy ankles. As for Army’s win over the Falcons, the Black Knights have every right to relish every bit of their 20-point triumph — even if, to borrow an Ellerson phrase, Air Force lost the turnover by five.
Thirty years ago, Ellerson was an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii, when he helped recruit a quarterback by the name of Ken Niumatalolo from Honolulu’s Radford High. Ellerson had wound up playing for the Warriors, after transferring from the Academy.
Asked why he left Annapolis by New York Times writer Joe Drape for his book, Soldiers First, Ellerson replied: “I was nineteen — I had no excuse, sir.”
Assuming he returns for the 114th Army-Navy game, Ellerson will do well to remember that phrase. He’d do better to emulate the kid he once coached, and the young men he now coaches.
One points to himself in defeat, while thinking first of the players in victory. The others, as one of their own might say, fight and claw, never giving an inch.
And should they come up short, offer no excuse, sir.
Writer’s Note: Last Saturday marked my 16th Army-Navy football broadcast for the Navy Radio Network. While I call play-by-play for the Midshipmen, I also remain a great fan and admirer of the Cadets.