“A Shark In Bay Waters” – Jeff Samardzija Finally Finds His Way Out West

"Welcome to Oakland, Shark." (photo by Ezra Shaw)

“Welcome to Oakland, Shark.” (photo by Ezra Shaw)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

Whether you like it or not, the Bay Area has never quite been a hotbed for college football. Conventional wisdom attributes this truth to the fact that there is “too much to do” around San Francisco and Oakland to expect fans to spend every Saturday of the fall tailgating from dawn til dusk. Too many sunny days, too many trips to wine country or Tahoe, too many NFL teams to distract us a day later. Moreover, Cal has been rebuilding over the past few years (literally and figuratively) and Stanford is challenged to sell out their cozy stadium even during runs to the Rose Bowl. Any way you slice it, The Bay is never going to obsess over amatuer pigskin.

Neither is Jeff Samardzija.

Yes, he was an All-American wide receiver at football crazed Notre Dame University, but the 6 foot 5 inch Samardzija never seemed to take the game of football too seriously. He just happened to be really good at it. Kind of like every other sport he ever played.

Samardzija was once a Jesus-like figure on the campus of Notre Dame. (photo by Matt Cashore)

Samardzija was once a Jesus-like figure on the campus of Notre Dame. (photo by Matt Cashore)

“Yeah,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick in an interview earlier this year, sweeping aside a wavy chunk of his Serbian-influenced locks. “I don’t really watch a ton of football. I don’t always follow it. But I realize I have to while I’m on the Cubs, because people are constantly coming up to me in Chicago and asking ‘hey Jeff, how are we (Notre Dame) gonna be this year?’”

Now that Samardzija has been traded out to Oakland (for top prospect Addison Russell, et al) he can rest easy knowing that he won’t be bothered by golden domer questions any longer. And if he wants to try his hand at surfing or skiing (see Zito, Barry and Byrnes, Eric), he finally can.

“I’ve been begging for this for a while,” said Samardzija the day he arrived in the A’s funky, no-frills pressroom. “Begging” most certainly wasn’t the most PC word to use in such a press conference, but no one in Chicago or his hometown in Indiana seemed to mind, they knew Jeff was a nice guy who was just tired of losing. And if you look deeper, maybe Samardzija subconsciously knows he belongs out west.

Jeff grew up in Valparaiso in a household run by a former semi-pro hockey player named Sam. That tells you a lot about the upbringing of Jeff Samardzija. He played football and soccer in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring. On Saturday afternoons, he did what every other kid in Indiana does growing up: watch Notre Dame football.

By high school, Samardzija had his sports choices narrowed down to three (football, basketball, and baseball), and according to Indiana lore, Samardzija started in 160 high school sporting events in a row without getting injured. To say Jeff Samardzija was a natural athlete would be like saying the Chicago Cubs were usually a bad baseball team. It went without saying.

Regardless of how well Samardzija’s persona would have meshed at a school like UCLA, CAL, or Oregon, there was no way he was going to escape out of Notre Dame’s backyard. And sure enough, he didn’t.

As soon as Samardzija arrived on campus in South Bend in 2003, he made an immediate impact on the football field, playing in 12 games as a freshman. It was at that point that most people expected Samardzija to finally put away his baseball glove and focus on football once and for all. But Jeff couldn’t stay off the baseball diamond. “I’ve always been a happy guy when I go to the baseball field,” Samardzija told Dan Patrick. If anyone had the athleticism to play both, it was Jeff, so he went for it.

No one has ever accused the Bleacher Creatures of being A students...

No one has ever accused the Bleacher Creatures of being A students…

It was in the spring of 2004 on Notre Dame’s baseball field when, according to Jeff, he first acquired the nickname of “Shark”. “It all started my freshman year,” explained Samardzija to UND.com. “I was new on the baseball team. I showed up, didn’t know anyone. I was talking to a fellow pitcher and out of nowhere they called me ‘Shark’ because they said I looked like the shark (Bruce) on Finding Nemo. It started during a game while I was pitching and they yelled at me from the dugout. Then coach picked up on it and it just snowballed from there. I guess I look like a shark.”

Turns out, Samardzija does indeed look like Bruce from the 2003 hit, Finding Nemo. From Samardzija’s angular face, all the way down to his teeth, the Notre Dame benchwarmers were spot on. It would be Shark Samardzija from that day forward.

Despite a record setting career for the Irish football team, The Shark finally was able to let go of his multi-sport persona and focus on a professional career in baseball. Naturally, he was selected by the Chicago Cubs, keeping him in the midwest for yet another chapter of his life. And for the majority of his time in Chicago, he loved it, sometimes maybe even too much. Asked by Dan Patrick if he ever pitched a game at Wrigley hungover, he could not confirm nor deny. “You know, I never took a breathalyzer going out there,” laughed Samardzija. “Possiblé.”

Unfortunately, most games in Chicago past July don’t call for much sharp focus, as the Cubs are usually out of the race by then. Not the case in Oakland, where the A’s are consistently contending for and competing in the playoffs.

True to form, the 2014 version of the Oakland Athletics are most certainly competing for a playoff spot. In fact, they are the best team in baseball. The low-budget Swingin’ A’s even managed to send six players to Minnesota for the All-Star Game. Seven if you include Shark. But even despite the A’s hot start to the season, which included the best ERA among starting rotations in the A.L., Billy Beane still decided to double down in preparation for the inevitable battles with Justin Verlander and Miggie Cabrera come October. So excuse Jeff Samardzija if he is a bit thrilled about his recent move to the Bay Area.

Through four starts in the green and gold, Samardzija already holds a winning record of 2-1 with a 2.70 ERA. Compare this to a ten game stretch in Chicago earlier this year in which the Cubs lost 8 out of 10 games Samardzija started. Shark had a 1.68 ERA during said stretch (second best in MLB).

So when you see Jeff Samardzija galvanize the Coliseum crowd with a 95 per-hour strikeout followed by a Dennis Eckersley-esque fist pump, just remember he is probably just as happy as you are to be wearing an A’s hat. No more lovable losers, no more polar-vortex, no more crazed Notre Dame autograph seekers. The Shark is finally out west on the pacific coast, pitching with one thing on his mind: the playoffs.

Shades of the Eck. (photo by Ezra Shaw)

Shades of the Eck. (photo by Ezra Shaw)

Section 925 Podcast Episode 37 – World Cup Recap

Quite a run indeed. See you in Russia... (Photo by Jamie McDonald)

Quite a run indeed. See you in Russia… (Photo by Jamie McDonald)

With the 2014 World Cup in the books, Connor conducts a ménage à pod with a couple soccer aficionados. Section925 staff writer Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM) makes his first ever appearance on the pod, while Robbie Repass (@TrashmanReeps) chimes in for his second time. The three discuss how the USMNT somehow escaped the Group of Death, as well as Jürgen’s 4-year-plan headed toward Russia 2018. Some NBA and NFL talk is also sprinkled in at the end.

Click to listen: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-07-21T18_42_11-07_00

“The Little Wizard from Rosario” – Messi v Germany for the World Cup Trophy

What does Messi have in store for us in the biggest game of his life? (photo by Ronald Martinez)

What does Messi have in store for us in the biggest game of his life? (photo by Ronald Martinez)

By Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM)

We have finally arrived at Maracana Stadium for the World Cup Final. Last year at this time, in the Confederation Cup Final, Gerard Pique received a red card tackling Neymar in the box. A red card that signified the weak mentality of the Spanish team. All of Brazil celebrated a young team they thought would bring back the glory of Cafu, Pele, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo in the 2014 Cup. Unfortunately the squad Brazil picked for a month long tournament could not compete against the world’s best. The crowd carried them as far as possible but their loss was inevitable. Neymar and Thiago Silva are two of the best players in the world and were not able to play in the semifinals. The Brazilian coach, Scolari, came out with a horrible game plan that left out Willian and Dani Alves. How do you leave out two of the most talented players on your team in the biggest match of the year?

But enough about the massacre, we need to talk about Mascherano. Masch was transformed from a defensive midfielder at Liverpool(EPL sucks in my humble opinion) to a center back at Barcelona and showed everything he has learned in the semifinal. Masch was knocked unconscious (American football player take note, if you ever have to go through a concussion test, you answer all questions “YES”). Masch came back in said game and had the defensive awareness to deny Arjen Robben in the 90th minute.

So, how did we get here? 

Lets take a second to look at the how the Amazon took a toll on the tournament.

The Brazilians traveled twice as many miles as the Germans and Argentina traveled 1,800 miles less than the Netherlands. The Netherlands also played two extra time games in the past week totalling an extra 60 minutes played. (look at the US total! You can go to Pearl in London roundtrip with a discount for that expense.)

I have to say that all reports coming out of Brazilia are great for the Dutch, German and American sides. The three squads went out to the favelas and interacted with the impoverished people of Brazil. The Americans are probably lumped into this group due to having a German coach that is a bit of a humanitarian. It is worth taking note that the social compassionate countries from Europe have progressed the farthest. Indoctrinating yourself might not always be a bad thing.

Germany's Mesut Ozil withe the kids of Brazil (photo by Felipe Oliveria)

Germany’s Mesut Ozil with the kids of Brazil (photo by Felipe Oliveria)

Argentina: The Beginning

Messi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

…There is not much more to say. The “little wizard from Rosario” turned me on to the beautiful game when I was lonely in Barcelona years ago. I did not ever think it would slowly turn into a passion of mine. But it has. He moved from Argentina to Spain at the ripe old age of twelve because nobody would pay for his hormone deficiency drugs. Barca picked up the tab and has won three euro championships on the back of the diminutive maestro. Messi had the option of joining the Spanish team in his youth and would have participated in their last Cup winning campaign. However, that wasn’t to be. Instead, he denied the opportunity so he could wear La Albiceleste, the shirt of MARADONA.

If there is a pivot to this team it is Mascherano. It says something about Busquetes at the club level to knock Masch back to a center back role. This might change with Lucho taking over Barca this fall. Messi is the the figurehead of the team but Masch will continue to be the real captain. He is cut from the same clothe of a young Puyol. He made his Argentina debut prior to being a starter for his club team at River Platte.

I also want to mention the roles of Angel Di Maria and Kun Aguero. These two players are nursing muscle injuries and are real big question marks for today’s game. It is going to be a big gamble placing either of these players in the starting lineup. Di Maria is a huge matchup problem for the defense because his stamina allows him to move all over the field. Aguero is a quick and lethal forward that is able to keep the defense honest. If Aguero is healthy, he will be able to open up space for Messi. The Argentinian defense was a large question mark coming into the tournament. The back four led by Mascherano have stood tall, and by shutting out the Dutch, they proved they are no pushovers. Other than Aguero and Di Maria, I do not see Argentina making any tactical changes.

Thomas Mueller finds the back of the net vs. Brazil (photo by Jamie McDonald)

Thomas Mueller finds the back of the net vs. Brazil (photo by Jamie McDonald)

The German team is looking extremely sexy at the moment. Everyone is young and talented. They are almost all from a Bayern Munich team that dismantled Barca 7-0 in the Champions League semis a year ago. I hate to admit it but the Germans took the Spanish model of youth development and improved upon it. The German squad could have made it to this position in the tournament with their bench players alone, that’s how deep they are. The German attack is extremely versatile with many of the players able to play multiple positions. This allows the players to switch around in the attempt to lose their defensive cover.

Having so many quality players on the team can create a dilemma when picking the right starting group. So far the German starting lineup has remained relatively consistent. The only players that have been moved in and out are Sami Khedira in midfield and Miraslov Klose in attack. I believe Khedira will start the game in midfield due to his larger stature and familiarity with Lionel Messi from playing at Real Madrid. Klose will probably start the game on the bench and be subbed in later if they need some fresh offensive punch. Manuel Neuer has been a standout defensive player in the tournament. He is a hybrid goalkeeper and sweeper. Neuer’s flexibility allows the team to run a very high defensive line and is extremely talented at starting the counter attack.

Who to watch for (Beyond Messi)

Mezuit Ozil (Germany): Ozil is a fluid attacking midfielder that has finishing capabilities. I think he is going to be a nuisance to the Argentinian defense because of his pinpoint passing and long run capabilities. Ozil moves around the pitch very well and is very tough to track. He should have a good amount of space to work behind Tomas Mueller

Javier Mascherano (Argentina): Masch is the key to the Argentinian engine. He dictates the pace of play and is the linchpin of the defense. He is suffering from some nagging injuries and it will be interesting to see how he has recovered over the last few days. Mascherano should be able to work the ball from the back and feed the ball to Lionel Messi and Di Maria. Mascherano will have a lot of defensive duties and needs to remain diligent as the German attackers change positions.

Prediction:

I am going with Argentina. By a count of 2-1. I do not care about the players and skill, I just really want them to win. Gaucho Pride.

“Sunday Night Fútbol” – USA v. Portugal: A Preview

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

By Bryan Maag (@HalfBAM)

Let’s be clear, even though I was born and bred in the glorious 925, this is stil my first post so give me some patience…

The World Cup is in full bloom and America is starting to embrace the “beautiful game” slowly. I appreciate the posts and pods on The Section relating to our world’s number one sport and I want to add my two cents. So here I am.

Before I go into USA V Portugal I want to take this opportunity to address some issues I have had with the fútbol community as a whole.  I took a bit of exception to The Section’s pod on the build up to the World Cup. The commentator, I believe he went by the name “Trashman”, believed the Premier League was the best in the world. Sure, I used to tell chicks I like Friends over Seinfeld to get in their pants, but give credit where credit is due. We all know the real genius on the soccer pitch is found in Southern Europe. No talented player wants to knock around the rock on a cold rainy night in Stoke. I see this as a fundamental flaw to analyzing the game and its players.

The Premier League broadcasts internationally and is the highest grossing league in the world with owners coming from as far as Qatar, tulhe USA, and Asia. The product does not matter as much as the name on the back of the jerseys to create a marketing bonanza. People constantly state this league is the most competitive in the world and if you look at the numbers this is completely false. Just like the other leagues there is a rotation of three to four teams that consistently qualify for Champions League play. Your Sevillas, Napolis, and Real Sociedads nurture and develop Europe’s next generation while competing for trophies. Chelseas Europa Trophy after a champions league triumph shows the results of a pay to play system. Little Putin in London will not be close ever again. Now that I am done with that rant, lets get on to the game that will make us scream ‘MURICA…

Cristiano Ronaldo is about as talented as they come. (photo by Clive Brunskill)

Cristiano Ronaldo is about as talented as they come. (photo by Clive Brunskill)

America V. Portugal (A.K.A. La Liga Lite)

Believe it or not, we control our destiny going into the second game of group play. With the world number one bowing out in two games, the USA is in the envious position of controlling their destiny on Sunday. It is becoming clear that this cup is a young man’s tourney. The humidity and heat of the equatorial region is wreaking havoc on all those tired European knees. I would litske to point out that futbol players are the most taxed athletes in any sport. The european leagues start in August and go through May. World class players get 3 weeks off in the middle of summer then go back to the grind. For reference sake, Lebron has been bitching about playing the Olympics and playing in an air conditioned stadium (except in San Antonio) for 10 months of the year.  Futbol does not stop. The average player runs a 9 km a game. The World Cup gives you 4-5 days off in between games, and your group draw is critical. The USA was drawn into what many called the “Group of Death”. At this moment I would like to present this video of what other countries think about their group of death…….

What to watch for on Sunday:

Ronaldo has to be at the top of your list. He is surely one of the top players in the world but he does not have the supporting cast he has at Real. There is no Benzema to hold up play and suck in two central defenders. Ronaldo is the captain and holds the country’s hopes and dreams on his sleeve but he cannot do it alone. Nani runs the wing. He is a fleet footed attacker that plies his trade at Manchester United. He has been injured most of the year but is coming back into a bit of form. I believe the USA can exploit his eagerness and use the space he exposes between the lines to start our attack.

The portuguese midfield is a melting pot of hacks from across Europe. This was the weak link of the team up until their first game. The midfield lacks creativity and is undisciplined. Bradley should have enough time and space to control the game. The back four of Portugal was the strong point coming into the tourney. Contreau (Real), Pepe (Real), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce) are all out of the lineup due to injury. These are three stalwarts that usually run the backwall for Portugal. Contreau was able to flank the winger in attack and create space i. It will be in the corner. It will be interesting to see how the team performs with them left out. As much as I want to see the USA beat a full squad, we need to take advantage of their weakness.

Our young squad is a mesh of what america is. Our servicemen have spread their seed around the world and we are reaping the benefits of our industrial might. We lost Jozy Altidore to a muscle tear in the first game which will hamper our current style. The USA has been really good at sitting back on defense and making a break when they get a chance. I want to see us exploit the gaps in the portuguese lines with creative passing and work the ball from the back. We should not be pinging the ball up the field hoping for a gratuitous bounce. Being from the bay area, I would like to see Wondo leading the front. We showed in the first game that we have can utilize our height in set pieces, which will be an advantage with Pepe out. It might be my football past but when someone lets near your line, you raise your level up. Bradley tossed arround errant passes in the first round, but i hope we can get a little Pirlo out of him for the match. Klinsmann is a fitness guru and I believe is the right coach for our squad. He has been bashed for his tactical awareness by Philip Lahm(german captain) but I believe he is good for our squad. Tournament play is a different beast than a long season. I want coaches out of their chair cheering and hugging. Uruguay just stated their physio put off cancer treatment to treat suarez,I can see the passion other people have for this tournament. It is time for the USA to come out of the shadows and put us in the knockout round.

Prediction:

USA 2 -Portugal 1: (plus one moment of Ronaldo brilliance)

Hope this went well and I hope to see you watching the game that has no commercials and a global following…

P.S.: Here is the water usage (toilet flushes) in the city of Berlin during the Germany – Portugal match: http://i.imgur.com/tOpYFEI.png

…and a nice little video on the Chilean Miners: http://youtu.be/QjVPAyQa7Kc

I’m Bryan Maag, and I’m out…

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

(photo by Lawrence Griffiths)

Section 925 Podcast Episode 36 – World Cup 2014 Preview

The USA's starting 11 in their final tune-up vs. Nigeria on Saturday (Photo by Mike Zarrilli)

The USA’s starting 11 in their final tune-up vs. Nigeria on Saturday (Photo by Mike Zarrilli)

Fresh off his Saturday visit to Jacksonville to soak in the US Men’s National Team’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria, Robbie Repass (@TrashmanReeps) calls into the podcenter to discuss the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. A rare Texas-born English Premier League guru, Reeps tells you everything you need to know before the Cup kicks off on Thursday down in South America.

Click to listen… http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-06-09T20_45_00-07_00

Section 925 Podcast Episode 35 – Spinelli Tours America’s Ballparks

(Photo by @Spinelli37 on Instagram)

(Photo by @Spinelli37 on Instagram)

The venerable Adrian Spinelli (@Spinelli37 ; EverythingEcstatic.net) is currently driving across the continental United States, making stops at various Big League ballparks along the way. He called in from the road in Mobile, Alabama to update us on his journey thus far. 

Click to listen: http://section925blog.podomatic.com/entry/2014-05-04T18_01_05-07_00

“36 Hours in Vegas” – A Short, Strange Trip to the WCC Basketball Tournament

The ultra intense Rex Walters led the USF Dons to a near upset of BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

The ultra-intense Rex Walters nearly led the USF Dons to an upset win over BYU (photo by Ethan Miller)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

When deciding upon my mode of transportation to my inaugural visit to the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in Las Vegas, I felt it was only appropriate to take a bus. I figured you fly to a major conference basketball tournament like the ACC or the SEC, but you drive to a mid-major conference tournament. That’s just customary. So I ended up riding a Tufesa bus out to Sin City (via Salt Lake City), one that proudly markets their ability to transport you from Mexico to the Southern United States comfortably in the middle of the night. This particular Monday morning trip only produced a total of four passengers.

If you take the Tufesa to Vegas, the closest they’ll get you to the WCC Tournament is out front of the Excalibur Hotel on the strip. From there, it is up to you to hail a cab, or use the empty pedestrian overpass to simply walk over the crowded freeway in order to get to the Orleans Hotel & Casino. The Orleans is located off the strip in a relatively seedy area. One of the more prominent landmarks surrounding the Orleans is a Deja Vu “All-Nude” gentlemen’s club. Across the street lies various cheap eats and convenience stores ready and willing to soften the blow of some bad-beats on a the blackjack tables.

Walking through the parking lot approaching the main entrance of the Orleans, there really is hardly any sign that a Division 1, ESPN televised basketball tournament is going on inside. It wasn’t until I reached the glass front doors of the casino and saw some “WCC Tournament” stickers that I was able to confirm I was in the right place.

As is true with all Las Vegas hotels, the Orleans casino floor is an intentional maze, free of clocks or useful maps, designed in way that makes you completely give up on where you were originally going in favor of just sitting down at a table with half drunk strangers and gambling.

By this time it was just 10 minutes until the Saint Mary’s Gaels and Gonzaga Bulldogs were set to tip-off in a semi-final tilt, and I was literally lost in the middle of the casino floor with a standing room only ticket in my hand.

“Can you tell me where the basketball game is going on in this place?” I ask a tired-looking poker dealer. “Yeah,” he responds. “Walk down past those slot machines, make a right at the T.G.I. Friday’s, and you’re there.” Easy enough, I thought to myself, and proceeded to make my way past the slots in search of the T.G.I. Friday’s landmark.

As dedicated as I was to WCC semifinal basketball, the lure of T.G.I. Friday’s happy hour potato skins and discount Bud Light proved too much for me to ignore. Minutes later, I found myself placing my order with a muscle-bound server in a Friday’s uniform chock-full of flair.

The game was on a flat screen TV, my thinking went, and how incredibly good are potato skins after a 6 hour bus ride?

“Hey man, you going to the game?” asks a heavy-set man from Washington state. “As a matter of fact I am,” I respond.

Steve was his name. And he was “In Vegas for a little while for various reasons,” some of which were to soak in both the WCC tournament and the PAC-12 tourney the following week. He, like so many other Gonzaga fans I encountered over the weekend wasn’t an actual alumnus of the school, but a fan nonetheless who “has been watching the Zags play for a long, long time.” (i.e. since the 1999 Santangelo, Calvary, Frahm team.)

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

One of the many backroads to the Final Four

By halftime of the Gonzaga v. Saint Mary’s semi-final, I had managed to settle up at T.G.I.’s, ride along the flat-moving-escalator to the Orleans Arena down the hall, and find my standing-room-only seat among the other degenerate basketball junkies in attendance.

The atmosphere inside the Orleans is a bit weird. The home to minor league hockey’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the arena is a far cry from the homely feel of McKeon Pavillion in Moraga or War Memorial in SF, or the Kennel in Spokane. Aside from the die-hard fans who flew in from their respective WCC campuses, most of the spectators inside the arena almost just seemed to be there by accident. Maybe they were gambling on the game, maybe they were just looking for some more Las Vegas entertainment, maybe they were staying on the 12th floor of the Orleans and wanted a break from their wife and teenage kids, maybe they liked basketball just a little too much.

Concessions sold garbage food like nachos and dippin’ dots (“the ice cream of the future”), but no beer was allowed to change hands. You also couldn’t place a bet on the game inside the Orleans Casino. To do that, you’d have to seek out one of the countless sportsbooks outside the Orlean’s property line. Somehow, this rule helped protect the integrity of the game.

On the court, Gonzaga was a flat out better team than St. Mary’s. David Stockton (John’s son) controlled the game throughout and Kevin Pangos played like his efficient self. In the post, Sam Dower dominated Brad Waldo. With Matthew Dellavedova gone to the NBA and Gonzaga laden with senior experience, the Gaels proved to be no match. The Gonzaga faithful, outnumbering St. Mary’s supporters by about 5 to 1, reveled in the victory over their arch-rival from the Bay Area. As St. Mary’s players walked into the locker room after their convincing loss, all they could hope for was a bid to the NIT. Their dreams for another trip to the Big Dance had been dashed.

Game two of this night of semi-final matchups pitted another Jesuit school visiting Sin City (University of San Francisco) versus the mormons of BYU. As it turned out, this game ended up being a Las Vegas late-night instant classic.

The upstart Dons of San Francisco, coached by the fiery ex-NBA sharpshooter Rex Walters, played above their heads against the Cougars of BYU. Walters, who earlier this year watched his starting point guard Cody Doolin quit the team after a inter-team fight in practice, was a joy to watch coach. Screaming one second, laughing the next, Walters provided a welcome sideshow on the USF sideline. He was gunning for a huge upset win and his freewheeling coaching style was on full display. The Dons took the Cougars into overtime, but eventually fell two points shy of the upset, 79-77. Walters, gracious in defeat, will hopefully be back in Vegas next year for another crack at the big boys of the WCC.

Not long after the Dons loss, I found myself sitting in the lobby of the Palms Casino food court, eating the only food that was readily available, which happened to be a McDonald’s Extra Value Meal. ESPN announcers Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham apparently weren’t hungry, as they slowly walked by with loosened ties, only to disappear into a sea of slot machines. However, it wasn’t long before a couple members of the USF team arrived at Mickey D’s, jonesing for a postgame meal of any sort.

Tim Derksen, USF’s sophomore guard who played valiantly in the OT loss, sat quietly with a couple college buddies wearing “USF Sixth Man” T-shirts. Far across the casino floor, the Palms Sports Book’s giant big screen TV is airing SportsCenter on loop. Derksen’s friend nudges him on the shoulder, encouraging him to look up and watch his highlights play out on the big screen. Derksen raises his head for a moment, only to look back down and resume eating his french fries before the ESPN anchor can tell us who won. He, like the rest of the patrons at this late-night Vegas McDonalds already knew the outcome.

The Dons would ship out of town the next morning, while I would stay one more night to watch Gonzaga win the 2014 West Coast Conference crown. Only one team from the WCC would get to head back home a winner. The rest of the league would have to concede that Sin City had gotten the best of them. As history shows, it’s never easy to leave Las Vegas on top.

David Stockton cuts down the nets after Gonzaga's win (photo by Ethan Miller)

David Stockton cuts down the nets at the Orleans (photo by Ethan Miller)

 

“Celebrating Sarah” – A Fallen Skier Paves the Way For Two NorCal Olympians

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita's right)

Brita Sigourney (center) celebrates after an X Games event with Sarah Burke (on Brita’s right)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

For the majority of her life, Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke didn’t necessarily know where the sport of skiing was going, she just knew she was pushing it forward, and she did not want it to ever stop. By the time of her death at age 29, Burke had added to the progression of the sport more than any other competitive female skier who ever lived. When South Lake Tahoe’s Maddie Bowman and Carmel’s Brita Sigourney compete in their first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, they’ll be skiing in a first ever event that Burke pioneered, the Olympic Women’s Skiing Halfpipe.

From the minute Sarah Burke strapped on a pair of skis, she was always intent on taking things to the next level. Riding with the boys, seeking out the most difficult terrain, sending the biggest airs. As she got older and starting competing, she found herself constantly lobbying for the inclusion of more women in events. If there was a sponsored slopestyle event in Colorado or a halfpipe event in Utah, Sarah wanted to make sure there was a contest available for the girls as well.

“When I started (in slopestyle and halfpipe) I was the only girl,” Burke once said. “And it was always a battle, always a fight to be there.”

Using her beaming smile and undeniable aerial talent on skis, Burke slowly but surely integrated women into the mainstream competitive freestyle skiing scene throughout her twenties. She promoted ski camps in order to get other girls to try her sport, and years later would go as far as to coach her direct X Games competitors in the offseason in order to teach them new tricks and progress her sport further. Burke was hooked on the adrenaline rush of skiing down a halfpipe on skis, and she wanted as many other girls to experience it as possible with her.

For Burke, development of a women’s ski halfpipe tour to go along with a nationally televised Winter X Games event was not enough. Inevitably, the end goal was to get her sport into the Olympic Games in Sochi, and she was convinced she could pull it off. True to form, midway through 2011, it was announced that the 2014 Winter Olympics would feature the women’s ski halfpipe event. As the first girl to land a 720, 900, and 1080 in a halfpipe, it was seemingly only a matter of time before Burke would be crowned as the first Olympic gold medalist in a women’s halfpipe.

Tragically, Sarah Burke would never get a chance to appear on the Olympic medal stand she essentially built herself and sing her national anthem. Burke died on January 19, 2012, nine days after crashing during a training run on the Eagle Superpipe in Park City, Utah.

Not long after her death, Sarah’s husband and acclaimed skier Rory Bushfield, spoke in an interview about how Burke passed away doing what she loved to do.

“She was an amazing skier, always pushing herself. She was doing things she didn’t need to do to get a gold medal. She was doing them to push her side of the sport, like she did to get skiing halfpipe into the Olympics. Halfpipe skiing will debut in Sochi and that was her dream all along. She could have easily just won events with her stock run, but instead she was constantly learning new tricks and progressing the sport. And also getting other girls to do the same.”

Two of the women that will compete in the Olympic halfpipe event that Burke pushed so hard for are Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney. Both of which grew up skiing on the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe. Bowman learned to ski at Sierra-At-Tahoe, while Sigourney first laid tracks at Alpine Meadows. Both were flying down mountains before the age of five.

Bowman grew up in South Lake Tahoe, a stones throw from the chairlift. The daughter of two professional skiers, Bowman’s parents passed down an uncanny sense of balance and feel for the snow. Ms. Bowman was also an elite gymnast. In the end, it was a perfect recipe to produce a halfpipe skier.

But of course, when Bowman was a youngster, the idea of skiing inside a halfpipe hadn’t really taken hold for women yet, so her earliest years were spent on the alpine downhill racing team. Soon enough, however, Bowman was introduced to the new-age free skiing disciplines such as slopestyle skiing and halfpipe. It wasn’t long before she was hooked.

“I quit racing when I was thirteen,” says Bowman. “It was a little too serious for me, so I switched over and joined the freeride team at Sierra, my home mountain. I kind of fell in love with it. Just skiing with all my friends all day. It was the best. I couldn’t turn that down. I had to keep going.”

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

Maddie Bowman and company will compete for Olympic gold on February 20th

As a junior at South Lake Tahoe high school, Bowman was starting on her state championship soccer team, as well competing in the Winter X games on ESPN. After earning a silver medal in the 2012 X Games, Bowman has won X Games gold in the halfpipe for the past two years. Now still just 20 years old, the 5 foot 1 inch Bowman has asserted herself as one of the favorites to win Olympic gold in Sochi.

Clipping at the heels of Bowman during these Olympics, with chance to win Gold herself, will be the 24-year-old Brita Sigourney. Unlike her counterpart, Sigourney didn’t get to grow up at the base of her home mountain. Instead, she grew up five hours away in Carmel, CA. This didn’t stop Brita’s dedicated parents from getting their ski-obsessed daughter up to Alpine Meadows virtually every weekend in the winter, regardless of the traffic conditions.

Growing up closer to the beach than the mountains, Sigourney developed into an exceptional water polo player in high school, leading to an offer to play collegiately at UC Davis. So for three years of college, Brita did both. Balancing her time between the pool and the halfpipe. Soon, polo would give way to skiing and by 2011, Sigourney was a silver medalist at the X Games. The following year, she won bronze and this past year she placed 5th at X-Games in the lead up to Sochi.

For the past few years, Sigourney had to battle through a series of harsh injuries. The list includes a microfracture in her knee, broken collarbone, torn ACL, and fractured pelvis. Through all this, she has persevered.

“I’ve had a lot of injuries in my career. And I definitely have to gather a new sort of motivation after every one I think,” said Sigourney. “I actually think I’ve benefited from each one, because it’s given me the time to step back and look at why I ski and how much I love it. Your first day on snow after so long of just rehab and gym time is the best feeling ever. It’s crazy, my mom asks me every day, and I don’t think she fully understands why I ski, because she is so heartbroken every time I get hurt. Probably more than I am.”

Air Bowman sending a pair of Roxy skis into orbit

Air Bowman sending a pair of Roxy skis into orbit

While Sigourney may not be America’s best chance at a gold medal, she is perhaps the most capable of throwing the biggest trick. In the 2012 Winter X Games, Brita became the first woman to land a 1080 in a full women’s halfpipe run.

Of course, the first woman to ever pull off a 1080 was Sarah Burke. If you asked Brita where she learned how to take things a step further and land one in competition, the answer is probably from working with and watching Sarah Burke.

The last qualifying event for the Women’s Ski Halfpipe event in the 2014 Olympics was recently held in Park City, Utah. Almost exactly two years removed from the accident, Bowman and Sigourney found themselves at the top of the same Eagle Superpipe that claimed Burke’s life. Bowman had already qualified, but Sigourney skied that day with her Olympic dreams still in the balance. You could say Sarah Burke had paved a new course toward Olympic dreams. Maddie Bowman and Brita Sigourney were at the top, ready to realize them.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

Skiing pioneer, Sarah Burke.

“Coming Up The Pipeline” – A’s Prospect Addison Russell Enters Spring Training As the One to Watch

Russell could take over as Oakland's shortstop as early as this year.

Russell could take over as Oakland’s shortstop as early as this year.

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

In four years at Pace High School, just outside of Pensacola, Florida, Addison Russell hit a cool .460 with 37 home runs. Living on the Alabama border, it only made sense that the Auburn Tigers would end up extending a scholarship offer to Russell. And at the time, the 6’0” 195 pound shortstop had full intentions of going to school. The oldest of 4 siblings and the owner of a soft-spoken, humble personality, it made sense that even a talent this large could use a few years of seasoning in the SEC.

This was all before Billy Beane made young Addison his first round selection in the 2012 Draft. For years, Beane has avoided high school players like the plague, deeming an 18-year-old simply too much of a gamble to invest millions in. The last time Beane has selected a high schooler in the first round was 2001 when the A’s took Jeremy Bonderman 26th overall. Before that, you have to date back to 1996 when Eric Chavez was picked in the first round out of high school.

Not only was Beane forced out of his comfort zone by picking someone so young, so early, Billy also had to negotiate with super-agent Scott Boras in order to sign Russell. 2.6 million dollars later, Russell, and his seemingly infinite upside, was property of Oakland.

While Big League scouts have most often compared Russell to current Detroit Tigers infielder Jhonny Peralta, A’s fans could also comfortably compare Russell to the beloved former Oakland Athletic, Miguel Tejada. Blessed with a sturdy, compact build, to go along with exceptional bat speed, foot speed and arm strength, Russell possesses everyting one would need to be a breakout Major League star.

Peralta and Tejada, both eventual steroid offenders, possess(ed) the type of five-tool talent that is so coveted in young position players. By all accounts, Russell has all five tools in his quiver, and to the extent that he is the best prospect the A’s have had in their farm system in recent memory.

Scouts have marveled at the way the ball jumps off Russell's 19-year-old bat

Scouts have marveled at the way the ball jumps off Russell’s 19-year-old bat

In Russell’s first season in the minors last year, the 19-year-old started at shortstop for the Single-A Stockton Ports of the California League. After a slow start, Russell finished the season with 17 home runs, 10 triples, 21 stolen bases and a .275 average. The stat line was good enough to earn him the Rookie of the Year in the Cal League, as well as a trip to the All-Star game in New York City to participate in the Futures Game. By year’s end, Russell was on the field with the AAA Sacramento River Cats getting his first taste of professional playoff baseball.

As Russell turns 20 on January 23rd, he heads into his second year of spring training scheduled to start the year playing for the A’s Double-A affiliate in Midland, Texas. There, while he continues to accumulate invaluable professional at-bats, A’s fans will keep a close eye on their prized possession down on the farm.

“At the minimum he’ll be at the Double-A level (in 2014),” A’s general manager Billy Beane recently told CSN Bay Area. “A kid with that kind of talent, once you get to that level, anything can happen from there.”

“He’ll have the opportunity (this spring) in major league camp to assert himself before he gets to the minor leagues,” continued Billy Owens, A’s director of player personnel. “There’s no timetable. People always want to make predictions, but I think his play on the field will dictate predictions.

As you may recall, Oakland’s 2011 first round pick was Sonny Gray out of Vanderbilt. And we all know how that panned out. The rookie turned in a masterful Game 2 performance in last year’s Playoffs, throwing eight scoreless innings and earning himself the starter’s role for the subsequent pivotal Game 5. Granted, Gray was 23 when he took center stage for the A’s, but it is still in the realm of possibility that Beane and manager Bob Melvin would decide to bring up Russell to play shortstop for the A’s by the middle of the summer. Jed Lowrie has proven to be a step slow as a Major League shortstop. And moving Lowrie to second to make room for Russell could turn out wonderfully, assuming Russell continues his rapid development.

Coming off back-to-back playoff seasons, one couldn’t blame Billy Beane for keeping things status-quo. But, when you consider how competitive the AL West has become (most recently with Robinson Cano coming to Seattle) change is constantly necessary for the A’s to stay ahead of their deep pocket competitors. Expect part of that change to come in the form of a once-in-a-decade shortstop, by the name of Addison Russell.

“Addison is a 19-year-old with so much upside, not only talent-wise but his work ethic. His tools are all there,” Bill Richardson, Russell’s former Manager, explains to MLB.com. “Shortstop is such a premium. You get a good shortstop, and when you have that guy, it makes things a lot easier on your club. He might be one of the most talented players in this league. He knows what he wants, and there is no doubt in my mind he will make it. How soon is what it is.”

Feeling right at home inside the A's dugout. (photo by Susan Slusser)

Feeling right at home inside the A’s dugout. (photo by Susan Slusser)

“Opposites Attract in Carolina” – Ken Dorsey and Cam Newton Team Up to Take On 49ers

"Dorsey handing off some West Coast culture to Cam at a recent Panthers' practice." (Photo by Chuck Burton/AP)

Dorsey handing off some West Coast culture to Cam at a recent Panthers’ practice. (Photo by Chuck Burton/AP)

By Connor Buestad (connorbuestad@gmail.com)

When the San Francisco 49ers take the field at Bank of America Stadium in North Carolina on Sunday, they won’t have to deal with temperatures hovering at zero and below. Nor will they be up against the savvy and experience of Aaron Rodgers, or the ghosts of Lambeau Field’s past. Instead, the Niners will have to overcome a new challenge all together: the youth and talent of Cam Newton, coupled with the knowledge and quiet competitiveness of their former quarterback turned coach, Ken Dorsey.

If you are of the belief that life often comes around back full circle, well Dorsey versus the 9ers in the Divisional Playoffs is a prime example of said belief. Ever since his days as a prep quarterback/shooting guard at Miramonte High in Orinda, Kenny Dorsey, it seems, has always been destined for a career outside of the Bay Area. On Sunday, Dorsey will be doing his best to send San Francisco’s Faithful home with an upset loss.

No matter how big of numbers he put up on the football field, or how much leadership he showed on the hardwood, schools like Stanford and Cal refused to recruit Dorsey as hard as he probably deserved. Citing his lack of arm strength, average foot speed and overall blase athletic appearance, the Bay Area at large took a collective pass on Dorsey, even while the mighty Miami Hurricanes came offering a scholarship.

Dorsey and the 'Canes after winning the BCS National Championship

Dorsey and the ‘Canes after winning the BCS National Championship

So Dorsey did what anyone in his position would do. He went where he was wanted, and he started winning games. Lots of them. In 40 games as a starter at Miami, Dorsey went 38-2. In 2001, Dorsey led the ‘Canes to an undefeated season, culminating with a BCS National Championship victory over Nebraska. A year later, Dorsey went undefeated again, only to lose to Ohio State in the title game. By the time his college career was all said and done, you wouldn’t be mistaken if you called Ken Dorsey one of the 10 best college Quarterbacks of all-time.

Once Dorsey left Miami for the NFL, the Hurricanes would effectively fall apart. Contrary to popular belief, their elite talent scattered throughout the depth chart at skill positions like receiver and running back would prove to not be enough. It may not have been due to a big, strong arm or blazing speed, but whatever it was, Dorsey knew how to win.

Six rounds passed in the 2003 NFL Draft before Dorsey was finally picked by the San Francisco 49ers (Pick #241). The East Bay kid who grew up idolizing the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young, was now going to be given the chance to wear the Scarlet and Gold and prove himself in front of his hometown fans at the highest level. Unfortunately, things did not work out for Dorsey in the Bay. Surrounded by a group of sub-par skill position players, coupled with an unproven coach and an overall bad team, the three years that Dorsey wore the 49er uniform left much to be desired.  By the end of 2008, Dorsey was out of the league. And after a short stint in the Canadian Football League, Dorsey would be done wearing the pads completely, opting instead for a visor, clipboard and a lanyard with whistle at the end of it.

Eventually, Dorsey’s path would cross with Cam Newton, or as he was so often referred to at Auburn University, $cam Newton. Now in his third season at the helm of the Carolina Panthers, Newton is enjoying his best season yet, leading the Panthers to a 12-4 record and home field advantage in the second round of the playoffs. His quarterback coach, new as of this season, is Ken Dorsey. It’s no coincidence that under the steady guidance of Dorsey, Newton is having his winningest season of pro football yet.

Cam enjoyed a larger-than-life existence at Auburn

Cam enjoyed a larger-than-life existence at Auburn

If marriages are best formed when opposites attract, perhaps the same can be said in the relationship between a quarterback and his coach. For in many ways, Cam and Ken couldn’t be more different.

While Dorsey’s high school career went off without much national fanfare, Newton was one of the mostly highly sought after football recruits in the history of the state of Georgia. Nicknamed “The Show” at Westlake High in Atlanta, Newton was hotly recruited by literally every major school in the country, finally settling on Florida where he would serve as Tim Tebow’s backup.

During his college career, Dorsey was the epitome of a team leader who virtually never made a mistake, on the field or off. In contrast, Newton was effectively sent packing to a Junior College in Texas after stealing laptops from Florida classmates and underperforming on the field under coach Urban Meyer. Newton attracted even more negative attention when his father Cecil allegedly sold his sons services to Auburn for upwards of $100,000. Meanwhile, Ken Dorsey’s dad hardly even followed college football, let alone attempted to serve as his son’s  agent.

Despite all of the yin and yang of the Dorsey and Newton relationship, one can surely argue that the one thing these two have in common is what is most important in the NFL: Winning.

Upbringing, hype, physique, and style of play all aside, Ken Dorsey and Cam Newton both flat out know how to win big games. This fact alone surely has Jim Harbaugh’s full attention as he tries to navigate through another road playoff test en route to a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Once an afterthought from the forgettable lean years of 49er history, Ken Dorsey has now popped up back east, ready to try to put an end to the Niners’ Quest for Six. Harbaugh has his own understudy to bring to Sunday’s battle in Colin Kaepernick. And following Cam and Kaep’s pending duel in Carolina, don’t be surprised to see Ken Dorsey receive a firm handshake from Mr. Harbaugh at midfield during the post-game. From one “Quarterback-turned-coach” to another.

Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

Photo by Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer

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