Tuesday, December 27, 2016

NFL Playoff Picture after Week 16


Here are the standings with one game to go, along with the standings after 3, 6, 9, 12, and 14 games for comparison. Teams still in the race are included.
AFC

Bal 3-0    NE  5-1    NE  7-2   Oak 10-2    NE  12-2    NE  13-2
NE  3-0    Pit 4-2    KC  7-2   NE  10-2    Oak 11-3    Oak 12-3 
Den 3-0    Hou 4-2    Hou 6-3   Bal  7-5    Pit  9-5    Pit 10-5
Hou 2-1    KC  4-2    Bal 5-4   Hou  6-6    Hou  8-6    Hou  9-6
Pit 2-1    Oak 4-2    Oak 7-2   KC   9-3    KC  10-4    KC  11-4       
KC  2-1    Den 4-2    Den 6-3   Den  8-4    Mia  9-5    Mia 10-5
--------   --------   --------  ---------   ---------
Oak 2-1    Buf 4-2    Mia 5-4   Mia  7-5    Bal  8-6
                      Pit 4-5   Pit  7-5    Ten  8-6
                                Ind  6-6    Den  8-6
                                Ten  6-6    Ind  7-7
The six teams in the AFC are set after all contenders won this week. Note that two of the 3-0 teams did not make the playoffs. There is still a bit of positioning to think about - if Oakland beats Denver and New England loses to Miami (unlikely), the Raiders would take the top seed based on common games as the Pats lost to Buffalo once. If the Raiders lose and KC knocks off San Diego (much more likely), the Chiefs move to the second seed and Oakland drops to #5. If the Chiefs lose and Miami wins, the Dolphins would move up to 5th based on common games (the Chiefs loss to Pittsburgh hurts them). The Steelers play Cleveland, so they should have the third seed locked up even if Big Ben rests, but if they did lose and Houston won, the Texans could possibly take third based on strength of victory but they would need the opponents they have beaten this season to win on Sunday at least twice more than Pittsburgh's beaten opponents do. So yeah, don't think too hard about that one.
NFC

Min 3-0    Dal 5-1    Dal 8-1   Dal 11-1    Dal 12-2    Dal 13-2
Phi 3-0    Min 5-1    Sea 6-2-1 Sea  8-3-1  Sea  9-4-1  Atl 10-5 
LA  2-1    Sea 4-1-1  Atl 6-3   Det  8-4    Atl  9-5    Sea  9-5-1
Atl 2-1    Atl 4-2    Det 5-4   Atl  7-5    Det  9-5    GB   9-6
NYG 2-1    Was 4-2    NYG 6-3   NYG  8-4    NYG 10-4    NYG 10-5
Dal 2-1    GB  4-2    Was 5-3-1 TB   7-5    GB   8-6    Det  9-6
--------   ---------  --------- ----------  ----------  ----------
Sea 2-1    Phi 4-2    Phi 5-4   Was  6-5-1  TB   8-6    Was  8-6-1
GB  2-1               Min 5-4   Min  6-6    Was  7-6-1  TB   8-7
                      GB  4-5   GB   6-6    Min  7-7
Again, 3-0 was quite unlucky. Now, there's only two spots left. The Green Bay-Detroit winner will take one. If Washington wins, they will take it over the loser of Green Bay and Detroit (the Packers beat the Lions way back in Week 3 so they are the division leader right now). I'm ignoring the possibility of a Packer-Lion tie. If Washington loses and Tampa Bay wins, then the Bucs would have the same overall and conference record with the GB/Detroit loser. That would bring up common games. Detroit would take that over the Buccaneers because the Lions beat the Rams who beat Tampa Bay. But if the Packers lose to Detroit, then the common games tiebreaker is tied, and again it would go to strength of victory. As of now, Green Bay holds the advantage by 4.5 including hypothetical Buccaneer and Lions wins in Week 17. We also have to assume the Giants and Redskins tie because if the Giants win, then Tampa Bay could not catch Green Bay on SOV. Safe to say, the Bucs are not playoff bound.

The last three seasons have seen the top teams in both conferences meet in the Super Bowl. If that trend continues, the Pats will play Dallas in Houston. But don't discount an upset, especially in the NFC where both Green Bay and the Giants are tough matchups for the Cowboys.

Best,

Sean

Monday, December 26, 2016

Westchester Knicks 114 at Long Island Nets 118 (NBA D-League) - December 26, 2016


The NBA D-League is continuing to expand, and this year one of the new clubs is the Long Island Nets, affiliated with Brooklyn. The team will play in the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum beginning next season, but this year they are using the Barclays Center. Because there are so few free dates at this venue, the D-Leaguers usually play weekday afternoons before the parent club has a game, and tickets are not sold to the public for those affairs. However, there are two exceptions: Boxing Day (a holiday in the States this year as Christmas fell on a Sunday) and a Monday night in January. It is rare that a venue is used only twice (at least publicly) for a home team, and this made it a must-see for a stadium collector such as myself. (Yes, I've been to Barclays Center for Nets, Islanders, and NCAA hoops, but each one is a separate entry on the venue count as the experience is different.)



The visitors were the Westchester Knicks in a "Battle of the 'Burbs". Tickets were $17 for general admission at the box office, while courtside seats were $50. Only one side of the stadium is open to fans; the other side is reserved for friends and family and New York Knick Joakim Noah was one of the attendees sitting there.



Only one concession stand was open, and prices were the same as for the big sports ($6.50 for a bottled soda for example) so I just went into the seating bowl, taking a spot about six rows from the floor. Basketball is great to watch from close up, especially when the place is so quiet and you can hear the players and refs clearly. Unfortunately, my crappy phone camera was unable to do any better than the shot below.



There were four officials on the floor instead of the usual three due to a new experiment being run by the NBA. This was the first such game so it was a bit of history, much like the first college game with a 30-second shot clock that I saw a couple of years back. That change was adopted by the NCAA, but if today's game was any indication, three refs are enough as 59 fouls were called, including 20 in the third quarter alone. This made the game quite disjointed, but there were periods of play that were quite entertaining. The Knicks raced out to a 26-11 lead, but the Nets fought back to take a 9-point advantage into the break. Westchester used a 10-1 run late in the third to get close and then kept the pressure on in the fourth, finally taking a 98-97 lead on a three from Jordon Crawford (a 5'6 guard out of Bowling Green). The Nets immediately took the lead back and after Yogi Ferrell (out of Indiana) nailed a three, it was 104-99 for Long Island with 5:27 to go. The Knicks stayed close and had a chance to tie in the waning seconds, but Chasson Randle (Stanford) could not convert a reverse layup and the home team held on for the 118-114 win. Chris McCullough, Brooklyn's first-round pick (29th overall) in 2015 out of Syracuse, led all scorers with 25 points and 11 rebounds.



Notes

The team's abbreviation is LIN, fitting as Jeremy Lin plays for Brooklyn.

Their coach is Ronald Nored, a 26-year-old who played for Butler during their run to two consecutive NCAA finals.

D-League ball is one of the best values out there. Sure, it's very unlikely that you are going to see a future superstar, but if you enjoy the game of basketball, this is a great league to follow. There are only 450 NBA players, so you are still getting top quality talent, many of whom played in power conferences. I don't know why the Nets don't just sell tickets to every game here (season ticket holders can get tickets to every game, but not the general public), but I hope that they will get a decent following starting next year on the Island.

Best,

Sean

Monday, December 19, 2016

NFL Playoff Picture after Week 15


Here are the standings with two games to go, along with the standings after 3, 6, 9, and 12 games for comparison. Teams within a game of a playoff spot are included.
AFC

Bal 3-0    NE  5-1    NE  7-2   Oak 10-2    NE  12-2
NE  3-0    Pit 4-2    KC  7-2   NE  10-2    Oak 11-3 
Den 3-0    Hou 4-2    Hou 6-3   Bal  7-5    Pit  9-5
Hou 2-1    KC  4-2    Bal 5-4   Hou  6-6    Hou  8-6
Pit 2-1    Oak 4-2    Oak 7-2   KC   9-3    KC  10-4       
KC  2-1    Den 4-2    Den 6-3   Den  8-4    Mia  9-5
--------   --------   --------  ---------   ---------
Oak 2-1    Buf 4-2    Mia 5-4   Mia  7-5    Bal  8-6
                                Pit  7-5    Ten  8-6
                                Ind  6-6    Den  8-6
                                Ten  6-6    Ind  7-7
Miami won their last two and Denver lost their last two to switch places, while Pittsburgh has overtaken Baltimore for the North lead, though the two play next week. Baltimore is 7-3 in conference play to take the meaningless 7th seed, while Tennessee beat the Broncos in Week 14.
NFC

Min 3-0    Dal 5-1    Dal 8-1   Dal 11-1    Dal 12-2
Phi 3-0    Min 5-1    Sea 6-2-1 Sea  8-3-1  Sea  9-4-1  
LA  2-1    Sea 4-1-1  Atl 6-3   Det  8-4    Atl  9-5
Atl 2-1    Atl 4-2    Det 5-4   Atl  7-5    Det  9-5
NYG 2-1    Was 4-2    NYG 6-3   NYG  8-4    NYG 10-4
Dal 2-1    GB  4-2    Was 5-3-1 TB   7-5    GB   8-6
--------   ---------  --------- ----------  ----------
Sea 2-1    Phi 4-2    Phi 5-4   Was  6-5-1  TB   8-6
GB  2-1               Min 5-4   Min  6-6    Was  7-6-1
                                GB   6-6    Min  7-7
Detroit and Atlanta have identical 7-3 conference records, so the third seed comes down to common games. The rule mandates a minimum of 4 and each has played New Orleans, LA, Green Bay, and Philadelphia. Both beat the Saints and Rams, but the Lions lost to the Packers while the Falcons lost to the Eagles. The next tiebreaker is strength of victory and Atlanta takes that, having beaten Oakland and several other teams above .500 while Detroit has only one win over a better than .500 club, namely Washington.

The situation is similar for the final playoff spot but much more interesting. Green Bay and Tampa Bay are both 6-4 in the NFC and their record in common games (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle) is also tied at 3-2. When it comes to strength of victory, they amazingly tie yet again, forcing the tiebreaker to strength of schedule. The Packers finally win that one, with their opponents combining for 100 wins (ties count as half a win) while Buccaneers foes total 99. As this is Week 14, this incredibly close tiebreaker will not make the news, but if this were to be the final standings, you'd be reading a lot of articles like this one, detailing just how Green Bay snuck into the playoffs because of their opponents' records.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, December 17, 2016

2017 Schedule Release


It's the end of 2016 which can mean only one thing: time to plan my sports road trips for 2017. I have one main goal for the year, and that is to complete all the active minor league baseball stadiums. I have 27 ballparks left out of 160 with 22 of those in the Midwest, Pioneer, and Northwest Leagues. Hartford's delayed Dunkin Donuts Park is easy enough to get to from NYC, so that will be done sometime early in the season. Three others are franchise moves and all are reasonably close to Atlanta's new ballpark, which is a must visit to remain in Club 122. Fortunately Toronto pays a visit there in May so I can combine that with trips to Kissimmee, Buies Creek, and Kinston.

The Blue Jays are also playing the NL Central in 2017 and will stop in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Wrigley Field in Chicago, all of which I plan to attend as part of my Toronto on the Road quest to see both the Jays and Leafs in every road venue. St. Louis is close enough to Jackson, Mississippi, where I was rained out last year, while Milwaukee is close to Appleton, so I can finally check off the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who play in a stadium in which I suffered a rainout in 2001. My visit to Wrigley will start a week long trip to the remaining Midwest League venues, which, if everything works out, will finish with active ballpark #160 in Comstock Park, Michigan on August 26th. By "everything works out", I mean that other games I plan to see before that are not postponed. I have a two-week trip through the Pacific Northwest to complete the other two leagues in June and July that could well make all of this moot with a single rainout.

As for the Leafs on the road, I only have Carolina, Phoenix and Vegas left. I'll be seeing the Hurricanes in February (and hopefully Duke and UNC basketball too), but I'll have to wait until next year's NHL slate comes out before planning the journey to the desert, which will also include Tucson, the AHL's newest team. After that, I should only have 3 CFL and 3 AHL venues left (including Belleville who will move from Binghamton in 2017) and ideally they could all be seen by the end of the year.

If that happens, then my extended sports road trips would pretty much be over. I'd limit my visits to new venues in all of my "quest" leagues, and seeing the Jays in LA, Oakland, Seattle, and Washington over the next few seasons. Unless I decide to try to add the 351 Division I college basketball venues to my list. Whatever the case, 2017 promises to be a great year, so follow along.

Of course, much of this is tentative as the 3 W's (weather, work, wife) might have something to say along the way. But for now, here is the 2017 schedule. If you are attending any of the same games, comment here and we can meet up.

Best,

Sean

Monday, December 12, 2016

Howard Bison 62 at George Washington Colonials 79 (NCAA Basketball) - December 10, 2016


I spent the weekend wandering in Washington with my wife on an almost non-sports road trip. Both the Capitals and Wizards were home, but I have been to the Verizon Center enough, so concentrated on the only game that would allow me to add to my venue count, namely a college basketball tilt at George Washington University.



The Colonials play at the Charles E. Smith Center in the Foggy Bottom area of town. Their campus takes up several city blocks and the arena is in southwest corner of it all. It’s easy to get to on the Metro, with the Foggy Bottom/GWU stop the obvious choice. My friend Oliver was in town too and we walked over from the Smithsonian, about a 25-minute trek. The building itself is pretty bland, only the front entrance lets you know that there is a game going on.



GWU is in the Atlantic 10 but prices itself like a power conference stud, with the good seats (blue in the shot below) going for $50, the upper deck along the sidelines for $25, and the end zones for $20. Thus, take a few minutes to ask around for freebies before approaching the box office. Pick up a free program and game notes here too.



There is a walkway around the entire floor that separates the two levels along the sides, so the first two or three rows in the upper level are annoying to sit in as fans walk back and forth during the action. Ushers guarding the lower bowl are also very strict, so you get latecomers standing at the top of the section showing their tickets while the play is still going on. The end zones have no lower section and are quite steep and if you get in the second row, you get a clear view, so I recommend that, or at least five rows up on the side.



The stadium is fairly generic, with the highlight the floor that features several local attractions.



The four-sided scoreboard is quite good and there are more scoreboards behind each basket, but detailed stats are not displayed.



Go downstairs to find a small concession stand with a few items, as well as the trophy case. The late Yinka Dare is the most famous Colonial that I saw honoured here.



Behind one corner of the seating bowl is the Champions Club, a full-service bar that is open to all ticket holders and offers beer and wine, a rarity for an on-campus venue. The band sits in the upper level behind the GWU bench, while a dance team and cheerleading squad perform on the floor during timeouts. The fight song is played before and after the game with lyrics shown on the scoreboard so you can join in. George Washington himself (or a reasonable facsimile) also circulates through the stands trying to recruit for the Colonial Army.



Finally, check out the banners, with two of note. Red Auerbach went here back in the 1940s (there's also a red seat in the lower level in his honour as he was a season ticket holder until his death in 2006). As well, the Colonials are the defending NIT champions (beating Valpo in a game I saw at MSG).



Overall, the Smith Center is a decent hoops facility in an excellent location. Tickets are definitely way too much for this level of college hoops though (the best seats at Michigan State cost $32), which is the main downside here. If you are lucky and find something cheaper, great, but if not, take the $20 seats and enjoy the view above the action.

The Game



Cross-town rival Howard (1-6) was visiting GWU (6-4) and I expected a home blowout win, which is exactly what I got. The first half was fast paced, taking just 40 minutes as the refs only called 11 fouls. Jaren Sina of GWU hit 3 quick treys and his mates were equally adept from the outside as GWU stormed to a 24-13 lead. Howard tried a lot more driving to the basket and ended up sinking several free throws to keep it close but the half ended palindromically, 43-34 for the home team.



I fully expected the refs to tighten up in the second half, and they did just that, whistling for 23 fouls, including a few of the ticky-tack variety. The Colonials stopped hitting their shots, but Howard was unable to take advantage, getting within 13 but no closer. The last few minutes saw several more fouls despite the game being essentially decided as the final was a convincing 79-62 win for GWU.



This was an interesting game because the two teams played such different styles, with the Colonials spreading the floor and shooting from the outside, while Howard tried more isolation plays. GWU hit 13 of 26 from beyond the arc (Howard was 5/20) while taking only 25 shots from inside (hitting 10), compared to the Bison’s 40 (making 15).

Notes

The campus restaurant/pub is called Tonic at Quigley's and they gave away a $20 gift certificate to a teenager for answering a trivia question, which worked well as advertising as Oliver and I headed there after the game to watch the horribly depressing MLS Cup. Definitely worth stopping in there before or after the game (or both).

Next Up

That’s almost it for 2016. I ended up seeing 87 new venues bringing my total to 696. I won’t be doing as much next year, mainly because I’m running out of new places to go. Regardless, the schedule will be released shortly, so check back in a couple of weeks to find out where I'll be heading in 2017.

Best,

Sean

Monday, December 5, 2016

NFL Playoff Picture After 12 Games


With Week 13 complete, all teams have played 12 games, so here are the standings at that mark. I'm including teams within a game of the playoffs.
AFC

Bal 3-0    NE  5-1    NE  7-2   Oak 10-2
NE  3-0    Pit 4-2    KC  7-2   NE  10-2
Den 3-0    Hou 4-2    Hou 6-3   Bal  7-5
Hou 2-1    KC  4-2    Bal 5-4   Hou  6-6
Pit 2-1    Oak 4-2    Oak 7-2   KC   9-3   
KC  2-1    Den 4-2    Den 6-3   Den  8-4
--------   --------   --------  ---------
Oak 2-1    Buf 4-2    Mia 5-4   Mia  7-5
                                Pit  7-5
                                Ind  6-6
                                Ten  6-6
Oakland and NE are both 7-1 in conference, but the Raiders have a much better strength of victory than the Patriots, so they are the #1 seed. Pittsburgh has lost to both Baltimore and Miami. The Steelers have the easier remaining schedule than the Ravens, so the final meeting between them should decide the AFC North. Houston has won all 3 of their divisional games, so they are the South champ even at 6-6. Indianapolis won both games against the Titans.
NFC

Min 3-0    Dal 5-1    Dal 8-1   Dal 11-1
Phi 3-0    Min 5-1    Sea 6-2-1 Sea  8-3-1
LA  2-1    Sea 4-1-1  Atl 6-3   Det  8-4
Atl 2-1    Atl 4-2    Det 5-4   Atl  7-5
NYG 2-1    Was 4-2    NYG 6-3   NYG  8-4  
Dal 2-1    GB  4-2    Was 5-3-1 TB   7-5
--------   ---------  --------- ---------- 
Sea 2-1    Phi 4-2    Phi 5-4   Was  6-5-1
GB  2-1               Min 5-4   Min  6-6
                                GB   6-6
Atlanta split with surprising Tampa Bay who make their first appearance after a 4-game winning streak, but the Falcons have a slightly better divisional record (3-1 to 2-1) to take the fourth spot right now. Minnesota beat Green Bay in week 2, but both teams face an uphill struggle. The Cowboys were the first team to clinch a spot.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Oral Roberts Golden Eagles 76 at Michigan State Spartans 80 (NCAA Basketball) - December 3, 2016


The final day of this trip took me to East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, where the Spartans basketball team was hosting Oral Roberts. Power conference teams often schedule mid-major patsies to pad their record; I don't particularly care for the practice but it is good exposure for the smaller school and does occasionally lead to interesting games.



The Spartans play in the Jack Breslin Student Events Center, which is generally referred to as Breslin Center. Located at the corner of Harrison Road and Kalamazoo Street, the arena is close to Harrison Roadhouse, a Spartan (not spartan) bar that is definitely worth a stop before or after the game. It was recommended by the good people at Stadium Journey as the best place in the area and it certainly lived up to its billing, with great food and service. On game days, you can park here for $20 and receive a $20 credit towards food, but by the time I arrived, the parking lot was full, Fortunately, the surrounding neighbourhood allows two-hour parking until 4 pm; since I arrived at 2:30 for the 4:30 tip, I just left the car on the street without worry.



After a short respite at the Roadhouse, I walked the half mile to the arena, stopping to pick up a lower level ticket for slightly less than face from a friendly neighbourhood scalper (view from my seat above). It was a season ticket, which means a nice design and worth a bit extra as a collectible when compared to the plain Ticketmaster stubs (or even worse, paper tickets).



Inside, the arena has a single concourse that goes all the way around the building. There are a few trophy cases that are worth examining, as they include awards belonging to Magic Johnson, who starred here for two seasons in the late 1970s. He was actually given the nickname ‘Magic’ when he was still in high school, though it doesn't appear on the trophy below. The arena is undergoing a renovation that will result in a Hall of History to open in 2018 so I expect there to me a lot more cool stuff like this next time I visit.



The seating bowl has three levels. The lowest is a set of retractable benches and mostly reserved for students and known as the Izzone after coach Tom Izzo. You need a student ID to sit here, so be careful if you are buying on the secondary market. Three sections at this level are open to the general public from what I could tell, you can see them in the foreground below wearing something other than the white t-shirts that adorned the Izzone members.



Above here is the 100 level, where all seats come with chairbacks. Face value is $32 for all seats at this level.



Upstairs, you have about ten rows of chairback seats ($24) and then six rows of benches ($15). The arena holds over 16,000 but it is still quite compact and there are no bad seats.



The Spartans have enjoyed two national championships, including Johnson's 1979 team that beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the final.



Their final four banners are above one end of the court, which gives you a good overview of the entire building.



The Spartans also won the 2000 title in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and now use the court where that championship was clinched, as the school purchased the floor from the NCAA after the title game, adding their own oversized logo to personalize it.



There's not a lot of bells and whistles here, but I appreciated the ribbon boards here that updated stats in real time, making it a bit easier to follow the game.



Overall, Breslin Center is considered one of the best venues in college basketball, and I'd have to agree. The place was not sold out for this lesser-known opponent, but students were still out in force and active throughout the game. If you are a college hoops fan, make a point to get out to East Lansing during the season to see Tom Izzo and the Izzone.

The Game

Oral Roberts, based in Tulsa and playing in the Summit League, might have appeared to be a patsy with their 1-6 record, but they had lost to other power teams Baylor and Mississippi, so they couldn’t be underestimated. I’m sure Izzo reminded his team that Oral Roberts defeated #3 Kansas ten years before.

Both teams had key starters out to injury, with leading scorer Mile Bridges missing for the Spartans, while two seniors were absent for the Golden Eagles. Early on, the visitors showed no signs of being intimidated by the crowd or their illustrious hosts, taking a 7-point lead midway through the first half. The Spartans fought back however for a 34-33 edge at the break in a fast-paced half with 15 fouls.

I’ve noticed that when the first half is relatively foul-free, the refs often make up for it in the second half, and that was no different today as they called seven infractions in the first three minutes and didn’t let up the rest of the way. I didn’t see any difference in the style of play and am sure that it is the three officials who changed their approach rather than 10 players. Anyway, the teams continued to trade the lead over the first few minutes of the half and no doubt the home fans were getting very antsy as their team was down 56-53 with 10:51 to go. But an 11-2 run gave the Spartans a 6-point lead which held up the rest of the way. A late 4-point play by Kris Martin got the Eagles within a pair, but Michigan State sank their last two free throws to win 80-76, sending the fans home muttering in disgust at the close score.



This was a decent game but again, the officiating was ridiculous. In the 20-minute second half, a total of 29 fouls were called. Nobody wants to watch games like this and something has to be done so that the teams are allowed to play.

Notes

When this trip was originally planned, the game time was TBD. I wanted an early afternoon tip so I could make Western Michigan hockey in Kalamazoo, about 90 minutes away. At one point, the game was set to start at noon, which was ideal, but a week before, it was suddenly changed to 4:30, eliminating the hockey game as a possible nightcap. Thankfully, the Spartans women’s volleyball team had made the NCAA tournament as the #9 seed and was hosting a second-round game at nearby Jenison Field House, starting at 7:30.



When the basketball game ended around 6:40, I walked across the street and paid $8 for a GA seat. I did not know it at the time, but Jenison was opened in 1940 and housed the school’s basketball teams until Breslin debuted in 1989. The Field House is a classic arena with an arched roof that you don’t see very often anymore and seats along all four sides flush against the wall. In 1963, Jenison hosted the Mideast Regionals in which a segregated team from Mississippi State, defying a court order, played against integrated Loyola, who eventually won the championship. This was the beginning of the end of segregation at the college level and there is a plaque outside commemorating this “Game of Change”, though I did not see it in the darkness.



The Spartans were hosting Arizona and took the first set 25-17, but the Wildcats rebounded to take the next two at 19 and 16. The fourth set went to Michigan State 26-24, setting up a final set to 15 for the match. The Wildcats stormed to a quick 8-3 lead and cruised to a 15-10 win for the upset. It was a really gutsy display by both teams and by far the most entertaining volleyball game I have seen, made even more memorable by being held in such a historic venue. Sometimes things work out after all.

Update: Arizona lost to Washington who lost to Nebraska who lost to Texas who lost the National Championship to Stanford.



Next Up

I have one last trip this year to Washington, where I will see GWU basketball on Saturday. Check back next week for a recap of that and my 2016 year in review.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Iowa Wild 4 at Grand Rapids Griffins 3 (SO, AHL) - December 2, 2016


This hectic trip continued as I visited a fourth city in four days in three time zones. I am back on Eastern Time and in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of the AHL's Griffins, farm team of the Detroit Red Wings. The AHL is another one of my quest leagues and this visit to Van Andel Arena would be the 26th active rink in the circuit and 33rd overall.

After flying in from Minneapolis and taking a short break at my hotel, I drove to downtown Grand Rapids, arriving about an hour before the scheduled start time. There are parking lots around the rink, but they charge a minimum of $10 so I spent a few minutes looking for street parking, eventually finding a spot about four blocks away and walking back. There are a number of bars and restaurants nearby so if you are looking to eat beforehand, you won't have a problem finding something.



The arena is named for Jay and Betty Van Andel, who were the largest benefactors when it was built in 1996. There is a statue of Jay in front of the main entrance as well as some works of art. Note the holiday touch in the photo above.



There were scalpers out front but I went inside first to see what was available, checking out the mini Hall of Fame display next to the box office.



I ended up buying a hard ticket there for $19, since I prefer stubs to paper tickets as they are better collectibles. However, my precious souvenir was immediately ruined when the ticket taker ripped it in half because it didn't scan properly, likely because it had just been purchased. Aaargh!



Still in shock after having my ticket brutally torn to pieces, I walked up a set of stairs to the main concourse, where I was handed a  free programs, known as Griffiti. How cute. As you can see above, the concourse is fairly narrow at places. Along its walls are more displays of local sports heroes, with Jim Kaat perhaps the most notable, though former Expo John Vander Wal is also represented here.



The seating bowl is horseshoe shaped with two levels of seating on all three sides, quite a typical layout for the minor leagues. The lower level is guarded by ushers, but the upper level offers a better view and you can move around here.



At the far end there is a small party area for private group functions. There is also a nice videoboard that shows replays and complements the scoreboard above center ice. Several banners can be found at this end too, including the 2013 Calder Cup Championship, in which the Griffins beat the Marlies in the second round before defeating the Syracuse Crunch to win it all.



Food at Van Andel is relatively cheap. Friday nights sees hot dogs and (crap) beer for $2 apiece, but I opted for a pizza sub, which is pepperoni and cheese on a hoagie. It was hot and fresh and very good, a bargain at $5.25.



Attendance was over 8,000, a great crowd considering capacity is 10,834. However, a large number of college kids were among the throng in the upper level, and the game was definitely not the prime attraction for them. Instead, many were intent on downing as much cheap swill as they could. Of course, they had to get up during the game to run down to the concourse, staggering back with 2 beers and climbing over seats to return to their spot. Even more annoying, they spent the evening chatting amongst themselves. You could hear a constant murmur across the whole arena as they  yapped. Some even stood while play was going on like they were at a bar! I understand the increasing social aspect of baseball, but I would think that hockey requires a bit of concentration lest you miss a goal. Sadly, live sports for many of the younger generation is more about meeting friends and posting selfies on Facebook than being entertained by the action. I've noticed this more and more at NHL games too, where people pay upwards of 100 bucks per ticket and $10-15 per beer but couldn't care less about who is even playing.

Despite these inattentive fans, I had a good time here. I was able to find a spot to myself and enjoyed a decent contest.

The Game

The Iowa Wild were visiting and started former Sharks backup Alex Stalock in net while the Griffins had Eddie Pasquale, who I saw in Brampton last year, between the pipes. Neither was particularly sharp in the first period as Iowa took a 2-1 lead. Midway through the second, Iowa's Hunter Warner flipped the puck in from center ice. It bounced right in front of Pasquale and took an odd bounce to his left and into the net for a 3-1 lead. Matt Lorito got that one back for Grand Rapids late in the period, but they couldn't find the tying marker as time wound down in the third. With under 2 minutes to go in regulation, Iowa took a stupid boarding penalty, and Martin Frk (Detroit's 2nd-round pick in 2012) capitalized with 9 seconds left, his second tally sending the game to overtime. Nothing was settled there and, and Iowa's Colton Beck notched the only goal in the skills competition to give the visitors the 4-3 shootout win. There's the scoreboard before the shootout began.



Notes

Grand Rapids is also home to the Drive, to a D-League team, but they were playing at the same time a few miles away at the DeltaPlex. I realize the two leagues can't arrange their schedules for the convenience of fans, but it still rankles, even though the D-League is no longer one of my quest leagues.

My four remaining AHL venues are Milwaukee (who moved to a different arena this season), Iowa, Winnipeg, and Tuscon. Hoping to finish those in 2017.

Best

Sean

Friday, December 2, 2016

Dallas Cowboys 17 at Minnesota Vikings 15 - December 1, 2016


After a brief sojourn back to Canada to see the Leafs split their Alberta trip, I returned to the States to add yet another new Club 122 venue to my list. Yet again I found myself in Minneapolis to see the Minnesota Vikings as they finally moved into US Bank Stadium after two seasons in TCF Bank Stadium.



Built on the site of the old Metrodome, US Bank Stadium is similar to its predecessor in being indoors. Other than that, it is entirely different. To begin with, it cost in excess of a billion dollars, over 5 times more than the Metrodome would have in 2016 dollars. The stadium is uniquely designed, looking like a Sandcrawler from Star Wars from the south side.



The exterior is 60% ETFE (ethylene-tetra-fluoro-ethylene, a transparent material, not glass as it appears to be) so you can see into the stadium from both far away and above, which makes for great TV shots during night games. Sunglasses are recommended for day games by the Vikings.



Getting there is easy on the LRT, which has a stop right outside the stadium. Get there early though, as the trains get very crowded, as do nearby bars. I met Eddie and Steve, fellow stadium chasers, at the Day Block, and highly recommend the Korean sandwich served there.



Before entering, you'll want to take a walk around. The main attraction on the outside is the Viking Ship near the main entrance, which makes for a good meeting spot. There are bricks in the ground commemorating Viking feats as well as many smaller bricks bought by fans to celebrate their support or remember a lost loved one. Worth taking a few minutes to look around here, and then walk into the ship itself to find the Vikings history recounted year-by-year.



Enter by the Pentair Gate on the south side of the stadium in order to get a look at some of the club areas. You cannot enter the club seats here without having your ticket scanned, but the hallways are decorated with various works of art that are worth checking out, including one where old football cards are turned into paintings (above). There is also a painting of Prince in a stairwell that is worth a closer look. It is hard to tell from the photo below but the painting is composed entirely of his lyrics.



The hallways are bright and colourful too. Skol means "Cheers" in many Nordic languages and is used in the Vikings cheer song, suitably entitled Skol, Vikings. If you are fortunate, one or more drunken patrons will teach you the lyrics on the train.



Eventually, you will make your way to the seating bowl and that is where you will realize just how big this place really is. I found it overwhelming, much like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, which this resembles in many ways. There are three levels of seating, but as you can see, the lower club level really pushes the upper level seats away from the field. Despite its size, total capacity is only 66,655, 25th in the league.



Fortunately, there are several standing areas, even on the first level, and many fans choose to stay here rather than to sit up high. The shot below is from a standing spot right inside the main entrance, known as the Legacy Gate.



Half of the roof is ETFE, but it is hard to tell from inside, at least when it is dark outside. The design is reminiscent of the hull of a ship as well, only upside down.



The lower concourse is quite tight behind the club seats, and it was starting to get crowded, so I quickly made my way upstairs to the 300 level.



Here is where you will find the new and improved Gjallerhorn (just beneath section 301).



As well, there is a large drum here that I believe is used by the Skol Line, the team's drumline that performs during the game.



There is a club seating area here as well (sections 201-205) that doesn't even show up on the stadium map.



Concourses on the 300 level are tight and can get very crowded after the game. My advice is to move down midway through the fourth quarter and stand near the Legacy Gate for quick egress.



The shot below is from my seat in row 22 of section 302 (face value was $58 plus fees). Truly a nosebleed seat; many fans were exhausted by the time they reached the top rows of these sections. I rested here before the game, but ended up moving down and standing in various spots during the contest.



Large scoreboards are behind each end zone and are obviously state-of-the-art, though again, it is hard to tell from these pictures.



There is no doubt that US Bank Stadium is a top-notch venue and a must visit for any stadium fan. Still, I found it overwhelming in one sense (it is so big that one game might not be enough to see everything) yet underwhelming in other ways (access in particular). I suspect after seeing so many new venues that I have become a bit jaded. I'd like to come back here for a day game sometime to see how the experience differs.

The Game

When the schedule was released, I didn't have high hopes for this one, but the emergence of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott has made the Cowboys the league's best team. Thankfully I bought tickets when they went on sale because the secondary market here was more than twice face value.



It was another "Color Rush" affair in which the teams are dressed in uniforms that are dominated by one shade. Dallas was nicely white, but Minnesota's purple was garish. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was absent due to emergency eye surgery, and after seeing these uniforms, I think he made the right choice.



The first half saw teams move the ball well enough (there was only one 3-and-out in the first half) but the defenses were solid too, bending but not breaking. The Vikings new kicker Kai Forbath notched a field goal in the first quarter, and Elliot (almost certain to be rookie of the year) scored on a 1-yard run in the second as the visitors took a 7-3 lead into the locker room. There were nine penalties in the half, including one on a Dallas interception just after they had scored their TD.

The second half was just as sloppy, with another nine accepted flags, while lengthy reviews just added to the overall sense of incompetence. The Vikings had added two field goals to take a brief 9-7 lead, but Prescott connected with Dez Bryant on an 8-yard score midway through the fourth. A Dan Bailey FG on their next possession gave them an 8-point advantage with 4:20 to go. After Minnesota failed to do anything, Dallas took over with three minutes left, essentially needing just a first down to end things. Prescott ran on a second down play and looked to have the first down, but a very, very, long review declared that he was a yard short. On the next play, a fumbled snap forced the Cowboys to punt and the Vikings still had life. Sam Bradford marched the team 65 yards, completing 7 of 8 passes including a 3-yard touchdown to Jerick McKinnon. Down 17-15, the Vikes needed a 2-point conversion, but a false start penalty pushed the ball back to the 7-yard-line and Bradford's pass sailed out of the end zone. The onside kick failed and the Cowboys escaped with the win to go to 11-1 on the season, while Minnesota dropped to 6-6, a bitter pill to swallow after their 5-0 start.



This was not a terrible game like the one I saw in Los Angeles a month back; this was an entertaining defensive battle, whereas the Rams-Panthers tilt was crap offense. Still, penalties really hurt both teams and were frustrating to watch. I can't imagine how the coaches must feel.

Notes

I still have the Sacramento Kings new arena, Golden 1 Center, to complete the new Club 122 venues and I'll be going there in mid-January to check that one off.

Next Up

I'm spending a couple of days in Michigan, first to see the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL and then a Michigan State doubleheader with hoops in the afternoon and volleyball in the evening. Check back next week for recaps.

Best,

Sean