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    Meet Katie Crandol: Northwestern's Inspirational 'Cat

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    Editor's Note: Northwestern will honor Katie Crandol prior to its noon CT first pitch Sunday, April 29, when it takes on Ohio State in a Big Ten doubleheader at Sharon J. Drysdale Field.


    The first time I met Katie Crandol, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon after our annual open practice. A 16-year-old cancer survivor and aspiring college softball player, Katie and her family had become the newest additions to our team through the Friends of Jaclyn program. As we shared a meal and exchanged stories about our season and their journey, it was apparent to each and every one of us that we were blessed with the opportunity to get know to someone with such a unique perspective on not only softball but also life itself.

    BLOG: Reading Material from U.S. Olympic Trials

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    It was a pretty unbelievable weekend for the Northwestern wrestling team as one of its own qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Northwestern grad Jake Herbert won the 84 kg/185 lbs. freestyle division to become the first NU wrestler to win the U.S. Olympic Trials, securing a spot on Team USA.
     
    Not only was Herbert the first NU wrestler to make the United States Olympic Team (Jack Griffin was an alternate in 1992), but he also is the lone former Big Ten wrestler on this year's freestyle squad. The winners of the U.S. Olympic Trials for freestyle are as follows with their college affiliation in parentheses:
     
    55kg: Sam Hazewinkel (Oklahoma)
    60kg: Coleman Scott (weight not yet qualified for Olympics) (Oklahoma State)
    66kg: Jared Frayer (Oklahoma)
    74kg: Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska)
    84kg: Jake Herbert (Northwestern)
    96kg: Jake Varner  (Iowa State)
    120kg: Tervel Dlagnev  (University of Nebraska - Kearney)
     
    There was no shortage of coverage at the trials and below you can find a plethora of articles, photo galleries and videos on Northwestern Olympian Jake Herbert.
     
    NBCOlympics.com: 2012 Wrestling Trials: What we learned
     
    NBCChicago.com: Chicago will be well-represented on Olympic Wrestling Team
     
    New York Times: New Breed of U.S. Wrestlers Will Head to Olympics
     
    TheMat.com: Olympic Trials come to exciting end in front of mover 13,000 in Iowa City
     
    TheMat.tv: Trials Video Features & Interviews
     
    TheMat.com: Photo galleries from top photographers at Olympic Wrestling Trials
     
    The Des Moines Register: Herbert dashes Paulson's Olympic hopes

    InterMat: 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials Interviews: Sunday
     
    InterMat: Nine more champions crowned on Sunday at Trials
     
    Chicago Tribune: Olympic Trials: Ellis Coleman earns spot on U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team (scroll down for Herbert report)

    Examiner.com: Hazewinkel, Frayer, Herbert Dlagnev win 2012 US Olympic Trials Sunday

    SI.com: Frayer upsets hometown favorite to qualify for first Olympic team
     
    ESPN.com (Associated Press): Ellis Coleman earns bid to London Games

    Daily Northwestern: Northwestern alums wrestle for spots in London

    From before the Trials...
    ESPN.com (Associated Press): Cael Sanderson's absence opens door for Jake Herbert at U.S. Olympic Team Trials

    Deseret News (Associated Press): Young wrestling stars on display at Olympic Trials

    By Michael Black, Athletic Communications


    "It was an art and act I came to perfect. It was part of my armory. I felt if my opponent didn't know what I was thinking then I was invincible."

    - Bjorn Borg

     

    At the conclusion of its inaugural year as a varsity program in 1976, Northwestern's women's tennis team held a rather humble record of three wins and four losses. It was not the most successful era in Wildcat athletics history, and head coach June Booth's squad appeared to be headed on a path of ordinariness.

     

    But that hardly lasted through the offseason.

     

    The next spring, the program's second on the map, Booth led her team to a remarkable 12-2 record, qualifying for its first postseason berth in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women's (AIAW) 24-team tournament.

     

    Whether she knew it or not, Booth set in motion the start of a program that would be a formidable force in the Big Ten -- which began sponsoring women's tennis after the 1981 season -- and on a national scale.

     

    It all started with the right frame of mind. A winning attitude.

     

    "What bothered me when I came to Northwestern," Booth said to Sports Illustrated's Jerry Kirshenbaum in October 1978, "was that some of the men's coaches seemed to expect to lose. We women came in with a positive attitude. We've gone after intelligent, career-oriented women who don't want to drown in a big school."

     

    Booth would leave Northwestern after the 1979 season, but the women's program had only begun to perfect the finely crafted art of winning.

     

    ***

     

    "It's difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it's just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines."  - Virginia Wade

     

    Through its first 37 years of existence, the women's tennis program has had 33 winning seasons under just four head coaches -- an indicative sign of its strength, stability and endurance.

     

    Beginning in her third year at the helm, Sandy Stap Clifton, who took over for Booth in 1980, led the team to six-consecutive top-10 finishes nationally, including two years in the top-5. NU enjoyed the success under Stap Clifton that it knew it could manage from day one.

     

    But with the peaks, come the valleys; and it is a telling sign of accomplishment when a program's "valley" would include a mere three seasons under .500 in a span of 11 years.

     

    Only twice -- in 1993 and 1997 with fourth-place conference finishes -- have the 'Cats ended the year outside the top three in the Big Ten race. Following that 1993 season, under fifth-year head coach Lisa Fortman, NU would finish with a 17-3 record, ranked 13th in the nation in the inaugural Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll in 1994.

     

    The struggles -- if you can even justify using that term -- lasted only moments in the grand scheme of time.

     

    ***

     

    "I'd like to imagine that in order to beat me, a person would have to play almost perfect tennis." - Venus Williams

     

    The stage was set for Claire Pollard in 1999 when she took the reigns of a program that finished with a 24-24 record over its previous two years. It was proven that the women could win and bring home regional recognition, but the 'Cats would need a dynamic leader to be able to consistently win on the national scene and bring conference championships back to Evanston.

     

    Pollard had the credentials. The Surrey, England, native had a remarkable career at Mississippi State University where she and her doubles partner, current Wildcat associate head coach Jackie Holden, won back-to-back Southeastern Conference championships and the 1989 NCAA Doubles Championship.

     

    Pollard had the attitude. She wanted her girls to shine both on and off the court.

     

    "When I first came to Northwestern," Pollard says, "the girls were focused primarily on academics over athletics. I strove to combine them so they didn't have to choose. I wanted to provide them with the ability to excel at both."

     

    Pollard produced results. From 1999 to 2009, she fashioned together a string of 11 consecutive Big Ten Championships -- one of the top-three streaks by any women's athletic program in conference history. With Sunday's win, Pollard clinched her 12th and the program's 14th outright Big Ten Championship.

     

    The string includes a run during which she coached NU to several program-firsts including a No. 1 national ranking in three-straight years, back-to-back No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Championships and consecutive ITA National Indoor Team championships in 2009 and 2010. She was the 2008 ITA National Coach of the Year, is a four-time ITA Midwest Region Coach of the Year honoree and a five-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, winning the award consecutively in 2008 and 2009.

     

    On top of that, every year Pollard has been in Evanston, her team has brought home the Big Ten Tournament title -- this year could mark the 14th-straight. Only Stanford (21), UIC (15) and Duke (14) have posted longer conference championship streaks in women's tennis, but no single coach has a longer championship or tournament streak than does Pollard.

     

    Pollard's sequence of conference and tournament titles becomes even more impressive when compared to some of the coaching greats across all sports.

     

    Outside of the Big Ten, John Wooden, who famously guided UCLA to nine-consecutive NCAA Championships in men's basketball from 1966-75, produced a total of 21 Pacific Coast/Pacific-8 Conference championships. Bear Bryant, the face of Alabama football, directed his teams to 13 SEC titles from 1961-81.

     

    Inside the conference walls, Dan Gable, Iowa's heralded wrestling coach, holds 25 of the Hawkeyes' 30 conference wrestling titles. James "Doc" Counsilman, Indiana's men's swimming and diving head coach from 1959-90, has all 23 of the Hoosiers' Big Ten titles to his name, with 20 of them coming in consecutive years.

     

    As arguably the most prominent women's collegiate sport, basketball has two premier coaches to boast: the University of Connecticut's Geno Auriemma and the University of Tennessee's recently retired Pat Summitt. Auriemma has accumulated 19 regular season and 18 Big East Conference championships, including 11 in a row, and Summitt led her teams to 16 regular season and SEC tournament titles, with six in succession.

     

    There is no doubt that Pollard's stretch of conference dominance at Northwestern should be measured right up with the greatest in any sport.

     

    ***

     

    "Tennis is what I do and is part of who I am." - Jennifer Capriati

     

    Along the way, Pollard has mentored her players into champions on and off the court. Under her tutelage, Northwestern has had a bevy of personal accomplishments, and the numbers speak for themselves.

     

    Since 1999, 52 players have earned Academic All-Big Ten honors. Thirty-nine have garnered All-Big Ten nods. There have been six Big Ten Freshman of the Year and eight Big Ten Player of the Year award winners. Eighteen Wildcats have received All-America distinction, and there have been 13 doubles teams and 14 singles players who have qualified for the NCAA championships.

     

    ***

     

    "What is the single most important quality in a tennis champion? I would have to say desire ... " - John McEnroe

     

    From its inception as a varsity-level sport, Northwestern's women's tennis program has established itself as a contender with an air of confidence. Its four coaches provided direction and instilled a sense of desire for winning, and winning the right way.

     

    It is ingrained in all 19 of Northwestern's athletic programs to highlight a balance of family, academics and athletics, and there is no doubt that the women's tennis program exemplifies these ideals to the highest extent.

     

    Beginning with its first serve in 1976, the heralded program, led by its coaches and scores of successful student-athletes who have graced the campus courts, has been one of dignity and accomplishment built on the desire so critical to being a part of a championship contender.

    BLOG: Catching Up with Coach Hankwitz

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    Photo Gallery of Misericordia Visiting Thursday's Spring Football Practice

    It is a fine Thursday morning and the practice has gone well. Ahead of the 'Cats now is a Saturday scrimmage, which will put the punctuation mark on their labors of spring. But even here, under the sun, there are memories of last season, a season in which their defense surrendered an average of 27.7 points and 407.7 yards per game. This is proven when, to start our chat, we toss out a general question to Mike Hankwitz and the defensive coordinator replies, "I like our attitude and our effort. We talked about last year and we're moving on. We've looked at everything, we've evaluated, and now it's about solutions. We've given them solutions and they've worked their tails off to work on them. I like where we're at. We've got a good mix of veteran guys and young, eager guys, kind of like four years ago. So we've made a lot of progress, but we've got to keep making it. That's the key."

    When they looked at last season, what did they see?

    "We were inconsistent. We didn't execute well enough. We gave up too many explosion plays because of that. Part of that lack of execution was communication, part of it was discipline to do your job. When those things break down, you give up big plays and you're not going to play good defense. There were times when we did, and we got it going, started playing a lot better at the end. But it wasn't as good as we need to be."

    We tell him now that, two Saturdays ago, the defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt said, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."

    Here Hankwitz smiles and chuckles ruefully.

    Does he feel the same, we then ask.
        
    "Well, yeah. We work our (butts) off, you know, and when you're not as good as you want to be, it hurts your pride. But we're going to do something about it. We're glad Arnie's back. We were hoping we'd have him last fall, but he never got back until the very end of the year (because of injury). He had a great spring going, we were excited, but unfortunately that happened at a number of positions where guys got hurt, missed time. But it's going to happen, so we're trying to develop our depth so if it does happen again, it won't have the same impact."

    Another point made on that Saturday by Arnfelt, who was talking after a scrimmage that was dominated by the defense, was this. "The offense really got after us on Thursday and we just kind of said in our position meetings throughout the whole defensive squad, 'We can't let that happen.' You see some things (on film) that could trickle into what happened last year."

    "He's probably partly right," says Hankwitz.

    And what did Arnfelt see on film that made him think that way?

    "I don't know exactly. We've got a lot of young guys playing with the second team and they made some mental mistakes and gave up plays. Probably that's what he's referring to. But, yeah. We had a good first five practices, then we had a two-week break, came back, went three practices out of four days, the third practice being the Thursday he's referring to, and we didn't have the same energy and intensity. But since then, we have. So I'd like to think we've taken a big step and learned from that. But we've got to continue on that same path."

    Learned what? That you have to always play with intensity?

    "You have to have intensity on defense. Offenses keep changing, tweaking, spreads, this and that, spreading the field, you've got to have intensity on defense. Defense is passion and effort and intensity. If you don't have that, you're not going to be a good defense, I don't care how good you are. You can watch Alabama and they have all this great talent. But they play hard, and they play with intensity. It doesn't matter what your ability level is. You've got to have that ingredient."   

    Our impression this spring, we now say, is that Arnfelt has emerged as one of the defensive leaders intent on making sure that the intensity is always there.

    "I think he has, yes. Quentin (Williams, the defensive end) and him and Ib (safety Ibraheim Campbell) and Bus (linebacker David Nwabuisi), some of the older guys are taking more of a leadership role. That's part of Coach Fitz's (Pat Fitzgerald's) Leadership Council principle. We're trying to teach them how to become leaders and take things upon themselves. But they still have to do it, and I think those guys have stepped up more than normal this spring. That's exciting to see."

    Another guy who has been singled out this spring by Fitzgerald, we tell him, is the defensive end Tyler Scott, whom he says is ready to make that step that will deliver him some national recognition.

    "I would agree. He was playing extremely well last fall, and then he got hurt and missed three games or so. When he came back, he wasn't quite the same, and then he started getting better and better. This spring, he's taken up from the best he was playing and gone a little beyond that. So, yeah. We're excited about him."

    Does he have one characteristic that makes him so good?

    "I think it's a combination. He's a good athlete. He was a linebacker, so he's got athleticism. And he's smart, and he plays very hard, he plays with great effort. Now that experience he's accumulated, he's starting to put it all together."

    Speaking of experience, we mention that offensive coordinator Mick McCall recently said, "All those kids, they don't get everything the first time through or the second time. The third time, it starts to come." Is there a similar learning curve on defense?

    "Oh, yeah. There's an old saying, there's no substitute for experience, and you don't experience everything in one fall, especially if you're a young guy and learning the opponent's defense (on the practice squad) and stuff. You just can't see everything. Yeah. In a perfect world, everyone would learn from everybody else's mistakes and what happened to them. But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes you've got to be there and it's got to happen to you. You've got to make the mistake before you understand what you've got to do, or why it's important you do what you're supposed to do. And experience isn't just what happens to you. It's also what you learn from it. Sometimes you have to have it happen to you before you realize, 'Oh. Now I know why I'm supposed to do this like coach said.'"

    With that in mind, are there any younger kids who this spring have shown that they've got that understanding? We're thinking here especially of the line, where big reps have gone to players like junior (in the fall) Will Hampton and sophomore Chance Carter and redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson.

    "Deonte's impressed us with his wherewithal, his awareness. Chance, we've seen the potential in him and Will. Another guy who's had a good spring is (sophomore tackle Sean) McEvilly. Then (redshirt freshman) Drew Smith has done a lot of nice things at backer. Collin (Ellis, a sophomore who started last fall) is getting more experience all the time. Chi Chi (Ariguzo, another sophomore who played last fall) is now a little more comfortable, then we've got excellent competition in the back part. Nick (VanHoose, a redshirt freshman corner) has done some good things, shown some good things, as has D.J. (sophomore corner Daniel Jones) at times, and Doogie (senior corner Demetrius Dugar). So we've got competition and hopefully, it is making them all better. Then Davion (Fleming, a junior safety) is healthy and he's a little older, so he's competing, him and Hunter (Bates, a senior). Ibraheim is building on his experience, then (sophomore safety) Jimmy Hall's gaining a lot of valuable experience. So there's a lot of young guys that have shown good things. But the key is they've got to keep improving, keep learning."

    How does a coach feel when a redshirt sophomore, Campbell, is his most-experienced backer?

    "Well. If you look, Hunter and (junior safety Jared) Carpenter (who sat out the spring) and Davion, they've all played and they've been here two, three years. So they're a little more experienced than you might think. But it is what it is. We're just going to have to execute with what we've got. I think we'll be fine."

    We know Damien Proby, who ended last season as the starting middle linebacker, is another who has been held out this spring. But has Hankwitz decided how he will utilize him and Nwabuisi, who started last season in the middle?

    "No. But Bus played both Mike (middle) and Will, and that's a big strength for him, his ability to play both. It gives us more depth back there. So we have some flexibility there."

    And Collin Ellis has been moved?

    "We moved him to Will (from Sam), put him in the box. He's a physical player, it's more natural for him in there. So he's going through a little learning curve, but he's done some nice things."

    And Chi Chi's at Sam?

    "Him and Drew Smith, two athletic guys. Chi Chi's getting more confident out there. We like his and Drew's athleticism."

    Which they need since they play in space?

    "Yeah. They're more of the wide side (of the field). Will has to play some in space, but he's on the side of the field where there's a little less room and he can attack."

    That covers the players and so, finally, what about Hankwitz himself, whom many blamed him for last season's defensive deficiencies. Does he hear that talk? Does he take it personally?

    He chuckles softly and then says, "There's always going to be critics, but I know we've played damn good defense for most of three years. Yeah, when Dan (Persa) got hurt two years ago, yeah, it affected us. But prior to that, I'll stand by what we did. Now (what happened) last year, yeah, my pride's stung too. I take pride in what I do. I'm probably harder on myself than anyone else is. I don't care what they say. I'm disappointed. I'm frustrated. But I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to dwell on it, and worry about that. I've been doing this long enough to know what we're capable of and what we need to do to get better. I'm not going to worry about the criticism. That's always going to happen. My goal is to get us better." 
     

    BLOG: Catching Up with Coach McCall

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    Tuesday's was the penultimate practice before the 'Cats close out their spring labors with a Saturday exhibition at Ryan Field. So we felt it time for a chat with offensive coordinator Mick McCall, who began our conversation with an overview of that unit he directs. "I think we have really, really good chemistry with the quarterbacks and the receivers and the running backs," he said here. "I think they've got really good chemistry and work together, which they can build on in the summer and into fall camp. I think the line is working at it. We've got some guys dinged up a little bit. But we're really, really athletic. Now we've got to figure out how and why we do certain things that make sense so they don't have to think about it."

    BLOG: Wildcats Get First Look At New Locker Room

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    Photo Gallery

    EVANSTON, Ill. -- Moments before a spirited spring practice was to begin Monday afternoon, Northwestern's volleyball team got its first look at the newly renovated locker room space inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.

    The new locker room, which took three months to complete, features everything the Wildcats could want and more, including new carpeting, a player lounge, new televisions for film study and game preparation, remodeled bathroom facilities, huge team photos and much more.

    One of the new features in the revamped home of the 'Cats is a place where graduating seniors can leave their mark on the program. Upon playing their final match, players will be asked to sign inside the Northwestern insignia. Letterwinners will sign their name inside the purple 'N' and All-Big Ten and All-America honorees will sign on the head of the Wildcat. Alex Ayers, Mary Grace Gallagher and Kathryn Chrystal, who all finished their careers at the end of the 2011 season, will be among the first to begin the new tradition.

    To view photos of the rehabilitation process through its completion, please check out the photo gallery at the top of the page.

    Julie Chin, who will be one of two seniors on the 2012 squad, spoke on behalf of her teammates Monday and she talked about how excited they are for the new space. Check out the video of the reveal right here:

    Northwestern defeated three top-25 teams last season, including No. 2 Nebraska in the regular season finale. The Wildcats return nine letterwinners in the fall from the 2011 team including All-Big Ten and AVCA All-Mideast Region Honorable Mention selection Stephanie Holthus and Big Ten All-Freshman Team member Katie Dutchman.

    Shurna Helps Students "Fuel Up to Play 60"

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    Photo Gallery


    By Jocelyn Vinoya Serranilla


    Newly crowned three-point champion John Shurna may add one more title to his already impressive resume: physical fitness advocate for school children.

     

    Shurna drained advice to middle schoolers as fast as he rained three's on his opponents that made him win the three-point shootout title. "Make the right choices, eat nutritious food, stay active everyday," he told students at River Trails Middle School, urging them to commit to a healthy lifestyle in school and in the community.

     

    Shurna's visit on Thursday, April 5 coincided with the school's assembly to kick off its commitment to Fuel Up To Play 60, a program that promotes a healthy lifestyle through nutritious meals, exercise and physical activities for at least 60 minutes a day. Sponsored by the National Dairy Council and the National Football League, Fuel Up encourages school children to eat nutrient-rich foods, including food containing low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and to engage in exercise and physical activities everyday.

     

    Sixth, seventh and eighth-grade students at River Trails packed their gymnasium as early as 7:50 in the morning, some wearing purple Wildcat T-shirts with Northwestern men's basketball logos, while awaiting the surprise visitor from the Northwestern Wildcats. When school principal Keir Rogers introduced the Wildcat's all-time men's basketball leading scorer, the crowd let a thunderous applause, greeting Shurna's presence with hoots and whistles. Most of the comments heard from the crowd ranged from, 'He's so tall," to, "he's a cool guy." 

     

    "How is it going, guys? Thanks for having me," Shurna crackled, bending over to reach the microphone, then adjusting the stand to avoid bending so low, as the principal, who stands a little over six-feet tall commented, "John is a foot taller than I am," drawing more laughter from students and staff.

     

    "This is going to be a great day," Rogers said, as he beamed to acknowledge the students' enthusiasm for the program and Shurna's presence. "We are very happy to have John Shurna come out and speak to our students today," Rogers says. One student in the crowd let his excitement known by screaming, "John!" as the 6-9 Shurna walked over the podium.

     

    Shurna shared his experience at Northwestern, explaining to the kids that although strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers help him to compete at the highest level as a student-athlete, he still has to make a choice. "Junk food," he says, "will always be there, and it's very tempting. Choose nutritious food. The more energy you have, the more time you have to play outside," he told the kids.

     

    "Eating nutritious food definitely helped me stay active and to reach a lot of my goals academically and athletically." Shurna's presence at the assembly helped the school celebrate its signing up to Fuel Up To Play 60, becoming one of 72,000 schools across the United States committed to a healthy lifestyle. The commitment makes River Trails Middle School, located in Mt. Prospect, one of 4,000 schools in Illinois eligible to a grant award from the National Dairy Council and the NFL. Grants may include additional resources, tools, rewards and incentives for students in grades K-12, adult advisers and the school.

     

    "John is a great example to our students not just because he is an athlete but more so because he is a student-athlete who puts a lot of effort into being a student," Rogers told the crowd. "John is a great example to be in front of you, not just because he is an aspiring professional athlete. Keep in mind that he is a student-athlete who has done a decent job in the classroom, and also takes care of business with his body, physical fitness and athletics."

     

    Besides Shurna, former Chicago Bears wide receiver Anthony Morgan, and a doctor from the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians, a registered dietician and a professional chef all assisted in the kick-off. Morgan, drafted by the Bears in 1991, urged the students to stay involved, noting that he was "excited to be around great athletes, great individuals and the next generation of powerful individuals."

     

    After the assembly in the gym, students were divided into groups and were led by their teachers to different stations where they participated in hula hoops, run relays, volleyball, dance exercise, calorie counting, push-ups and pulse-rate monitoring. Shurna and Morgan visited each station and mingled with students throughout each visit. Matt Abfall and Grant Wagner, both seventh graders, were quick to grab Shurna for a quick photo op. Wagner proudly showed Shurna his purple T-shirt that says, "Northwestern Basketball." And how do these kids from suburban Mt. Prospect know Shurna? Both Wagner and Abfall were quick to reply, "We watch him on TV."

     

    George Keehn, physical education teacher at River Trails Middle School, echoes Rogers's praise for Shurna, saying, "I think John Shurna is an inspiration to every athlete who wants to succeed because he is someone who works as hard as he possibly could to get to where he is at. Most people would have given up a long time down the road but his courage, his work ethic and his success is absolutely terrific."

     

    Were the kids excited to have Shurna? "Very much," says Keehn. "I've got these kids now running relays and I talked about John Shurna and they cannot believe that he can probably be in the NBA next year, which is great and that's a great inspiration for them because they can see that he's a regular guy. Kids can relate to Shurna and say, "Hey, I'm a regular guy. I can be as successful."

     

    Thirteen-year old Abfall, who eagerly awaited his turn to have a picture taken with Shurna, says, "I watched him win the three-point contest. I watched him beat Juan Fernandez of Temple." Now Shurna can proudly say he watched these kids Fuel Up to Play 60.

     

     

    BLOG: Sky Team

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    THE FACTOID: The Sky Team. That is now the handle of the 'Cats defensive backfield. "It's the nickname we gave ourselves," explains one of them, senior corner Demetrius Dugar. "We feel if we're going to reach that championship level (as a team), it's got to start by taking over the sky. We've got to control the air. We gave up a lot of big plays last year through the air. So the thing this year that we're focusing on is knocking that all out. So we're The Sky Team. We're going to control the sky, get the ball, not let those receivers have the ball. We're going to do our part. That's the identity we're going to build on."

    THE REALITY: The rear view recalls those fatal explosion plays surrendered last season by the 'Cat DBs, and the stats reveal that they gave up more passing yards per-game (230.4) than any other group in the Big Ten. That was, most certainly, bad. But a closer look at the numbers also shows they were singed for only 16 touchdown passes, which were fewer than those surrendered by a half-dozen conference teams (including Michigan State and Ohio State), and that their 12 interceptions were fifth best in the league. This, on the other hand, was not so bad.

    Still, in the wake of that season and throughout this spring, this group has been perceived as its team's underbelly, that proverbial chink in the armor that could again scuttle its drive to success. "To our great fans who are talking negative about our defensive backs, please continue to do that. You're adding fuel by being masters of the obvious," Pat Fitzgerald would say Thursday, recognizing that fact. "They love it. They can't thank you enough for your loving TLC and support. This is the time in the spring that I'm sprinkling a few of the things that some of those great fans are saying. I'm letting them hear it, so it ticks them off. Then in the fall, I won't let them listen to any of those people who don't know what they're talking about anyway."

    "That does (tick) us off," Dugar says when his coach's comments are relayed to him. "It's easy to say don't let what happens on the outside effect you. But at the same time you're a man, and if somebody's coming at your pride, you want to step up and prove them wrong. That's what we want to do. We take it personal."

    THE PERSONNEL: At practice on Thursday, the first unit corners were Dugar and redshirt freshman Nick Van Hoose and the first unit safeties were sophomore Ibraheim Campbell and junior Davion Flemming. But this is spring, and the competition here is rampant, and in the mix too were (at corner) sophomores Daniel Jones, Mike Eshun and redshirt freshman Jarrell Williams and (at safety) senior Hunter Bates, sophomore Jimmy Hall and redshirt freshman Matt Carpenter. "I don't know. It's up to the young men," Fitzgerald will say when asked how long he thinks this DB competition will last. "But I'll tell you this. These guys are competing their tails off. We've got a pretty good receiver corps, and they're competing their tails off."

    A FEW WORDS: "The attitude in our room is that we've got to be the best," Dugar says. "Last year we felt like we took a lot of the blame for a lot of the things that went on on the field, so this year we want to make sure we come out on top. We want to be the best secondary in the Big Ten, one of the top secondaries in the nation. We're just trying to get to that championship level."

    How do they remain friends while competing for the same jobs?

    "We're fighting for the same job, but we're also fighting for the championship. That's the bigger picture," he says. "We try to do what we have to do to get that championship. It's more about team than the individual. So at the end of the day, we're all going to step it up if our number is called. The idea is to just be ready. So we're all going to come out and compete against each other. But at the same time, we're still boys, we're still the defensive backfield, we're still The Sky Team. So we're going to keep working with each other."

    Is the competition stress or motivation?

    "It's definitely motivation. Sometimes you come out here, you get in the grind of spring ball, you may come out here and your mindset might be a little off. So it can be a little stressful. But at the same time it's motivation because you know these guys are going to fight everyday to get the same spot that you're trying to get. So it's motivation."

    FLASHBACK: The '09 'Cats, who would end their run in the next year's Outback Bowl, had a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Mike Kafka) and an array of defenders with singular personalities (Corey Wootton, Quentin Dave, Brad Phillips, Brian Peters, Brendan Smith). The 2012 'Cats, who are still in their formative stage, have a quarterback taking over for the first time as a full-time starter (Kain Colter) and an array of defenders hell bent on rehabilitating their unit's image (see Dugar's comments above and recall that tackle Brian Arnfelt said just last Saturday, "This whole season is about responding to what happened last year. It's really about redemption."). It was no surprise, then, that Fitzgerald recently said his current group reminds him of the former.

    "I thought the '09 team had a spirit about them that was player run," he said Thursday when asked to expand on that comment. "You think about some of those guys on that defense who were dynamic personalities. The Woottens, that whole group, and I'm starting to see that here. Then on offense, we have guys who can make some plays. I'm starting to see that. So a lot of similarities in that spring prior to that season to what I'm seeing right now. But talk is cheap. We've got a lot of work to do."

    And just what is he seeing?

    "I just see a lot of guys with a lot of passion, and through that I think you just work  diligently to get better. I've been impressed with our attitude. I've been impressed by the way we've worked. We've got a lot of things to get so much better at. But at least they're working at it, which is all we can ask."

    "I definitely see the similarities," Dugar will finally say when appraised of his coach's comparison. "One thing about that '09 team is, they had a lot of team camaraderie, they had a lot of characters on that team and everybody embraced each other. That's kind of the same mentality we've been working on. That'll definitely make us a better team."

    AND FINALLY: Saturday's practice is closed, so we won't be back at you until Tuesday. Until then.

    Blog: Do Not Overlook The Linemen

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    THE FACTOID: It all starts with the line. Despite the kinetic skills of quarterback Kain Colter; despite the promise of running backs Mike Trumpy and Treyvon Green; despite the scorching speed of Tony Jones and Venric Mark; despite that collection of wide receivers as combustible as a bad marriage; despite each of those promising facts, it all starts with the line. For if it does not open holes and provide precious seconds of protection, the 'Cat offense is nothing more than so much fish food. "We know we have play makers all around," says one in that line, the senior guard Brian Mulroe. "So it's on us. We have to be the most important group."

    "We think that all the time," Adam Cushing, its coach, will soon add. "But, certainly. We look around, and we graduated some pretty good players. But you look around the team, there's a bunch of good players. As an offensive line, you go execute, you've got a chance to be a pretty special offense."

    OINK:
    Its goal now, as it has been in recent season's past, is to play with Hog Pride. That, in fact, is the banner under which it operates. Hog Pride. "It is," says Mulroe, explaining what that means, "just having a nasty attitude and playing as one."

    INTRODUCTIONS: Its members are more anonymous than Deep Throat was back in the days of Watergate, and so here we pause to put some flesh on their numbers. At right tackle there is Chucky, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound senior Chuck Porcelli, at right guard there is Neal Daddy, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound senior Neal Dieters. "Obviously he's been around the program a long time and has played a couple positions," Cushing says of Dieters. "His advantage, he kind of knows the tackle position so he knows what's going on out there. A huge guy. With both he and Chuck, it'll be kind of the same thing, just playing with a consistent pad level. When you're six-seven, six-eight, whatever those two guys are, playing with your pads down is the most difficult thing to get done. Then Chuck's a guy who's been around and been playing the backup role for us. A year ago, he was our third tackle on both sides. He was by no means waiting his turn. But now that it's his fifth year, I think he's excited for the opportunity. He's having fun playing football. That's one of those fun things to see, when he's cutting it loose and having fun on the field."

    Next, at center, there is V Tabs, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound sophomore Brandon Vitabile, who started last season as a redshirt freshman. "He's got to focus on just trusting himself," Cushing says of him. "At times, he's a very good football player and he plays very naturally with his feet apart. At times, he tries to do a little more than what his job is and that's the only time he gets himself in trouble. He tries to do everything rather than just his job. But that's a good problem to have. You can fix those."

    To his left, at guard, is Muls, the 6-foot-4, 295-pound senior Mulroe, and at that tackle there is the 6-foot-7, 310-pound senior Pat Ward, who started last season on the right ("Pat doesn't have a nickname," explains Mulroe. "But if he had one, it would be genius or bookworm or something like that."). "It's a slight adjustment to move to the other side," Cushing says of that latter. "But that's what he played in high school, so he's comfortable in a left-handed stance. For him, it's simple fundamentals he has to concentrate on. He's played a lot of football for us, so we have a lot of confidence in him. But he's got to continue to develop those very basic things. Then Brian's probably the best athlete we have up front. Tremendous feet. Plays with leverage well. There's a few basic things they all need to work on. Brian, throughout his career, has been gaining the weight to be a full-fledged O-lineman. I used to give him a lot of guff about it. But he's done a great job of now playing at that Big Ten weight."

    BUT SEPTEMBER IS FAR AWAY: That quintet has appeared regularly this spring with the first unit, yet that is no guarantee the cast won't change by the fall. For in the mix too are the 6-foot-5, 285-pound sophomore Jack Konopka, the former superback who is pushing Porcelli at right tackle; and the 6-foot-5, 280-pound redshirt freshman Geoff Mogus, who is pushing Dieters at right guard; and, on the left side, the 6-foot-8, 295-pound redshirt freshman Shane Mertz ("He's an aircraft carrier out there. The USS Mertz," Pat Fitzgerald says of him) and the 6-foot-6, 295-pound sophomore Paul Jorgensen.

    "It'll probably be ongoing all the way through," Fitzgerald will say of the competition on the line's right side. "I think between the ones and twos, with both guys, I think we have a chance to have a starter there. For the first time, we might rotate some guys a little bit. We've got that much competition. We've got some pretty good depth there."

    "He's very-naturally talented, but it's a different position all together," Cushing says of Konopka, the former superback who is in the middle of that competition. "There's a million different things that go on in the offensive line. That's going to be the challenge for him, catching up to the minutiae of the game in there. When he does that, he's going to be good. His athletic ability is tremendous."

    PAUSE FOR A FLASHBACK: In 2001 Trai Essex was the tight end on the Big Ten's All Freshman team, but then-coach Randy Walker switched him to left tackle. He would go on to start 37 games for the 'Cats at that position and then be selected in the third round of the 2005 draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who gave him a $460,000 signing bonus and won two Super Bowls in his time with them. So Konopka has a precedent he can regard, and a success story to try and match.

    BACK TO THE PRESENT: Fitzgerald, as all 'Cat fans know, covets competition, and when asked the mood of his room, Cushing will say, "It's an attitude of competition. There is some good competition." So that is a benefit. But then, a sentence later, he will add, "Whenever there's competition, it's a strain for everyone to gel together, so that's what we're working on the most right now. Making sure the communication's there. Making sure the camaraderie's there, and that the trust is there with each other." So, as Hamlet famously noted, "Therein lies the rub."

    THE GOAL:
    They appear, to the naked eye, to be nothing more than a bunch of Brobdingnagian bodies bashing away at the defenders confronting them. But in truth, on each snap, the offensive linemen are dance partners who must work as one to achieve their goals. Their feet, their hips, each of their moves must mesh, and to achieve the kind of synchronicity needed for success, they must know each other intimately, they must trust each other totally, they must communicate with each other nonverbally. That is why a line is better the longer it is together. That is also why, with its final makeup still uncertain, the 'Cat line is now nothing more than a work in progress. "It's growing," Mulroe will admit when asked if his group has its choreography down yet. "We haven't all played together. But it's going to keep continuing to grow and we're going to need that. We need to solidify that."

    But how do you solidify that once spring practice ends and months separate them from the opening of fall camp?   

    "They do a little bit of position work on their own through spring and summer," explains Cushing. "Very simple fundamentals. You don't want them to do too much because they might develop some poor habits. But they do some drills where they work together, just two-man combinations, so they trust the guy to their right or their left. And they hang out a lot. Spring and summer, there's a push to get together off-the-field as well. That trust from off-the-field carries over. So we get them together, we have dinner including me at times so we can all develop that trust together."

    AND FINALLY THIS, from the late futurist R. Buckminster Fuller in his book I Seem To Be A Verb: "We should look on our society as we look on the biological world, where the fungi, the manures and the worms make an extraordinary contribution. . . We tend to applaud the football player who makes the touchdown and overlook the lineman who does the heavy blocking. We should not only applaud the flower, the fruit and the ball carrier."