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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spotlight: Joey Rodriguez

In the history of the NCAA tournament there have been numerous Cinderella stories…

Two of the most famous examples are the 1985 Villanova Wildcats and the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, who both entered the tournament ranked fairly low and went on to win the National championship.

More recently, there was the 2006 George Mason Patriots, who entered the tournament as an eleventh seed and made it to the Final Four before losing to the eventual champion Florida Gators.

And most recently, the Butler bulldogs have proved to be a perennial Cinderella, making it to the National championship game as a five-seed last year and returning to the Final Four this year despite an eighth seed ranking.

While all of these upsets are impressive in their own fashion, none of them can quite measure up to the Cinderella run of the VCU Rams this year, who have made it to the Final Four as an eleven seed.

VCU entered the tournament as one of the First Four, a brand new addition to March Madness this year in which four teams play two play-in games to determine the final two spots in the tournament.

The Rams didn’t even expect to make the tournament. On Selection Sunday, the team did not watch the Selection show. They instead ate fast food and watched cartoon network, apparently content with a season they deemed finish.

But their season was far from over.

The Rams snuck into the tournament in an extremely controversial decision that put them as one of the First Four but left out teams that most believed had better overall resumes. Both Harvard and Virginia Tech had more wins and a higher RPI than the Rams, but were left out of the tournament. Colorado University appeared to be a lock to make the tournament after beating five-seeded Kansas State three times in the regular season and playing well all year in an extremely competitive Big 12 conference. But Colorado was left out.

But as soon as VCU began tournament play in the First Four, senior guard Joey Rodriguez put the Rams on his back and carried them to the Final Four.

The Rams opened their tournament play by dominating USC in the play-in game and beating them 59-46. Rodriguez scored eight points and handed out five assists in leading his team to victory. Any notions that the Rams not belonging in the tournament were quickly silenced with this performance, as the Rodriguez-led offense operated with impressive continuity and the defense overwhelmed the Trojans.

The Rams continued their impressive playing in the round of 64 with a 74-56 upset of Georgetown, the first of their four upsets so far in the tournament. Rodriguez scored 17 points and dished out another seven assists as the Rams continued their impressive play.

But the Hoyas have been vulnerable to an upset in the NCAA tournament before and VCU’s first two wins seemed more like a fluke than anything else. But in their third game against third-seeded Purdue, the Rams proved that they were a legitimate threat in the tournament.

The Rams dominated the Boilermakers, winning with a final score of 94-76. Rodriguez registered a double-double this time, scoring twelve points and handing out eleven assists in one of the most impressive offensive showings so far in the tournament.

The Rams had their closest call so far in the Sweet Sixteen against Florida State. It took extra time for VCU to beat the Seminoles, but the Rams scored a layup with 7.1 seconds left in overtime to win, 72-71. Rodriguez maintained his position as general of the offense; although he scored only five points, he handed out eleven assists.

Their run was impressive enough, and it seemed as though it would meet its end against Kansas, who many believed would be the eventual National champion. No one would have blamed the Rams for giving in and allowing the Jayhawks to take over.

But the Rams weren’t done yet.

The Rams stunned the Jayhawks in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history on Sunday with a 71-61 victory. The Rodriguez-led offense were simply too much for the Jayhawks, who looked out of rhythm all game, as though they didn’t expect to meet the team who showed up against them.

But how could they have? How could Kansas underestimate a team that has already proven to be a legitimate threat in the tournament?

But the Rams have done it. They have made it to the Final Four by winning five games, a feat that no other team in the history of the NCAA tournament can claim to have done. They meet fellow Cinderella, Butler, in the Final Four, and if the tournament has taught us anything so far, it’s not to count Rodriguez and VCU out.

Freshman Pasquale is a breakout star for softball

In the beginning of her first season as a Temple softball player, freshman catcher Stephanie Pasquale has already made a major impact on the team.

Pasquale is batting .295 with 17 RBIs and 12 runs scored in 25 games so far this year. What makes these stats stand out, and what makes Pasquale stand out, is that she has managed to accomplish these numbers in her first collegiate year.

“She’s off to a really good start,” coach Joe DiPietro said. “She’s a left-handed batter and she’s able to take the ball the other way. She has a pretty good idea of what she wants to do in her at-bats. I think she’s having a solid year so far.”

During what DiPietro classifies as a “disappointing” season for the team, Pasquale ranks in the Top 3 on the team in home runs and RBIs. Pasquale has also proven to align herself in a leadership role in that she has called the game from behind home plate in 25 of the 28 games and hits in the cleanup spot in the lineup.

“For a freshman, she’s handling the catching every game and hitting in the four spot very well,” DiPietro said. “She’s been consistent the whole year, and she gives you a girl with a lot of power.”

Despite Pasquale’s prominence, the Owls have struggled this season. They are 13-15 and are tied for second in the Atlantic Ten Conference with a 4-2 in-conference record. In a large part thanks to Pasquale, the Owls have the No. 1 offense in the A-10, but have struggled with pitching, and their record has suffered as a result.

“Offensively, we’re No. 1, but pitching-wise, we’re next to last,” DiPietro said. “Our pitching really hasn’t done a good job, and it’s cost us.”

While individual success has been habitual throughout Pasquale’s career, the lack of success of her team is something new to her. Pasquale was a four-year letter winner at Pompton Lakes High School in New Jersey. She made it to the state finals her freshman year and was named first team All-State her senior year, when she batted .625 for the season.

“You can’t really think about high school that much,” Pasquale said. “I just took [the success I had in high school] and ran. I gave myself motivation to try even harder to succeed in college. I just want to do what I did in high school in college.”

Pasquale was coached in high school by Karyn Hennessy, who Pasquale says has left an indelible mark on her softball career.

“[Hennessy] helped a lot,” Pasquale said. “She would make sure that, if I made mistakes, she would help me. She would coach her point, but I would have to fix it on my own. So I learned how to take care of things on my own.”

Hennessy coached Pasquale for her four years at Pompton, in which they won two state sectional titles and played in one group final and two county finals.

“[Pasquale] was a key component to the successes of her teams over her four years,” Hennessy said. “She was a natural leader and set a phenomenal example for her teammates. She was a catalyst and tremendous threat at the plate offensively and took complete control of the game behind the plate defensively.”

“Quite honestly, [Pasquale] is one of the finest athletes I have ever coached,” Hennessy added. “Our program is a stronger one because of her contributions. At Pompton, we’re all thrilled to see her success continue at the next level.”

In addition to her individual success, Pasquale has proved in both high school and college to be an intelligent player who is willing to learn.

“[Pasquale] is an extremely coachable athlete,” Hennessy said. “She is an unselfish player who has an incredible passion for the game, as well as for her team. Although a natural athlete, her success has not come without hard work.”

“A lot of these kids come in here, and they have a certain way of doing things, which isn’t necessarily the way we want them to do it. And there’s a little bit of a tug-of-war, so to speak, but not with her,” DiPietro said. “She’s been great. She listens to everything we suggest, and she tries to make those adjustments.”

While transitioning her ability to be coached from high school to college has been seamless, Pasquale admits that softball in college does have its challenges.

“Sometimes it’s a little hard, but I have to get used to it,” Pasquale said. “Every day for three hours you have practice. Then catching every game and making sure that your body is healthy and that you take care of yourself.”

“You have to have motivation to push yourself harder to get better every year,” Pasquale added. “I’m learning.”

The softball team only has one senior and the young players, led by Pasquale, are the ones carrying the team. Pasquale’s contributions to the team will only become more vital in the years to come.

“If she continues to progress and mature as a player and understand the college game a little bit better, the sky’s the limit for her,” DiPietro said. “If she stays healthy, she can be one of the better players Temple’s had.”

“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing now – hitting, catching and talking it up, and just being a good teammate overall,” Pasquale said. “It’s not about an individual. It’s about the team.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Spotlight: Matt Howard

Why does Butler still not get the respect they deserve?

The Bulldogs have made it to the NCAA tournament in each of the past four years. They have won at least one game in three of their past four appearances and shocked the world by advancing to the national championship game last year.

You would think their NCAA tournament resume would grant them respect in the college basketball community and elevate them into a higher level of prestige; however Butler got the usual treatment this year.

The Bulldogs were given an eight seed in this year’s tournament after winning their conference tournament in the Horizon league. Senior forward Matt Howard, who averaged almost 17 points and eight rebounds per game this year, was responsible for leading Butler to this success.

Butler was pit against ninth-seeded Old Dominion University in the first round. Despite their recent history of success, the Bulldogs were a popular pick for an upset. However, Howard and company ensured that the Bulldogs would not go quietly.

In the second of the tournament’s first-round games on Thursday, Butler and Old Dominion gave the country one of the event’s most exciting games yet. In a great, back-and-forth game, Butler won on a buzzer beater after Howard put back a missed shot by sophomore center Andrew Smith in the closing seconds of regulation.

"I had no doubt that we were going to win the game," Howard said. "I didn't think we were going to win it that way, but when you've been in those situations, been in those kind of battles and close games, you have confidence that you're going to be able to pull it out."

The Bulldogs had the ball with the score tied and 32 seconds left. They seemingly ran a play for senior guard Shawn Vanzant, but after Vanzant drove right and nothing was there, he threw the ball up towards the front of the net. Smith made a great play by trying to tip the ball in, but it went off the backboard and right into the hands of Howard. Howard finished the play just milliseconds before time expired to give Butler the first-round win.

"A lot of credit has got to go to Andrew, who made a great play to keep it alive," Howard said. "I tried to get it up as quickly as possible, and fortunately we had just enough time."

Howard finished the game with 15 points and five rebounds. But most importantly, he got the two points that counted at the end.

The Bulldogs followed up their exciting game on Thursday with one of the most dramatic and controversial endings to a game in NCAA tournament history.

Butler’s second-round matchup was against number-one seeded Pittsburgh. Butler led for most of the game and had an eight-point lead at half, but the tough-minded Panthers battled back. A pair of Pittsburgh free throws, followed by a Smith free throw with under two minutes left to play gave the Panthers a one-point lead heading into the final minute.

After a Pittsburgh turnover, Butler called a timeout with seven seconds left to set up what was sure to be the final play of the game. Smith drove into the lane and made a layup to give Butler a one-point lead with just three seconds left. The game was over.

Correction: the game was far from over.

On the following inbound play, Pitt got the ball to senior forward Gilbert Brown, who, in every normal situation, would get the ball down court as quickly as possible and take a desperation three-pointer before time expired. And that’s what Brown tried to do, until Bulldogs senior guard Shelvin Mack inexplicably interfered with Brown’s path to the basket and was called for an unbelievable blocking foul with one second left in the game.

Brown went to the line and made his first shot to tie the game. But Brown missed the second, and as Howard went to grab the rebound, Pitt junior forward Nasir Robinson intertwined his arms in Howard’s and was called for a foul with .07 seconds left.

"I was really surprised," Howard said. "I felt his arm come across mine, so I just threw the ball to the rim."

Mack’s all-time stupid foul was topped by an even worse one.

Howard went to the line and made two free throws, Pitt’s last shot fell well short of the basket, and Butler had upset the number-one seeded Pittsburgh in a most climactic fashion.

"You win two games by three points, it's going to be pretty crazy," Howard said

So the Bulldogs have won another two games in the NCAA tournament with Howard leading the way, averaging over 15 points and five rebounds per game. Maybe, if the Bulldogs can make another Cinderella run to the final four, they will finally get the respect they deserve.

Ice Hockey Melts Out West

In its first-ever American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament appearance, the ice hockey team could not win a single game.

The Owls went 0-3 and failed to get past the first round in the ACHA Nationals in San Jose, Calif., last week, losing to Colorado State, William Paterson and, eventually, the National Champion Grand Valley State.

Sophomore forward Joe Pisko led the scoring for the week with two goals. Senior forwards Ryan Frain and Steve Danno also scored for the Owls, as well as junior forwards Chris Johnson and Pat McHugh.

While the first Nationals appearance in Temple ice hockey history is commendable, the Owls were outmatched. They gave up 14 goals and junior goalie Will Neifeld made 119 saves.

The tournament was organized into four pools of four teams that were made up of the Top 16 in the country. The teams played round-robin style from March 15-19, with the top team from each pool advancing to the semi-finals on Friday to set up the championship game Saturday.

Temple was in Pool A and started off the tournament playing Grand Valley State on Tuesday afternoon. Grand Valley State entered the tournament as one of the favorites to win after winning 19 games and being ranked No. 1 in the Central region of ACHA, the most competitive region in the country. The Lakers flexed their muscle in a 5-1 win over the Owls.

The Lakers got off to a quick start by scoring two goals and making Neifeld stop 20 other shots in the first period. They added another goal in the second period and two more in the third before Frain prevented the shutout with a goal in the 10th minute of the third. By the end, Neifeld made 43 saves on 48 shots. The Lakers’ offense was too much for the Owls.

Temple followed up their loss on Tuesday by playing a familiar foe, William Paterson University, on Wednesday morning. William Paterson received an automatic bid to Nationals after winning 25 games in the Southeastern region of ACHA, the same region Temple plays in.

The Owls played the Pioneers twice this season and split the series, 1-1. Again, they found themselves in a hole after the first period as the Pioneers scored two and forced Neifeld to make another 17 saves. Following another Pioneers goal early in the second, the Owls scored back-to-back goals to bring the game within one point, but the pioneers proved to be too much. They added three more goals to complete the 6-3 win.

Johnson, McHugh, and Pisko scored for the Owls and Neifeld made 41 saves.

Despite its tough first two games, Temple put forth a valiant effort against Colorado State on Thursday night. Colorado State entered the tournament on a Regionals bid after winning 22 games in the Western region of the ACHA. Both the Owls and the Rams went winless in their first two games and were eliminated from semi-final competition.

Thursday’s matchup represented a game of pride and a chance for the Owls to get their first win in Nationals history.

But the Owls lost in overtime to the Rams, 3-2, after giving up a game-tying goal with just four seconds left in regulation. Pisko and Danno scored for the Owls and Neifeld made 35 saves.

Grand Valley State went on to beat Michigan State, 6-1, in the finals to capture the National championship.

The Owls finished No. 5 in the ACHA Southeastern region and were an overtime goal away from winning the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association conference for the first time in school history.

Temple ice hockey entered the ACHA Regionals without ever having won a game in the tournament and then won two games to advance to Nationals for the first time in school history. Neifeld won League MVP and Goalie of the Year in the MACHA.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Ice Hockey Earns Berth to ACHA Nationals

Senior Forward
Ryan Frain cheers on his
teammates from the bench.

For the first time in the history of Temple ice hockey, the Owls will compete in the American Collegiate Hockey Association Nationals.
“When the season starts in September – there’s 190 teams,” coach Jerry Roberts said. “And the final weekend in Nationals only has 16 teams. To be a part of those 16 teams … it validates everything we do.”.
The Owls beat Bowling Green, 4-2, on Saturday and Liberty, 2-1, on Sunday to earn a qualifying bid for Nationals at the ACHA Regionals this weekend. Junior forward Taylor Lockhart scored two goals on Saturday and netted the game-winner in the third period on Sunday.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had in my 15 years of hockey,” Lockhart said.
“It’s something very special between these 24-26 guys and the coaching staff,” junior goalie Will Neifeld added. “It’s never been done before. It’s very special, and we’ll never forget it.”                                                              
The ACHA Regionals were held at the Northeast Skate Zone and was a collection of the 3-8 seeds in the ACHA Southeastern division. The top two seeds from the regular season, Florida Gulf Coast and Miami, received automatic bids to Nationals, which will be held in San Jose, Calif.
Regionals were a single-elimination tournament in which the last two teams remaining join the top two seeds from the regular season at Nationals.
“We played phenomenally this weekend,” Roberts said. “Over the past three or four weeks we could just feel the team playing better and better. We felt like we were building up to our best hockey, which is what we got this weekend.”
The Owls were the No. 5 seed and began the tournament against No. 8 Falcons Saturday. The Owls never trailed in the game. Sophomore forward Joe Pisko gave the Owls a 1-0 lead eight minutes into the game on a pass from senior forward Steve Danno.
The first period ended with a tie after a Falcons shorthanded goal, but the Owls re-took the lead six minutes into the second on a sophomore defenseman Matt Benedetto goal dished out by Danno. Lockhart added his two goals to put a bow on the 4-2 win.
Benedetto's epic celebration
after his goal.

“It’s not about two goals. It’s about what you do for 60 minutes,” Lockhart said. “We won as a team. Everything we’ve been doing the past couple weeks, we’ve been doing as a team, as a family.”
Temple played No. 4 Liberty in the Regionals final on Sunday. After a scoreless, penalty-free first period, Liberty took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal with a little less than 14 minutes left in the second period.
The lead held until the second minute of the third period when sophomore forward Nick McMahon scored a rebound goal off a shot by senior forward Ryan Frain. After a tense, back-and-forth 10 minutes of hockey, Lockhart deflected a shot from the point from junior defenseman Andrew Trainor into the net that proved to be the game-winner.
“Trainor controlled the puck at the point,” Lockhart said. “I just got in front of the goalie and tipped it in.”
Neifeld made 32 saves on 33 shots to go along with his 27 saves on Saturday. It was a fitting end to what ended up being an award-winning season – Neifeld was chosen as League Most Valuable Player and Best Goalie for the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association conference.
“[Nationals] means everything for the university, for the city,” Neifeld said. “This is something that’s special.”
“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Lockhart added. “We completed our goal. We’re going to San Jose.”
The ACHA Nationals will take place during the week of March 13-19 in San Jose. Sixteen teams, four from each ACHA conference, compete in pool play with a playoff of the Top 4 teams taking place at the end of the week for the National championship.
Even though Nationals is unchartered territory for Temple, and it is unclear how long this run will last, the team has already come further than any Temple ice hockey team has in history.
“In order to win Nationals you have to win five games in five days,” Roberts said. “The way we play, we have such a deep bench, and we have so many players that can contribute – we’re built for that type of play. We’re built for something like this.”
“We’re not satisfied,” Neifeld added. “It’s not just getting there, we want to get there and win it. It’s going to take efforts like [Regionals] to give us the opportunity to go to San Jose and do it.”

Spotlight: Carmelo Anthony

After nearly a year of rumor-filled drama, the saga of Carmelo Anthony’s future is finally complete.
Last week, Anthony was traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. He, along with forward Amare Stoudemire and point guard Chauncey Billups, now make up another formidable big three to contend in the Eastern Conference.
"I think me and him will have a great time together here alongside each other," Anthony said of Stoudemire at his introductory news conference at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. "It's going to be exciting. Once you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.”
Carmelo Anthony proved to be one of the most coveted talents in the NBA. For the past year, there had been speculation that Anthony wanted to leave the Nuggets and join either the New Jersey Nets or New York Knicks.
Anthony never confirmed nor denied any reports. But the Knicks, Nuggets, and Minnesota Timberwolves executed a 13-player blockbuster three-way trade last week.
The Knicks received Anthony, Billups, Anthony Carter, Shelden Williams, Renaldo Balkman, and Minnesota’s Corey Brewer. They sent Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, and Timofey Mozgov to the Nuggets along with draft picks and cash. The Knicks also sent Eddy Curry and Anthony Randolph to Minnesota for Brewer.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Anthony.
Anthony made his debut for the Knicks at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday night in a 114-108 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. He hit 10 of 25 shots and scored 11 of the Knicks 28 fourth-quarter points. He finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds and proved to his new teammates that he can be clutch down the stretch of games.
"Getting this W meant a lot to me," Anthony said.
It was an impressive performance by Anthony not only because it was his debut, but also because it has been quite a hectic week for Anthony. He flew to New York and passed a physical Tuesday night before playing in front of a sold-out crowd Wednesday.
"I've been working on no sleep," Anthony said after the game.
Even now that the trade has gone through, it is unclear on whether or not Anthony played a role in the matter.
"I don't know. I really can't answer that question,” Anthony said when asked if he considered signing for other teams. “I'm here now. I signed with the Knicks.”