Wednesday, March 30, 2016
The college basketball season is coming to a close. Most eyes are on the NCAA tournament, which I found particularly annoying this year because a number of smaller schools were overlooked (Monmouth, Valparaiso, San Diego State) after losing their conference tournament. Instead, the committee chose teams like Michigan, Tulsa, and Syracuse, who finished 19-13 (including 3-8 on the road) and lost their first conference tournament game. Yeah, the Orange are now in the Final Four, but they didn't deserve to be in the tournament in the first place. They lucked out when the favourites in their quadrant got eliminated early, allowing them to reach the Elite Eight. I'm not knocking their unbelievable comeback over Virginia but if they go on to win it all, they will be the least-qualified champion ever.
Anyway, that's enough of my criticism of the Big Dance, rather I'd like to focus on the smaller tournaments that take place around this time. There are now four other competitions: the National Invitational Tournament (NIT, which invites all regular season champions that lose in their conference tournament plus others to complete a field of 32), the CollegeInsider.Com Tournament (CIT, with 26 schools from outside the power conferences), the College Basketball Invitational (CBI, 16 smaller schools), and the Vegas 16 (which started this year and will likely fold after attracting only 8 teams). All together, that's 150 of the 351 Division I teams seeing postseason action, which is obviously too many as the Vegas 16 organizers discovered. Still, as these tournaments reach their conclusion, you can see some good quality hoops at a fraction of the cost of a ticket to the Final Four.
The NIT plays their semifinals and final at Madison Square Garden while the Vegas 16 took place at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, with embarrassingly low attendance. All other games are played at campus gyms, and generally schools pay to host games, particularly in the CIT. This year, the Columbia Lions, who finished 3rd in the Ivy League, were invited to the CIT and made it to the semifinals after hosting a couple of games. On Sunday, they defeated NJIT, again at their home gym, to earn a chance to host UC Irvine for the title.
I always enjoy attending championship events and the Anteaters made for a compelling visitor as they had sent out the tallest starting lineup in college hoops history back in December. Their tallest player is 7'6 Mamadou Ndiaye from Senegal. In the foreground is Mike Best at 6'10 but he looks much shorter next to Ndiaye. As an aside, Best's moustache earned him the loudest jeers on the night as the Columbia faithful urged him to "Shave It Off!"
The Ivy League hasn't won any postseason silverware since Princeton took the NIT in 1975, so there was great anticipation as the game got underway. The student section slowly filled to capacity during the first half as many made their way to the Levien Gym after tip off. By the time everybody was settled, a great atmosphere had developed, and free pizza was distributed to those in the student section as a reward.
On the court, the game was fast-paced from the start, and the refs let them play. Columbia had a 31-26 lead at the break, but UCI came out strong in the second half and took a 53-46 lead with 8:42 to go after an Ndiaye dunk (well worth seeing as he doesn't even leave the floor). From there, Columbia went on a 12-0 run, highlighted by a wild Grant Mullins (from Burlington, Ontario) shot as he flung one up while falling after being fouled. Amazingly, it went in and the gym erupted, and when his free throw gave the Lions the lead, the place went even crazier. Maodo Lo (the tournament MVP, above) later sank a three to make it 63-57 and on the ensuing Anteater possession, Dominque Dunning committed a foul and a technical. Mullins sank both technical free throws and although the Lions turned it over on their next possession, Irvine could not get closer than 5. They resorted to fouling, but the Lions made 6 of 8 and then Lo ended the game with a layup as the buzzer sounded, giving Columbia the 73-67 victory.
After the game, fans went onto the court in an orderly fashion (no storming in the Ivy!) and my buddy Eddie and I followed along, allowing me to capture a few photos as we wandered about for 15 minutes or so. Below are some of the bench players holding the trophy.
That's coach Kyle Smith below after cutting down the nets to much cheering.
It was a great experience to see the school win something and to join the celebration These smaller tournaments are much more enjoyable for me because different schools win every year. As such, I'm going to the NIT final tomorrow as well, which will feature Valparaiso and George Washington (GWU won 76-60 so maybe Valpo wasn't so good after all).
The CBI final is between Morehead State and Nevada (best 2 of 3) while the Vegas 16 has Oakland and Old Dominion. Interestingly, these two tournaments have their finals in Nevada, while the NIT and CIT are in New York City.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
The college baseball season starts in February but it usually too cold and snowy in the Northeast for teams to schedule home games. Instead they play non-conference foes in Texas, Florida, and other sunnier climes, usually getting shellacked for their efforts. It isn't until March that the New York City schools can finally host a few ballgames and Easter weekend saw the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds welcome Sacred Heart to start their home slate.
The Blackbirds use LIU Field as their home turf; the facility also sees the university's soccer, softball, and lacrosse teams play there. Given the university's location in the middle of Brooklyn, this is about all you could expect as as such, there are no amenities whatsoever. It is free to walk in, but bring your own food and drink.
There are two seating areas that are not connected. The first is off Willoughby Street and puts you above home plate, where you get a rather unique view of the batter. There are three rows of plastic seats here that were nearly filled up on this Good Friday afternoon. A brief rainstorm had passed through the area minutes before and those remaining empty seats were soaked, so I stood for a few innings.
Fortunately, there is another seating area in right field, which you can see in the photo above. Check out the white fencing that represents center field; this place is functional and nothing more.
In order to reach the outfield seats, you have to walk all the way around the campus to DeKalb Avenue, where the only public entrance lies. There is a guard here but he will let you in if you say you are going to the baseball game. Walk through the plaza (above) and turn right when you see the Athletic Center. Don't enter it, instead turn left and you will see a staircase hidden in the corner just beyond the end of the building. This leads to the outfield seats, which are actually the infield seats for the softball field as you can see below. The visiting bullpen is under these seats and you can enjoy the right fielder chatting with his teammates during the game. With the Manhattan Jaspers moving to Hudson Valley this season, LIU Field might be the worst Division I ballpark out there.
This was doubleheader day and as I walked from the infield to the outfield seats in the middle of the first game, I found myself following three LIU players who had gone to pick up lunch from a local deli while wearing full uniforms. They received not a second glance from Brooklynites going about their busy day. You can see the players walking in foul territory with their plastic bags below.
LIU went 5-10 on the road and had lost the opener in this four-game series 5-2 the day before, while Sacred Heart was 6-10. Safe to say that there weren't many MLB scouts at this one. Anyway, after Blackbird starter Brian Drapeau got the first two batters, he yielded a couple of singles up the middle. This brought up Zack Short, whose relatively small frame belies a decent power stroke and he launched one that sailed over the left field fence and onto Ashland Place. That was all that Pioneer starter Jason Foley needed as he threw a 7-inning complete game yielding just 3 hits while striking out 5. His offense added 4 more homers, with one coming on a shattered aluminum bat, to make the final 8-0.
Thankfully, I skipped the second game to see a movie as Sacred Heart won that 11-0 to complete the beatdown.
The park is flush with Willoughby Street, so much so that visiting players warm up on the sidewalk. Foul balls also occasionally land on the street; passersby need to be attentive as there are no warning signs posted. One group of kids was startled when a foul ball bounced mere feet in front of them, but I fear the university is setting itself up for a lawsuit should a foul ball injure a pedestrian.
The blog talks only about sports, but I do attend other events and was fortunate to get tickets to David Cross, who was performing at the nearby Brooklyn Academy of Music that night. His tour spans the United States over the next couple of months, so if you are interested in incisive social and political comedy, check it out.
This year's March Madness was duller than usual, with only a few decent games and all the top seeds making it to the Elite Eight. But I still enjoy college hoops, just the kind that is unhyped, so I'll be going to the CIT semifinal between NJIT and Columbia on Sunday and then the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night. Next weekend I'm heading to Florida for the Jays opener and some college ball. As always, check back regularly for updates.
Update: Columbia won the semifinal easily, beating NJIT 80-65 behind Maodo Lo's 29 points and will be hosting the final on Tuesday, so I'll attend that instead and then the NIT final on Thursday.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
When winter is over, rental car agencies have a surplus of vehicles in Florida which need to be driven to other locations. Rather than pay drivers to do so, they offer one-way deals to paying customers, sometimes as cheap as $6 a day. In the past, you would have to drive the car to the northeast, but this year the southeast is also an acceptable drop-off destination. Thus a four-day rental from Tampa to Atlanta is only $50 (damn those airport taxes, which more than double the cost). And wouldn't you know it? The Blue Jays open in Tampa on April 3 and the Nationals open in Atlanta on April 4. To make the trip worthwhile, I'll be seeing some college baseball and
The full schedule is here:
Fri, Apr 1 Texas A&M Aggies at Florida Gators (NCAA Baseball, SEC) 7:00As always, updates will be posted here when I get around to it, so check back once in a while.
Sat, Apr 2 The Citadel Bulldogs at Stetson Hatters (NCAA Baseball) 12:00 Sat, Apr 2 New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning 7:00Sat, Apr 2 Indy Eleven at Tampa Bay Rowdies 7:30 Sun, Apr 3 Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays (Home Opener) 4:05 Mon, Apr 4 Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves (Home Opener) 4:10
Monday, March 14, 2016
I like to take sports road trips, but sometimes the sport takes a road trip to me. Such was the case this past weekend when English Premiership Rugby paid a visit to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ. Of course, this is normally the soccer home of the New York Red Bulls, but it was set up for rugby on this day. Few fans seemed to take notice however; the crowd was announced at 14,811 but that must have included several thousand complimentary tickets that were not used as there were at most 10,000 in the ground. Unlike when the NFL travels to London, rugby has trouble gaining any traction here and I'd say the majority of fans were either visitors or transplants from the UK.
To be fair, the match between Saracens and London Irish was announced last year, but not marketed much. I only remembered it when seeing tickets on StubHub. I decided to wait until the last minute to buy one, which worked out as a friend of mine had an extra and it was a lot closer than those seats available on the secondary market.
Saracens (in blue and grey) top the table while London Irish are at the bottom, so at first glance, it didn't look like a good matchup, despite it counting for points in the standings. But the Six Nations tournament is taking place at the same time, and 11 of Saracens starting 15 were on international duty, so things were a lot closer than they would be otherwise.
The game started quickly with the Irish opening the scoring with a penalty before Saracens replied with a converted try in the 15th minute. The Irish fought back and immediately regained the edge with their own try, also converted, and when they added another penalty in the 24th minute to make it 13-7, it looked like a high-scoring match was in order. But then defense took over and the next points weren't scored until Saracens kicked a penalty five minutes into the second half. Another two penal ties in quick succession gave the Sarries the lead, but the Irish added yet another penalty to tie the game at 16 with 20 minutes left. Both teams threatened to score, but the defenses held strong. In the 68th minute, another penalty was awarded to Saracens who converted to take the 19-16 lead. London Irish fought hard to get a winning try but a late kick was blocked by the Saracens and returned for a clinching score. Adding the convert made the final 26-16 for Saracens.
It was a decent game, but the poor attendance leads me to think there won't be another one. The US sports scene is oversaturated as it is and rugby doesn't meet the American standard for a popular sport (lots of TV breaks and overanalysis by commentators). Definitely glad I went though and will keep this league in mind for my next trip to England.
I'll be taking it easy until baseball season. I've got several trips planned this summer to complete the AAA/AA and High A baseball leagues, as well as seeing the Jays in San Francisco, Texas, and Denver. As always, check back for recaps and more!
Saturday, March 12, 2016
While in St. John's to see the IceCaps, I had some time to visit several scenic sights. The city is right on the eastern tip of Newfoundland, and with a short drive, you can reach Cape Spear, which is the easternmost point on the continent. As we flew in, I had a great view of the area. Cape Spear is the topmost protrusion, near the passing ship. It looks slightly west of the bottom bit, but that is just the angle from which the photo is taken.
During the winter, the visitor center is closed, but you can still walk the trails. There are two lighthouses here, the taller one is currently active and was constructed in 1955.
The smaller one is a restored version of the original lighthouse that was built in 1836. It is open to the public during the season, so if you want to see inside, visit during the summer.
Cape Spear was used as a military installation in World War II and the bunkers are still present along with some rusty cannons.
Below is a picture of the easternmost point in North America. One advantage of going in the winter is that there are few other tourists and you pretty much have the run of the place. However, you probably wouldn't stay long; despite the sun and air temperature of about -4 C, wind off the ocean was harsh and the wind chill was around -25C. There are barriers to prevent you from walking to the actual easternmost point out on the rocks, but some foolhardy tourists have tried, and on occasion have been swept away by sudden waves.
The other cool site is Signal Hill, just northeast of downtown. This is where Marconi received the first wireless transmission back in 1901. Below is a picture of Cabot Tower, which was opened in 1900. However, Marconi's transmission was actually received near the tower in what is now the parking lot. Cabot Tower now houses some displays on Marconi, but it too was closed for the winter.
There are great views from both sides of Signal Hill, with the Atlantic lying to the East...
...while St. John's and the harbour are to the west.
There are a few other things to see and do here, including The Rooms, a collection of museums that also offers great views of the city and harbour. You can barely make it out as the large beige building with green windows in the middle of the picture above. Quidi Vidi Lake hosts the Royal St. John's Regatta, North America's oldest annual sporting event, which takes place every August. Quidi Vidi also has a microbrewery that offers tours.
Overall, St. John's is a wonderful place to visit. People here are friendly, the scenery is beautiful, there is good food and drink as well. It is nice to get away from it all and still have the chance to watch sports, and St. John's is one of those places that allows you to do both.
Friday, March 11, 2016
Keeping the AHL as a quest league meant that I needed to make a visit to St. John's, Newfoundland to see the IceCaps, affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens. The franchise played in Hamilton last season but were sent to St. John's to replace the previous incarnation of the IceCaps, who were Winnipeg's affiliate and moved to Manitoba during the offseason to become the Moose. As there is no guarantee that Montreal will keep the team here next year, I wanted to make sure to get this journey in before the end of the season.
The IceCaps play out of the Mile One Centre, so named because it is close to the beginning of the Trans-Canada Highway. As it is such a pain for road teams to travel here, they play back-to-back games. Most of these are on the weekend, but sometimes they play a Tuesday/Wednesday doubleheader which is much easier for me to get to while I am not working as midweek flights are cheaper. There are no direct flights from NYC, but I found a couple of cheap one-way flights via Toronto on Air Canada, and made a quick three-day trip this past week when the Binghamton Senators were in town.
The rink is located downtown on Gower Street, right next to City Hall. Street parking can be difficult to find, but I did see spots on Casey Street at Barters Hill, about two minutes away. There is also a garage right next door, but at $12 to park, it was a bit much even with the weak Canadian Dollar. Another option is to stay downtown and walk; this is the preferred option for drinkers as the neighbourhood is filled with bars that you can visit before or after the game.
Tickets range from $26 to $32 plus a host of service charges. The rink is rather small, with a single seating bowl of 20 rows, and generally draws a decent crowd, so you might as well splurge for the good seats. Interestingly, the end that St. John's attacks twice is much busier than the other end, so if you want some space to yourself, try getting seats between Sections 113 and 117 (it was pointed out in the comments that sections 114-116 are those where alcohol is not permitted, hence the space).
There is one main entrance next to the box office that most fans use and once you enter, you will see a small display honouring veterans of the many wars in which Canada has participated.
The concourse is very narrow and to minimize the number of bottlenecks during intermission, they have placed lines on the floor that instruct concession stand customers on how to stand without blocking the way. This works quite well and is something that should be adopted by other arenas with small footprints.
The Molson Canadian Hockey House is a small bar along one side of the rink. There are a few pieces of memorabilia here, including some jerseys from long ago. The Maple Leafs were the first NHL team to have an affiliate in St. John's when they placed their AHL team here from 1991-2005 before moving them to Toronto to become the Marlies, so having a Sittler jersey is not out of place.
Those Maple Leafs made it to the Calder Cup final in their first year, only to lose to Adirondack. No banners remain from that franchise, but there are still some remnants of the previous IceCaps incarnation, including their trip to the championship two years ago, where they lost to Texas.
You can see that the team kept the logo, but changed the colours to match Montreal's instead of Winnipeg's.
Capacity is 6,287 for hockey and they regularly draw over 5,000, a good crowd for a city with a population of about 100,000. Fans are attentive and there is little of the "Make Some Noise" exhortations that have left pro sports fans incapable of cheering without being prompted. As such, the rink is quiet and you can hear the sounds of the game quite clearly. Some complain that this is a problem but I think it is because the fans are watching the game intently. I don't know when being a good fan became equated with making an idiot of yourself (probably around the time ESPN started focusing on entertainment rather than sports) but a quiet crowd doesn't mean bad fans necessarily, and that is the case here.
Overall, I would strongly recommend a visit to Mile One Centre because you probably aren't going to get to Newfoundland otherwise as a sports fan. The province is really quite different than the rest of Canada and St. John's has a number of interesting spots to see such as Cape Spear and Signal Hill. With two games on every road trip, you will get your fill of hockey too. Let's hope the IceCaps remain in St. John for years to come as it is truly a unique sporting destination.
It was a battle of Montreal and Ottawa affiliates on these two days. The most notable player is NHL All-Star MVP John Scott (#33 below) who was traded from Phoenix in the NHL's desperate and vain attempt to ensure that he missed the game. Despite all the media reaction, Scott maintained his good nature, and that has continued even without any more coverage. At one point he lost an edge and tumbled into the boards right in front of me. After standing up, he stared at the ice as if to blame it for his fall. The fan next to me stood up and said "Yeah, it was the ice, it was the ice!" and Scott turned around, acknowledging the fan with a nod and a smile.
Binghamton started Matt O'Connor (below) in both games. O'Connor is a rookie who will be remembered for dropping the puck in his net in the NCAA championship game last year, likely costing his Boston Terriers the title. St. John's started Eddie Pasquale who I had seen in Brampton back in November. The AHL usually has home teams wear white, but St. John's wore road reds both nights.
I'm not going to recap the games, other than to say Binghamton started the first game with the worst shift I have ever seen. After two quick icings, David Dziurzynski was stripped of the puck right in front of his net by Gabriel Dumont who took a weak shot that snuck through O'Connor's legs and was punched home by Max Friberg just 39 seconds in. That set the tone for a game that the IceCaps dominated, outshooting the Senators 41-26 on their way to an easy 4-2 win, with Dumont netting three points for the first star.
Friberg, Anaheim's fifth-round pick in 2011, was traded to Montreal two months prior. Anaheim's AHL affiliate is in San Diego, so you could say he suffered the reverse Jacob's Ladder trade, going from the warmth of America's Finest City to St. John's in January. Of course, being Swedish, he probably doesn't mind the cold so much.
Anyway, Binghamton won the second game 4-1 to salvage a split. It was a dull affair, not surprising after the first game was quite energetic.
Newfoundland was the only province that I had yet to visit. I still need to see the three territories but there's not much sport to get me there. I still have to get to Alaska to complete all 50 states, and I plan to do that next season to see the Aces of the ECHL.