Sunday, January 28, 2007

Taking a broom to the Bruins

If you know anything about collegiate men's volleyball, you know just how great UCLA is. Even though I'm a student at Southern California, as a volleyball fan I have to respect all that they've done.

When a school has won more national champions (19) than all other schools combined (18), that's impressive. Name me another sport in which one school has dominated like the Bruins? Here's a hint: there isn't anything that compares to this.

That's why last night's sweep of UCLA by the Men of Troy is a big deal. The Trojans dismantled the defending national champions (seriously, UCLA wins it all way too often. There should be a YMCA-style mercy rule excluding them from the championship just to give other schools a chance).

30-19, 31-29, 33-31. The biggest victory for USC volleyball since they last made the playoffs in 2001.

UCLA never led in game one, and barely held it in game two (a 1-0 lead that the Trojans quickly overcame). The Bruins had a strong third game, but USC fought off several Bruin game-points. To do that against a team that with the talent of UCLA shows just how much character and poise this Trojan team has gained.

It wasn't long ago that a USC men's volleyball team in the same situation might have crumbled under the pressure. Actually, those USC teams of past years may not have even been close enough to have the pressure on them. This team did, and they responded with the most clutch performance in recent history.

Freshman Hunter Current had several key blocks down the stretch in game three, and the Trojans hit a mind-boggling .533 for night. That's their TEAM HITTING PERCENTAGE. To put that in perspective for non-volleyball people, what would you think if your favorite baseball team (college or pro) had a team batting average of .533. Either the opposing pitcher lobbed everything over the plate, or that the hitters simply couldn't miss.

There's no pitcher in volleyball. And against UCLA, the Trojan hitters simply couldn't miss. In 92 hitting attempts, the Trojans committed four errors. Four! Had I not been there, I would have thought there was a typo on the stat sheet.

After the game, outside hitter Matt Anderson - who hit an flying .737 on the evening and matched his career high with 14 kills, including the match-winner - said he couldn't find the words to describe how great this win truly was. He wanted to "soak it all in" and enjoy the moment.

And why not? The last time USC's men's volleyball team won in Westwood (2000), setter Jimmy Killian was an eighth grader. Heck, the MPSF still used side-out scoring! It's been a while.

As if that wasn't impressive enough, the Trojans swept the Bruins for the first time since 1991 (15-12, 15-10, 15-12), and swept them at Pauly Pavilion for the first time since the national championship season of 1988. Two players on USC's roster weren't even born then (Chris Roche and Troy Tokuhama).

The Trojans simply seemed to want it more. This game had the chance to be a cornerstone win for USC this season. For the Bruins, it was just another match on their quest for another national championship. Think USC football versus UCLA this December. Oh, now you understand. Good.

USC Head Coach Bill Ferguson outcoached the legendary Al Scates - who won his first national championship in 1970 before Ferguson was born. Credit former USC coach Turhan Douglas for helping to build this foundation. The Trojans have the talent to compete and beat anyone in the nation.

Anderson said that after the team's loss to top-ranked UC Irvine earlier in the week, some members of the Anteaters said no team had played them as tough as the Trojans. If that's the case, then this team has a legitimate chance at not only making the postseason, but doing some damage in it.

The Trojans suffered a setback against UC San Diego a week ago, but with the way they've responded, it's not a stretch for them to still be playing in May. The lsat few seasons, Pepperdine, UCLA, BYU and other west coast schools have been able to overlook parts of their schedule labeled "USC", but this year that won't be the wisest of decisions.

The MPSF has been put on notice. The Trojans are back.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Forget sexy, she's bringing tennis back

If you didn't catch tonight's Australian Open final between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, I can't blame you. After all, Williams disposed of the world's No. 1 player in barely over an hour.

During her victory speech at Rod Laver Arena, Williams said what most American tennis fans had to be feeling:

"I'm really enjoying this."

And how could she not. How could we all not? It seemed tennis in this country would continue to slip away, especially after Roger Federer destroyed the highest ranked American man, Andy Roddick, in the semifinals.

Williams and her championship came from out of nowhere. She entered the 2007 Australian Open ranked 81 in the world, considered a shadow of her former self.

Williams went two years without a title since she won the 2005 Australiam Open, and in that time tennis in the United States felt like it had disintigrated. No American won a Grand Slam singles title for two years. Fixtures of American tennis during the past decade faded. Her sister Venus Williams continued to struggle. The once-dominant Lindsay Davenport called it a career.

It wasn't just women's tennis. On the men's side of things, Federer has steamrolled everyone in his path. Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick won the 2003 Australian Open and U.S. Open, respectively; no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since. And with how Federer plays in non-clay surface finals, no one has truly come close.

Sharapova may generate ratings for tennis because she is a championship version of Anna Kournikova. The one thing she isn't is American. As attractive as she might be, she won't bring tennis back to the U.S. Maybe to her native Russia, but not the U.S.

By beating Sharapova, Williams reasserted herself in the conversation of top women's singles players in the world. More importantly, she put American tennis back on the map. Back on top. Back where it should be.

This country loves its champions, no matter what the sport. Once again there is a favorite for Americans to back. She's now an eight-time Grand Slam champion who, as we saw tonight, always has a chance. Unseeded. Unheralded. Unappreciated. Not anymore. American tennis is back.

With Williams's victory down under, she - and all of us in the United States - are champions once again.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Look out Peyton, they're back

As much as the Colts may say they're excited about hosting the AFC Championship game next week, the fact that they will face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots must be lingering in the back of their collective minds.

Tom Brady is Peyton Manning's kryptonite.

Bill Belichik has a hammer lock on Tony Dungy.

The Chargers loss to the Patriots this evening sends New England back to the AFC Championship game for the fourth time in six years. And each of the previous three times they've made it this far, they have gone all the way.

The last time the Colts won an AFC Championship game, it was the innaugrual conference championship game, and they were still in Baltimore.

Many believe this is Peyton Manning's year. He's won two postseason games in one year for the first time in his career. The shaky Colts defense has somehow found its footing the last two weeks, shutting down very capable running backs.

But the Colts are facing something much greater than any one player next week when they host the Patriots.

They are playing their own curse.

Peyton Manning has beaten Tom Brady in their last two match ups, but you can bet that means nothing to the Colts until they get the Patriots' playoff monkey off their backs.

If there is any doubt of the Patriots dynasty, this weekend's conference championship game will silence any critics.

If you remember Super Bowl XXVI, when they were double-digit underdogs to St. Louis' Greatest Show on Turf, they were the first to - as Pat Summerall so eloquently put it - chose to be "introduced as a team." They've carried that team concept for the last half-decade. They win with that team concept.

The Colts may have home field, a hot defense and Adam Vinetieri, but make no mistake: the road to Super Bowl XLI goes through the New England Patriots.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bank it like Beckham

Remember the feeling when you first heard about A-Rod's 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers? But that was baseball. As much as the steroids scandal has hurt the sport, people still watch baseball.

At least, they watch more than soccer.

David Beckham just signed a five year, $250 million contract, the richest ever in sports. And he plays soccer. Soccer!

In the United States, soccer will never be able to compete at the level of the NFL, NBA, baseball or even hockey. As a matter of fact, I watched more arena football in 2006 than professional soccer.

For the Los Angeles Galaxy to make this deal, they will probably have to go the way of the New York Red Bulls, who sold their team name to a sponsor. But perhaps it won't be that bad. I'm sure people will race to the stadium to see Beckham play for the Los Angeles Milky Ways.

The most important thing to remember about this contract is that it is getting more attention from ESPN and the rest of the media than the MLS season got all last season. Does anyone know who won their championship last year?

My point exactly.

Now I'm sure some soccer enthusiasts love this move. Maybe they'll sell a few extra tickets to games. They might even double that number if girlfriends tag along to get a glipse of D-Beck.

Those extra tickets still won't cut it. Beckham simply isn't worth $250 million. Soccer isn't worth $250 million. This could be the biggest waste of money in the history of sports. The most coverage the MLS will get in all of 2007 is right now because of this contract.

This isn't a move that doinked off the cross-bar, barely missing the goal. This contract sailed so far over the net, a kid in the 23rd row just got hit the face and now his frantic mother is trying to stop his bloody nose.

This isn't about trying to win a title. This isn't about improving a team. This is about trying to make a splash. Congratulations, soccer. You've made a splash. Too bad all the water has just been knocked out of the pool.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Hall pass?

Now that Tiki Barber's career is over, football enthusiasts have began kicking around the idea that he may one day end up in Canton.

I'd like to go ahead and make a final ruling on Barber's Hall of Fame candidacy:


To quote Mugatu in Zoolander, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.

I don't mean to say Tiki Barber is not a good player. He is. Or was. He is most likely leaving 3,000 yards on the field, and I'm okay with that. It's his decision when his career is over and his alone.

But the Hall of Fame? I'm sorry, but Tiki is not one of the all-time greats.

Perhaps standards for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are dropping. Having a minimum requirement of inductees per year will do that.

My definition of a Hall of Famer, or a legend in any right, when you cannot tell the history of the game without mentioning that player. Jim Brown. Marcus Allen. Walter Payton. Barry Sanders. Emmitt Smith. Even now LaDainian Tomlinson if he keeps his current pace and can add a Super Bowl ring.

But Tiki Barber doesn't fit that category. He's not at the same level as those other backs. He's No. 17 all time in rushing yards with 10,448, and he holds several Giants records.

When I think of Barber, I think of a former fumble-machine who righted the ship for three solid seasons to close his career.

He leaves the game as a good player. Maybe even a borderline great player.

Borderline, however, does not qualify you for Canton.

Sorry to extinguish the Tiki-torch.

The Bobble

So a playoff win slipped past the Cowboys and through the fingers of Tony Romo. I'm not gonna lie. It hurt. It hurt a lot. Not just for Romo, but for the entire Cowboys fan base.

We've been waiting for a decade for our next playoff win, and after "the bobble" we must wait at least one more year.

But while many analysts were quick to point to that play as Romo's defining moment this season, I have to disagree.

This year, Romo proved that he has what it takes to be the quarterback in Dallas. Without him, the 'Boys may not have even made the playoffs. Making the Pro Bowl was no fluke; the final five games of the season were.

The Bobble will not be as catastrophic as "The Catch," which not only launched a dynasty but crumbled another at once. Instead, it will most likely be looked back at as Romo's humble beginnings after a career of success.

Will he ever win a Super Bowl? Who knows. That can never be predicted. After all, , Fran Tarkenton, Warren Moon and Dan Marino don't have championship rings while Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer and Ben Roethlisberger do.

But Dallasites will be able to look back and - perhaps not laugh, but at least - stomach the pain of The Bobble.

Romo has his entire career ahead of him. Cowboys fans can only hope he can hang on for the ride.

Anyone who says Romo shouldn't have been holding because he's the starting quarterback is simply wrong. As radical an idea as it was to change quarterbacks in mid-season, and as radical as it was to change kickers, it would have been more radical to switch holders as well.

Romo had not had a holding miscue all season long. Next season, I think he should be seven yards behind center to hold again. Having the starting quarterback as the holding always leaves the option for creative and high-probability fakes.

Romo dropped one ball. It was magnified because it was in the playoffs for the most widely known football franchise in America. I would expect him to have the same dual-role next season. He'll once again prove the doubters wrong, and hold on for victory in Dallas.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Fight on and win for ol' SC

I want to take a quick break from my typical columns full of opinionated drivel just to say how proud I am to have been a USC student and football fan the past four seasons.

Just look at all I've been witness to:

When I came in as a freshman, USC was coming off an Orange Bowl victory, but would have to replace a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in Carson Palmer. All of their runningbacks were moving on as well. But this Pete Carroll guy really had something going.

Little did I know. Little did I know.

In four years, I've seen:
-a combined seven wins over rivals Notre Dame and UCLA
-two Heisman winners (Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush)
-an overall 48-4 record
-four Pac-10 titles
-four BCS Bowl births
-three Rose Bowl appearances (2004, 2006 and 2007)
-two undefeated calendar years (2004 and 2005)
-two national titles (2003 and 2004)

I saw Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and LenDale White develop from untested players to the best the game has ever seen. I watched in awe from my dorm as USC shut out Auburn 23-0 Aug. 30, 2003, and stood for four quarters one week later at my first home game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (a 35-18 win over BYU).

On my way to the BYU game, I stopped by the USC bookstore to buy a USC T-shirt to wear to the game. I didn't have one with me - a bunch of the guys from the dorms had painted our chests, spelling: USC TROJANS.

That day I bought a shirt, and I've worn it for every USC Football game since. Every single one.

These wins were the setting of a new gold standard. Well, a cardinal and gold standard.

I saw Mike Williams make the greatest one-handed catch I'd ever seen (only to be topped by Dominique Byrd the next season in the Orange Bowl, only to be topped by Steve Smith later that game). I remember the "Mike Williams is Gangsta" T-shirts.

I remember when Hershel Dennis was our "next great running back." I remember watching Norm Chow's offense, thinking to myself, "these guys can't be stopped."

I carried dozens of Sweet n Low packets to the regular-season finale against Oregon State, throwing it all over in anticipation of going to the Sugar Bowl for a shot at the BCS title. I sat in my friend Eddie's room eager to buy tickets to New Orleans until ESPN reported that OU and LSU would get the call instead of the Trojans.

I glued myself to the television as USC beat Big 10 champion Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The 28-14 win over the Wolverines made for a very happy new year.

And I watched proudly as Pete Carroll exclaimed, "I think we just won ourselves a National Championship" from the stage at the Rose Bowl in January 2004.

And he was right. USC won the AP National Title.

I sat in my apartment the next season when USC opened the year at Virginia Tech in Reggie Bush's first great break-out game. I'll always remember that one for my buddy's girlfriend saying, "Look, honey, your team scored again," when an instant replay was brought up on the screen.

I never screamed as loud as I did Oct. 9, 2004, when Cal came to the Coliseum and had a chance to win until the very end. I know Brad and Eddie will always remember the Cal hippies who stole a Coliseum seat, and they'll remember the "retrieval process" that took place on Trousedale.

My friends piled into my car for the trip to Pasadena for our first away USC-UCLA game. I never was so excited to hear the band play Tusk. I snuck four oranges into the stadium that day.

I remember Ryan Killeen kicking five field goals and Reggie's two long runs in the Rose Bowl to beat UCLA and send 'SC to the Orange Bowl to face the undefeated and "much better football team" in OU.

I boogied boarded in Miami the day before the FedEx Orange Bowl, and I gave a cocky interview to Oklahoma City's Channel 9, saying the final score would depend on when USC pulled their started out of mercy. And I was right.

I played "Orange Bowling" at the pre-game party, and delt with the "Boomer Sooner" chants all day long, but Jan. 4, 2005 belonged to the Trojans. As quick as OU fans were to get in my face about OU's fast 7-0 lead, they were even quicker getting to the exits that night. I stayed to watch the entire trophy presentation after USC's dominating 55-19 performance.

I jumped out of my seat at ATVN, cheering like a mad man when Matt Leinart announced what no one thought possible: he was coming back.

I wanted to go to Hawaii for the season opener in 2005, but my cousin got married the same weekend in San Diego.

Watched as USC dominated their regular season schedule, getting very little resistance with one exception. I - along with the rest of the Trojan faithful - held my breath on the play that will forever be known as the "Bush push" in South Bend, Ind.

I saw Reggie Bush run from one side of the field to the other sideline, stop in his tracks, reverse toward the opposite pylon, and sprint in against Fresno State. Two weeks later, I saw the Trojans dominate the Bruins, 66-19, sending them to their second straight BCS title game.

And my heart broke when Vince Young scrambled eight yards on 4th down in the Rose Bowl the following January. As much as I can try to rationalize that I was happy for UT, being a native Texan, I can't. USC not winning their third straight championship hurt as much as any sports loss I'd ever witnessed.

I watched as USC started this season 6-0, only to lose to then-unranked Oregon State in the closing seconds. That tipped-ball on the two-point conversion brought back feelings only equaled by the loss to Texas.

I saw 'SC rebound to beat three straight ranked teams (No. 21 Oregon, No. 17 Cal, No. 6 Notre Dame). I even threw my crutches aside, hobbling on a pain-filled ankle in a protective boot to make sure I saw one final game at the Coliseum, from the student section, one more time.

I drove to Pasadena Dec. 2 for one final match up against UCLA, only to witness the unexpected. Even though the Bruins knocked us out of the BCS title game, ending the Trojans' run at a third title in four years, I took some joy in an exchange I overheard between a Bruin fan and a fellow Trojan.

Bruin fan: Guess who's not going to the national championship game now??

Trojan fan: Both of us.

That loss was number four. Think about that. In my four years at USC, the football team lost four games. Just four. They averaged a 12-1 record. What could a football fan ask for more than that?

How about to go out on a high note?

I guess a 32-18 win over Michigan to bookend my career as a USC student football fan makes for a pretty high note. That was the second 14-point win over Michigan in my tenure as a student in cardinal and gold.

The roses never smelled so sweet.

Thanks, USC Football, for the best four years any college football fan could ask for. I only hope you can keep on delivering, so that future Trojans can have the same experience I've had: four years of greatness.

I can only think of one thing left to say, fitting as it is:


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