Wednesday, May 2, 2018

History Round The Bend

A handful of track and field athletes from Lee County will journey to Jacksonville this weekend with a chance of making some pretty amazing history this weekend at the Florida State High School Track and Field Championships.  The Krissy Gear era of jaw dropping performances is gone.  She's busy turning heads at Furman.  While she will be missed we will be served by a diverse group of athletes in a myriad of events that should make for some sensational competition.

I have written for the last two years about the wealth of middle distance talent in Lee County on both the boys and girls side.  This year won't be any different.  But first I want to delve into the chance that a couple of field athletes, a jumper and a thrower both from Fort Myers High could make serious noise at State.  First there is junior pole vaulting standout Alexandra Chlumsky.  As a sophomore she placed a respectable 5th in an event in which she holds the school record.  Chlumsky set it at the Regional meet last week skying 11 feet 9 inches on her way to gold.  She's the clear favorite for the 3A title and appears ready to clear the 12 foot barrier this weekend.

Even more impressive is the performance of her teammate, junior discus thrower Jacob Lemmon.  He started the year out throwing bombs and thrusting his name onto the top of the high school list.  Now he sits in fourth nationally with an incredible throw of 196 feet 2 inches.  If conditions allow, Lemmon could breach the magical 200 foot barrier which would put him in rare air in the world of high school discus throwers.  He's almost a cinch to win the 3A title.

I've written about Estero junior Hugh Brittenham.  He's already staked his claim as the greatest middle distance runner in Southwest Florida history.  Brittenham is gunning for a tough 800/1600 double at State.  Reaching that goal may well take two more school records which would put him close at a 1:50 flat 800 and a 4:10 1600.  Both amazing times and remember, he's just a junior.

 The real fireworks will come in the girl's 800 meter Class 1A.  Two locals will battle it out for the title, Cantebury's Jessica Edwards and Evangelical's Sierra Oliveira.  Edwards snagged 2nd last year as an 8th grader as Oliveira, the 2016 800 champion as a mere 8th grader was sidelined in 2017. 

Edwards has the top time among the 1A ranks with a 2:13.05, stellar for a 9th grader.  Oliveira is not behind and has run 2:15 in the past.  If the weather cooperates we could see a race in the 2:10 range.  And least we forget, Sierra's twin sister, Moriah, will be attempting to win her third consecutive Class 1A 400 meter title. 

Edwards also has a chance for double victory like Brittenham.  She has a much tougher hill to climb to win the 1600 title.  A win on Friday in the 800 and a victory Saturday in the 1600 would be a big step forward and put her on a path to stake her claim as one of the all time best middle distance runners to emerge from Lee County.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Hogs

The last weekend of April always features the best that collegiate track and field relay running has to offer. Schools from around the nation always had two choices when it came to putting their best on the track.  The Penn Relays is the grand daddy of such spectacles.  Though largely dominated through the years by Villanova, west coast schools such as Stanford and Oregon would venture east to strut their stuff.

Then there are the Drake Relays in the Midwest.  Drake featured a bevy of powerhouse schools from the South, West and Midwest racing in the Distance Medley Relay, 4 x 1500, and all manner of relay distances.  My beloved Jayhawks set a world record at Drake in the Distance Medley Relay back in 1967.  Yes, both meets are steeped in history.

So why in the world did Arkansas decide this weekend would be right for holding what the Razorbacks are calling the National Relay Championships?!?  Sorry, but Arkansas head coach Chris Bucknam is just plain stupid.  The sport has enough trouble getting the public's attention and now Bucknam wants to further dilute the quality of fields competing in Des Moines and Philadelphia.  Arkansas, ironically, has been a relay fixture at Penn.

This reminds me of a hissy fit thrown by the great John McDonnell, another Arkansas track and field coach.  McDonnell felt his squad was cheated at the Kansas Relays in the late 70's and stopped bringing his teams to Lawrence and instead started his own meet to compete against the event.  McDonnell's move was just one of many twists of the knife that put the K.U. Relays into a major decline. 

I have no problem with the idea of a big national relay event.  I just have a problem with the schedule.  And given the fact that the Kansas Relays are now just an over-glorified high school meet Arkansas could have scheduled its relay showcase the same weekend as the K.U. event.  That would put the meet two weeks away from Penn and Drake.  Shame on Arkansas.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Boston For The Ages

Shocking, stirring, unbelievable, those words fit Meb Keflezighi's stunning victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon.  The 2018 edition of this fabled race doubled down on this notion.  Des Linden's win over a weather ravaged field proves the old adage of preparation beats talent.  And Yuki Kawauchi's win in the men's race simply amplified that.

First there's Linden, a former track standout from Arizona State, who headed straight to the Hansen Brothers' training group in Michigan after college to focus on the marathon.  Linden served notice in 2011 finishing a close but no cigar 2nd at Boston.  Two Olympic teams would follow but Linden didn't have a major marathon title to show for all of her success.

The win came complete with a shocking detour to help Shalane Flanagan after an emergency potty stop.  Linden slowed to help Flanagan make her way back to the lead pack after the 14 second bathroom break somewhere around mile 11.  Linden admitted she was thinking of dropping out and slowing down to help out Shalene got her head back in the game.

The weather God's gave the gritty Linden the kind of  awful conditions guaranteed to lay the Africans low.  Then there's the moment, the moment Des Linden had to know the race was hers.  She had followed Kenya's Glady Chesir in chasing down Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia after the Newton Hills.  Chesir made the mistake of showing weakness by glancing back just before mile 22.  That's when Linden struck, battling awful, freezing headwinds and rain to win in 2:39:54.  Chesir and Daska would drop out leaving second to an unheralded American Sarah Sellers.

As Linden blew away the women's field by more than four minutes, a drama was unfolding in the men's race were respected, but little thought of Yuki Kawauchi was racing his third marathon of the year, unheard in this day and age for world class runners.  Kawauchi was watching Kenya's Geoffrey Kirui falling apart after a massive attack on the Newton Hills.  The Japanese runner, who has run more sub 2:20 marathons (77) than any competitor in history, managed to close a 90 gap that Kirui had built up over the gradual descent leading to the finish.

With around two miles to go Kawauchi had reeled Kirui in and the race was over.  The Kenyan looked to be jogging over the final miles while Kawauchi seized the day winning in 2:15:58, more than seven minutes off of his lifetime best.  For running fans Kawauchi is especially sweet as he works at a regular job and races often, without any sponsorship support. 

Linden victory follows Flanagan's New York City win marking the clear return of American women as a force to reckoned with on the world marathon stage.  And Kawauchi's improbable win ranks on my list up there along with Amby Burfoot's unlikely victory at Boston 50 years ago.  It was a win for a runner who likes to race, not the time trialing marathons we've come to expect at other world majors like London and Berlin.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Small Ball, Winning Ball

Almost four months ago I wrote that the University of Kansas basketball team was one injury away from being a .500 team.  Reflecting back, I'm amazed at how right I was about this team.  It was all about the guards.  But this season unfolded in ways I could have never imagined.

Devonte Graham more than filled Frank Mason's roll as floor general.  Graham proved to be a better fit than Mason with this guard heavy bunch.  He should win the Wooden Award.  No one played more minutes for Kansas since Danny Manning roamed the hardwood.

Then there was the heralded transfer Malik Newman who finally turned into Malik Newman over the last 30 days.  LeGerald Vick was up and down all season.  Fortunately he was mostly up when it counted.  And finally there's Svi Mykhailiuk.  Yeah, he shot great all season and he learned to drive to the bucket but what I think was overlooked was his massive improvement on the defensive end of the court.  Svi's effort on Sunday against Duke's Marvin Bagley was the cherry to his season on defense.

So the guards gave us everything we should have expected.  I never dreamed that Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio DeSouza would be major contributors.  Lightfoot is fearless.  He's got hops and simply refuses to back down on either end of the court.  I was right about Billy Preston.  He never saw a minute and it somehow didn't derail the season.  I was wrong about Doke Azubuike.  It turns out that he has more offensive skills than Greg Ostertag.  Sure, all he does is dunk but he his offensive game is pretty slick. 

The reason Kansas is in the Final 4 is Silvio DeSouza.  His transformation from a high school senior looking completely lost in his first few minutes in January to being a confident, physically compelling post presence is nothing short of miraculous.  Regardless of what happens in San Antonio the basketball future for the Jayhawks will remain bright indeed.  And Bill Self doesn't get enough credit for that.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

For What It's Worth

Estero's Hugh Brittenham leading Fort Myers Kyle Skinner 
All I hear is media silence as a history making season of track and field is unfolding as spring breaks in Southwest Florida.  Hugh Brittenham is setting records.  As of Saturday night it appears the Estero junior sits atop the national outdoor standings for both the 800 and 1600 meter runs.  It's all as a result of an epic Friday/Saturday double at the FSU Relays.

Brittenham has been on fire since the start of the season yet there's been nary a mention in the local newspapers or from the television folks.  Of course, the local sports journalists don't see much to get excited about when it comes to the sport. But when a kid in your own backyard is clawing his way to the top of the national rankings you would think there would be some excitement.

I was surprised Wednesday night when Hugh and his mother Angela stopped by our Wednesday night track workout to check out some shoes and go for a jog.  As we went at a pace that had to be achingly slow for him, Hugh shared with me how his outdoor season was going and I could tell he was really excited by a feeling that he was on the cusp of some big things.  I took note.  I knew he was going to run a fast 800 but I wasn't sure what he could do in the 1600.

Friday went probably as well as he could expect.  Brittenham broke his own school record winning in 1:51.92.  Looking at his splits it appears that with a faster opening 400 he could dip under 1:50 this spring.  He made it clear to me Wednesday that is his primary goal.

I wasn't holding out much hope that he would win the 1600 Saturday afternoon.  He was facing a couple of seniors who had both dipped under 9 minute on Friday in the 3200, outstanding times to be sure.  But Brittenham unleashed a sub 60 final 400 to win in 4:12.02, breaking Eric Montoya's four year old school record by a couple of seconds and marking himself as the best middle distance runner in Southwest Florida history.  Remember, he's only a junior.

I have no idea how fast he can run.  Brittenham doesn't run more than 50 miles a week.  And let's be honest, Southwest Florida isn't the best environment to produce middle distance or distance runners.  The brutal summer weather makes big miles insufferable.  Then there are the lack of hills.  It's pancake flat.  Hills help make great runners.  I think that causes some runners to runners to put in too much quality to make up for the lack of hills.  I'm not saying that's the case with Brittenham.

But based on his progress since his freshman year, I expect big things.  If he can stay healthy, I see no reason why Brittenham can't run under 1:48 and 4:05 his senior year.  If he can accomplish that, it would make Hugh not just the greatest middle distance/distance runner in Southwest Florida history, but it would him one of the greatest to ever come out of the state of Florida.  Heaven forbid he should decide to take a serious crack at the 3200!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

JoJo

I was late to the game as a boy when it came to sports.  I really couldn't give a hoot about professional or college athletics.  That all began to change in the late summer of 1965 when I became aware of an awesome southpaw, Sandy Koufax.  I quickly became fixated on the Dodgers' World Series match with the Minnesota Twins.  Koufax winning game seven on two days rest really started to stir my passion for sports.  But it took a night in late February to really cement my love.

It was a Kansas basketball game.  My family had made the trip to Lawrence from Abilene as my oldest sister was to perform with a high school dance troupe at half time.  I watched the game on television from 9th Street and Wellington Drive in the home of Jack Mason, a family friend.  It was the first time I had ever watched the Jayhawks.  It was the first time I ever saw JoJo White.

The Jayhawks blew out Nebraska that night 110 to 73 and I was hooked. Walt Wesley and JoJo White were my newest heroes. I cried when Kansas lost in double overtime to Texas Western (UTEP) due to an officials call that JoJo had stepped on the boundary on a game winning shot.

I begged my mother for a chance to see Kansas play in person.  I finally saw JoJo and the Jayhawks at Allen Field House in January 1968 against Iowa State.  It was an overwhelming experience.  I sat high up in the massive structure, the players looked like ants scrambling around on the raised court.  I remember watching JoJo take his familiar off center stance at the free throw line.  I remember the public address announcer telling the fans of Phog Allen's presence at the game.  It was about then I discovered that the legendary coach lived across the street from my grandmother, but that's another story.

JoJo was why I was at that game.  I remember how disheartened I was when the team was bounced by Dayton at the then prestigious NIT tournament that year.  And then how when JoJo had used up his eligibility, Kansas couldn't even make it out of the first round of the NIT.  White left Kansas twice being named an All American twice and with a gold medal from the 1968 Olympics.

White went on to enjoy a great career with the Boston Celtics where he helped win two NBA titles.  With his passing Tuesday night most of the obituaries and tributes centered on his place in basketball history and his run with Boston.

I'm here to state without question that JoJo White is the best point guard in Kansas history.  He played for a very good coach, Ted Owens, who ruined more guards than any coach in NCAA history.  Owens believed in feeding the big men and was quick to sit guards who missed open jump shots.  White could have averaged at least five points a game more if Owens had been more lax.

White could defend, almost as well as one of the other great guard's during Ted's tenure, Darnell Valentine.  The only other point guard that belongs in the conversation of these two is Jacque Vaughn.  He was a great distributor of the ball and he could score.  Jacque lacked the defensive chops of the other two.  Others might argue that Kirk Hinrich, Sherron Collins or Frank Mason should rate as number one.  White was the best ever.  He succeeded in an offense that wasn't suited to his skills.  He was a tremendous player in the NBA, something the other five guards we've mentioned can't claim.  And finally, he was a two-time All American, something that none of the others can claim.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Ray

Ray Thomas is dead.  Those of my age will remember him as the flute player from The Moody Blues.  He was 76.  Why write about him?  Because I'm angry that he won't be part of the Moodies long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Moody Blues were as big a band as any for a six year run from 1967 with the release of the ground breaking "Days of Futures Past" until the band's "Seventh Sojourn" in 1973.  Thomas only stood behind Jethro Tull's, Ian Anderson, as rock's great flute player.  Go listen to "Legend of a Mind" or his playing on the timeless "Nights in White Satin" and you'll hear some great progressive rock and roll.  They filled a place in British rock just a step behind The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who.  The band sold out arenas.

For whatever reason, the mastermind of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Jan Wenner, hated The Moody Blues and kept them out of the hall for more than 20 years.  A lot of critics found the music created by The Moody Blues just to slick and pretentious.  But beneath the sheen of what was hated were some great songs, most of them penned by Justin Hayward, a couple of nuggets by the late Ray Thomas.

I had the great fortune of meeting Ray Thomas, Justin Hayward, John Lodge and Graeme Edge some 14 years ago when they opened one of their tours in Fort Myers.  It was one of the last tours Thomas was to make with the band as his health began to go into decline.  Ironically, the Moodies will be playing in Fort Myers this month.  I have seen the band more than a half dozen times.  As much as I want to go see them one final time, I won't ante up the money to see them in Germain Arena, where the acoustics are simply awful.

I was looking forward to seeing them, together, with Ray Thomas and hopefully with original keyboard man Mike Pinder, at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Now that won't happen and that makes me very sad.  Ray deserved better and so did his band mates.