Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Back To The Bricks

A lot can happen in seven years.

A long time passed between visits to the alma mater

When I last visited Athens, Ohio in 2004, I was still very much a kid in some aspects. My on-air broadcasting career had not gotten off the ground yet, I was still living at home while struggling to make ends meet, and I was still naive to some of the challenges that life would present.

As I made my way out to Ohio University last weekend for Homecoming, a number of things had changed. I've been lucky enough to carve out a decent career in radio news, I'm now self-sufficient, and I have gained wisdom over the years.

Homecoming isn't solely about reflection, however. It's a chance to feel like a kid again.

Homecoming Week featured a collection of events for students and alumni

The morning of Saturday, October 15th, 2011 began with Ohio's Homecoming parade and a tour of the campus that I called home for four years.

With more-than a thousand people lining Court Street to watch the "Beyond the Bricks" parade, I took great pride in my alma mater. Both current students and alumni were gathered together, with many decked out in green-and-white to support the Bobcats.

The Homecoming parade attracted quite a crowd along Court Street

The parade featured a mish-mosh of displays -- including school spirit, political activism and community outreach programs. While Athens occasionally suffers from a disconnect between the university and the city itself, it was uplifting to see everyone rally behind a common purpose.

Many groups marched with signs in-hand

Following the parade's was time to walk around the old stomping grounds, reflect on four years of memories and experience the beauty of Ohio's campus once again.

The Class Gateway on College Green

If you enjoy brick-based architecture and design, then Ohio University is one of your ideal destinations. Throughout the campus, just about every building incorporates some brick into the structure. Many of the streets and walkways even feature a brick theme.

One of my old dorms, Gamertsfelder Hall

After wandering past some old dorm buildings and classrooms, I came upon Scripps Hall, home of the School of Journalism. The things I learned as a student there have proven to be extremely valuable as I embarked upon my radio career. Although it's been ten years since my last class, some of the teachings are still applied today.

I learned some important journalism lessons in Scripps Hall

With Ohio's Homecoming football game against the Ball State Cardinals rapidly approaching, it was time to head back to Uptown Athens for some Bobcats' apparel.

It was a joyous atmosphere, as the stores were packed with Ohio fans. Cash registers continually rang as music from the Marching 110 band played over the store's audio speakers.

Stores were buzzing with activity in Uptown Athens

In other spots along Court Street, many fans gathered at one of the local bars for a pre-game beverage. For them, tailgating was simple -- a bar burger or buffalo wings and beer on-tap.

The Cat's Eye Saloon was among the many Uptown bars serving pre-game patrons

Near Peden Stadium, other fans tailgated in the traditional manner. Lavish spreads, grills, canopy tents and Ohio flags dotted the nearby parking lots.

Ohio fans were partying it up near Peden Stadium

Across the street from the stadium was "Tail-Great Park," a fair-like setup that includes inflatable games, band performances, cornhole games and tents for group outings. Nearby, a makeshift football game broke out among some kids.

Some kids couldn't wait for the actual football game

Ohio entered the Homecoming contest with a 4-2 record, and 1-1 mark in the Mid-American Conference. After winning their first three games, the Bobcats struggled during the next three...culminating in a 38-37 loss at lowly Buffalo on October 8th.

Ball State came to Athens with a 3-3 record, and a MAC record of 1-1. After starting the season at 3-1 -- including a win over Big Ten opponent Indiana -- the Cardinals were blown out of their last two games, with humiliating losses to #2 Oklahoma and Temple.

A MAC tilt for Ohio and Ball State

It was a beautiful and windy afternoon...with rich, blue skies above the near-sellout crowd of 23,146 at Peden Stadium. After watching the beginning of the game on "Victory Hill" behind the south end zone, I moved to my ticketed spot in Section 102 and settled in there.

View from "Victory Hill"

The defenses dictated play in the 1st quarter, with neither team getting on the scoreboard. The Bobcats and Cardinals each punted three times, preventing the partisan Ohio crowd from generating any sustained noise.

After the 1st quarter ended, Ohio took time to honor its Homecoming Court. Standing in the south end zone, the king and queen from each graduating class received warm applause upon being introduced.

The 2011 Homecoming Court is introduced at the football game

Ball State finally broke through early in the 2nd quarter, with a 38-yard field goal by Steven Schott giving the Cardinals a 3-0 lead.

Three minutes later, Ohio would score its first points of the game by using a trick play. After driving to the BSU 37-yard-line, the Bobcats faked an option to the left...pitching it to wide receiver Phil Bates as he ran in the opposite direction. From there, Bates -- Ohio's backup quarterback -- uncorked a deep pass to LaVon Brazill, who caught the ball at the goal line and danced through the end zone for a touchdown!

As the Bobcats and their fans celebrated, the Marching 110 gleefully played the Ohio fight song, "Stand Up and Cheer." OU now held a 7-3 lead, with 11:41 remaining in the 1st half.

LaVon Brazill gets the Bobcats on the board

With 4:25 left in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals embarked on a lengthy drive. It covered 81 yards over nine plays, and ended with a 28-yard touchdown run by freshman Jahwan Edwards.

Almost immediately afterward, Ball State coaxed an interception from Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton. Junior linebacker Travis Freeman returned the pick to the Bobcats' 8-yard-line, and Schott kicked a 25-yard field goal as the 1st half expired.

The Peden Stadium crowd was in shock. Within a span of 38 seconds, the Cardinals scored 10 straight points against Ohio...and carried a 13-7 lead into the locker room.

A late surge gave the Cardinals a halftime lead

During halftime, another Homecoming tradition drew loud cheers from the Ohio faithful.

Following the Marching 110's traditional mid-game routine, some of the band's alumni joined them on the field for an additional performance. Playing in rhythm with their current counterparts, the former band members added to the sound that echoed throughout Peden Stadium. When it was over, all of the musicians received a standing ovation for their effort.

The Marching 110 and some alumni perform during halftime

As the 2nd half got underway, the Bobcats appeared determined to set the tone. Ohio drove 65 yards in 8 plays, getting into the end zone on a 13-yard pass from Tettleton to senior running back Donte Harden. The extra point was blocked, however, salvaging some momentum for Ball State. With 11:28 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the score was now 13-13.

The Ohio scoring drive resulted in push-ups for the cheerleaders

The Cardinals answered Ohio's scoring drive with one of their own, moving the ball 77 yards in five minutes. A quarterback draw by sophomore Keith Wenning resulted in a 3-yard TD Ball State the lead once again, 20-13.

Keith Wenning's QB draw put Ball State back on top

Unfazed by the Cardinals' success, the Bobcats would rally on offense once again. Brazill scored his 2nd touchdown of the game...this time a 74-yard strike from Tettleton.

As Brazill broke loose in the open field, the cheers from the Peden Stadium crowd turned into shrieks of joy. Those wearing green-and-white were brought to their feet, while the few clad in cardinal-and-black dejectedly hung their heads.

Brazill's 2nd TD of the game knotted the score at 20

Going into the 4th quarter, the evenly-matched teams were, fittingly, tied 20-20. While the defenses took charge early, the offenses established control in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. The game was setting up as a battle to the finish.

The Bobcats and Cardinals provided fans with an exciting game

With 14:19 left in regulation time, Schott kicked his 3rd field goal of the day for Ball State...a 27-yarder that gave the Cardinals a 23-20 edge.

As dusk approached, the sun was also setting on the Bobcats' hopes for a Homecoming victory. After starting a drive at its own 1-yard-line, Ohio drove across midfield...but a fumble by Harden gave Ball State possession with only 5:27 remaining.

Turnovers were thwarting Ohio's comeback hopes

Despite that setback, Ohio still had a chance. With under 4 minutes left and the ball deep in his own territory once again, Tettleton led the Bobcats on a 71-yard drive in 12 plays. Five straight completions brought the home team to the Ball State 24-yard-line.

Tyler Tettleton drove the Bobcats downfield in a last-ditch effort

Only 0:40 remained, and it was 4th down for Ohio. Junior kicker Matt Weller -- who was 12-for-15 on field goals on the season -- was asked to boot a 41-yard field goal and put the game-tying points on the board.

With the wind blowing in Weller's face, the ball was placed on the right hash mark. The entire Peden Stadium crowd was standing in anticipation. Weller lunged forward, putting all of the strength in his right leg into the kick. The ball sailed skyward toward the goal posts. Suddenly, the wind pulled the ball to the left...causing it to sail wide of its target.

The wind caused Matt Weller's game-tying attempt to hook wide left

After the missed field goal, many of those dressed in green-and-white slowly exited the seating area with sad expressions on their faces. What started as a Homecoming celebration ended with a 23-20 loss to Ball State.

Disappointment for Bobcats' fans at Homecoming

My trip to Athens, Ohio wasn't solely to attend a football game, however. While I was disappointed that my alma mater couldn't pull off a win, this Homecoming journey was an opportunity to reconnect with a place that is beloved to me.

Seven years is a long time between visits, and so much can change during that period. One thing has not, however -- my love for Ohio University. In fact, I may have more of an appreciation of it now than ever before.

Feeling at home in Ohio, even after all these years

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Red October

For the Philadelphia Phillies and their fans, the postseason has been a way of life since 2007.

During that time, the Phillies have tallied five consecutive National League East Division titles, two World Series appearances and a championship season in 2008. It has been an incredible run of consistency, turning them into a model Major League Baseball franchise.

The Phillies have been synonymous with the postseason since 2007

With such a sustained run of success, there is always the risk of fan apathy. There is no longer the novelty that comes with a postseason appearance. After awhile, just getting there isn't enough -- and only championships are considered acceptable.

In Philadelphia, that doesn't appear to be the case. Entering the 2011 postseason, the Phillies have racked up 217 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park -- regular season and playoffs combined. There is no shortage of ticket fact, every season ticket package that is offered by the club is sold out.

Phillies' fans are not taking the playoffs for granted

Beyond the statistical evidence, it is apparent that the city's passion is still there as well.
Philadelphia has traditionally been a football town, and fall is usually represented by the number of Eagles' jerseys you can spot. But red has also become a preferred color among area residents in October, as the Phillies continue their quest for more championships.

The 2011 postseason journey started on Saturday, October 1st, as the Phillies hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

October baseball is here

For the Phillies, the time is now in the eyes of experts and fans. After posting a franchise-record 102 regular season wins behind a star-studded pitching rotation, Philadelphia has been favored to win their 2nd World Series in the last four years.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, needed an incredible September comeback to even reach the playoffs. St. Louis finished the season with a 21-8 stretch run, passing the fading Atlanta Braves on the final day of the regular season to win the NL Wild Card.

The Cardinals used a September surge to reach the postseason

The excitement for this series was evident from the moment I arrived in South Philadelphia. Although the game's scheduled first pitch was roughly three hours away, red-clad Phillies fans had already started flocking to the Postseason Block Party that was happening just outside the ballpark.

The Postseason Block Party was a popular attraction for fans

It was a carnival-like atmosphere. As a band dressed in Phillies' jerseys played on a stage, fans mingled around the area. Some purchased playoff merchandise from a tent that was constructed outside the Third Base Gate, while others bought food and drinks from nearby concession stands on the warm October day.

The merchandise tent was stocked with playoff gear

How ready was Philadelphia for Game 1 of the NLDS? Some arrived in full uniform for the contest -- trying to feel as connected as they possibly could to their baseball team.

Put me in, Coach!

Outside the Left Field Gate, a folk band played various tunes as fans entered the ballpark. Almost all of the band members were dressed in vintage Phillies' jerseys from the 1950s...a reminder of baseball's timeless place in American society.

Some entertainment outside the entrance gate

Upon entering the ballpark, every fan was handed a rally towel to cheer on their "Fightin' Phils." Some proudly displayed the towels as they posed for pictures, while others immediately began to twirl them over their heads.

Over 45,000 rally towels were handed out prior to Game 1

Inside, there were more indications of October baseball. Red, white and blue bunting adorned the Citizens Bank Park seating area, while the scoreboards and message boards welcomed fans to the National League Division Series.

Signs of the postseason

On the field, the St. Louis Cardinals were taking batting practice, getting ready for a game that was still over an hour away. As star 1st baseman Albert Pujols stepped into the cage, almost all eyes fixated on him. Displaying a classic swing that has led to a .328 career batting average, the right-handed hitter sent a series of line drives and fly balls to the outfield...a few of which cleared the fence with ease. In the outfield seats, fans scrambled for the souvenirs that Pujols provided.

Albert Pujols launches a ball toward the seats during batting practice

As the 5:07 pm first pitch approached, I settled into my seat in Section 422. There, I watched as both teams lined up along their respective baselines for player and coach introductions. It's one of my favorite subtle aspects of the postseason. Just like Opening Day, everyone is introduced -- trainers, coaches, managers, reserve players, and finally the starting lineups.

The Cardinals and Phillies line up for pre-game introductions

With all of the pomp and circumstance out of the way, it was time for Game 1 of the NLDS.
On the mound for the Phillies was Roy Halladay, the 2010 NL Cy Young Award winner who had another sparkling season in 2011. With a record of 19-6 and a 2.35 ERA, Halladay reaffirmed his reputation as one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Roy Halladay, nicknamed "Doc" by many, has a legion of fans in Philly

The Cardinals, however, appeared unintimidated. The game's first batter, Rafael Furcal, stroked a single to right field. After an Allen Craig strikeout, Pujols walked. That brought outfielder Lance Berkman to the plate, and he crushed the first pitch he saw off the facing of the 2nd deck in right field for a 3-run homer.

As Berkman rounded the bases, Citizens Bank Park was in shock. The game was not even five minutes old, and the Phillies -- with their ace on the mound -- trailed 3-0. The fans couldn't even muster a loud "Booooo!" for Berkman...they were still struggling to awaken from the early nightmare that presented itself.

Lance Berkman is greeted by teammates after his 1st inning home run

Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse was mowing through the Phillies' vaunted lineup in the early innings. In his 4th season with St. Louis, Lohse posted a 14-8 record with a 3.39 ERA. In Game 1, however, Lohse was doing his best Halladay impression -- retiring the first ten batters he faced.

Kyle Lohse had no trouble with the Phillies in the early innings

Entering the bottom of the 4th inning, the Cardinals had maintained their 3-0 lead. The Citizens Bank Park crowd was quiet, with only a few scattered rally towels waving throughout the stadium.

Citizens Bank Park was packed, but silent as the Phillies trailed

With one out, 2nd baseman Chase Utley put the first dent in Lohse's armor, ripping a double off of the right field fence. Following a Hunter Pence strikeout, 1st baseman Ryan Howard walked. That brought veteran Shane Victorino up to the plate, as the fans' energy slowly started to escalate throughout the ballpark.

After quickly obtaining a 1-2 count, Victorino and the Phillies had a major break go their way. The center fielder lofted a fly ball into foul territory near the left field line. Third baseman David Freese gave chase, and with his back facing home plate, reached out and attempted to catch it over his shoulder. But instead of making the difficult play, the bounced off of his glove and fell to the ground in foul territory!

David Freese couldn't corral a foul pop-up by Shane Victorino, giving the Phillies a break

Bolstered by new life, Victorino then lined a single into left field that brought home Utley for the Phillies 1st run. Finally, the near-record crowd of 46,480 had something to cheer about, as many wondered if this was a sign of things to come.

Victorino shoots a single to left for the Phillies' 1st run

With St. Louis holding the 3-1 lead into the bottom of the 6th inning, the Phillies made their big move. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins started the rally with a single to right field. After an Utley strikeout, Pence ripped a single up the middle. That brought slugger Ryan Howard and his 33 regular season homers to the plate.

Howard was trying to exorcise demons from the 2010 postseason, in which he failed to hit a home run -- or even drive in any baserunners -- in nine games. On top of that, the St. Louis native made the final out of last year's NLCS against the San Francisco Giants -- frozen by a curveball for a called 3rd strike. For Howard, this was a chance at redemption.

Ryan Howard was batting in a big spot in the 6th inning

As fans continually chanted "Kyyyyyyy-llllllleeeee, Kyyyyyy-lllllleeeee" in an attempt to rattle the Cardinals' pitcher, Lohse and Howard embarked on a classic confrontation. It was an 8-pitch at-bat, with Howard spoiling some well-placed Lohse change-ups by meekly fouling them away. The count ran full, and every passing second seemingly raised the tension level inside the ballpark.

Lohse then made a mistake -- leaving a change-up in the middle of the plate. Howard jumped on it, launching a 3-run homer into the 2nd deck in right field.

Howard connects for a long 3-run homer to right

As soon as he made contact, the already-standing Phillies' fans screamed with delight. When the ball reached its landing point -- 423 feet away from home plate -- they went into a frenzy...clapping, hugging and twirling their rally towels as Howard completed his home run trot. Philadelphia now held a 4-3 lead, and the fans got to celebrate an epic October moment.

Citizens Bank Park goes crazy as the Phillies take the lead

Smelling blood in the water, the Phillies' hitters weren't done yet. With Lohse still in the game, Victorino followed Howard's big blast with a single to center field. Left fielder Raul Ibanez then blasted a 2-run homer into the seats in right field. Just like that, the Phillies led the Cardinals, 6-3...and the Citizens Bank Park crowd was delirious with joy.

Fireworks go off and the Liberty Bell "rings" after Raul Ibanez's home run

Meanwhile, Roy Halladay had shaken off the 1st inning hiccup and turned into a machine, retiring Cardinals' hitters left and right. Between the 2nd and 8th innings, the two-time Cy Young Award winner set down 21 consecutive batters. After each inning, Halladay stalked off the mound, head down, as the fans gave hearty applause.

Halladay became nearly unhittable after the 1st inning

The Phillies' hitters continued their offensive assault, scoring 3 runs in the bottom of the 7th and 2 more in the 8th against the St. Louis bullpen. With every run that crossed the plate, a Philadelphia fan's smile grew that much larger. A lead was not enough...they wanted to crush the Cardinals.

Ibanez adds to the Phillies' lead with a 7th inning single

Entering the 9th inning with an 11-3 lead, there was little doubt in the outcome for Phillies' fans. While a few headed for the exits early, the rest of the gigantic crowd stuck around, ready to celebrate the final out.

Philadelphia was having a Saturday night party

The Cardinals would prolong the suspense for a few minutes, scoring 3 runs against reliever Michael Stutes and forcing manager Charlie Manuel to bring in his closer, Ryan Madson. Fans impatiently groaned at the late rally.

When Madson struck out pinch-hitter Matt Holliday to end the game, fireworks exploded above Citizens Bank Park. Fans stood, clapped and high-fived to mark an 11-6 victory in Game 1 of the NLDS. On the scoreboard, video of the late Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Harry Kalas played as he sang "High Hopes." The Phillies were now 10 wins away from their ultimate goal -- a World Series title.

The Phillies still include Harry Kalas with every win

During the last few years, there has been a shift in the Philadelphia sports landscape. While October used to be dominated by Eagles' coverage and apparel, football now shares the stage with the Phillies and their postseason adventures.

Obviously, success will dictate how long this trend will last. One thing seems certain, however -- Phillies' fans will not get bored with winning. When your franchise has lost more games (10, be exact) than any professional sports team in history, the good times seem that much sweeter.

As long as the Phillies remain relevant, the "City of Brotherly Love" will be seeing red in October for years to come.

South Philly's "Field of Dreams" continues to shine in October