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We’ve become pretty spoiled as sports fans in the Duluth area over the last decade, watching UMD take on the world in football, or men’s or women’s hockey. You bought your ticket, and you could be pretty sure of cheering on the Bulldogs to a victory.
And often, the ultimate victory: The women’s hockey team won the first Division I national championship by any UMD team, and made it three in a row in the first three national tournaments the NCAA conducted for women, and later added two more, making it five titles in their first decade of play; then the football team won a national Division II championship, and two years later, did it again; and, of course, the Bulldogs captured their first men’s hockey NCAA Division I title in 2011.
That’s eight national championships over the past decade, which has to leave the University of Minnesota looking North with envy as it shuffles football coaches trying to find respectability, let alone championships. Only Minnesota’s women’s hockey team has gained any NCAA titles this past decade.
This, then, could be a very interesting season in the Great White North. The Bulldog football team is doing just fine, in an oddball schedule that has them playing home and road on alternating Saturdays through the whole season, which isn’t bad, but it was top-loaded with their three or four toughest opponents in the first four or five games. That said, UMD remains in good position to challenge for another NSIC title and possibly post-season play.
The women’s hockey team, meanwhile, is in its second straight rebuilding season, and started the season last weekend with two tough games against Ohio State at AMSOIL Arena. Facing the Buckeyes without three key players left the Bulldogs thin, and inexperienced, and Ohio State -- also much younger and much less-experienced -- beat UMD 3-1 and 3-2 for an extremely rare sweep at home. The Bulldogs need to find someone to rise to fill the formidable scoring feats of the graduated Haley Irwin, and to coax freshman goaltending prospects to emulate Jennifer Harss, the graduated German standout in the nets. Next up for UMD is Wisconsin, at AMSOIL for a pair of 3 p.m. games Saturday and Sunday.
The men’s hockey team started practice just a week ago, and jumps into competition this weekend, against, of all teams, Ohio State, in a pair of 7 p.m. games at AMSOIL. The Bulldogs men face a similar situation to the women, needing to quickly find someone who can put the puck in the net at one end and keep the puck out of the net at the other. Not only is Jack Connolly, the WCHA scoring leader, All American and Hobey Baker winner, gone, but so are J.T. Brown and Travis Oleksuk, which joined Connolly to make a fantastic power play line. Also gone is Kenny Reiter, who came from out of nowhere -- Pittsburgh, actually -- to win the job in goal and lead the Bulldogs to their NCAA glory.
Last weekend was a wild and crazy sports scene, because along with UMD’s teams, we had the impressive St. Scholastica football team battling Concordia of St. Paul for first place in the UMAC, plus we had the usual overdose of television football, college all day Friday and NFL all day Saturday -- and the Major League Baseball playoffs in both the American and National Leagues.
If you saw the movie “Moneyball,” which was about a long home run better than the cliche-ridden and flawed current film “Trouble With the Curve,” you learned the true story of the Oakland A’s when Billy Beane took over as general manager and entrusted his player selections to a computer geek who had all the key on-base and clutch-performing things of players figured out. The A’s got rid of a number of high-salary players and replaced them with no-name extras from other teams and the minors, and wound up winning, to the surprise of all of baseball. Well, this year the A’s have done it again, and their stirring charge to overtake Texas and then beat the powerful Rangers in a playoff game to advance to meet the talent-rich Detroit Tigers, should be the stuff of “Moneyball II, the Sequel.”
Undoubtedly, any sports fan couldn’t miss having a good time last weekend, although my personal schedule might have outdone most.
Friday night, I was at AMSOIL to watch the UMD women face Ohio State. On the first shift, a UMD defenseman passed the puck directly to a Buckey, who fed Kayla Sullivan breaking all alone down the middle, and she scored on the shockingly defenseless Kayla Black, UMD’s freshman goalie, at 0:55. Less than five minutes later, the sometimes reckless sophomore Brigette Lacquette was penalized for body-checking, and after a nicely executed power-play rush, the Buckeyes went up 2-0 when Hockey Langen knocked in a seclond rebound at the right post.
UMD came back for a goal when Pernilla Winberg’s shot led to a scramble, and Katie Wilson knocked in the loose puck to make it 2-1. But Ohio State dilligently prevented the Bulldogs from ever generating any slick plays or sustained pressure, except on a couple of power plays, and early in the third period the Buckeyes put it away on a misplayed line change, when Paige Semenza, who had assisted on the first two goals, came off the OSU bench about a time zone behind the UMD defense, and she waltzed in to score on a breakaway for the 3-1 final.
“We came out flat, then we got behind 2-0 and panicked,” said UMD coach Shannon Miller. “We were more composed in the second period, but I was disappointed we came out flat. They have two good lines, but when you come out flat, it’s not about your opponent, it’s about yourselves.”
Miller said she stressed one of her favorite mottos to here players -- “Stride, no glide” -- as a hint to get them to keep hustling, and when I suggested the good news was, “there’s always tomorrow,” Miller replied: “And there’s a very long meeting tonight.”
Next night, the Bulldogs came out charged up. Jessica Wong, who must be a catalyst for UMD’s defense from the blue line, struggled to gain full possession after the opening faceoff, then took off and rushed the length of the ice before scoring with a tough, screened shot at 0:15 for a 1-0 UMD lead. But before the first period ended, Taylor Kuehl tied it and Minttu Tuominen scored on a power play with Ms. Lacquette again watching from the penalty box. Winberg tied the game 2-2 when she tried to pass across the slot and her pass was cleanly deflected by an Ohio State player right into the net -- two assists, please -- but Tuominen scored in the closing minutes and the Buckeyes went home with a sweep.
On Saturday, I had a tough choice, and I stopped on my way to AMSOIL Arena to catch part of the St. Scholastica-Northwestern game, at the nice new artificial-turf stadium at Duluth East. You wanted to be in your seat early, because Brian Lecheler raced 94 yards for a Northwestern touchdown with the game-opening kickoff. Then the teams battled without being able to penetrate either defense. Mike Theismann kicked a 27-yard field goal to close the Saints to 7-3, which stood through a scoreless second quarter. Cory Gebhard went back to field the second-half kickoff, and took off on a 90-yard touichdown jaunt to list the Saints to a 10-7 lead. When Theismann connected again for a 36-yard field goal halfway through the fourth quarter, the Saints led 13-7. But Northwestern marched in the closing minutes and Tim Youtzy scored from the 1, and Ethan Zepp’s second conversion of the game lifted Concordia to a 14-13 victory.
The loss snapped Scholastica’s string of 17 straight UMAC victories, and at 4-1, they trail Concordia, which is 4-0, and 5-1 overall.
From there to the hockey game, and then to Malosky Stadium where UMD faced MSU-Moorhead. The Bulldogs prevailed 45-15 with a 28-point first half. Chase Vogler faked a draw handoff and lobbed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Zach Zweitel, and on their next turn, freshman Logan Lauters turned the left corner and raced 36 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 first quarter. Moorhead didn’t fade away, however, cna Jake Hodge fired a 59-yard touchdown pass to Adam Jiskra for an all-freshman tally. UMD scored again, on a Brian Lucas run, but Brandon Schell scored on a 20-yard run for the Dragons, before UMD’s Jeron Johnson scored on a short run for a 28-14 cushion. Chaz Thomas and Steve Ierulli added second-half touchdowns, with Austin Brees booting a 36-yard field goal between them to put the game away.
Cold and tired, I headed home Saturday night and got there just in time to watch a little baseball, and then got a treat when the big Oregon - Washington football game started late. Washington is strong, ranked No. 23 in the country, but Oregon is No. 2 and turned loose new quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks already have arguably the best running back in the nation in Ledamian Thomas, and Mariota, a lightning-quick runner himself, threw four touchdown passes and gained 198 yards by air and Oregon (6-0) romped 52-21. If you get a chance, watch the Ducks, who again are the most entertaining and creative offensive team in the country.
That game didn’t end until after midnight, and I was fighting to stay awake, but I flipped my Directv over to Speedvision, and, sure enough, there was the Japanese Grand Prix Formula 1 race just starting -- live from Japan. German Sebastian Vettel took off from the pole position, and points leader Fernando Alonso of Spain crashed his Ferrari. Vettel guided his Red Bull Renault to victory over Felipe Massa, Alonso’s teammate, while Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi was a very popular third to gain the podiumfor Sauber. Vettel is now only four points behind Alonso, and is making an impressive bid to win his third straight Formula 1 World Championship.
Stark contrast, that race, to the Talladega wreck-filled finish when Tony Stewart admitted he tried to block two challengers, causing a 25-car crash on the last lap, and allowing Matt Kenseth to finish the lap and win the key NASCAR event.
I didn’t get to see that one, and I also missed the Green Bay Packers amazing late loss to Indianapolis, although I did catch the last part of the Vikings impressive victory over the Tennessee Titans. The reason I was out of commission on Sunday was that after finally getting to sleep at 3 a.m., I got up and drove with my wife, Joan, to Bayfield for the Apple Festival, an amazing event that fills the South Shore town with thousands of people. They buy food, apples, trinkets, apple sauce, apple juice, apple cobbler, and apple bratwurst, then line the streets to watch a lengthy parade from every little town nearby, and even the Marshall and the Cook County marching bands. A highlight is after the parade, when all the bands gather together and make a crazy charge down the street, all playing “On Wisconsin.”
It was worth it, to miss a couple of pro football games.