Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Last Six Minutes

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. Chattanooga

“This doesn’t have the last six minutes.”

I have just delivered the stats book to Coach McKillop, sitting in our office-turned-media-holding-room and awaiting his turn at the podium after the ‘Cats’ 100-95 Win over the Chattanooga Mocs Saturday night. Naturally, he flips to the last page of the book. Naturally, he is right.

“HM. OK. Let me go find it.”

The last six minutes, after all, sort of was the game.

Assistant SID Matt Harris has two last pages from which he is writing the game story from press row, which, naturally, should be twice as good. Problem solved, crisis averted.

With all of the last-six-minuteless books and the last page in hand, it’s back to the copier (Have you seen the SportsCenter commercial with Lebron James and Stuart Scott? With Lebron looking for paper jams, exasperatedly, and Scott scoffing, ‘Chosen one.’ If only.)

Try writing a game story for this one without the last six minutes.

Talking about the game in the office before the game, projections are made. (I’m pretty superstitious, so don’t worry. Nothing crazy.) Someone else is due for a big game, and we also would like for The Mouthguard to duplicate his performance in Belk against this team from a season ago.

He doesn’t, but there is Andrew LOVEdale trying, with 14 rebounds to Chattanooga’s 19 in the first half. (14! 19 minutes!)

And Will Archambault, five-for-five with a team-leading 13 points in 12 minutes off the bench.

But the ‘Cats trail four, 44-40.

But there are 20 minutes left.

The WL hits a three as does The One who color coordinates, after a pair of gimmies, and the ‘Cats are up four behind an 8-0 run in 2:30. Game on.

(I met the costumed version of the WL at the NC State game. A friendly freshman named Morgan, whose hallmates chipped in $80 for the suit and paint, after he was recruited by Wes the Boxer. Looks a torturous way to watch a game to me, but on him, I’m a fan. Next, a dance…)

But the ‘Cats just couldn’t seem to shake the Mocs, and soon another Stephen reclaimed the lead for his team. (Sounded weird, didn’t it? Another Stephen?)

Will and The One in White would put the ‘Cats on top again, 53-50, but again, the other Stephen for two. Chatt, 58-57. Well, let’s just get further ahead next time.

And when the youngest McKillop made a layup for his 11th and 12th points to give the ‘Cats a 12-point lead, it felt a pretty good distance with three minutes left. Not keys-shaking good, but close.

The gap ballooned over the next minute to 94-81 and fingers were flying over keyboards. And then a 14-3 run, in 1:24 (!), and it’s 97-95… wait, 97-95?

Fortunately, fouling The Mouthpiece to win a game hasn’t proven a great way to win a game, and he hits 3-of-4 from the line to put the 100-95 win in the books. (Do we get biscuits? Washer fluid? Tacos? Coffee? What?)

And the Wildcats, 1-0 in the league, survive and advance in the Southern Conference.

And there’s a knock at the door.

“Did you find it?”

I did.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Year and Five Days Ago

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. NC State

The last time the Davidson Wildcats played at Time Warner Cable Arena it wasn’t called Time Warner Cable Arena. The opponents weren’t simultaneously members of the all-mighty ACC and underdogs. There was no such thing as a White Lobster, and it’s quite possible that The King had never even heard of his newest BFF.

The AP story started like this:

“Gerald Henderson scored 21 points and Greg Paulus had two key baskets and a steal in the final 2 minutes as No. 7 Duke remained unbeaten by holding off pesky Davidson 79-73 on Saturday.”

A year and five days later:

“Stephen Curry had just drilled a 30-foot fadeaway despite an awkward release that resembled a set shot - and it was too much for his buddy LeBron James to take.”

Well, one thing’s for sure, this was nothing like the last time the Wildcats went Uptown.

This time, Davidson brought a national ranking. Defended it. The battle on the boards? Won it. A late lead. Held it.

These Wildcats have, in fact, come leaps and bounds in a year, and in the light of the RBC Center, Sweet Caroline and that really cool police escort, the journey sometimes gets taken for granted.

After the game, I took my dad and my uncle, both NC State alums, to the
post-game press conference.

“I’m not very happy right now,” my uncle says, and I am reminded that not everyone in the world pulls for Davidson. Strange.

Behind the podium, sits a subdued trio of Wildcats. It’s a scene that looks and feels strangely similar to a season ago, but I’m struck by the profound difference.

A season ago, A Coach and Two Wildcats sat on the stage mutedly, sadly answering questions about running with the big boys.

A year and five days later, A Coach and Two Wildcats sat on the stage mutedly, thankfully answering questions about Lebron James.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It's Good to be Home

By Lauren Biggers
Women's Basketball vs. Furman

The Davidson Wildcat women kicked off the 2008-09 home portion of their season with a (tidy) 67-57 win over the Furman Paladins in their Southern Conference opener at Belk Arena Tuesday night.

Leading the way was once again preseason SoCon Player of the Year Merecedes Robinson, who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and a “She’s got six of their points already” declaration from the other team’s head coach around the 10-minute mark in the first. (Um-hm, coach, (cough, cough) preseason Player of the Year…I'm just saying...)

Sophomore Ashley Lax tossed in 17 points (four from long-range), and junior Alex Thompson finished with 10 points, seven assists, a steal and a pair of nose plugs. (The nose plugs, incidentally, from an injury incurred during a collision in player introductions at South Carolina between Thompson’s nose and Julia Paquette’s elbow. Ah, unlucky.)

Apart from a lone exhibition, it was the first time these Wildcat women have played at Belk this season, so we’re still getting to know each other.

These ‘Cats are still getting to know each other, too, but a pretty challenging non-conference schedule and some serious road environments tend to speed up the process a bit.

“It’s a whole new season,” Alex said of kicking off conference play. “We try to look at preseason and the non-conference games and apply what we learn to the conference season.”

Tuesday night the ‘Cats kicked off the SoCon season with a win over Furman. A good start and a great result in a homecoming of sorts.

“There’s more heart and desire on this team than on any team I’ve been a part of,” Alex offers. “And that’s saying something because I’ve been on some pretty special teams.”

2008-09, part II, is officially under way for the Wildcat 2008-09 women, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scoreless, Pointless

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. Loyola

Well, as the wise head coach put it after the game, that was one for the memory banks.

From the very first possession, it was clear that this wasn’t your average day at Belk Arena. Well, maybe not the first possession. That one was, after all, THE shot attempt and miss for the first period.

Loyola’s Isaac Reid grabs the rebound (REBOUND!) and dishes to Jamal Barney, who lays it in, and then... wait... HUH?

“HE’S GOT TWO GUYS ON HIM,” delights stats runner/associate head Wildcat football coach Brett Hayford. “THEY ARE PLAYING MAN TO MAN, AND HE’S GOT TWO GUYS.”

And it worked, briefly, as the Grey Hounds took a 9-4 lead behind four missed baskets and a whole lot of confusion.

But adjustments were made as the youngest McKillop ably took over the point and Will Archambault became the sixth man the ‘Cats needed, connecting with Andrew LOVEdale and scoring five straight points to lift the Wildcats ahead 11-9 and for good.

From there it was all Wildcats, who did a pretty good job answering the one-man-band question, and by the time the 18-0 run (18-0!) ended, the ‘Cats were up 22-9 and this one was good as done.

“They gotta come of it now,” D-Line coach Hayford is insisting. “Have to.”

But alas, Gary’s revenge continues, and in the corner, The Cheese Stands Alone. Well, sort of.

In Monday’s story, I promised a scene-stealer, and boy, did Patsos try, living up to my top billing and proving a writer’s dream.

When finished instructing (loudly) his players at the table on the defensive scheme (TRIANGLE!), he turns to interact with the crowd, explaining, “We’re not as smart as Davidson. We’re working on it.” ... Chatting with a ref about questionable elbows, “I just don’t want a fight. I’m in a peaceful mood.” ... To a player about to enter the game, “Try not to hit the backboard the next time you lob it.”

And so it went.

If you were there, you’re gonna wanna remember this one. “Put it in your memory bank” along with Gonzaga, Greensboro and Elon, but for the most opposite of reasons.

0-3, three fouls.

The rest of the band:
Lovedale: 8-for-14, 20 points, 10 boards.
The WL: 6-for-12 (all treys!), 18 points.
Bond, Aaron Bond: 4-for-5, 11 points, nine minutes.
Will Archambault: 5-for-9, 13 points, four assists.
SteVe: six points, six boards, six assists.

And afterwards, I turned over most of my post-game duties to assistant SID Matt Harris to attend press conferences. Standing in the classroom listening to the Band Leader, there’s a tap on the window, and there’s the Cheese, making faces while waiting his turn.

I’m sure there’s some disappointment — scorers like to score after all — but you wouldn’t know it. In the press conference there is laughter and joking, as he concedes to “not knowing what position” he was playing and having “the best view in Belk Arena tonight.”

And so it went, and in the greatest of dramatic twists, the one seeking the spotlight was upstaged by the one who can’t avoid it.

Without scoring a point.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Second Chances

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. Florida Atlantic

The Davidson Wildcats beat the Florida Atlantic Owls 76-60 in the second game of a double-header, or the third round of Dick’s Sporting Good’s NIT Tip-Off, at Belk Arena Friday night. Loyola of Maryland beat James Madison 64-54 in the first game of the day.

With the NIT running this show, things were a little different.

The post-game press conference location was switched to accommodate the media meal, which was served at halftime of the first game. The benches, the scorer’s table and the floor all got logo makeovers. With season ticket holders and staff members needing tickets, familiar faces weren’t occupying their usual seats.

The View from Press Row was, um, different.

From our spot on the scorer’s table, we get pretty acquainted with the opposing bench, and tonight was no exception. Loyola’s head coach Jimmy Patsos is one whose reputation proceeds him, and I was told several times over that I was going to enjoy him.

Working a neutral-site game can be difficult, but Patsos’ personality – that doesn’t even begin to do it justice – made focusing on the game at hand even less intriguing. I really just wanted to watch him.

He’s shouting (REBOUND!) and jumping and spitting and running and switching from enthusiasm to disgust as quickly as you can say rebound (!).

He told one of his players to shoot threes like rainbows. Without cracking a smile.

Simply saying, this guy is worth the price of admission and could challenge The Shining Star for the crowd’s attention tomorrow night.

When he left the court, I hope it was for a nap.

By the time the Wildcats hit the floor, things started to feel normal again. Kevin was back on P.A., the WL welcomed the ‘Cats to the jungle, the D-block was in living color and Davidson was off to a quick start with back-to-back treys.

The shooting was just so-so, according to, you know, my ridiculous standards, but the rebounding (REBOUND!) was impressive.

After a FAU jumper cut it to 17-12, Big Ben Allison misses a three-pointer try but MAX grabs the board. Two more ‘Cats take shots that won’t go with Will Archambault pulling down rebounds in between before The Star (Folks, we got a star!) buries it from deep to push the lead back to eight at the second media timeout. He points to thank the passer. (Always thank the passer. And remember the little people.)

It was a possession – extended three times over - that was typical of the evening.

The ‘Cats finished with a 49-38 rebounding edge, including doubling the Owls on the offensive boards, 20-10. Playing large and in charge, Andrew LOVEdale and SteVe Rossiter had 15 and 12 rebounds, respectively.

In the game, offensive rebounds equal second chances.

In the fourth round of the NIT Tip-off, you get a seecond chance to catch a double header. See Patsos.

For the Wildcats, still chasing the perfect game, it’s a second chance to fine-tune theirs.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Tale of Two Halves

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball at Winthrop

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness. It was the epic of belief. It was the epic of incredulity.

OK maybe it wasn’t quite so dramatic.

I first read “A Tale of Two Cities” in the ninth grade, and to be honest, didn’t get it at all. Even now, some of its essence is probably lost on me, but for some reason, it popped into my head when I thought of how best to describe the men’s basketball team’s 97-70 win over the Winthrop Eagles Friday night at Belk Arena.

It was, in the simplest of descriptions, a tale of two halves.

Because I spent the greater part of the day traveling to and fro the SoCon volleyball tournament, I didn’t get to spend the usual part of my day breaking down the night’s matchup, studying box scores, watching film ... er, making ridiculous predictions. From what I did gather, though, predictions were heavily in favor of the experienced Davidson Wildcats, hosting the inexperienced Winthrop Eagles.

The first half, though, didn’t exactly play out that way, with the score tied four times and the lead – held by the Eagles for more than a simple stretch – changing hands five times. The Eagles’ Cameron Stanley put up 13 points, and kept Winthrop in the game, 41-35 heading into the second half.

Andrew LOVEdale, though, was having none of it, putting up huuuuuge numbers of his own.

16 points, 11 rebounds in the first half on 7-of-9 shooting.

He was playing so huge that in the second half, he collected a faux rebound on the second of three free throws, and he smiled about it. He finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds and connected at least three times on rockets from Will Archambault, who had a massive game with 12 points, six rebounds and five (!) assists.

LOVEdale wasn’t the only Wildcat putting together a nice half, but most of the others did so in the second. When it was all said and done, five ‘Cats were in double-figures, led by 30 points and 13 assists from America’s Sweetheart.

Converted forevermore, SteVe Rossiter put up 13 – including a perfect 3-of-3 from the line (sigh, free throws), and Bryant Barr, known forevermore as “the white lobster” finished with 11. I’m not sure where this nickname originated, but I know that a) I like it, b) it’s complete with a hand signal, and c) that kid in the student section in the white lobster costume tonight = awesome.

“That’s probably the most awesome costume ever,” director of basketball operations “TI” said afterwards. Or something very similar, I’m sure.

“Did you see my mascot?” the actual white lobster asked. With a smile.

In her first night on press row, SID assistant Alex was enjoying her new view. “You can hear everything,” she tells me, amazed(ish), before observing the students. “What is that flag... and why is that guy dressed like a ... shrimp?”

I filled her in, and she seemed to like what I was putting down. A few other things I took away from this evening: If I had three wishes, I would wish that 1. No one would ever use the ‘airball’ chant again. Ever. 2. Fans who choose to scream only at the referees about ‘double-dribbling’ and ‘hand checking’ and ‘charging’ would never, ever sit near me. Ever. And 3. The Wildcats could play every half like tonight’s second half.

(Correction: (Yes, I’m officially running corrections now.) Kim Murphy sang the national anthem on her 21st birthday at last Friday's game. Kelsey Foremost did the same on Tueday, her 22nd birthday. My apologies to these ladies for mixing them up, a belated happy birthday and job well done to both, and a thanks to Kim for the help...)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Working out the Kinks

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. Guilford

The Davidson men’s basketball team officially opened the 2008-09 season (in front of SELLOUT crowd) with a 107-83 win over Guilford (late, late, late) Friday night.

It was a game that didn’t exist on the “tentative” schedule, and one that made for a long day in Davidson athleticville, tacked on to the end of a volleyball match. (I tried to get into my apartment with my work key tonight. What does that mean? Sidebar: I'd very much like to wish a congratulations and happy birthday to the Davidson student who sang the National Anthem AND managed to have her 21st birthday Tuesday AND Friday. If only I had been so smart.)

After Tuesday night’s (shaky?) exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne and just before the team’s heavily-anticipated trip to Oklahoma for the first round of the preseason NIT, it became a needed game.

After Tuesday’s night (lackluster?) win, there were some questions swirling. There were kinks exposed; wrinkles that needed to be ironed out.

The trademark defense? A bit pedestrian?

The shooting? Average?

The ball control? Yikes?

And rest assured, the Guilford game wasn’t perfect, but you gotta feel a lot better about life with one of these in your pocket for a rainy day or a trip to Oklahoma, no?

The defense? Stifling. The Quakers went home with 39 turnovers. 39! The ‘Cats scored 55 points off of those turnovers and posted 25 (25!) steals.

The shooting? I think you’d be safe to say the new arch won’t negatively affect certain Wildcats, as four reliable Davidson shooters finished with at least a pair of treys.

And oh, the ball control... The good guys’ assist to turnover ratio: 18-14. The others: 13-39.

And yet, one particular line rises above the rest: 29 points, 10 assists, 1 (1!) turnover, and 9 steals. Three rebounds and a block on 9-for-20 shooting. Only one Wildcat has ever recorded a triple-double, so you can be sure I lobbied that He be put back in to get it. (But, come’on. He’s So Close. Puuuuh-lease.)

But, Friday night wasn’t about triple-doubles. Friday night was about working out the kinks. And from the malfunctioning shot clock to our malfunctioning printer on press row, there were plenty of kinks. Eventually, we got the clock back on and the printer back in action.

And some of those stat lines suggest the other kinks are working themselves out, too.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Practice? You're Talking About Practice?

By Lauren Biggers
Men's Basketball vs. Lenoir-Rhyne

After the women’s team opened their 2008-09 season with an exhibition win over Mars Hill on Sunday afternoon, the 20th-ranked men’s team did the same, getting an 87-54 exhibition win over Lenoir Rhyne Tuesday night at Belk Arena. Which means, both teams have played an exhibition. Which means, play time is over. Which means, basketball season is officially upon us.

Plenty of people asked me if I was going to resurrect this blog again. A few were sincere; a few I’m pretty confident were making fun of me, but nonetheless I am back, because well, I’m as superstitious as the rest of them, (except for maybe athletic trainer Ray Beltz.) And well, I wrote about last season, and that seemed to go pretty well.

It is because of last season that the excitement for this season is um, exciting? You know, you’ve read all the preseason hype. The projections. The expectations. It’s why you came to watch an exhibition. A glorified practice.

When I got to work Tuesday, SID Marc Gignac and statistician extraordinaire Gavin McFarlin are already busy getting the media room set up.

It’s 10 a.m.

You can feel the energy in the air. I abandon my bag and start helping to put chairs around the tables and soon SteVen Rossiter wanders in. He’s mumbling something about an early class getting canceled, but he jumps in to help.

“I was so excited I couldn’t sleep last night,” I tell him. “I took a Nyquil,” he answers back. I think we are both kidding, but you can never be sure.

He goes to class; we go to work(ish).

4 p.m. rolls around.

4-6 p.m. is the dead zone in athletics, when most of the day’s work is done, and you just wait for the evening’s event to come. Finally, it’s game time, and there are a lot of people in the seats to watch a game that really doesn’t matter much.

And that’s what you keep telling yourself as you look up for the better part of the first half and realize this is close. Too close. Closer than the players and coaching staff would like. But ultimately, you remember, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the learning. The game-time atmosphere. The simulation of real-time situations against players not on your team.

And well, the score, which says we win. And we win big. Not pretty, but handily.

Sure, the coaching staff will have plenty of things to study this week before opening the season, for real, against Guilford at 9 p.m. Friday. But don’t worry; they love that. Imagine an exhibition that was perfect. What would be the point? It’s like decaf coffee.

No, we will all learn. The players will learn what worked and what didn’t. The coaching staff will learn who is ready and who maybe needs a little help.

Even that player who dropped in 41 (41?), but seemed (too) concerned about eight turnovers afterwards. (“Traveling shouldn’t be a turnover.”). He’ll learn something, too.

Exhibitions expose weaknesses and mistakes.

Expectations are because of last year’s success.

Last season, good as it was, is over.

Friday night, practice is over.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's Basketball Season

By Lauren Biggers
Women's Basketball vs. Mars Hill

Officially, basketball season began Oct. 17, 2008, but for most of us, it never really ended.

For coaches, this season began the day after the last one ended. For players, summer meant camps, drills and conditioning. For sports information and marketing, well, we’ve been busy, too. And around town, the excitement is palpable. Even at church this morning, one greeter said to the other, “It’s basketball season at Davidson!” as I walked in.

Sunday afternoon at Belk Arena, it’s officially basketball season again.

While the energy surrounding the 20th-ranked men’s team is off the charts, the old saying “All ships rise with the tide” more than applies to this women’s team, who opened the 2008-09 season with a 75-48 exhibition win over Mars Hill Sunday afternoon at Belk Arena.

And Davidson’s other SoCon Preseason Player of the Year,
Mercedes Robinson, dropped in a mere 20 points and 10 rebounds to ensure it.

The senior from Mansfield, Texas is the top returning scorer for the Wildcats, averaging 12.7 points and 8.4 rebounds a game a season ago. And with all that (decidedly deserved) chatter about the school’s other POY, Mercedes sometimes flies under the radar. (She says in a game of one-on-one she would let Him win, btw.)

But if you don’t make it a point to see her play at least once this season, you lose. Her play is so consistently good you sometimes forget to notice her. “She has 20 points?” Women’s basketball SID Gavin McFarlin, already in mid-season form, calls it a quiet 20.

Mercedes, though, is neither quiet, nor shy. She wonders into the SID office and quickly makes herself at home in the chair.

The point of this story is to introduce you to a player you should know. (She cites The Color Purple as her favorite movie, Erykah Badu as her favorite artist, and Mexican as her favorite type of food. Oh, and she has a job lined up for next year already... running Davidson’s neuro-science lab for a year before going on to medical school.)

“I was honored,” she says of being named SoCon Preseason Player of the Year. “I wasn’t expecting it, so I guess I just got more excited about the season. But there is some added pressure, too.”

The point of an exhibition is to stimulate a regular-season game.

“It lets us get out all the jitters,” she says. “They show us exactly what we need to work on and give us the opportunity to prepare for a real game.”

Mercedes’ play certainly wasn’t the only thing the coaching staff will feel good about after today. Point guard
Alex Thompson added 12 points and six assists, and junior forward Julia Paquette was dominant inside, finishing with 13 points, two blocks and five rebounds. Likewise, the game tape will reveal weaknesses to address as the Wildcats begin working towards topping last year’s third-place finish in the conference.

“Our only expectation is to win a championship,” she says. “That’s the mindset that we have worked with all year. We are young, but I think we definitely have the talent to get it done.”

Mercedes and the women’s team won’t have to wait long to find out. Saturday in a 3 p.m. contest at Winthrop, things get official.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Do you think we can Fly?

By Lauren Biggers
Field Hockey vs. Georgetown, VCU

As I turned onto Baker Drive Saturday afternoon, I remembered. I love this time of year.

The beginning of the summer is nice, to be sure, as we in the sports world get to flirt with the 40-hour (ish) work week. But after getting caught up on life, it’s time to get back to the business of getting ready for the busyness.

Students are back on campus (no, we don’t get the summers off, too), the Wildcat Den is open (!), and preseason conditioning is on. Two and three-a-day practices, early-morning lifting and running, all in the name of playing and, hopefully, of winning.

Saturday I watched as the f
ootball team loaded the buses for UNC Pembroke, fielded an optimistic call from head women’s cross country coach Jen Straub, and readied to watch the field hockey team in action, and felt it. Fall is in the air.

On my morning run, an old song came on my iPod, Limp Bizkit’s “My Generation,” and while the lyrics are far from child-friendly, they are appropriately angry for the trail. (And less you fear, mine is the Wal-mart version. I'm not that angry.)

The song wonders, taunts really on the last hill, “Do you think we can fly?”

Ah there's the rub. That’s what is so special about the fall. After all the recruits arrive safely, all the playbooks are delivered, memorized, inhaled, after all the team meals and socials, you finally get to put it all together and see if you can fly.

And if one pack (did you know, by the way, Wildcats are solitary creatures?) soared above the rest this weekend, it was the Wildcat field hockey team, who posted a pair of wins over
Georgetown – the lone victor on ‘Cats vs. Hoyas day – and VCU. (Rumor has placed Muggsy Bouges in attendance on Friday night, meaning someone more famous than Stephen ("Can I get a still one?") Curry was in the stands. In disclaimer, I said rumor, and my investigative journalism skills consisted of asking, “Really?” a few times to a few different people).

Leading the way was the Wildcats’ newest international sensation (ahem, good marketing) rookie
Kathelijn (Kate) van der Ven.

With the team graduating a lot of scoring, including all-time leading scorer and NorPac Player of the Year
Kayli Maxwell, Kate is expected to contribute heavily and immediately for the ‘Cats. And so far, she has not disappointed, scoring a pair of goals and an assist on a team-leading 13 shots.

After the team’s 4-2 win against VCU Saturday afternoon, she wonders into my office for an “interview,” along with teammates and classmates
Hannah Lawrence and Meg Jarrell. I like when freshmen first experience the idea of sports information. It is to them, like most, a foreign affair.

I roll out my standard response to the standard, “So what do you do?” question, and after explaining the different roles that
assistant SID Matt Harris, this year’s field hockey contact, and I play, she turns to Matt. “Ohhhh, so you are the guy on the microphone?”

It’s an admirable start. He is, he admits, and she fires back, “It was much better today.” Sidebar: I think I’m going to enjoy her sarcasm.

It is quite simply the job of sports information to tell the student-athletes’ stories, and to do so in a most compelling manner.

Kate’s story begins with the purchase of a book of the top 300 Divison I Field Hockey programs in the United States and ends like so many at Davidson, where she found her desired mix of athletics and academics.

Standing 1.7 meters-tall (translation per 5’6) and hailing from the Netherlands, she had a pair of older sisters study in the States and dreamed of doing the same. An accomplished field hockey player, she took official visits to Davidson, Georgetown and William & Mary, and settled on the Wildcats.

She hasn’t gotten to try the chicken parm in Commons yet, and says she doesn’t have time for much beyond playing and studying, but along with Hannah and Meg, seems at home in her new home.

“Today, we were actually really a team,” she says of Saturday’s win. “We started to connect better. And we actually scored.”

Only time will tell if these Wildcats can fly.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Final Thoughts From Beijing, as Team USA Captures Bronze

By: Dick Cooke
8:30 a.m. - No scout meeting today as we have a 10:30 game, and we just played Japan Wednesday. We're certain they will pitch ace right-hander Darvish, who we saw for the first two innings that day.

9:15 a.m. - BP in the cages. Hitters wander in and out, each taking a varying number of swings off of Roly and I. They certainly appear relaxed. Laporta and Nix are both in the lineup today. It's Nix' first game since Cuba (our 3rd game), and Laporta's first since getting hit in the head against China in our fifth game.

10:30 a.m. - First pitch. And, in keeping with theme of this tournament, nothing is as we expected. Japan won the coin toss last night to determine home and visitor today, and elected to be the visitor. And on top of that, they choose to start left-hander Wada against us, who has pitched very well in this tourney. Perhaps Darvish is injured, or perhaps he'll be the first one out of the pen or perhaps, given their coin flip decision, we have no idea why Wada is starting.

Things don't begin well, as Brett Anderson gives up a one-out home run to Araki, but in the bottom of the second, but Laporta makes his first at-bat a big one with a home run deep into the right-field bleachers. He was 1-for-15 coming in and was pulling off of everything. A nice adjustment.

Japan jumps back on top in the third with a two-out, three-run homer after two walks, and suddenly it's 4-1. Anderson is visibly angry with himself. In the bottom half, Barden reaches on a misplay by the Japanese second baseman and right fielder. Nix walks and, with one out, Matt Brown hits a 3-2 slider way into the left field seats to tie it at four.

Brett Anderson has started all but three hitters off with fastballs thus far, and the Japanese hitters are looking comfortable. Thankfully, he changes patterns some at this point, mixes his pitches better and puts up zeros through seven. He has four quality pitches, and his fastball and slider, by major-league standards, are "plus" pitches. He needs to throw his slider more as a first pitch, as that is his best percentage strike pitch. He looks like the Brett Anderson we expect through the seventh.

Things look up for us in the bottom of the fifth, as Taylor Teagarden comes up with maybe the biggest hit of the tournament for us - a two- out, two-run double to right center, scoring Schierholtz and Brown.

Jason Donald follows with a line-drive home run off of the left field foul pole, and we're up 8-4. Donald, who had just two hits in six exhibition games, is our leading hitter and probably our MVP.

Kevin Jepson comes in for Anderson in the eighth for a two-inning close out - the first time we've tried to do this in the tournament. After a strikeout, he gives up a single, and then gets a huge 4-6-3 double play. Nix makes a nice stop of a tough hop to start the DP, and it's his third outstanding defensive play of the game and why he will have a long pro career. He was our MVP at the World Cup in November so it's great to see him contribute again in a big game for us after missing most of the tourney.

Bottom of the eighth and - guess who - it's Darvish on to pitch for Japan. We threaten with runners at the corners, but Nix is thrown out at home on an attempted double steal, and it's a four-run lead for the US going into the ninth.

But Jepson decides to not allow anyone to leave early. He walks the lead-off hitter in a 12-pitch at-bat, and then the next hitter inexplicably swings at a 2-0 fastball and grounds to short. Donald bobbles it for a moment, and we only get one out. A pop-up to Teagarden for out two, and then a single. A wild pitch, and it's second and third. This is much more up in the air than it should be. On a 2-1 fastball Terry Tiffee fields a tough hop at first, steps on the bag, we exhale, and we have won the bronze.

Relief in the dugout and congratulations all around. We see smiles that haven't been there since Wednesday.

8:30 p.m. - We hop on a van to go back to the stadium for the medal ceremony following the gold medal game.

Korea defeats Cuba 3-2, as Cuba grounds into a tournament ending 6-4-3 double play with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, right after the Korean catcher had been ejected for arguing balls and strikes.

After things settle down, the three teams take the stand and are presented their medals. It's a very nice ceremony and not too long. Our guys are appropriately proud, the Koreans are ecstatic - they were undefeated - and, meanwhile, most of the Cubans remove their silver medals as soon as they get into the dugout.

Our players, coaches and staff gather on the field for final congratulations, handshakes and hugs. This will be the final time when our entire group will be together. Most of us will fly together tomorrow, but a few head out early to west coast destinations. We'll be a bit scattered on Sunday.

Bronze was not our goal, but we are very proud of the fact we have won a medal and of the way our guys battled when they were down. The medal makes the total experience of China and the trip home much different.

Davey says that they will rarely if ever feel the type of pressure they felt today, trying to hold on to the lead to win the bronze. Every player said that, througout the tournament, they have never been this nervous on a baseball field. This will only serve to help them in their professional careers.

The rundown on China: Wonderful, helpful people; magnificant sites; wonderful architecture; Beijing is big, clean and beautiful (and a little smoggy at times); the food and language were major challenges; the cab rides became more reliable as the time went on. They put on a great show.

All of the players were great to be around. Everyone got along, they showed maturity, they appreciated all that was done on their behalf and were a pleasure to deal with on and off the field.

My family had a once in a lifetime experience that I'm glad to have been able to share with them.

I want to publicly thank Jim Murphy, Tom Ross and the Davidson College community for allowing me to partake in this and my other USA baseball experiences. They will never be forgotten.

P.S. - The Cookes made it home safely on an earlier flight Sunday, and I returned later without incident. All the travel was smooth, but I did take an unfortunate 0-for-2 as I am without my luggage as I write this from home.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wheels Come off Late, as Cuba Defeats Team USA 10-2 in Semifinals

By: Dick Cooke
10 a.m.  - The Cookes head to the Hometown Hopefuls hospitality center in downtown Beijing, which is run by Bank of America as a place for USA athletes, coaches and staff to go hang out, eat good food and watch Olympic events on multiple big screen TVs.

We experience vintage Beijing traffic on our cab ride, so by the time we arrive I have less than one hour before I need to get back for our scout meeting.

Adjacent to the Bank of America building is the USA House, and we have day passes so we spend some money in the store grabbing some nice USA attire. Unfortunately, they are not using Chinese pricing.

Susan and the girls stay at the Bank of America facility relaxing, meeting some USA athletes and watching Olympic events. I catch up with our USOC van and head back to the hotel.

2 p.m.  - Scout meeting for our semi-final game with Cuba, and it's fairly short, as we just played them last Saturday. We know they will throw right-hander Vera. He's an El Duque clone, who just happens to top out at 94 mph. He's a veteran, and he can pitch.

They will try and get the game to Lazo, who pitched six innings against us in the first game. We're going with college phenom Strasburg, who must pitch inside and throw his slider for strikes to have a chance.

After the scouts leave, Davey talks with us about the lineup. Nix and Laporta both have the go-ahead from the docs, but Davey will not start them, as he wants them to go through a complete workout before he starts them again. They will be available off of the bench. The lineup will basically stay the same.

3 p.m. - Van to Wukesong

4:20 p.m. - BP

6 p.m. - First pitch.

The script for Cuba could not work out better. Vera is outstanding. His fastball velocity ranges from 84 to 93 mph - by design, he alters speeds on his slider, throws a 72-74 mph curveball and a very good change-up.

He sinks his fastball at times, gets guys to chase four-seamers up out of the strike zone; a masterful job, as he goes six innings, when he turns it over to Lazo.

Strasburg is not as sharp as he was against the Netherlands. He doesn't pitch inside as much as perhaps he should, and leaves after four innings having allowed six hits and three runs, two of which were earned.

Cuba likes the ball out over the plate, and they drive some good velocity fastballs into the right-center gap. He doesn't walk anyone, but his command in the zone is not good, and he isn't effective on the inside half of the plate.

We score one in the fourth on a sac fly by Matt Brown, which plates Barden, and then get another in the fifth on a broken-bat single by Donald, which scores Lou Marson who had reached on an "I've got it, you take it" double.

Brian Duensing comes on to pitch in the fifth, and he, too, appears to not go to his strengths enough and gives up a monster home run to left fielder Cepada in the sixth on a letter-high change-up that is two rows from completely leaving the stadium. 4-2, Cuba, and the game doesn't have a good feel to it, as we don't look comfortable at the plate.

Lazo comes on in the seventh for Cuba, and Mike Koplove for the US. Koplove pitches a scoreless seventh, and he has been flawless since a very bad outing in the first exhibition game versus Canada back in Cary.

It's still 4-2 in the eighth when things fall apart for us. Jeff Stevens on to pitch, and he gives up a one-out three run homer to Cuban right-fielder Bell on a hanging slider. Blaine Neal comes in to pitch and, after a rare error by third baseman Mike Hessman and a single, Cuban catcher Pestano lines a home run just inside the left-field foul pole to make it 10-2.

We get a couple of guys on to lead off the ninth, and then Lazo decides to turn it up a notch, and he unleashes some 94 mph fastballs and 86 mph exploding sliders the likes of which we have not seen from him in a few years.

Lou Marson strikes out to end it, and we quietly move to the bronze medal game versus Japan tomorrow morning at 10:30. We didn't pitch well, they did, they hit four home runs, we struggled at the plate, and you just can't survive that way against a quality team like Cuba. They beat us in every way.

It's a very, very quiet clubhouse and ride back to the hotel and village. Everyone is mentally and emotionally drained. We know the players will feel this disappointment for a while, but they are professionals and we expect and need them to come out ready to play tomorrow morning.

It all hinges on our guy on the mound. Brett Anderson will get the nod, and if he's on, then we have a chance. We will face Japan's ace Darvish, who threw the first two innings against us Wednesday night, and he is probably the best pitcher in the tournament with a plus fastball and three quality off-speed pitches. Nothing is easy.

We'll hit in the cages at 9:15.

Seeing the Sights on Another Off Day

By: Dick Cooke
The rain is here as predicted, so the decision to forego today's practice is wise. A few players will hit in the cage at Beijing Normal University where the USA has a training facility. Hessman and one or two other hitters plan to go.

Despite the rain, the Cookes head to the Great Wall in the morning with the tour guide who took us around the Forbidden City. This will be my only chance to go with them.

An hour and a half trip, and it's rainy and foggy when we arrive, but clears up a bit as we walk the wall. It's amazing. We spend a good two hours and are sufficiently exhausted when we head back to town. Great job by our guide, and great job by Susan and the girls covering a lot of ground.

On the way back, we get a call from a team doc letting us know there are tickets available to tonight's gold medal women's softball game versus Japan.

After a quick McDonald's dinner, the Cookes, Seiler, Blundell and our security guys head to the softball game and sit right in the middle of the USA parents, who cheer from first pitch to last. A number of our players and staff are at the game as well. An unfortunate result, as the USA loses 3-1 in a great game.

Susan and the girls have now been to seven Olympic events, including two gold medal finals, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Silk Factory and the Great Wall. A great effort for five days, with two more baseball games to go, and who knows what else.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Team USA Earns No. 3 Seed in Medal Round with 4-2 Win over Japan

By:Dick Cooke
Both we and Japan have clinched spots in the medal round going into tonight's game, so we'll be playing for the No. 3 and 4 seeds. Tonight's winner plays Cuba; the loser gets Korea, who is undefeated.

3 p.m.  - Scout meeting to review Japan. They have great pitching, great defense, speed in every spot in the order, but have not swung the bats very well in this tourney. They were the favorites coming in.

No one knows who will pitch, as both clubs will most likely throw a number of guys to prepare for the medal round. The dilemma we face is trying to win the game, but also not overextend pitchers so they are all available Friday.

We will start Trevor Cahill, and we decide to limit him to three innings or a 45 pitch maximum. Japan's best arm is a right-handed pitcher named Darvish, but the scouts doubt he will pitch tonight and will go in the medal round opener.

Laporta is still not 100 percent, nor is Nix, but both will take BP today. Once again we have 10 available positional players. Everyone is asking who we would rather play - Cuba or Korea, and it truly doesn't matter. We played both close in this tourney, so we'll take them as they come.

3:45 p.m. - Van to Wukesong. Later departure today, as we are the visitors so there will be less down time before the game.

5:20 - BP. We think they may throw a lefty, so I throw to the first group. We only have two groups of five hitting, since we're down two positional players.

After BP we spend time with Bob Costas, who has joined the NBC president, who is throwing out the first pitch. Costas is a great baseball fan and knows a lot about our team as minor leaguers in addition as to how we've done thus far.

7 p.m. - Surprise. Japan starts their ace Darvish, but he only goes two innings as a tune up. 94 mph fastball, 86 mph slider, change-up, split finger, strike thrower.

Their next two pitchers shut us down holding us to just two hits through 10, both of which are by Dexter Fowler. Cahill goes three scoreless for us and is followed by Cummings for two, Duensing for one, and Neal and Stevens for two.

We enter the 11th scoreless with five hits total between the teams. Here comes the dreaded IBAF tie breaker.

We start the 11th with, as expected, Donald and Fowler at first and second, and Barden at the plate - the same set-up we used against Cuba.

 Everyone in the ballpark waits for the bunt by Barden. Davey lets him swing, and he drives a fastball up the middle to score Donald and move Fowler to third. Guts of a burglar.

By the time the inning ends, we have scored four and effectively taken away Japan's ability to bunt in the bottom half. Casey Weathers comes on for the 11th and strikes out the first hitter.

First and second, one out. Fly ball to center for the second out, as the runner advances to third. Base hit, and it's 4-1, runners on the corner.

Single to left, 4-2, runners at first and second, winning run at the plate. Passed ball, then an intentional walk to load the bases, tying run at second, winning run at  first. Weathers throws an 0-1 86 mph slider and gets a pop-up to end it.

Good result, but still no one cares for the new format. It has come into play in at least five games in this tourney.

We're 5-2, we're tired, we're glad we won and now have Cuba at 6 p.m. Friday. Steven Strasburg on the mound.

Off day tomorrow and, with rain expected, Davey cancels our workout. It will be a long wait until Friday.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

With Victory over Chinese -Taipei, Team USA Clinches Medal Round Appearance

By: Dick Cooke
There is still a great deal of conversation regarding last night's game with China. Questions about Schierholtz's play at the plate, which replays show to be a good baseball play, and concern about Laporta. He has suffered a mild concussion from the pitch to the head and will be held out of today's game. China's pitcher was suspended for four games, and the team was fined a significant amount. China's catcher, who collided with Laporta earlier in the game, had ACL surgery today.

With Nix and Laporta both out, we will only have 10 positional players available tonight. No pinch-hitting, no pinch runners, no defensive moves.

2 p.m. - Scout meeting regarding Chinese-Taipei. A veteran club with speed at the top and bottom of the order and power in the 3-6 spots in the lineup. We will see a crafty four-pitch right-hander who will pound the strike zone.

3:15 p.m. - Van leaves for Wukesong.

4:35 p.m. - BP

After our BP and while Chinese-Taipei hits, Davey, Reggie and I talk about the different approach mechanically the Asian teams take to hitting. They both played in Japan near the end of their careers, and have been through the Asian approach of thousands and thousands of repetitions in everything they do.

Davey calls it a "quality control approach" and, while they both think it's too rigid at times, they feel there is some benefit. Davey says because they they have changed their diets and train different physically (more strength training), they are producing bigger/stronger hitters who have a disciplined swing with added power.

This is why more and more Asian players are showing up in the big leagues. They are difficult to pitch to, as they all appear to bail out, but they somehow do a great job fighting off pitches. Even the poor hitters do this. They do a wonderful job of using their hands and not opening their hips too soon.

Davey says they have begun to allow more individuality in their hitters, which he thinks is good. The basis of their approach mechanically, though, is very sound.

7 p.m. - First pitch. It's simple. We win; we're in the medal round. We lose, and we have to beat Japan tomorrow night.

Brandon Knight, who struggled in our opener, strikes out five in the first two innings and Hsu, the Chinese-Taipei starter is equally good with his four pitch mix. 83-85 mph fastballs, 75 mph change-ups, sliders, curve balls...

He strikes out the side in the first, and has our guys baffled into the fifth. Change-up after change-up, and then he beats our guys inside with fastballs that are 84, but look 94. No offense through four.

A leadoff double against Knight in the fifth, and a sac bunt puts a runner at third with one out. Davey plays the infield in, which is unusual for him this early in the game. He clearly feels it will be a low scoring affair. A groundball gets past Matt Brown at first, and we trail 1-0.

Dexter Fowler is in center tonight and hitting ninth. He has struggled at the plate and in the leadoff spot in this tournament, but is in there tonight since Laporta is sidelined. He leads off our half of the fifth with a triple to right center, his second hit of the game.

Brian Barden makes a great adjustment from his two earlier at-bats and drives a change-up to right center to tie it at one. We can't get Barden home, and we're tied going into the sixth.

John Gall leads off our half of the sixth with a home run to left to make it 2-1. Lou Marson walks, Jason Donald bunts him to second, and Fowler comes up big again with a flare double down the left field line to put us up 3-1.

But Chinese-Taipei isn't finished, as shortstop Lin leads off the seventh with a long home run to make it 3-2 .

After a hard hit groundball for an out, Knight gives way to Mike Koplove. Knight was very good tonight using his four pitches well. In his first start against Korea, he threw first pitch fastballs to the first 17 hitters of the game, which allowed them to settle in and prevented him from getting a good feel for his off-speed stuff, which is typically very good. His slider is his out pitch, his curveball is a good "get me over" pitch, and he can run his fastball up to 92 when needed. A good outing tonight for the veteran. 6.2 innings, five hits, one earned run.

Koplove is a cross-fire, submarine/sidearmer with a decent amount of big-league time. He retires the first two hitters he faces, then throws a 1-2-3 eighth.

In the bottom of the eighth, we get a big insurance run on a one-out single by Jason Donald on a very tough slider low and away. He scores Gall, who had led off with a double.

Kevin Jepson comes on to pitch the ninth, as he has established himself as our closer. It has taken some time to figure out exactly who would fill the closer's role, as we have a number of pitchers who do or can do that task. Stevens, Neal, Weathers, Jepson, Koplove...

The back end of the bullpen wasn't great early in the tourney, but Jepson has been good every time out and is his most impressive tonight. He throws 12 pitches, 10 for strikes, no fastball under 94, gets a strikeout and two ground balls, and we wrap it up 4-2. The medal round is now a reality.

Ed Lynch, the former GM of the Cubs and one of the guys who helped put this club together, tells Jepson after the game "The next stop for you, young man, is the big leagues." We hope to have one or two more chances to use him here.

Everyone has one more game but Korea, who beat Cuba today, is undefeated and the No. 1 seed, Cuba is No. 2, and we play Japan to determine No. 3 and 4. If we win, we play Cuba on Friday, if we lose we play Korea.

We will shift the pitching rotation a bit and bump Trevor Cahill forward to pitch against Japan, and we will use Steven Strasburg and Brett Anderson in that order in the medal round.

Susan and the girls were at our game tonight and right in the middle of a full house of Chinese-Taipei fans chanting back and forth across the stadium the entire game. Team handball, synchronized swimming and volleyball for them tomorrow, and they hope for a trip to the Great Wall on the 21st. They are tired...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ejections and Hospitalizations, as Tempers Flare in Team USA's 9-1 win over China

By: Dick Cooke
9 a.m. - The Cooke family heads to the Forbidden City, which is at the northern part of Tiananmen Square. As we enter, a Chinese woman asks us if we would like a tour guide. We contemplate the offer ($35 US) and decide to take her up on it. She is a travel agent who does this on certain days. She becomes our personal guide for two hours and does a great job. It's an amazing place, and her English is good enough that we're able to understand most of the history she shares about the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, Chinese dynasties, etc.

We head back to the hotel as we have our scout meeting at 2, and Susan and the girls are heading to their first Olympic competition - weight lifting - which begins at 3:30.

2 - Scout meeting about China. Carl Moesche of the Major League Scouting Bureau presents the information on China. We receive all of this info. prior to the meeting either by email or hard copy, so the meeting moves quickly.

We've played them twice here, and we know they should struggle offensively, but they have two or three decent pitchers who can keep them in the game. They have played well in this tournament and are now a dangerous team to play in what is a critical game for us.

After Moesche finishes, Davey meets with the coaches to talk about the lineup. He and I had talked at length in the morning, and there maybe a couple of adjustments made as he searches for what he thinks is the right combination.

3:15 p.m. - Van to the stadium. As is the case everey day, we exit the van, the van is searched, and we walk through the security check point. They check everything thoroughly each day and, as time has moved on, they have become more timely in getting us through so we can get to the locker room.

4:15 - Stretch.

4:35 - BP. This is the first normal pre-game routine we've had since the opener, and our first night game since then. Our players show a ton of energy in BP;  all of the infielders get a ton of groundballs and make more throws across the diamond than normal, and it just feels right to be in a normal pre-game rhythm.

7 p.m.  - USA 9, China 1.

Apparently no game we play will lack in drama. Jake Arrieta starts for us and gives us six solid innings in his first appearance since we were in Cary. His command is spotty at times, but he allows only two hits and throws 94 pitches. Lach was hoping for five innings, so this helps our bullpen.

It's a 1-0 game until the fifth. Their starter has done a nice job pounding our hitters inside with 83-85 mph fastballs, and he doesn't make any mistakes over the plate. He tires in the fifth, and John Gall hits a big two-out bloop double off of the China reliever to make it 2-0.

Laporta walks to make it first and second, and Taylor Teagarden laces a ball into the right field corner. Gall scores, and Eck waves Laporta home. The catcher has the ball as Laporta arrives; he lowers his shoulder; there's a collision; the catcher holds on to the ball - safe.

We're not sure how, but the umpire determines LaPorta was never tagged. Replays later show he may have been correct. The catcher leaves with a knee injury, and we take a 4-0 into the sixth.

Now the fireworks pick up. Runners at second and third, 0 outs. Tiffee lofts a shallow flyball to center field; Schierholtz tags at third. Schierholtz takes off; the throw is on line, but inexplicably cut off by the pitcher. The pitcher turns to throw to the plate, and as the catcher waits for the throw, Schierholtz knocks him into the next county. He's safe; the ball goes to the backstop, and the benches begin to clear. Clean play when the catcher doesn't have the ball? Depends who you talk to.

Their manager Jim Levebvre is ejected; order is restored, and we end the inning up 5-0. In the eighth, Laporta is at the plate, and the count is 0-2. They go up and in, and he gets hit in the head. They've tried to pitch inside all night, but given what happened two innings ago, tempers flare. Laporta is down; the docs tend to him. The China pitching coach - former big leaguer Steve Ontiveros - is ejected and Davey is furious.

The game finishes without incident; the teams shake hands, and Laporta goes to the hospital.

We're all exhausted when we get back to the hotel, and now it's time to think about Chinese Taipei. We win, and we clinch a spot in the medal round. If we lose we would have to beat Japan. Seiler and company will get little sleep tonight.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Day Off with the Cooke Family

By: Dick Cooke
Day off today. Strasburg does a bullpen in the morning, but other than that, our guys stay away from the field. Tonight Korea and China will finish their suspended game from the other day with the score 0-0 in the 6th.

11 a.m. - Blundell and I head to the Olympic Village and Olympic Common area to take in the sights. Tons and tons of people are here today arriving at and leaving venues. We get to the Water Cube not too long after Michael Phelps has finished his last competition, and there are hundreds of media waiting at the athlete bus for him. We have to do our best LaDainian Tomlinson impression to get through the crowd.

5 p.m. - The Cooke family arrives safely at the hotel. Other than the long flight, it was a painless day of travel. After dinner, we hit Tiananmen Square, and it is spectacluar in its lighting. People are everywhere walking around the square. No vendors or cheap souvenir stands to run the effect. We get a lot of looks and smiles as I carry eight-year-old Erin on my shoulders around the square.

10 p.m. - The family collapses and I go to the Anheuser Busch House with Blundell and security guy LeRoy Hendricks. It's a place for athletes, coaches and staff from all countries to hang out and is open every other night during the Games. It's a nice opportunity for the athletes to get out of the village. It has sort of an MTV feel to it with a red carpet area for the famous to stroll across. We walked in a different way...

I have a brief conversation with Carl Lewis, and apparently, Michael Phelps was in the house but we did not spot him.

China tomorrow night at 7 p.m. They lost the completion of the suspended game 1-0 in 11 innings. They have played very well in the tournament, and we must focus on this game and not get ahead of ourselves.

Cuba and Korea are undefeated, Japan and the USA have two losses, Canada, China, Taipei and the Netherlands have three losses. Everyone has three games remaining in the first round.

Today was the end of the relaxing days for quite a while.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Team USA Evens Record, Downs Canada, 5-4

By: Dick Cooke
Phew. USA 5, Canada 4.

Perfect weather again, and the sun was shining just a bit brighter after a come-from-behind, nail-biter against the Canadians.

We passed on our scout meeting today, due to how early our game was (10:30), and the fact the scouts were out at games until late last night. Info. was passed on to the coaches via email, plus we had just played them four times in North Carolina before heading over here.

8:30 a.m. - Van leaves for the Wukesong Baseball complex.

9 a.m. - BP in the cages again. Canada is starting a right-hander, so I get Hessman and Barden. Some hitters take the day off from BP.

Hessman is still nursing the bruised heel, although it's better, and he has been given the go-ahead to play from Dr. Mattalino. Davey will use him only if needed in a pinch-hit situation.

Barden has already hit off of Roly, but likes swinging against me as well, as I can keep balls on the outside half of the plate to help him drive the ball the other way.

10:30 a.m. - Another big crowd, as lefty Brett Anderson takes the mound for us facing the Canadian line-up of eight left-handed hitters. It should be a great match-up for us, as Anderson is arguably our best starter and a projected front-of-the-rotation big leaguer.

But today he's not sharp, and Canada jumps out 4-0 after four. Anderson struggles throughout, and afterwards Lach says he's convinced Anderson pitched too much to the scouting report and got away from his strengths.

Pitchers often do this when they have too much information about hitters. When he faced Canada in ,Durham we knew nothing about their hitters, he trusted his stuff and dominated. He does get into the sixth, though, and then Davey brings in lefty Brian Duensing with two outs and a runner on.

Duensing is a starter in Triple-A for the Twins and started our gold medal game versus Cuba in the World Cup last November, but now serves as our lefty out of the pen. This may ultimately be his role when he gets to the big leagues.

Brian Barden puts us on the board in the fourth with a solo homer to right field (see BP...); we tie it at four on a double by Barden off of former big leaguer Chris Reitsma, and then we take the lead on a double by Tyler Tiffee in the seventh.

Duensing breezes into the ninth, but gives up a one-out single to the No. 8 hitter. He strikes out the No. 9 guy then faces USA nemesis Stubby Clapp with two outs and the tying run on first.

On a 3-2 slider, Clapp hooks the ball down the right field line, and the ball lands a good 3-4 inches foul. Tie game if it's fair.

Duensing returns to his fast ball, and Clapp hits the 89 mph pitch on the button but right at left fielder LaPorta to end the game.

A great job by our guys at the plate from the middle innings on, and a stellar job by Duensing. Three and a third innings of scoreless relief.

We're 2-2 now with a day off tomorrow and then China, Chinese Taipei and Japan to complete the first round. We don't think we can stumble again if we want to get to the medal round.

Jayson Nix had surgery after yesterday's game to close the huge gash over his left eye. The surgery went well, and he actually spent the night in the village in the room of one of our docs. He's out for the tourney, although he thinks he could play in a few days if we're still in it. The medical staff is not quite as optimistic. Without Nix we have 11 positional players with Hessman still not 100 percent. We're a bit limited in moves we can make.

The Cooke family arrives tomorrow, if all of their travel plans go according to plan. I went to the CoSport office this afternoon to pick up tickets that they had purchased to other Olympic events.

Using the perk of being on a USA staff, I had a driver take me to the CoSport office - which is on the opposite side of the city - in a USOC van which allowed us to travel in the "Olympic lane" and avoid the stop and go traffic which is the norm here. Had I taken a cab we would have been in that traffic and, if it were like most of the cab rides we've had here, gotten lost.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Team USA Loses Another Strange one, 5-4 to Cuba, Behind International Tie-Breaker

By: Dick Cooke
I'll start this entry by saying today was the best weather we've had yet. Yesterday's rain cleared the air, and we discovered that there are mountains just west of the city. A spectacular day - blue skies, 82 degrees, low humidity.

Now, for this next part, the baseball purists/traditionalists who may be reading this perhaps may want to stop here and skip the rest of today's entry, as I will now explain the new International Baseball Federation (IBAF) tie-breaker format, which has been implemented for this Olympics. It came into play in two games today, ours being one of them. Here goes.

In the interest of having baseball (and softball) games end in a timely fashion, a tie-breaker format has been implemented in extra innings. If the score is tied after 10 innings, then each team begins the 11th with runners on first and second and no one out. Each manager chooses who will be the first hitter, then the two hitters preceding him in the line-up go to first and second. You start every additional inning the same way. Whenever one team outscores the other in an inning, the game is over. When we were together at the All-Star game in July, we heard this was being considered, but none of us thought that there was any way it would be approved.

Back to the day.

9 a.m.  - We meet with the scouts to talk about Cuba, who we know well. This is the eighth game versus Cuba over the years for me, and a good number of these players have been on this team since my first USA team in 1999.

We beat them in November in the World Cup final; we beat them in Havana in the Olympic Qualifier final in 2006, and every game has been memorable in some way. We know what to expect. Aggressive offensively, great pitching, players who run, power, great defense, a veteran catcher - a major-league caliber team. They play a very slow pace and try to intimidate umpires and lesser opponents.

10 a.m.  - Van leaves for the ballpark. Today is our first game in the main stadium.

10:30 a.m. - BP in the cages. Davey has decided to hit in the cages for each of these morning games to allow the players to leave from the village a little later. I throw to Barden, Hessman, who is nursing a bruised heel, and Fowler who wants to get some right-handed swings.

11:30 a.m.  - First pitch. It's a beautiful stadium, which holds about 10,000. The bleachers down each foul line are full, and the outfield bleachers are fairly packed as well. Probably 5,000 or 6,000 here for the game, including a good contingent of Cuban and USA fans.

Trevor Cahill starts for us and struggles in the first. A leadoff walk followed by a double and, by the end of the inning, it's 2-0 Cuba.

Cahill knocks down a hard come-backer with the bases loaded to get a force at the plate and that proves to be a big play. If he doesn't get a glove on it, it is up the middle for two more runs. There were two marginal pitches to the first hitter, which were called low for balls, and Cahill appeared to be bothered by the calls and become tentative as he is a sinker-baller and needs the low strike.

He battled his fastball command all day; his velocity was not where it usually is, his off-speed stuff was spotty, but he leaves after five having allowed only those two first inning runs. Four walks, three strikeouts, six hits, 94 pitches. He survives, and keeps us in the game.

In the fourth, we make it 2-1 on doubles by Tiffee and Schierholtz, and tie it on a bloop double down the left field line by John Gall. Jeremy Cummings comes on to pitch for us in the sixth, and veteran Cuban right-hander Luis Lazo come on for Cuba. Lazo has been with the team forever and is a talented, confident veteran. Cummings does a nice job but gives up a long home run to Cuban designated hitter Despaigne in the eighth. 3-2 Cuba.

Lazo has been untouchable. He is simply a very big man. Picture David Ortiz on the mound with some athleticism. Lazo could be 35 or 45 years old. He used to run it up to 95-97 with a devastating split finger. Now he's "dropped" down to 89-93 and throws 70 percent sliders. He varies speeds on his fastball and his slider; he changes arm angles, and he pounds the strike zone.

We can't touch him and have a bunch of bad swings but, in the bottom of the eighth, Jayson Nix hits a hanging 1-0 slider into the left-field bleachers to tie it at three. Great at-bat.

Mike Jepson comes on to pitch for us in the ninth. It's still tied as we go to extra innings, and Cuba hits a leadoff triple in the 10th off of Jepson, but he strikes out two and gets a ground out to keep the game tied. Teagarden gets hit to lead off the tenth for us. Donald sacrifices him to second base, but Fowler flies out, and Nix pops out to end the threat. Top of the 11th.

Now it's time to try-out the new tie-breaking format. Feel free to leave the room...

Cuba starts with their lead-off hitter at the plate, and their eight and nine-hole hitters at second and first base, respectively. Jeff Stevens is on to pitch for us.

As expected, Cuban center fielder Giorbis Duvergel sacrifices them to second and third. Michel Enriquez lines the first pitch to him, just past the glove of first baseman Tyler Tiffee, and Cuba leads 5-3. Alexander Mayeta grounds into a double play, and we head to the bottom of the 11th.

We have to score two to extend the game. We start with Jayson Nix at the plate, and Jason Donald at second and Dexter Fowler at first, our two best runners.

Nix squares to bunt; the pitch runs in on him, hits his barrel, and goes straight into his face, catching him just above the left eye. Lazo is on from the mound gesturing, and, while Nix eventually leaves under his own power, it looks bad. He'll go to the hospital for overnight observation.

Brian Barden steps in for Nix and successfully bunts the runners to second and third. Tyler Tiffee just misses a hanging slider and hits a long fly ball to center field, which scores Donald. Fowler advances to third. 5-4 Cuba, two outs.

Matt Brown swings at a first pitch slider and pops it straight up to catcher Pestano. Game over. Lazo goes six; hope you like the new format. It's a confused clubhouse at best. We're not sure how to react to losing that way, but we are aware we are now 1-2 with our hands full and down one positional player.

Through 10 innings it was a very, very good baseball game. Another re-group moment is upon us as we have Canada tomorrow at 10:30. They lost 7-6 to Cuba last night. Lefty Brett Anderson on the mound for us.

This evening it's back to Tiananmen Square with Roly, Blundell and security guys Joe Chan and LeRoy Hendricks.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Rain Halts Play, but Strasburg Blanks the Netherlands, 7-0

By: Dick Cooke
After Wednesday's heart breaker against Korea, all the focus and conversation at this morning's staff meeting was on forgetting about that game and concentrating on the task at hand, which was the Netherlands.

A 7-0 win indicates we did a nice job of that but, when your starting pitcher has a perfect game through 4 1/3 innings and a no-hitter through 6 2/3, it's much easier.

Steven Strasburg, a rising junior at San Diego State and, as I mentioned earlier, the only college player ever to make the professional nation team since it's inception, came up big. Seven innings, one hit, one walk, 11 strikeouts, 94 pitches.

There has been a great deal of hype about him and, with our loss last night, the pressure increased ten fold on his outing today. He settled in quickly, striking out the side in the first, and it was a very comfortable game most of the way.

Interestingly, though, as dominant as Strasburg was, he threw a first pitch strike to only eight of the 23 hitters he faced. But he has great mound presence, likes to pitch inside, has command of a good slider and is a strike thrower. Combine all of that with a fastball which ranges from 92-96+, and he makes any hitter uncomfortable. He will likely be the first player taken in next year's draft.

A long home run by Matt Brown got us on the board in the second, and then we tacked on four more in the fourth led by a three-run homer by Matt LaPorta.

Our lead increased to 6-0, when the rains came after the 7th. We were delayed one hour, then went back out to try and finish. We added a run in the 7th; Casey Weathers pitched a scoreless 8th, and then the rains came yet again in the bottom of the ninth.

Blaine Neal was on to finish it up and, after two hits and a walk, he was suddenly in a bases loaded, no one out jam, when they finally called us off of the field for what proved to be the final time.

We never should have started the bottom of the ninth, as the mound was unsafe, and Neal was adjusting his delivery to prevent slipping, which can be disastorous for the health of a pitcher's arm. After a 90 minute wait, the game was ruled complete, and we are now 1-1.

The format for this Olympic baseball tournament is a bit different than in years past and similar to the qualifier in Cuba. Rather than pool play, which is the standard in most team sports, baseball plays a simple round robin format.

Eight teams in the event, you play everyone once (seven games) then No. 1 plays No. 4, No. 2 plays No. 3, the two winners play for the gold, and the two losers play for bronze. It's impossible to tell at this point what your record may need to be to advance to the medal round.

The eight teams in the event are Cuba, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Netherlands, China and the USA. Japan, who has sent 24 of their major league players, and Cuba are the favorites.

Korea is obviously talented, having shut down their professional season during the Olympics to send their best. There are no easy games. China and Korea were 0-0 today in the 5th when their game got suspended, and Cuba edged Canada 7-6 tonight.

We bounced back well today, and now have to gear up for Cuba tomorrow, which is always a huge game. The international stage is what the Cubans live for. They have been together a long time and are playing very well right now. They opened up by beating Japan 4-2, in addition to tonight's win over Canada.

We'll send Trevor Cahill to the mound against them. You must pitch in side against them, throw your breaking ball for strikes and stop their running game.

Scout meeting tomorrow at 9:30 a..m.; first pitch against Cuba at 11:30.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Korea Wins Thriller in Opener

By: Dick Cooke
Korea 8, USA 7

Not the ideal way to open the tournament. It was a great game if you were a fan, absolutely gut wrenching if you were in the dugout on either side. Korea was as advertised. Quality pitching, speed at the top of the order and power guys in the middle.

We got up 1-0 in the first, but the Korean third baseman hit a monster home run in the second to put them ahead. They get another on a wild pitch in the third and then, after we tie it at 3 in the 5th, they get three in the bottom half to go up 6-3.

Mike Koplove does a nice job in relief of starter Brandon Knight to minimize the damage. Nate Schierholtz hits a line-drive home run in the 6th to make it 6-4, and that's how it stands until the ninth.

Brian Duensing and Mike Jepson do a nice job out of the pen, and Korea's Taehyon Chong, a submarine right-hander is spectacular, as he allows just Schierholtz' home run while striking out the last five batters he faces. Over 2 2/3 innings, he throws four fastballs, and all the rest are sliders - to both right and left-handers. Our right-handed hitters struggle, as he throws one slider after another and pounds the strike zone.

The ninth inning is why it's a great game, and why it's great that there is no clock.

We enter the inning down 6-4. Third baseman Mike Hessman hits the longest home run I've ever seen off of an 84 mph right-hander named Kijoo Han, who is the Korean closer. 6-5 Korea.

Taylor Teagarden follows with a single to right off of a 93 mph fastball. Brian Barden doubles to right center on a ball I thought would be caught, and suddenly we have second and third with no one out.

Another pitching change for Korea with Suk Min Yoon entering the game. 91-93 mph fastball with a big-league 85 mph slider. John Gall, hitting in our leadoff spot strikes out for the third time swinging through a high 90 mph fastball. Jayson Nix gets out front on a slider, pops it up to second base, and we are down to our last out.

With a base open, they pitch around Terry Tiffee, who would hit from the left-side as a switch hitter. It's all on the shoulders of Matt Brown who looks real bad on two sliders to go down 0-2. He battles and battles, then drives a two-strike slider into left field to give us a 7-6 lead. A phenomenal at-bat.

Bottom of the ninth, and Jeff Stevens enters the game to close for us. He was with us in Taiwan, and Davey has great confidence in him. Lead-off double down the left-field line on an 0-2 fastball gets past a diving Mike Hessman. Their next hitter, a lefty who is pinch hitting, fights off pitch after pitch and finally grounds out to second base, moving the lead runner to third with one out.

The next hitter hits a soft ground ball to second base. Jayson Nix tries to get the runner at home, but he beats the throw to make it 7-7 with a runner on first and one out.

I briefly look down at my chart, then look back up, only to see the base runner streaking toward third as Stevens has made a pick-off attempt which sails over Brown's head. Runner at third, one out.

The next hitter hits a fly ball to fairly shallow center field. Dexter Fowler, in for defensive purposes, makes the catch and throws home but it's too late. Game over; bus leaves in 20 minutes.

A very angry dugout and clubhouse, but we can't cry for long as we play a good Netherlands team tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.

This was a game that each team would say they should have won, and a game the fans appreciate. It will be a good test to see how our team responds after this difficult loss. We battled great tonight, had some quality at-bats and got some good pitching from parts of our pen. Nothing from Davey after the game. He simply wants us ready to go by 9:45. We'll start Strasburg tomorrow, the college pitcher who is now on the biggest stage of his life.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Anticipation is Building

By: Dick Cooke
The mood has changed as the opening game stands one day away. Everyone's a little more reserved, a little more zeroed in on Korea. Not many folks wander from the hotel for any length of time.

11:30 a.m. - Our security guys - Joe Chan and Leroy Hawkins - accompany Blundell and myself out to the Olympic Village to pick up Lach to bring him back for our meeting with the scouts. We make a stop in at the Olympic Super Store to check out the merchandise. The store is in the midst of a good number of the Olympic venues including the Bird's Nest (the main stadium) and the Water Cube where swimming is held. Every Olympic venue is impressive. The Chinese have done a great job with that aspect.

We pick up Lach and head back to the hotel where we have a one and a half hour meeting with our scouts about Korea.

Mike Larson, who works for the Major League Scouting Bureau, takes the lead as he has just come from five days in Korea watching Korea, Cuba and the Netherlands play. We go over every hitter, every pitcher, who can run, bunt, defensive strengths, etc.

The Bureau has sent four scouts to serve as advance scouts for this tournament, which is something they have done to some level since 1999. They do a great job compiling tons of information but presenting it in a concise way.

It's the task of the coaches to determine how much information should be shared with the players so as to avoid "paralysis by analysis." This is the first of daily meetings on each of our opponents.

Larson is impressed by Korea. They have shut down their major league season to send their best 24 players over. They are a mix of professional veterans and young, talented prospects. A good number of their roster have had time in Major League Baseball in the States.

We'll most likely see a left-hander who throws 90-93 with a very good slider. He can get the ball up in the strike zone at times and lose some command, so our hitters have to be patient and wait for mistakes. They are solid offensively set up in a traditional manner. Two table setters hit one and two, and they have legit power guys in the 3-6 spots. As most Asian teams do, they fight off two strike pitches and try and work deep counts. It's an experienced line-up. We'll start Brandon Knight, and he and our bullpen will need to be on their 'A' game.

4 p.m.  - Van leaves for the ballpark. We have a bit of a wait while Korea finishes their practice. All the teams are working out on the practice field today, which is adjacent to the two game stadiums. All three fields are outstanding - big league caliber baseball facilities.

5:20 p.m. - Stretch and throw.

5:40 p.m.  - BP. Anticipating a left-hander starting tomorrow, I throw the first two groups, which are made up of the projected starters. They are, in no particular order, Hessman, Brown, Gall, Schierholtz, Tiffee, LaPorta, Nix, Teagarden and Barden. Each group hits for 15 minutes, the hitters then run a few easy sprints, and we're done.

Lach takes a couple of minutes to talk with the pitchers. Eck and Reggie talk to the hitters about approach and to go over signs, and Davey steps in with the hitters to tell them to relax and try not to do too much. Take the walk if you get it, as there are guys behind you who can hit as well. He's very aware of not creating an increased sense of urgency. He wants them to be able to play to their strengths while staying relaxed.

Lach tells the pitchers we have a chance if we play to our potential, but this tournament will be very tough. We all know what we need to do in each element of the game. The adrenaline will flow and the tempo picks up tomorrow.

7:45 p.m. - Dinner with Seiler, Blundell and Roly at a TGI Friday's in a nearby hotel. Blundell is in heaven and feels as though this Friday's is an oasis. Seiler, who runs USA Baseball, is starting to get that edge that he will live with for the next two weeks and the one he gets at each and every tournament. All of us have it.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ladies and Gentleman, the President of the United States

By: Dick Cooke
Rain through the night has finally allowed us to see a legitimate skyline in Beijing. The pollution has been washed away to some degree, and you don't realize the extent of the pollution until you see the skyline as we do today. I can actually see well into the distance from my 24th floor window and finally have a sense as to how far reaching the city limits are.

10 a.m.  - We get word via Bob Watson that everything has been pushed up one hour. Now we will leave at 11:30 and the game will start at 2. Our security guys tell us this is standard practice where the President is concerned. By design it keeps folks guessing.

12 p.m.  - We arrive at the ball park, and there is a heightened sense of energy. Soon after we get into our clubhouse, the coaches and staff have a briefing with President Bush's "planners" and security detail. The want to know what our pregame schedule is so they can tie his appearance into it efficiently.

We are scheduled to take BP until 1:30, he will arrive at 1:35 then the game will start at 2. They, in turn, tell us they would like something to be going on on the field when he gets here, as he doesn't want to have a situation where it looks like everyone is simply waiting for him to arrive. As a result, we change our BP time so we finish at 1:40. His advisers tell us they are never late for things like this, and he will be there precisely when they say.

1 p.m. - BP. Today I throw to Gall, Tiffee, Hessman and Schierholtz. Knowing we will get a left-hander from Korea on Wednesday, Eckstein and Reggie want these four to see me today. I will throw two groups - those who will start Wednesday - tomorrow in practice and then again for pregame BP on Wednesday.

As group two starts to wind down, I am leaning on the batting cage talking with Davey. Suddenly there is a good deal of traffic walking on to the field through the gate by our dugout. Then the President comes bursting through the gate asking, "Where is Coach Johnson?" and marches right over to the cage and visits with Davey and I.

It's a brief visit as the media swarm is significant. I do get a Davidson College plug in, and he says "Awesome place." Right after that it's time for my group to hit, so I jump out to the mound. The President walks over to visit with the Chinese team.

The pace has picked up everywhere over the past few minutes. Two hitters into my BP round, we are told it's time for the photos with the President so we leave the field, put on our game jerseys and congregate behind the cage and take a number of pictures - a very large number of pictures.

The team shots evolve into individual shots with each person's digital, and finally we do a picture with our team and the Chinese. Then we go back to the field, where we finish up our BP round and, in the meantime, the President has made his way to our dugout where he sits for quite a while and visits with players, coaches, staff, wives, etc.

He and I talk briefly about Tony Snow. He's a baseball guy and really enjoys talking with the players and re-hashing the days when he watched Davey, Reggie and Bob Watson play in the big leagues. He's very gracious with all the requested photo ops and signings of baseballs, hats, etc. We present him with a USA jersey, he throws out first pitches to our catcher and the Chinese catcher, then he heads to the stands. He stays for about two innings, then it's off to the airport and back to the US.

As I talk to one of the President's Secret Service detail, I tell him it's been a pretty typical day of pre-game activity for me. Hit some fungos, start throwing BP, stop throwing to take pictures and talk with the President, then go back and finish up the round.

Despite the change of routine, we start the game precisely at 2 p.m. and go on to beat China 7-3. We score 3 in the 9th to make it more comfortable, but it's clear the coaches and players aren't happy with the way we played. Numerous runners left on base, six innings where our pitchers threw 20 or more pitches and 169 pitches as a staff for the game.

The Chinese used seven pitchers and some showed decent arm strength. They will be a team in this tournament who will pitch OK, play decent defense, but will be weak offensively. Lach is not particularly pleased with the pitching today. Andserson starts and goes five while Jepson, Neal, Stevens and Weathers each throw one. China scores two off of Neal in the 7th and one on Weathers in the ninth.

This was the final exhibition game, and now we'll have a short practice tomorrow in prep for the opener Wednesday. It's time to get going. Tonight Roly, Blundell and I are going to find an American steak restaurant somewhere.

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