Thursday, May 27, 2010

Small Time in a Big Time World ... Expect the Unexpected

Whether you're talking about the Super Bowl of a Thanksgiving football game, there's one rule of thumb in covering sports ... expect the unexpected.

The Celtics barely broke a sweat this year to take a 3-0 lead in games over the Orlando Magic. After that third game -- a blowout to end all blowouts -- you'd have thought the Magic would have tucked their tales between their legs and slinked out of town.

Instead, they won Game 4 ... and came back and won Game 5 in a rout. Now, it's a series.

And you hear this refrain so often it makes you wonder about people: The league wants it to go six or seven games for the revenues. They tell the referees to call cheap fouls, or phantom fouls, to extend the series.

No it doesn't. This stuff happens all the time. The one thing you cannot measure about athletes is their ability to rise up off the mat, with blood dripping all over them, and respond to adversity. There is that saying "that which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger."

I can't tell you how many times I've seen -- both at the professional and amateur levels -- teams that weren't supposed to even compete in big games not only be competitive in them, but win. In fact, I've always lived by a rule of thumb in this business ... that the more lopsided a game looks on paper (before it's played) the less lopsided it ends up being. The opposite is often true. Very often, you can go into a game expecting a struggle, and end up with a rout. There's just no predicting how these things are going to go.

Today, I'm going to focus on three games -- one professional, two high school -- that illustrate this point. The underdogs in these games were 1-2, but the result doesn't matter as much as the fight they put up under less than optimum circumstances.

The first example is the 2008 Super Bowl, when the New York Giants defeated the Patriots. We all remember that game for the improbable catch David Tyree made -- using his helmet to keep possession of the ball as Rodney Harrison tried to strip it from him.

But that's not why the Giants won the game. They won it because for large portions of it, they kept the Patriots from doing what they'd been able to do for 18 other games that season ... run up and down the field and score practically at will.

There were reasons, of course, But the biggest reason was that although, on paper, the Giants looked to be vastly inferior in terms of total points, their No. 1 strength matched up well against New England's biggest weakness. The Giants had a tremendous defensive front four while the Patriots' offensive line, while certainly not terrible, wasn't its strongest suit.

The Patriots in 2007 were all glitter. They had a high-powered offense that was pass-heavy. What they weren't was gritty. This was not a team built for the trenches. It was a quick strike team, much like the Indianapolis Colts, and teams that got the Patriots in a game of trench warfare had a better chance of beating them.

This ran counter to the teams that won three Super Bowls. Those were true gritty teams with the added bonus of having a quarterback (Tom Brady) who could, if called on, provide the big strike. But those teams won because they gutted it out too. This wasn't the case in '07, even though the Patriots went undefeated during the regular season. They just bombed away that year.

But a few teams along the way figured out the Patriots' Achilles heal, and while they may not have beaten them, they threw a scare into them. The Giants just took that game plan, and, because they'd already caught fire at the right time, had the confidence and the poise to do what no other team had done that season: beat the New England Patriots.

That victory is considered the second-greatest upset in the history of the Super Bowl (the Jets beating the Colts in 1969 is still No. 1). But I can tell you, having been there, that this was anybody's game from the opening kickoff. The Giants came to play, they had the matchups to make it a game, and the Patriots got uncharacteristically erratic on defense at the moment they needed to make some plays.

A sure interception went right through Asante Samuel's hands ... and that would have sealed the deal after the Patriots had scored with just over two minutes to go to pull ahead. And right before Eli Manning threw the pass that connected with Tyree, both Jarvis Green and Richard Seymour had him wrapped up for a sack. Somehow, Manning wiggled free and completed the pass ... which was a prayer, really. It was every bit the "Hail Mary" pass as the one Doug Flutie threw in the 1984 win over Miami. And the catch was even more miraculous than Gerard Phelan's was.

But that is the formula for an upset ... hang around, take advantage of your matchups, make some big plays as the game starts winding down, and hope you've thrown your opponents off their pins enough so that they start making mistakes.

That's what the Giants did ... and that's why they won.

Each Thursday we are going to delve into the fact that, for me, covering sports is pretty much the same, whether it's the Super Bowl or a high school game in March (truth be told, sometimes, the kids are more fun to cover than the pros are). Hence "Small Time in a Big Time World."

The next game on this list occurred just this past March, in a high school gym in Salem, Massachusetts. It was a state sectional semifinal boys basketball game between Lynn English High School and St. John's Prep.

These were clearly two of the three best teams north of Boston (the other one being Central Catholic of Lawrence). Considering The Prep and English are probably within 10 miles of each other, the matchup was one of the most anticipated of the season. They'd already met once in a preseason jamboree and English had to come back for a one-point win.

Both teams had bonafide all-state players: The Prep's Pat Connaughton was a junior who had really come of age; and English's Ryan Woumn was a senior who ended up going Division 1 (East Tennessee State) for college.

A matchup for the ages, right? But wait ... Woumn could not play. Because he'd received two technicals in the previous game, he had to sit this one out, per state athletic association rules.

This clearly gave The Prep an advantage, and most people (including me) were hugely disappointed. We figured we'd be cheated out of what could possibly be the game of the year. How on earth could English -- without its star -- compete against a Prep team that had its best player ready to go and playing his best basketball of the season?

But you know what? It was the game of the season anyway.

English was an immensely talented team, even without Woumn. All Woumn did was put the Bulldogs in the upper stratosphere of basketball teams in the state (they had made the state final a year earlier).

Anyone figuring St. John's would just roll over a Woumn-less English forgot one important ingredient to sports: You play the game for two hours in a gym, not in the papers or on the radio. He who shows up and plays better wins. No excuses. Not even if the refs don't call everything your way.

Connaughton played a great game for The Prep, but by the second half, English started putting all its focus on him and dared one of the other Eagles to pick up the slack. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that's what happened. Steve Haladyna, a sophomore, picked up the slack. In the end, he -- and not Connaughton -- made the biggest difference.

And again, that's the beauty of sports. Unlikely heroes emerge at the biggest moments. David Tyree was a reserve pass receiver. He's not even with the Giants now, and it's not because he signed a lucrative contract to play with someone else. He is currently -- in the words of the real world -- unemployed. In NFL parlance, he's a free agent.

Haladyna was an unlikely hero, too, because the conventional wisdom went that Connaughton would take The Prep as far as he could. But when English threw the kitchen sink at Connaughton, there was Haladyna to seize the moment. Carpe Diem.

(As an aside, someone from the Celtics had better Carpe Diem Friday night or things are going to get real ugly in this town.)

However, Haladyna's heroics aside, English -- undermanned by virtue of losing Woumn -- shouldn't have even been in the game. But the Bulldogs hung tough. And watching them do that, I couldn't help but wonder why I -- and a lot of others -- discounted the talents of some of their other players. Every one of the kids who could play did more than anyone could have expected. Their center, a sophomore named Keandre Stanton, is already a game-changer on defense (though his offense needs some work), their guard, Travonne Berry-Rogers, never met a shot he didn't like, which can be exasperating when they don't fall. But when they do ... Lordy! You can't defend him.

They had another guard, Paradise Hogan, who came up huge. And their standbys, Irving Vizcaino and Jarell Byrd, all played well.

But the real reason why English stayed in that game for as long as it did was simple: The Bulldogs felt as if they had bull's eyes on their backs. They'd already lost their coach for the tournament because of allegations of that representatives of the school -- and not necessarily the coach -- improperly enticed players to attend the school. A lot of the people connected with English felt the school was under undue scrutiny from officials, and it was quite possible that Woumn had been whistled for two quick "T's" in that game against Lexington because of that.

And while I certainly don't believe that was the case, my opinion doesn't count. What matters is that English circled the wagons coming into that Prep game. The Bulldogs played with a chip on their shoulders from the opening tap, and however they got motivated to do that is irrelevant. The fact is, they got motivated, went out and played a whale of a game.

However, in the end, they missed Woumn. They had chances to win in the end, and under normal circumstances, the ball would have been in Woumn's hands, and he'd have either taken those wide-open outside shots or driven to the hoop. But either way, the ball, and the decisions, would have been his. As it was, The Prep only won by a point, 79-78, and had to come from eight points down in the fourth quarter to do it.

English, without Woumn, simply ran out of gas.

The final game on this list occurred on Thanksgiving 2008, featuring the Swampscott and Marblehead, MA, football teams.

Swampscott, a perennial football powerhouse, was the defending state champion. Marblehead, its traditional rival, had seen some hard times over the past two decades on the football field. But in 2008, the Magicians were making a serious run at the league championship. Swampscott was one of the teams standing in their way.

Things were looking awfully good for Marblehead when disaster struck ... disaster in one of the most frustrating ways possible. The Magicians' quarterback (Hayes Richardson), and their kicker (Iam McKinley), were suspended for the remainder of the season for violating the state's anti-alcohol bylaws.

I hasten to say this doesn't make them criminals. But in terms of being able to compete with Swampscott for the league championship, that was going to be a tall order.

Two days after the suspensions were handed down, Marblehead went to Saugus and completely laid an egg. Thrown into confusion by events of the previous week, the Magicians weren't ready to play, and lost badly to Saugus. After the game, coach Doug Chernovetz pretty much challenged the remaining players that they were going to have to respond to this ... and that nobody was going to take pity on them because two of their best players were no longer eligible to play.

They had 10 days from the Saugus game to the Thanksgiving game against Swampscott, which was to settle the league championship once and for all. Nobody gave Marblehead much of a chance. I think, by then, everyone in town knew that Chernovetz, a good guy whose tenure was pretty much non-stop controversial, was a lame duck (he was let go not long after the season ended). The quarterback situation was unsettled. And Swampscott had the area's best player (Chris Cameron) calling signals.

So what happened? Marblehead came into Swampscott and played, perhaps, its best game of the season -- under the circumstances. Similar to English without Woumn, Marblehead's players absolutely, totally responded. They hung tough against a Swampscott team that clearly had the better weapons, on this day anyway, and were poised, in the last minute, to score the a touchdown and, the two-point conversion, that would tie the game.

They were right there. On the 14-yard line, with 10 seconds left. But Cameron, the player of the year on the North Shore, the quarterback who made everything happen for Swampscott in 2008, got in front of a pass and ripped it out of the Marblehead receiver's hands -- in the end zone -- to save the 21-13 win.

Games such as these are what make sports so fascinating to follow. Just when you think everything's going against a team, the team somehow manages to find its resolve and fight back. And it doesn't matter whether you're talking about the New York Giants, English Bulldogs, or Marblehead Magicians. It's why, in a world that's sadly predictable sometimes, sports remain delightfully unpredictable.

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