Early Bird: The morning after

With a daunting 0-14 road record dating back to last season on their shoulders, the Ball State women’s basketball team had had enough. A strong effort resulting in a 55-50 win at Evansville Tuesday night at the Ford Center showed a lot of heart, toughness and character.

“We go from 0-3 to 3-3 and those are things I could see,” coach Kelly Packard said, following her third-career win over Evansville. “Since winning on the road is such a grind, i think for us to be able to grind one out early on the road just continues to help us play a little bit looser on the road, taking shots early and having the confidence to take those shots.”

The game went back-and-forth all night, but the visiting Cardinals, led by sophomore forward Jazmin Hitchens, who tallied a team-high 11 points and chipped in with eight boards, came away with the victory to spoil the Purple Aces’ home opener.

“She just plays with a lot of energy,” Packard said. “She has natural aggressiveness and competitiveness. That translates to creating that for her teammates. She’s made a huge difference in practicing at game pace [and] competing at game pace. I think that’s something that [her] teammates are allowing to translate over to their play as well.”

The Cardinals were out-rebounded by five at halftime, and Packard sent a clear message to her team.

“When we went into the locker room at the half, we really talked about the ability to take rebounding and make it something that we have such a commitment to.”

Katie Murphy emerged from the visiting locker room with one thing on her mind; secure the basketball and limit her opponent’s second chance opportunities to score.

She did just that by coming down with 12 total boards, including 10 defensive rebounds.

“Several of those 10 rebounds that Katie pulled [down], she did it in such an authoritative way,” Packard said. “Snatched it out of the air, brought it down to her chin and pivoted. There was just no question that she secured [those rebounds].”

The play that sealed Ball State’s first road triumph of the season came in the waning minutes of the game. With less than two minutes to play, the score was knotted at 48-48 before sophomore guard Brandy Woody received the ball and charged to the hoop for a layup. Woody was fouled and completed the three-point play by sinking her lone free throw of the game to give Ball State a 51-48 lead.

“She took the ball to the hoop aggressively,” Packard said. “She was in control, but assertive and that’s something Brandy is growing in.”

Winning on the road is no easy task, but the Cardinals found a way to overcome the past, snapping their winless skid, while evening their overall record to 3-3.

“We did a good job with our staff and our bench of bringing some energy,” Packard said. “Certainly the second half, some of the plays that we made stood out.”

No longer is this young team–centered around eight underclassmen and just two seniors–playing incompetent. Those days are long gone. This team has formed a winning identity and it started on Nov. 19 with an 81-72 victory over Murray State at Worthen Arena. Two games later, the Cardinals find themselves riding a three-game winning streak.

Winning streaks have been a rarity for the Cardinals of late. Their last run came in the magical 2008 season, when rookie coach Packard led the Cardinals to 12 straight wins, eventually upsetting the No. 5 seeded Tennessee Volunteers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Cardinals return to Worthen Arena Thursday night for the fist of of a brief two-game home stand when they play host to the Detroit Mercy Titans (2-3) of the Horizon League in a 7 p.m. tip-off.

Game Day notes

Good evening…I hope everyone has managed to stay inside during this nasty winter storm, and for those of you who have, here’s my take on the Ball State women’s basketball game tonight against Evansville.

*This game will tell a lot about this young team…The Cardinals are 0-2 on the road so far this season and dating back to 2010, they’re 0-14. With that said, Ball State has had success against Evansville in the past. The Cardinals have taken two of the last three meetings with the Purple Aces. The problem is, both victories came at Worthen Arena, while the loss came on the road.

*Thanksgiving break benefitted Ball State…Coach Kelly Packard assured that her group is well rested and prepared for tonight’s game. The Cardinals didn’t partake in a holiday tournament, which gave them additional rest.

*The Cardinals are riding a two-game winning streak and have been rolling on all cylinders…but their true test comes tonight in a hostile environment on somebody else’s floor.

*If Packard and the Cardinals crank out a win, their confidence will skyrocket and this team could transform into a legitimate contender. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. We’re still very early into the season and its premature to judge where this team will end up as of right now.

That’s all for now.

Thanks for reading…

-Poz

Cards lead 41-21 at the half

What appeared to be a complete mismatch on paper turned into reality, at least in the first half. The Cardinals have dominated the Oaks in all phases of the game. With a 20-point lead at the half, the Cardinals are no match for their opponent.

Freshman Jonessa Moore and sophomore Katie Murphy are tied with a team-leading eight points. Senior co-captain forward Suzanne Grossnickle has tallied seven points, including three field goals.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cardinals continue to press the Oaks and try some different looks both offensively and defensively.

***

Good evening from John. E. Worthen Arena…It’s Turkey Week folks, and what a way to kick off all the festivities with some basketball. Tonight, Ball State will look for its second consecutive victory when it takes on Oakland City at 7 p.m.

The Cardinals (1-3), who earned their first victory of the season 81-72 over Murray State on Saturday, will try to go two-for-two on the home stand. Sophomore forward Jazmin Hitchens led the Cardinals with a career-high 22 points while adding seven rebounds in just her second game of the season. Fellow sophomores Brandy Woody and Katie Murphy also turned in notable performances. Woody recorded 10 points, while Murphy chipped in with eight points and eight rebounds. As a team, the Cardinals shot over 53-percent from the field, a season-high.

Oakland City (0-2) was defeated by Eastern Illinois (93-32 on Nov. 11) and Kentucky Wesleyan College (84-51 on Nov. 13). The Lady Oaks finished the 2010 season with a mark of 15-14 and are an NCAA D-II All-Independent member.

Probable Starters:

Ball State

Guard-Brandy Woody (SO); 8 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game

Guard-Brittany Carter (FR); 10 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game

Forward-Shelbie Justice (FR); 2 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game

Forward-Katie Murphy (SO); 7.5 points per game, 6 rebounds per game

Center-Amber Crago (SR); 6.5 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game

-Thoughts on tonight’s game…

The Cardinals have a prime opportunity to fine tune their game as they are heavily favored against a D-II Oakland City team. It’ll be interesting to see how senior co-captain center Amber Crago plays. Crago didn’t have the best game of her career against the Racers, scoring just six points in 10 minutes of playing time. If Crago can elevate her game, look for the Cardinals to roll both offensively and defensively.

Coach Kelly Packard has yet to start sophomore forward Jazmin Hitchens this season. Part of the reasoning factors into Hitchens’ two-game suspension to open the season. Also, Packard may be wanting to get a different look in the early goings. No need to panic. Sooner or later, Hitchens will be in the starting lineup.

Packard earns 50th career win; Rams eliminated from NFC West contention

Good evening. Witnessing the Ball State women’s basketball team secure its first victory of the season was a sight to see, and after watching an abysmal offensive effort from the Rams today, I thought I’d share some thoughts from today’s game and the rest of the season.

Head coach Kelly Packard’s 50th career victory happened to be her teams’ first W of the season…The Cardinals defeated an undisciplined Murray State team 81-72 Saturday afternoon in John E. Worthen Arena, and now this young group is full of confidence as it heads into Monday night’s contest against Oakland City.

Sophomore forward Jazmin Hitchens has emerged as Packard’s go-to player. Though Hitchens has only played two games because of a two-game suspension to begin the season, the Cardinals are a completely different team when she’s in the lineup. Against Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Murray State, the Cardinals have scored a combined 137 points, and Hitchens has chipped in with 36, or roughly 26-percent of Ball State’s points. A notable stat to say the least. Not only has Hitchens aided the offense, but she’s a force defensively. Of her nine total rebounds thus far, five have come on defense, making her an important piece to Packard’s scheme.

Freshman guard Brittany Carter continues shine. Carter is averaging 10 points and over three rebounds per game for the Cardinals and is shooting over 44-percent from beyond the arc. Her ability to sink the 3-ball is huge and is something the Cardinals haven’t sustained over the last few seasons.

Sophomore forward Katie Murphy has taken her game to the next level. She’s been extremely impressive in rebounding, where she led the Cardinals with eight against Murray State.

Moving on…

After 10 games and a 2-8 record to show for, the St. Louis Rams have (finally) been eliminated from the NFC West… and they haven’t even played the division-leading 49ers, who improved to 9-1 with a 23-7 win over Arizona today. The Rams will finish short of a winning record for the eighth consecutive season.

The offense, behind quarterback Sam Bradford was atrocious, aside from Bradford’s first-quarter 30-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Lloyd. The makeshift offensive line was woeful, letting the Seahawks’ D-line slip through their grasp on multiple occasions, getting Steven Jackson leveled.

Sure this team has been decimated with injuries, but offensively, this team is far from where it needs to be. False starts, holding and poor execution is what this team consists of. There’s no excuse for lousy football. None. It’s funny how the good teams in this league execute and take care of the little things. Funny how that works. Ask Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

With only six games remaining, the Rams will look to play spoiler. But, I don’t see how that’s possible, considering this team was blown out by the Seahawks, who entered today’s game with a mark of 2-7. Kudos to Pete Carroll and his staff for preparing his team.

Despite the poor offensive performance, the defense came to play. Chris Long is a beast and that’s an understatement. Long has recorded six sacks in his last four games for the Rams. The Rams came away with two first-quarter interceptions from Quintin Mikell and Chris Chamberlain, but could only muster a touchdown, which proved to hurt them. The Rams were swarming the ball for the entire game, but when the unit is on the field for the majority of the game, the fatigue sets in, and the opposition will cash in, like the Seahawks did.

Thanks for reading…

-Poz

Hitchens 12 points gives Ball State 35-32 lead halftime

Of Ball State’s three losses this season, sophomore forward Jazmin Hitchens has seen the floor in just one of them. Hitchens, who is fresh off a two-game suspension for violating team rules, returned to the lineup for head coach Kelly Packard, and she’s emerged as a leader.

Sure, Hitchens is just a sophomore, but she’s matured into a poised leader, who could head this team in the right direction. She’s only played 1 1/2 games this season, and has tallied 26 points. She led the Cardinals in scoring in their 68-56 loss to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville on Wednesday night, and scored 12 of her team’s 35 first-half points against the Murray State Racers.

Cardinal-BLINGS:

-Freshman guard Brittany Carter has three personal fouls at the half…Senior co-captain Suzanne Grossnickle, freshman forward Neschelle Williams and senior guard Megan Craft are the only Cardinals who failed to score in the first half.

Thoughts on Matheny, Rams, Blues and Ball State

Good morning and happy Friday…There’s been a circus of events taking place in the St. Louis sports world and here at Ball State, so let’s dive right in:

When the Cardinals announced the hiring of Mike Matheny as the successor to Tony La Russa, a few thoughts popped into my head. First, it was the right choice for a multitude of reasons. Secondly, Matheny has proven himself to the Cardinals, the fans and the organization.

Rooting against Matheny would be foolish. His interview with general manager John Mozeliak and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. was thoroughly impressive and ultimately led to his hiring. Throughout his playing days in St. Louis, Matheny has earned the respect from current and former teammates, staff, fans, various media personnel and countless opponents. Matheny is an all-around leader.

Does this mean Matheny will be a successful manager? Absolutely not. Don’t forget that Matheny has zero coaching experience in the big leagues. He served as an instructor for the team over the last two seasons, but was Mozeliak’s and La Russa’s right-hand man. Matheny and La Russa spent countless days talking baseball in terms of philosophy and coaching among other things. When debating whether Matheny will be a good manager, the truth is simple: One can’t determine this outcome. There’s no evidence to base an opinion off of. Sure, Matheny possesses great leadership skills, which could carry over to his managerial days, but this job is one of the hardest in all of sports. Not to mention filling the shoes of TLR is a daunting task altogether. The pressure can be extreme and the expectations are higher than ever. As much as I hate to say this, there is no clear cut way of knowing how this will pan out. Sure, it’s a gamble and a huge one at that. Of course there were other options for Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr. to explore, but Matheny was the chosen one, which says a lot. Mozeliak is willing to take the risk, placing all of his marbles on Matheny’s potential. Of course, if it backfires, it’s all on Mozeliak.

Baseball analysts and other hardcore media experts will try jump to conclusions on Matheny’s hiring. That’s a given. The Cardinals will be ripped for hiring a guy who some say “took the easy route” into managing, leap-frogging over other potential managers who have waited years for this opportunity. I don’t buy that at all. It’s absurd. How can you be so quick to judge Matheny? There’s no track record to base an argument on. Like I said, it’s certainly a gamble, but I’ll go with Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr’s. decision here. There’s a chance they know more about the situation than I or any other  expert.

With all decisions comes the question of political correctness. This topic is both amusing and frustrating. Critics will ask why Mozeliak gave the job to Matheny while passing on longtime third-base coach Jose Oquendo, who is a native of Puerto Rico. Mozeliak chose Matheny over five other candidates, four of which were white guys. So why did Mozeliak choose Matheny? To put it bluntly, Matheny was already an insider. A close ally, already a member of the Cardinal family. Enough with all of the PC garbage. It’s irrelevant to the situation.

Mozeliak is now the boss. When TLR retired, Mozeliak knew his first chance to gain sole power in the organization would come with his first hire. Other alterations within the organization will likely take place. Consider what Mozeliak has done this past season. He made the risky trades that became a huge factor in the Cardinals’ Cinderella-like run to their 11th World Series championship in franchise history.

Moving on…

Steve Spagnuolo deserves a lot of credit for coming away with a much-need victory over the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. This season has turned for the worst, and critics, including myself have constantly blasted Spags and his staff for the results of what once was thought to be a promising season.

Steven Jackson appears to be in full swing now that he is back in the lineup for the Rams. Over the last three weeks, SJ has racked up 417 yards on the ground. He’s rushed for more than 100-yards three weeks in a row and has been a huge relief for quarterback Sam Bradford, who has struggled with an ankle injury. Jackson has also taken pressure off the offensive line, who continues to have problems with pass protection.

The Seattle Seahawks come to town on Sunday and many will tune out to this one, but make no mistake, this is a huge game for the Rams. At 2-7, a victory would tie the Rams with the Seahawks in the NFC West and put them within reach of the virtually unbeatable 49ers, who have a commanding five-game lead in the division.

Moving on…

What a job Mike Hitchcock has done with the St. Louis Blues. When the Blues canned Davis Payne and lured Hitchcock away from Columbus, a new team has emerged from the dead. Let’s face it, prior to the Hitchcock hiring, the Blues were struggling in all facets of the game. They were 6-7 and falling fast under Payne. Many questioned why general manager Doug Armstrong was so quick to pull the plug on Payne, but the reality is simple; the Blues weren’t producing and Payne didn’t get the most out of the club. I will say this though; It’s sad that when everything goes wrong, the coach receives all of the blame. Shouldn’t the players be held accountable for playing lousy hockey? Just my opinion.

Anyway…Hitchcock, who is a no-nonsense coach, has transformed this team into a contender. At least for the team being. The Blues are 4-0-1 under Hitchcock, and are rolling on all cylinders. The Note have allowed just four goals and have received points in all four games. Against division rival Detroit, the Blues came away with a 2-1 victory at Scottrade Center, and Thursday night’s 4-1 win over the Florida Panthers capped a noteworthy five-game home stand. When up against adversity, this club doesn’t back down like it used to. Rather, they stand together. Midway through the first period of Tuesday night’s game, forward Chris Stewart put a vicious hit on defenseman Niklas Kronwall, and received a game misconduct. The Blues were also dealt a five-minute major. Already down 1-0, it looked as if things were going to get ugly quick. But the PK unit stood their ground, blocking shots at will, killing off six penalties on the night.

Moving on…

The Ball State men’s basketball team came within minutes of pulling off a major upset in its season opener vs. No. 16 Arizona, but couldn’t seal the deal, losing in the final minutes of regulation…Kudos to head coach Billy Taylor for preparing his team. Not only did they hold their own, they could and very well should have won the game. Just 28 seconds into the second half, the Cardinals held an 11-point lead over the Wildcats, who clearly underestimated the underdog Cardinals. So what they didn’t win. Arizona is one heck of a basketball program, historically speaking and honestly, few thought the game would be close, much less witnessing the team from the Mid-American Conference dominate for the majority of the game. If anything, this game should serve as a reminder of what this team is capable of accomplishing this season. Heck, if they can nearly upset the No. 16 team in the country, what would they do to teams within the MAC?

Moving on…

Speaking of basketball, the women’s team is off to a slow start. The Cardinals have dropped three straight to open up the season. Dating back to last season, including the Mid-American Conference tournament, the Cardinals have lost 13 straight. The stat certainly doesn’t sit well with coach Kelly Packard, who is in the midst of her fourth season behind the bench for the Cardinals, and is one win shy of 50 for her career.

Youth has plagued the Cardinals and will most likely trouble them throughout the 2011-12 season. The departures of last season’s leading scorers Emily Maggert and Ty’Ronda Benning leave a huge hole in the offense. With eight underclassmen, Packard is still in search for a winning formula. The Cardinals return to John E. Worthen Arena for a brief two-game home stand, which begins Saturday night against Murray State.

Thanks for reading…

-Poz

Cardinals interview Sandberg, Oquendo

The St. Louis Cardinals completed their first, and possibly only round of interviews to fill the coaching void following Tony La Russa’s retirement.

Ryne Sandberg, the Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer and Cardinals third-base coach Jose Oquendo were interviewed at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. Sandberg and Oquendo are the final two candidates to be interviewed by general manager John Mozeliak and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.

According to Mozeliak, the interview process has been finalized, but there’s a possibility for follow up interviews with the vying six candidates, which include formal Cardinal Gold Glove catcher Mike Matheny, former Boston Red Sox manager and two-time World Series champion Terry Francona, Cardinals Triple-A Memphis manager Chris Maloney, former Cardinal Joe McEwing along with Sandberg and Oquendo.

The Cardinals received permission from the Philadelphia Phillies to interview Sandberg, who played for the Cardinals arch rival, the Chicago Cubs. Sandberg started his managerial career after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005. He managed for the past five seasons in the minor leagues with the Cubs and Phillies and was ruled out as a potential candidate to fill the void in Chicago, according to Cubs president Theo Epstein.

Sandberg met with Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr. for over two hours Wednesday morning, and according to the Associated Press, Sandberg said, “It was a comfortable conversation. From my standpoint, it went about as well as it could have gone.”

Oquendo’s interview was held in the afternoon and lasted around 2 1/2 hours.

When asked about his interview, Oquendo said, “I was encouraged,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I felt like it went pretty smooth. They asked a lot of questions, and it was fun to sit down and talk about it.”

Oquendo has been the Cardinals’ third base coach for the last 12 seasons, and is highly coveted by the organization. According to the Post-Dispatch, Oquendo said he would like to stay on in that capacity, if the opportunity presented itself.

Oquendo, according to the Post-Dispatch, had hoped to have a managing job before now, but he said: “Sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way. You have to be in the right place at the right time. If it’s not going to be me, I’m not going to be saying, ‘Why not?’ If it happens, it happens.”

The Cardinals are expected to make a coaching decision next week.