College Football: Week Eight Power Rankings and Week Nine Twitter Picks

Power Rankings for Week Eight

Week eight saw top-ranked Alabama continue their domination over the SEC with a 33-14 win over #6 Texas A&M, the stunning upset of Penn State over Ohio State in a very happy Happy Valley, and many of the rest of the College Football Playoff contenders either having the weekend off or dominating a lesser team as expected.

After Penn State’s upset win, they enter these rankings for the first time since 2014.  LSU, Virginia Tech, and Colorado each re-enter the rankings this week after big conference wins, including LSU’s over Ole Miss and Virginia Tech’s over Miami.

As a result, the Rebels and Hurricanes have fallen from the rankings this week, along with Houston, after their upset loss at SMU, and Arkansas, after their 56-3 drubbing at the hands of Auburn.  Auburn is this week’s biggest mover, rising nine spots.

The next game for all nine remaining undefeated teams is on the road (although two of those are next week due to byes), with four of them facing ranked opponents.

1. Alabama (8-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
2. Clemson (7-0, 3rd, 3rd)
3. Michigan (7-0, 4th, 2nd)
4. Washington (7-0, 5th, 4th)
5. Louisville (6-1, 7th, 5th)

6. Ohio State (6-1, 2nd, 6th)
7. Baylor (6-0, 8th, 8th)
8. Nebraska (7-0, 9th, 7th)
9. Wisconsin (5-2, 10th, 11th)
10. Texas A&M (6-1, 6th, 9th)

11. Florida State (5-2, 11th, 12th)
12. Oklahoma (5-2, 12th, 16th)
13. Boise State (7-0, 13th, 13th)
14. Florida (5-1, 14th, 14th)
15. Auburn (5-2, 24th, 15th)

16. North Carolina (6-2, 15th, 21st)
17. West Virginia (6-0, 17th, 10th)
18. Tennessee (5-2, 18th, 18th)
19. Utah (6-1, 25th, 17th)
20. LSU (5-2, unranked, 19th)

21. Western Michigan (8-0, 21st, 20th)
22. Navy (5-1, 22nd, 22nd)
23. Penn State (5-2, unranked, 24th)
24. Virginia Tech (5-2, unranked, 25th)
25. Colorado (6-2, unranked, 23rd)

Fell from Rankings:  Houston (6-2, Last Week: 16th), Arkansas (5-3, 19th), Ole Miss (3-4, 20th), Miami (4-3, 23rd)

 

Twitter Picks for Week Nine

Game of the Week

#3 Clemson (7-0) at #12 Florida State (5-2)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Clemson by 5
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Clemson- 2nd, Florida State- 11th

 

Big Game Guarantee

#4 Washington (7-0) at #17 Utah (6-1)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, FS1
Favorite:  Washington by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Washington- 4th, Utah- 19th

 

Upset of the Week

#10 West Virginia (6-0) at Oklahoma State ()
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  West Virginia by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  West Virginia- 17th, Oklahoma State- unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

#2 Michigan (7-0) at Michigan State ()
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Michigan by 24
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Michigan- 3rd, Michigan State- unranked

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think

#8 Baylor (6-0) at Texas (3-4)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Baylor by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Baylor- 7th, Texas- unranked

 

Overhyped Game

Miami (4-3) at Notre Dame (2-5)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Miami by 2
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Group of Five Game of the Week

#13 Boise State (7-0) at Wyoming (5-2)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, CBSSN
Favorite:  Boise State by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Boise State- 13th, Wyoming- unranked

 

Is This Futbol?

#7 Nebraska (7-0) at #11 Wisconsin (5-2)
Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Wisconsin by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Nebraska- 8th, Wisconsin- 9th

 

Is This Basketball?

Texas Tech (3-4) at TCU (4-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite:  TCU by 9
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Toilet Bowl

Stanford (4-3) at Arizona (2-5)
Saturday, 11:00 pm ET, FS1
Favorite:  Stanford by 6
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party

#14 Florida (5-1) at Georgia (4-3)
at Jacksonville, Fla. (EverBank Field)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Florida by 8
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Florida- 14th, Georgia- unranked

 

NFL Game of the Week

Philadelphia Eagles (4-2) at Dallas Cowboys (5-1)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Cowboys by 4

 

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record:  52-42-1
Last Week:  7-4-1
College Overall Record: 50-38
NFL Game of the Week: 2-4-1

Game of the Week:  4-4
Big Game Guarantee:  3-5
Upset of the Week:  3-5
Closer Than the Experts Think:  3-5
Not Closer Than the Experts Think:  7-1
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game:  4-4
Group of Five Game of the Week:  6-2
Is This Futbol?:  6-2
Is This Basketball?:  7-1
Toilet Bowl:  4-4
Miscellaneous:  3-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

2016 World Series Preview: The Series to End All Droughts

Someone will win the World Series this year that hasn’t won it in a very long time.

If you are 68 or younger, whichever team wins the World Series in the next week will do so for the first time in your lifetime.

The unique 112th edition of the World Series matches the two franchises with the longest championship droughts in MLB, and two of the three longest in major North American professional sports (along with the Arizona Cardinals).  The Cleveland Indians are seeking their first title since 1948, in their first Fall Classic appearance since 1997, while the Chicago Cubs have waited even longer, as they seek their first championship since 1908, after winning their first pennant since 1945.  This series will set a record for the longest combined championship drought (176 years), breaking the previous record, which also involved a Chicago team (the 2005 White Sox and Astros), by 44 years.

The Cubs reached the World Series by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, winning three straight to overcome a 2-1 series deficit and win in six games.  The Cubs previously defeated the San Francisco Giants in the best-of-five NLDS, 3-1.

As strong as the Cubs have played, the Indians have been even more impressive on their way to the AL Pennant.  After sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, the Tribe took a 3-0 series lead against the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS before winning in five games.

Here is a look at how the two teams match up:

Pitching

Two the best pitching staffs in baseball are meeting in the World Series, as it should be.

The Cubs led MLB with a 3.15 team ERA in the regular season, and have been even better in the postseason, with a 2.93 mark, and a 2.89 clip in the NLCS.

The Cubs rotation features two of the three top contenders for the NL Cy Young Award in Game 1 starter Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, NLCS co-MVP) and Game 3 starter Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA [led NL], winner of NLCS Game 6), as well as 2015 NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10 ERA), who will start Game 2, and postseason veteran and Game 4 starter John Lackey (11-8, 3.35 ERA).  In the event of a seven-game series, it is likely that Lester, Arrieta, and Hendricks would pitch games five through seven, respectively.

The Cubs relief corps has a respectable 3.56 ERA, led by closer Aroldis Chapman (36/39 saves, 1.55 ERA), while supplemental bullpen arms Carl Edwards (0.00 ERA in 3.2 postseason IP) and Travis Wood (1.93 ERA in 4.2 postseason IP) have both been solid in the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Indians bullpen (3.45 ERA in regular season, 1.67 in postseason)  has been unfathomably good throughout the postseason thus far.  The unit is anchored by ALCS MVP Andrew Miller (0.00 ERA in 11.2 postseason IP), who has acted as a sort of utility reliever, coming into various situations when manager Terry Francona called upon him.  Closer Cody Allen (0.00 ERA in 5.2 postseason IP, five postseason saves) has also been strong.

That bullpen is what has carried Cleveland, as their rotation (4.08 ERA in regular season) has had its share of attrition issues.  Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 ERA) is a legitimate ace who may win his second AL Cy Young Award this year, but beyond him the Indians struggle to match up against the strong Cubs rotation.  Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26 ERA), who only lasted 0.2 innings in his Game 3 ALCS start because of a vicious cut finger, will start Game 2, and Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40 ERA) Game 3.

A wild card for the Tribe is Danny Salazar, who hasn’t pitched since September 9 due to a forearm injury, but is on the roster and may start Game 4 (or Game 5 if they bring Kluber back on short rest), while rookie Ryan Merritt (4.1 scoreless innings in ALCS Game 5) is the other likely option.

The Indians have collectively pitched to a 1.77 postseason ERA, after a commendable 3.84 mark in the regular season.

Offense

The Cubs potent offense was second in the NL in runs (808), fifth in homers (199), first in OBP (.343), and second in OPS (.772).  The Indians, by comparison, were second in the AL in runs (777), second in doubles (308), third in batting average (.262), and first in steals (134).

Anthony Rizzo (.292 BA, 32 HR, 109 RBI) and Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 39 HR, 102 RBI) led the Cubs offense all year, and after Rizzo had a slow start to the NLCS, he still ended the series with good numbers (.320 BA, 2 HR, 5 RBI), as did series MVP Javier Baez (.318 BA, 5 RBI, 2 SB).  The postseason has seen struggles from and Jason Heyward (.071 BA in postseason), although he is not in the Cubs’ Game 1 lineup, replaced in right field by Chris Coghlan (.252 BA, 16 RBI in 48 games).

Like the Indians with Salazar, the Cubs have their own wild card–Kyle Schwarber.  Schwarber, who hit five home runs for the Cubs in nine playoff games in 2015, tore two knee ligaments on April 7th and has not played a major league game since.  He was cleared by doctors on October 17th to hit and run, although he will not play the field, serving as DH for the games in Cleveland and a pinch-hitting option for the games at Wrigley Field.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is not holding Schwarber back, inserting him as the 5-spot hitter in the Game 1 lineup, even though Schwarber was 1-for-6 with a walk in the two Arizona Fall League games that served as his de facto rehab assignment.  Whether Schwarber can hit MLB pitching–and World Series-caliber pitching at that–could be a big key for the Cubs in this series.

The Indians lineup is led by Mike Napoli (.239 BA, 34 HR, 101 RBI), Carlos Santana (.259 BA, 34 HR, 87 RBI), and young-gun Francisco Lindor (.301 BA, 15 HR, 78 RBI).  Jason Kipnis (.275 BA, 23 HR, 82 RBI) is another one of the team’s offensive leaders, although his bat was cold in the ALCS (.053 BA in series, 1 HR).  Lindor has performed well in the playoffs (.345 BA, 2 HR, 4 RBI), as has Lonnie Chisenhall (.269 BA, 1 HR, 4 RBI).

Other Factors

Both managers in this series have had excellent careers, and are two of the absolute best in the business.  Indians manager Terry Francona helped end the Red Sox 86-year curse in 2004, and won another title there in 2007, making this his third World Series appearance.  Francona took over the Indians in 2013.

Cubs skipper Joe Maddon took the Tampa Bay Rays to the 2008 World Series, losing to the Phillies, and was always known for getting the most of his players in Tampa.  That still holds true in Chicago, although he now has a much more talented roster than any Rays team he managed.  Maddon took over the Cubs before the 2015 season.

These two managers have combined for four Manager of the Year awards (Maddon 3, Francona 1), and become the 16th and 17th managers in major league history to take multiple franchises to the World Series.

The Indians have home-field advantage in the Series (all because a Giant gave up a homer to a Royal in an “exhibition game” on July 12, but I digress).  With both fan bases so hungry for a championship, each and every game should be an incredible atmosphere, as it should be in the Fall Classic.

That said, with a team trying to end a drought involved in a World Series, I might would say that hungry team and that fan base could get some small advantage as a result.  But in this series, with respective title droughts of 68 and 108 years, there is no such advantage.

For what it’s worth, looking at my “Trends of a World Champion” categories, the Cubs have an advantage in five of them, while the Indians do in four, and one is a tie.

Prediction

The Cubs offense has produced better in the playoffs (4.8 runs per game, and 3.4 runs per game for Cleveland), and while the Indians battered rotation would be sufficient to get through a regular season, they are not up to the Cubs standard, while the Indians bullpen, even as good as they are, is unlikely to stay so incredibly hot for between four and seven more games.

The Cubs will win the series, 4-2.

 

World Series Schedule (all games on FOX, at 8:08 pm ET unless otherwise noted)
Game 1:  Tuesday, October 25

Game 2:  Wednesday, October 26
Game 3:  Friday, October 28
Game 4:  Saturday, October 29
Game 5:  Sunday, October 30, 8:15 pm ET (if necessary)
Game 6:  Tuesday, November 1 (if necessary)
Game 7:  Wednesday, November 2 (if necessary)

Column: The Last Time the Cubs Were In the World Series

Saturday night, the Chicago Cubs advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1945, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers 5-0 to win the National League Championship Series in six games to meet the Cleveland Indians in the Fall Classic, starting Tuesday.

In that 1945 World Series, the Cubs met the Detroit Tigers.  It was the Cubs 10th World Series appearance in the first 42 editions of the World Series, although the North-Siders had only won in two of their previous appearances (1907-08), and would end up losing to the Tigers in seven games.

When that World Series was contested, Harry S. Truman had just become president six months earlier after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Between then and the World Series that October, Truman had already overseen the end of World War II, winning in Europe 25 days after Roosevelt’s death, and in Japan in August.

(Outspoken Cub fan Steve Goodman, known for writing “Go Cubs Go,” pointed out that parallel history in a lyric in his song “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” saying “You know the law of averages says anything will happen that can, but the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.”)

In the month before the 1945 World Series, Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and American military occupation of Korea began, with both events setting the stage for major conflicts over the coming years.

The average house cost $4,600 in 1945, and a gallon of gas costs 15 cents.  The Bells of St. Mary’s starring Bing Crosby was the top-grossing film of the year, and Crosby won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Going My Way, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Animal Farm and Stuart Little were among the novels published in 1945.

Microwave ovens and cruise control were invented in 1945, and less than 10,000 homes had television sets, while the credit card, defibrillator, and hair spray were all invented over the next three years.

Don McLean was born the day before the World Series, while fellow entertainers Tom Selleck, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Bob Seger, John Fogerty, Steve Martin, Neil Young, and Bette Midler and journalists Chris Matthews and Diane Sawyer were all also born in 1945.  Sports figures Pat Riley, Walt Frazier, Gary Williams, Hale Irwin, Phil Jackson, Jim Palmer, and Larry Bowa were also born in 1945, and Hall of Famer Rod Carew was born two days before the World Series.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would not be born for another year and two years, respectively.  My grandparents were between 9 and 18 years old.

World War II resulted in the deaths of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Anne Frank in 1945, while general George Patton died shortly after the war’s conclusion.

As the 1945 World Series was played, no black players were on either team, as Jackie Robinson would not break baseball’s color barrier for another two years.  The first Cubs player to appear in the 2016 World Series opener on Tuesday in Cleveland will likely be African-American outfielder Dexter Fowler, the Cubs usual leadoff hitter.

The years 1945 and 2016 are quite different, as society, culture, and even the timeless game of baseball have all seen big changes.  But in 1945 and 2016, one thing is the same:  The Chicago Cubs are National League champions.

The curse of the billy-goat, the black cat, and the Bartman game have blocked potential World Series appearances for the Cubs, but now, finally, 71 years later, the Cubs are back in the World Series.

It’s been a long time coming.

 

 

World Series Schedule (all games on FOX, at 8:08 pm ET unless otherwise noted)
Game 1:  Tuesday, October 25

Game 2:  Wednesday, October 26
Game 3:  Friday, October 28
Game 4:  Saturday, October 29
Game 5:  Sunday, October 30, 8:15 pm ET (if necessary)
Game 6:  Tuesday, November 1 (if necessary)
Game 7:  Wednesday, November 2 (if necessary)

Twitter Picks for College Football Week Eight

Game of the Week

#6 Texas A&M (6-0) at #1 Alabama (7-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite:  Alabama by 18
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Texas A&M- 6th, Alabama- 1st

 

Big Game Guarantee

#23 Ole Miss (3-3) at #25 LSU (4-2)
Saturday, 9:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  LSU by 6
SOS Ranking:  Ole Miss- 20th, LSU- unranked

 

Upset of the Week

#19 Utah (5-1) at UCLA (3-4)
Saturday, 4:00 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  UCLA by 7
SOS Ranking:  Utah- 25th, UCLA- unranked

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

NC State (4-2) at #7 Louisville (5-1)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Louisville by 19
SOS Ranking:  NC State- unranked, Louisville- 7th

 

Not Closer Than the Experts Think

TCU (4-2) at #12 West Virginia (5-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite:  West Virginia by 6
SOS Ranking:  TCU- unranked, West Virginia- 17th

 

Bad Spread Game

#17 Arkansas (5-2) at #21 Auburn (4-2)
Saturday, 6:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Auburn by 9.5
SOS Ranking: Arkansas- 19th, Auburn- 24th

 

Group of Five Game of the Week

Memphis (5-1) at #24 Navy (4-1)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBSSN
Favorite:  Memphis by 2
SOS Ranking:  Memphis- unranked, Navy- 24th

 

Is This Futbol?

#10 Wisconsin (4-2) at Iowa (5-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Wisconsin by 3
SOS Ranking:  Wisconsin- 10th, Iowa- unranked

 

Is This Basketball?

#16 Oklahoma (4-2) at Texas Tech (3-3)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, FOX
Favorite:  Oklahoma by 14
SOS Ranking:  Oklahoma- 12th, Texas Tech- unranked

 

Toilet Bowl

Syracuse (3-4) at Boston College (3-3)
Saturday, 12:30 pm ET, ACCN
Favorite:  Boston College by 5
SOS Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Miscellaneous:  The Former NFL Coaches Meet

Illinois (2-4) at #3 Michigan (6-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite:  Michigan by 36
SOS Ranking:  Illinois- unranked, Michigan- 4th

 

NFL Game of the Week

Seattle Seahawks (4-1) at Arizona Cardinals (3-3)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite:  Cardinals by 2

 

For what it’s worth…

Overall Record:  45-38
Last Week:  10-2
College Overall Record: 43-34
NFL Game of the Week: 2-4

Game of the Week:  3-4
Big Game Guarantee:  3-4
Upset of the Week:  2-5
Closer Than the Experts Think:  3-4
Not Closer Than the Experts Think:  6-1
Overhyped/Bad Spread Game:  4-3
Group of Five Game of the Week:  6-1
Is This Futbol?:  5-2
Is This Basketball?:  6-1
Toilet Bowl:  3-4
Miscellaneous:  2-5

For an explanation of the categories for Twitter Picks, click here.

College Football Power Rankings for Week Seven

1. Alabama (7-0, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 1st)
Last Week:  def. #9 Tennessee, 49-10
This Week:  Saturday vs. #6 Texas A&M
Alabama entered Saturday’s game facing their toughest test of the season, and all they did was give Tennessee their worst loss in the Tide-Volunteers series since 1906.  This team, and especially its defense, is clearly the best team in the country.

2. Ohio State (6-0, 4th, 2nd)
Last Week:  def. #8 Wisconsin, 30-23 (ot)
This Week:  Saturday at Penn State
The Buckeyes survived a trip to Camp Randall in Madison, coming from behind to beat Wisconsin in overtime for the big road win, and moving into second in these rankings.  Now the schedule lightens up a little, at least until the Buckeyes host Nebraska on November 5.

3. Clemson (7-0, 2nd, 4th)
Last Week:  def. NC State, 24-17 (ot)
This Week:  idle
Clemson should not have won their game against NC State, as the Wolfpack missed three field goals including a 33-yard would-be game-winner as time expired.  But the Tigers survived, and only fell a spot in these rankings as a result of Ohio State’s big win.  Clemson is off this weekend ahead of a trip to Tallahassee next week.

4. Michigan (6-0, 3rd, 3rd)
Last Week:  idle
This Week:  Saturday vs. Illinois
The Wolverines got to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show of college football this past weekend, as they had the weekend off.  Looking forward, games at Michigan State and Iowa look much easier now than they did in September, meaning that if the Wolverines play well they should enter “The Game” at Ohio State on November 26 at 11-0.

5. Washington (6-0, 5th, 5th)
Last Week:  idle
This Week:  Saturday vs. Oregon State
The Huskies also had an open weekend, and looking forward there’s good news and bad news for them.  The good news is that their schedule the rest of the way isn’t all that difficult, but the bad news is that, even with a perfect record, their best win so far is probably Stanford, leaving them as a team that could potentially go undefeated, but without a true quality win, even as the would-be champion of a Power Five league.

6. Texas A&M (6-0, 7th, 6th)
Last Week:  idle
This Week:  Saturday at #1 Alabama
The Aggies had the weekend off, giving them a well-deserved week off after beating Tennessee in double overtime, but also a much-needed week off ahead of this week’s showdown against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

7. Louisville (5-1, 6th, 7th)
Last Week:  def. Duke, 24-14
This Week:  Saturday vs. NC State
The Cardinals weren’t very convincing in their Friday night win over Duke, but they did find a way to win, and in fact outgained the Blue Devils 469-239.  NC State, who nearly beat Clemson on the road, comes to Louisville this weekend.

8. Baylor (6-0, 11th, 9th)
Last Week:  def. Kansas, 49-7
This Week:  idle
Baylor did as expected and walloped Kansas, forcing five turnovers in the win.  Four of the Bears’ last six games are on the road, starting next weekend at Texas, and including late-season trips to Oklahoma and West Virginia.

9. Nebraska (6-0, 10th, 8th)
Last Week:  def. Indiana, 27-22
This Week:  Saturday vs. Purdue
The Cornhuskers survived a trip to Hoosier territory on Saturday, and have a game this week against Purdue, who just fired coach Darrell Hazel.  Nebraska’s best win is currently over Oregon, but starting next week they’ll have a chance to change that, with back-to-back trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin.

10. Wisconsin (4-2, 8th, 10th)
Last Week:   lost to #2 Ohio State, 30-23 (ot)
This Week:  Saturday at Iowa
The Badgers led by as many as 10, but allowed Ohio State to come from behind twice in the fourth quarter.  With two close losses to teams ranked second and third in the AP Poll the Badgers are the highest-ranked two-loss team, but it is hard to see them having a road to the College Football Playoff, leading to the country music fan in me tweeting this:

 

11. Florida State (5-2, 12th, 13th)
12. Oklahoma (4-2, 14th, 16th)
13. Boise State (6-0, 16th, 14th)
14. Florida (5-1, 19th, 15th)
15. North Carolina (5-2, 20th, 22nd)

16. Houston (6-1, 17th, 11th)
17. West Virginia (5-0, 21st, 12th)
18. Tennessee (5-2, 9th, 18th)
19. Arkansas (5-2, 24th, 17th)
20. Ole Miss (3-3, 13th, 23rd)

21. Western Michigan (7-0, 23rd, 20th)
22. Navy (4-1, 22nd, 24th)
23. Miami (5-2, 18th, unranked)
24. Auburn (4-2, 25th, 21st)
25. Utah (5-1, unranked, 19th)

Fell from Rankings:  Virginia Tech (4-2, Last Week: 15th)

Also ranked in AP Poll:  LSU (3-2, AP: 25th)

Fast Five: I Was There

I have been to plenty of sporting events, but some stand out more than others in my memory bank as the best events I’ve ever seen.  Each has their own unique story from my individual perspective.

October 4th marked the release of the new book I Was There, in which 65 of the biggest names in sports media share the five greatest sporting events they have witnessed in person.  The book was compiled by self-described “sports industry lifer” Eric Mirlis.

The criteria for the book is intentionally vague, meaning each contributor to the book can have their own interpretation of what their “greatest events” are.  As a result, in addition to the obvious examples of classic Super Bowls and championship games or series, there are some very outside-the-box events listed by the book’s participants.  Some of the events listed are all-time classics, while others have a deeper personal meaning.

The five events listed by each contributor are listed in chronological order, allowing the writers and broadcasters participating to not have to rank any of their five events over another.

I have seen 14 NASCAR races (10 Cup Series, 3 XFinity Series, 1 Truck Series), 11 MLB games, six ACC men’s basketball games, five PGA Tour events (but nine rounds), 2 FBS college football games, one NBA game, and too many Division II college games, Minor League Baseball games, collegiate summer league baseball games, and high school games to count.

But like anyone else, some of mine stand out, for different reasons.  And while I have not seen a Super Bowl or a World Series game, I have still seen some amazing events.

Here are the five greatest events I have witnessed, plus the five best I have covered:

Five Best Events I’ve Witnessed

Wake Forest at Clemson, Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C., January 24, 2015

I attend school at Anderson University, about 30 minutes away from Clemson’s campus, but having grown up in the Triad of North Carolina, I am a Wake Forest fan.  For Christmas a month before, I was given two tickets to Wake Forest’s game at Clemson.  I took my friend Garrett, a Clemson fan, and our seats were in the very last row, near the location of the TV cameras.

Wake Forest was in their first year under coach Danny Manning, after a 2-32 ACC road record under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, and came in at 9-10 and 1-5 in the ACC, while Clemson entered at 10-8 and 2-4, so this was still a game between two bottom-half teams, but it was still an ACC men’s basketball game.

The Demon Deacons led over 39 minutes of the game, before Clemson took the lead with 0:58 left, and Wake Forest tied the game with a Devin Thomas free throw with 0:35.  Thomas missed the second free throw, but the Deacs got the rebound and looked like they would have the ability to set up the last shot and try to win.  But after Codi Miller-McIntyre turned the ball over with 0:25 left, and after Rod Hall drove inside but missed his shot, little-used reserve Josh Smith, who had just 14 baskets his last 19 games, got an offensive rebound and putback to put Clemson up 59-57 with 0.5 seconds left.  The play was essentially a buzzer-beater, and gave Wake Forest (another) heartbreaking loss on the road in ACC play.

Garrett could not have been more grateful for the free ticket to the game, so when the shot fell in, this was his reaction:  “Yeaaah! Yeaaah! (turns to me) Sorry. (turns back to the court) Yeaaah!”

Wyndham Championship, First Round, Sedgefield Country Club, Greensboro, N.C., August 18, 2015

Growing up in the Piedmont Triad, I attended the Wyndham Championship each year from 2007-09.  I saw the first PGA Tour wins of Brandt Snedeker (2007) and Ryan Moore (2009), as well as hometown favorite Carl Petterson’s lights-out round of 61 on his way to victory (2008).  We moved to South Carolina in late 2009, so I had not been back to Sedgefield since.

The week before the 2015 edition, with the Wyndham marking the last event of the PGA Tour’s “regular season” before the FedEx Cup Playoffs, I wondered if Tiger Woods, who was 187th in points, well below the playoff cutoff, may come to Greensboro for the first time in his career.  It seemed like a long shot, as under similar circumstances in 2011 he did not play in Greensboro and accepted his fate of his season being over.

And yet, the Friday night before the Wyndham, Woods committed to the event.  With one of the greatest athletes of all time coming to the Wyndham, which I still considered my “home event” on the PGA Tour, I bought a ticket for Thursday’s opening round within minutes of the announcement he was coming.  My non-golfing aunt, Terri, also decided to go and take in history–I don’t think she knew who any of the other 155 players in the field were, but she wanted to see Tiger Woods too.

We arrived at Sedgefield early enough to see Tiger warm up, then began following his group when he teed off.  I had seen Tiger at Quail Hollow in Charlotte in 2009, but this day would be much better.  Tiger teed off at 7:50 am, meaning Tiger’s gallery was smaller that day than any other day of the tournament, and seeing him in the Wyndham for the first time was a dream come true.  It became even more amazing when he played very well.

Tiger holed an incredible pitch shot for birdie on the 10th hole (his first hole), then bogeyed 11, leading me to think he had shown a glimmer of his old self before fading back into his struggles.  I was wrong, as he would birdie the 13th, 15th, and 18th holes for a 3-under-par 32 on the back nine, before birdieing the first, fourth, and fifth in a bogey-free front nine to shoot a round of 64.

This was (and still is) Tiger’s lowest round in competition since 2013.  Playing with Tiger were Hideki Matsuyama, who shot 65, and Brooks Koepka (who would eventually be a big part of last week’s U.S. Ryder Cup victory), who shot 67, but this was Tiger’s day.

Tiger, who needed to finish at least second to make the FedEx Cup Playoffs, would shoot a 65 the following day, and entered the weekend tied for the lead, and played well again on Saturday, entering the final round in a tie for second, before a triple-bogey on the 11th on Sunday ended his shot at victory and advancement.

Two weeks later, Tiger announced he had undergone more back surgery, and was out indefinitely.  Throughout 2016 he hinted at a comeback, but the 2015 Wyndham Championship is still his last start on the PGA Tour to date.

*Editor’s note:  to read more on my day following Tiger Woods at the Wyndham Championship, click here.


Bojangles’ Southern 500, Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C., September 6, 2015

Early in the 2015 NASCAR season, my friend Kevin told me he would very likely be able to get pit passes to Darlington for Southern 500 weekend.  I made sure he got us a third pit pass so Terri, the reason I am a racing fan to begin with, could come along.  She had never been to Darlington, but now would now, through the pit passes, get the greatest access in all of sports.

Kevin came in on Friday night, and him and I spent Saturday at the track for Cup Series qualifying and the XFinity Series event.  Kevin is friends with Harrison Rhodes, an NC State student by week and racecar driver by weekend, who was driving in the event.  As a result, we sat on his pit box for the entire time that he was in the race (he parked after 80 laps for his team’s financial reasons).  Denny Hamlin, Kevin’s favorite driver, won that Saturday event.

My favorite driver is Jeff Gordon, who was in his last season and was making what was supposed to be his final start at one of his best tracks (he ended up running Darlington again in 2016, filling in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.).  The pit passes allowed me to get his autograph on Sunday, as well as many other drivers.  We watched cars go through technical inspection up close, then made our way to pit road for the race itself.

This was the first year Darlington hosted a “throwback weekend,” so many of the paint schemes were throwbacks to the legends of years past.  The track played 70’s music over the speakers in the hours leading up to the race, and Tanya Tucker sang the national anthem.

Multiple MRN Radio announcers called this the “race of the year,” as there were 24 lead changes among 11 drivers, and 18 caution flags over the 367 laps that make up 500 miles around the venerable egg-shaped oval.  As the race got late, Brad Keselowski appeared to have a strong grip on the race lead, as he led every lap from lap 304 to 356 (except during pit stops) before a late caution bunched up the field.

On the final restart, Carl Edwards took the lead away, and led the remaining laps to win his first Southern 500.  During the “cool-down lap,” as Edwards came back around to the frontstretch, Kevin and I took off running towards the center of pit road to get a view of Edwards’ famous backflip celebration, which was cool to see in person.

One takeaway from this race is how much I found it ironic that with pit passes, the best access a fan can get in any sport, you still ended up essentially watching the race on TV, as we watched the monitors on the back of each team’s pit box.


Racing Electronics 100, Bowman Gray Stadium, Winston-Salem, N.C., August 5, 2016

Bowman Gray Stadium is a bull-ring short track in eastern Winston-Salem, in a stadium that doubles as the home of Winston-Salem State University football.  The track is one of the longest-running short tracks in the country, and is known as “The Madhouse” after many of the wild events which have unfolded on the quarter-mile circuit.

I lived about 20 minutes from Bowman Gray Stadium growing up, but only went to a race there once before we moved to South Carolina.  This summer I lived in the area again, while interning for the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, so one of the things I wanted to do during the summer was to go to a Bowman Gray race with Terri.  The schedule made it difficult, as the Asheboro Copperheads had a game nearly every Saturday night, but we looked at Bowman Gray’s schedule and saw a Friday night in early August when the Copperheads were away.

We got to the track early enough to see the famous modifieds make their qualifying runs, followed by preliminary races featuring cars called Bandoleros.  These were short races featuring pre-teen up-and-coming drivers in cars that were not very powerful, but could still put on a decent show.

The modifieds then came out for their 100-lapper, and were led to the green by local legend Burt Myers.  Tim Brown, another longtime Bowman Gray driver and multi-time track champion, started at the back after his engine misfired in qualifying.  While I watched the action at the front, I also kept an eye on Brown at the back, and early in the race he struggled to make headway trying to get through the field.

Cautions and restarts helped aide Brown, and eventually on a restart with about 25 to go he was second, on the outside of Myers, who had led from the outset.  On the restart, Brown passed Myers off of turn two on the outside, a hard feat in short-track racing, to take the lead for the first time.

Two laps later, while Myers was trying to chase Brown back down, the skies opened up and a heavy rainstorm hit Bowman Gray.  Brown was awarded the win in the rain-shortened race, a victory that was likely among his finest, considering how hard he had to work to get through the field.

Terri and I got back to my grandparents’ house, where I was spending the summer, in time to watch most of the parade of nations at the Rio Olympics.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the last race I attended with Terri before she unexpectedly passed away a month later.

 

Detroit Tigers at Atlanta Braves, Turner Field, Atlanta, Ga., October 2, 2016

Emotions are always higher when you are seeing something happen that will never happen again, and the same is true in sports.  Every MLB game I have ever attended was at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, and on this day I was fortunate enough to attend the final game in the venue’s history.  I got upper deck tickets for my dad and I for his birthday, knowing how much of an affection both of us have for the stadium.

Dad left home in Mullins before 5 a.m., and was in Anderson before 9, and we were on our way.  We took the MARTA train and bus to the stadium, and arrived shortly after the gates opened.

The Braves Museum and Hall of Fame was open to the public for free, so we walked through and explored the history of the Braves franchise through its years in Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta.  It was the first time since 2005 either of us had seen the museum.

We got to our seat about 45 minutes before the 3:10 p.m. first pitch, and took in the pregame ceremony, in which Braves legends including Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones and Javy Lopez all took the field as part of the All-Turner Field Team.  That team also included “The Big Three” of Hall of Fame pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, who threw out ceremonial first pitches after being delivered baseballs by Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox.

The opponent for the final game was the Detroit Tigers, who were still playing for the possibility of a postseason bid, and needed a win over the Braves and some help to stay alive.  Given those circumstances, the Tigers sent ace Justin Verlander, one of the game’s best pitchers, to the mound, a nice parallel to my first game at Turner Field in 2001 when I saw Maddux pitch.  Julio Teheran, a solid pitcher in his own right, pitched for the Braves.

After Teheran struck out the side in the top of the first, Ender Inciarte and Adonis Garcia led off the bottom half with singles, before Freddie Freeman got his 91st and final RBI of a career year with a sacrifice fly to center, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead.

After the first, it was the pitcher’s duel you would expect from Teheran and Verlander, as the two pitchers put up matching zeros, including many 1-2-3 innings.  Each starter went seven innings, before Jose Ramirez (ATL) and Bruce Rondon (DET) each pitched a scoreless eighth.

Jim Johnson, whose two-year contract extension with the Braves had been announced that morning, came in to close it in the ninth.  After a 1-out single by Miguel Cabrera, Johnson struck out J.D. Martinez and former Brave Justin Upton for the final two outs at Turner Field.

After the game, Hank Aaron threw a ceremonial final pitch to Cox, before Aaron and Braves chairman Terry McGuirk transferred home plate from Turner Field to SunTrust Park, the Braves home starting in 2017, via police escort.  The closing ceremony also featured a “parade of Braves Country states,” a nod to Turner Field’s history as Centennial Olympic Stadium and the 1996 Olympic opening ceremony, before remarks from broadcaster Don Sutton, Cox, Smoltz, and Braves vice-chairman John Schuerholz, who led the crowd in one final rendition of the famous “tomahawk chop” chant.

No, this wasn’t the closing of Yankee Stadium, but this was the final game at a place where we watched our favorite team play for 20 years, and for my entire span of memory (I’m 21).  So many memories were made at Turner Field, and the final game there is one I won’t forget.

Five Best Events I’ve Covered

Coastal Plain League West Division Championship Series, Gastonia Grizzlies vs. Florence RedWolves, August 10-12, 2014

I interned for the Florence RedWolves, a collegiate summer baseball team, in the summers of 2014-15, staying at home and commuting 30 minutes to Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.  In 2014, the RedWolves won the Coastal Plain League’s West Division in both the first and second half of the season, and had a good shot at winning the franchise’s first Petitt Cup title in the playoffs.

After dispatching the High Point-Thomasville HiToms in an opening round sweep, the West Division Championship Series featured the two teams who had clearly been the division’s best all season, the RedWolves and the Gastonia Grizzlies.  The three games that ensued are collectively on this list, as the drama of playoff baseball and the budding rivalry of the two teams produced the best back-to-back-to-back games I have ever seen, which can be included as events I “covered” as I wrote the postgame press releases for the final two games.

Game 1 at Gastonia:
Several of us interns drove up to the suberb west of Charlotte and Sims Legion Park, the Grizzlies’ home.  Gastonia took a 1-0 lead in the first, but the RedWolves had a 3-1 lead by the seventh inning stretch.  The Grizzlies tied it in the 7th on a 2-RBI single by Weston Lawing, but after that both bullpens were absolutely phenomenal as an extra-inning game ensued late into the night.

RedWolves reliever Jacob Condra-Bogan allowed two runs in the seventh, but none for four innings after, and CPL Pitcher of the Year, closer Michael Morrison (a 2016 College World Series hero at Coastal Carolina), was scoreless in 5.1 innings.  Gastonia hurlers Robert Lawhon and Jared Cheek were just as impressive.

The RedWolves finally took the lead in the 16th on an RBI single by Joe Bialkowski and an RBI double by Brandon Rawe, and got three outs to win 5-3 and take a 1-0 series lead, winning the longest playoff game in CPL history.

Game 2 at Florence:
Back at home, the RedWolves were trying to clinch the best-of-three series in what would be a back-and-forth affair with a lot of “small ball” in the notoriously large Sparrow Stadium.  The RedWolves led 1-0 after the second, trailed 2-1 in the third, and led 3-2 after the third.  Each side scored in the fourth, making it 4-3, before Gastonia tied it 4-4 in the fifth, and Florence retook the lead at 5-4 in the sixth.

The RedWolves kept the one-run lead until the ninth, before Gastonia exploded (and Florence imploded) in the ninth:  double, sacrifice bunt, RBI single, error, RBI single, RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), RBI fielder’s choice (no out recorded), strikeout, RBI single, 2-RBI triple, walk, flyout.  This may be the worst inning I have ever sat through, as the RedWolves went from two outs from winning the series to down 11-5 in a matter of minutes.  I didn’t bore you by listing each Gastonia player’s role in the inning, but I will add that Victor Zecca had the leadoff double and the 2-RBI triple.

But there was still a bottom of the ninth.  The RedWolves got the bases loaded with one out, before a Brandon Rawe sacrifice fly made it 11-6, and a wild pitch made it 11-7.  After loading the bases again, team RBI leader Conor Sullivan came to the plate representing the potential tying run.  It seemed like the potential perfect scenario for Florence, but Sullivan flied out to the warning track in straightaway center, the deepest part of a big ballpark, for the final out.

Game 3 at Florence:
The winner-take-all finale was more low-scoring than the first two games, but was just as entertaining.  The RedWolves took a 1-0 lead in the first, after CPL Hitter of the Year Gene Cone walked, was bunted to second, and scored when he stole third and the catcher threw the ball away.

Travis Burnette (FLO) and Sam Theole (GAS) were fantastic for both sides, matching zeroes and enduring a nearly one-hour rain delay mid-game.  Gastonia never had more than one baserunner in an inning through the first eight, meaning the 1-0 Florence lead had been as comfortable as such a lead can be in an elimination game.

In the ninth, Lawing was hit with a pitch, and Chris Robinson doubled with one out.  Morrison, running on fumes after his outing two nights before, came in and intentionally walked Sammy Taormina to load the bases with one out.  I was having flashbacks to the night before, but Morrison struck out Tyler Farmer and got Joe Koehler to ground out to second base, ending the threat and the game, giving the RedWolves a 1-0 win and a 2-1 series victory.

The emotional release of the final out led to me, as public address announcer, borrowing Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling’s line of “Yankees win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa Yankees wwwwwwin!” and exclaiming “RedWolves win! Thaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa RedWolves wwwwwwin!”

The RedWolves moved on to the Petitt Cup Finals, where they won the opener over the Peninsula Pilots in Florence, before losing two heartbreaking games at Peninsula’s home in Hampton, Va.

(Box score and play-by-play for:  Game 1    Game 2    Game 3)

 

Westside at T.L. Hanna, T.L. Hanna Gymnasium, Anderson, S.C., January 16, 2015

I began covering high school sports for the Anderson Independent-Mail on a freelance basis in the fall of 2014, under prep editor Adam Regan.  He left at the end of the year, taking another job in Florida, leaving me to cover the lead games in the area while the paper looked for a replacement, leading to my best assignment to that point when I got to cover a basketball game between crosstown rivals T.L. Hanna and Westside.

For someone covering high school sports in Anderson County, T.L. Hanna and Westside games might as well be the Super Bowl.  The entire town turns out for these games, and it is loud as everyone cheers boisterously for their chosen team.

After the Westside girls team defeated T.L. Hanna 49-33, attention turned to the boys game.  There was honestly more tension in the building as the boys warmed up then there had been at any time during the girls game.

After an even first quarter, T.L. Hanna led 18-14, and they stretched that lead to 30-21 at halftime.  Hanna led by as many as 11 in the third, at 48-37, before Westside started to come back, using seven points in the final 52 seconds of the period to cut it to 53-46.

Westside’s momentum continued in the fourth, as a 10-2 run gave them a 56-55 lead, their first since 3-1.  Hanna tied it again at 57-57, but did not score again, with Westside leading 59-57 in the final minute before an Austin Walker driving shot with 0:31 left make it 61-57 Westside, and two free throws further sealed the win, as the Rams stunned the Yellow Jackets, 63-57.

I have seen a football game and a basketball game between the two schools since as a spectator (and both went to overtime), but this remains the only game in either of the two big high school sports that I have covered between the two (although I have covered many games featuring one or the other, as well as two softball games between the two).  Sitting courtside, and being a part of the game (at least in the sense of covering it) was a treat.

(Independent-Mail:  Westside boys, girls defeat T.L. Hanna)

 

Clemson at Anderson, Abney Athletic Center, Anderson, S.C., November 8, 2015

As an Anderson University student, this game had been circled on my calendar for months.  The Trojan women had won the regular-season conference title the year before, and were, even as a Division II team, getting the chance to host Division I Clemson from the ACC in a preseason exhibition.  A week or so before the game, Scott Adamson, who was Independent-Mail sports editor at the time, approached me about covering the game.  The writers who normally covered Clemson were focusing on the undefeated football team, and Scott, who normally covered Anderson games, would be busy working a Clemson soccer game, giving me the opportunity to cover a game I could literally have walked to.

The Anderson men had played Clemson 52 weeks before at Littlejohn Coliseum, and I had attended that game as a fan, but this game was even cooler to me because I thought Anderson had a shot to win.  The Trojan women were preseason favorites in the South Atlantic Conference, while Clemson was picked to finished last in the ACC.

A record crowd of 1,027 packed the Abney Athletic Center on a Sunday afternoon, with the student section doing a “blackout” of the section of seats across from the two benches.

The first half was back-and-forth throughout, with Anderson leading 34-31 at the break.  A 22-9 Trojans run gave Anderson a 54-40 in the third, before Clemson fought back to make it 56-48 at the end of the third, but from that point it was all Trojans, closing the game on a 23-7 run to win 79-55.

The game was better than the final score would indicate, but beyond that, this was the first (and so far only) collegiate game I covered for Independent-Mail, and featured my school beating our ACC neighbors.  I was thrilled with the outcome, although I was there in a professional capacity, so I did no cheering and probably did not even smile during the game.  I was there covering the game, not as a fan or student.

I kept that poker face through postgame interviews, and through the 90-second car ride back to my room, until I walked through the door.  Once I was in the privacy of my room, I finally let out a huge fist pump in celebration of the Trojans’ big win.

Anderson would win the SAC regular season title for the second straight year, while Clemson went winless in conference play to finish last in the ACC, with the results for both teams reflecting what had been foreshadowed in November at the Abney Athletic Center.

(Independent-Mail:  AU women demolish Clemson)


Florence RedWolves at Asheboro Copperheads, McCrary Park, Asheboro, N.C., July 16, 2016

For the summer of 2016, I interned with the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro.  My role was originally to cover American Legion baseball games and the Asheboro Copperheads, a team in the same league as the RedWolves, for the paper.  However, once sports editor Dennis Garcia, who was also the play-by-play broadcaster for the Copperheads on CPL Webpass, found out I had called a few games on Webpass for the RedWolves two years before, he invited me to do some games with him on Webpass.  I would end up broadcasting every Copperheads home game except one on Webpass, even doing some games solo when Dennis was stuck at the office finishing the layout of the sports section of the paper, including this one.

It was weird when the RedWolves, who I had spent the previous two summers interning for, came to Asheboro for games.  Before the July 16 contest, the two teams had already played in Asheboro on June 13 and July 13, and five times in all, but this game stands out as not just the best these two teams played that season, but the best game overall that I covered that season.

It didn’t look that way at first, as Florence scored six runs in the top of the first, on just three hits with two Asheboro errors, and two more in the second to make it 8-0.  In the bottom of the second, Connor Lind showed a small sign of the offensive onslaught that was to come for Asheboro with a solo homer, although at the time it just made the score 8-1.

In the fourth, T.J. Nichting singled, and Lind homered again, making it 8-3.  Colin Rosenbaum then walked, and Vito Friscia homered, making it 8-5.  Later in the inning, Zach Duff joined the home run party with a solo shot to make it 8-6.

After a Ryan Kent sacrifice fly for Florence in the fifth made it 9-6, Nichting led off the bottom half with a homer, before Rosenbaum singled and Friscia homered again, tying the game at 9-9.  Asheboro would then take a 10-9 lead in the sixth when Rosenbaum doubled to score Lind, before holding that lead until the ninth.

Bryan Blanton, who had been a CPL All-Star but was beginning a set of struggles that would haunt both he and the Copperheads in the second half, came in in the ninth, and even after three walks in the inning was an out away from getting out of the jam, before CPL All-Star Zach Files singled, scoring two to give the RedWolves an 11-10 lead.  The Copperheads threatened in the ninth when RedWolves closer Tom Colletti walked a pair, but could not score, and the RedWolves had a wild 11-10 victory.

The Copperheads, who had won the CPL West first half title, continued to struggle through the rest of the second half after this game, and eventually lost at Savannah in the first round of the playoffs on a walkoff hit.  Florence, who had finished seventh out of eight in the first half, had a much better second half and missed the second half title, and therefore the playoffs, by one game.

(Box score and play-by-play)

 

Greenwood at T.L. Hanna, Jim Fraser Field, Anderson, S.C., September 23, 2016

This was my first trip to T.L. Hanna in the 2016 season, and it seemed like just a run-of-the-mill game at first.  It was homecoming for the Yellow Jackets, who had lost to Greenwood 18 straight seasons before ending the streak last year.  What seemed like an ordinary game would become the greatest football game I’ve ever covered.

After a scoreless first quarter, Greenwood and Hanna both scored on long touchdown passes, then both kicked field goals in the final 1:04 of the half, making it 10-10 at the break.

Greenwood started the second half with a 15-play scoring drive of 65 yards, before Hanna went 65 yards themselves in one play, an Alex Meredith-to-A.J. Bryant connection to tie the score at 17-17.  This remained the score into the early stages of the fourth, before Greenwood scored on another lengthy drive on a Dre Yarbough touchdown pass to highly touted receiver Sam Pinckney, but the Eagles missed the extra point, keeping it 23-17.

Braylon Peterson returned the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, as Hanna provided another answer and took a 24-23 lead.  Greenwood had their own answer, an 11-play scoring drive culminating in another Yarbough-to-Pinckney touchdown, and a two-point conversion to make it 31-24 with 2:03 to play.

Hanna calmly marched down the field in five plays, scoring to tie the game at 31-31 with 1:06 to go when Meredith found Reel Wise from 35 yards, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, Greenwood scored when Yarbough found Pinckney again from 10 yards on the first play of overtime (high school overtime in South Carolina gives each team a possession from the 10-yard line).  The Yellow Jackets answered again, when Meredith turned a broken play into a 9-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 38-38.

In double overtime, Hanna went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, as Jaydon McKinney scored for the 45-38 lead.  On the first play of Greenwood’s possession, they ran the same play they scored on in the first overtime, and Hanna LB Shai Thomas jumped the route and intercepted Yarbough to end the game and give Hanna a 45-38 win.

I finished postgame interviews about 10:55, and the Independent-Mail has an 11:00 deadline, but one which is stretchable.  Prep editor Lake Morris said it could be stretched to 11:40 at the latest, and I finished writing about 11:35; I was glad to make sure the story of this crazy game got in the next morning’s paper.

(Independent-Mail:  Thomas INT leads Hanna over Eagles)

 

Honorable Mention:
Pickens at Belton-Honea Path,  April 22, 2016
The game itself was nothing spectacular, as B.H.P. took an early lead before putting the game away with a 8-run sixth inning to win 10-0, but it was historic as, on Senior Night, Bears coach Steve Williams won his 500th game.  His postgame interview is the only time an interview subject of mine was moved to the point of tears, as Williams was humbled and grateful for his accomplishment, and how many former players came back to witness the milestone game.  I got lucky on this one–I was scheduled to cover a different game until late that afternoon when weather changed the Independent-Mail‘s plans.

(Independent-Mail:  Williams wins No. 500 as Bears top Pickens)
***Editor’s Note:  This game was one of the five in the original draft of this post, which was written before the Greenwood-T.L. Hanna game occurred, so I felt it appropriate to include it as an honorable mention.

Column: Braves Make Only Logical Choice, Hire Snitker

The Braves have hired interim manager Brian Snitker as their full-time manager for 2017, making a decision that I believe was the only logical choice in their search for a manager.

Snitker became the interim skipper when Fredi Gonzalez was fired on May 17 after the Braves’ 9-28 start to the season.  Under Snitker the Braves were 59-65, on their way to a 68-93 finish, with a 37-35 record after the All-Star Break.  This includes the team going 30-25 after the acquisition of Matt Kemp, 20-10 in their final 30 games, and 12-2 in their final 14.

Snitker, 61, said his formal interview was the first job interview he had ever had, although he felt his job as the interim served as somewhat of a four-and-a-half month interview, one which he nailed.

“I did all I could do,” Snitker told 680 The Fan on Tuesday.  “I didn’t change, I felt comfortable and very proud of how we finished and what we accomplished along the way.”

When the club hired him as interim, they had no intentions of hiring Snitker, a 40-year veteran of the Braves organization as both a major league coach and a minor league manager, but president of baseball operations John Hart said the team’s results down the stretch made Snitker a strong candidate, resulting in the team giving Snitker a contract to manage the 2017 season, with a team option for 2018.

“Quite frankly we didn’t (expect to hire Snitker),” Hart told 680 The Fan on Tuesday.  “We came in with the idea to hire what we felt was the right guy for this job, and we felt we were going to go outside (the organization).

“But we kept our eyes open, watched results of the club, the masterful job that he did with the club, the way they played, and he created such a great environment and atmosphere, so as we went through the last six to eight weeks we started talking about it.  It was tough, because we had some great candidates, but usually when you bring in a new manager it’s because you’re not happy with what has been happening, but we were.”

But in addition to the strong play of Snitker’s team on the field over the final 124 games, another reason Snitker was the best fit for the job was a relatively weak managerial market this offseason, including no one who would fit the Braves as well as Snitker.

Bud Black and Ron Washington were reportedly the two outside candidates who interviewed for the job.  Black, a 59-year old former major league pitcher with ties to both Hart and Braves chairman John Schuerholz, managed the Padres from 2007-15, but never had a team who made the playoffs, and finished with an overall record of 649-713 (.477 winning percentage).  Some say Black did all he could with the players he had, but at some point a manager needs to take the next step, and he never did in San Diego.

Washington, a 64-year old former major league shortstop, has a better managerial record than Black, after guiding the Texas Rangers to the World Series in 2010-11, and to within one strike of the title in 2011 before the St. Louis Cardinals’ famous Game 6 comeback.  Washington went 664-611 (.521) with the Rangers, but resigned in late 2014 after an extramarital affair.  In this decade, Washington has been accused of sexual assault, and has tested positive for cocaine use.  While the Braves did not pick Washington as their manager, they did hire him to be on Snitker’s staff as third-base coach.

Black and Washington appear to be the best candidates across the board in an unusually weak managerial market for MLB teams searching for a leader this offseason.

The Braves also interviewed internal candidates Terry Pendleton (bench coach), Eddie Perez (first-base coach) and Bo Porter (third-base coach, former Astros manager), but through the process admitted that, even while each of the three had a solid interview, it would be “difficult” to hire one of these three as manager given the terrific job Snitker had done as interim.  Pendleton and Perez will remain in their current roles, although Perez is expected to interview for the Colorado Rockies’ managerial position, while Porter will move to the front office in an advisory role.

With this field of candidates, the Braves made the best choice, and in my eyes the only logical choice, in hiring Snitker as skipper for the 2017 season, the inaugural season at SunTrust Park.

The Braves also announced the balance of their coaching staff, including retaining Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach and Marty Reed as bullpen coach, hiring Washington, and promoting minor league pitching coordinator Chuck Hernandez to become Snitker’s pitching coach, replacing Roger McDowell, who parted ways with the Braves last week.

Hernandez, 56, has previous stints as a major league pitching coach with the Angels (1992-96), Rays (2004-05), Tigers (2006-08) and Marlins (2013-15).  Considering those stints include the early-career development of Justin Verlander and Jose Fernandez, and considering the Braves were looking for someone with a strong track record developing young pitching given the wealth of talent they have stockpiled in the minor leagues, this is also a good hire.

But today is Snitker’s day, as after managing thousands of minor league games in the Braves system and guiding the big league team through a long, tough season, he has been given the keys to the longest continuously-running franchise in professional baseball.

Snitker is known as a “player’s manager,” and many of the Braves players fought for him to be the permanent manager as the possibility became clear in the final weeks of the season.  Braves broadcaster Don Sutton even compared Snitker to Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Walter Alston.  Several players publicly voiced their approval on Tuesday at the news that Snitker had, in fact, been hired.

“Really happy to hear that Snit is coming back,” center fielder Ender Inciarte told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday. “He deserves this opportunity and we are all excited to play for him!”

Snitker is humbled by easily the highlight of his baseball career, as he can finally say he is one of 30 men on the planet who currently manage a Major League Baseball franchise.

“I’m very blessed, fortunate, and honored to be able to take on this job,” Snitker said.

I’m glad Snitker has been given this opportunity.  Because he earned it.