Thursday, November 16, 2006

The SideByrne: Winding Down, Starting Up.

by Tom Byrne

Football season is winding down and basketball season is starting up. This week, I have thoughts on both.

We’ll start on the gridiron. Last week, I talked about a different vibe with the UD football program as they faced the same situation as last season, 4-5 with two left to play and needing wins over William & Mary and Villanova to avoid a losing season. I didn’t feel the same energy surrounded the team and there was a sense of playing for next season as much as this season. Well, that lack of energy was evident at the Tub Saturday, but not from the players. The announced crowd of 20,655 didn’t seem to bring much energy. It was a very different vibe standing on the sidelines last Saturday, not at all like the electric atmosphere of previous games, especially New Hampshire. So, hats off to the players for motivating themselves and delivering a win.

Certainly, the return of Omar Cuff had something to do with the victory. Not only did Cuff post 93 yards rushing and a TD and 2 catches for 17 yards, he also brought his trademark passion and intensity (and some nice blitz pick-ups). I was on the fence about bringing him back this season, risking further injury to his ankle. Cuff took me off the fence Saturday. After the game, he pointed out that it was good for him to get a chance to prove to himself that his ankle was fine and the work he put into rehab was paying off. I’m sure he and the rest of Blue Hen nation will feel better going into the off-season if Cuff can put up another good game Saturday against ‘Nova and come out healthy.

And speaking of Saturday’s game against Villanova, expect a good one. There’s no playoff berth or conference titles on the line for either team, but the fact that both are 5-5 should be enough to heat up this long-time rivalry. One team will walk off the field with a winning season and one will not. That should be enough to have both sides ready to go.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve dismissed DSU’s chances of making the playoffs for the first time in team history. I still feel they will miss out, even with a win at Howard and a 9-2 finish likely. The Hornets, now ranked #23 in the “Sports Network” top 25, still need help to get in. Other teams with 3 and even 4 losses could argue they more deserving based on their schedule and who they’ve beaten. Having said that, head coach Al Lavan and crew deserve a lot of credit for making post-season talk realistic in the final week. Last week, Del State lost its starting quarterback Vashon Winton to a broken ankle (his season is over) and didn’t miss a beat when little used senior back-up Kurt Elden stepped in. Elden, a transfer from Minnesota Tech, isn’t thrilled with the way he got on the field, but told me it is “kind of a fairy tale” that he gets to close his career playing in games that have so much meaning. It’s also great for the rest of senior class that went through so much turmoil before Al Lavan arrived.

Wesley College did secure its first undefeated regular season last Saturday with a win over Morrisville (NY). They also secured the top seed in the South region for the NCAA Division II playoffs and have a chance to play at home much of the Division III playoffs, if they keep winning. The big issue for Mike Drass and his staff this week is getting his team to take it up a notch after winning its final two in blow-out fashion against some lightweight competition. There are no pushovers like Chowan or Morrisville from here on out. Dickinson, Wesley’s first round opponent, is 8-2 and won its conference. The good news is the Centennial isn’t that strong and the Red Devils haven’t really seen anyone of the Wolverines’ caliber this season, with the possible exception of Hobart. Wesley should advance with relative ease Saturday, avenging their loss to Dickson in an ECAC Bowl game in Dover back in 1998. In that one, Wesley gave up 2 touchdowns in the final 7 minutes to lose. That won’t happen again against this edition of the Wesley “D”.

Some quick thoughts on the start of college basketball season locally.

Monte Ross didn’t win his first game against Marist Tuesday, and his team may not win many over the course of this season, but a corner has been turned. First, there was much more energy and intensity shown by the Hens in that opener than at almost anytime last season. Second, the initial Ross recruits seem different from players brought in by David Henderson. Henderson seemed to take chances on great athletes or guys with size, hoping to make them basketball players. The freshman Johnsons, Brian and Darrell, seem to have athleticism AND a good basketball IQ. That gives them a chance to help now and grow even better later. And third, it was nice in post-game interviews to hear the players say they didn’t get it done and the coach say he needs to do better. Everyone is apparently accountable for themselves under the Ross regime and that should help the team get through what will likely be a bumpy first season.

Tina Martin’s women’s squad at Delaware is definitely worth keeping an eye on this season. A win over Villanova at home Sunday and a narrow loss at Boston College Tuesday show this squad can compete at a high level. If they avoid injury, imagine how good they may be by the end of the season as they grow as a group.

At DSU, an odd start to the season. First, their opener against Division II Saint Paul’s was not going to count. Now, it does. It’s stuff like that, an inability to dot “i’s” and cross “t’s”, that often hurts DSU’s credibility as they try to build the program and the athletics at the school. Plus, they paid Saint Paul’s a 25 thousand dollar guarantee to come up for the game. I’m not sure that makes a whole lot of sense. Now, the Hornets are playing 14 in a row away from home, a run of games that started with a 67-50 loss at 4th ranked Pitt Tuesday. The big question for me is can this team retain Greg Jackson’s commitment to defense now that they’ve put together a roster that has some serious scoring punch, including MEAC “Player of the year” Jahsha Bluntt and Roy Bright. Pulling off an upset against an N.C. State, Marquette or Wisconsin during this tough run would certainly show this group is still buying into Jackson’s methods.

Finally, a thought on high school football. Glasgow High players really got the short end of it when the Dragons were forced to forfeit all of their wins and a trip to the playoffs when it was discovered the team had used an ineligible player. What a shame. As usual, the players, who had nothing to do with the violation, bare the brunt of the punishment. You see this in college sports too. When a coach commits a violation, he can leave and get another job with no restrictions, while the players are left to deal with the fall out (post-season bans, the loss of scholarships, etc). Players can transfer, but have to sit a year, or in football, sit a year or drop to a level. How is that fair? The Glasgow situation also feels pretty unfair. Glasgow players didn’t fail to keep the ineligible player off the field, yet they suffer serious consequences. DIAA executive director Kevin Charles says it’s the school’s responsibility to make sure players are eligible. True, but it’s not the players’ responsibility. In fairness to DIAA, it made the right call because this is punishment that is currently in place according to the rules. There was no choice. Is there another way? Maybe. Maybe not. But, it should be explored. High school athletes deserve at least that much those that police the games they play.
Tom Byrne is a Sports Anchor for WHYY-TV, Sports Director of WILM Newsradio, and Sideline Reporter on University of Delaware Football Broadcasts on The River 94.7

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