Archive for HJ Sports

KOVAR: Identity more important than safety?

The game of football is one unlike any other. It requires lots of bodies, and to have those bodies prepared and ready to go.

With that in mind, both the Watertown-Mayer and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted football teams will come into the 2018 season with low numbers, and both teams will be playing in tough and physical districts. It’s not an ideal situation, and it’s a situation that could have been avoided.

In late July, the idea of a co-op was proposed to both school boards – HLWW and Watertown-Mayer. With a situation like this, a co-op would not only benefit each school, but would help each program have a chance to rebuild, as well. In addition, it would also give them the ability to protect the athletes they have now.

Flash forward to August, and both head coaches and athletic directors realized how big of a problem this might be. Both schools took the proposal to the school boards with a tentative outline of what a co-op between the two schools would look like. The outline was put together by the coaches and athletic directors from each school.

While the Watertown-Mayer School Board agreed that a co-op would be a good thing for the upcoming season for safety, there was one thing that kept getting in their way. Their egos.

Projected numbers for each school for the upcoming season are extremely low on each side. For W-M, they expect 26 athletes to go out for football this season in grades 10-12. For HLWW, that number is 22. Those are just rough numbers supplied by the athletic directors and coaches, and could change from day to day. Despite whether those numbers go up or down as the season approaches, that’s not enough for each school to field a healthy team of their own.

W-M athletic director Paul Szymanski stated many times during the special school board meeting Monday that he was worried that if they stayed on their own this season, they might not be able to finish the season. That’s a very alarming thing for an athletic director to say when talking about one of his own programs.

While the school board agreed that the co-op would be a good idea for safety and keeping younger players off the field who aren’t ready for the varsity level, they continued to be misinformed on what a co-op really is. In a typical co-op, the school with the larger enrollment would tend be designated as the host school. That’s not always the case, but more often than not, that’s what happens. The school board could not get the term “host” out of their heads enough to realize the real problem. Just because W-M would be named the host school, doesn’t mean this is all about them and they can get their way. It’s a partnership to help both schools to get through a tough time in their football programs.

A proposal was agreed on between coaches and athletic directors before the school board meeting. It was beneficial for both teams to get through this season with low numbers, while allowing both schools to keep their identities, as well. Essentially, the proposal was to split the four home games. Two at Watertown wearing the Royals’ uniforms. Two at Howard Lake wearing the Lakers’ uniforms.

What seemed like a logical and fair split for both schools, quickly was precveived as unfair by community members and the school board as they didn’t think that Watertown-Mayer should have to cater to HLWW in any way. The common saying was, “They need us. We don’t need them.”

Although W-M’s numbers might be a bit better than HLWW’s currently, there’s no doubt that a co-op would have been the best decision to save and rebuild each program for the years to come. The W-M School Board agreed again and again about a co-op being safer for all the players, yet something as simple as what color uniform and where the games are played stood in the way.

Ultimately, the W-M School Board proposed a two-year co-op with HLWW, under the terms that HLWW would come to Watertown for all practices, all games but one would be played in Watertown, and they would be wearing the Royals uniform in every game.

The fact that the school board realizes how much of a danger it is to trot young players out on the field at the varsity level, yet decided to push for even more in the co-op to protect their identity as a football program is absurd. Essentially, the school board is saying that playing games in Watertown and wearing the Royals uniforms is more important than the safety of those kids who go out for football. Without a co-op, there will be freshmen who aren’t ready for the varsity level forced to play a physical game on a Friday night against teams filled with juniors and seniors.

The HLWW School Board agreed on an outline for the co-op that was more of a 50-50 share. It was a partnership between the two schools. It gave both schools a chance to rebuild and protect their own programs. W-M pushed for too much in wanting everything to be based around them. HLWW did not agree to those terms set by the W-M school board, and for good reason.

If HLWW agreed to W-M’s stipulations, the program at HLWW might as will be gone. With one home game a year and no uniforms, the program might as well be cut now. The goal of this co-op was to help both schools rebuild their programs and keep numbers steady, and even growing. It wasn’t to take everything from one school, and give nothing in return.

I believe the W-M School Board made a huge mistake by not agreeing to the terms that were proposed by the school’s athletic directors and coaches. A co-op between HLWW and W-M made sense as it would protect younger players as well as older players. It gave both sides a chance to rebuild and regroup what they’ve somewhat lost the last few years.

The W-M School Board got greedy and wanted it its way, and lost sight of what the problem really was. The problem wasn’t what color uniform the team would wear Friday night. The problem wasn’t where the game would be played Friday night. The problem was there simply is not enough kids at both schools to field a team safely.

It could be a very difficult season for both the HLWW and W-M football teams in 2018, and it could get even worse in the next few seasons. Football is a physical game and if the younger players are forced to play at the varsity level even though they are not ready, it could be ugly.

This was a chance to help both schools stabilize their football programs for not only this year, but for years to come. I realize how important Friday night lights are in communities like Howard Lake and Watertown. It’s just a shame that the color of a uniform and where the game is played take priority over the safety of the athletes.

Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter

Twitter: @Kovar_HJSports

Admitting Defeat

The Minnesota Twins season has been one of major disappointment. After a promising 85-77 season, the Twins find themselves with a 49-58 record. That is good for 2nd in the division and just 10 games back of the Cleveland Indians.

In reaction to this season, the Twins were active again at the MLB trade deadline. In a matter of a week, we saw the Twins ship off starting pitcher Lance Lynn, relief pitchers Zach Duke and Ryan Pressly, and starting infielders Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar.

The Twins were able to add 12 prospects that you most definitely have not heard of unless you are some sort of minor league baseball savant. Of the 12, 6 of them are at the A level, 4 are at the AA level, and 2 are at AAA or the majors.

First of all, the baseball world is simply obsessed with the word “prospect.” Baseball guys will foam at the mouth at the thought of adding talented “prospects” to the roster. Many people were applauding these trades since we were able to turn 5 guys into 12 “prospects.”

What fans probably don’t realize is that we will maybe, if we are lucky, see 2 or 3 of these guys suit up in a Twins uniform in their career. This is especially considering the generally low quality of the prospects that we received.

But I guess I can’t be too upset. The Twins weren’t going anywhere this season and they might as well get as many darts as they can to throw at the dart board. Hopefully a couple of them stick around and contribute in the future.

However, I have to say I am puzzled somewhat by the trading of Ryan Pressly, Brian Dozier, and especially Eduardo Escobar. First, Pressly was under team control next year, so he was not someone the Twins had to rush to move. He had a 3.4 ERA this season in 51 appearances and has been solid for the relief staff.

Additionally, it seems like the Twins could be competitive in the near future. The pitching seems to be looking good for the future as Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios could headline a legitimate rotation.

If Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano figure it out, the lineup should be able to bounce back and be competitive again. So my question is: with over $30 million coming off the books next season, why couldn’t we resign Dozier and Escobar and try again next year?

I want to say that it puzzles me, but this decision is pretty much on par with Minnesota’s history. The Twins still have no interest in paying big money for talent. Letting Dozier and Escobar go isn’t the worst offense the Twins have ever made by any stretch of the imagination. But it is hard to go support a team who is never willing to pay their talent and trades everyone away for a bunch of darts to throw at a dartboard.

 

An Achilles Heel Being Ignored

Minnesota Vikings training camp began this week as rookies reported to the brand new TCO Facility in Eagan. Coaches, players, the national media as well as fans are excited for the upcoming season and for good reason.

The Vikings are bringing back virtually every important piece to a team that went 13-3 and was one game away from their 5th Super Bowl game in team history. Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen… do I need to name anymore?

Oh yes, they also are getting stud running back Dalvin Cook back from injury and signed star quarterback Kirk Cousins.

With all of this positivity, I couldn’t help but notice that there is a glaring problem being swept under the rug. I’m here to shed some light on it.

If you check Pro Football Focus, a website that does advanced football statistic analysis, the Vikings offensive line finished at 22 in the 2017 season. That is on the brink of being awful. Just ask Case Keenum, who was the third most pressured QB in the league last season.

Joe Berger, who PFF listed as the Vikings strongest player, retired. Pat Elflein, the second best lineman from last season, is starting this training camp on the PUP list (Physically Unable to Perform) due to ankle and shoulder surgeries.

So who is left of the 22nd best O-Line in the NFL without it’s two top performers?

Well, that leaves us with Riley Reiff, Nick Easton, and Rashod Hill, none of which have a PFF grade of over 50. We do still have Mike Remmers, who posted a respectable 69.6 last season.

Now, what do those scores mean? The PFF grade is a complex analysis of every aspect of being an offensive linemen. They analyze every snap taking into account run blocking, pass blocking, how well they can pull, how many pressures they surrender, how they do on roll out plays… Basically they take everything a lineman does and combine it into one score so that they can compare everyone in the NFL. 92.2 is the highest in the league and 36.8 is the lowest for a starter.

Now back to the Viking’s scores. Where do you think a  48.6, 41.5, 43.2, 69.6, and 43.6 puts Minnesota? Those scores rank the Vikes at 28 in the NFL for this upcoming season.

It is baffling to me how much this has been ignored by virtually everyone around the Vikings. They have all of the pieces necessary to make a deep run in the playoffs. Heck, they have enough talent to be considered the 3rd favorite to win the Super Bowl at 10-1 odds.

But with an achilles heel like this terrible offensive line, they might never get that chance.

AMATEUR BASEBALL: Grams, Bruins top Winsted in CRVL playoff opener

BROWNTON – It’s playoff time in the Crow River Valley League, but for Brownton’s Ryan Grams, it’s just another game.

Grams put on a show in Game 1 of the CRVL playoffs between the Brownton Bruins and Winsted Wildcats, leading his team to a 3-1 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the best of three series Tuesday night at Barney Tadsen Field.

With the Bruins being the slight favorite in the best of three series, Grams came ready to play to make sure his team got the postseason off to a good start. After retiring six of the first seven batters he faced on the mound to start the game, he got some help from the bottom of the batting order in the bottom of the second.

Ryan Grams had it all working on the mound Tuesday night as the Bruins took Game 1 against the Winsted Wildcats with a 3-1 victory.

Ryan Grams had it all working on the mound Tuesday night as the Bruins took Game 1 against the Winsted Wildcats with a 3-1 victory.

Grant Baumetz came through with a two-out RBI single to score Grams, who reached on a single, giving Brownton a 1-0 lead early. The lead wouldn’t last for long though, as the Wildcats quickly answered back in the top of the third.

Brady Jenkins led off the inning with a single, and the Wildcats had the leadoff man on for the first time in the game. Looking to move Jenkins over into scoring position, Leighton Buhr was ready to lay down a sacrifice bunt.

After Grams fell behind to Buhr early in the count, Buhr drew a walk, and the Wildcats had something cooking with two runners on and no outs.

Ryan Quast took advantage of the walk by laying down a sacrifice bunt, putting two runners in scoring position with just one out. Curtis Herbolsheimer then tied the game with a sacrifice fly to center, scoring Jenkins and tying the game at one.

Following the run from each team, Grams and Winsted’s Jacob Volness locked into a pitching battle. Neither team threatened much over the next three innings, so in the bottom of the sixth inning, Grams took things into his own hands.

Grams led off the inning with a solo home run, giving Brownton a 2-1 lead and all the momentum, after Volness had retired 10 of the last 12 batters he had faced.

Brownton added one more run in the bottom of the sixth via a sacrifice fly from Jason Rosenau, and that was more than enough with the way Grams was in control on the mound.

Trailing 3-1 over the final three innings, the Wildcats had chances during each at-bat. They had the leadoff man on in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning, but were unable to find the clutch hit to get any closer against Grams and the Bruins.

Winsted's Leighton Buhr attempts to get a bunt down for the Wildcats in Game 1 of the Crow River Valley League playoffs Tuesday night.

Winsted’s Leighton Buhr attempts to get a bunt down for the Wildcats in Game 1 of the Crow River Valley League playoffs Tuesday night.

Grams got the win throwing all nine innings and allowing just one run off of three hits. He also struck out 10 batters, tying a season-best for him this year in one game.

Grams also finished 3-for-4 at the plate with the home run, a single, and a double, falling just short of the cycle.

Volness got the loss for the Wildcats despite turning in his best outing of the season. He went all nine innings, as well, allowing three runs off of seven hits while striking out six.

Luke Theisen, Nate Tesch, and Brady Jenkins had the lone hits of the game for the Wildcats in the loss.

Game 2 between the Bruins and Wildcats is scheduled for Thursday, July 26 in Winsted. First pitch is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Denis Campbell Field.

The Wildcats will likely turn to their ace Shane Khan on the mound. Khan didn’t get the start Tuesday against the Bruins after pitching against Glencoe Sunday.

Brownton will likely counter with Seth Schuette on the mound. Schuette is coming off a gem against the Cologne Hollanders, in which he threw a complete game shutout and allowed just one hit.

The Professional Sports Landscape 20 Years From Now

What will the professional sports landscape look like 20 years from now? I’ve been pondering this question lately as a lot of the sports we know and love are experiencing drastic changes. I thought it might be fun to think about what is going to change, what will be the same, and how the major sports will rank in popularity.

For the sake of organization, we will look at them from what I perceive will be the least popular to the most popular. Let’s take a look, shall we?

5. MLB. It is kind of sad to see the MLB continue to dip in popularity. The league as a whole has seen a decrease in TV ratings as well as attendance year over year and the future could be tough for professional baseball.

In 2018, there are fewer and fewer people who want to sit still for a 4 hour game with so many other viable forms of entertainment available. Just imagine how much more we can do with our time in 2038? America’s game will not disappear, but it’ll be the least popular professional sport.

4. NHL. For those of you who know me, I don’t really care about the NHL or hockey in general. However, I am not ignorant to its popularity. Attendance has been steady year over year around the league and I don’t really think things will change.

The games are exciting to watch, don’t take too long, and their playoffs are potentially the most exciting of the professional leagues. The NHL should remain healthy in the next 20 years.

3. MLS. The skeptics will come out like wildfire for this one. Soccer is a very polarizing sport and people have been claiming it will sweep over the US for like 30 years. Although it definitely hasn’t done any sweeping, it has taken strides to increase in popularity. They are up to 23 teams currently and are likely to continue growing.

If you need some local evidence, look at the 20,000 seat stadium our Loons are building over in St. Paul. It has been an uphill battle, but in 20 years the MLS will finally be brought up in the conversation of relevant professional sports leagues.

2. NFL. This is where some you might think I am a heretic, but I encourage you to keep reading. America’s game is in some deep trouble. As doctors continue to learn more about concussions, players will continue to make educated decisions about when to step away from the game. The NFL continues to react by trying to make a very violent game safer.

Let’s be honest, we watch football because the violence. We enjoy when a linebacker smacks a receiver trying to catch the ball across the middle or when a lineman crushes a quarterback. As the game continues to become “safer”, the version of football that we all know and love will start to fade into our memories.

The biggest positive for the NFL is that they only have a 16 game schedule where every game counts. However, will fans care if there are 16 games that hardly resemble the game they grew up loving? It will take time, but the NFL is going to decrease in popularity, and potentially cease to exist.

1. NBA. Last but not least is the NBA. Although I am a basketball guy, this thought is not based on my love of the game, but rather on trends and facts. Last season, the NBA experienced an 8% increase in it’s nationally televised games. They also broke their total attendance record for the 4th straight season.

In 2018, this proposition seems crazy because the NFL is still the alpha-dog when it comes to sports entertainment. However, the NBA is a full on entertainment league that is growing rapidly. The regular season can drag on, but the playoffs are always exciting.

The NBA also has the most marketable stars of any league that helps boosts its popularity in the Twitter-age. Players have enough power to be able to make decisions for themselves, allowing thrilling off-seasons full of crazy signings, trades, and combinations of players that are intriguing to watch.

In 2018, saying the NBA will be more popular than the NFL is a laughable proposition. But when the NFL resembles flag football more than tackle football, the NBA will be there to take its place.

Reality Check: NFC North Edition

I have been reading and hearing a lot about a topic in the NFL that is sure to grind the gears of Vikings fans everywhere. Potentially the most prominent example being that Colin Cowherd has the Packers winning the division at 11-5 and the Vikings finishing 2nd at 9-7.

Now, this may be taken for a grain of salt because Cowherd of Fox Sports has become a sensationalist commentator on sports. He also just a few short months ago predicted the Vikings would repeat as NFC North Champions, so what caused him to change his mind?

The answer is nothing tangible. The biggest (and honestly one of the only) reason Cowherd and Packer fans everywhere believe they have a chance is because of Aaron Rodgers. Seriously try to have a legitimate conversation with a Packer fan, check your watch right as you start, and I can guarantee you that Rodgers will be mentioned in the first five seconds (along with all of those championships that happened over 50 years ago). They also will mention how cheap of a hit Anthony Barr put on Rodgers last year (which it wasn’t).

Having one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the league is definitely a net gain. Trust me, I am not undervaluing Rodgers. But I like to look at more than just a single player, especially in a game like football where so many players need to be relied on to find success.

For example, what about the 22nd ranked defense exudes brilliance? What about a very shaky and inexperienced receiving core breeds confidence? What about a 34 year old rehabbing from a broken collarbone?

If we take a look at the Vikings against the Packers position by position, the edge on most of them would be in the Vikings favor.

Now, I really am not a biased writer. Yes, I obviously cheer for the Vikings, but I am a realist and skeptic. Any season can be derailed by a critical injury (see the 2017 Packers) and the Vikings were fortunate to avoid any major defensive injuries in 2017. However, they did find a way to have the 10th best scoring offense in the league despite losing Sam Bradford, Dalvin Cook, Stefon Diggs for a stretch and a couple O-Line members throughout the season.

Defensively, they were 1st in the NFL only allowing 15.8 points per game and 275 yard of offense per game. They also set a NFL record for 3rd down conversion percentage. Basically, teams found very little success against the Vikings (except for the NFC title game, but let’s not get into that). Minnesota lost nobody critical to the defense and added Defensive Tackle Sheldon Richardson to the mix as well as 1st round pick Mike Hughes. Barring (no pun intended.. Okay fine pun intended) no major injuries, we will likely find the Vikes at the top of the list for defense in 2018.

Now, the nature of the NFL is that anything can happen. Kirk Cousins might not fit in great, new Offensive Coordinator John DeFilippo may struggle in his first OC job, the O-Line could get some injuries and things could fall apart.

The way I predict a season is by thinking about it in terms of percentage of outcomes. So, if the 2018 season were to be simulated 100 times, how many would the Vikings finish ahead of the Packers? These are the numbers that come to mind for 1st in the division with 100 simulations (entirely made up “data”).

Bears: 1 (this might be generous). Lions 24 (Stafford is good). Packers 30. Vikings 45.

The Packers will obviously be better than last season since Rodgers is back, but I’ll take my chances with the 10th best offense and the best defense in the NFL.