Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Few Thoughts about Jordan Stevenson and Nebraska's I-Back Situation

When word leaked out on Friday that Jordan Stevenson wasn't able to enroll at Wisconsin, I had a feeling that Nebraska was going to try to pounce on an opportunity to sign a touted running back prospect. For one thing, it appears that attrition has brought Nebraska under 85 scholarship players, so there is room for him.  The bigger issue is this:  I'm not sold on any of Nebraska's I-backs at this time.

The previous staff saw something in Terrell Newby that they weren't able to bring out.  As a freshman, he really, really, really struggled with ball security, and while he was better as a sophomore, he wasn't terribly dynamic running the ball.  I didn't see that much from Newby in the spring either - though to be honest, I didn't see ANYTHING promising on offense.  It's definitely a work in progress.

Imani Cross is solid in short yardage situations, but he never was able to make much of a case for more playing time.  Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf apparently don't see it either; they've moved Newby ahead of him on the depth chart, it appears.  Adam Taylor looks to me like the best of the bunch, but I'm not sure anybody sees him as a potential star.  In fact, most people seem to think that Nebraska is going to use an I-back by committee approach.  That's something I read as "Nebraska doesn't really have a top-notch I-back right now."

And that's a problem when you've got a roster that's geared towards running the ball.  Nebraska may have the receivers to throw the ball more (unless there is more roster attrition), but I'm not convinced that Nebraska has the quarterback for it.  It's one of the reasons I told Mike'l Severe on the World-Herald's "The Bottom Line" show that I'm predicting the Huskers to go 7-5 this season.  I thought at that time that Nebraska's next great I-back was still in high school.  Well, maybe he just graduated and he's still looking for a place to go.  I'm skeptical that it'll be Nebraska, because his mom clearly wants him to go elsewhere.  And when Mom can't be sold on Nebraska, that makes Nebraska an unlikely destination for a kid.

Another concern I have is whether Riley and company promised (or at least insinuated) that they weren't going to bring in any other running backs this fall while recruiting Devine Ozigbo. His response this weekend on Twitter says it all.
Apparently someone quickly talked to him, because he apparently made peace with the situation on Monday.
Still, you have to wonder about the Nebraska I-back situation - regardless of whether Stevenson ever shows up in Lincoln again.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Call Me Still "Skeptical" About The Royals Move to Sarpy County

Sunday's World-Herald featured an interesting column by Tom Shatel about the Sarpy County ballpark and how it was the best decision for the AAA baseball team.  He may very well be correct, from the baseball owner perspective.  Most people who talk to me about the team also talk very favorably about the ballpark and their experiences out there.

So does that prove I was wrong about my opposition to the ballpark?  Hardly.  I get the concept that this works better for the ownership; remember, that's what the Royals were asking for ten years ago.  It's what's best for the community as a whole that drives my concern.

And frankly, I remain convinced that, in the grand scheme of things, one baseball stadium in the metro area would be better than two.  Sadly, TD Ameritrade Park is likely closed down until next spring. That's a shame, because as we see during the College World Series (and to a lesser extent when Nebraska is playing baseball there), the environment in North Downtown is prime for more development. Out southwest? Still nothing. Plans for "Pennant Place" continue to sit - and nothing seems to happen out there from a commercial perspective.  As Papillion grows, housing developments get closer and closer.   Eventually there will be commercial development there, but it'll be because of the houses - not the ballpark.

Shatel does point out that many people have thumbed their noses at the Sarpy County ballpark, proving that I wasn't the only one who thought it was a mistake.  And I do see signs that even folks in Sarpy County have second thoughts about all of the money that was sunk into the ballpark - especially when the County has to foot the bill to build more parking and replace a faulty scoreboard.

In the end, I think it comes down to whether or not you believe that the Royals would have stayed in the area if it weren't for the Sarpy County deal. I still believe that they would have stayed - albeit with some different managing partners.  I don't believe that the Gary Green/Alan Stein/Martie Cordaro organization would have stayed, but I believe the AAA franchise would have, because prior to the construction of the new ballpark, they were only half-owners of the franchise.  Warren Buffet and Walter Scott owned the other half, and repeatedly said that their investment was intended to keep the franchise in Omaha.  And frankly, I don't see how they would have approved any sort of move.

It's not "cheering for failure"...just observing that it would have been cooler to maximize the use of one stadium for the benefit of the community rather than investing in two stadiums with less of a reward.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Only THREE Tickets Remain Unsold For UNO Hockey

I've long felt that UNO is building their new arena too small, and now I have my proof.  It's the second day of July, and the first game is still three and a half months to go.

And there are only THREE tickets left.  They aren't together, either. Each of the three tickets is an isolated single ticket in a different corner.  So let's just call it what it really is:  sold out.

How many more tickets could a Frozen Four hockey program sell?  We'll never know...but we do know that it's more than what UNO built.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Is the College World Series Too Long?

It seems that in the post-Rosenblatt era of the College World Series, there's always something to complain about. First it was parking, despite the fact that there was much more parking available downtown closer to the stadium  (and at a cheaper price).  Then it was the lack of home runs; even though the drop in home runs was season-long, people blamed the ballpark. This year, thanks to the introduction of the flat seamed baseball in the college game, home runs were up all season and thus, up at the College World Series.

Now, the criticism is that the College World Series is too long.  I'm not sure that it is, but they do have a point.  It's 12 days from start to finish, with Vanderbilt and Virginia spending two full weeks in the Big O.  So I kind of see the point, but it's nothing new, folks.

It's been this way since 2003.  Pavin Smith, Virginia's hero in the title game, was probably still playing T-ball then.

Well, maybe not... ESPN did push to add an extra rest day before the best-of-three series in 2008, but that only added one day to the mix...and that was done to ensure that the final series didn't start on Sunday.  Why?

Because ESPN wants Sunday left free for their prime-time Major League game. It's like everything else in sports: scheduling games is at the mercy of the networks.  That's why we have Nebraska football games starting at 8:15 pm and 11 am in Lincoln.  Playoff games in all sports starting on weekday afternoons on the west coast while the local fans are still at work.  It sucks for fans who spend the money to attend the games, but the fan stopped being the priority a long time ago.

That being said, there is a simple solution to the issue with the length of the College World Series, and it's one that hasn't been proposed by anybody:

Let's go back to the traditional format used from 1950 until 1987:  a true eight-team double elimination tournament.  Enough of this silly "Bracket One" and "Bracket Two" stuff; the fact that we haven't named these brackets is proof positive that we don't really care about it.  So let's ditch it.

The immediate advantage of doing away with the brackets is that we start seeing a variety of matchups in the losers bracket.  This year, Virginia and Vanderbilt essentially played two best-of-three series after the opening round matchups:  Virginia played Florida three times in a row, and Vanderbilt played TCU three times in a row.  That doesn't happen in a true double elimination tournament because TCU and Florida would have switched sides of the bracket coming out of the elimination games.

Another change:  put the elimination games into a doubleheader to tighten up the scheduling.  Harder on pitchers?  Maybe.  But it takes a day off the CWS and tightens things up for the fans.

ESPN might not like it, and coaches who want to try to throw their ace three times in the CWS might not either.  But it's something to think about.

And then we can turn to the real problem at the College World Series.  Why does a Zesto burger and hot fudge shake cost $15 downtown?  I solved that problem myself by driving out to the Zesto's out at 108th & Military, where it was half that price.  It's still the same outstanding Zesto burger, though this time, I think they skimped a bit of the hot fudge a bit.  Still was pretty good.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How Does Omaha #KerrieOn?

(Disclaimer: Not sports related.)

Twenty years ago, I was working at Mutual of Omaha when Omaha police officer Jimmy Wilson, Jr. was shot and killed. The funeral procession came up Farnam Street, so I joined hundreds of my co-workers that day to pay our respects to Wilson and his family that day. It was the least we could do, and it was incredibly moving. To this day, I remember his grief-stricken father waving and repeatedly saying "thank you" to the community.  (In all honesty, it was us that should have been saying "thank you." We merely lost some of our lunch hour; he lost his son.)

Now, I work at Union Pacific, and once again, I joined my co-workers in another sad tribute for another Omaha police officer who was killed while on-duty: Officer Kerrie Orozco. I suspect that nearly everyone gathered along Douglas Street in downtown Omaha, or Broadway in Council Bluffs had never heard of Kerrie Orzco one week ago.

We'll never forget her now. Her selfless volunteering with inner-city youth sports programs makes her a wonderful role model. And the story of her plans to bring her prematurely born daughter home from the hospital the next day didn't just break our hearts, it shattered them into a gazillion pieces.
No doubt in my mind that her family will carry on. The outpouring of support from this community will ensure that the family's financial needs should be taken care of. What can't be replaced, however, is her. In ten or fifteen years, she'll watch the videos from the past week and get a better idea who her mother was.  A mother that she never knew.

Some people will point to the outpouring of support and wear it with pride as to how great our community is. And it is great.

But this is also the community that was described last year as the "most dangerous city in America to be black." Maybe the numbers were interpreted wrong and maybe Omaha isn't the "most dangerous"...but it doesn't change the fact that Omaha has a problem. And it's a problem that I quite honestly don't understand.  And I'm not going to pretend that I understand either.

I'm torn on this.  I frankly don't know what to think about the problem. I certainly want to #SupportBlue. But I'm also not going to ignore State Senator Ernie Chambers when he said that "my ISIS is the police." Quite a few blowhards tried to make political hay at the time on it, but subsequent incidents in Charleston and Baltimore where police officers were charged with murder make it clear that Chambers' perspective has some validity. It's not an either-or problem; it's a community problem.

It doesn't really matter who's right or wrong. We're losing too many people.  Pointing fingers isn't going to help.  Last week, a little baby lost her mother, a mother who was doing everything in her power to make a difference.  How does Omaha #KerrieOn without her?

That's the question that needs an answer.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

With No More Husker Coverage, Time to Remove KFAB from the Car Stereo

I admit it. I'm a bit of a dinosaur who still mostly listens to AM and FM radio in the car. Our cars do have satellite radio, but they pretty much don't work while driving downtown. (So why would I spend $10 a month for it?) I'm not interested in wasting bandwidth by streaming internet radio either.  Besides, I don't want to cause a wreck by messing around with my phone while I'm driving.

And since I usually prefer listening about the sports I like (Huskers, Mavs and Cubs), I'm frequently listening to AM radio on the way to and from work. Thank goodness for Gary Sharp and Damon Benning's outstanding morning show on KOZN-1620 AM. More and more, I find myself listening to Nick Handley and Joe Quinn on KXSP-590 AM more and more, as opposed to 1620's afternoon train wreck of a show in the post-Kevin Kugler/Mike'l Severe era. It used to be that I'd listen to KFAB for traffic reports and an occasional Husker update, but that's no longer the case.

With the radio rights for Husker athletics moving to KXSP next season, KFAB is now out of the business of covering Husker sports. And with that move, there isn't any reason to tune into the hate talk that KFAB now embraces. Between Jim Rose and Chris Baker, the misinformation coming out of Dundee is truly astounding. So this weekend, I reprogrammed my car radio and removed KFAB from the presets, now that Husker baseball season is over.

So long KFAB. Somewhere in heaven, Lyell Bremser is shedding a tear.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

UNO Hockey Approaches Sellout with Only 160 Tickets Available

After just over three weeks of public sales, UNO only has 160 tickets remaining for hockey at the new arena. Depending on which side of the argument you lie on, it's good news.  People who love the idea of UNO having their own arena point out that it's an endorsement of the plan.  People against moving to the smaller arena can point out the fact that UNO could have sold more tickets, if the arena had been sized appropriately.  (#oohAhhSmallerThanLastYearsCrowd)

There's no turning the clock back on what I've called "the mistake"; it's nearing completion, right or wrong.  It doesn't even look like expansion was even considered when the building was designed, based on the drawings and images I've seen thus far.  So Maverick fans are going to live with a 7500 seat arena. Will that mean more people show up for an exhibition game during the holidays, because that might be the only chance people have to get in?  Maybe.  The bigger impact is going to be dampening the crowds that show up in January and February, which historically tend to be bigger (and quite a bit so) than the arena's capacity. That'll fuel a secondary ticket market, which will be good for season ticket holders who can't make it to every game.  It'll also enable North Dakota fans to continue to bring a thousand fans down I-29 to Omaha in February.  (What, you thought that building a smaller arena would keep the green hordes out?  Bahhaha...)

If you need three tickets, you are in luck because their are 19 sets of three tickets still available.  There are only two sets of four tickets still available, and just eight pairs.  There are still several groups of 5-10 tickets that could be split up into pairs or other groupings.  It'll be interesting to see how much longer most of the remaining tickets last; I suspect that by September, there will only be a handful of single tickets available - which would be a virtual sellout in my mind.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fundraiser for Sheila Leahy, Wife of UNO Color Commentator Terry Leahy

One of the most important members of the UNO hockey community didn't get to experience all of the excitement of UNO's historic run to the NCAA Frozen Four.  Days after St. Cloud State knocked UNO out of the NCHC playoffs, Sheila Leahy, the wife of radio color commentator Terry Leahy, was diagnosed with cancer. And the news is sad and grim.  UNO associate athletic director Mike Kemp sent the following message to ticket holders on Tuesday:

On March 16, Sheila Leahy was diagnosed with Stage 4 Single Cell Carcinoma. This is not curable and the doctors are currently working to keep her comfortable. Sheila is the wife of long-time UNO Hockey color commentator, Terry Leahy. For Maverick fans, Terry has been the man explaining the hockey games for us since the first Maverick Hockey game on October 17, 1997. We have relied on his insight and knowledge of the game for years. 
Now Terry and his family are looking to us for support. To that end, the committee is holding a Fundraiser for Sheila at Holy Cross Catholic Church, 1502 South 48th St., this Friday, May 15, from 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. Terry’s broadcast schedule at the radio station has been significantly reduced, and the medical bills are piling up. Support from friends is critical at this time. At Friday’s event, there will be food, a silent auction, entertainment and dancing. Please make an effort to bring family and friends to Holy Cross to support this family which has been such a visible part of Maverick Athletics for so many years. If you can’t attend the event, you can still support the family by donating to the “Go Fund Me” site that the committee has established for the Leahy Family. Just go to http://www.gofundme.com/skp47g to make your donation. Whatever you can donate will be appreciated. But most of all, keep Sheila, Terry and their family in your prayers. Thank you for your moral, emotional and financial support.
Sad, sad story. Please join me in making a contribution to the Leahy family in their time of need.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nebraska Got Off Easy With Bo Pelini's Buyout

Prominent coaches make a lot of money. I mean, a LOT of money. And certainly too much money, when you compare it to teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters. That's not the coaches fault, for the most part. Like corporate CEO's and entertainers, coaches get what the market demands. Football makes too much money for coaches to not share in the spoils.

So when Bo Pelini signed his $3 million contract, it's what the market for a coach with Pelini's resume would bear. There's a strong case to be made that Pelini was underpaid, compared to, say, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz. And when Nebraska decided to part ways with Pelini, Nebraska was still obligated to pay Pelini under the terms of his contract. There was no clause in Pelini's contract that would allow for the payout to be reduced for his ensuing comments to his players, and even if there were terms like that, that clause might be difficult to enforce for comments made in private.  (And really, would Nebraska like to keep reopening that whole can of worms through additional legal maneuvers?  No.)

Pelini has since signed a new contract with Youngstown State that pays Pelini the same salary that Eric Wolford made last year coaching the Penguins. Some people scoff that Pelini is taking a 93% pay cut, but they miss the point.  Pretty much no matter what job Bo Pelini took, barring a top-ten job nationally, Pelini was going to make the same amount for the next five years, which is what Nebraska's buyout clause specified. Anything Pelini makes will offset the NU buyout, so if Pelini would have pursued the South Carolina defensive coordinator job, as was rumored, NU would still likely owe Pelini around $1 million a year.

Many people scoffed when Pelini took the Youngstown State job, but they conveniently ignore that the move wasn't about money. The money was going to be the same no matter where he ended up.  It became a question of where he wants to be for the next five years, and for Bo Pelini, heading home to Youngstown, Ohio, made the most sense for him.  Primarily because it's what makes the most sense for his wife and children.

And let's be honest, by accepting the salary that Youngstown State paid their last coach, Pelini let Nebraska off easy. He easily could have signed a contract that paid him $50,000 a year or less. It wouldn't have mattered to him; Nebraska would have made up the difference. But it would have freed up resources at Youngstown for other purposes: paying assistants, improving facilities, etc. And if Pelini was really feeling vindictive, it would have increased the pain to Nebraska.

But he didn't. He took it easy on Nebraska and himself. Just signed a simple deal with Youngstown and moved on.

Don't like it?  Well, either tilt at the windmill of the excessive salaries that corporate CEO's and entertainers make in our market economy (you're going to lose on that battle), or keep belaboring how awful Bo Pelini is (if that's somehow going to make anything better).  Or better yet, just move along.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nebraska Football Has Der Veiner Schlinger; UNO Hockey Announces the Taco Cannon

The Fairbury "Veiner Schlinger" has long been a tradition at Nebraska football games. I'm not sure I want to eat a hot dog that's been blasted out of an air cannon, but it's never stopped me from trying to catch one when they've managed to get it somewhere near where I'm sitting.  (Which they almost never do, BTW...)

So I'm wondering how THIS is going to work?
I'm seeing lettuce and salsa flying...  OK, Voodoo Taco... let's see a demonstration of this on YouTube!

Friday, April 17, 2015

UNO's New Arena and Frozen Four Berth: Not a Coincedence

If anybody had any questions about whether my disappointment over UNO's loss to eventual national champion Providence who leave a lasting negative effect on my opinion of Maverick Hockey, let me share what I did first thing Friday morning.  Before 8 am, I was at the UNO Bookstore, plopping down my credit card for a "Frozen Four" T-shirt. Why didn't I buy one before the game? Simple...I was greedy; I figured I'd hold out for a championship t-shirt.  And when that wasn't going to happen, it was time to get the swag that I could get.

A lot of people have pointed out how great the coincidence there is with the Frozen Four berth and next year's opening of the new UNO arena. You know, the one I call "The Mistake."  And I still believe that it's a mistake for UNO.  From my perspective, the most bogus reason for building a new facility is to call it "right-sized."  Sometimes increased demand calls for facilities to expand, such as expanding Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. But spending money to REMOVE seats?  That's something that simply defies logic.  The only way it makes sense is if you use the reduced seating capacity as an excuse to hike prices, under the guise that the environment will be more "intimate."

Sorry, but I prefer to be intimate with my wife, not my teams.

But last week, one quote in the all of the pre-Frozen Four hoopla caught my eye.  It goes back to Trev Albert's pursuit of Dean Blais six years ago.
Alberts initially offered Blais $180,000 a year. Blais, who said he was making about the same salary in Fargo, told Alberts no. Undeterred, Alberts called back a few days later and asked Blais what it would take.
The answer: $250,000 a year and a new arena.
That last quote changes everything. It's the intangible that essentially contradicts my every reason for opposing the new arena.  I was opposed to building a new downtown baseball stadium in Omaha - that is, until the NCAA basically gave Omaha the strongest hint that Rosenblatt needed to be replaced. If the NCAA says it needs to be replaced, it needs to be replaced.

And if the price of landing a coach like Dean Blais is a new arena, a new arena is needed. Doesn't mean I have to like it. Doesn't mean that I have to agree with it.  Doesn't mean that all my reasons for opposing a new arena are wrong.  They simply got trumped by the man carrying the ace.

There are reasons why UNO needed facility improvements for hockey; the idea that the team doesn't have a campus practice facility is a huge mistake.  It's been proposed for years, but not built for some reason. It's desperately needed.  I get the idea that it's best if it's attached to the arena where UNO plays, but I'm not convinced that it's a requirement.

Unless a Dean Blais makes it a requirement.  He's got two shiny rings that carry all of the authority necessary.

So be it.

And as long as we're being brutally honest here, it's not a coincidence that the influx of talent started to arrive on campus as construction began. High school players love shiny new facilities, so the promise of new facilities pretty much. So yes, the new facility had a direct causation effect on this year's Frozen Four run.

By the way, just because my opposition based on "need" was overridden doesn't mean my argument about it being "too small" was as well.  In fact, my argument is starting to be validated.  With ten days still remaining until the general public will be allowed to buy tickets, apparently less than 1,500 tickets remain for the new arena.

UNO won't admit it publicly, but the truth is pretty clear. With that Frozen Four banner in hand, the new arena is too small.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Nebraska's Spring Game Shows That There's A Lot of Work Still To Do

Every year when we watch the spring game, we're always reminded that it's really just a scrimmage that's mostly meaningless. Far too often, spring game stars are just that...spring game stars. A great spring game really means nothing.

I suspect the converse is also true. At least, I hope so.  The 2015 edition of the Nebraska spring game was pretty lackluster on both sides of the ball, and frankly, that made it difficult to watch at times.  Let's start at quarterback, where everybody not named Zach Darlington had their issues.   It's pretty clear that this offense is still a work in progress, but what concerned me the most were the number of uncatchable throws.  Sure, sometimes the receiver runs the wrong route, but more than once, the ball was thrown so far out of bounds there was no way a receiver could have ever caught it. (Maybe Riley snuck one of his old CFL plays into the playbook...)

So why did Zach Darlington figure it out when seemingly nobody else really did? Sam McKewon of the World-Herald probably has the best explanation:
Of course, it also was the first real game action Darlington has seen in nearly 20 months; his senior season in high school lasted only one game after being knocked unconscious in the season opener. Some wondered if he'd ever take a snap again, but now we wonder if he might start.

Wait. Stop. It's still the spring game.  We've seen this before with guys like Brion Carnes, who ended up finishing his career as a spot starter at Northern Iowa. So let's leave it there. Baring injury, Tommy Armstrong is the starting quarterback. And despite Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf's background, look for the offense to resemble Tim Beck's offense from last season than Oregon State's.

Why? It's because that's the team Riley inherited.  Good running backs, and quarterbacks that aren't as proficient passing than what Riley's had before.  But these quarterbacks are better runners than Riley has had, so he's adding what his players do best to his playbook.  One wrinkle that Riley added for this spring game that I don't want to see again is Armstrong being the lead blocker on the zone read.

Jamal Turner had a really nice spring game. We can only hope that he can pick up where he left off as a sophomore after missing most of the last two seasons with injuries. Of the new players, wide receiver Jariah Tolbert impressed me the most on the day.

It's clear that the defense has picked up on Mark Banker's scheme faster than the offense has picked up their's. That being said, it's not as if the defense played all that great either.

So what's the takeaway from today? Husker fans might want to temper their expectations for 2015 - at least until we see some sort of substantial progress in September.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Mavs Great Season Ends with a Cup of Chowder Against Providence in the Frozen Four. I Hate Chowder.

Back in October, when UNO was shut out 4-0 by the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, we learned just how much UNO's seniors would mean this season.  Dean Blais held his seniors out of the lineup, and went with a heavy freshman lineup...and the results were awful. Blais didn't try that again, but after senior captain Dominic Zombo's leg became too painful to play on midway through the Saturday night game against North Dakota, the offense went south once again. That led many to count UNO's chances out in the NCAA tournament, but stellar goaltending from Ryan Massa and the inspirational play of Zombo carried UNO to Boston and the Frozen Four.

But that was all for naught in the opener of the Frozen Four as Providence dominated the Mavs almost all afternoon.  A herculean effort by Ryan Massa kept the game tied for the first half of the game until Providence got two goals late in the second period.  UNO's Jake Guentzel made it a game for 24 seconds with a goal midway through the third period...but UNO got caught being too happy with the goal, allowing Providence to reclaim the two-goal lead. With Providence controlling play most of the game, UNO really didn't get a chance to pull Massa for an extra skater until the final couple of minutes. Predictably, Providence got the empty-net goal for the 4-1 final.

Season over.

Awful game.  Great season.

Early on, ESPN's Barry Melrose remarked that UNO looked like they were just happy to be at the Frozen Four. Earlier in the week, Blais remarked that UNO was not heading to Boston for a "cup of chowder"...but rather a ring.

They got a cup of chowder.

And I hate clam chowder.

So while I'm elated that UNO made it to the Frozen Four, the final game leaves a icky, clammy taste in my mouth. I hope that the team is leaving Boston with that same icky taste in their mouth.

In the postgame analysis, both Melrose and ESPN/CBS analyst Dave Starman pointed out the youth on this UNO hockey team. This experience in Boston should serve the young Mavs well next season, and make no excuses..this is a young team. But next year's UNO team won't have Ryan Massa to save game after game with his ninja magic goalie skills. They won't have Dominic Zombo's leadership on and off the ice.

Kirk Thompson looked really solid in relief of Massa when he injured his knee at the end of February, so UNO might not lose a whole lot in goal next season. But who will replace Zombo's heart and soul?

And the unspoken question: will all of the underclassmen return this fall? Let's start with sophomore Austin Ortega, who wasn't drafted by any NHL franchise prior to his time in Omaha. Does some NHL squad open their wallets next weekend?  What about the other Mavs who've been drafted by the NHL? Sometimes the NHL gets a little ancy with their prospects, and tries to get them under contract.

It'll be interesting to see how UNO reacts to this game. Ideally, you'd see Jake Guentzel, Brian Cooper, and perhaps Justin Parizek talking with Zombo and Massa about taking this team to the next level - much like Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter did for a Nebraska football team twenty years ago.

Will it be "hey, we're great" or "that's nice, but there's much, much more to do".  Was that taste of chowder sufficient, or does it leave UNO wanting more, much more, next season?

UNO Prepares to Crash the Frozen Four Against Providence

Two weeks ago, Mike Eidelbes previewed the NCAA hockey midwest regional, and in the process, created the ultimate bulletin board material.

He had good reason to doubt UNO.  UNO limped through the final month of the season without captain Dominic Zombo, and bowed out in the first round of the conference playoffs.  But funny things happen in playoff hockey. Zombo and goalie Ryan Massa's return relit the fuse on UNO hockey, and UNO pulled off the upset that most hockey minds didn't think would happen.  And as the Mavs dogpiled on the ice in South Bend, Eidelbes repeated his quote, with a slightly different emphasis.
Since then, it's been the best of times for UNO hockey fans. Every day, the World-Herald along with local television and radio have given UNO hockey unprecedented coverage. In some respects, it's almost like UNO has already won the national championship with fans. It's been a great ride, but now it's game time.

Fortunately, UNO coach Dean Blais has been down this path before; he's twice taken North Dakota to the Frozen Four...and more importantly, he's won it both times. He's made it clear that while getting to Boston is a great accomplishment, an even bigger test awaits.
"But, behind the scenes, I think you all know what we’re going there for. It’s not to eat clam chowder and lobster. It’s to put a ring on our finger."
So it's time to put "Boston" and "Frozen Four" all behind us.  It's Providence that matters now. The Friars play a much more deliberate game than UNO wants to do. Both teams feature top goalies.  Massa ranks fifth in the nation with a 1.92 goals-against average and a nation-leading .939 save percentage; Providence goalie Jon Gillies is 13th nationally with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage.  Gillies is one of the top professional prospects; he uses his physical size (6'5" 215 pounds) to his great advantage.  Massa, on the other hand, uses his athletic ability to get to the puck despite his smaller (6'0" 180 pounds).

In many respects, this game likely revolves around who breaks first. Neither team tends to score a lot as of late, Providence's 7-5 victory over Miami in the tournament opener being the exception.  UNO had a bad habit earlier in the season of starting slow, then storming back at the end. That's not necessarily a good idea in the NCAA tournament.

The X-factor to me is Dominic Zombo.  With Zombo, UNO was a team that could compete with anybody and everybody in the country. If Zombo can make it through this weekend, UNO's chances of pulling this off increase exponentially.

And then the dream lives on.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Frozen Four Berth Opens New Eyes to UNO Hockey

For UNO hockey fans, the past seven days have been the most enjoyable in program history, surpassing even the Tuesday Night/St. Patrick's Day Massacre of 2000. It's not just UNO fans, it's the entire community as a whole. People who previously ignored or disregarded UNO hockey as a "niche" now are paying attention.  And it's all awesome, except for one little thing.

The new arena.

Raising that banner on October 23 is going to be a great experience for every Mav fan who endured that eight win season or the Bemdiji trap. (And let's not get ahead of ourselves...there's a little matter of what that banner is going to say. That'll be the focus next week.) Without a doubt, the place will be packed with about 7,500 fans.

But the question I have remains, and is even stronger today.  How many people would be there if the game was downtown at the CenturyLink Center?  I don't think for even one second that UNO would sell out a 17,000 seat arena.  But the sellout isn't as important to me as the number.  Eight thousand, nine thousand, or whatever is the important number to me.

I'm constantly reminded by the arena proponents that UNO hasn't drawn those numbers regularly for hockey, and almost never without some sort of promotion. They are right.  Or should I say, were right.

That was then; this is now. Everything changed last week.

Dean Blais noted it Tuesday in a Frozen Four conference call:
“There’s nothing you can do, as far as advertising or promotion, (better) than winning. My gosh, the radio and TV stations are just blasting us every chance they get right now on how we’re going to the Frozen Four. It’s a huge deal in Omaha, what we’ve just accomplished. And if we win it, it would just be another feather in the cap of the hockey program.”
This was the dream I had for UNO hockey. And I'm watching it unfold right in front of my eyes this week. Talk show hosts that last week that didn't even acknowledge that UNO hockey existed now have to cover it. They have to; it cannot be ignored anymore.

Before last week, I was fairly sure UNO hockey tickets would be sold out to the general public next season at the new arena. That doesn't mean that every UNO hockey game would be packed; it would be much like it was at the Civic. Packed for the big games, to be sure. But when the Huskers are playing at the same time or when the students are home for the Thanksgiving or Christmas break, there will be empty seats.

That's one thing that winning won't really change. UNO hockey is going to take a backseat to family or the Huskers, for the most part.  But when North Dakota returns to Omaha at the end of next February, you won't see that huge crowd that we'd get downtown.  The people you keep out aren't the Green Sue fans; they'll find their way in somehow.  It's the other Omaha fans that you'll be keeping out.  The bandwagon Jaysker fans who simply love to support a winner, whether it's Creighton basketball or Nebraska football.  The atmosphere at this year's North Dakota series was insane, the best I've ever encountered. A student section that overflowed their usual student section and took over the entire upper deck in the end zone. They won't be there next February; there isn't room for them at the new place.

That's why I've been opposed to the size of the new arena. And frankly, I don't see any way I can be convinced otherwise. Prior to last week, people could have said "UNO would have only sold out four games" at the new arena last season.  They were right.

But that was then, before UNO hockey made the Frozen Four.  This is now.  Things are different now.  Those past perceptions and assumptions simply aren't relevant anymore.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

UNO Hockey is "Shippin' Up to Boston" For the Frozen Four

Nineteen years ago, Don Leahy made the call that started it all.  The University of Nebraska Omaha would start an NCAA Division 1 hockey program.  He hired Mike Kemp to make it reality. In October 1997, the Mavs hit the ice at the Civic Auditorium to the thunderous chant of U! N! O!

Two years later, UNO uses a late Jeff Hoggan goal to defeat Bowling Green in the CCHA play-in game to advance to the CCHA semi-finals in their first season of eligibility. Three nights after that, UNO smokes Michigan in the "St. Patrick's Day Massacre" to get a chance to play for the conference title.

Since that time, UNO has had it's moments.  A Hobey Baker finalist in Scott Parse. NCAA berths in 2006 and 2011.  But a last place finish in their first season at the CenturyLink Center. Failing to make it to the conference tournament final weekend for ten years.  Michigan stealing the 2011 NCAA tournament game with a fraudulent call.

Nancy Belck and Jim Buck's mismanagement of the program put the future of the entire UNO athletic department in jeopardy. In steps Trev Alberts, who'd never been an administrator before, to try and clean up the mess. He promoted Kemp to be his assistant athletic director, and asked him to pick his successor as head coach.  Kemp pointed to Dean Blais, and Trev somehow made it happen.

Blais, the North Dakota legend, had the resume... and we were sure UNO was off to the stratosphere in hockey.  We thought it was 2011 until "not a goal" happened. We kept hoping.  I knew someday it would happen.

Tonight, it finally happened. In many respects, missing out on last weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff probably was a good thing. UNO had limped through the last month of the season without captain Dominic Zombo.  Then goalie Ryan Massa tweaked his knee prior to the final regular season game.  Things looked really bleak when St. Cloud State swept the Mavs two weeks ago.

Sometimes it's darkest before the dawn.

Fast forward to tonight. Ryan Massa was, well, magical against RIT in pitching a shutout. Dominic Zombo returned to the ice, and while he may not be 100% physically, he was 200% in effort. Twice in the third period, ESPNU's  announcers noted Zombo making hit after hit on the ice. And those freshmen...oh those freshmen. Luc Snuggerud feeding the puck to Jake Randolph for the golden goal.  David Pope with the final goal.  Super sophomores Austin Ortega and Justin Parizek with the second and third goals to give UNO some breathing room.

UNO advances to the Frozen Four at Boston's TD Garden on Thursday, April 9 against Providence, who's campus is just 50 miles to the south.  Win in that early game, and UNO advances to play either North Dakota (in a rematch of that epic series at the end of January) or Boston University (who smoked UNO in 2006).

It's going to take some time for all this to sink in.  Right now, it's just time to celebrate. Queue up your accordions, folks!

Win, Lose, or Draw, Everyone for Omaha, We Will Fight For U! N! O!
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