Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mission Accomplished

"Of course, Derek wants the opposite."-Steve from earlier today

Mission accomplished! How does a playoff desperate team go from two early goals up to losing 3-2 on back-to-back shorthanded goals in which essentially one player beat three?

Answer: When you're a New Era (soon to be Error) Ranger against a pathetic team, that's what happens in your own dead building.

Boy. Am I glad I didn't watch it in its entirety. I was glued to a real hockey game which took place up in Kanata, Ontario. And maybe the rematch didn't have the fireworks of the brawl in Buffalo. But it didn't lack passion and certainly had a lot more energy. The two scraps was worth it. One between enforcers Brian McGrattan and Andrew Peters with McGrattan getting the upperhand. And then Adam Mair stepping in for a teammate and dropping'em against Chris Neil. Sure, he lost because it was a mismatch from the start. But he took his lumps and threw'em. And though the Sabres fell behind 4-1 and 5-3, they never quit. It didn't seem to matter how many guys they had out. Somehow, they still rallied to tie it at five before a flukey bounce off a skate went right to Jason Spezza for a power play goal into a vacated net. Even though the Sabres fell short, they nearly tied it at the buzzer on a faceoff but Ray Emery got his pad on it to deal Buffalo the loss.

It's ashame these teams won't do battle again until the second round of the playoffs. And yes. If you're wondering, I fully expect them to have a highly anticipated 2nd round rematch with much at stake. And unlike last year, I believe it will go seven bloody games. Get ready! The real fun starts in May.

And now for a story from today's two JV ACIS playoff games I did. As someone who's helped out at Berkeley Carroll all winter, my passion has been renewed to the high school hoops scene. During the past few days, I've witnessed some really exciting playoff games. One which broke a lot of hearts as the home Varsity team blew a double digit lead in the fourth quarter, losing at the buzzer on a winning trey against a gutsy Packer squad. They never should've lost the other night. But the rookie coach was outclassed and left a couple of his players off the bench in too long and didn't put in one of his key starters. It defied logic. As someone who ran the shot clock and also did the book having watched them all year, I knew they should've won handily. But they never put away the opponent who they swept easily during the regular season.

What was sad about it is as I watched helplessly, I saw it happening and knew they would lose a game they once led by as many as 17. A 43-31 lead soon became a 45-43 deficit thanks to a 14-0 run and a barrage of three's. But when Packer finally went ahead, one of the Berkeley kids came down the drained a trifecta to put them up by one with 47 ticks left. After a defensive stop, one of their seniors was fouled with about 17 to go but missed the front end of a one-on-one. After giving three fouls which left seven seconds on the clock, they allowed a Packer player to come free off the inbounds play. Once he released it from the right wing in front of our table with three seconds to spare, I knew it was going down. As it swished through the bottom of the net, the clock ran out as BC had no timeouts left. Even if they did, they would've needed a miracle anyway. Just like that, their season was over. And for many of the seniors, that meant their HS career. Maybe even basketball one. A heartbreaking way to go out. Especially in a game they had. It was ashame to watch. So what's the irony here? That same night, I also saw the JV eliminated by 12 and then missed the first period of the Devils-Rangers MSG rematch before getting there to see the Blueshirts put a fitting conclusion to my night by predictably blowing it. A day I won't ever forget but sadly for all the wrong reasons.

So, earlier today at the same gym in Park Slope, the JV semis took place. And they didn't disappoint either. The first game was a classic between Friends Seminary and Dwight. Friends had the best team in the league and hadn't lost much. And for most of the game, it showed as they built a double digit lead and looked like they were headed for a sure victory en route to the championship game Monday night at Poly Tech. But a funny thing happened. The Dwight kids kept coming and much like Packer the other night, they never quit. Sensing it, I started to feel that the same kind of finish just might take place. But one player on Friends almost prevented it with a huge basket to put his club up three with under a minute left. And when a Dwight player was assessed an intentional and technical foul, the outcome seemed certain. But one of the things about basketball that has become an issue is free throw shooting. It would loom large here as the Seminary kids proceeded to miss four consecutive shots from the charity stripe to open the door. Even with that, they led 45-41 with 10 seconds to go. How could Dwight win? They used all their timeouts. All Friends had to do was let their opponent score and not foul. But not so fast. These are kids and they make mistakes. And when a Dwight player drove the lane made a layup and was fouled with five seconds remaining, they were alive. After a timeout, almost as if scripted, he missed the shot off the rim, got his own rebound and missed again but the third try was put home to force OT. As the buzzer sounded, the Dwight kids celebrated like they had won. And pretty much there, you knew they would.

The first overtime was back and forth as each team exchanged the lead. But when push came to shove, neither could break away. And when Friends defensive stand drew a miss from Dwight at the buzzer, they were still tied headed to a second OT.

Note: If you are unfamiliar with high school overtime, you get 4:00 on the clock and the fouls go over and each team gets one full timeout. Both teams were shooting in the double bonus in this instance. So any fouls and it was two shots.

The second OT was just as thrilling. First, Friends surged ahead on some solid play from one of their star players. A kid who I believe will be a good Varsity player when he gets elevated next year. I'd say they have three kids who all should be good and make them competitive again next year. Despite a solid effort in front of his buddy New York Knick Renaldo Balkman (yes, I am not making this up as the former first round pick was there watching underneath the basket), he and teammates couldn't pull away from the Dwight kids. They had worked too hard coming back. In fact, before they pushed it to overtime, they hadn't led at any point. But that didn't matter now. They rallied back to tie it. When they got the ball back with time running down, it was their chance to win or lose this one. But as a player drove the lane with three Seminary defenders in the path, this contest seemed destined for a third OT. And it would've been fitting because it was that intensely fought. But as fortune would have it, one of the two referees called a tacky foul on a Friends kid with a couple of seconds left. It was an awful call. Sadly, that decided it as the Dwight player made one of two free throws to put his team up one. Though Friends rebounded and called timeout with 1.4 left, they couldn't setup a miraculous shot instead losing it out of bounds. When Dwight inbounded, it was over.

And so a hard fought game was decided by an atrocious call. Sometimes, I wish officials knew better. My Dad is an official. He tells me sometimes you have to have the guts to make a call. But this wasn't the case here. We're talking about a player going 1-on-3 trying to initiate contact. The defense was pretty good and deserved to get the benefit of the doubt. I was disappointed to see such a great game decided that way. And maybe that's the irony. These types of calls don't just take place in basketball. But in hockey as well. Who wants to see a Stanley Cup decided by a phantom hook or an unintentional Delay of Game penalty? I know I don't. The biggest games with so much on the line need to be decided by the players. Unless it's a blatant foul, there's no way anyone can justify deciding any big game that way. I was disappointed for the Friends Seminary kids and expressed as such to them saying "you were robbed." The good part is they took it well and were good sports, even wishing their victorious opponent good luck in the final. That kind of sportsmanship was nice to see given such tough circumstances. And that's also what I like about the NHL playoffs. You have guys fighting tooth and nail for every inch during a series but when it's over, they congratulate each other. Good stuff!

The second game wasn't as climatic but it did go down to the wire. But Packer's JV held on for a three point win over Staten Island Academy. Packer played a great second half and seemed to have it wrapped up. They led by seven pretty late. But like Friends couldn't make free throws and allowed Academy to have a shot. But two big free throws by one of their big guys put them up three with a few seconds remaining. Academy wasn't able to get a shot and threw it away with a second to spare.

What I loved about these two games and about most of the games I was associated with this winter was how hotly contested they were. But aside from that, I really enjoyed the lively atmosphere. You'd never know it by how little seating room there is at the Berkeley gym but somehow the 50-75 supporters who pack in the few seats and go upstairs by the workout facility make it sound a lot louder. That's what I have always loved about high school sports. The support is great. This can't always be said for the local hockey clubs. If you flipped on MSG tonight, you know what I'm talking about. If you have caught some Devil and Islander home games during this season, ditto. Maybe it has to do with the cost along with the arenas. Or maybe it has to do with the lack of passion during what's too long a season. 82 games is too much. ESPN Mag's E.J. Hradek had it right when he was on with WFAN's Steve Somers earlier. They need to cut down. The battles are too much. It's become an issue. Aside from that, going up against the NBA and baseball during the Spring is retarded. It's time for a change!

So what can I conclude from all this? That while pro sports are great, it just can't compare to HS athletics. Think I'm lying? You should've seen the build up and extensive coverage our local SI76 station gave to the Staten Island High School League tournament recently. People out here are into it. And for myself, being a former Staten Island Tech graduate who saw our basketball teams suck while I attended and when I helped out, seeing them turn it around and get into the PSAL A playoffs for the first time in 19 years was great. A lot can be said about pride. What I like most is that you don't have clueless owners involved or management. All it takes is finding the right coach and athletic director to get a program turned around.

And so, on a night filled with puck, I am most looking forward to Monday's championship games at Poly Tech. If you want to see two good games, be there! The first one starts 3:45 while the Varsity is set for 5:30 PM and features a really good big man for Friends Seminary. Troy Whittington was recently featured on MSG at a game I was at. He is a house down low who can score, rebound and block shots from seemingly nowhere. He'll be attending Williams College next Fall. The talent in this league isn't top tier. But the ball is a very good brand. The best part. It's not costing you anything. Both games should be very good.

And with that, this entry is finally over.

P.S. Rob. Do you realize that if the Islanders had beaten the Devils a couple of times (which means finding a way to score), they'd be right there for the division. Maybe I wasn't so crazy after all. Ted Nolan's bunch has played their asses off without Yashin. As much as it pains me, I hope they make it. They have heart.

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