Mestdagh’s efforts salvage weekend

by Tony Phifer on November 22, 2010

Wrapping up the week before I wrap up some leftovers…

Well, the football season mercifully came to an end, with the Rams losing 44-0 to Wyoming in the Border War. If there’s anything more positive to say than that, please let me know.

The women’s basketball team, however, notched its first win of the season with a nice road victory, so there was something to smile about. And the women’s swimming team notched a couple of solid finishes, so the weekend was not a total bust. Besides, turkey and pie are just around the corner…how can you not smile about that?

Football – I’m looking for something – anything – positive that came out of that game but my search has been futile. As a result, a once-promising end-of-season push ended with a thud and a second consecutive 3-9 record.

The good news is that most of this team is back, including quarterback Pete Thomas and linebacker Mychal Sisson, who will be the faces of the program. That bad news is that the Rams were outscored 93-10 over their final two games and have many, many questions to address in the offseason.

Next up – The offseason. Recruiting. Spring practice. Summer workouts. And, hopefully, a much better 2011.

Women’s basketball – The Rams (1-2) closed a tough road trip with a 66-61 win over North Dakota State after losing 63-52 Thursday at No. 16 Florida State. Junior Kim Mestdagh scored a career-best 32 points, hitting eight 3-pointers in the process, to lead the Rams past North Dakota State.

Next up – The Rams will shoot for the first home win at 7 p.m. Tuesday when they host Denver. They then host their own Coors Rocky Mountain Invitational, playing Texas Southern at 2:30 p.m. Friday and Texas A&M Corpus Christi at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Women’s swimming – Coach John Mattos split his team, with several swimmers competing in the Arena Invitational at Long Beach State and the rest staying home for the CSU Invite. Jennifer Lamb had the best overall performance, finishing seventh in the 1,650-yard freestyle in Long Beach, while Michelle Price was 19th in the 200 backstroke.

Next up – The Rams get a couple of weeks off before hosting Northern Colorado on Dec. 11.

Final thought – The CSU volleyball team won yet another Mountain West Conference title Saturday without even stepping on the court. The Rams (24-3, 13-1) had clinched a share of the title Thursday with a three-game sweep of Wyoming, but won the crown outright Saturday when BYU upset second-place New Mexico, 3-1.

The Rams close out the regular season this week with matches against Utah (7 p.m. Wednesday) and BYU (7 p.m. Friday). These matches mark the last time CSU will play these longtime rivals before they go their separate ways – Utah to the Pac-12 and BYU to the West Coast Conference.      

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Time for the Rams to look in the mirror

by Tony Phifer on November 18, 2010

The team played crappy…blame the coach.

That’s a typical leap among sports fans, and in many cases, it has merit. After all, the coach – particularly on the college and professional levels – is paid a significant salary to produce results. And if those results are, well, crappy, the coach MUST be to blame…right?

Knowing that, it was not surprising that many Colorado State fans jumped all over Rams coacFootball v. Sacramento State University at Hughes Stadium. CSU Won 23-20.h Steve Fairchild and his staff following last week’s 49-10 loss to BYU. The Rams were, in almost every way, awful, and fans were more than justified in heading for the exits long before the final cannon blast. It was one of the most disheartening efforts I’ve ever seen by a CSU team.

That said, and knowing what I do about college athletics after 28 years in the newspaper business, I’m not going to pile on the coaches. Sure, they have to shoulder the blame because their contracts say they must. But in this case, I think a good portion of the blame has to got to the players.

Here’s why: What I witnessed Saturday was a classic example of one team (BYU) coming out of the gates intent on setting the tone for the game by hitting the other team (CSU) with everything they had in the opening minutes. The Cougars not only scored a touchdown on their first drive with a trick play, they physically beat up with Rams with aggressive tackling and fight-to-the-whistle aggression.

Sadly, the Rams never responded to this physical challenge. Instead, they played more passively as the game progressed, which inspired the Cougars to get even more aggressive. The result was a 35-0 halftime advantage for the Cougars, who never looked back.

Now, I can guarantee you that CSU’s coaches were doing everything in their power to get the Rams to wake up and respond to the Cougars with physical play of their own. A few Rams did so, but for the most part, they looked flat and uninterested as BYU piled on the points. The effort was eerily similar to that of the Denver Broncos a couple of games ago when the Oakland Raiders took them apart 59-14.

At some point in every game, an athlete has to take responsibility for his own play. The greatest, most impassioned speech in the history of athletics will have no impact if the athletes haven’t mentally prepared themselves for the challenge at hand. For some reason, very few Rams had themselves ready to play that day.

As a result, the Rams head into their season finale Saturday against Border War rival Wyoming in great danger of losing to a bad team and finishing 3-9 for the second consecutive season.

I know how coaches operate, and I can guarantee you that Wyoming’s coaches lit up when watching film of the CSU-BYU game. They saw the uninspired play and the lack of a response to BYU’s physical challenge, and they are now telling their players what they saw. “These guys are soft,” they will say. “If we come out and hit them in the mouth early, they will wither away and we will dominate.”

So, the challenge ahead of the Rams is simple: get yourselves mentally prepared for a battle. The Pokes, who are winless in the Mountain West Conference, are desperate for a victory and would love nothing better than to close their season with a rout of their hated rivals.

One of the hallmarks of the great CSU teams in the 1990s was that they set the tone, both physically and mentally, in pretty much every game they played. Other teams knew they were in for 60 minutes of in-your-face football, and most of them folded.

If the Rams want to take a step toward greatness, they must take on that personality. Otherwise, we haven’t seen the last of those 49-10 games.    

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Men’s basketball makes up for woeful weekend

by Tony Phifer on November 15, 2010

All I’ve got to say after this past weekend is THANK GOODNESS FOR MEN’S BASKETBALL!!!! The Ram hoopers salvaged an otherwise dismal weekend for CSU athletics, ripping Arkansas-Pine Bluff and looking good in doing so.

Unfortunately, that one win didn’t exactly make up for a crushing 49-10 loss to BYU in football, a 26-point loss in women’s basketball, a cross-country flop and the first conference loss for the volleyball team. But, hey, I’m grateful to Tim Miles’ crew (and the dance-crazed mens_bb_6_medpep band director…I’ll provide more about him in the coming weeks) for salvaging something positive from the weekend.

Football – The Rams came into their final scheduled meeting with BYU – the Cougars are going independent next year – believing they had a legitimate chance to snatch their first victory since 2003 in the long series. Instead, they crumbled in every way and were humbled in their home finale before a very cold and very unhappy crowd.

Really, it’s hard to find any positives. I felt badly for the seniors playing their final home game, but many of them committed the blunders that helped fuel BYU’s rout. It was, in every way, ugly.

Next up – The Rams (3-8, 2-5) get a final shot to improve on last year’s 3-9 season when they head north to Laramie for a noon Saturday game against Border War rival Wyoming. The Pokes (2-9, 0-7)already have clinched last place in the Mountain West Conference but would love to beat the Rams and retain the Bronze Boot.

Volleyball – The Rams saw their 13-match winning streak snapped at New Mexico, losing to the second-place Lobos in straight sets. CSU (23-3, 12-1) rebounded Saturday, however, to beat TCU in three sets at Fort Worth, Texas. As a result, the Rams need just one more win in their final three matches to clinch no worse than a tie for the MWC title.

Next up – The Rams hit the road for their version of the Border War, playing at Wyoming at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Men’s basketball – The Rams got off to a bit of a slow start before completely overwhelming Arkansas-Pine Bluff 82-51 in their season-opening game. Senior forward Andy Ogide led the way with 19 points and eight rebounds, while junior forward Will Bell added 14 points and six rebounds off the bench in his CSU debut.

Next up – The Rams play Front Range rival Denver at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Women’s basketball – The Rams were overpowered by visiting Northern Iowa on Friday in their season opener. CSU committed 27 turnovers and hit just 25 percent of its shots. Kim Mestdagh had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while fellow forward Chatilla Van Grinsven led the Rams with 16 points.

Next up – The Rams hit the road to face 14th-ranked Florida State at 5 p.m. Thursday, followed by a 1 p.m. Sunday game at North Dakota.

Cross country – CSU’s dream of reaching the NCAA Championships fizzled when the women’s team finished fifth Saturday at the Mountain Regional Championships at Salt Lake City. The men’s team finished 10th, so no Rams will be competing at the national championships.

 Next up – Indoor track, anyone? The season starts in January.

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Final thoughts on big brother BYU’s departure

by Tony Phifer on November 12, 2010

I’m not exactly sure how I will feel Saturday while watching the final CSU-BYU football game.

Part of me wants scream “good riddance!” as loud as I can scream. I still can’t believe the utter arrogance BYU has shown in its decision to abandon the Mountain West Conference to become an independent, and I must admit that I’m secretly hoping this little foray into the unknown is a huge failure.

Another part of me wants to get down on my knees and beg the Cougars to tell us this whole thing was a big joke and that they’re not going anywhere. After all, CSU and BYU share 88 years of history on the football field, and they have been members of the same conference since 1966. They’re kind of like the brother you want to punch in the gut but will go to the mat for if somebody else tries to punch him in the gut.

You have to give BYU credit: The Cougars set the standard for excellence in the WAC and, by osmosis, the MWC. They simply dominated the old WAC, bullying every team – especially CSU – on the way to something like 47 Holiday Bowl berths. They produced a Heisman Trophy winner, an Outland Trophy winner and even won a national championship in 1984.

During that time, I developed a great relationship with BYU coach LaVell Edwards, the architect of the program. Edwards was a great coach – he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame – but he also had a wonderfully wry sense of humor. Any coach who had to put up with quarterback Jim McMahon – a hell-raising Catholic kid on the most conservative campus in America – and turned him into a superstar had better be able to laugh.

In many ways, BYU was responsible for CSU’s rise to football prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s. Former coach Sonny Lubick modeled much of what he did after BYU’s program, always referring to the Cougars as the benchmark program in the WAC and MWC. When CSU finally beat the Cougars in 1994, I remember thinking that the Rams had finally arrived.

Somehow, I can’t imagine Edwards being in favor of this move. He loved the conference, loved the rivalries, loved the relationships you build over the years playing the same teams. How are the Cougars supposed to develop a relationship with Georgia Tech and Notre Dame – two of the schools on future schedules? Simple: they won’t

There’s no doubt that I will yell something unsavory in the Cougars’ general direction Saturday. I think this move was selfish and stupid beyond measure. But at the same time, I will be a bit sad when the game ends and the Cougars walk out of Hughes Stadium for the final time – even if they do deserve a good punch in the gut.

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Hawk’s run ends at CU

by Tony Phifer on November 10, 2010

Unlike some fans, I never rejoice when a coach is fired. And I certainly won’t change that stance now that Colorado has fired Dan Hawkins.

Did Hawkins deserve to be fired? Absolutely. A 19-39 record in five seasons is simply unacceptable at a Division I school. And Hawkins probably didn’t do himself any favors by favoring his son, Cody, when it came to choosing a starting quarterback, and his odd behavior as the heat intensified to produce victories certainly increased the likelihood that he would be ousted.

But no matter what you think of Hawkins as a coach, his demise is hardly worth celebrating. Not only will he have to move his family and rebuild his career, most of his coaching staff is likely gone as well, meaning that 10 or more families will be displaced with no guarantee of landing on their feet. Coaching is a wonderful profession when all is going well, but when it goes bad few occupations are more cruel. Not only are you out of work, you carry the stain of failure with you. Hawkins, at least, gets to walk away with $1.8 million left on his contract. His assistants get little more than a pink slip.

Besides, there’s rarely anything to be gained from firing a coach during the season. The players, already reeling, very often stop playing because they have no motivation to succeed. CSU, for example, opted to fire Sark Arslanian following an 0-6 start to the 1981 season and replaced him with Chester Caddas. The Rams certainly were good enough to win a few games that year, but with Arslanian gone they simply gave up and became the first team in major college history to finish a season with an 0-12 record. It would take the program more than a decade to fully recover.

In my limited dealings with Hawkins, I always found him to be accommodating and professional. He was very passionate about CU, and wanted nothing more than to be the guy who led the Buffs back to prominence. And earlier this season, when the Buffs had a chance to add another touchdown to the 24-3 rout of Colorado State, Hawkins backed off and let the clock run out – a classy move, without a doubt.

Soon enough, CU will have a new head coach, and 10 or more new coaches and their families will move into Boulder. The Hawkins era will be viewed as a bad dream, and the page will be turned. It’s the nature of college football…but it’s not worth celebrating.      

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Hilbert wins, and wins with class

by Tony Phifer on November 9, 2010

First off, congrats to volleyball coach Tom Hilbert for becoming the winningest coach in CSU history. The Rams’ four-set win over UNLV gave Hilbert 353 career wins and moved him past legendary men’s basketball coach Jim Williams on the all-time CSU wins list.

One of the great aspects of this accomplishment is that Hilbert – one of the really good people at CSU, in or out of athletics – truly gets what it means. First, he understands that it’s probably not fair to compare his record against that of Williams because the records hilbert-record-wins-smile came in different sports in different eras (Williams coached from 1955-80). Second, he understands what Williams meant to CSU and talked about what an honor it is to be compared to him.

It’s that sense of perspective that one day will have people talking about Hilbert the way they currently describe Williams. Hilbert not only is the most successful coach currently at CSU, he might be the best coach to ever don green and gold. And yet, Hilbert remains humble and understands that many who came before him helped set the stage for the success that he now enjoys.

In the future, other coaches will be measured against Hilbert and his remarkable success. Let’s hope they have the same respect for Hilbert than he has shown Williams in reaching this milestone.

Overall, it was a busy weekend with a lot of near-misses:

Football – The Rams might have played their best game of the season but still came up tantalizingly short of a significant upset, losing 24-19 at San Diego State. The Rams produced five turnovers on defense and had numerous opportunities to score on offense before a late rally fell short.

Junior linebacker Mychal Sisson had an interception and returned a fumble 88 yards for a touchdown, but his efforts were not quite enough for the Rams. CSU had at least three wide-open touchdown passes sail just over the outstretched hands of the intended target or coach Steve Fairchild would have secured the best win of his tenure.

Next up – The Rams host BYU at noon Saturday at Hughes Stadium. This will be the last time BYU visits before embarking on its head-scratching journey away from the Mountain West Conference and into independence.

Volleyball – The Rams, who have climbed to a season-best 13th in the national rankings, made Hilbert sweat a bit Thursday in a four-setter against UNLV before securing their coach’s 353 career win at CSU. They made it a weekend sweep Saturday when they blitzed Air Force in three sets for their 13th consecutive victory.

Next up – The Rams (22-2, 11-0 MWC) hit the road for matches at New Mexico (7:30 p.m. Thursday) and noon Saturday at TCU. New Mexico (16-8, 8-3 MWC) is the only team with a realistic chance to catch the Rams in the chase for a league title, so a win over the Lobos would all but secure CSU’s eighth MWC crown in 12 years.

Swimming – The Rams lost dual meets at Denver (Friday) and at home to California (Saturday). Junior distance specialist Jennifer Lamb had a big weekend, winning the 200- and 500-yard freestyle races Friday before winning the 1,000 freestyle against Cal.

Next up – Longtime coach John Mattos will split his team, sending some swimmers to this weekend Toshiba Cup in Long Beach, Calif., and keeping the rest home to compete in Saturday’s CSU Invitational.

Final thought – Believe it or not, hoops season is almost upon us. The men open the season Saturday night, hosting Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 7  at Moby Arena, while the women face Northern Iowa at 7 p.m. Friday at Moby.   

A little bit of everything…

by Tony Phifer on November 4, 2010

Cleaning up some odds and ends…

Memories...

I got to take a nice trip down memory lane Saturday as Colorado State hosted some of its finest basketball and football players from seasons past.

More than 100 people gathered at Moby Arena on Saturday morning to witness the unveiling of a plaque honoring legendary men’s basketball coach Jim Williams. Ageless former coach Boyd Grant served as master of ceremonies and did a great job of mixing in great JJ stories and introducing the more than 30 former Williams players who were on hand.

So much respect

Grant had one line about JJ that stuck with me, and it nicely summed up his life: “Not only was Coach Williams a great coach, he was a man of great character.” So true.

And this will tell you how much Grant was and is respected: The entire starting five from his first CSU team in 1988 – David Turcotte, Trent Shippen, Pat Durham, Barry Bailey and Eric Friehauf – was on hand for the ceremony. Even though they were never coached by Williams, they showed up because they know how much he meant to their coach, Grant. It was great to see them all – and hard to believe it’s been 22 years since that team finished third in NIT and made Moby THE place to be that season.

By the way, Turcotte is still one of the funniest guys I've ever met. Now a lawyer in Park City, Utah, Turcotte drove to the ceremony with Grant in the front seat and Shippen in the back. "All the way here, Coach Grant went through the entire history of CSU basketball. We got to 1972, so I guess I'll get the rest of the story on the way back."

Odd couple, great guys

Later that day, the 1990 Freedom Bowl and 2000 Liberty Bowl teams were honored during CSU’s 38-14 romp over New Mexico. I ran into several members of that Freedom Bowl team that helped put CSU football on the map, and had several great conversations. I found out that former defensive end Paul Hanks and former quarterback Mike Gimenez are coaching high school football together in the Sacramento area. They were always a bit of an odd pairing at CSU, with Hanks hailing from tiny Hemingford, Neb., and Gimenez a California kid through and through. But they have always been great friends and have coached together for many years.

I also talked to one of my all-time favorite players: former linebacker Eric Tippeconnic. Not only was he a great player (and a true hero on that team who made numerous huge plays), he was a great guy who was enormously proud of his Comanche heritage. He’s teaching at Albuquerque Academy and working toward his Ph.D.

Down on the farm...

On a side note, I also ran into former linebacker Jeff Horinek, a brilliant student and three-year starter who is applying for medical school. His brother, Deone, a former CSU punter, is back in their hometown of Atwood, Kan., coaching the high school football team and had just wrapped up the conference title. Since my Mom grew up on a wheat farm outside Atwood – a tiny town in western Kansas with about 1,500 residents – I have always had great respect for the Horinek family. I imagine there was some heavy cruising on main street Friday night in Atwood after the big football victory.

A mighty oak...in progress

If you get a chance, make a trip to the lawn south of the South College Fieldhouse. There, about 100 feet from the building, you’ll find a metal cage protecting a tiny oak seedling that was planted this summer to honor CSU alum and 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris. The spot is marked by a bronze plaque summarizing Morris’s many great accomplishments.

A Ram Club milestone

And finally, the annual Ram Club membership drive concluded Sunday, with just more than 2,000 fans joining the group, which provides funding for CSU’s athletic scholarships. Even though CSU is last among Mountain West Conference team in booster club membership, this year’s total is the best in four years. Kudos to all involved.

No tricks, just treats

by Tony Phifer on November 1, 2010

The Colorado State Rams were scary good on Halloween weekend, producing the best overall performance of the fall. The football team crushed New Mexico, the volleyball team picked up a milestone victory for coach Tom Hilbert, and the women’s cross-country team finished second at the Mountain West Conference Championships.

Even CAM 23, who replaced the retiring Cam 22, overcame some first-game jitters to establish himself as a Ram to be reckoned with. His daring dash toward freedom Saturday at Hughes Stadium was foiled and, according sources close to CAM, he was goaded into his escape attempt by some overzealous fraternity brothers tailgating in the parking lot. He vowed to be on his best behavior, hofour-legged-CAMwever, for the remainder of his regal reign.

Football – The Rams extended New Mexico’s misery and avenged a painful 2009 loss with a 38-14 romp at Hughes Stadium. CSU (3-6, 2-3 MWC) overpowered the winless Lobos (0-9, 0-5) with a punishing ground game that produced 328 rushing yards. Overall the Rams rolled to a season-best 584 yards while yielding a season-low 237.

Fullback Leonard Mason rushed for 124 yards and three touchdowns, and quarterback Pete Thomas continued his stellar play with 256 passing yards and a touchdown. Junior linebacker Mychal Sisson led the defense with 12 tackles – three for lost yardage – as the Rams kept their bowl hopes alive. If they win their final three games, they would be eligible for a bowl.

Next up – The Rams face a difficult road test at 8 p.m. Saturday against San Diego State (6-2, 3-1). The Aztecs feature an explosive offense behind quarterback Ryan Lindley, and they are playing with great confidence after becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1998.

Volleyball – The 14th-ranked Rams seem to be hitting their stride as the games get more important. Saturday night, they crushed San Diego State in straight sets. This was the same Aztec team that pushed CSU to five sets earlier this season in Fort Collins.

CSU (20-2, 9-0 MWC) won its 11th straight match and gave Hilbert his 352nd victory at CSU. That ties the 14th-year coach with CSU legend Jim Williams for the most career victories at CSU. Williams, who was 352-293 in 26 seasons, is the winningest Division I basketball coach in the state’s history.

Next up – Hilbert can break Williams’ record when the Rams host UNLV in a 7 p.m. Thursday match at Moby Area. CSU already owns a straight-sets win over UNLV earlier this season.

Cross-country – The CSU women’s team put together perhaps its most impressive performance of the season, finishing second in the MWC Championships in Laramie. Ellie Keyser, a junior from Fort Collins, earned first-team all-conference honors by finishing fourth overall to lead the Rams. 10th-ranked New Mexico won the women’s title.

The men’s team finished fifth, with Daniel Wallis, a senior from New Zealand, leading the way with a seventh-place finish to earn second-team all-MWC honors. Defending champion New Mexico won the team title.

Next up – The Rams face their most important meet of the season Nov. 13 when they compete in the Mountain Regional Championships in Salt Lake City. Top teams in the regional meet qualify for the NCAA Championships on Nov. 22 in Terre Haute, Ind.

And finally – Former CSU golfer Martin Laird is having a REALLY good month. Laird finished in a third-place tie Sunday at the Asia Pacific Championships in Malaysia, earning $403,000. So, after losing a playoff at the Barclays Championship on Aug. 29, Laird has earned an eye-popping $1,986,000 in official and unofficial PGA events in 33 days – an average daily salary of $60,186.

Laird’s surge has allowed him to climb to a career-best 49th in the world golf rankings. Like I said, he’s having a REALLY good month.

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