Friday, March 30, 2012

The NFL draft is still a month away

Length of the NFL regular season: 17 weeks.
Length of the NFL draft season for teams that don't make the playoffs: About 15 weeks, from early January to late April.
As much as I try to avoid them, the speculation and rumors are impossible to miss.
The NFL draft is a monster, and the only thing bigger is fans' appetite for it. Add in almost four months to let hype expand, and you get a lot of tall tales.
Take Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He's moving up the mock draft boards so fast that, at current pace, he might be included in this year's Hall of Fame inductions.
I wish the draft process could be condensed. Move the combine back from mid-February to late March. Then do all the pro days in early to mid-April.
That's not likely to happen. So all I can do is keep counting down the days until the draft - the actual event - takes place. Only one more month to go.
- Howard Primer

All aboard the Richardson train

The Trent Richardson train keeps chugging along, and with his impressive Pro Day workout on Thursday, the engine is really revving.

I was on the Robert Griffin III bandwagon, but never believed the Browns would pull the trigger on a trade to move up to No. 2 overall in the draft. With the Redskins now owning that No. 2 pick, it's time for the Browns to make the sensible pick with the multi-talented Richardson.

As bad as the Browns' receivers were last season, with the departure of Peyton Hillis in free agency, the hole at running back is massive. Montario Hardesty is not the answer as the every-down back. The Browns need to stay at No. 4 and select Richardson. It makes perfect sense. I could go on about all the reasons, but I've been on Richardson-to-the-Browns for a while.

Read more here:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Soccer shows its support for Muamba

The soccer world was shocked last weekend when Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest during the first half of an FA Cup match televised nationally in the United Kingdom by ESPN against Tottenham. Reports now suggest Muamba's heart stopped for more than an hour and he was essentially dead before having his heart restarted at a London hospital. Muamba faces a long road back, but thankfully his story has not had a tragic conclusion.

One positive that did come out of such a frightening experience was the incredible outpouring of support from around the world for Muamba's plight. Within minutes of the news last Saturday, a "#prayformuamba" trend started on Twitter, and ever since Bolton and Muamba's family have gone out of their way to express their appreciation for every word of encouragement in the last several days.

On Saturday, Bolton returned to action in an English Premier League match against Blackburn, pulling out a 2-1 victory covered beautifully by ESPN Soccernet.
<a href='' target='_new' title='PL Highlights: Bolton/Blackburn' >Video: PL Highlights: Bolton/Blackburn</a>

Soccer gets a lot of grief from the rest of the sports world for its level of fanaticism and some of the worst aspects of human behavior on display - and sometimes rightfully so.

But the way the soccer world reacted to Muamba's situation is a glowing example of putting its best foot forward.

- Chris Lillstrung

Friday, March 23, 2012

SI picks Indians third in AL Central

To no surprise, Sports Illustrated picks Detroit to win the American League Central in 2012.
SI has the Indians third, behind the Royals and ahead of the Twins and White Sox.
If Kansas City is on the upswing and Minnesota and Chicago are on the downswing, what does that mean for the Tribe?
SI  brings up the same questions fans have been wondering about all winter, about Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Roberto Hernandez and Travis Hafner. We'll have to wait for season to start to get the answers.
- Howard Primer

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sweet 16 the best

Fans love the weekend of the Elite Eight and the Final Four, but my money is always on the round of the Sweet 16.

Two doubleheaders at the same time on Thursday and Friday only increases the excitement. Any Cinderellas left in the NCAA tournament are there for a reason. It's because they belong. Yes, I'm talking about Ohio University, the lowest remaining seed (No. 13) in the dance.

For the 16 teams that remain, the real tests are Thursday and Friday. Regional semifinals almost always seem to be dogfights, with teams trying to deliver the knockout punch to secure their spot in the game for the gold.

Going from 68 to 16 can be difficult. Going from 16 to 4 is cut throat.

Speaking of the Sweet 16, here are my picks for the entire weekend:


Wisconsin over Syracuse; Ohio State over Cincinnati

Regional final: Ohio State over Wisconsin


North Carolina over Ohio; Kansas over N.C. State

Regional final: Kansas over North Carolina


Kentucky over Indiana; Xavier over Baylor

Regional final: Kentucky over Xavier


Michigan State over Louisville; Marquette over Florida

Regional final: Marquette over Michigan State

- Mark Podolski | @mpodo 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How is your NCAA bracket looking?

How much fun it is to watch college basketball games when you have an NCAA bracket to glance over?
I can't imagine watching the games without one.
Now that the games have been narrowed down to the Sweet 16, how is it looking for you?
My Final Four teams are still intact - Kentucky, UNC, Michigan St. and Syracuse.
But I'm in the middle of the standings in our office pool here at The News-Herald.
In one bracket, I have Kentucky winning it all. In the other, I have UNC.
There are 25 people ahead of me in the standings, but a few of them have teams that have already been knocked out including Missouri, Vanderbilt, Florida State and Duke.
That makes me excited to see how things are going to shake out over the next few days.
I'm not highly addictive to checking out my bracket after games, but I am mildly addictive.
Last year, the standings were done the old-school way and we weren't able to see how everyone else was doing in the pool until the final game.
This time it's different, and it makes it so worth my $5 entry fee to be a part of it.
I'll keep you posted.

-Theresa Neuhoff Audia

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Please, no Tebow in Cleveland

 Tuesday was a great day.

I woke up early to the sunshine peeking through the windows, had a better-than-normal cup of coffee and got a lot of yard work done. I even purchased $10 worth of Mega Millions tickets just in case Lady Luck was REALLY on my side.

But the best part of my day Tuesday came around  3 p.m. when I turned on ESPN and read the crawler across the bottom of the screen. The first item running across the screen reported the teams that had expressed interest in trading for Denver QB Tim Tebow in the aftermath of Peyton Manning signing with the Broncos earlier in the day.

I got a little nervous as they suitors appeared one by one from the lower-right portion of my screen. But my prayers were answered when the list finished without the word "Cleveland" appearing on the screen.

Tim Tebow is a nice guy.

He's just not what the Browns need or want running their offense.

Tebow's passes were ugly for four years in the sunshine of Florida, as well as in the balmy conditions in San Diego, Oakland and other stadiums in which he played in the AFC West with the Broncos. Imagine what they would be with the brutal winds off Lake Erie knocking them down.

No thanks.

Part of me feels bad for Tebow. No team is going to sign him for his quarterback abilities, but rather for the box-office jolt he will provide in ticket sales. He's a gimmick. A side show. An attraction in appearance only.

He's not an NFL quarterback a team can hang their hat on. The proof is that Denver signed an aging Manning to a ludicrous contract despite having multiple neck surgeries in his recent history. And THAT is a better option than Tebow?


Tebow's best options should come down to three teams: Green Bay, where he could back up Aaron Rodgers and not sniff the field; Philadelphia, where he could back up Michael Vick and give the Eagles' a reserve with a similar skill-set to their starter (aside from the fact Vick CAN throw); or Jacksonville, where he could just go and be a hometown side show and ticket-seller.

The Browns aren't an option, thankfully. President Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert haven't done a lot early on in free agency, but give them credit for not kicking the tires on Tebow's wagon, unless it was to make sure those tires had enough air to cart Tebow off to some other team.

- John Kampf

Monday, March 19, 2012

Browns free-agency Q&A

It's time for a short Q&A session regarding the Browns' brass and its current roster:

Question: What do the individuals in charge of the Browns see in their current set of offensive players that makes them believe the 2012 season will be better than 2011?

Answer: There are potentially two answers. 1, the Browns must believe their plan for the draft will bring in a bevy of talent (wide receivers, a running back?) that will rejuvenate an offense that scored 13 points - yes, 13 points - a game last season, or 2, the Browns know something no one else around the NFL does. That being the players who struggled last season will undoubtedly be better in 2012. In the team's defense, a player's maturity and performance level at times takes a while to develop. Perhaps their thinking was the likes of Greg Little, Montario Hardesty, Evan Moore and Colt McCoy were a year away. On the other hand, Mike Holmgren and Co. could be vastly overrating their collection of young players. For their sake, it better not be the latter.

Q: Why hasn't the team used free agency to address the offense?

A: If you follow the Browns, you heard GM Tom Heckert say the team wouldn't go crazy when free agency began. Kudos to Heckert for telling the truth, but if you're a Browns fans, don't you wish he were lying? What is it about free agents the Browns don't seem to like? Maybe Heckert is waiting for bargain prices, but with a big hole at running back, why not target, for example, the Raiders' Michael Bush? They might. As for not targeting a veteran free-agent receiver, the Browns are making a mistake. The current cast is a collection of players either struggling to break through or just too young, or, perhaps the worst scenario for the Browns, not good enough for the NFL. The Browns struggled all season throwing the ball for a reason.

Q: What's next for the Browns?

A: There isn't much left out there among the free-agent pool, so the biggest event on the docket is obviously the NFL draft in April. The pressure is on for all who will be in the Browns' draft war room. Expect Colt McCoy to be the starter at QB, even though the Browns won't publicly say that, but there are questions at running back and receiver that need to be answered. Depth at linebacker is a concern, as well as on the offensive line. Still, fixing problems and filling roster gaps with a host of rookies isn't the answer to immediate success, but that's what the Browns could be facing in 2012. That also means another year of growing pains, something a fan base surely doesn't want to hear.

- Mark Podolski | @mpodo

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Berkshire does a community proud

Berkshire lost the Division III regional final to Chanel on Saturday night.

There was no state final four ticket to be punched, no grand celebration.

But make no mistake, the town of Burton and the surrounding communities need to appreciate what happened with this team.

Berkshire was unseeded in the district tournament - the 5th seed only because the rules are every team is seeded - but the Badges made a run to the regional finals that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Every fan wearing purple and white should understand what their team did to get to the elite eight and how close they came to Columbus. If they don't, then - I'm sorry - they weren't paying attention.

Berkshire was 5-6 at one point this season. An average to below average team, just waiting to win the CVC Valley in many people's eyes, but they kept coming. There were 14 wins in a row later, and it took a talented Chanel team to keep the Badgers from Columbus.

Not too shabby.

You want to rally around a group of hard-working student-athletes and a coaching staff? Get behind this one, folks. Burton Township and the rest of the Geauga County community shouldn't shed a tear for missing out the state final four. Be proud of an accomplishment that isn't promised to be seen again anytime soon. A 25-20 lead in the second half of a regional final? Mark it down and remember this team. Remember Tim Goff and his contributions for four years before he goes off to Wheeling Jesuit. Remember the rest of the squad who gave you all they had until there was no more to give.

What a run Berkshire had. Never forget that if you are a Badgers fan or a fan of high school basketball in general.

Congrats all around to the Berkshire Badgers, to Coach Pete Moran and his staff. If the community at large is smart - which I know they are - they will appreciate it and not let the heartbreak of missing out on a trip Columbus get in the way of what has been quite a ride.


Staying quiet on Norfolk State

It was certainly a shock Friday to watch No. 15 seed Norfolk State stun Missouri in the NCAA tournament, bringing back memories of some of the other 15-2 upsets in March Madness.

It's hard to forget 2001, for example, when Hampton beat Iowa State, and the famous image from after that game of a Hampton player lifting up his coach in excitement.

Still, it would have been a mistake to say anything that attached some semblance of unlikeliness to Norfolk State on Friday.

Trust me.

On Sept. 10, West Virginia was hosting none other than Norfolk State, a MEAC school from Virginia with a little more than 6,200 students.

Many times in sports, we make the mistake of relying far too much on name recognition and expecting a result to fall based primarily on that.

That's what made it a surprise when Norfolk State was up, 12-10, at halftime.

On Twitter, because I consider the Mountaineers as my second favorite college football team, I said, "West Virginia is losing at the half to Norfolk State? Really?!?"

Bad move in this social media age.

A few minutes later, I noticed I had been retweeted on the Norfolk State campus. They didn't say anything derogatory in response when they easily could have. They only put the RT, with the hashtag "#beholdthegreenandgold".

West Virginia ended up winning, 55-12, but the moral of the story was clear enough.

Watching Norfolk State against Missouri on Friday, helplessly watching one of my brackets take a direct hit since I had the Tigers going to the national championship game, I could only think of one thing.

Behold the green and gold.

And besides, how can you not like a team that showed the personality they did postgame?

My bracket allegiance pulled me to Florida on Sunday. But I wasn't hating on Norfolk State after a lesson learned.

- Chris Lillstrung

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

All-Ohio girls basketball teams highlight best of the best

This past week, the best of the best high school girls basketball players in Ohio were honored.
The list included several area athletes.
Congratulations to all of the athletes.
The awards are well deserving.

Divisions I and II All-Ohio girls are as follows:

DI - second team - Lynsey Englebrecht (North), 5-6, So., 16.8 ppg
DI - honorable mention - Halle Herringshaw (Chardon), Lauren Stefancin (Mentor), Shannon Zajec (Mayfield)

DII - second team - Annie Bova (Beaumont) 5-7, Sr., 16.0 ppg
DII - third team - Becky Depp (Geneva) 5-3, Jr., 16 ppg; Delani Stopp (Lake Catholic) 5-7, Sr., 13.1
DII - honorable mention - Ne'Keia Evans (Harvey); Hallie Thome (Chagrin Falls)

 Divisions III and IV are as follows:

DIII - second team - Abbey Deckard (Gilmour), 6-0, Sr., 15.1
DIII - third team - Jess Janota (Gilmour), 6-3, So., 16.7
DIII - honorable mention - Kayla Byler (Berkshire)

DIV - first team - Hali Butler (Fairport) 5-9, Sr., 20.8
DIV - second team - Macie Malone (Cornerstone Christian) 5-5, Sr., 13.5
DIV - third team - Kaitlyn Kish (Kirtland) 5-7, Sr., 15.2
DIV - honorable mention - Kayla Weber (Cornerstone Christian), Molly Walsh (Newbury), Jenny Velota (Newbury)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

If the BCS ran college basketball

What would happen if the NCAA handed Selection Sunday over to the Bowl Championship Series? It would be horrible. Besides that, here's a look at the projected matchups:

April 16: Rose Bowl, Michigan State (Big Ten tournament champion) vs. Colorado (Pac-12 tournament champion)
April 16: Fiesta Bowl, Missouri (Big 12 tournament champion) vs. North Carolina (at-large)
April 17: Sugar, Ohio State (at-large) vs. Wichita State (non-AQ in top 12 of RPI)
April 18: Orange, Florida State (ACC tournament champion) vs. Louisville (Big East tournament champion)
April 23: BCS national championship, Kentucky (RPI No. 1) vs. Syracuse (RPI No. 2)

The Sugar Bowl would have an intriguing decision. If this was football, it would most likely take the next SEC team. In this case, it would be Vanderbilt, which isn't much of a draw compared with other choices. Duke probably would have been preferred,  but there are already two ACC teams in the BCS field (the Fiesta Bowl had first crack at the at-larges this season, and I think it would have taken North Carolina). That leaves Ohio State and Kansas as the most attractive at-large teams, and Big Ten schools almost always have a bigger national profile - see Michigan in this year's Sugar Bowl.

- Howard Primer

Rivals come together for something really important

When I heard North and South were going to have a charity basketball game to support the Chardon community in the wake of the tragedy that occurred Feb. 27, I wasn't surprised.

When I heard the event featuring football players from the two Willoughby-Eastlake District schools raised more than $30,000, I was even less shocked.

Not that it isn't an impressive number, but I have so much respect for our community and for the coaches and players and administrations from the two schools, it didn't rattle me one bit.

Rivalries are fun in high school sports, but the Rangers and Rebels obviously get what is more important. Kudos to both schools for wanting to do something that had nothing to do with newspaper coverage or attention other than raising money and simply being there for another community.

They did what they did, not to get in the paper or have the spotlight shine on them or the football rivalry which is one of the best if not THE best in the News-Herald coverage area. They did what they did because it came from the heart. The $30,000 raised is just an indication of the spirit and generosity and compassion of those in attendance that night.

And to all that attended and donated last Friday, feel good about your efforts. That is what is important. Not who won, not who coached, not the Civil War. It was all about Chardon and the parents who lost loved ones and the friends and classmates who are going through an unimaginable time of grieving.

All those who had anything to do with the event should be commended. The monetary sum is significant, but it shouldn't be surprising. Not if you know Coach Matt Duffy from South, Coach George Burich from North and the athletic directors and parent groups from both schools.

When you take all the rivalry issues and intensity away from the North-South border war in Eastlake and Willoughby, it is about people. And in this case, it is people doing the right thing and simply being there for Chardon.

Well done, folks. You don't want attention or a slap on the back, but here is a thank you for all of us who care and feel every day for what the Chardon community is going through.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

The (gulp) 20th anniversary of Madden '92

In a random moment of flashback Saturday night, I came to a stunning realization: 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of Madden '92.

For the young people out there who didn't grow up in the 90s, Madden '92 was the game back in the day on Sega Genesis. Obviously the graphics were nothing like they are today, but we would still spend hours with this:

 (Go ahead, try to keep that music out of your head)

Back on message, some of my fondest video game memories from when I around 13 was playing Madden '92 non-stop. It was the coolest gift.

To this day, there are still a few highlights of playing that game that still spring to mind.

One is the now-infamous "ambulance" - when a player got hurt, an ambulance would come on the field. Problem is, because game consoles and cartridges were so archaic back then, there wasn't much control. So ambulances would just come onto the field and play bumper cars with the players.

That aside, if I had to pick one in-game highlight, it had to be playing as the Bills during their heyday against the Cowboys. The main reason was you could run a halfback toss to the left on every play with Thurman Thomas and he would break it for a touchdown because that side of the Dallas line stunk (at least on the game). For fun, I would run Thomas back to the 1-yard line, wait for defenders and keep using a spin move until I had run it back 99 yards for a TD.

The other, admittedly another technology quirk, was the fact Bruce Smith was the fastest player on Madden '92. Yes, Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith. He was the only guy on the game, if you can believe this, who had the maximum 15 speed. So when it came time for kick and punt returns, Smith was a lineman in those instances. So I would grab control of Smith, hustle him back to be the return guy and he'd score - every single time.

Ah, those were the days.

- Chris Lillstrung

Friday, March 9, 2012

MAC gets it right with new bracket

The Mid-American Conference changed the setup of its bracket for this year's men's basketball tournament, and the MAC made the right move.

In this year's bracket, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds received byes to the quarterfinals, and the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds were automatically advanced to the semifinals.

The bracket might be a little confusing at first, but the concept is clear: Reward the top teams in the regular season with the best opportunities to win the conference tournament and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

For mid-majors, conference tournaments are supposed to be a last chance for all teams to see if Cinderella's slipper fits. But leagues including the MAC and the Horizon League have started unbalancing their brackets in favor of the teams that fared better in the regular season.

This is a smart move. League commissioners can't take sides among their teams, so I'll say it for them: If you're going to be a one-bid league, you need to send the team that has the best chance of winning to the NCAA tournament. There's too much money and publicity at stake to end up with an 16-win team that got hot for one weekend as your conference representative.

Leagues like the MAC face this every year. Take the Colonial Athletic Association, for example.  The CAA has had two Final Four teams in the past six tournaments. But as of Friday afternoon, it only has its automatic bid (Virginia Commonwealth) and Drexel, which is on the bubble as an at-large possibility.

Or the Horizon League, in another instance. Even with Butler playing in the national championship game the past two seasons, the HL's automatic bid is Detroit, which is projected to be a 15 seed by ESPN. No other team is even close.

Teams from the CAA and the Horizon do their part in March Madness once the tournament starts, but their leagues aren't strong enough top to bottom to assure them of an at-large bid on a yearly basis.

Making an unbalanced bracket makes the regular season more important. The MAC should be applauded for rewarding Kent State, Ohio, Akron and Buffalo.

It might not make MAC Madness at The Q as unpredictable, but it's not as maddening as watching a middle-of-the-pack team get a one-bid conference's NCAA berth.

- Howard Primer

Thursday, March 8, 2012

One reason to get RG3

On Thursday, Browns GM Tom Heckert didn't reveal much in terms of Baylor QB Robert Griffin III.

No one outside of Berea knows what the Browns will do on draft day. Trade up? Trade down? Stay at No. 4?

Here's one reason why the Browns should do everything to land Griffin III: It could save all in the Browns' management team's jobs.

Let's say the Browns do nothing to improve their QB situation and Colt McCoy is your starter and Seneca Wallace the backup for the 2012 season. Then, as Heckert said on Thursday, the Browns don't go overboard in free agency. Then, for arguments sake, the Browns waddle through next season and max out at five or six victories.

Mike Holmgren, Heckert and Co. will have a difficult time selling those results to the fanbase. Holmgren saying, "Trust us" again will fall on deaf ears. Browns fans are at their boiling point. Wins have to occur next season, unless ...

Robert Griffin III is taking snaps at quarterback. If that happens, struggling through a four-, five- or six-win season, as long as RG3 is coming along and showing signs of being a franchise player (Kyrie Irving anyone?), the fans in this town will understand there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

If management stays the course with McCoy and its below average group of receivers and struggles to show a pulse on offense ... well, good luck with that.

- Mark Podolski | @mpodo

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lake Catholic has plenty on the line going into regional final

The Lake Catholic girls basketball team is one win away from advancing to the Division II state tournament.
Standing in the Cougars way is the same team that was standing in their way last year in the regional final at Barberton.
The Cougars are facing three-time defending champion Hathaway Brown on Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Barberton High School.
The winner will be cheering wildly and packing their bags for Columbus. The loser will not have another practice and probably go home in tears.
The Cougars have to be excited, but nervous at the same time.
They obviously have so much riding on this game.
A year ago, they got off to a slow start and were outscored 21-9 at the end of the first quarter. They trailed the rest of the way in a 70-60 loss.
The Cougars can't let it happen again this year.
They let it happen to them in the regional semifinal against Rocky River on Tuesday night. They were outscored 11-6 in the first quarter, but managed to have a strong third quarter against the Pirates to secure a 42-30 victory.
The Cougars shot 10 of 47 from the field in the game and 17 of 26 from the line. They'll have to shoot better in both areas to beat talented HB.
I believe the Cougars have what it takes to pull this one out. Most importantly, they have the heart and desire that is necessary to be a champion.
Revenge is sweet.
Especially when a trip to the state championship is on the line.

-Theresa Neuhoff Audia

Monday, March 5, 2012

We were all Hilltoppers for a brief moment in time

"We are ... Chardon".

I heard that chant plenty last week while covering the Hilltoppers boys basketball team at the Division I Euclid District.

But the more I think about it, that three-word rallying cry isn't just something the Chardon Crazies use as motivating the team. "We are ... Chardon" was the rallying cry for players, fans, coaches and communities all over Northeast Ohio last week, and the reepsonse was overwhelming in my opinion.

Three Chardon students were killed by a suspected gunman Feb. 27 in the high school cafeteria. In the wake of the senseless, heartbreaking tragedy, so many people came together in support of the school and the community, that the line between cities or townships or rivals on the basketball floor blurred together.

We are Chardon.

Last week, we were all Hilltoppers. Perphaps we didn't understand it as well as kids that were in the building when five students were shot, and three would later lose their young life far too soon. But most of us did our part in our own way, whether that was with a moment of silence at a basketball game, a small prayer, a hug or a handshake, words of encouragement or anything and everything in between.

While sports seems so small in the bigger picture of what happened in Chardon, it was far from insignificant on Thursday and Saturday at Harold "Doc" Daugherty Gymnasium as the bleachers filled with a sea of red and black and the Hilltoppers gave everyone something to remember and a few hours to forget.

What I will never forget is not the fact Chardon defeated Madison 72 hours after this horrific event at the high school. My lasting memory won't be that the Hilltoppers pushed second-seed Brush to the limit for three quarters before bowing out of the tournament in the sectional title game.

It will be how young men from Chardon, Madison and Brush carried themselves on and off the floor with such maturity. It will be how Chardon coach Nick Gustin, athletic director Doug Snyder and the Hilltoppers entire staff were the ultimate professionals, having to deal with the media on top of handling the emotion of an impossible situation. There is no handbook for what Gustin and those folks were asked to do last week.

I will always remember the class with which Madison coach Pat Moran and Brush coach Jayson Macauda handled themselves as the so-called "bad guys" who were on the opposite bench, trying to simply win a basketball game. The players on the Blue Streaks and the Arcs all acted well beyond their years, particularly Brush senior Curtis Oakley, who was a model of humility and sincerity during Saturday's postgame press conference.

As for the kids on the Chardon basketball team, I won't even attempt to figure out what their emotions were. I don't know how senior Nick Ruckel got to be not only a premier athlete, but an articulate young man with tremendous perspective and remarkable character in the face of unimaginable adversity.

My role in the Chardon tragedy and aftermath is less than miniscule. I was simply a reporter assigned to cover the Hilltoppers in two highly emotional games, and did that to the best of my ability. But I would be willing to say that all my media brothers and sisters who sat through either game would be robotic or simply lying if they said that the moment didn't get past the usual journalistic wall and hit them as a parent, a son or daughter or just a human being.

I think last week it is safe to say we were all Hilltoppers.

The healing has just begun and no amount of time will ever bring things back to the way they were on Feb. 26. It is a situation I hope I never have to go through again with any school or any community. But the experience was made somewhat tolerable because of the extraordinary way so many people pulled together that were on the inside of the story - especially the Chardon administration, including assistant football coach Frank Hall, whose heroism on the day of the tragedy is inspirational.

The ribbons, the cheering section singing the alma mater, the twn coming together day after day with none easier than the one before.

Sports was a peripheral sidenote to the Chardon tragedy, but whatever role it served, I am honored and humbled that I had a front-row seat to some of the best humanity has to offer.

We are Chardon.

I hope the Hilltoppers never forget that.


Sunday, March 4, 2012

The voices of March Madness

It is a rite of passage every year  - well, for me at least - to find out who will be doing the play-by-play announcing and color commentating for March Madness across CBS and now the Turner properties.

We have our answer.

Many people are well aware by now who is not - now-Fox Sports and Big Ten Network broadcaster Gus Johnson, who when it was announced where he was heading that site was deemed the winner of the "Gus Sweepstakes".

The pairings, thanks to this recent blog post, are ...

Jim Nantz/Clark Kellogg
Marv Albert/Steve Kerr
Verne Lundquist/Bill Raftery (my sentimental favorite)

Kevin Harlan/Len Elmore/Reggie Miller
Ian Eagle/Jim Spanarkel
Brian Anderson/Dan Bonner
Tim Brando/Mike Gminski
Spero Dedes/Bob Wenzel

Studio crews are Greg Gumbel and Ernie Johnson with Charles Barkley, Greg Anthony and Kenny Smith, and then an Atlanta crew of Matt Winer, Seth Davis and Steve Smith.

So except for Gus, the crew remains largely unchanged, although I'm not overly familiar with Anderson. It seems he's primarily a baseball guy.

There's what we have with which to look forward. Now my March Madness pool bracket, on the other hand, if it's like the last couple years ...

- Chris Lillstrung

Friday, March 2, 2012

Downfall of the NFL? Not for a long time

Underneath all the layers of hoopla about the NFL draft, an interesting storyline is brewing about the future of pro football.

Concussions were a big topic this past season, and some, including FOX analyst Troy Aikman, wonder if the violence of the sport will lead to a downfall in the popularity of the No. 1 pro league in the United States.

Aikman told the Los Angeles Times that the NFL should be careful with how it handles concussions, and that it might be over-saturating the TV schedule. Those two factors could impact the league in years to come, he said.

"The long-term visibility, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now," Aikman told the Times.

He continued: "I believe, and this is my opinion, that at some point football is not going to be the No. 1 sport. You talk about the ebbs and flows of what's popular and what's not. At some point, the TV ratings are not going to be there."

As a Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame quarterback, Aikman has a lot of cache to discuss league affairs. But I'm going to disagree anyway.

The NFL is fueled by  gambling and alcohol.

-- As long as there are people driving up the ratings by watching out-of-market games into the fourth quarter because they have money on it ...

-- As long as there are fantasy football players doing the same ...

-- As long people drink before, during and after games ...

-- As long as beer companies use that money to buy advertising ...

-- As long as TV networks use the ad money to buy rights to the games they need because the NFL is one of the only ratings guarantees left in network television ...

... the NFL will have consistent yearly revenue in billions of dollars.

With that scenario in place, there will always be players willing to sacrifice their bodies to earn the hundreds of millions of dollars available in salaries each season.

Is it possible that America's appetite for the NFL will wane? Of course it can happen. In the mid-20th century, baseball, boxing and horse racing were among the biggest sports in the U.S. Today, there are no significant American heavyweight boxers. Horse racing is popular for nine minutes a year. And the World Series loses to the NFL in the TV ratings except for the two cities the Fall Classic is being played in.

It's difficult to see that happening to the NFL in the near future, though. It's so powerful that other sports schedule around it for fear of their ratings and attendance getting smashed. How can the NFL lose its standing if no one else is willing to put up a fight?

So what would it take to bring the NFL down to No. 2?

Aikman has a point with the expanded TV schedule. If it continues to spread games over Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, then they might seem more like everyday occurrences and not special events. That wouldn't be enough, though.

Neither would continued or increased concussions. But hits to the head might lead to a decreased talent pool.

It would have to start with a hit similar to the one Browns quarterback Colt McCoy took from the Steelers' James Harrison, but in the Super Bowl, with 111 million people watching.

Furthermore, it would have to happen to a star player like a quarterback or running back, and it would have to keep that player out through the beginning of the next season, similar to situation Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins faced.

If concussions were in the news eight months, participation in youth leagues in some areas of the country could begin to drop with that one hit in the Super Bowl and its aftermath being a direct cause.

But don’t expect the NFL to roll over and accept all the negative publicity concussions are bringing. The league will be sure to publicize the work it’s doing to improve safety.

The hit McCoy took? Yes, it was violent, even gruesome.

Is that going to stop you from watching the Browns next season? The TV ratings and attendance figures say no.

And that's why the NFL isn't going anywhere for a long time.

- Howard Primer

Madison loses game, wins so much more

Even in a loss, it is possible to win.

The Madison Blue Streaks proved that Thursday night with the way they handled themselves from start to finish in an impossible situation amid the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy.

Madison coach Pat Moran referred to his team as Darth Vader walking into Thursday's sectional semifinal against Chardon in the Division I Euclid District.

After the horrific events that unfolded Monday morning at Chardon High School in which a gunman killed three students and wounded two others, there was no way anyone could look at the Blue Streaks as anything but the villain.

That was far from the case.

Years from now, Madison won't be looked at as the bad guys from March 1, 2012, who tried to keep Chardon from advancing in the postseason. The Blue Streaks and their coach should be viewed as the classy opposition and willing partner in a scene never imagined in any circumstance.

From the pregame til the final buzzer and into the postgame press conference, it would be hard to imagine Madison doing any more for Chardon and the community than the Blue Streaks did Thursday.

Madison lost, 78-59, but the Blue Streaks should have won respect for the way they carried themselves and respected the Hilltoppers and competed. That sounds easy, especially in defeat, but put yourself in the shoes of a 17- or 18-year old and it isn't so simple.

They wore Chardon warm-up shirts. They shook hands, they felt something, they may have cried privately or prayed on their own. They stood side by side for the national anthem. They respected the game by competing and not laying down or rolling over.

Can't ask for much more from Coach Moran or his players.

Madison has set the bar pretty high for Brush on Saturday night. Win or lose, the Arcs have a tough act to follow.

Nobody hated the Blue Streaks on Thursday even if there weren't a lot of cheers for them. It wasn't Darth Vader in the gym at Euclid, just the opponent for Chardon just days removed from a tragedy nobody coudl have seen coming or planned for.

Here's hoping when history looks back at the Chardon-Madison game and all the emotion that went into this unpredictable sectional semifinal, the Blue Streaks will credit for their role in the evening.

The attention is rightly fixated on the Hilltoppers, but Madison certainly showed class and professionalism - starting with its head coach - from beginning to end.

God bless the victims and the families at Chardon and hopefully the healing process has begun. But hopefully, the Hilltoppers realize how much the Blue Streaks also brought to an impossible difficult scene.

Madison didn't win the game, but the victories for the Blue Streaks came in areas on Thursday that are much more important in the big picture that go beyond basketball.

- Bill Tilton/