View of the Hilltop

Creighton Athletics from a Fan's Perspective

20 February 2007

Updates Suspended

As I mentioned in my post on the Bluejay Cafe, I'm going to put this on ice for right now. First, I don't have the time to update this as I'd like and it deserves. Second, I have more than enough headaches in my life right now that this probably isn't a good idea at the moment.

I am as guilty as a lot of us in allowing too much emotional investment to be placed in the hands of a basketball team or baseball team. Success and failure in the field of athletics is something that you or I as a fan have no real, tangible hand in either way. It's not healthy to ride that emotional roller coaster.

Good night, God bless and may all have a solemn and profitable Lenten season.

Blog Updates

Friends, I've been extremely busy this weekend. Obviously, there's a lot to talk about with tonight's game at Illinois State and the disappointing loss at home to Drexel. I will have full updates put on the site later tonight, after the game. Take care.

12 February 2007

Southern Illinois Recap

Final Score: #21 Southern Illinois 72, Creighton 68

Box Score

Recaps: CU | SIU
Media: OWH | Southern Illinoisan | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

If we sat down and made a checklist-- "What are the key elements that Creighton would need to overcome their mental block against Southern Illinois and steal a win at one of the most difficult places to place in the country" --what would be on that list? Well, first and foremost, we would need the officials to call the game tight enough to keep SIU and their overcommitting handcheck defense from dictating to them what would be a foul and what wouldn't be. On Saturday afternoon, suprisingly, they Jays got that. The refs called the game tight, were more than willing to dish out the fouls on the Salukis, and the result was serious foul trouble on SIU and the Ugly Dawgs being forced to play more traditional defense.

Second, no matter how the game ends up getting called, the Jays were going to have to be productive on offense and make the most when we have the ball, because possessions are always worth their weight in gold. On Saturday, the Jays shot an eye popping 53.8% from the field, including 11-18 (61.1%) in the second half. The Jays were aggressive in the second half, were able to play disciplined basketball and not allow themselves to get flustered by SIU's pesky nature.

Finally, the Jays were going to have to take their lumps and show the ability to absorb the runs that the Salukis were invariably going to throw at them. Although many around the country didn't see it (more on that later), the Salukis starting the game like they were popped out of a cannon. Just like that, the Jays are down 7-0, the only sellout crowd of a year is rocking and it looks like "new verse, same as the first." However, the Jays never cracked under the pressure, clawed back and pulled within 2 at halftime. In the first half, they immediately came out on a run to take the lead and started to put the Salukis back on their heels. Now, you don't expect SIU to fold at home and they didn't. The run came and was capped off with a Randall Falker jump shot (after Dane Watts missed a front end of a one and one) to push the lead to 65-58 Salukis. Even still, however, the Jays had both a chance to tie the game at the free throw line and, even after failing at that, had the ball with the shot clock off with the opportunity to either tie the game (to force overtime against an SIU team that would have been sans Falker and Mullins) or win in regulation. On the road, against a ranked opponent, you cannot ask for better than that.

Down the checklist we go and the Jays were able to get exactly what they were looking for. This game could not have been scripted better. Yet, however, SIU found a way at the end and, when it was in their grasp, it looked like the team didn't know what to do with it. There was a discussion on the Bluejay Cafe message board asking what exactly it is that holds this team back against Southern Illinois. Some might try to say talent, but that's patently false. This season, the Jays have the more talented roster and may well find themselves to be prepared for more of a run in the NCAA Tournament. However, as I've said before in other venues: talent is not the only, or even primary, variable for success in college basketball. If the most talented team always won, we could just put out a power ranking of which team has the most McDonald's All-Americans on the roster and award them the crystal basketball every year. We don't do that.

There's a lot of things that SIU uses to it's advantage to help build the sort of program and tradition of success that they have. They're in a state that produced a large number of basketball prospects year in and year out. They play their gimmick defense to even the playing field against teams that are more offensively diverse than they are (which is most teams, considering how generally pedestrian that the Salukis are on the offensive end), and on and on. However, the most importance piece to the Saluki Puzzle is the confidence, the assurance, the swagger that they bring to the table. That team could have taken the floor against North Carolina on Saturday and everyone on that bench--from the coach, to the starters, to the last man on the bench--would not have had a doubt in their minds that they would win. That sort of blind faith is off putting and damn successful. You can put pressure on this team and it never phases them. Especially at home, they feel there's nothing you can do to get over on them. That's the way they get in your head and make you believe you have to be absolutely perfect to win.

There's been so much discussion of "the next level" for Creighton basketball. The Jays bring so much to the table and that's why, even with 2 NIT bids in the last 3 years, we do generate so much heat amongst the Valley squads. No matter the tradition or the recent success, there isn't another program in this league that can touch the facilities or fan base that Bluejay basketball has. We are in a large metro area, a market that easily outclasses towns like Wichita or Springfield or Carbondale-Murphysboro, and we are untouched in this market. We don't have a Kansas, or Missouri, or Illinois, or Indiana or Kentucky in our backyard dominating the discussion at this time of the year. Creighton basketball dominates Omaha during the winter and that's why we average 16,000+ a night, play virtually all our games on TV and pace the sports talk in this town.

However, even with all that working for us, we haven't progressed to what's considered the next step: consistent runs in the postseason and multiple Sweet 16s over a span of years. If you look at the Wichita State or Bradley teams from last year, or the SIU team from 2002 that all went to the second weekend in the Dance, Creighton hasn't had an talent dropoff from those squads, especially over the past couple of seasons. I think that attitude is the difference, however. There's a confidence and mental toughness that all those teams had that we haven't quite been able to produce. If we're going to progress in the manner that I think we are more than capable of doing, we're going to have to capture some of that.

Now, while the MVC title race is not mathematically over, the Jays are going to need a lot of help. Southern closes the season at Missouri State, at Indiana State and on senior night against Evansville. Also, throw in there a trip to Butler for the BracketBuster event. Now, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Salukis came up short in Springfield tomorrow, but it's still going to be asking a lot to have them finish at 1-2. That said, if either of the two teams was going to blow the open path to the MVC trophy that was gained on Saturday, I would say that with the schedule, SIU has the better (albeit slight) chance to do it. Granted, the tiebreaker will mean that SIU should have the top seed in St. Louis locked up, I think it would still be important for this program if we can still push on and gain a share of the title at the end of the season. We need to end the title drought in Omaha.

Also, it's been discussed that the way the games in the regular season went, some believe that sets up the Jays for a strong shot to get over on these guys in the tournament in St. Louis. I think there's something to that. It hasn't been called the "Creighton Invitational" over the past few years for nothing. Now, SIU fan would counter that the Salukis finally broke through last season and won the tourney title. That's a good point, although I think the Salukis were helped quite a bit to avoid having to play either of the three teams that bring the majority of fans to the event (WSU, Creighton and Missouri State). There's no question the 2003 MVC Tournament final is still etched in the minds of the Salukis, and I think it would be a great showcase for the league if that matchup ended up being the CBS broadcast in a few weeks.

I will close this with one thought. It was great to see this matchup once again a part of ESPN's Rivalry Week package of games, however, they do a massive disservice to their fans not to employ basic regionalization so as to not butcher the broadcasts of specific games due to time overruns in previous contests. ESPN regionalizes broadcasts regularly, so it isn't a question of the inability to technically fulfill the demand. Also, the official line from Bristol is "the end of another game is more compelling than the start of another." That's true in some cases, but not all games are made equal and not all games are seen as equal by all fans. If I lived in Oklahoma, and had to endure the delay of the start of the Creighton game due to double overtime in the Oklahoma State-Texas Tech game, that's one thing. However, I live in the home market of one of the teams playing. There's no defensible rationale for not cutting away to the start of the next game for MVC markets. The fact that they MVC can't extract that out of the Boys from Bristol is insulting and, on the part of ESPN Television, it's a slap in the face of large portions of their fan base and there's no two ways about it.

11 February 2007

Updates Coming Sunday

I've discussed on this blog before that sometimes updates do not come as quickly as I'd like because this is just one person's effort and factors of time and competing obligations come into play. However, today is a good example of another reason I can be deliberate on commenting on certain subjects and how quickly that I respond: it is better at times to allow the lapse of time to both calm down and be able to evaluate the surrounding issues with a more critical and rational eye.

With the combination of heartbreaking losses in road games vs ranked teams in both men's hoops and basketball (and both contests being ones that the players legitimately left the arena of play feeling like they let one go by the boards), a more immediate comment would have been an undecipherable screed about awful officiating, lack of killer instinct and the lack of civilized sophistication in the Carbondale area. As cathartic as that may have been, that would have done everyone a disservice and would have largely been an emotional release rather than a rational discussion.

Thus, as time permits this weekend, I will have full reports on both the basketball and baseball games up and will proceed in the manner that I believe you all have come to expect.

10 February 2007

Game #1 - Gardner-Webb

Gardner-Webb (0-1)000000300391
Creighton (1-0)2

WP - Marc Lewis (1-0), LP - Jonathon Ban (0-1), SV - Andy Masten (1)

2B - GW: Miller, Bubbley, Harris. HR - CU: Gradoville (1)

Box Score

Recaps: CU | GWU
Media: OWH

Over the past few years, it has seemed like the first game of the season has been a good barometer of later success in the season for the Jays. The teams that have won early were able to persevere and make the NCAA Regionals. Teams that struggled early had a hard time catching up. Now, I think the story behind that is simple: with the long road swings and the lack of early outdoor practice time, the teams that have had the talent to overcome that early have been the sorts of teams that have been built for the long haul and to contend for postseason play. So, while it's one game out of 50-60 and it's not against what would be considered a powerhouse by any means, it's a very good sign that Coach Servais' squad was able to come out early yesterday, set the tone and hold on for a solid 4-3 win over Gardner-Webb in the first game of the Winthrop Challenge.

Last season, a lot of offensive lulls and slumps the team saw were attributed to a lack of production and tablesetting at the top of the order. Yesterday was a classic example of what getting runners on base can do for you. The freshman Kansas State transfer Robbie Knight was able to reach base safely to lead off the game against Bulldog starter Jonathon Bam and that limited his options when the big thunder in Chris Gradoville came to the plate and the senior co-captain came through, taking the pitch out to left center to give the Jays a 2-0 lead and off they went.

In his first start of the year, Bluejay ace Marc Lewis showed that he was picking up just where he left off in terms of his dominant performance last season. Going 5.1 innings giving up just an infield hit, Marc cut through the Bulldog lineup with relative ease. Gardner-Webb's chance came in the 7th after Pat Venditte came in to relieve Marc with one out in the sixth. In that seventh inning, Venditte gave up two runs on four hits before being relieved by the senior Scott Reese. Reese did give up the third run of the inning after coming in, but was able to regain control and sat down his last four batters.

One of the keys we mentioned in the season preview was who was going to develop as that tandem with Reese at the end of the bullpen. Today, that job went to the Auburn transfer Andy Masten. Masten came in from right field after going 2-4 at the plate to take the mound in the ninth, suffocating any hopes for a comeback with two strikeouts and his first career save.

We saw a lot of good things in this game. The Jays got out early, received solid contributions from a lot of newcomers, especially Knight, Masten and third baseman Steve Winkelmann, who helped fuel the two run second to put the Jays ahead for good. Now, the big test comes with a game this afternoon against the home standing and 25th ranked Winthrop Eagles. This will be an early opportunity for the Jays to make a statement about what this team is truly capable of doing this season.

08 February 2007

Evansville Recap

Final Score: Creighton 79, Evansville 74

Box Score

Recaps: CU | UE
Media: OWH | Evansville Courier-Press

There has been a massive amount of buildup for Saturday's game vs #21st ranked SIU. It's the matchup between the top two teams in the Valley, on national television during Rivalry Week, in a game that will almost certainly decide will will hoist the MVC Champions trophy and who will settle for a 2 seed in St. Louis. Big problem with that, though: it's not Saturday yet and Evansville chose not to lie down in front of Creighton's Mack Truck. It was a truly classic trap game and one in which the Jays came within a hairsbreadth of losing. The Jays overcome the largest halftime deficit (48-34) in the four year history of the Qwest Center to sneak by the Aces 79-74. The win moves the Jays to 17-7 overall, 11-3 in the Valley and keeps pace with SIU to set up the showdown on Saturday night.

To start off this game, however, to say the Jays looked lethargic is putting it mildly. In many ways the start of this game looked similar to the game versus the Salukis earlier in the year and, with all due respect to a very proud Evansville squad, it's a testament to our failures that we were making them look like the Ugly Dawgs. First and foremost, the Jays were atrocious defensively in that first half. There were far too many open looks and unimpeded lanes to the basket. This added up to the largest lead and total points for an opponent in one half of basketball at the Qwest Center. I could sit here and write pages and pages about the awful things that we did as a team during the first twenty minutes of the game, but it basically all comes down to this: it seemed like this team took the court and believed "We're Creighton and they should be intimidated to even be on the court with us." It doesn't work that way, and it sure doesn't in the Valley. In the post game call-in show, KXSP's Matt Perrault likened it to how the Jays looked and played during the game at Nebraska, in which they took the Huskers far too lightly, allowed them to shot an unconscious percentage from the outside and flat out let it get away from them.

Thankfully, unlike the Nebraska game, this was at home and anything is possible at home. I would be interested to know what Coach Altman said to the team at halftime, because whatever he said must have worked, as the Jays came into the second half like they were shot out of a cannon. In the second period, the Jays stepped up the pressure defense and started to consistently get in the middle of Evansville's 2-3 zone. Things then started to roll downhill quickly. In the end, it was a 25-4 run over the first 8:01 minutes of the second half and just like that, not only was the massive lead for the Aces gone, but now they were in a hole themselves and whatever cobwebs Creighton had in their heads were gone.

Give Evansville credit, however. A lot of teams would have folded like cheap patio furniture in the face of the blitz that the Jays came out with in the second half. They recovered well, even took another lead late and did have a shot at the end, having the ball with the shot clock off and down three. However, at that point, this team wasn't going to be denied at home and held on.

So, now we finally get there. The hype can begin in earnest. As the AP recap of SIU's win last night against Bradley stated: at the end of the game, a chant of "WE WANT CREIGHTON" echoed through the SIU Arena as time wound down. Some may, and will, have legitimate concerns going into this game because of what the Jays showed tonight. However, as bad as it is that the Jays did overlook Evansville last night, there is absolutely no chance that will occur on Saturday night. I do think this team is equipped to give the Salukis a run for their money, with the talent and experience on this squad as well as the fact that this is literally a Championship Game. That said, it's all about the mental block. Like it or not, this SIU team has been in our head for sometime. It's not been the lack of firepower or talent to win these games, but SIU has built their reputation through intimidation. At some point, Creighton is going to have to prove that they're not going to allow the Salukis to get in their heads. That will be the key to this game, bar none.

05 February 2007

Baseball Season Preview

As much as the incredibly frigid weather that we've experienced in eastern Nebraska doesn't suggest it, the start of the 2007 college baseball season is upon us. Ed Servais' Bluejays will come into the new season after experiencing some growing pains in 2006 while attempting to defend their 2005 MVC championship, but will look to contend for both the league championship and the NCAA regionals again in the new year.

Last year, the Jays had to develop an almost entirely new infield, losing key senior leadership in players such as Tony Roth and Brad Dutton as well as the loss of Eric Wordekemper to the New York Yankees in the MLB amateur draft. Coming into this season, some of the keys will be replacing the hole in the lineup created by the departure of Zach Daegas, who was one of the most productive offensive players ever to play at Creighton. Also, the Jays are going to look to create more offensive consistency than they were able to muster last season. It was a struggle all year long developing a true leadoff man and providing consistent protection for Daegas and Chris Gradoville in the middle of the lineup. Replacing some of that thunder in the middle of the lineup will be key as well. Throughout his freshman season, Darin Ruf showed many flashes of the sort of masher that he is capable of becoming. He will need to continue to develop, as well as the team's ability to drive in runs in general.

Going into last season, there was much concern about the front of the starting rotation. Would the Jays be able to fill the void made by the loss of Wordekemper and would Marc Lewis and Jeff Daneff be able to return and be effective? For Lewis, it was very much a sketchy consideration after Lewis' had his season ended early in 2005 after blowing out his elbow while warming up for a start, requiring Tommy John surgery. Famed surgeon Dr. James Andrews of Alabama (who also performed the labrum surgery on Nate Funk around the same time) worked his magic, but even he was amazed at the break-neck progress that Lewis showed in his recovery. Marc was back on the mound in less than a calendar year and just proceeded to post a 6-0 record and sub 2.0 ERA in MVC play, on his way to being first team All-MVC. Lewis was selected by Milwaukee in the 26th round of the MLB draft however, as Steven Pivovar details in his work in the Omaha World-Herald, Lewis was clear that he believed his commitment to come to Creighton was a four year deal and he felt obliged to complete his time in Omaha. Behind Lewis in the rotation will be up in the air early. Young Zak Moore from Elkhorn shifted both between a closer's role as well as the starting rotation last season and he will be leaned on early. A lot of the younger arms in the stable will get auditions early to help shift out roles. Also, another key will be if the Jays can find another reliable option to come out of the pen late and compliment the senior Scott Reese. Reese was most effective when he was paired with the hard throwing Brandon Bird in 2005. Finding that offspeed/hard throwing tandem will be an important question to be resolved.

Another major storyline coming into the season will be the overhaul of the coaching staff assisting Coach Servais this season. The first departure was pitching coach Travis Wyckoff leaving to take the head coaching job at Des Moines (IA) Area Community College. Next, assistant coach Spencer Allen left Creighton to take a position with the Detroit Tigers organization. To replace Wyckoff at the helm of the staff, Servais tapped Purdue pitching coach Rob Smith. Smith had spent five years with the Boilermakers, cutting the ERA of the staff by almost two runs during that period and developed the most productive and successful pitching staff in the Big Ten by the end of his tenure. Replacing Allen is former Iowa Western Community College assistant Jason Shockey, older brother of former Bluejay outfielder Colin Shockey. While Shockey was at IWCC, the Reivers were a top 10 squad in NJCAA Division one each of his three years, as well as developing 18 sophomores into NCAA Division I players. Also, coming home to fill in as a volunteer assistant is former Bluejay ace Tom Oldham. Oldham had been a rising star in the Seattle Mariners organization before suffering a career ending injury last summer. Oldham is in the top 10 in innings pitched and strikeouts as a Jay and was a first team All-MVC pick in 2002.

The Jays will begin the 2007 regular season at the Winthrop Challenge in Rock Hill, SC. First up in the four team event will be the Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb University. First pitch is 11:30 AM on Friday, February 9th.

2007 Roster Breakdown
PitchersRHP #10 Zak Moore, So. (6-2, R/R)
RHP #12 Ty Johnston, So. (6-2, R/R)
RHP #17 Josh Gow, Jr. (6-2, R/R)
RHP #24 Andy Masten, Sr. (6-1, R/R)
RHP #28 David Merchant, Jr. (6-5, R/R)
RHP #30 Matt Bowers, So. (6-2, R/R)
RHP #32 Bob Lakovic, Fr. (6-0, R/R)
RHP #34 Teddy Ogilvie, Sr. (6-2, R/R)
RHP #35 Dan Stanley, Jr. (6-1, R/R)
RHP #38 Casey Schmidt, Fr. (6-3, R/R)
SHP #27 Pat Venditte, Jr. (6-1, S/S)
LHP #13 Greg Hellhake, Fr. (6-1, L/L)
LHP #14 Ben Mancuso, Jr. (6-0, L/L)
LHP #18 T.J. Roemmich, Fr. (6-1, L/L)
LHP #19 Marc Lewis, Sr. (6-0, L/L)
LHP #22 Chris Marchildon, Sr. (6-1, L/L)
LHP #23 Ian Dike, Fr. (6-3, L/L)
LHP #36 Jack Van Leur, Fr. (6-3, L/R)
LHP #40 Scott Reese, Sr. (6-6, L/L/)
Catchers#16 Brett Mieras, Jr. (6-0, R/R)
#20 Chris Gradoville, Sr. (6-3, R/R)
#32 Bob Lackovic, Fr. (6-0, R/R)
#33 Dan Blair, So. (6-1, R/R)
#37 Brett Clark, Fr. (6-0, L/R)
Infielders#1 Michael Lam, Jr. (5-9, R/R)
#3 Jimmy Swift, Fr. (6-2, R/R)
#4 Ryan Urzendowski, Sr. (6-1, R/R)
#7 Chad Ogden, Sr. (5-10, R/R)
#8 Steve Winkelmann, Jr. (6-0, R/R)
#15 Darin Ruf, So. (6-3, R/R)
#16 Brett Mieras, Jr. (6-0, R/R)
#26 Joe Bonfe, Fr. (6-4, R/R)
#30 Matt Bowers, So. (6-2, R/R)
#39 Jimmy Bakers, Sr. (6-2, R/R)
Outfielders#2 Robbie Knight, RFr. (5-11, R/L)
#5 Andrew Small, Sr. (6-2, R/R)
#6 Brandon Knox, So. (5-11, R/R)
#11 Tyson Parks, So. (6-1, L/L)
#16 Brett Mieras, Jr. (6-0, R/R)
#18 T.J. Roemmich, Fr. (6-1, L/L)
#24 Andy Masten, Sr. (6-1, R/R)
#31 Ross Sinclair, Sr. (6-4, R/R)