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    An Official Welcome to Schark Bytes!

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    Hello and welcome to Schark Bytes!


    First 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!

    Either 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.

    You 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?

    That's the kind of sensation I feel in three very distinct places: in the batter's box, on stage and behind a pen.

    You 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.

    Others 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 since.

    I'm also a daughter, a Christ-follower and a die-hard Lakers fan. I'm a big sister, a terrible cook and an avid reader.

    And 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.

    A 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.

    Hence, 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!

     

    Jeravin Matthews Has a Work Ethic a Mother Could Love

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    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 love."

    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 football."

    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 football player.

    "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 improving."

    This answer, of course, is not surprising. It is instead an answer that would make his mother proud.

    The Party's Over: 'Cats Back From Spring Break

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    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 your ear."

    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 butt."

    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 motivated.

    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 humbling experience."

    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."

    Checkin' In: Spring Practice -- For Real

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    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 offseason."

    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 correct."

    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 do."

    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."

    Persa?

    "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 Williams.

    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 on."

    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."

    Pies, cakes?

    "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."

    ON THE RECORD With Michael Thompson

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    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 could.

    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 something bad.

    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 fun.

    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 father.

    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 more vocal.

    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.

    From Past to Present: The Legacy of Wearing Purple

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    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.

               

    Massay was 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.

     

    Determined, the freshman -- a catcher herself -- marched right up to the senior with her chin jutted out and her eyes brazen.

     

    "I want in," she declared.

     

    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 transcend time.

     

    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.

     

    Wearing a 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.

     

    It's former 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!]

    When it Rains, We Visit "The Rock"

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    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:


    A.      Sleep

    B.      Play hacky-sack

    C.      Cry

    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.

     

    Checkin' In on Day Two of Spring Ball

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    • 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 this off-season.

    "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 him."

    "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 afternoon."

    Skip's Spring Preview: Part II

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    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.

    Offensive line?

    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 toughness.

    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.

    Venric Mark.

    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 competition everywhere.

    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.

    Skip's Spring Preview: Part I

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    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

    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 ...

    Their hunger?

    Yes. 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 workout one.

     

     
    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 re-enforce it.

    When you say more consistent, do you mean more consistent performances on the field or more consistency in what you do with the Xs and Os?

    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.

    The Morning After: The End of an Era

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    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 emotional."

    ******

    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 great experience."

    ******

    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 frustrating.

    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, but subconsciously.

    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 more individual."

    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 exercise."

    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 team."

    "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."

    A League of Her Own

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    "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.