Monday, December 14, 2020

The Miseducation of David McCormack

This may be the most confusing Kansas basketball team of the last decade.  The squad lacks a talented big man yet has a roster of eight guards, yes Jalen Wilson is a guard, that is as deep and talented as any in the Bill Self era.  The confusion stems from David McCormack and whether or not he can find the game that his teammates raved about before the season started.

McCormack is a physical specimen.  He has a sweet jump shot from 12 feet and in and is an enthusiastic rebounder.  He is a solid defender.  Yet he play seems rushed and unsettled.  His frenetic presence in the low post is downright confusing on the offensive end.

I think Self has bent over backwards to give McCormack minutes when the steadier Mitch Lightfoot plays a more polished low post game.  He lacks McCormack's physical presence but he is a better shot blocker and ball handler.  Yet Lightfoot's minutes will likely be limited because the best Kansas lineup doesn't involve a big man.

Kansas plays its best with five guards on the floor.  Jalen Wilson at 6-8 is big enough to handle many of the interior big men he will face as the season grinds on and creates massive matchup headaches with his ability to handle the ball and shoot the three.  Plus Wilson is a fierce rebounder.  He is the best Kansas freshman I have seen standing at 6-6 or more since Paul Pierce.  It's unfortunate that he will be a one and done.

Christian Braun and Ochai Obaji are the ying and yang of the back court swing players.  Both are deadly from beyond the arch, can handle the ball and are fearless rebounders.  With Wilson, Braun and Obaji should average 15 a game night in and night out.

The problem is Marcus Garrett.  Bill Self has put too much on K.U.'s best lockdown defender.  You can see his game suffering with the added responsibility of playing the point.  His offense is down and he seems tired on the defensive end.  At some point Self needs to consider finding a way to get Dajuan Harris, Jr. into the game more as the point to free Garrett to be the defensive spark that Kansas desperately needs.

The other guard part of this abundance of guard goodness is freshman Bryce Thompson who should also get more looks at point.  Thompson has an old school mid-range game that we haven't seen in years.  Plus he's a sure ball handler.  

Sadly lost in this depth at Tristan Enaruna.  He's got a great three point stroke but seems another year away from being the mature player that can contribute on a consistent basis.  My guts tell me he may transfer given the wealth of talent Kansas seems to recruit every year.

JUCO transfer Tyon Grant-Foster is an athletic freak.  He can jump, handle the ball, and play defense.  I suspect he'll have some conference games where he comes to the rescue but he's a role player at best.

This Kansas team lacks a Frank Mason, DeVonte Graham, Devon Dotson, who could pressure opposing defenses with their drives and outside shooting ability.  And that will be the achilles heel of this squad, the lack of a consistent penetrator from the guard spot that can get the other team in foul trouble.

This is not a Final 4 team.  A trip to the Sweet 16 is the best the Jayhawks can hope for.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

COVID Cross Country

Some how, some way, the Southwest Florida high school cross country teams made it through the 2020 season, something quite a few of their football counterparts failed to do.  I think it's a credit to all of the coaches across Lee County that their teams made it to November with more than a half dozen squads making it to Tallahassee to compete at the State Championships.  It's nothing short of a miracle.

Ladies first.  Canterbury's Jessica Edwards, a superb middle distance runner, landed the highest finish of her fine high school cross country career by taking fifth in the Class 1A race.  Right behind her in seventh place was Ava Povich from ECS.  Only a sophomore, Povich made giant strides improving more than 30 spots at State this year.

The top girl in Lee County and Southwest Florida is Amy Meng.  The junior from Fort Myers High led her squad to a third place finish in Tallahassee while taking fifth as an individual.  She wasn't even on the Green Wave squad last year.  Meng has the work ethic to be one of the best runners to ever come out of Fort Myers High.

The hidden gem on the top girl's team in Southwest Florida was Fort Myers senior Anna Fischler.  A nagging hip injury kept Fischler from training until deep into the season.  She went from running 24 minutes in a JV race in early October to finishing 23rd at the State Championships.  Her heart and tenacity is something to admire.

Kudos go to the Estero girls led by Madison Hood for making it to State and to the girls of Bishop Verot, a young and promising squad that could give the Green Wave a run for its money next season for county bragging rights.

It's hard to pinpoint a single boy that dominated the season.  Lehigh Acres junior Evan Meyer had a terrific season although he appeared to run out of gas at the Class 4A race.  Senior Ogler Bartolon of Dunbar had a great season and led his team to State in Class 3A.  The same can be said of SFCA's Ethan Tank who also took his team to State while finishing 15th in the Class 1A race.

Bragging rights for the best team belongs to Fort Myers but by a razor thin margin over Dunbar.  Junior Colsen Palmer was consistent all season along with seniors Liam Holston and Paul Colsen in leading their team to a fifth place finish in Class 3A.

That being said based off his finish at State and his season resume Estero junior Kolton Pickard is the best of a good group. Pickard finished a respectable 13th in Class 3A.  He did it while overcoming some nagging mid-season injuries.

Pickard will be back next season along with Palmer, Meyer and Bishop Verot sophomore Cooper Banks.  Look for Povich to continue her improvement and for some epic battles with Meng next fall.  But lets hope those duals resume this spring and that Covid doesn't put the road block on high school track and field.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Home Stretch

Keep your fingers.  Florida could hold its high school State Cross County Championships in less than ten days in Tallahassee.  While its unlikely any Lee County teams will content for a state title, a few should be in the mix for high finishes.  The local teams must first conquer this weekend regional meets but I think by and large several local teams and athletes will advance.

I looked back upon the preview blog I wrote at the end of August and I will say I got a lot of things right, but there have been plenty of big surprises.  We'll start with Ava Povich.  The Evangelical Christian sophomore has been the biggest surprise of the fall.  She has shown steady improvement from her freshman campaign and could content for a state title in a couple of years.  Ava has a legitimate chance to finish in the top ten assuming she advances on Saturday.

Canterbury senior star Jessica Edward appears have broken through the mental barriers that have plagued her over 5,000 meters.  She's a beast over 800 meters but struggled at the challenge of racing at longer distances.  If she's on she should be in the top five in Tallahassee with an outside shot at the whole match at the Class 1A meet where Povich will also compete.

The Bishop Verot girls stand a good chance of making their annual pilgrimage to Tallahassee.  Jorge Fleitas has brought consistent excellence to the Vikings program.  The Verot pack is young and talent but appears to be one more year away from being a threat for the podium in Class 2A.  

The only other Lee County girl that has a legitimate shot at a top ten finish is Fort Myers junior sensation Amy Meng.  The only thing standing between Ming and a top five finish is confidence.  Amy has no idea how good she actually is.  She is a refreshingly humble athlete who exudes a love for running that you also see in Edwards and Povich.

Meng will lead a talented Fort Myers squad.  The Green Wave have seen incredible improvement from sophomore Oliva Olney and freshman Elizabeth McHugh.  But Fort Myers, clearly the best team in the county, needs a super human effort from the amazingly resilient senior Anna Fischler.  A hip injury kept Fischler sidelined for the bulk of the season yet in less than a month she has emerged as a force on her squad.  Fort Myers will need her if they have any chance at a top five finish in Tallahassee.

The only other girl's squad with a chance to punch a ticket to Tallahassee is the Wildcats of Estero.  They are a tactically strong team that knows how to race and senior Madison Hood turned some heads by taking the individual in leading her team to the District title.  Coach Brian Olitsky has a way of making magic with his Estero teams. 

That brings us to the boys side where more than a half dozen boys have a shot at top ten finishes at the state meet.  We'll start with the only 4A competitor Evan Meyer.  The Lehigh Acres junior has shown steady improvement through the year under the coaching of Ben Pignatone.  

Estero's best bet for a top 3A finish is junior Kolton Pickard.  The Wildcats will have to shine in Stuart this weekend to qualify as a team for state.  Pickard, nagged by some minor injuries, has a shot at a top ten finish in Tallahassee.  The question is whether the Wildcats can feed off Pickard and eke out a top four finish at Regionals and punch its ticket to Tallahassee.

The surprise squad in the county is Dunbar.  Ray Romero has molded a tough team led by senior Olgar Bartolome.  If the Tigers can duplicate their showing at Districts they will be a lock as a team for Tallahassee.  They took down a top five ranked Fort Myers squad last week.  The question is can they make magic two weeks in a row.  It will require a major effort from Bartolome who has the ability to make a top ten finish at State.

This brings us to a team that I still rate as the top squad in Lee County.  I think in a deeper Regional contest Fort Myers will be better served by its potent one-two punch of Colsen Palmer and Liam Holston.  Paul Kolsen has proven to be a pleasant surprise for Yancey Palmer's Green Wave.  Palmer and Holston have the ability to be top five finishers in Tallahassee.  Holston is due for a major breakthrough race to follow up on his outstanding junior season of a year ago.

That leaves us to the SFCA and the outstanding job coach Katie Abbott has done with her boys and girls team.  Both squads advanced to Saturday's Regional meet in Lakeland.  Her boys squad appear to be a lock to reach Tallahassee.  Senior leader Ethan Tank has shown steady improvement during his four years at SFCA.  A top ten finish in Tallahassee would be a fine way to cap off his career with the Kings.

Last but not least is Bishop Verot's Cooper Banks.  The talented sophomore slipped through my pre-season radar.  Banks has been a consistent performer all season and easily captured his District title.  A top ten finish in Tallahassee would be an excellent way for Banks to close out his season and set the stage for next year's season as a four way slugfest between himself, Palmer, Pickard and Meyers.   

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The National Pastime

Mantle, Mays, Musial, McCovey, Aaron, Robinson F., Robinson B., Killebrew, Oliva, Clemente, Kaline, Yazstremski, Spahn, Ford, Marichal, Drysdale, Koufax, Gibson Seaver, names that baby boomers who loved baseball have cemented into their memories.  These players marked the last great era of Major League Baseball when the sport held sway as America's National Pastime. It was baseball, not running that sparked my love of sports that exists to this day.

The past month has been especially tough for baseball fans.  Gone are Tom Seaver, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.  Gibson's death last week really hit hard.  He was a central figure along with Brock on one of my all time favorite teams, the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals.  Gibson suffered a broken ankle that season but it didn't slow the St. Louis chase to a pennant and a world championship.

Head to the Sports Illustrated vault and you can read some great articles about that Cardinals team, dubbed the El Birdos.  Orlando Cepeda led that team at the plate while a makeshift pitching staff bolstered by a 22-year-old lefty, Steve Carlton, survived Gibson's injury to beat the surprising Boston Red Sox in a magnificent seven game World Series.  Gibson came back from the ankle break to win three games against Boston.

Gibson was a gifted athlete.  He was a top notch basketball player who bloomed late as a pitcher in St. Louis where he won two world championships.  Gibson glowered from the mound and served up a smoking fastball along with a devastating slider.  And being the great athlete he was the man could hit.

The Hall of Famer's 1968 season was the stuff of legend.  Gibson posted an astounding earned run average of 1.12 runs per game.  In today's game anything under 3 is considered outstanding.  That season forced baseball to make changes to take away the dominance of pitchers like Gibson.  

I remember a commercial Gibson was in where he pounded fastballs into a sheet of clear plastic.  It was a rare commercial in its day.  You rarely saw an African-American sports star front and center in a commercial in the 1960's.

The sports heroes of my generation are slowly leaving the stage.  It causes my soul to ache.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

50 Years

I ran my first race 50 years ago this week.  It was the Wamego Cross Country Invitational.  At the time it was the biggest meet in the state of Kansas due largely to the fact that the state meet was run on the golf course there.

I wasn't good enough to play basketball.  I knew I wanted nothing to do with the contact offered up by football.  That left me thinking that maybe I could be like Jim Ryun.  

I  spent the summer of 1970 learning how to become a runner.  That was thanks in large part to my neighbor Greg Morgenson.  Even though Greg was going to be a junior at Abilene High School, he allowed this mere freshman to join him on our near daily runs.

Looking back now our training was laughable but it was something.  We would run a mile out, take a short rest and then head back.  I think we stretched it out to four miles once or twice but generally it was just a couple of miles.  Every couple of weeks we would run one mile time trial up and down the block.

During that summer Greg got a copy of The Long Green Line from the high school cross country coach, Robert Chatham.  I devoured the book.  I began to realize that cross country could be fun even though it would require a lot of work.

The summer of training put me into a good position heading into the start of team training.  I remember a few workouts from my short six weeks with the team.  Chatham loved one workout in particular.  It was called easy/hard.  We would run 20 220's on the golf course.  We would go down in :45 and rest :45 seconds and then try and run under :35 with another :45 second rest.  About halfway through the workout we would start doing everything we could to prolong the recovery.

The other thing I remember about doing interval training on the golf course was I would take water breaks which were strictly frowned upon by coach.  It was unheard of back then to take water during a workout because it was believed it would cause cramping.  

By the time we ran our two mile time trial I was in a position to make varsity which made at least one upper class man angry.  He was asked to leave the team.  I managed to finish seventh in just under 12 minutes on a fairly hilly course.  The question is whether Coach Chatham would dare run a freshman at the first meet of the season on a team that was considered one of the best in the state.

I think Chatham realized that other than the top five on the team, I was the only other athlete who had spent the summer training.  I suspect that's why I was allowed to run varsity, which meant the world to me at the first meet of the season.

It was a very emotional time in my life.  My mother had revealed to me just before the start of school that she planned to move the family back to Lawrence.  She was divorcing my stepfather.  I was all for the move.  I was growing tired living in a small town where everybody knew everybody else's business.

The fact that I was showing success in athletics had given me pause to wonder if I shouldn't stay behind for the first semester so I could finish out the cross country season.  I could stay with my grandmother and continue running for Abilene.  I know by the time I reached my decision my coach and teammates were hoping I would stay, but in the end I wanted to stick with my mom.

So here I was heading on the bus to Wamego on a wet, miserable, late summer day.  We arrived at the golf course where the meet was run to find out it was a no go.  The golfers didn't want us to spoil their pristine grass and we were directed to the site of an abandoned nuclear silo on the other side of the highway from the country club.

We were out on a massive pasture that was a rain soaked mud bog that had cattle roaming on it.  I tried to do a short warm up and completely trashed my shoes with mud.  I was grateful that I had brought my spikes with me and not knowing any better decided to race in them.

I remember seeing the Lawrence High team there because my old childhood friend Kirk Duncan was running for the Lions.  I remember not being sure what to make of the mass of humanity gathered on the pasture.  There were at least 30 teams on hand to run the two races, divided up into large school and small school divisions.  We were a small school.

The start of the race was a massive mud slog.  I remember spitting on a kid as we charged across the first quarter mile.  Some kids lost their shoes in the muck. I remember hitting the mile mark and feeling like I wanted to die.  Most of all I remember the last 300 yards where I caught one of my teammates and passed several runners with my sprint to the finish.  I was 38th overall out of 100 plus runners.  I was the top freshman in the race.  We finished 3rd as a team and I believe our top varsity runner Dennis Cole had come in third.  Greg was somewhere in the top ten as well.

As soon as the race was over the day turned sunny and pleasant.  I remember the team stopped in Junction City on the way home and we enjoyed lunch at McDonald's.  It was a rare treat back in the day.

Our next meet was supposed to be on Tuesday, a dual affair with Salina Sacred Heart.  I knew it would be my last with the team as I had decided to leave the following weekend for Lawrence.  That Tuesday was cold with freezing rain.  Yes, it was still September but that's the way weather was back then.  The meet was canceled and my running career as an Abilene Cowboy was over.

I moved to Lawrence.  I was thrust back into junior high where there was no cross country.  I tried to go workout with the Lawrence High team but I felt unwelcome and the way the school was scheduled I would always be 15 minutes late for practice.  I knew I wouldn't be eligible to run but I wanted to keep training.  

Somehow I got to know enough Lawrence High runners that I managed to snag a ride with a few of them to the state meet in Wamego.  Lawrence High got stomped but Abilene lived up to its potential and finished third in its division.  I had earned a varsity letter by running the one race for Abilene but Coach Chatham wasn't happy with my decision to leave the team.  So I was denied the letter.  I felt bad about it but I understood his reasoning.

Greg and I remained friends.  In fact, the following year he was the one who had to leave Abilene with his family for a move to Lincoln, Nebraska where he would become a state champion in the mile.  Greg and I would run one last cross country meet together in Kansas City before he left for Nebraska at Swope Park.  I got smoked but managed a top 30 finish.  Greg was somewhere in the top ten.  Not a bad finish for a small town runner against the big city boys.

So I have been a competitive runner for 50 years.  During that time I learned that I didn't want to train hard enough to be another Jim Ryun.  But I also learned that I loved running just enough to always stick with it, through tough times, tough jobs and a lot of tough travel around this wonderful country.  It's allowed me to meet and get to know my heroes.  It's given me more than I've ever deserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Jan Johnson

Whew... where to begin?  Most of the time when you purchase a self-published book you expect to read a lot of vanity garbage and I always steer clear of that.  But I had to buy Jan Johnson's awkwardly titled, "The High Flyer and the Cultural Revolution Journal of the Osage Orange, Pt. 1."  It's a head scratching title

Jan Johnson was a world class pole vaulter in the early 1970's.  He set a world record in the vault and ended up with the Olympic bronze medal at the 1972 Munich games which probably should have been silver but that's a whole different story.

I purchased the book because my path had crossed with Jan's while he was at the University of Kansas.  He was a friend of a friend.  I remember he was niceguy and I have stamped on my brain his record setting 17' 7" jump for a world record at the NCAA Championships which landed the Jayhawks second place at nationals.

I didn't expect much, just a lot of silly stories and insight into track at Kansas.  What I got was so much more.  Jan serves up a seascape of growing up on the south side of industrial Chicago.  It's full of the grit and grim of the 1960's.  He sees the world as a color blind youth growing up in a integrated world and ends up as a top notch track and field athlete at Bloom High School.

Johnson wasn't just a national class pole vaulter as a prep.  He was a top flight sprinter and a fine long jumper.  I suspect if he wasn't so in love with the pole vault he would have been a world class decathlete.

Jan's parents wanted their son to go to nearby Indiana or Ohio State.  He settled on Kansas because assistant coach John Mitchell had established himself as a first class vaulting coach.  Plus, Kansas was in the midst of its heyday as a national track and field power under Bob Timmons and besides, who wouldn't want to go to college with the great Jim Ryun?

What makes the story telling so great is that Jan kept a journal.  He detailed everything that was going on in his life, from competition to life on campus.  He came to Lawrence and discovered a community embroiled by the politics of the Vietnam War and racial unrest.  Johnson was shocked by the racism he encountered in a supposedly liberal college town, things he had never seen in the hallways of Bloom.

I saw what he saw.  I lived through part of what he lived.  His book also reawakened old feelings I had about Kansas coach Bob Timmons.  Timmy was a no-nonsense ex-Marine who expected his athletes to be clean cut and well dressed.  Johnson was held out of two key competitions early in his career at Kansas because his hair was too long.  

But what I wanted to know was why Jan left Kansas after two years of competition and transferred to Alabama?  At the time none of it made any sense.  A rising distance star Brian McElroy also left K.U. at the same time.  The rumors surrounding their departure centered on a trip to the Caribbean and some college drinking high jinks.  Johnson writes about it but whether he revealed all of the gory details of that night out is still unclear.

What is clear is that Johnson was run off the K.U. track team because he wanted to stand up for the rights of athletes.  He writes about a previously unknown trip he took to California with activist Jack Scott at the beginning of his junior year.  That trip stirred up a hornets nest.  But it made it clear that Timmons and Athletic Director Wade Stinson couldn't cope or deal with the changing cultural standards that was part of the world.  That includes outright racism on the part of the athletics administration and NCAA violations that could have sunk the track and field program had they been known at the time.

Jan's book made me mad at Coach Timmons all over again.  Yes, I too was kicked off the team at Kansas and I felt the circumstances behind my dismissal left a lot to be desired.  The book brought new life to old grievances that I had harbored against Timmy for many years and had finally come to terms with in the early 1990's.  

But Jan brought me back around in the way he ended a book.  He shared a letter from Timmy that he received after leaving for Alabama.  In it Timmons apologizes for what happened at Kansas.  The apology reminded me why I had made my own personal peace with coach.

This book, while a little ragged in its editing, is a great read.  The next edition promises to be filled with stories of Jan's adventures with Steve Prefontaine.  Yes, they were great friends.

Jan's contribution to the pole vault, in terms of competition, coaching and safety measures, makes him a giant in the sport.  Heck, even his daughter Chelsea was a world class vaulter.  Give the book a read or if you want, I'll share my copy!

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Into the Darkness

Two weeks from today could be the start of something big or just another day along the miserable path that is 2020.  The Fort Myers XC Invitational is scheduled for Friday, September 4th.  It should have been the third meet of Southwest Florida's cross country season.  Thanks to COVID 19 it stands to be the season opener.

I have no idea how they plan to pull it off.  I suspect in the end Fort Myers XC coach Yancey Palmer will be forced to downsize this meet, which is generally the largest meet every year in Southwest Florida.  It's a giant sized headache for Palmer, the administrators at Fort Myers High School and for the Lee County School District at large.  By the 4th we will be just five days into the 2020-21 school year.  A sudden COVID outbreak could bring it all to a screeching halt.

How many athletes can you congregate across the large soccer complex where the meet is run?  How do you control the parents who will want to come and watch their children compete in the first athletic event in our area since early March.  I was at the last road race in Lee County on March 7th which also happened to be the first day we learned that two local residents had died from COVID 19.  The death toll is nearing will be well over 400 by the time the cross country season starts.

So with grim determination I am setting out to size up the quality of competition we will see this season.  First, the boys, headlined by Fort Myers senior Liam Holston.  Illness took all of the pop of a monster season Holston was running through last fall.  A healthy Holston will be a pretty tough competitor to beat this fall.

Holston is fortunate to have a teammate that can push him through workouts.  Junior Colsen Palmer is capable of a top 10 finish at State.  The question for the Green Wave is whether they have the depth to compete against their rival Estero.

The Wildcats, as always, is loaded.  Junior Kolton Pickard stands as the biggest threat to Holston's dominance in cross country.  Estero will field a loaded team helped along by senior Brian Robinson.  Fellow senior Jared Olitsky came on strong at the end of the season last fall to put the Wildcats in a position to compete against Fort Myers. 

A quartet of other boys are on the radar to make a mark on the 2020 season.  First, there is SFCA senior Ethan Tank.  The lean blonde has been piling up the miles over the summer.  He should be the top small school harrier in Southwest Florida.  Canterbury sophomore Charlie Meagher will be a handful for Tank.  Both athletes could land in the top ten at State at the end of the season.

Two other runners that should compete for the top spots are a couple of juniors.  Lehigh Acres Evan Meyer was having a great track season before the virus shut everything down.  Dunbar's Ogler Bartolome shows a great deal of promise too.

On the girl's side one name stands above everyone.  Canterbury senior Jessica Edwards is a fine cross country runner with sprinter's speed.  She has the ability to put her name alongside cross country legends like Estero's Kacy Smith and big sister Emily, a cross country state champion for Fort Myers.  Can she emulate last fall's incredible running by Florida bound Stephy Ormsby?  I wouldn't bet against it.

Five other girls are on my radar as we head into the start of the season.  A pair of Fort Myers seniors, Anna Fischler and Sarah Laboda should keep the Green Wave atop the county for another season.  The top runner on that squad should be junior Amy Meng.

Bishop Verot would love nothing more than to take Fort Myers down.  The Vikings will need some strong running from sophomore Kylie Thomas.  Cape Coral should be competitive as well with junior Natalee Jones and senior Jenny Jacoby returing for the Seahawks.

Let the running begin.  Let it mark the end of this horrible stretch of five months of no racing.  Hopefully high school country can show the way back to some sense of normalcy.