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Seniors lead the way as Badgers finish perfect at home

February 28, 2011 Comments off

MADISON, Wis. — With 35 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game, Bo Ryan called a timeout. But with a 14-point lead, the Wisconsin head coach’s decision had nothing to do with game strategy.

As the UW student section chanted, “We want J.P.,” Ryan called for his three senior reserves, who entered in place of the Badgers’ three senior starters. One by one, Tim Jarmusz, Keaton Nankivil and Jon Leuer received standing ovations from the crowd.

Walking off the court at the Kohl Center for the last time, Leuer hugged Ryan, as the students had switched to “Thank you, seniors.” Taking a seat on the bench, the three seniors got the opportunity to watch Wisconsin’s final offensive possession of its 78-63 victory over Northwestern.

“It hasn’t really set in yet, I don’t think, for me,” Leuer said. “I definitely have a lot of emotions going. It’s just been an unbelievable four years here at the Kohl Center, and I’m definitely going to miss it.”

Just 22 seconds after they had entered, Wisconsin’s other three seniors were given their moment. Like the three starters, Wquinton Smith, Brett Valentyn and J.P. Gavinski walked off the court, one by one, for the last time.

It will not go down as the best game in the careers of the six seniors, but for the last one they’ll play at home, they were happy to come away with the victory. More often than not, that has been the result at the Kohl Center during their four years.

With a home record of 61-6 over four years, the 2011 senior class finished with a winning percentage of better than 91 percent at the Kohl Center. Overall, the Badgers have gone 97-33 over the same stretch, already making Wisconsin’s current seniors the winningest class in school history.

UW finished 16-0 at home this season, marking just the third time in 80 years the Badgers have gone undefeated at home.

“When we’re at the Kohl Center, we don’t plan on losing,” Leuer said. “Ever. This team did that this year, and I think that’s one of our goals.”

But the final score hardly indicates how close Wisconsin was to suffering its first home loss in nearly a year. With 7:14 remaining in the game, a 3-pointer from John Shurna drew Northwestern within three points at 58-55.

Five minutes later, a rare Jordan Taylor turnover allowed the Wildcats to score twice in just 10 seconds to cut the lead from 11 points to seven with 2:22 to go in the game. On the next trip down the court, Nankivil hit a 3-pointer to put the Badgers back up by 10 points and spark an 8-0 Wisconsin run to close out the game.

While the Wisconsin fans may not have shared his confidence, junior point guard Jordan Taylor said afterward that he never believed the outcome was in doubt.

“I just felt like we were always in control, especially the way Jon was playing,” Taylor said.

With the way the first half had gone for the Badgers, the game looked to be an easy UW victory until the Wildcats made their second-half run. While Northwestern shot well throughout, Wisconsin was even better, especially in the game’s first 20 minutes.

UW scored 43 points in the first half matching the second-highest total for the Badgers in a first half during Big Ten play. Wisconsin’s 65.4 shooting percentage marked the team’s best-shooting first half this season and the team’s best-shooting half overall in Big Ten play this season.

Leading by 13 at the break, the Badgers extended it to a 16-point lead over the first three minutes of the second half on six points from Leuer. From there, however, the game’s momentum switched in Northwestern’s favor.

Fueled by their hot shooting from 3-point range, the Wildcats went on a 20-7 run over a nearly 10-minutes stretch. The run was sparked by a 3-pointer from Michael Thompson and capped by Shurna’s big shot that cut the lead to just three points.

For Ryan and the Badgers, the Wildcats’ run was something they expected.

“When you prepare for them, you talk about those kind of runs,” Ryan said. “You really do. I’ve seen them do that to other teams, and the other team gets down, the other team gets a little disjointed. And they’re going to do that at times. They’re going to go through those streaks.”

But with the Kohl Center crowd behind them as they have been so many times over their four years, the Wisconsin seniors — with a little help from Taylor and freshman guard Josh Gasser — held off Northwestern to ensure their perfect mark at home this season.

Even then, after all 16 home games had been won, Ryan made no mention of it to his team.

“It never was in a conversation that we had,” he said. “All I said after the game was we closed out the home portion of the schedule. Now we still have games to play. But I’ve never talked about it.

“They can read, they listen to their classmates. They know what’s going on. But we’ve never talked about a streak.”

Alvarez should be commended for spring game plan

February 22, 2011 Comments off

Mark your calendars now. This year’s spring football game on April 23 is a can’t-miss event for any Wisconsin fan.

Already a popular event each year, the 2011 version of the spring game promises to be better than ever, especially considering the anticipated competition at quarterback. Credit the philanthropic thinking of UW athletic director Barry Alvarez and head football coach Bret Bielema for the improvement.

For the first time, the UW Athletic Department will charge admission to the event, something Alvarez and Bielema have discussed doing for years. The cost will be $5 per ticket, with all proceeds going to the University of Wisconsin School of Nursing.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the School of Nursing,” said Katharyn May, dean of the School of Nursing. “Fundraising right now is a tough sell, and the nursing school has been working on raising sufficient funding to build a new home for more than a decade.

“The state of Wisconsin needs this nursing school to grow. We’re one of the best in the country, but we do not have any more room. We can’t put any more students in any more classes because we don’t have seats for them.”

Alvarez announced the ticketing plan Monday afternoon at Wisconsin’s weekly head coaches press conference. In doing so, he also shared a couple stories about how the idea came about.

During his time at Iowa under legendary head coach Hayden Fry, the Hawkeyes annual spring game featured free admission, much like its Wisconsin counterpart has for years. Despite no cost, attendance at the event remained low.

But Fry had an idea to get more fans to show up.

“I can remember Hayden saying, ‘You know, if it’s free, people think there’s no value in it. If you just charge $2, we’ll increase the crowd,’” Alvarez said. “Sure enough, that’s what happened.”

Last spring, Iowa drew 23,502 fans for its annual scrimmage, compared to the crowd of 23,567 that watched the Cardinal squad defeat the White, 25-3, at Camp Randall Stadium on the same sunny afternoon. But those numbers still put Wisconsin well behind the leaders nationally, which include a couple Big Ten rivals.

At Nebraska, the 2010 Red-White game was watched by 77,936 fans. In Columbus, despite poor weather, the Buckeyes drew a crowd of 65,223 at Ohio Stadium.

Football is by far the most popular sport in the United States, and the growing attendance for spring football games — which mean precious little in the grand scheme of things — is the perfect example of such popularity. With tickets being in such high demand, it should come as no surprise that so many schools now charge for these annual intrasquad contests.

What is remarkable, however, is the decision of the UW Athletic Department to charge admission without keeping any of the proceeds for itself.

“This is about us being a part of the campus and us supporting campus,” Alvarez said. “We try to be good partners. We get great cooperation on campus, and this is one way for us to give back and say ‘Thank you,’ and also support the campus.”

Now you may be wondering how Alvarez and Bielema decided the game would benefit the School of Nursing, considering how many other programs on campus could be equally deserving. As it turns out, it was a matter of excellent timing.

On the very same day that the two had decided to charge admission and contribute the proceeds to one of the departments at the University of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing held an event with Alvarez in attendance.

In talking with May and a number of others in the nursing program, Alvarez learned of their excitement regarding a capital project that would provide a new home for the School of Nursing and allow it to increase enrollment by 30 percent.

“One of them said to me, ‘So what are you going to do for us, coach?’” Alvarez recalled. “And I said, ‘You know what, I’ve got something for you.’ And so we shared with them what our plan was, (and) they became very excited about it. I think it will be a win-win situation for them and also for us.”

Coming off their most successful season in more than a decade, which saw the Badgers go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2000, it would be safe to assume the annual spring game would see a jump in attendance. Even with a cost of $5 for admission, Wisconsin could expect its biggest crowd yet for the Cardinal-White scrimmage.

That being the case, it also would have been easy for Alvarez to charge the money and take the proceeds for the Athletic Department, which could use some added revenue to keep up with the other major Division I programs in the nation.

Instead, Alvarez and Bielema saw the opportunity to do something bigger than themselves with the spring game. In allowing the School of Nursing to run the event and collect the proceeds, the football program will have a direct hand in furthering the education of some of the university’s best and brightest students, including a number of its athletes.

Despite being in the midst of the greatest nursing shortage in recent history, the School of Nursing has been forced to turn away three students for every one admitted, making it the most competitive program on campus. With the added fundraising now available through the spring football game, enrollment could increase within two years.

If everything goes according to plan, with high attendance at the spring football game and additional funding from the state of Wisconsin, the School of Nursing hopes to break ground this fall, with the new building to open by Fall 2013.

Just how close are they to the necessary funding?

“Within striking distance,” May said. “My job is (to get) $17.3 million, and we are at 13.3 right now. … Nurses do not grow up to become wealthy people by and large, so we are relying on powerful people like Coach Alvarez to help us get the word out.”

Well, now that the word is out, it’s up to Wisconsin fans to come through and uphold their end of the bargain.

Can you spare $5 to support the School of Nursing while spending a beautiful spring afternoon watching a football game with thousands of your closest friends?

If you can, I’ll see you there.

Badgers upset No. 1 Buckeyes … (Again)

February 14, 2011 Comments off

MADISON — The Kohl Center, where streaks come to die.

One of the 17,230 fans packed inside the building on Dayton Street made a sign Saturday with the above statement. Another read “24-1.”

After a hard-fought 40 minutes, they were right on both accounts.

Behind an incredible second-half performance by junior guard Jordan Taylor, one that came when his team needed it most, Wisconsin handed No. 1 Ohio State its first loss, 71-67. With the win, the UW became just the eighth school since 1969-70 to defeat the AP No. 1 team in both football and basketball during the same academic year.

“It’s Madison, Wisconsin,” said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan of the upset. “It’s been said a lot of times about what this campus is like, what this school is all about. … Like I was telling people before, I think the basketball thing is a little different in February with Ohio State being No. 1.

“I don’t know about football rankings, and Ohio State was No. 1, I understand that. I just think in our sport, to be [24-0], you’ve had to win in November, December, January and into February. So, I kind of like ours because it just happened. I loved football’s because I was there at the game. It’s just all good for the school.”

Last time a school upset the nation’s No. 1 team in both sports? Florida, in 2006-07, also over Ohio State.

Heading into the matchup, Keaton Nankivil and the Badgers talked about looking to get off to a hot start and maintain a high level of intensity throughout, something that worked tremendously for the football team back on October 16.

Instead, the basketball version took a little different trajectory.

After a highlight montage from that victory at Camp Randall pumped up the crowd just before tipoff, Wisconsin jumped out to a fairly hot start, building a 12-6 lead through the first 6 1/2 minutes of play. Unlike the football team, however, that hot start did not translate into a dominant wire-to-wire victory.

In fact, the Badgers fell behind by as many as 15 points with 13:21 to play in the second half, stunning the home crowd. The next trip down the floor, trailing 47-32, Taylor hit a floater in the lane that sparked a 15-0 run to tie it.

“You have to give Wisconsin a ton of credit,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “We got that lead and had some great looks, I thought, but it just kind of went in and out on us. It flipped, we started missing shots and they started making shots.”

Just like that, in a matter of four minutes, the Badgers took what looked to be a sure blowout and flipped it into the type of back-and-forth battle it had been throughout the first half. Only, they weren’t done there.

After dropping behind once again by four points with 7:40 to play, the Badgers tied it at 55 just 42 seconds later on a Mike Bruesewitz 3-pointer. Over the next 2 1/2 minutes, Wisconsin reeled off nine unanswered for its largest lead of the game at 62-55.

Now, not only was Ryan’s squad not going to be blown out, it was in control against the nation’s best. And while Taylor’s 21 second-half points stand out, it was a true team effort that got them there.

“When we were down, I don’t think things really changed,” Taylor said. “They made a run, and we knew we had a run in us. … We eventually we started getting stops and started making plays and everybody made a big play. Not one person didn’t.”

Ohio State kept things interesting over the game’s final minutes, but with the raucous crowd behind it, Wisconsin would not relinquish its lead.

Despite their best efforts, William Buford‘s 21 points and Jared Sullinger‘s 19 point and 12 rebounds just weren’t enough. Despite all the talk surrounding Sullinger as a national player of the year candidate, he and Buford could not do it alone.

“Our game plan [was] to kind of limit his touches, because when he gets it down there, he is pretty much unstoppable,” said Jon Leuer of Sullinger. “It is hard to score if you don’t have the ball, and that is what we were trying to do with him.”

Taylor, who struggled in the first half, finished with a game-high 27 points and seven assists against just one turnover. Leuer, Bruesewitz and Josh Gasser joined him in scoring double digits, with 27 of the points between the four coming from beyond the arc.

As the clock ticked to zero, fans stormed the court, mobbing the Badgers for the second time in four months following a thrilling victory over the Buckeyes.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Taylor said. “We were at the football game when they beat Ohio State and a few of us got to go down on the field. Just to be in another court rusher game like that, similar to Duke last year, it was unbelievable.

“It’s something you remember forever.”

 

Carving his own niche

February 11, 2011 Comments off

Photo by Steve Paluch

Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and… Ryan Braun?

While it may seem a bit premature to add Braun to a list with two Hall of Famers, the three do share many similarities. Each was drafted by the Brewers and rose quickly through the team’s farm system. Each, through Braun’s fourth season, was named to the All-Star Game at least three times as a Brewer. In 1982, Yount and Molitor helped lead Milwaukee to its first World Series. Braun brought the Brewers to their next playoff appearance, 26 years later.

Undoubtedly, Braun has a long way to go to reach the level of Yount and Molitor — Hall of Famers and all-time Brewers fans favorites — but it certainly is not too hard to imagine him getting there someday. In just four seasons with the Brewers, Braun has reached a level of personal success and popularity that has not been achieved in Milwaukee since the glory years of Yount, Molitor and Harvey’s Wallbangers in the 1980s.

A quick look at Braun’s accomplishments through the end of 2010 — a down year by his high standards — will show that in just four seasons, Braun has already become one of the best in Brewers history. Let that sink in. Braun, at 27, is already one of the best in franchise history, regardless of how the rest of his career goes. That fact alone assures that if Braun maintains even his 2010 performance level, he could certainly find himself mentioned among the greatest Brewers of all time.

Start with the All-Star selection, an honor Braun even admitted he may not have deserved after the first half of the 2010 season. Whether he did or did not deserve it, Braun was elected to start for the National League for a third straight year. Braun also led all Major League outfielders in voting for the third consecutive season, despite playing in the smallest media market in baseball.

“To me he’s kind of the 2000s version of that trio of great players they had in the eighties, the Robin Yount, Paul Molitor and Jim Gantner trio,” said MLB.com Brewers reporter Adam McCalvy. “They’re home grown, drafted by the Brewers, came through their system quickly, and then played a long time with the team. Who knows how long Braun will be around, but given his contract, it looks like he’ll be a Brewer for, in today’s game, a really long time.”

Despite a prolonged slump in the middle of the season, Braun rebounded late last season to add some postseason hardware to his trophy case. Braun earned another Silver Slugger Award, his third straight, joining Cecil Cooper as the only player in franchise history to achieve such an accomplishment. Yount is the only other Brewers hitter to win the award three times, which he did over the course of his 20-year career.

Despite hitting a career-low 25 home runs in 2010, Braun also became the first player in Brewers history with 20 or more home runs in each of his first four season. Not bad. Especially considering Braun has more of a gap-to-gap approach than most sluggers.Braun also joined Richie Sexson and Prince Fielder as the only Brewers with 100 or more RBIs in three consecutive seasons, while becoming the second player in club history to post back-to-back 100-RBI, 100-run seasons, another mark previously achieved only by Cooper.

All that, in what was easily his worst statistical season in the Major Leagues.

In 2007, Braun exploded onto the scene in Milwaukee, belting 34 home runs and tallying 97 RBIs, despite not being called up until May and playing just 113 games. Braun also batted a career-best .324 in his rookie season, with a 1.004 OPS. Despite playing less-than-stellar defense at third base, Braun picked up the National League Rookie of the Year award, while even garnering a few votes in the NL MVP race.

By comparison, neither Yount nor Molitor were named rookie of the year in their first seasons with the Brewers, though Molitor did finish second in 1978.

Starting at a white-hot pace that even the best MLB hitters would struggle to maintain, Braun answered with an equally impressive season in 2008. Some struggles were evident, though. While playing in 38 more games than his rookie season, he added only three home runs and nine RBI to his rookie totals, and his batting average went down. But Braun finished third in the NL MVP balloting after helping lead the Brewers to the playoffs. While he’s still just heading into his fifth season in the big leagues, Braun’s numbers put him among the greatest Brewers off all time.

“It’s maybe a stretch because you’re talking about two Hall of Famers with Yount and Molitor, but I kind of think with the way the fans have embraced him, and the way his career has gone so far, there’s some similarities there,” McCalvy said. “The bottom line is that he’s really good, and if you’re looking at comparisons in the history of the team, it’s hard to not go back to those types of players.”

Braun’s career highs in home runs (37) and RBI (114) are equal to or better than those of Yount and Molitor. His 1.004 OPS  in 113 games as a rookie was better than any in the two Hall of Famers’ combined 41 seasons, though Molitor did post a 1.003 in 1987 over 118 games.

If he can maintain the necessary pace to keep his name in the discussion with players like Yount and Molitor, Braun will go down as one of the all-time fan favorites in franchise history as well. His popularity is impossible to miss at Brewers games, as the team store is filled with No. 8 jerseys and t-shirts, while fans and even the kids of some Brewers teammates walk around with ‘Braun’ on their backs.

Of course, if a Brewers fan is not wearing No. 8, there’s a good chance their shirt or jersey has a No. 4 or No. 19 on it.

Ryan Braun, the playmaker

With the numbers he’s put up over the years, you could put together quite the highlight reel featuring Braun and only Braun. In 2010 alone, he had a diving catch in the All-Star Game, climbed the wall to bring one back in September at San Francisco, hit a walk-off single against the Pirates in early July and had a two-homer performance in the home finale against the Marlins, just to name a few.

Braun’s biggest moments to date came in just his second season, however, with the Brewers in the middle of the wild card race. In a must-win situation on September 25, with the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 10th, Braun blasted a walk-off grand slam off the Pirates’ Jesse Chavez. The win kept the Brewers and Mets tied for the wild card lead after New York had enjoyed its own walk-off victory earlier in the day.

Just days later, Braun had what remains to date as the defining moment of his young career.

With two out in the bottom of the eighth, the game tied 1-1, and runner on first, Braun stepped into the kind of moment most players can only dream of. As Chicago reliever Bob Howry delivered a 93-mph fastball toward the inner half of the plate, Braun’s eyes lit up. Howry’s pitch was a mistake, and Braun made him pay for it, blasting a tie-breaking, two-run home run to help the Brewers defeat the Cubs and clinch the wild card for their first playoff birth since 1982.

From the moment the ball jumped off Braun’s bat, it was clear that it was gone. Braun knew it, as did Howry, the 45,299 in attendance, and the thousands watching at home. All the Brewers had to do then was hold on and wait for the Mets to lose two hours later. Once they checked both those items off the list, the Brewers were set to play meaningful baseball games in October for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president.

“It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s difficult to describe,” Braun said afterward. “The grand slam the other night, that was pretty special, but this one was pretty meaningful.”

With those two home runs, and the role he played in leading the Brewers back to the postseason for the first time in 26 years, Braun — in just his first two years — firmly established himself in franchise history.

But does all that, along with his status as a fan favorite under contract for five more seasons, make Braun the face of the Milwaukee Brewers franchise?

“Right now he is,” says Trenni Kusnierek, a reporter for Milwaukee’s 540 ESPN Radio. “They smartly inked him to a really, really cheap — which is kind of terrible when you sign for $40 million — major league deal. He is in Milwaukee. He’s got restaurants here; he’s the guy that’s on all the AirTran billboards… when you think now of the star in the middle of that lineup, you think of Ryan Braun.”

While he came up to the Majors after fellow fan favorite Fielder, the connection between Braun and Brewers fans is unmistakable, and it’s something that’s never quite been the same case as far as Fielder is concerned. With Ben Sheets no longer a part of the organization, Braun has supplanted the former Olympic gold-medal winning ace as the face of the Brewers franchise.

What’s more, with the Brewers as a better team today, it seems Braun is even more popular than Sheets, who played for years on sub-.500 ballclubs in Milwaukee.

Boosted by the Brewers’ success, Braun’s popularity has soared, as he has been emblematic of the Brewers franchise as a whole. Braun’s rapid rise through the ranks and finally to the Major Leagues in May 2007 mirrored the rise of the franchise. Just as Braun impressed in 2007, but did not play a full season, the Brewers led the NL Central for an extended period before eventually coming up just short behind the Cubs.

In 2008, Braun was with the team for a full season, putting together an MVP-caliber performance in leading the Brewers, who finally got over the hump and reached the playoffs again. And don’t forget that home run in September.

“That was one of the greatest hits in Brewers history,” McCalvy said. “It’s right up there with the Easter Sunday home run and Cecil Cooper’s game winner in Game 5 of the 1982 World Series.”

After the thrilling 2008 season, Braun and the Brewers took a step back in 2009, and yet another in 2010.

But with the recent additions of right-handers Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum from Kansas City and Toronto, respectively, Braun and the Brewers fanbase are excited about the potential for the 2011 season. And rightfully so.

“Excited would be a severe understatement,” Braun said following the Brewers’ trade for Greinke. “It just shows the players, the fans, once again the commitment to winning from our ownership and management. It’s really exciting. We just got one of the best players in baseball and I can’t wait to get started.”

Based on all the excitement surrounding Greinke’s arrival in Milwaukee, though, the Brewers left fielder may have some competition for the team’s most popular player. Greinke has certainly given him a run for his money so far in the team store. Of course, Braun’s connection to the fanbase goes well beyond his on-field performance.

Face of the franchise

For most, the cold and snow that come along with a Wisconsin winter provide excellent reasons to head south to warmer climates. In early December this off-season, Braun did just the opposite.

Trading 70-degree weather for temperatures just below freezing, the Los Angeles native spent several days in the Dairy State. Braun was in southeastern Wisconsin to promote Limelite, a new energy drink, while also partaking in the Lake Geneva holiday festivities.

Since signing a seven-year contract extension — one that should keep him in a Brewers uniform through the 2015 season — Braun has established himself as far more than a baseball player. Braun has developed and marketed his own personal brand, which includes the clothing line Remetee and two local restaurants, Ryan Braun’s Waterfront in Milwaukee and Ryan Braun’s Tavern and Grill in Lake Geneva.

On December 5, as part of his ongoing involvement in the Lake Geneva community, Braun served as the grand marshal of the 35th annual Great Electric Children’s Christmas Parade. Following the early evening parade, Braun held an appearance at his restaurant, signing autographs for fans.

Braun’s affinity for the Lake Geneva area is something that has developed over his years with the Brewers. The left fielder has spent many an off-day in the quiet community less than an hour southwest of Milwaukee. Because of his love for the popular tourist destination, Lake Geneva was a no-brainer location for Braun’s second restaurant.

When the restaurant opened in late June, the fan turnout was overwhelming. Fans traveled near and far to catch a glimpse of Braun, take a photograph with him, or even get the three-time All-Star’s autograph. One incredibly dedicated family drove more than 10 hours from their Michigan home for the event.

While the outpouring of support for his restaurant opening was a surprise to him, Braun’s popularity was clearly on display throughout the night, with requests for autographs and photos seemingly never ending. After arriving around 7:30 p.m., to large crowds waiting both inside and out, Braun finally was seated with his private party for a quiet meal nearly two hours later.

“This is far more people than I expected to see come out here tonight. I was expecting more of a low-key, quiet, private gathering. But it’s great, I’m really impressed,” Braun said after dinner. “The community here in Lake Geneva is great. I’ve been here a lot, but I’ve never really met many of the people who live in the area. They’ve all been very nice and given a lot of feedback, both about the Brewers and the restaurant.”

It’s not hard to figure out what’s behind Braun’s incredible popularity among Brewers fans. Since coming up in May 2007, he’s been, without question, the club’s most consistent hitter, while also providing a number of hugely memorable moments through his first four seasons. Another thing that has drawn Brewers fans to Braun — while simultaneously turning away opposing clubs, announcers and fans — is his unwavering confidence, something that occasionally borders on cockiness.

Some may view Braun as cocky or see his demeanor as an issue, but it’s something that certainly can be a benefit to Braun, especially with a grueling six-month, 162-game schedule. Everyone goes through slumps, but it’s how you react to them that determines how successful you’ll be.

Staking his claim

It’s 4:45 p.m., on Aug. 2, 2010. With his team sitting nine games under .500 and 11 games behind the NL Central-leading Reds, Braun stands by his locker in the tiny visitor’s clubhouse at Wrigley Field, fielding questions about his recent slump.

As he speaks, his batting average is a very un-Braun-like .274, and he has just 16 home runs, 64 RBI and a .787 OPS through 104 games. After jumping out to a hot start early, Braun has batted just .236 with 10 homers, 36 RBI and an OPS of .671 since being hit on the elbow by a Tommy Hanson fastball on May 10.

Over the month of July — the same month in which he was named to a third straight All-Star Game — Braun’s struggles were even greater, as his batting average was just .200 with five home runs, 15 RBIs and a .615 OPS in 26 games. Despite this, however, Braun still had a relaxed, cool confidence about him. One that really made you believe he was not worried about what his numbers were so far.

“I just try to move on, man,” Braun said. “There’s no reason to dwell on the past, dwell on what’s negative. For me, I try to stay positive, stay optimistic and move forward. I can’t go back and get an extra 20 hits or 10 home runs or drive in an extra 30 runs.

“Of course it wears on you. Everybody says it doesn’t, but it’s impossible for it not to. Obviously, I understand where I’m at. Obviously, I’m disappointed in my performance to this point. But I can’t go back. I can’t rewind time to two months ago and play better.”

No, he certainly could not do any of those things. But if he could have, his numbers would have looked a lot more standard. Add those 20 hits, 10 home runs and 30 RBIs, and see what you get. It’s a Braun with a .298 batting average, 26 home runs and 94 RBI.

Through 104 games the previous season, Braun hit .318 with 22 home runs and 74 RBI. In 2008, he had hit at a .303 clip with 29 homers and 81 RBI. As a rookie, Braun had a .322 average through the same number of games with 31 home runs and 85 RBI. A quick look at the stats show his power numbers dropping year-to-year, while his batting average remained fairly unchanged until 2010.

But the important numbers are not the ones through 104 games. No, all anyone truly will look at down the road are Braun’s numbers over the course of the entire season. As Braun stood there that day, he knew there was more than enough time to improve upon those.

“My whole thing is that I have two months left,” he said. “If I finish strong, there’s no reason I can’t have just as good a season I had last year. There’s no reason I can’t have my best season if I finish great this year. There’s no reason for me to reflect until the end of the season.

“At the end of this year, I’ll look back and realize that this was a tremendous learning experience. Hopefully, I’ll become a better player and a better person because of it. But when you’re going through it, it’s definitely not fun.”

As it turns out, Braun would not have to wait two months for things to improve. That very same night, he batted 5-for-7, slapping five singles from gap to gap, while scoring three runs and driving in two more as the Brewers embarrassed the host Cubs, 18-1. The next day, Braun was 3-for-4, and then 1-for-3 in the series finale, giving him a 9-for-14 mark with two RBIs and four runs over the series.

If you were to reflect after the season, Braun’s numbers would be excellent by most standards. But when you average more than 34 home runs and 105 RBIs a season while hitting at a .308 clip over your first three years in the big leagues, you set a pretty high standard for yourself, and everyone else’s expectations are raised as well. Even so, Braun’s slash line of .304/.365/.501 was down from the past, but still very respectable.

Braun batted .364 over his final 55 games with nine home runs and 35 RBI to boost his numbers, but his OPS of .866 was still a career-low. Still, his 25-home run, 103-RBI season earned him 19 points in the NL MVP balloting, good for 15th out of 25 players listed on ballots in 2010.

But what caused the down numbers for Braun?

He often spoke of facing adversity, though he never truly clarified what he was referring to. The struggles were the first prolonged slump of Braun’s career, and all indications would point to injuries being the cause of such struggles. His numbers dropped off noticeably from early May, when he was hit on the elbow with a pitch, until he snapped out of the slump in August.

Yet, the Brewers slugger would never acknowledge any injury as the reason for his struggles. Instead, he just referred to dealing with unspecified adversity. Fortunately for Braun, the Brewers and their fans, his late-season hot streak provided some assurance the “real” Braun could return for the 2011 season.

In fact, a “down” year in 2010 is no reason to believe Braun won’t be better than ever in 2011. After all, he’ll need to make up some lost ground to reach Yount and Molitor.

Ready to upset No. 1 Ohio State

February 11, 2011 Comments off

MADISON – Watching from the packed and highly energized stands at Camp Randall Stadium, one play in particular jumped out at Keaton Nankivil during the Oct. 16 football game between No. 18 Wisconsin and No. 1 Ohio State.

It’s a play that stood out to everyone else, too, as David Gilreath‘s 97-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff set the tone for the Badgers’ 31-18 upset and was voted play of the year by UW fans.

“Gilreath returning the kickoff, to me shows right off the bat they’re ready to play,” Nankivil said. “They’re not going to back down from anybody and they kind of made that first move. Secondly, the intensity throughout the entire game. I don’t think Wisconsin in that game really let up or gave Ohio State a chance to keep chipping away at it.”

Nankivil was joined at that memorable victory by each of his teammates, and they all got a great lesson in stepping up to a challenge.

When they host No. 1 Ohio State tomorrow at the Kohl Center, the Wisconsin basketball team will have a chance to show its ability to rise to the occasion as well.

To be successful, they’ll likely need to do the two things that most impressed Nankivil about the football team in that upset.

“In a little different fashion,” Nankivil said. “But those are two important things to what we can do against Ohio State as far as hopefully making that first move and hopefully keeping the intensity high. I think those are two things that would really help us out.”

Of course, head coach Bo Ryan‘s players are no strangers to big games, either. Just last season, Wisconsin – unranked at the time – knocked off No. 6 Duke, handing the Blue Devils their first-ever loss in the 10-year history of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

In that game, much like the football team did against Ohio State in October, the Badgers jumped out to a hot start with an early 19-9 lead and never let up. In fact, UW never trailed against Duke en route to the thrilling 73-69 victory.

For senior forward Jon Leuer, that hot start is exactly what sticks out in his mind about the big nonconference victory.

“We got off to a great start and we were able to knock some shots down early,” Leuer said. “Against a team like Ohio State, you can’t get in a hole, otherwise it’s tough to dig your way out. That’s the main thing is just to get off to a good start. But if you don’t, you have to be able to handle that adversity and climb back from it.”

Typically, the mentality heading into a big game such as Saturday’s is one of treating it like any other game. Ryan’s team does its best to maintain the same approach before and after each game, so as to avoid getting to high on any win and too low and any loss.

That being the case, the Badgers still recognize the opportunity presented by the matchup against the top-ranked team in the nation.

“Any time you get the No. 1 that’s kind of a once in a career type of thing,” junior guard Jordan Taylor said. “I don’t think a lot of guys get to play against the No. 1 team in the country, especially at home. I expect it to be fun, and loud, and we’ll be ready to go.”

With the opportunity comes the challenge, and the Buckeyes certainly provide a formidable one for Wisconsin.

In order to come away with the big victory, the Badgers will need to effectively limit freshman Jared Sullinger, a national player of the year candidate, while being sure not to forget about guys like William Buford, Aaron Craft, David Lighty and Jon Diebler.

Even if they can do all that, things will not come easily on the offensive end, either. Ohio State’s length and athleticism could cause plenty of problems for Wisconsin.

And finally, there’s that unbeatable factor, as OSU enters the matchup with a flawless 24-0 record. But that should only serve to further motivate the Badgers.

“Nobody else has been able to beat them, and we’d be the only team to have proven that we can beat them,” Leuer said. “So there’s a little extra incentive, but any time you step on the court you have the same motivations. You’re just hungry and you want to win, and that’s how we’re going to play.”

 

Lombardi trophy returns home to Titletown

February 7, 2011 Comments off

Photo by Benny Sieu

On the NFL’s biggest stage, its smallest city was victorious.

It was a victory that was three years in the making, dating back to when the Packers chose to go with Aaron Rodgers as their starter in 2008. That summer, they set the ball in motion for a return to glory.

In front of 103,219 fans — some 2,000 more than the population of Green Bay — Rodgers sealed the deal Sunday in Dallas. The quarterback, who replaced longtime fan favorite Brett Favre three years ago, led the Packers past the Steelers, 31-25, to claim Super Bowl XLV.

Even better, he won an honor, Super Bowl MVP, which Favre never did.

“It’s what I dreamt about as a little kid watching Joe Montana and Steve Young,” Rodgers told the Associated Press, “and we just won the Super Bowl.”

The MVP trophy wasn’t the only hardware Rodgers took home Sunday, either. Finally, after three years of putting an invisible one around his waist, Rodgers got his championship belt.

Since becoming a starter, Rodgers’ signature touchdown celebration has been “the championship belt.” After the Super Bowl victory, with the Vince Lombardi trophy held high in his left hand, Rodgers had a replica WWE championship belt over his right shoulder.

Rodgers was more than deserving of MVP honors for his efforts both on the sport’s biggest stage against the Steelers, and throughout the Packers’ impressive run through the playoffs. Behind his nine playoff touchdown passes Green Bay became the first sixth-seeded NFC champion, and as Rodgers added three more Sunday night, the Packers claimed their fourth Super Bowl victory and record 13th NFL championship.

And for the first time in 14 years, the Vince Lombardi trophy is headed home to Green Bay.

“I’m just so very, very proud of these guys on this team,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said during the trophy presentation. “They stood up when everybody thought they were down, they never quit trying, they never quit believing. This is a tough business, but I’m very, very proud of this team.”

Early on, it was all Packers as Rodgers found Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings for touchdown passes of 29 and 21 yards, and free safety Nick Collins took an errant Ben Roethlisberger pass 37 yards for the score. But just as its road to the Super Bowl wasn’t easy, Green Bay would have to fight through some more adversity to come out on top.

Shortly before the end of the first half, Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson went out with a collarbone injury and would not return. Before his departure, the Steelers had managed just a field goal through nearly two quarters, but with Woodson sidelined, Roethlisberger led back-to-back touchdown drives on their next two possessions.

As if losing Woodson weren’t enough, the Packers offense would play the second half without veteran wide receiver Donald Driver as well, who left with an ankle injury.

“We’ve been a team that’s overcome adversity all year,” Jennings said. “Our head captain goes down, emotional in the locker room. Our No. 1 receiver goes down, more emotions are going, flying in the locker room.

“But we find a way to bottle it up and exert it all out here on the field.”

Having just seen their lead cut from 21-3 to just four points by an 8-yard Rashard Mendenhall touchdown, the Packers battled through a tough third quarter to keep the Steelers at bay.

While punting away three straight times themselves, the Packers forced the Steelers into a missed field goal from 52 yards, a punt, and finally, on the first play of the fourth quarter, a turnover in their next three defensive possessions.

With the Steelers facing 2nd-and-2 at the Green Bay 36-yard line, Mendenhall was stopped in the backfield by Clay Matthews and the helmet of defensive end Ryan Pickett popped the ball loose. Linebacker Desmond Bishop recovered the fumble, setting up yet another Rodgers to Jennings touchdown connection.

Eight plays after starting at their own 45-yard line, Rodgers hit Jennings over the middle, who withstood a big hit from Troy Palamalu as he crossed the goal line for the score.

“It’s a great day to be great baby,” Jennings said. “To God be the glory.”

Jennings’ second touchdown of the game would prove to be enough for the win, but less than five minutes later the Steelers made things interesting as Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace for a 25-yard touchdown and followed it with a perfectly executed pitch to Antwaan Randle El for the two-point conversion.

With 7:34 to play in Super Bowl XLV, the Packers’ lead was just three points. And two plays into the next drive, Green Bay faced 3rd-and-10 at their own 25-yard line, on the brink of letting the Super Bowl slip away.

Instead, it was a defining moment for Rodgers, who delivered perhaps his best pass of the night to Jennings, a 31-yard completion that not only kept the drive alive, but put the Packers in Steelers territory and within striking distance of the end zone.

They would be forced to settle for a field goal, but Rodgers had done his part.

“That was a big one,” Rodgers said of the 31-yard strike. “I wish we could have finished it off there, but I’ve got to give credit to our defense. This is a great group of men that we put together here. A lot of character, we’ve been through a lot together, and it’s just great to be able to share it with them.”

Thanks to the defense, which forced Roethlisberger to turn it over on downs with 49 seconds to play, Rodgers would take the field one more time.

In the victory formation.

“You play to be world champions,” Matthews, who presented Rodgers with the belt, told the AP, “and that’s what we are today.”

Evans puts on show in victory over Boilermakers

February 3, 2011 Comments off

MADISON — As usual, Jon Leuer and Jordan Taylor dominated the Badgers’ stat sheet Tuesday night against the Boilermakers.

But on a night when a blizzard turned the University of Wisconsin campus into a snow globe, it was Wisconsin’s lone Arizona native that stole the spotlight in the 66-59 victory over Purdue.

Sophomore swingman Ryan Evans delivered by far his best performance of the season, and one that ranks right up there among the best in his young career.

Something seemed to spark Evans on the night, as he continued to improve as the game went along. When asked about it, he attributed his energy to teammate Wquinton Smith and UW Chancellor Biddy Martin.

“It’s been a rough year for me,” Evans said. “But [my coaches and teammates] continuing to believe in me, I knew that something had to get me going. I think one of the big things in the second half was Q — Q got in a little toss up with [Lewis] Jackson — and Biddy, I don’t know if Biddy’s in here but Biddy announcing that we don’t have school tomorrow, that got the fans going some.

“It felt real good, and hopefully I just can continue.”

Evans shot 5-of-9 on the night for 10 points — his fifth career double-digit performance and first of the season — while grabbing one rebound and one steal. But the numbers on the box score hardly do Evans’ performance justice.

After scoring four points in nine first-half minutes, Evans hit three of the biggest shots of the night in the second half.

With his team trailing by six with 10 minutes to go, Evans slammed home a lob from Taylor, electrifying the crowd and completely changing the momentum of the game. But that dunk was only the beginning.

“Any time you can get a guy who can get the crowd off its feet like Ryan can — that dunk was big,” Taylor said. “It was probably almost perfect timing. It couldn’t get any better than that, it got the crowd back into it.”

With the crowd back behind them, the Badgers battled the Boilermakers in a back-and-forth game over the final 10 minutes, with a handful of plays by Evans putting Wisconsin over the top.

In the final minute, as UW trailed by one following a layup by Purdue guard D.J. Byrd, Evans got the ball just inside the lane and without hesitation, pulled up for the two-point jumper. As it went through with 50 seconds remaining, Evans gave the Badgers the lead back, and one they would not relinquish.

“Those are the shots that he can hit,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. “That’s a very high percentage shot for him. So it wasn’t a surprise. If you look at the baskets he made last year, those are the types of shots that he shoots a very high percentage on.

“Looks good coming through the bottom of the net, because that means it makes the scoreboard move.”

With two big second half shots to his credit, Evans had more than done his part, especially considering he entered the game averaging just 2.7 points per game on the year and 0.8 points per contest in Big Ten play. But he still was not done.

After a Josh Gasser free throw gave Wisconsin a four-point lead with 31 seconds to play, Evans took the ball away from E’Twaun Moore on the other end. Evans’ steal set up a pair of Taylor free throws, which all but sealed the deal.

Finally, in a fitting end that he could not have scripted better himself, Evans delivered the game’s final points to give the Badgers the 66-59 victory.

Following a long rebound off a Moore missed three, Taylor found Evans streaking to the basket all alone. Once again, the crowd erupted as Evans threw down an emphatic breakaway dunk.

“We’ve been talking all year round about how we have guys that people might not think twice about just because they might not be the big names,” Taylor said. “Ryan, we’ve been saying what he can give to this team all year long. It was just a little show tonight, he can probably even add from there.”