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Archive for January, 2007

Jan. 31, 2007 — Barely hanging on

It was announced earlier this week that Ohio University, a school which had raised some $200 million in a capital campaign called “Third Century,” was cutting its sports programs to the bare minimum needed to maintain Division I-A membership.

Amongst the cuts thought necessary to save $400,000: the women’s lacrosse team. What that leaves is 16 sports, but it leaves some 87 scholarship athletes in a lurch.

You kind of wonder if this is what could be called “The Boise State Effect.” Division I schools such as Ohio University, Western Michigan, and Temple now have the proverbial dollar signs in their eyes since Boise State’s miracle win in the Fiesta Bowl, but those dollars have to come from somewhere.

And what that’s going to do is leave many mid-major college athletic departments barely hanging on in hopes for that big payday in a the Bowl Championship Series, despite rules written carefully to exclude most of them.

I don’t think schools like Rutgers and Ohio University are making the best investment.

Jan. 30, 2007 — It’s a life, not “the horse.”

Barbaro was euthanized yesterday after eight months of discomfort. And something in me says that should never have happened.

If you don’t know who Barbaro is, you probably aren’t alone. Horse racing, the so-called “Sport of Kings,” is one of many athletic endeavors which have fallen out of the favor of the sporting public in recent years.

It used to be that thousands of people would attend racing meets, place bets at the track for only the upcoming race, and entries and results would be a part of the local paper.

Today, only a handful of people go to most tracks, and sometimes even if they do go, the action in front of them is irrelevant. Simulcasting of races around the country allow horsemen to place several bets per hour. And horse results have been cut out of many newspapers because of shrinking space as well as the ease of information gathering through the Internet. Race tracks have even had to resort to installing slot machines in them to make money and bring people through the doors.

Part of the downward spiral was, oddly enough, engendered by a female horse.

In 1975, a filly named Ruffian was pitted against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in a match race on live television. It was the mid-70s, two years after Bobby Riggs played Billie Jean King in another “battle of the sexes,” and the Equal Rights Amendment was up for ratification.

In the midst of the backstretch, Ruffian came up lame, breaking her right foreleg. Surgery was performed, but she had to be euthanized the next morning.

There was a public outcry back then, some 32 years ago, for better treatment of race horses. What happened was the use of anti-inflammatory agents for pain management and anti-bleeding drugs such as Lasix. That, and more aggressive inbreeding of championship horses at stud have, according to some experts, led to much more fragile racehorses.

Horses, you must realize, run on hard hoofs with very little protective tissue at the base of the leg, supporting muscular torsos on impossibly thin legs. One flaw in any part of one leg leads to the other three legs having to support all of the weight of the animal. Due to the increasing fragility as part of the inbreeding process, it has been estimated that the best horses are run half as often as their counterparts in the golden age of racing.

Now, between Ruffian’s breakdown in 1975 and Barbaro’s breakdown at the Preakness last year, there was another major incident that really hit home for me when it came to horse racing. One Breeders’ Cup, two horses were killed. I opined in my old newspaper that it was the biggest story of the year gone by. “How would you have felt if Jerry Rice had collapsed and died short of the goal line in the Super Bowl?” I asked.

As for Barbaro, I knew pretty much from when I first heard that doctors at the University of Pennsylvania were going to try to intervene that it was a fool’s errand. Three legs weren’t going to support his weight for very long, despite technology or the hubris of the owners trying to keep him alive so that he could have sired.

What would he have sired? Colts even more fragile than he? In a Darwinian way, it was for the best.

However, many people in the horse community didn’t see the reality. When Barbaro developed the abcess that would eventually lead to his being euthanized, I listened to a radio report that said that he was feeling no pain — just a day before that turned out to not be true. And in that report, the commentator, like so many others, turned the story into an abstraction by using the term “the horse” instead of his name.

Barbaro may have been a great example of an athletic horse and an example of what breeding could do, but the thing is, very few people care about the sport anymore. It’s right down there with professional bowling and barrel-jumping on ice skates as relics of a bygone age.

Speaking of, the Miss America Pageant was held last night. Wonder what those ratings were compared to the average televised horse race?

Jan. 29, 2007 — What’s wrong with this picture?

Spent a few minutes this morning looking through the National Federation’s website to see if there had been any published result of the voting last week regarding the mandatory imposition of eyewear in field hockey.

At the same time, I looked through the roster of the High School Hall of Fame, which includes honorees from the athletic, fine arts, and administrative wings of school activities covered under the aegis of the Federation.

The athletes and coaches, especially, are amongst the best ever at their craft — John Wooden, Jack Nicklaus, Dan Gable, Jesse Owens, Cheryl Miller, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

But if you look through the rostrum of honorees, there are two groups conspicuously absent: field hockey and lacrosse players. Field hockey luminaries such as Constance Applebee, Sharon Landau, Nancy Williams, Audrey Latsko, Haley Exner and even Olympian Tracey Fuchs are completely absent (although Fuchs’ coach Nancy Cole is a 2006 inductee).

Now, the absence of lacrosse figures is understandable, given the fact that the Federation hasn’t sanctioned the sport in the United States until a few years ago. However, given the 102-year history of field hockey in this country, the lack of field hockey representation in the NFHS Hall of Fame is unacceptable.

What is needed are compelling nomination packages submitted by the general public, using this form.

Jan. 28, 2007 — A “now it can be told” moment

Five months ago, the day of the “Miracle on Turf” when the U.S. women’s field hockey team beat defending World Cup champion Argentina, I was checking over the recording equipment necessary to do my story on the influence of men’s soccer systems on the women’s field hockey teams in the March to Madrid tournament.

While the fans were filing into the University of Maryland’s Field Hockey & Lacrosse Complex, I was sitting in a room just across from the U.S. locker room listening through my inventory of MiniDiscs to make sure I wasn’t going to overwrite a previous interview.

There was one disc, however, that had some tracks on it, and the first few seconds of Track 1 were completely silent. All of a sudden, there was a repeating guitar vamp, then a chorus of voices, then someone in an Australian accent rasping the word “Thun-dah!” in time with heavy drumming.

It was the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. Just at that moment, the U.S. field hockey team came off the pitch and walked by my open door as I was listening to the song.

One by one, they gave me a little smile; I had gotten to know many of them somewhere along the line in their development. With AC/DC in my ears, I gave them a little fist pump as they made their way down the hall.

Now, I’m not supposed to be a cheerleader, but I was trying to send them a little bit of “go out there and git ’em” energy. And I felt a bit like a proud papa after that amazing victory!

So, what’s the purpose of me telling you this now? I was looking through my collection of MiniDiscs yesterday to find enough free space to digitize a couple of jazz concerts that were on a pair of found cassette tapes a friend of mine found when sifting through her grandparents’ personal effects.

The first disc I found had a few seconds of silence, then that familiar guitar vamp started again. It was “Thunderstruck” again.

I guess thunder can strike the same place twice.

Jan. 27, 2007 — Seren-ahhhh!

It was an amazing performance by tennis superstar Serena Williams last night at the Australian Open. She had played just four matches in 2006, slipped to a ranking in the 80s, and had given indications that her tennis career would be supplanted by detours into acting and clothing design.

But Williams is made of sterner stuff than that. Playing in only her second tournament since August, she had trouble early but breezed through the rest of the draw on the way to meeting world No. 1 Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova had become a tennis and media darling who had taken over the vacuum left when both Serena and her sister Venus Williams dropped off the tennis circuit. She had all of the charisma of an Anna Kournikova, but is an athletic 6-foot-4, and blasted groundstrokes with that frame that rivaled a Steffi Graf.

Serena Williams, however, blasted out to a 5-0 lead in the first set of the 2007 Australian Open final and never let the foot off the gas pedal, winning in 63 minutes and only allowing Sharapova to win three games the entire match.

In short, it was like the women’s tennis circuit in 2002 and 2003, when the Williamses won just about everything they entered, including Grand Slam tournaments. And in a year when the top-ranked American female tennis players are virtually unknown, Serena Williams is now ranked No. 14.

It’s a matter of time before Venus makes herself known, too.

Jan. 26, 2007 — And so, it begins …

The women’s lacrosse season begins this weekend in Florida with five games at Walt Disney World featuring Massachusetts, Northwestern, the U.S. national and developmental teams, and the club teams from Central Florida and the University of Florida.

I find it interesting that the University of Florida, which begins varsity play next year, is part of the opening festivities, since the school holds the two major “revenue sport” championships — men’s Division I basketball and the Bowl Championship Series title for football.

Historically, Florida has not been as much of an athletics school as USC or Texas, although the school has fielded national championship caliber teams in many non-revenue sports such as swimming, golf, and women’s soccer.

It’s hard to know if the women’s lacrosse team in Gainseville will develop into seimilar championship form, and perhaps it is unfair to compare the potential of Florida to that of startup teams like Northwestern, which has won two national championships only five years into its existence.

Expectation like these are unfair; lightning like the kind that the Koester twins, Kelly Amonte-Hiller, and Kristen Kjellman have created in Evanston is very, very unlikely to strike in the world of women’s lacrosse again.

But the game is growing in Florida, and recruits from other parts of the country could be lured to the campus with temperate weather and a chance to build something great. It should be fun to monitor the Gators’ progress.

Jan. 25, 2007 — The perils of not being detail-oriented

I was talking with an umpire a few years ago at one of the nation’s cathedrals of high-school field hockey at an all-star game. I mentioned to him how much I enjoyed coming to this place, located in central New Jersey with its terraced terrain, allowing fans to sit down on a hill right next to the action.

He sidled up to me and talked to me in a low voice. “Did you know that this field is illegal?”

I was nonplussed. How can that be the case? The team had played in this very spot for more than 60 years, and the school had to know a thing or two about how a pitch is laid out.

He pointed to an area about five yards into the pitch. “They haven’t had the alley lines in several years.”

And field hockey being a game which has a rule that says, “no marks other than those described in this Rule are to be made on the playing surface,” the five-yard alley lines shouldn’t have been there.

And for good reason; the visual mark for a side-in would have changed to seven yards for high-schoolers given the new rules for free hits. Now, for the 2006 season, the high-school and college field markings were not the same in 2006. The dashed circle on a college pitch got moved from five yards to five meters outside of the scoring circle.

So, what’s the point of this blog entry? I have an observation which can now be told. In no field hockey state final that I saw on a college pitch was the field properly marked. Yep, if your field hockey team played a postseason match on a college field, it is likely you were playing on an illegal pitch.

Thankfully, I saw no situation at the end of a half or game in which the attacking team used that extra yard in their penalty corner. But with some of the misinterpretations of the rule that occurred this year, a misplaced dashed circle is the least of the game’s problems.