March 2011 Archives
and welcome to Schark Bytes!
and foremost, I encourage everyone to become active in the blog by using the
comments section at the bottom of each entry! If this is your first time
reading, I'm honored and glad that you are here. If you've been to the blog
before, thank you for your continued support!
way, you might be curious what Schark Bytes is all about; how it came to be and
why it's being written in the first place. Or perhaps you're wondering who is
this Kristin Scharkey anyway? I
was recently asked to write an entry that answered all of those questions, and
found that this is the best way to do so.
know that instant when the entire world goes quiet? When everything around you
fades noiselessly into the background and suddenly, you're left with only
yourself and the moment surrounding you?
the kind of sensation I feel in three very distinct places: in the batter's
box, on stage and behind a pen.
may know me best as the outfielder from Yorba Linda, Calif., the sophomore
slapper wearing #3 on her back. It's my love for this game that brought me to
Northwestern to play for a program rich with tradition and made up of girls I
now consider family.
know me as a musician. I've been singing on stage since I could talk and taught
myself to play guitar throughout high school. Always on stage with a school or
church choir, I never dreamed of performing as a solo act. That all changed
around this time last year, when current senior Michelle Batts encouraged me to
play and sing at a downtown Evanston coffee shop's open mic night. It was an
experience I'll never forget and has opened the door to numerous performances
also a daughter, a Christ-follower and a die-hard Lakers fan. I'm a big sister,
a terrible cook and an avid reader.
to the core, I am a writer. It's one of the reasons I fell in love with this
school the moment I stepped on campus and toured the Medill School of
Journalism, Media and Marketing Communications. Consistently ranked near or at the
top of the nation's top journalism schools, Medill made it impossible for a
softball player with a passion for writing not to choose Northwestern.
year and a half into getting my degree, I can say it's one of the best
decisions I have made. Classes are challenging and thrilling--and though I'm
only a sophomore--Medill has already deepened my love for writing and
strengthened my skill set as a journalist to an unbelievable extent. I've had
the opportunity to write for several on-campus publications, for ESPN RISE, and
now, for NU Sports. I write to tell the stories that will make an impact on the
lives of readers. I write to express my own soul, as well as to tell the
stories of others that need to be told.
the reasoning behind Schark Bytes, and the writer behind the words. I hope this
blog becomes your window into the 2011 Northwestern softball team; from the
people we meet to the places we go to the experiences we share. Thank you for
taking this journey with me and allowing me to tell it to you through my own
eyes. We're looking forward to seeing you all at our double header against
Loyola this Saturday at the Sharon J. Drysdale Field! Go 'Cats!
He was a running back as a true freshman and a wide receiver as a
sophomore and now, as the 'Cats began preparation for their Outback Bowl
date with Auburn, Jeravin Matthews was reassigned yet again. This time he was reassigned to that island inhabited by all cornerbacks.
"We were trying to find the best position for him," explains defensive coordinater Mike Hankwitz.
"He runs extremely well. He's made a lot of plays on our special teams,
and he has that speed you're really looking for in a corner. We just
felt like it was a better position for him. You know, everybody has
different strengths. He wasn't a natural receiver. But he's competitive
and he has that great speed and he made those plays on special teams.
Those are the kinds of things a corner has to do, so we thought maybe it
was a more natural position for him."
"I wanted to find a home for him," echoes head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
"He was struggling, scuffling to catch the ball, so receiver didn't
seem the right fit. Effort, attitude, the work ethic he's been committed
to since he's been in our program has been spectacular. He's been if
not our best, one of our best special teams players. So I really felt
that would be the best role for him after talking to the staff."
"I just gave them a big smile and said, 'All right. I'm ready,'" says
Matthews when asked his reaction to that switch. "Coach Fitz and I had
talked about it and we thought it was best for me and it was best for
the team and it was a way I could possibly contribute more to the team.
So we just did it and full speed ahead."
• • • • • •
Back in 1973, that fall when he became the first NFL back to rush for
2,000 yards, O.J. Simpson said this to your Scribbler: "Running. Man,
that's what I do. That's me. . . I'm a runner. When I make a good run,
man, it's a great satisfaction. And if I can do it in front of 80,000
people, all the better. It's like, man, it's like you feel after making
Some years later, after spending a season with the San Diego Chargers, a
psychiatrist named Arnold Mandell published a book called "The
Nightmare Season" and in it he wrote, "The wide receiver needs to be the
center of attention."
So the running back defines himself by his position and the wide receiver perceives himself as a movie star, yet here was Jeravin Matthews
not only belying those images and taking on a challenge with no
guarantee of success. He was also putting himself in a position that
would deliver no instant gratification, which is nothing less than
mother's milk for so many in this age.
He, in fact, was here spitting in the eye of so many notions and common
beliefs, and proving himself far different than those narcissistic jocks
that now so clutter our airways. "I was a running back in high school,"
he says when all this is pointed out to him. "Some people say running
backs are prima donnas. But I think the running backs here, and the guys
I was around, I consider them workhorses. I consider them some of the
toughest guys on the team, and I was happy to be in the room with them
and take on that mentality with them. I thought it was really beneficial
to me being around those guys.
"I identified myself with that position, that was the position I wanted
to play when I came to college. But the thing about me is it really
doesn't matter to me where I play. As long as I'm helping the team, as
long as I'm getting a chance to contribute and showcase what I can do,
wherever I'm at, I'm going to do my best and put my all into it."
Did he consider how long it might take for him to get on the field as a corner?
"That's one of the things Coach Fitz and I talked about. He said, 'Try
to keep in mind it's going to take a little bit and just stay patient
and keep with it, stick with it, and just keep working the technique,
working the fundamentals.' I knew that it wasn't all going to come
overnight. I knew it was going to take time. So I just patiently worked
at it with (defensive backs) Coach (Jerry) Brown and the older DBs and
just got ready for my opportunity, got ready for the opportunity to play
Where did he find that patience, that ability to turn his back on instant gratification?
"I'd just say the people around me and how I was raised," he says, and
now comes a pause that fairly asks his listener why he doesn't
understand his commitment to the whole.
"Basically it was just whatever I could do to help the team, whether it
was special teams, whether it was being a starter on offense or defense,
it was just how can I get on the field?" he now reiterates. "Then, if I
got on the field, I was going to be the best at whatever I did on the
field. That's the mindset I take into everything. I just wanted to
really help the team. That was my mindset and how I dealt with it."
• • • • • •
Her name is Michelle Matthews and, back when she was raising her two
sons, she worked some 14 hours a day so she could provide for them. Some
were spent laboring in a nursing home, others were spent as a cafeteria
lady in the district where her boys attended school, but all were duly
noted and safely stored by that son she called Jeravin. "When I was
growing up," he remembers, "we really didn't have a lot. Sometimes that
got hard, and I just learned a lot from her about keep working, keep
working, keep working, and soon that hard work's going to pay off. I saw
that it paid off for her and I try to translate that into everything I
do in my life. She was really instrumental in me as a person, as a
"She was a very hard-working woman. That's where I got a lot of my work
ethic from. But even though she was working so much, she still found a
way to take care of me and my brother and keep us on the right track and
our nose in the books and everything. She's a very special woman, a
very important person in my life. I saw her doing that and thought,
'She's doing all of this for me. The least I can do is put my all into
everything I do. Kind of repay her.'"
So working up the ladder at corner is a way of repaying his mom?
"Just doing what she taught me," Jeravin Matthews says.
• • • • • •
Last spring, shortly after the 'Cats returned from Florida, Fitzgerald
told Matthews he might want to think of redshirting so he would have
more time to master the new challenge just handed him. Matthews
considered that overnight and the next day told his coach, "I want to
play." He would play little at corner, while still shining on special
teams, and so his fall was mottled by some inevitable bouts with
despair. "There were times when I got down on myself," he admits. "There
were times when I got a little bit frustrated trying to take in so much
information in the time period I had. But, like I said, I had a lot of
guys around me, (safety) Brian Peters, Coach Brown, Coach Fitz, to go to and talk to. They kept me level-headed and grounded."
And what was the best advice he got in those talks?
"Coach Fitz always tells us not to compare ourselves to other people,
but to compare ourselves to ourselves. Which means, focus on what you
need to do, not the guys you're competing against. Just focus on
yourself, focus on your technique and your fundamentals, and eventually,
after you start focusing on that, you start getting better and you'll
be prepared for your opportunity to play."
"He wasn't doing anything wrong," Fitzgerald himself says when asked
about those talks. "It just wasn't happening right now for him. As a
competitor, to learn that kind of patience is really, really difficult,
if not impossible. But I think he's handled it well. Yeah. He's gotten
down. But I don't think he ever lost his attitude, ever lost his edge."
• • • • • •
Now we have another spring, that time for blooming, and when the 'Cats
scrimmage Saturday for the first time, their starter at right corner
will be Jeravin Matthews.
"You like guys at corner who played other positions," says Hankwitz.
"All those skills help you, and we're excited by the progress he's made.
We just hope he continues to progress."
"He would be the best poster child for our team and our program," says
Fitzgerald. "He's had great patience. He's been willing to do anything
and sacrifice for the program. . . He's got great football intelligence.
He's got incredible "want to." His work ethic is great. He's a
multi-year member of our Leadership Council for a reason. He's respected
by his teammates and that role's important to him. He's the ultimate
and consummate team player."
• • • • • •
And now that he is a starter, what is Jeravin Matthews'
approach? "It remains the same. Focus on me and just do what I need to
do to get better," he says. "Nothing's set in stone. There's guys
breathing down my neck. There's young guys. So it's just constantly keep
This answer, of course, is not surprising. It is instead an answer that would make his mother proud.
AND THE WINNER IS: This was Monday and the 'Cats had just finished their first post-spring-break practice and now, in the middle of the field, Pat Fitzgerald
was lecturing sternly and out of his mouth popped the word suntans. So,
later, we just had to ask if he had seen a number of them. "All it
takes is one for me, so it doesn't matter," he said. "But I think (wide
receiver Jeremy) Ebert wins. I think he's got the nicest tan. I'm not
surprised. Jeremy's always been a good-looking guy."
BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS: The 'Cats drilled for two hours in shorts,
shoulder pads and helmets. When asked how they looked, Fitzgerald
opined: "Like they were still on spring break, but that's to be
expected. That's what we predicted as coaches. Knowing our leadership
over the past (years), they'll come back tomorrow with a vengeance."
WHAT I DID ON MY SPRING BREAK: Fitzgerald and his family went to
Naples, Fla. "It was good to recharge, it was good to be a dad. It was
good. It was a good week," he reported. But? "It's good to be back going
again," he added.
SPRING RESURRECTION: He underwent a shoulder operation on Feb. 16
and was expected to be a non-combatant until the 'Cats reconvened in
late summer. But on Monday linebacker Bryce McNaul
was dressed out and on the field and practicing with no limitations.
"It sounds a lot worse than it actually was," he would say of the
operation, which removed the AC joint from his shoulder. "What it turned
out to be was the accumulation of shoulder injuries over the years and
the pounding, especially this past season. . .(produced) a good amount
of debris and broken bones and stuff up in the shoulder. It was kind of a
thing, after the season, I'm used to pushing through it and getting
back to full strength. But it wasn't happening, so we went in there and
cleaned it up."
He was fairly smiling as he offered this description, which we mentioned to him.
"It's kind of funny because the last shoulder surgery I had was around
the same time after the Alamo Bowl back in '09," he said, smiling still.
"That was an eight-month recovery and it was kind of all
doom-and-gloom. So when they told me shoulder surgery, and especially
when they said we're taking your AC joint out, I'm like, 'Oh, great.
Here we go again.' But I came out of surgery and I kind of had a smile
on my face because I felt great. It was a 45-minute operation and, like I
said, they just cleaned it up. They didn't have to reconstruct or
re-patch the whole thing. So it's all good. I just have a few more holes
in the shoulder."
LOOK IT UP: We wondered if AC stood for something. It does,
McNaul assured. "But I can't pronounce it," he went on. "They told me it
wasn't very important. I can still punch and hit and bench press
without a lot of pain, which is what we wanted."
FOR THE RECORD: Acromioclavicular. That is what AC stands for and so it is with good reason that McNaul cannot pronounce it.
LET'S PLAY: McNaul could neither run nor lift immediately after
his operation, but was cleared to resume normal activity just before the
'Cats broke for their spring vacation. "That night I hit the treadmill
and started getting after it," he remembered and that only continued
after he and Paige McMenamin, a former 'Cat lacrosse player, landed in
Key Largo to grab some sun.
"She put me through some of their conditioning work," McNaul now went
on. "We had to be a little creative down there. We didn't have the same
facilities we have here. But it helps when you've got a coach barking in
And how creative were they?
"One day we went to a little gym next to where we were staying and it
was shut. So we're sitting there in the parking lot and I say, 'I know
how to do our dynamic warm-up.' And she says, 'Well, I know some
conditioning work that'll get you a good drip going.' I ended up doing
lunges and split jumps and a jumping circuit until I'm
hands-on-my-knees, doubled-over and seeing stars. She really kicked my
That all happened in the parking lot?
"We did it in the parking lot, yeah. So if you were driving by, it might
of looked kind of weird, this little 110-pound girl yelling at this big
linebacker. But it was fun. It kept it interesting and kept me
And how did he feel being back on the field again?
"It felt good. Obviously it was sloppy, not just for me, but for
everybody on our defense. But, man, it's like a lightening bolt being
back on this field. It comes over you. It's Big Ten football and it's a
dream come true. Being away from it, I was away from it for only three
of four practices before we left, but that's enough to remind me of how
special it is to be out here."
HE KNOWS. OH, DOES HE KNOW: Quarterback Dan Persa
is hardly idle this spring. He lifts and works further on his strength
and watches more film than ever and religiously rehabs the Achilles he
tore last fall. But, during practice itself, he is a spectator and that,
he admits, "I don't like. Obviously, I'd rather be out there with them.
But it's definitely a learning experience just stepping back, telling
them what they're doing wrong, doing right. It's a good experience, but
obviously I really don't like it that much."
He does that coaching, he now goes on, right there on the field, right
after one unit is replaced by another. For example, on Monday, "I saw a
running back running into the goal line and getting tackled and not
squeezing the ball. The ball was hanging out a little bit and that's
when you're susceptible to getting stripped."
But is it a learning experience for him as well?
"I guess. It's tough not being out there. My whole life I've been out
there, I've never really been hurt. Not being able to do stuff is a
Is patience one of those things he is learning?
He chuckles, knowing well that he is well known for his impatience.
Then, a small smile still creasing his lips, he says: "A little bit, a
little bit. But I'm not very patient."
• LET THERE BE THUDS: Saturday, in their final practice before
breaking for exams, the 'Cats were in full gear, which meant they could
play football again for the first time since their January bowl game in
Dallas. "It's always fun to be in pads," defensive end Quentin Williams
would later say. "It's always fun to go live and really get after it.
To get the feeling of taking someone down, it's satisfying."
"It feels awesome," echoed safety Brian Peters,
who was smiling broadly as he said that. "Defensive-minded people,
we're ready to bang every day. It was fun to be able to smack some
offensive guys around. They got a little too comfortable in the
• IN CASE YOU MISSED IT THE FIRST TIME: Asked how he felt to see his team playing football again, 'Cats coach Pat Fitzgerald
said, "I'm really glad we didn't play Boston College today. We got a
long, long, long, long, long, long, long way to go. But I think, what's
more important, is for the guys to realize these fundamentals and
techniques we're talking about, how critically important they are.
Especially when we start pushing the tempo. The first thing to go is
your mind, and if your mind goes, there goes your body. And we got
sloppy as the team period went along. So a lot we can clean up and
Can that happen in practice?
"Oh, yeah. I think that mental toughness comes from being in great
physical condition. It's not a chicken-and-egg deal. You've got to be in
great shape to be mentally tough. The tempo that we go at, if we were a
finished product today, I'd be a little concerned. I'd like to be the
finished product maybe sometime in November. So we got a lot of work to
But did he see the intensity he liked?
"It was OK. On the One-to-Ten-ometer, I'd give it a 1.75. We're all
right. We're OK. Baby steps. We got a long, long way to go. First
Saturday of full pads practice in spring ball. We're not a very good
football team right now. But nobody is in the country."
• TWO-MINUTE DRILL WITH COACH HANK: Often, in this offseason, Fitzgerald has declared that his team lost its attitude after quarterback Dan Persa
went down and that this, more than anything, prompted their failures
against Illinois and Wisconsin and Texas Tech. We wondered, on Saturday,
if defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz
agreed. "We've addressed it, we've talked about it, we've explained
what happened," he said. "The last three games, we didn't have the same
attitude we had prior to that. They could see it and we said, 'We're
putting it behind us, moving on and working to have a better attitude.'
It really started in the offseason ... and it's carried over. Now it's
developing. It's much closer to where we need to be. We're headed in
the right direction."
What did they see on film that let them know the attitude was absent?
"We weren't celebrating plays, we weren't letting a guy know he did a
heck of a job. We didn't have the same intensity in our pursuit. It
seemed like we were playing more individually than collectively
together. It's frustrating, disappointing. But it happened and now we're
going to do something about it."
Was it a teaching lesson?
"Oh, yeah, it was a great teaching lesson. We let a string of things
effect us more than they should have and that prevented us from using
the tools that we had."
"Yeah. In reality. Yeah. And we had some guys who were banged up, hurt,
and they let that affect them more than it should have. So it was
definitely frustrating. We could see it happening, we tried to address
it, but we just couldn't, we never got it changed the way we needed to."
• THE VIEW FROM THE FIELD: We brought up Hankwitz's observations
while talking with Peters and Williams. "We didn't play with the
swagger, the team chemistry, especially on the defensive side of the
ball, to win games and it cost us. And I wouldn't say it was just the
last games," said Peters. "I could say it spread back to the whole
season. We never played as a combined force. When we did have it on,
like the Iowa game, you could tell. We were celebrating after plays and
all that. (Not) seizing momentum and keeping momentum is what killed us
at the end of the season."
"I think right know we're really focusing on being a team, being a
defensive unit communicating really well and working together," said
Hank said you talked about it. What exactly was discussed?
"We talked about playing together and playing with an attitude," said
Peters. "That stems from repeatedly responding and celebrating after
every play. If you keep harping on it, it becomes a habit, and once it
becomes a habit, we're going to be a deadly force."
• CHANGES I: Williams, by the way, has dropped baseball, which he
played in his first two years as a 'Cat. "I just felt like I needed to
focus," he explained. "I didn't see myself progressing like I wanted in
either sport. So I figured I better drop one, and it was natural for me
to choose football."
He has, as a result, gained some 15 pounds and is up to 260, which makes
it no surprise that Hankwitz says, "He's stronger, and he's been able
to devote more time to working on some things that he wants to improve
• CHANGES II: Defensive tackle Niko Mafuli,
in contrast, has spent his offseason dropping weight, which is why both
Fitzgerald and Hankwitz have said he is in the best shape of his life.
"I really worked at it ... to get my body where I want it to be," he
said on Saturday. "It's not there yet. It's not going to be there
probably until camp. It's an ongoing thing. It's going to continue
through the spring, summer, into camp."
Has he changed is diet?
He laughed. "Yeah. I was eating a little crazy for a little bit, my
weight was up. So I really changed. I got with our nutritionist and
changed the way I ate."
What did he drop from his diet?
"A lot of carbs ... a lot of the sweet stuff. I'm a big guy, I like the sweet stuff."
"All that good stuff. Ice cream. And I upped my protein intake, upped
the vegetable intake, dropped the carbs, and portion control is a big
thing for me. So it's smaller meals more frequently."
What's been the change in him?
"I'm down, from the start of winter workouts, about 16 pounds. I've dropped down and I feel better and want to keep going."
What prompted the change? Did he look at himself in the mirror?
"It was a combination of that, (defensive line) Coach (Marty) Long
getting on me, and I was like, 'This is my last year. I want to do
something I've never done before.' I just want to give my all. I just
said one day, 'This is enough. I'm going to do something about this.'
Weight's always been a big thing with me. It's something that's held me
back in the past. I'm not going to let that happen anymore."
• CHANGES III: Rising sophomore speedster Venric Mark, who last season was No. 85 in your program, is now wearing No. 5, which previously belonged to the graduated Sidney Stewart.
Explained Mark: "I was No. 5 in Little League, I was No. 5 in high
school, I saw the opportunity to wear No. 5 now, so I thought I should
grab it. I went back to childhood."
He stands a mere 5-foot-10, but inside him is a heart so large it
spans state lines. He often recalls a cuddly younger brother, but inside
him burns a fire stoked high enough to anneal steel. He looks as
unimposing as a pair of well-worn brown shoes, but inside him resides a
drive that has propelled him throughout a career that will soon end with
him as the 'Cat career leader in games played and assists made. He is
point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson, who sat down with NUsports.com
Special Contributor Skip Myslenski before heading off for his last Big
Ten Tournament and went...
ON THE RECORD
The words of wisdom that I've lived by definitely came from my father.
He said anytime I'm doing anything, make sure I give it 110 percent.
Give my full effort, my undivided attention. Approach everything as if
it's your last time doing it.
My dad, he works for Cook County. He's a Cook County sheriff.
He also worked side jobs as well. So, on some nights, he'd work a 24-hour day.
He would go to Cook County from seven a.m. until 3:30 and sometimes he
wouldn't even come home. He'd go straight to his side job, work 10 or 12
hours there, and then go back to Cook County and work again.
It was tough him not being around a lot of days when I was younger. But
as I got older, and he started taking less side jobs, I got to talk to
him about it.
Just seeing how hard he worked to support our family, to take care of
us, and still come out to support me and my siblings in our sports, that
was a big thing. I learned my hard work from him.
My mom works for the United States Postal Service and I take a little
bit of my hard work from her as well. She works late at night. She
starts at about three a.m. and gets off at about 11 a.m., but some days
she'll not come home until three or four in the afternoon.
I'm like, "Mom, when are you going to get some sleep?" She's like, "I'll
get some sleep after." Because some of those days she came to watch us
play our games as well.
So both of my parents worked hard and I think that's where I got my hard work.
When we first moved over to Rogers Park, Loyola Park was the first park
district that we heard about from one of our neighbors. We grew up with
one of their kids and are still good friends with them.
My brother was four years older than me and he was playing in a league
at that time. I wanted to do anything my brother was doing, hang out
with the older people and play with them. I saw how focused and how good
he was at basketball, and growing up, I wasn't as good.
I wanted to be able to fit in with them and play with them, and so just
watching those older guys be so good, that drove me to work hard so I
could play with them and hang out with my older brother as much as I
Growing up, definitely my older brother was my hero. With him being four
years older than me, he was in high school when I was in grammar
school, he was in college when I was in high school. Just being able to
get that advice from him about the next level, about what to do and what
not to do, that was huge for me.
I think it was very important. It was significant. It helped my approach
a lot. He was able to experience things, share things with me, tell me
what he was able to do that made him successful and the bad things too,
what not to do.
Having the upper hand with that knowledge going into high school, going into college, that helped me out a lot.
Whenever I have time, I try to hang out with the kids (at Loyola Park)
and offer them advice. With them looking up to me now, I always have to
set the way. Show them right from wrong. That gives me a huge
responsibility. I definitely have to make sure I'm always on top of
things, basketball wise, school wise.
No, never. My parents raised me the right way, myself and my siblings.
And my father being a Cook County sheriff, you never wanted to do
anything bad or get into trouble. Not only would you get in trouble with
the law. You never wanted to come home to your parents after doing
With him being a Cook County sheriff, that would have just been triple the trouble.
Growing up at park districts, you're around a lot of kids. It's tough to
see those guys doing the wrong things. But you have to make decisions,
do what's best for your life.
I just chose basketball as my way of trying to get away from all that.
It happened in high school, sophomore year. Freshman year, I played
pretty well, I was able to start on varsity right away. Sophomore year
we got a new coach who had a lot of connections with colleges.
That's when I started receiving interest from a lot of colleges. That's
when I thought, "OK. Maybe I do have an opportunity to go to college for
free and get a full athletic scholarship."
That's when I decided basketball is something I want to do forever.
It's tough to train on Christmas. A lot of gyms are closed. But I
definitely did train on a lot of holidays, pretty much every day that I
could. I never wanted to be away from basketball. Basketball is a lot of
Other holidays, like Thanksgiving and Easter and things like that, some
park districts are open. So we were able to find some gyms we were able
to get into and get some workouts in.
The workers there. Some gyms are open for a couple hours on those
holidays and they're like, "What are you doing here? I didn't expect
anybody to be here?"
I'm like, "I have to put this work in. I have to get better."
A lot of people take that time off. You never want to take time off when everyone else is.
Seventh grade, playing at Loyola Park, one team decided to play
two-three zone. That day, we figured out how to break that zone and I
made maybe 25-of-27 threes. At the time, everyone had a saying when they
shot jump shots and I would say, "Juice."
I felt my jump shot was 100 percent pure.
I came up with everything for it and a definition for it. After that, the name just stuck with me.
I love it. It's a great name.
I took a lot of crap. Even to this day I take a lot of crap about being small. But I think that makes me the person that I am.
If I was any taller, I wouldn't be the same.
I always come around with a bounce in my step. People talk about me, say
I'm so small I walk on my tippy toes to gain a couple of inches.
I just take that in stride and use it as motivation.
There's so many lines. A lot of times they just call me "The Midget."
A lot of times, in practice, ('Cat coach Bill) Carmody's like, "Why
don't you just throw it over there to the little guy." He's always
making an emphasis on how short I am.
Opposing gyms, I walk in, they're like, "All right, we're not going to
let this little guy do anything. He's on TV. That don't mean anything.
He's so short, we're just going to post him up."
Fans, especially when we go to away games, they say I'm too little to
play, that I need the high seat toddlers get when they go to eat. They
say I need phone books when I'm driving my car.
Michigan State, by far. They're there about two hours early, the Izzone
(student section) is packed. They're right there on the court, they're
harassing each and every person on our team.
I chose Northwestern because of the proximity. It was only 10 minutes
away from home, so my family and friends could watch us play. The
academics of it. It's just a great institution, one of the best colleges
in the country. And I felt the basketball program was on the rise with
the players here and the players coming in.
Everyone had the same goal. Turning around the tradition and the culture of Northwestern Basketball.
I think I had a pretty good level of comfort here at the time. But there
were some times my freshman year, in conference play we won only one
game, where everyone on the team went, "Wow, we're not winning. Are
things going to change?"
It was a tough year. I wasn't used to losing that much and a lot of
times I wouldn't be smiling at my friends. I didn't take a lot of phone
calls, text messages or things like that.
That's crazy. I always have my phone in my hand, I'm always calling or texting somebody.
Definitely that was the toughest year of my college career. Or of my life.
Coming from a high school program with a lot of talent, we didn't win
state or anything like that, but we won a lot of games. We had a winning
tradition. Then coming into college and winning only one game in
conference, that was tough.
I think we did a good job staying together as a team and erasing those thoughts.
Biggest regret of my career? I can't think of any regrets.
We definitely still have a chance (to make the NCAA Tournament with a
magical run this weekend). But I still wouldn't trade in my experience
for the world. Coming to Northwestern has made me a better person and
I'm happy for all the relationships I've built with the students as well
as my teammates and coaches.
A great night is winning a basketball game. Or even having practice and going to eat with the team after.
Hanging around with my teammates, there's always a lot of jokes, a lot
of laughter. Just creating more memories, especially for a guy like me
who's about to graduate, I want to take advantages of those
opportunities as much as I can.
Laughter is a big thing in my life. I'm the biggest goofball, I think,
ever. In the locker room, out with my team, with family friends, I'm
always trying to make everyone laugh.
I find a lot of my jokes funny. I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.
Laughter's a great thing. It helps out a lot. Everyone's serious about
the game. But it's always good to laugh and share laughter.
I've been this way since I was a kid. In grammar school I was in trouble
a lot. We'd get a lot of phone calls at home because I was always
making outbursts to try and make everyone laugh.
I was basically the class clown.
I think my dad, he's really funny. When we're at family events, he's the
one making us all laugh. So I think I definitely get my humor from my
The biggest difference is I'm more vocal. My freshman and sophomore years, I wasn't that vocal. I deferred to Craig Moore because he was here two years prior to me coming here. He pretty much knew everything Coach Carmody wanted.
I was looking up to him and trying to learn from him as much as
possible. When he left (before) my junior year, I had to step up and be
I'm still learning to be more vocal.
The biggest thing I learned was how to control the game the way Coach
Carmody wants it. Night in, night out, he can change up anything. He's
just an offensive genius. In five seconds, he can think of an offensive
play that's going to work. Night in, night out, we change our scheme and
our approach to the game. Some days we want to push it up the court and
some days we want to slow it down. I definitely think I have a good
feel for that now.
Life in general? The way I approach things. As a freshman, you come in,
you're rushing things, you're not organized. Now I'm way more organized
and I just take my time with everything.
If I could invite anybody to dinner from history? It would definitely be Muhammad Ali. He's my favorite athlete of all time.
To this day I still watch a lot of his boxing matches. I love the way he
talked to his opponents, tried to get the best of them. He was just a
smart athlete and I try to emulate a lot of things from him.
I'd definitely ask him how did he come up with the Rope-A-Dope (during
his 1974 heavyweight championship bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa,
Zaire). I know he studied his opponents and studied the game like a lot
of us athletes do now.
But I don't know how anyone could come up with that and it actually worked.
1985. It's the year
that Ndidi Opia Massay arrived on the Northwestern campus, a bright-eyed
freshman determined to lead the Northwestern softball team to a national
championship. It's the year that Joe Girardi would become an All-American and
prepare to wrap up his career as a Northwestern baseball player, a senior
catcher destined for more than just playing in the major leagues.
It's also the year
the two would meet.
recruited to Northwestern by head softball coach Sharon Drysdale and would ultimately
start in left field her freshman year. She went on to win two Big Ten titles
and acquire three all-conference selections throughout her career, as well as
earn her degree from the Medill School of Journalism. Before all of the
accolades, however, she was just the new kid on campus. A freshman learning the
ropes who -- on a wintery day in 1985 -- happened to stumble upon a
Northwestern baseball catchers' workout that Girardi was taking part in.
freshman -- a catcher herself -- marched right up to the senior with her chin
jutted out and her eyes brazen.
"I want in," she
From that point
forward, Massay took extra catching reps with Girardi whenever she could. Their
time together was an invaluable part of her freshman year and would later prove
to be one of the many occasions in which Massay left no stone unturned in
her pursuit of greatness. She has paved the way for young women like myself,
and is just one of many Northwestern softball players who have set the standard
for generations to come.
The first time
Massay told me this story was this past summer when I had the opportunity to
work for her and fellow Northwestern softball alum Garland Cooper at ESPN RISE.
Not only did I walk away from that job with first-hand experience and
invaluable knowledge of the sports journalism industry, but I also came back
with a summer's worth of stories that spanned 30 years of Northwestern
softball. We'd reminisce about Massay's tenure under Coach Drysdale and Cooper's
memories of the 2006 and 2007 Women's College World Series. Though we were from
three completely different generations of Northwestern softball, the
relationships that summer proved to be a perfect picture of the ways in which
the blood, sweat and tears that go along with wearing that purple uniform
The legacy of
Northwestern softball extends beyond the white lines that so many of us have
played between. Even as I was beginning to write this blog at the DeMarini Invitational
(Fullerton, Calif.), I received an encouraging email from Northwestern alum
Christine Brennan, an award-winning USA Today columnist who covered
Northwestern Softball for the Daily Northwestern in the spring of 1978. Brennan
was as much a part of that '78 team as the women wearing the uniform, and that
simple fact has allowed me the incredible opportunity to establish a
relationship with one of the most widely-read and respected female sports
columnists in the United States. I met Brennan at a networking event for female
student-athletes at Northwestern last year, and we've been in touch ever since.
Northwestern uniform is so much more than your four years in Evanston. It's
about a lifetime and a network of women who have worn the color purple.
Northwestern All-American and 2010 USA National Team member Eileen Canney
returning to campus while on a week-long break from playing professionally in Japan to pitch batting practice to this year's team. It's former
Wildcats Tammy Williams and Nicole Pauly -- now members of the Chicago Bandits
and Akron Racers, respectively, of National Pro Fastpitch -- visiting our
practice facility every Monday night for the hitting and pitching clinics our
team puts on in the community. It's Cooper, a former Northwestern All-American
and two-time Women's College World Series participant, writing a detailed
explanation at the request of current player Emily Allard describing how she
and her teammates got to Oklahoma City. It's Allard reading that letter to the
entire team crammed into a little hotel room before our first game this year.
And it's us realizing in that moment that our past has spoken of greatness; now
it's time to speak it ourselves.
[Ed note from
Scharkey: Be sure to read the Big Ten's feature story on Ndidi Massay!]
For some reason, rain on
the West Coast has been a prevalent problem during our pre-conference games
this year. It seems like every time we gear up for a tournament across the
country, we're hoping that the projected forecast changes in our favor. This weekend
was no different. After arriving in Palo Alto, Calif., last Thursday, it
proceeded to rain for three days straight, canceling five of our scheduled
games and forcing us to play two doubleheaders on Monday and Tuesday instead.
So what exactly does a Division
I softball team do
when the rain won't go away? When numerous rain dances and hours of waiting
ultimately end in game delays and cancelations? I'll give you four choices:
B. Play hacky-sack
D. Take a team trip to one of the most legendary
federal penitentiaries in the world
If you guessed option 'D,'
you're correct! After days and days of disappointing rain-outs, our coaches
surprised us with a day-trip to Alcatraz Island, the world-renown prison that
has previously housed notorious criminals such as Al "Scarface"
Capone and the "Birdman" Robert Stroud. The penitentiary is located
on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, known as "The
Rock" and is now open for tours all throughout the day.
I knew that Sunday was
going to be a spectacular day when I started off my morning by watching a flock
of seagulls assail senior Michelle Batts. Let's be honest, it's not every day
that you turn around to see your clean-up hitter running across the crowded
streets of San Francisco -- arms flailing and sunglasses crooked -- attempting
to keep a fresh bowl of calamari for herself as seagull after seagull takes a
dive at the newly purchased meal. I had kindly taken on the role of tour guide
since I'd been to San Francisco several times before, but may or may not have
'forgotten' that my favorite little seafood vendor just happened to be located
next to a common roost for dozens of hungry seagulls.
We survived the attack of
the bay birds, however, and after a ferry ride that gave us a breathtaking view
of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco itself, all 22 of us (plus a few
family members), landed on Alcatraz Island. The entire tour lasted about two
hours, as you weave in and out of the prison guided by an audio recorder and a
set of headphones that is given to each visitor. We found ourselves locked in
numerous prison cells, standing in the exact corridors where officers had been
taken captive years ago, and examining the grates that three men had slipped
through in their escape attempt. We even played imaginary softball on the
courtyard field overlooking the bay where prisoners were given free time each
day! All in all, the experience was incredibly interesting and educational, and
I know each one of us was so grateful for the opportunity.
When we weren't exploring
federal prisons, we kept ourselves busy by cheering on the men's basketball
team in their NIT win over Boston College and with endless rounds of games like
'Mafia.' Of course, we were also constantly entertained by 'Sheiki's Daily
Text,' a joke sent out every day by freshman Amanda Mehrsheikh, and shared many
laughs when sophomore Emily Allard 'pied' junior Olivia Zolke's father, Scott,
in the face.
Not to mention the fact
that when we visited freshman Sammy Albanese's home for dinner and time with
our families, ping-pong battles of epic proportions took place for hours on
end. Imagine: 30-to-40 people crammed around a single ping-pong table, cheering
and heckling those in the game to the nth degree. There were father/daughter
doubles teams like freshman Marisa Bast and her dad, Michael; age-old duos Kate
and Caryl Drohan; and of course, crowd-favorites Denise "D-Baby"
Baker and her sister, Kimmie "Auntie Boots" Radford, mother and aunt
of senior Jessica Smith. Sweat filled the air, the sound of ping-pong balls
echoed throughout the house and emotions ran high; but boy, that night was just
what we needed.
The rain might've kept the
'Cats off the field, but it didn't stop us from enjoying the sights of San
Francisco, our families and each other. Times like this past spring break
allowed for our team to build on an already rock-solid bond as we head into
this weekend's Big Ten opener against Michigan.
• NEWS FLASH: Charles Brown, the notoriously taciturn senior receiver out of Robeson High, is talking. "Charles, he used to be really quiet," reports Jeremy Ebert, another senior receiver. "Now he doesn't shut up."
"I'm opening up as the years go along," says Brown himself. "I was
pretty much a shy guy when I came in. Quiet, to myself. But I've gotten
real comfortable with everybody and as I've gotten more comfortable, I
naturally opened up."
• BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS: 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald
is traditionally stingy with compliments this time of the year. He
instead prefers to wait until the dust settles and victors emerge from
the competitions now going on at many positions. But Monday, after his
team's first practice of the spring, he singled out Brown for his work
"Charles is just a young man who's worked his tail off every day he's
been in our program and improved. And I like the way he's playing right
now," he explained when asked about that. "He's playing fast. He's
playing like a guy who has a lot of experience. He's having fun, and
he's getting out of his comfort zone. Charles is not a man of a lot of
words. So to see him get out of his comfort zone and lead that way
(vocally), I'm very proud of him. Not surprised. But I'm very proud of
"Basically, just keep working hard and to continue the drive to be the
best I can be," Brown said when asked what it told him to have his coach
single him out like that.
• STILL BEST BUDS: Nowhere, of course, is there greater
competition than at wide receiver, where the 'Cats return a talented
group that includes Ebert and Brown, the junior Demetrius Fields and the sophomores Venric Mark and Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence.
"I see a bunch of talented receivers who can take it to another level,"
Brown says when asked what he sees when they're together in a meeting
room. "Everybody in the room is capable of producing on the field and,
with the right leadership, we can take it to new heights."
"I see a lot of people who have been there before, a lot of people who
have been on the field and had a lot of battles," Ebert says when asked
the same question. "Everybody's hungry to get out on the field because
everyone's been there."
This, they both say, motivates each in the group to push himself and the
others even harder than before. But, we wonder, doesn't it also create
an environment for potentially poisonous rivalries?
"It's part of the game, I guess," says Ebert. "But our room, we're so
close knit. We're close friends. We look at it as a friendly
competition. We just want to win. We don't care who's out there as long
as we get the 'W.'"
"I think everybody's personality in the room, we like challenges. We
embrace them. We look forward to taking stuff on," says Brown.
"Everybody's competitive on the field. We're a highly-competitive group.
But we like to have fun with each other. There's no hard feelings. It's
friendly competition. We're just trying to be the best we can be."
• CHECK, PLEASE: In fact, the group is so close it dines together
weekly to engender camaraderie and trust. Ebert is the one who usually
picks the place for its feast.
• LET'S HEAR IT: Tuesday's practice was nearing conclusion and
now, from its sideline, the 'Cat defense started to chant. "Kill! Kill!
Kill!" it chanted.
"I think we're trying to emphasize some things we maybe let go as a
coaching staff during the last three weeks (of last season)," Fitzgerald
would say when asked if that meant that unit was working with a
collective chip on its shoulder. "I think more importantly the guys are
working their tails off to get better."
And what are those things they let go of?
"Oh, there's plenty. Some I'm going to share and some I'm not. But I
think more importantly just coming together, unifying and having fun.
You know. We lost that attitude and that demeanor that had really been
the hallmark of the way we play defense around here. And the only way
you do it is you work at it. That's what they're doing right now."
• TIME TO GET DRESSED: On Tuesday the 'Cats practiced in shorts
and shirts. "That's hard," said Fitzgerald. "You're in underwear. So
it's hard to be a football player at this time."
But Thursday, when they next gather, they will work in full uniform.
"That," said Fitzgerald, "means we get to play football. Everybody looks
good in shorts. Otherwise they wouldn't be here. But I'm encouraged by
where we're at today. Now let's see where we can get to by Thursday
We sat down with 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald
in mid-February, shortly after his team had begun that portion of its
off-season conditioning program called the Winning Edge. It is but one
more step in the process of building a team for the fall, a process that
continues now with a spring practice that culminates with the
intra-squad game on April 16. --Skip Myslenski
As for the players themselves, let's start with Persa. How's he doing?
So far, so good. On track. Will be non-contact throughout spring. At
what point will he take a snap and go through some individual drills? At
this point it's to be determined. He won't take any scrimmage reps for
sure, or live reps. But he's doing great. He's on track. Everything is
good. And I've also liked the jobs Evan (Watkins) and Kain (Colter) and
Trevor (Siemian) have done so far this winter. They've all gotten better
and stronger and improved in those areas where they needed to improve.
So it'll fun to watch that competition.
Since he went down and, as you said, the team's attitude changed, did that cause you to change anything in your approach?
Yeah. I probably did a terrible job predicting it and fixing it. I
thought we had talked through it, worked through it, understood what
needed to be done and how it needed to be done. But it was a catalyst
for excuses instead of a catalyst for success.
Did that disappoint you?
Yeah, incredibly. If I would look back, I think that's where I failed. It's been a great motivator.
But how can that be your job, to keep them from ...
I'm the leader. It's my job. It's my job to take the guys and prepare
them for that, and also push 'em and drive 'em and help 'em through it.
We had our chances in two of the last three games, plenty of
opportunities. One game we didn't even show up and play.
Did it have anything to do with them losing their security blanket in Persa?
No. I think it just became simpler to make an excuse for a performance
than it was earlier. That's a failure on my part. Like I said, I think
it's been a good catalyst in the off-season. The guys have realized it,
looked themselves in the mirror and said, "What we did collectively as a
group in the last three weeks is unacceptable." And they're doing
something about it. That's all we can ask.
Onto running backs. Everyone's wondering when they're going to see
another 1,000-yard rusher, which used to be common around here.
Well, we've been pretty close. We really have. Number one, injuries. We were really excited about Steph (the graduated Stephen Simmons),
then he battled injuries toward the end of his career. Same thing with
Scott (Concannon). Scott did a lot of good things, then we couldn't keep
him healthy. I was disappointed for those guys. They're great young
guys and it didn't happen. But I liked the way we finished the year. We
ran the ball more efficiently at the end of the year than maybe we did
the previous year. That's been encouraging. I like the way Mike (Trumpy)
finished and the way Adonis (Smith) came on and improved. Obviously,
Jacob (Schmidt) is a tough nut. He's a tough guy. He had to battle
through some injuries for the first time in his career. He's back and
ready to go. Probably won't be cleared for spring practice right away,
but we hope to have him back as spring practice moves forward. Timmy
Hanrahan is a young man who walked onto our program and I like him. I
love his attitude and his work ethic. Same thing with Tyris Jones. Then we have two freshmen. I think we have good competitive depth there.
Which is also true at wide receiver.
Deep-and-talented group. The competition's already begun on who's going
to start. I made a statement at the start of the winter that every job
is open. That's across the board as a team. I'm looking forward to that
competition. I could talk about each guy, but you can write about Jeremy
(Ebert) and the guys who have played. It's going to be a great spring
for that group.
I like where our offensive line is right now. Al Netter
is doing an outstanding job leading that group. They've played a lot of
football together. They're going to take a beating in the preseason
because of our sacks (last season). But when we looked at them, about 20
of them were on other people than the offensive line. So they take the
blame. That's fine. I'm glad those guys take the blame because they take
it personal. But we've got a lot of areas where we can improve in sack
avoidance than just our offensive line. And I've been pleasantly
surprised with the growth of Brian Mulroe.
I think Ben (Burkett) is in better shape. Now we've got great
competition on the right side. I like the job Pat (Ward) did, but Pat
needs to improve and get better. There's a bunch of guys fighting and
clawing and scratching to be that right guard and the backup. So it
should be great competition.
And the other line?
They're running as well as they have since I've been here. We've got explosive athletes, we've got good size, Niko Mafuli might be in the best shape of his career right now. Brian Arnfelt to this point is probably having the best off-season of anybody in that group. We had to fix Jack's shoulder (Jack DiNardo), so he'll be out for spring. Quentin Williams
is no longer playing baseball, he's already up to 270 pounds (from 240
something). Davon (Custis) is up over 250. So that young group is
starting to really mature, as they typically do. Vince (Browne) is
Vince. He's steady Eddie. You could set your watch on his work ethic and
his commitment. But needs to double that total. Has to take that sack
total and double it.
Did this group take the poor finish personally since they were pushed around pretty good, especially by Wisconsin?
Yeah. They sure did. And they responded to it pretty well. I like where they're at right now.
Did any of them talk to you about it?
A couple guys have, yeah. But, again, there's no real hangover from the
way we finished at all. I think there's more a hunger to get to where we
believe we can go with this group.
You've lost a lot of leadership at linebacker with Nate Williams and Quentin Davie gone.
We did and now we've got a nice young talented group that needs to step
up and grow up and mature and get experience. That group has no starters
in it right now.
What about Bryce McNaul?
He's back. But he had shoulder surgery in February. He'll be back. He'll be fine. But it's going to be a great competition.
Do each of those competitors have individual strengths that define them?
Yeah. But I think the common thread to all of them is they can really
run. Top to bottom, this might be the most-athletic group we've had from
a foot speed standpoint.
Explain the importance of that in defending the spread offense, which is all the rage now?
Well, they've got to be athletic, but they've got to be tough as hell.
You're basically looking for a bunch of outside linebackers. The Mike
(middle) linebacker is almost dying. I don't get excited about looking
at myself on video. I just don't. It's hard to play (the tape). You have
to have that kind of mentality and attitude (that he did), but you've
got to be able to run and change direction and have what we call
reactionary athleticism. Back when I was playing, the ball went that way
and, bang, that's where you went. It was in a phone booth. Now, because
of the option, because of misdirection, because you're so spread out,
guys are getting you in space and now you're playing more fast break
football, or one-on-one football, or two-on-one, and you've got to be
able to react athletically.
So that's what you look for when recruiting linebackers?
Again, I'm not looking for me. I'm not looking for my athleticism. That
position's tough to play. It always has been. But it's tougher from an
athletic standpoint now. It's always going to have the demands of
Then the defensive backs?
Great competition. Same as at receiver. We'll see how it shakes out in the spring.
Finally, your specialists?
We've got our punter. I was really pleased with the way Brandon
(Williams) came along last year. Now competition for the starting
placement job between Jeff (Budzien) and Steve (Flaherty). I'd prefer to
have one be the kicker and one be the kickoff man if I could, so I'd
love to have both guys play a role. But that will play itself out. Then Pat Hickey
moves into the starting long snapper position, and I think Pat's poised
and prepared to do that. These guys have been around for awhile.
Overall, what's the speed of this team like?
We're close. We're close. Got to get a little faster on the edge up
front on the defensive side. Got to get a little faster there. But we've
got guys who've got the ability. We just got to keep improving.
And you finally have some guys who can be real difference makers.
We do. You put the ball in Drake's hands, he can make things happen. Jeremy (Ebert) can make things happen. (Wide receiver) Tony Jones can make things happen. Rashad (Lawrence, another wide receiver) made things happen a year ago. Adonis can make things happen. Mike Trumpy can go the distance. Danny can go the distance.
Finally, at a lot of positions, you mentioned that there's a competition going on. You like that, don't you?
I think it makes good players great and great players special. I think
the biggest curse you can have as a competitor is no competition. For
every Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, with no disrespect to their backups,
there's nobody who can compete with them. But I can show you a million
for each of those guys, when they didn't have competition they became
complacent. They choked it down a little bit and they didn't improve and
get better. That's a killer for a team. So ideally we love to have
Which you do, it seems.
Currently, we do. . . . It's a credit to our coaches, who've worked
their butts off in recruiting, and to our players because we've had
success. Players want to play for a winner. They don't want to go
somewhere where they don't think they can win. People see us play, and
the style that we play, and kids want to be part of that. They like
being part of a no-huddle mentality football program. We're not a huddle
up, slow it down, lethargic football program. We're up tempo across the
board. Everything we're going to do is with a sense of urgency. I think
with technology today, kids just want to go, go, go and enjoy being
part of that kind of climate.
We sat down with 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald
in mid-February, shortly after his team had begun that portion of its
off-season conditioning program called the Winning Edge. It is but one
more step in the process of building a team for the fall, a process that
continues now with a spring practice that culminates with the
intra-squad game on April 16. --Skip
At this point in the past, we'd have a handful of guys dropping out of
workouts. We've had one, because he was sick and we pulled him out. So I
think we're in the best shape we've been in at this point maybe since
I've been here. That's 11 years.
What's that tell you?
Well, number one, that playing on January 1st is worth it. You're
staying in great shape. You don't have the month of December to go home
and get fat and lazy and lose your habits. Number two, our strength
coaches have done a tremendous job in January. We did tweak some things,
nothing major, nothing I'm going to share, but the guys have really
bought into it. The competition starts the minute they walk into the
weight room in January after having two weeks off after the bowl game.
The guys have been going at it. This group has bought in. They're
hungry. This senior class now, they need one more win to be the all-time
winningest class in the program history. So they see an opportunity for
a pretty special legacy.
Did the poor performance at the end of last season play a role in their ...
You look at where we were going into Week 10, was it 10 or 11, whatever
that week was. For 10 weeks of the year, yeah, we didn't win the games,
all of them, but we could have. We played well enough to put ourselves
in the position to be where we want to be. Our failures there at the end
of the year were a direct reflection of us, all of us collectively. We
didn't coach the way we were capable of, we didn't play the way we're
capable of, we didn't play as physical as we had earlier in the year and
that's what hurt us. There were some other little breakdowns here and
there, but those didn't cost us games. We want to get that attitude
back, and that swagger back to where it was those first 10 weeks and
prior to that. Based on what I've seen to this point, it's back. There's
no hangover. There's no woe is me. The attitude is back, and it came
back quickly. The guys came in determined. They came in with a purpose
Both Dan Persa and Drake Dunsmore have openly declared the team's goal is to claim the Big Ten title. What must it do to make that next step?
The key thing is we need to be consistent with what we do and how we do
it. That was one thing that came up, we were doing some case studies of
other teams and looking at ourselves and that's kind of going to be our
off-season with the Leadership Council this year. In the past, I've had
them look at books (about leaders and leadership) and go through them.
Now we're going to take a look at examples of leadership and examples of
Team Positive, Team Negative. I use the example of the Kansas (versus
in-state rival Kansas State) basketball game the other day. All the guys
were watching that game, and just the attitude and the body language.
None of us were on the bench, but we were watching it as fans, how they
(Kansas) got run out of the gym by Kansas State. I asked what did you
guys see? They saw (Kansas) players arguing with each other, players
arguing with Coach (Bill) Self, negative body language. They had a
chance to cut it to five and a guy took a bad shot at a bad time. So
just heightening our awareness that all those things matter. And
obviously coaching our guys better. That's what we're doing right now,
going through our cut-ups and looking at the things fundamentally we can
improve on this spring. Can I name them all off the top of my head? No.
But we've got to block better, and finish blocks better in certain
areas. Big plays are there to be made, but we're not finishing because
we don't have our eyes in the right spot or we're not at the right
leverage position. We're inconsistent with it. Our tackling, our ability
to just cut it loose and not be afraid of failure. That's all it came
down to. The same guys who made a ton of tackles at the beginning of the
year missed a bunch of tackles the last three weeks. Nothing changed.
The guy didn't change. The scheme didn't change. Our attitude changed,
and the technique on how we went about it changed. So it's showing the
guys, this is what it looks like when we do it right. Just continuing to
When you say more consistent, do you mean more consistent
performances on the field or more consistency in what you do with the Xs
It's both. It's always going to be both. I don't think that's ever going
to change. I think that's what the off-season is. You pick up the hood
of the car and analyze it. How can we make it go faster and more
efficient? How can we use less gas, but go faster? That's what we do.
We're right in the middle of it. Now you get into spring practice and
you go, "All right, we think we want to go here based on what we saw on
last year's video." But Skip's a different guy now. He's a little
bigger, he's a little faster, we can do some different things with Skip.
You can do that going on and on and on down the line. That evolves
through spring and then we go back after spring recruiting, do the same
thing as we get ready to plan for Camp Kenosha.
So heading into spring practice, you really can't say what the team's going to look like come fall?
Not yet. I don't know that yet. I've got an inclination based on what we
have coming back. But just because you have it coming back doesn't mean
it's going to be better. I think sometimes that's where fans get
misled. "Wow. We've got 19 starters coming back." Well. If those 19
starters don't improve and get better and if we don't coach them better,
we're not going to get any better. But everybody looks, that's why
teams get ranked the way they do. They have 19 starters coming back, or
18, whatever we have. So what?
And they'll be away from you for the summer and their heads might get turned by all the smoke blown their way and you don't...
Especially today with the freshmen coming in, so much smoke has been
blown up their hind parts from these recruiting services that you almost
have to re-teach kids how to fight and compete because they've been put
up on such a high pedestal. You've got to fight and scratch and claw
for a job. "I know you were the guy. But now you're one of the guys and
how are you going to separate yourself." We've got to show them how to
do that. Then once we can analyze what their strengths are and the areas
where they need to improve, put them in that kind of environment.
Really be that specific. That's what we're trying to do right now with
each guy (currently on the roster), really come up with a specific plan.
"Here are the areas where you really need to improve. Watch this. Watch
this very specific cut-up here of the things we think that you need to
improve on. That's how you're going to take the next step."
So you bring each player into the office and do that?
The coaches do, oh, yeah. More times than not, it's as a group. You make
your cut-up tape and as you go through, one rep is Skip, the next rep
is me, the next rep is Demetrius, the next rep is Jeremy. You go around
and emphasize fundamental techniques, effort, attitude, whatever it may
be that you're making the coaching point on. But it's not only specific
to that person. It's also good for the group.
Speaking of this group, which is filled with guys you recruited, has it taken ownership of the team in a way that you like?
I would say overall, yes, in the macro. But in the micro, I can't tell
you that yet. They haven't been through the most challenging time and
that's this summer. We're about ready to become a kid now. By the end of
spring practice, we'll be a teenager. By week one (of the regular
season), we're adults and by the end we're dying. So the maturation of
this team, I'm not ready to say this one team, in the micro, is where we
want to get. They haven't faced adversity yet.
But you do have players on it who have faced adversity.
That's what I'm saying. In the macro, yes.
Guys like Persa.
Absolutely. Without a doubt. I feel very confident in that, and my trust
level in those guys is as high it's ever been. Absolutely. I just can't
tell you enough about this specific team yet. I like where we're at on
February 17th compared to where we were a year ago. But let's see if we
can continue on that path. That gets harder every day.
Before we get to specific players, you pushed spring practice up and broke it up? Why?
A couple reasons. I wanted to see what it was like to have a week before
our break. What we'd done in the past is gone winter workouts, reading
week off, final week off, spring break. Three weeks off. We just kept
saying to ourselves as coaches, "Gosh, that break is too long, it's too
long. They need a break. But it's too long." Our thought process was,
"Let's keep the momentum going. Get back to football quicker so we can
give them a little more time off before they start the summer." The time
off is still going to happen, but a little bit differently. It's going
to happen between spring ball and summer. We're going to start our
summer phase a week earlier. They'll have that week off after spring
ball, which ends the 16th. They'll have a couple discretionary weeks
after the 16th and then we're going to start our summer workouts in May.
Had you not been getting that started under the old schedule?
We did, but we'd get 'em a week-and-a-half later because spring ball ended later.
So now you'll have them for a month before they head off for the summer instead of a couple weeks?
Correct. We're going to analyze it, see if we like it. It's putting a
pretty big cramp on our time as coaches right now. But we have a program
in place. So we're going to make our little tweaks and points of
emphasis from what we saw a year ago. But we do what we do. So it's
about blocking and tackling, throwing and catching and covering. That's
what we're going to try to get better at this spring.
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back at a
memorable and emotional night that resulted in a 68-57 Northwestern win
over Minnesota in the Wildcats' regular-season finale.
Now it was time for Michael Thompson
and here he came, flanked by his parents, walking slowly into the place
he had graced for so long. Cheers washed over him, heartfelt cheers
acclaiming his admirable four-year run as the 'Cat point, and here, as
they washed over him on his journey to center court, he breathed deeply
and exhaled, breathed deeply and exhaled, breathed deeply and exhaled
like a man in desperate search of fresh air.
This was Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where Thompson would soon
face Minnesota in the final home game of his career, and now he was
accepting a framed jersey and holding it high above his head for all the
crowd to see. Slowly he turned, displaying it to each side of his
long-time playpen, and then he walked over to a line that already
included Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic and Mike Capocci, the seniors who had been honored before him.
"I've been giving it a lot of thought," he had said of this moment some
24 hours earlier. "I don't know exactly what to think, whether I should
be sad or happy. But for the most part, I'm sad. It's been a lot of fun
and you definitely don't want it to end. It seems like yesterday (that
he got to Northwestern). I've been here a long time, you know, but it
went by so fast. I'm sad that it's coming to an end, but I'm happy for
the experience I've had here."
"I was a little weepy," he would say of this moment later on this
Wednesday evening. "Not as weepy as I thought I'd be. I thought I did a
good job of holding it in. But some tears came out. It was very
Emotion, in fact, had all the 'Cats in its headlock, and they could
operate only in fits and starts through the first half of their game
with the Gophers. They missed eight of their first nine three-point
attempts and Thompson himself went scoreless until he dropped a three
with nearly 10 minutes gone. That would be his only field goal through
these 20 minutes, which he ended one-of-eight, and near their end he
even tossed up a three that absolutely touched nothing.
"We told the guys it's going to be emotional, the first five, six
minutes of the half it's going to be a little rough because of the
emotion of Senior Night," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would later say. "It was about 25 minutes it was a little rough. It just seemed out of sync on offense.
"I know we had some nice looks in the first half for a bunch of guys.
(Michael) Thompson, toward the end of the first half, we ran a little
play, either he or (John) Shurna's going to get a shot, he was wide open
and he missed it by, I'd never seen him miss a shot like that. An air
ball. I mean, really an air ball. I don't know whether it was the
emotion, the focus, our heads weren't really right there."
"I," Thompson said more succinctly, "definitely let my emotions get the best of me in the first half."
Bill Carmody is reminiscing about his years with Michael Thompson,
talking of his growth and his leadership and the variety of his skills.
Then, after acknowledging these familiar virtues, he says, "And
everytime I see him, he's got that big smile. He picks me up. You know
it's a two-way street. They talk about coaches have to motivate players.
But players, you know, he'll come over, he's got a bounce to his step,
he walks on his toes, he'll grab a ball and it turns me on. So that's
good. He's got a great sense of humor. A great sense of humor. When he
walks out there, like I say, he turns you on. He picks you up."
"My favorite Juice story? There's so many," the swingman Drew Crawford later says when asked for an example of this side of Thompson, and then he sighs.
"I've got to think," he now says, and here he pauses.
"(Center) Davide Curletti's
got some big boots we like to make fun of," he finally says. "We call
them hiking boots. We say he's trying to climb Mt. Everest. Juice was
walking around the locker room with the big old boots on looking pretty
funny. He's a practical joker. He's one of the goofiest kids I know.
When it comes down to business, he's serious. But when he's with us,
he's just fun to be around."
"I looked terrible," Thompson will say when asked of that moment. "He
wears like a size 13 and I wear a ten-and-a-half. They're high tops,
maybe 12 inches high. So they covered pretty much all of my legs. My
brother had come to cut our hair that day, so I had that little cape
thing on. So I just looked really weird. It was like a terrible
Halloween costume. It's on Facebook. It's a pretty funny picture. I got a
lot of heat from everybody on the team. It was pretty funny for
everybody. It was just me being silly."
Does he like silliness?
"Definitely. I think that's a good thing and it's pretty much what our
team is. We have fun together and share a lot of laughs. It's just been a
There was something serendipitous, then, about Wednesday night's first
20 minutes, which Curletti ended with a team-high 10 points. He, quite
simply, was the best of the 'Cats through this half and the reason they
went to their locker room down only a half-dozen. "We," he later said,
"have such great guards and forwards and they kind of got into a rut
where they weren't shooting so well. So Luka (Mirkovic, the other 'Cat
center) and I decided it was time for us to step up and start getting
some easy hoops inside."
Yet the 'Cats still struggled as this Senior Night rounded the turn, and
here the second half opened with Shurna getting stuffed and with
Curletti and Shurna and Shurna again and Thompson missing consecutive
three-point attempts. "Then," remembered Carmody, "I think it was after
the first time out in the second half that (Michael) Thompson said
'Fellas, it's Senior Night. I only have two points.' Everyone cracked
up. The players were a little tight playing, the coaching staff also."
"I don't recall saying that," Thompson himself would say.
Bill said it loosened the team up.
"I guess," said Thompson, a quizzical look on his face. "But I'm not one
to care about my points or anything as long as we win. But I don't
remember saying that."
Did Alex Marcotullio remember him saying that?
"He said something, but it was nothing like that," he replied. "I don't think it had anything to do with scoring points."
"But," Thompson finally said, "it's something that got us loose."
That timeout came with the 'Cats down eight at 15:59 and, no matter what
was said, its effect was not immediate. For here the Gophers' lead grew
to 10, which is where it stood when Thompson dropped a three from the
right wing at 12:55. The 'Cats would commit just two turnovers in the
second half after committing seven in the first. That was one reason why
this game turned. They would hold their own on the boards and get out
rebounded by only two. That was another. They converted 20 of their 23
free throw attempts while the Gophers were just eight-of-11 from the
line. That was a third.
But the true pivot of this affair was that shot by Thompson and here is
why. Before it they were 3-of-20 on their threes. But now, from this
moment to game's end, they would go seven-of-10. Shurna would get two of
them and Marcotullio would get two of them and Thompson would get three
of them, the last coming at 2:30 to put his team up nine. This trio was
as bright as a Mensa member as the game roared to its conclusion and
when it finally ended, ended in an 11-point 'Cat win, they had scored
all but two of their final 26 points (those came, appropriately enough,
on a pair of Curletti free throws).
"They hit their threes when we went under. A couple of our guys, you've
got to follow the script," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith later groused.
"You've got to do it every time. We say go over the screens instead of
go under it. If you go under it, those guys are going to make those
shots. They're going to make those step back-threes. That's their game.
We did a good job in the first half defending the threes and we did a
poor job in the second half."
"We," said Carmody, "basically went to one play for the last eight
minutes and it was pretty basic. But a lot of screens in there and our
guys took advantage of them."
And what was the name of the play?
"JV. Even a JV player can learn it. It's not complicated. But you still have to bang a long shot and our guys did that."
Thompson, so caught in the headlock of emotion, started his Senior Night
one-of-nine overall, one-of-five on his threes and without a trip to
the free throw line. But then, freed from that icy grip for its last 13
minutes, he closed it out going three-of-six overall, three-of-four on
his threes and six-of-six from the free throw line. "A lot of guys have
bad halves," Bill Carmody would finally say with a look back at those numbers.
"It takes a special guy to have a bad half and then come back with the second half he had."
In Part I, 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald
discussed leadership, his team's Leadership Council and his method of
selecting that group of 10 players he meets with weekly. Here two from
that group, senior quarterback Dan Persa and senior superback Drake Dunsmore, discuss some issues raised by their coach and so much more.
Q: What is their goal as a leader?
Dunsmore: I have one goal for the whole team. That's to win the
Big Ten Championship. I'm new to this whole Leadership Council thing.
I'm new to being in a leadership position at this time of the year (the
off-season). Because of all the surgeries I've had, I never had the
opportunity. So I'm still trying to figure it out. But, like I said, I
have one goal right now and that's to win the Big Ten championship. I
feel I know how to work hard and push myself. I think the next step is
to try and get people to understand how hard they can push themselves
and push each other and push me. That's what we need to aim for. That's
how we'll get to where we need to go.
Persa: The biggest thing we're focusing on is personal
accountability, holding each other accountable for every action and
everything you say. We have one goal. That's to win every game and win
the Big Ten championship at the end. We'll do whatever it takes to get
there. So push everybody to their limit, whether they like it or not.
That's what we're trying to do. Calling guys out if we don't think
they're working hard enough. It's our last year. We won't be able to
change it after January of next year.
Q: The trend these days, said Fitz, is to lead by example. He called it a copout. Are they willing to get in someone's grill?
D: I have. I don't know if I've done it enough. But I have before
and it's a very, very difficult thing to do especially when they're
friends of yours. Even if they're not, even if it's not someone on the
team you're close to, you get in their face, that can be a bad way to
start a relationship.
P: Earlier in my career, I wouldn't have done it. But now I'm fine with it.
Q: Has he done it?
P: A little bit, a little bit. Asking guys where they are, why
they're not doing the stuff everyone else is doing. I think we're doing a
lot better job of that this year than last year. Maybe last year I'd
think, "OK, that excuse is all right." This year, it's "Naaah. You got
to get here. I don't even want to hear that."
Q: Can they explain what
happened at the end of last year and is that poor finish now playing a
role in the way they approach their role as leaders?
D: Obviously, everyone could see we lost a leader in Dan. That
was tough. Anytime somebody in his position goes down, that hurts. That
was a big thing. It put a lot of weight on Evan's shoulders (backup QB Evan Watkins)
and I think for the most part he handled it well. But I don't think the
rest of the leadership, especially on offense, stepped up to fill that
void as much as we could have.
P: It's tough for me to say because I was in a different
situation. But from my standpoint, it seemed we got deflated somehow.
Obviously it hurt not having me out there. . . Some other guys had to
step up leadership-wise because I wasn't there. I don't know. We weren't
very happy at all the way the season ended. It was out of our
characteristics as a team the last couple of years. That's why it was so
Q: Fitz said he thought the team lost its attitude. Agree?
D: Yeah. That might be true.
P: I agree with that.
Q: Is that what he means by deflated
P: Yeah. It didn't feel the same. I can't explain it.
Q: Is that memory serving as motivation?
D: I think so. I don't know that it's explicitly been said. But
you just have the feeling that people are more motivated, that there's
something driving people, that people are trying to get better, that
teammates are pushing each other.
P: I think it has.
Q: You talk to your teammates. Are they embarrassed by what happened?
P: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Especially Wisconsin. To me, it was tough
to watch from the sidelines. But everybody was embarrassed the way we
finished. We had a chance to win, the Wisconsin game got out of hand,
but we hand a chance to win every other game we played in. That was the
most frustrating thing. Even when I was in there, we lost three games
when we had leads in the second half. That was most frustrating. Just
looking back on that, looking at how I played in those games and wishing
I could go back and change some of that stuff. I should have called
somebody out or called myself out. That's a motivation. To not have that
feeling of regret. If we lose a game, we lose a game. But I want to
know I did everything I could to win it.
Q: Does he feel he didn't do all he could have done?
P: I don't know. It's tough looking back on the film. Mentally, I
gave everything I had. Physically, I gave everything I had. But maybe I
missed a throw, or didn't say something when I should have said
something. I thought I gave my all. But at the same time, it's like, if I
would have done this different, if I would have done that different, we
probably would have won. It's easy for me to say that looking back. But
I just don't want that feeling anymore.
Q: Their program seems to be right there, just below the elite level. Do the players sense that?
P: Yeah. It's been obvious the last couple years, especially last
year. Going out of Iowa, we should have won every game we were in. That
was the most frustrating thing. We were right there. The staple of our
program is we finish, and for some reason, those couple games, we
couldn't do that. That was frustrating. It was really frustrating.
That's what we pride ourselves on. That's what we focus on all
off-season. So were getting back to that.
Q: So what needs to be done to get to the next level, to get the championship they both covet?
D: The first step for us is to get to the point where we can push
egos aside, push egos aside to the point where we can hold each other
accountable. When we can do that, teammates will start pushing each
other, they'll start driving each other, they'll compete against each
other at a level we've never done here before. If we can get to that
point, once you do that you develop a trust both on the field and off
the field, you develop bonds that we haven't had before. If we can get
to that point, I think we'll take the next step.
P: I think play with a killer instinct. When we have teams down,
just bury them. We can't wait and let them hang around. We can't say,
"All right. We're good. We're up 21 against Penn State. We're up 17
against Michigan State." We can't be, "All right, they can't come back."
In reality, everybody in the Big Ten's pretty special. They can come
back in three plays if they want to. So we've got to keep doing what
we'd been doing up to that point. That's the thing that's missing. That
killer instinct to just put teams away.
Q: Do they get satisfied?
P: Maybe. Or become complacent in those games we get up 21. "All
right, we're good, we're good." Maybe it's subconscious too. It's not
like, "All right. We don't have to score anymore. We can run the ball
out, run the clock out for the second half." Maybe it's not consciously,
Q: Is that instinct a learned trait?
P: I think so. Our team was unique last year. We had a pretty
experienced team, but we still had some key pieces we had to replace. I
think this year guys are really trying to take the next step. Especially
the senior class, we were Coach Fitz's first class, we've been here for
five years and we want to do something special. We have all the talent
and all potential to do it. We just have to do it now.
D: I think (it being their last year) has something to do with
(their shared sense of urgency). But I think a lot of it also has to do
with the type of guys who are seniors this year, the type of competitive
attitude we have collectively around the whole team. Even the young
guys, not just the older guys. We have just tried to center ourselves
around one goal of being champions next year.
P: I always prepared really hard. But maybe I have a greater
sense of urgency as well because it's my last year. So why wouldn't you
do everything you could to help this team win?
Q: There's an axiom that says if you have a coach-directed team you have a bad team. Do they, as leaders, believe that?
P: I definitely think so. This team is going to go where we take
it at the end of the day. The coaches can scream 'til they're blue in
the face. But if we don't change it, it's not going to change. I think
we realize that. At the end of the day, we're the guys on the field, not
the coaches, and we've got to take personal accountability and not make
excuses for ourselves. Just own it.
Bob Knight, the coaching legend, once noted, "The good teams that
I've had over the years have had players on them, I'd just simply say,
'You better make damn sure Jones is straightened out' and, I mean, Jones
would be straightened out in a heartbeat." That was his singular way of
explaining the value of leadership-from-within, the high value placed
on players taking ownership of their team and holding both themselves
and their teammates accountable. Pat Fitzgerald,
the 'Cat coach, has long recognized this and that is why a staple of
his program has been the Leadership Council, a group of 10 that meets
with him weekly to discuss issues that affect the whole.
In the past, the team selected those leaders from any name on the
roster. But this winter that changed. This winter a player had to apply
and answer a series of question to get his name on the ballot.
"I just felt like a small change was needed, a tweak, putting, again,
more ownership into the players," says Fitzgerald. "It's one thing to
put everybody's name in there. It's another thing for a young man to say
I want to be on there and here's why. Learned a lot. Learned a lot
about some individuals who maybe had not been looked on as leaders or
aspiring leaders. Also learned quite a bit from some guys who did not
apply. That opened up some areas for dialogue with some young men.
"There was a lot that went into it. You research it. Everyone does
something like this. I forget who it was that I talked to who said we
have guys apply. I talked to a high school coach, they do it in the
off-season where they have a formal interview process. I didn't want to
go to that extreme. But I really liked the idea of having them apply.
"They were real simple questions. It was five simple questions they could answer the way they felt they should be answered."
Those questions, not surprisingly, centered on accountability and the
player's vision of the future and the changes he felt necessary for the
whole to reach its collective goal. Then there was the last that asked,
"Explain why you deserve the right to be on Council."
"That was somewhat of a trick question. I wanted to see how many guys
came back and said, `I don't deserve it. But I want it, the
responsibility.' Leadership isn't an election. It's earned. It's a
responsibility. That was their opportunity for me to hear them
articulate how they were going to be a leader. So it wasn't necessarily a
trick, but more of a Jedi mind trick, I guess. Why you? Why you?"
Did any say they deserved to be there?
"A couple. A couple."
Did he agree with them?
"No. I knew their approach was selfish in nature, where the guys I
thought had the best approach were looking at it from the leadership
perspective of what I'm willing to give to make the mass better rather
than the this-is-what-I've-done, this-is-why-I-deserve-it approach. I'd
say 98 percent of the guys' responses were team-oriented. A couple were
Did he learn about his players through their answers?
"Absolutely. I learned a ton about some guys. I have some stats I'm not
willing to share. But I learned about the team too. How many guys per
class applied. Which guys per class didn't apply."
What did it tell him when someone didn't apply?
"I needed to ask them why. Boom. Here we go. Here's your opportunity to
take over, to take a step of responsibility. What's holding you back
from making that personal choice. Each guy's answer was a little bit
different. One guy, `I was on it before, I think we need more people to
be part of it. I know what I need to do now that I've been a part of it
and I think somebody else in my class should be part of it.' Very
mature, team-oriented guy I thought in that response. To a guy who said,
`I really wasn't interested because I think I'm going to have to do
more work, I don't have time'? Ok. That's fine. But now I know this
young man might be a little overwhelmed with some things that are going
on with his life. So what's going on? What's going on with you right
now? Is he involved in too many things away from football? Or are we
missing something with him, does he have something going on back home?
So it just allowed me to dig a little deeper, peel some of the layers
off the onion away with some guys. And some other guys I didn't follow
up with. I learned everything I needed to know. So it was a great
Gary Williams, the Maryland basketball coach, once said, "You need
somebody who's realistic, especially nowadays, and it has to be a
player, it can't be the coach, who realizes the team's not playing as
well as it should be, or not going as hard in a drill as it should, and
he's got to be tough enough to say, 'Hey, we can't win like this. This
isn't going to get it done.' When you hear it from another player, it
means a lot more than hearing it from the coach. You can tell them, but a
player goes, 'Well, he's just mad at us.' But they don't look at it as
getting yelled at if it's another player."
Or, as Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo once snapped: "I
don't think you can just lead by example. I hate that term. Players have
to know they have to play for you. Not the coach, the leaders of the
"I think that's the curse of this generation," says Fitzgerald. "For
whatever reason, it's been accepted at a younger age. Just lead by
example. Everything is, `Lead by example. Lead by example.' That's the
Numero Uno copout, I think. `I lead by example.' `Oh. OK.'"
Does he think they're afraid to yell at a buddy?
"That's the whole deal. It's the peer-to-peer that makes team such a
tough challenge. They've got no problem being with their peer and
bitching about the coach. They've got no problem bitching about a
professor or how hard a class is or woe is me. But, gosh, there's
nothing wrong with you, there's nothing wrong with me because we're
boys. That's where we kind of hope to take that next step. There's
nothing wrong with you two guys being boys. But when we get together in
the team context, and we're looking after each other in the program
context, then we're holding ourselves to a high standard of excellence
that we all can live up to. Yeah, we may have some momentary slips, but
we're there to pick each other up. I'm there to say, `Hey, Skip. Don't
do that again. You need to spend more time doing this, more time doing
that, and less time doing this, less time doing that.' Why? Because you
care about each other, you love each other. But it's so much easier to
say, `I just lead by example.' I think that's the issue of this
generation. I go back to when I was playing. The guy's who were leaders
were out in front. They were bell cows."
Did he ever get in a teammate's grill?
"Very rarely. I think we were all on the same page. That was the maturation that took three years."
But you weren't afraid to do that?
"Oh, no. Not at all. But my point is, especially from my side on the
defense, we knew each other so well personally that if I were to look at
you and say, `Hey, Skip, you're bucked up here,' that's all I'd have to
say. And you'd say, `OK, Fitz, I got ya.' There was so much mutual
respect and trust, we could communicate with guys like that. It's hard
now for guys to look at each other and say that. The other aspect of it
is make sure you're not hypocritical. That's the rub. If you're going to
take that step of responsibility, you can't be a hypocrite. You can't
be in the locker room or over in the dorm complaining. That's why we
created this forum. If there's an area that affects the team that we can
improve, we need to communicate. And if you're not man enough to
communicate, if you're not man enough to create a solution -- we all can
talk about the problems. But, c'mon, lets talk about how we can solve
it. It takes a big man to do that."
In all he learned through this exercise, did any one thing disappoint him?
"Yeah. That I didn't do it earlier. Really. We've liked the concept (of
the Council). The guys have done a good job. Obviously, we didn't finish
the way we wanted to (last season), and I felt some little tweaks and
changes to the things that we believe in might help. Not necessarily
what we value. But I opened it up to the Leadership Council, `Do we need
to tweak anything or make any adjustments here.' `No. Not at all.' They
wanted to add a few goals to the goal board, which were goals we've
always talked about. But now they wanted them up front-and-center. And
that's to win our division and win the Big Ten championship to go along
with consistently preparing and win a bowl game.
"Not that we didn't talk about those things in the past. But they wanted them up. You got it."
"Coaches," the umpire calls, and our team begins to circle up as our head coach Kate Drohan heads to home plate to exchange the lineup cards.
"Here we go 'Cats."
"Let's do this, purple team."
"We win the first inning, Purp."
The familiar pre-game chatter starts up as we wait for the lineups to be exchanged. It's 9 a.m on a sunny Friday morning, our first game against UC Davis at San Diego State University.
"Oh hey two-four," an unfamiliar voice murmurs from the stands, and everyone in our circle turns around, searching for the fan who has just called out our shortstop, Emily Allard.
Standing there, with the sun reflecting off a grin as wide as his cheeks would stretch, is Emily's father, Bill. A truck driver who can only come home and see his family about once or twice a month, it's the first time in her career that he's been in the stands to watch her play in a Northwestern uniform, and it's a complete and utter surprise to her.
Emily's hand flies up to her mouth as tears begin rolling down her cheeks. She turns back to the circle and bends over -- hands on her knees -- overcome with emotion. I try to peer through the tears in my eyes and catch 17 of our teammates in the same state -- wiping away their own tears or resting their hands over their hearts.
"When I turned around and I saw his 'stunner shade' sunglasses and his hair that hadn't been cut in four weeks because he never has time to get a haircut, my heart sunk and my face lit up. The only thing I could think to do was cry and smile, and all I wanted to do was give him a hug but I knew I had to play the game first," reminisced Emily.
And play the game she did. That day, Emily went 5-for-5 and broke a Northwestern softball record with five hits in a single game, all in front of the man who left his truck in Los Angeles to watch his daughter for the weekend.
"I didn't even know I broke the record until after the game," said Emily. "I just wanted -- since it was the first time he'd ever seen me play -- I just wanted to make him proud. I wanted to get a hit for my dad. I didn't know I was going to get five!"
Those five hits were for the man who used to wake up at 5:30 a.m. on the weekends to take her to tournaments, the same man who caught Emily in the backyard for the duration of a ten-year pitching career. A father who promised ice cream after a home run and jokingly threatened to tie bacon in front of Emily's helmet to make his daughter run faster.
"I think the greatest thing that made our relationship so strong throughout my career was the fact that he wasn't a yeller. It was never, 'you weren't good enough' or 'you need to do better.' It was always just no matter the outcome, after the game his arms would be open for me to come into, good or bad, home run or 0-for-4," said Emily.
I've experienced first-hand the relationship between Emily and her dad, and I've
never seen a father and daughter more alike. Theirs is a relationship of trust,
respect and love, and there's no question where Emily got her sense of humor.
Although they only get to see each other a few times a year, it's like they've
never spent a day apart.
For a year and a half, I've watched my friend's face light up whenever she receives a text from her dad. I've listened to her giggle uncontrollably when they're on the phone together. And on the slight chance that Bill happens to be driving through the Midwest, I've seen every attempt to be made for a last-minute rendezvous, even if only for 30 precious minutes.
But none of those moments compare to that Friday morning in San Diego. On a morning when, much to the chagrin of Jimmy Dugan, there was crying in softball.