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With Season in Ruins, Chelsea Rise from Ashes

On March 4, the day after falling 1-0 to West Bromwich Albion and to fifth place in the Premier League table, Chelsea found themselves at the unquestioned low point of the Roman Abramovich Era. Abramovich had just relieved Manager Andres Villas-Boas of his coaching duties, an admission of failure from an owner who had spent over 50 million Euro over the summer luring AVB to Stamford Bridge.

Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who purchased the London club in 2003, has made it clear that he cares about one thing: winning. Not strategy, nor development, not even investment in the club’s future. Villas-Boas’ sacking meant an experimental influx of youth – midfielders Juan Mata and Raul Meireles were brought in over the summer – had spiraled out of control, with the team’s fate both in the Premier League and Champions League in doubt.

New interim manager and former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo found himself at a crossroads: continue AVB’s policy of largely ignoring club legends like Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, or embrace the aging players who had experienced so much success wearing Chelsea blue. Di Matteo opted for one last sip from the fountain of youth, and to say that it has been a revelation could be an understatement. Winning his first three matches as manager, including a 4-1 Champions League victory over Napoli – allowing the Blues to advance 5-4 on aggregate – Di Matteo’s reliance on the old guard of Drogba, Lampard, John Terry, and Ashley Cole has seen Chelsea right the ship mid-capsize.

And of all the key victories secured by Chelsea over the two months, perhaps no victory is more important (in the club’s history, let alone the season) was the team’s 3-2 aggregate victory over Barcelona, again led by Chelsea’s seniors. In the first leg, Lampard’s clean dispossession of Lionel Messi directly led to Drogba’s goal, the only of the game. At Camp Nou, another Lampard tackle led to Ramires’ crucial strike, and while Terry saw red for a thoughtless knee to Alexis Sanchez’s back, it was Cole who spotted a streaking Fernando Torres for the game-icing tally.

Frank Lampard and Chelsea celebrate their victory over Barcelona.

The Blues’ season has not been perfect since Di Matteo has taken over. Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at home to Newcastle is indicative of this. Saddled in sixth place in the Premier League, the Blues’ only chance of reaching Champions League Football next season will come by defeating Bayern Munich on May 19. But Chelsea are playing in two May finals – they face Liverpool for the FA Cup today – which is two more than such esteemed clubs like Milan, Manchesters United and City, and Madrid can say. The only silverware Abramovich has failed to win over the last decade has been the European Champions Clubs’ Cup. If the Blues lift the trophy on May 19, surely the season’s ends will justify the tumultuous means.


Breaking Out of Slumps in Sports, Life

Author’s Note: This article appears in the May 2 issue of The Villanovan.

Sophomore slumps are quite the phenomenon. In the sporting world, a young rising star can take the sport by storm for a short time, only to have the holes in their game exploited by opponents watching hours of game film. Take St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford’s second year. After almost taking a 1-15 team to the cusp of the playoffs as a rookie, Bradford’s season was undone by injuries and poor performances. The same can be said for music, and it makes logical sense. Bands often break onto the scene after spending years working on the same set of music, only to be forced to churn out another quality album shortly thereafter. The follow-up, burned with unrealistic expectations, fails to live up to the hype.

So what does this have to do with me and my senior farewell column? Well, I, like so many MLB Rookies of the Year and Best New Artist Grammy Award Winners—I’m looking at you, Eric Hinske and Evanescence—suffered through this same slump.

Four years ago—and I honestly cannot believe it has been that long—I had an unbelievable freshman year. I made lifelong friends, was on campus when my school made the Final Four and fell in love with Villanova. Hyperbole aside, from the first day of Orientation to my first night in St. Mo’s, it was clear that this was the right place for me. I quickly made friends with the guys on my floor and the girls upstairs. Life was truly good at Villanova.

Cue up sophomore year. I quickly learned that it’s hard to maintain the same relationships for four years without experiencing some ups and downs. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but something was missing. I realized that I was without something that made high school tolerable: being involved. After a few weeks of uncertainty, I put my name on every e-mail list and club roster I could think of. Should I go Greek? Maybe I’ll join the rugby team? (I did, turns out I am as bad at rugby as I am at every other sport.) CAT? Blue Key? Nothing really seemed to fit. For the hell of it, I thought, “I love sports and like writing, maybe I should write for the paper.” A few months later, I got an e-mail from my editor looking for someone to apply for the Assistant Sports Editor position. On a whim, I went for it. After an interview which was later described to me by my interviewer as “You were so cute, you talked so fast we could barely keep up with you,” I got the spot and took over as The Villanovan’s Assistant Sports Editor in 2010.

To those that know me well, I attribute many things to my breakout junior year, the year I finally started taking advantage of this place I now call home. First, my friends. Whether they were made at the beginning of my freshman year, on a break trip my junior year or right at the start of senior year, you all have a special place in my heart.

Second, the three groups that most define my college career. My time in the service break program shaped my desire to serve others both in college and in the future. My time spent as both a participant and leader on the Search retreat helped me figure out who and why I am, and showed me the importance of both gloves and of trust. And finally, and perhaps most importantly for this column: my time as a member of the staff of The Villanovan.

When I first started as an editor, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no experience working on a newspaper, no experience working with the programs we used and no clue who any of the other editors were. I also had no idea I would be spending my Tuesday nights in the same Dougherty office every week for the next two-and-a-half years—Dollar Drinks be damned.

But slowly and surely, with the help of a few copy edits, Joe Waters and the points card, I twice found my place among an editorial staff—both 2010 and 2011—that I found myself missing on the rare Tuesday where we weren’t cooped up in Dougherty until 2 a.m.

So, thank you first to the editorial boards that I answered to since 2010. You made the office a welcoming place to work, where creativity and clarity were encouraged, corners were rarely cut and a quality product was made every single week, without exception.

Next, to every member of The Villanovan staff for 2010, 2011 and heck, even 2012. Without you guys, I don’t think I could have lasted for half a year, yet alone two-and-a-half. Whether it was harassing the Arts editors to put my album cover in the paper, arguing with News over whether we should get the front cover or watching YouTube videos when we should have been putting in corrections, you all made the long nights seem just a little bit shorter.

And finally, a thank you to the two guys I shared the sports desk with: Nate and Mark. The two of you couldn’t have been any more different, but you both pushed me to do my best work during our time working together. The memories created at that desk—and in Cleveland—extend far beyond the printed word.

So thank you, The Villanovan, for helping me to bust out of my sophomore slump and into the big time. I’m spending next year in Chicago, volunteering at a high school where one of my responsibilities could be to oversee the school’s newspaper. I only hope I can teach them half as much as you have taught me.

Your Two-Weeks-Too-Late MLB Preview

Forgive me for generalizing, but my take on Villanova’s baseball fanbase breaks down like this: thirty percent of the student body are Phillies fans, twenty-five  percent are Yankees fans, twenty percent are members of Red Sox nations, ten percent cheer for the Mets, and fifteen percent are split between the remaining twenty-six clubs. Keep in mind, I interviewed a grand total of zero people for this scientific polling data. For all I know, the Orioles have a huge ‘silent majority’ of fans waiting to don orange if the team ever escapes the AL East basement, but I think I have a decent handle on where Villanovans’ allegiances lie. So instead of breaking down every team’s chance at a title and boring you to tears as I diagnose the bullpens of the NL West, I’m going to tell you why each of those four teams can and can not win it all, and who will eventually be lifting up the ugliest trophy in sports this October.


Philadelphia Phillies

What a difference a year makes. 12 months ago, the Phillies were the clear favorite to come out of the National League, despite not even reaching the World Series the previous season. Then come October, the Phils lost not only the Divisional Series, but also their best player – first baseman Ryan Howard – to an injury that threatens to put his entire season in jeopardy.  Couple that loss with second baseman Chase Utley’s knee problems, and the Phillies are without their top two offensive players for the foreseeable future, and if the (very) early returns are any sign, than the team is in for a rough patch. Before exploding for eight runs on Sunday, the team ranked next-to-last in run production, averaging just 2.5 runs per game. Thankfully the Phils still have arguably the best rotation in baseball, and if Doc Halladay and Co. can keep the team in sight of the Atlanta Braves until their two stars return, Philly will be able to coast to a sixth straight division title.


New York Mets

That last line sums up my thoughts on the Mets: it just isn’t going to happen this year. A 4-0 start is nothing to sneeze at, and the Mets were also able to take two out of three against the Phils over the weekend. But the season is long, and I don’t see a nine-game sample size holding up over 162 games. Having ace Johan Santana back in top form can’t be discounted, but this team made few changes from a squad that finished 25 games out of first place. At best, this team can hope for a third place finish in the division and sneak into the playoffs as a Wild Card team.  They’ll need some help though: Santana has to his Cy Young form, the Phils need to continue to struggle, and the Mets probably need to add a bat at some point during the season.


New York Yankees

The Yankees made both my favorite trade and signing of the offseason, which says a lot considering how much I loathe the Evil Empire. The Bombers swapped prospect Jesus Montero for young flamethrower Michael Pineda, and also signed free agent Hiroki Kuroda to a one-year deal, shoring up their rotation both in the short and long term. That assurance about the team’s rotation dissipated in March when Pineda went down with shoulder tendinitis, and team doctors don’t expect him back until at least May. But with perennial Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia anchoring the rotation, and a deep, albeit aging lineup, this team shouldn’t have much trouble picking up another AL East crown. Their slow start shouldn’t worry fans too much, as the AL East isn’t as top heavy as years past.


Boston Red Sox

Oh, my beloved Boston Red Sox. I wasn’t feeling too optimistic about the beginning of the Bobby Valentine era, and that was before the shoulder injury to MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury. Fortunately, the Sox have started to play up to their potential since getting swept by Detroit to open the season. The Motor City was unkind to Boston, especially on Easter, when the team blew two late leads before suffering their second walk-off loss of the season in the 11th inning. Fill-in closer Alfredo Aceves had an ERA of infinity after the first series, a microcosm of the bullpen’s struggles. Injuries define this team, as the team’s players currently on the DL (including Ellsbury, John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and closer Andrew Bailey) have salaries that total more than $60 million. Similar to Philadelphia, if Boston can get their stars back without falling out of the race, then they have a great chance not only of locking up a wild-card spot, but making a deep playoff run.


So who wins?


This year is as wide open as any in Major League Baseball. Especially given the new playoff format – two wild-cards team playing one game for a trip to the divisional series – this year could see any of these teams catch fire at the right time to make a run – think the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. However, I think the best team on paper is the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels picked up the top two free agents this offseason, Albert Pujols and pitcher CJ Wilson. After failing to make the playoffs last year, the Angels are the team to beat in the AL after siphoning Wilson off division rival Texas. Another key piece: Kendrys Morales finally returned from nearly two years of injuries earlier this month, and if he can return to form, the Angels might have the best lineup in baseball.

April’s Best: The Top Event in Sport’s Best Month

Author’s Note: This column appears in the April 12 issue of The Villanovan.

Some weeks, it’s easy to pick a sports-related topic to write about in this space. Something either gets me really excited or really upset, and it’s not hard to focus that into 800-1000 words that get about .5 laughs per week. But as I sat at home this weekend, stuffed full of Easter ham—my second ham dinner of the week— (Kanye & Jay-Z, eat your hearts out), I couldn’t think of an event or a player or an issue that was really calling out to be written about. So much of my weekend revolved around sports—and people making jokes about Jesus and YOLO, myself included—that I didn’t know where to start.

Do I talk about the dismal start to the season that the Red Sox and Yankees had? My Opening Day was spent at Fenway Park, even though the team that plays there wasn’t. The last time those two teams started 0-3, they finished ninth and tenth in the league. That league had ten teams. Both teams blew leads late, both teams saw reliable starting pitching do spot-on impressions of Sidney Ponson and both teams’ fans are convinced that this team might just go 0-162. Well maybe that’s just me and my Sox.

Or maybe I should have spent my words on the greatest four days of golf: The Masters. I’m not the world’s biggest golf guy, but when you have a sport’s top event go into extra innings/time/holes, it’s always going to be riveting. When Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen both missed a chance at a green jacket by about half of an inch, only to then shank their drives at the next tee, it showed both how incredibly talented the two golfers are, and also how unforgiving golf as a sport can be. Switching back and forth between the Sox collapse and the back nine at Augusta made for some choice Easter Sunday couch time. And if you didn’t see Oosthuizen’s albatross on the fourth hole on Sunday, or Watson’s second shot during the second playoff hole, stop what you’re doing and find them online. Shots like that are the reason why professional athletes get paid to play a game, and also why we pay to watch them.

I could have talked about Chelsea’s miracle win against Wigan, the implosion of the Orlando Magic or Petrino-gate. No. One sporting event, which kicked off last night, trumps them all in my mind.

The Stanley Cup playoffs.


That’s right, the playoffs of the National Hockey League, the red-headed stepchild of the “Big Four” of American professional sports. No other sporting event offers such a sustained level of high quality, fast-paced action over the course of a two-month tournament. But what sets it apart from the rest of the month of April—arguably the best sports month of the year? I’ve got four reasons:

1. These teams don’t like each other, and they’re allowed to show it.

When players on your team are given the role of “enforcer,” sparks are going to fly. A week and a half ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers met in an emotional game which ended with the coaches nearly coming to blows. In a twist of fate that benefits fans of both hockey and fighting, these two Pennsylvania squads will be matched up in the first round of the playoffs. Personally, I don’t like hearing stories about players from opposing teams meeting up after games for steak and beer. With series such as Pittsburgh vs. Philadelphia, there’s no love lost.

2. Anyone can win it all.

Similar to the NCAA Tournament, seeding determines the matchups, but has little to no effect on the winner. Take the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals, which pit the No. 7 Flyers against the No. 8 Canadiens. The Habs upset the No. 1 Washington Capitals and No. 4 Penguins on the way to the Eastern Finals, and the Flyers ousted the No. 2 New Jersey Devils and No. 6 Boston Bruins. Speaking of my beloved Bruins, last year’s team entered the playoffs as a No. 3 seed, picked by many to be upset in the first round. Two months later, they were hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Sure, seeing No. 15 Norfolk State beat Mizzou was fun while it lasted, but they had no shot at making it to the end. Not the case for the NHL.

3. They have the best announcer in sports.

No, it’s not Gus Johnson. Fun fact: Gus Johnson is actually a miserable announcer. Sure, it’s awesome to hear him scream, “He hit that one from the parking lot!” as Syracuse gets upset, but Gus’ screaming masks the fact that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Not the case for hockey announcer Doc Emrick. Emrick—an Emmy award-winning play-by-play announcer—is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the only member to be inducted for contributions to media. When people use the phrase “he wrote the book,” it usually is colloquial. Not for Emrick. The man literally wrote the NHL Pronunciation Guide, which is the guide by which all other announcers pronounce names like Kostitsyn and Bryzgalov. And try to not get excited while listening to a game called by Emrick. When he yells “And a drive…” as a shot heads to the net, you feel almost as if you’re sitting right in the arena.

4. Playoff Beards

Do I really need to say more? What sport wouldn’t benefit from some extra facial hair? I’m looking at you, NBA. Puck’s in your court.

Trayvon Martin and the Miami Heat

Author’s Note: This column appears in the March 29 issue of The Villanovan.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that documented, among other things, why I dislike the Miami Heat. The superstar-laden South Beach squad has been maligned by many casual NBA fans over the last two seasons, as much for their off the court appearances as their on the court lack of success.

Sometimes however, people – or sports teams – can surprise you. Now you won’t see me putting on a Chris Bosh jersey anytime soon, but the Heat are definitely off my ‘Cheer against them in any scenario short of them playing the the Soviet Hockey Team list.’

For those who haven’t been following the recent developments in Florida, on February 26, 17-year old African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was stopped by someone on the neighborhood watch as he carried a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea to a relative’s house. Details are fuzzy regarding what happened next, but these are the facts: Martin was unarmed, and ended up dead by the neighbor’s bullet. Claiming self defense, the shooter, George Zimmerman, has escaped any sort of legal repercussions, and the matter is currently under investigation by both the local police, and the national media.

While the story had been rolling through the news cycle relatively quickly, a comment from Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera last week set off a new controversy. Appearing on both the television and online components of Fox News, Rivera wrote that, “His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did.” Say what you will about Rivera’s quote, but I personally find it foolish and short-sighted. Martin may have been walking with his hood up – in the rain, mind you – but the argument that his choice of outfit was equally as responsible for his death as a trigger-happy neighborhood watch member is flimsy at best and ignorant at worst.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who has this viewpoint. Heat stars Lebron James and Dwyane Wade have made statements condemning the violent act, and recently Wade tweeted a picture of him and his Heat teammates wearing matching black hoodies, standing together for Martin. “We just couldn’t imagine (anyone’s) son leaving to go play basketball or go to the drugstore or go anywhere and he doesn’t return,” James said.

Kudos to Wade, James, and the rest of the Heat for making a statement about an issue that has swept the nation over the last month. In this world of 24 hour news cycles and instant-gratification-tweeting, it seems less and less common for athletes to make public statements, political or not, that don’t necessarily reflect their particular sport.

Two weeks ago, soccer player Fabrice Muamba fell to the ground in the middle of a game after falling into cardiac arrest. Without a heartbeat for 78 minutes, Muamba was finally revived and is currently recovering in England. The following weekend, former teammate Gary Cahill celebrated a goal by revealing a shirt under his jersey with the phrase ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ written on it.

Why is that athletes hesitate to make statements like this? Years ago, superstar athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Billie Jean King made no apologies for what they stood for, whether it was popularly supported or not. Stars like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown had no problem dissenting with the American people or American government.

I’m not saying that every athlete with a Twitter handle needs to weigh in on the conflict in Syria, but how come more than a couple haven’t? It appears to me that in this world of image control and public perception, even though we may have more access than ever to an athlete or celebrity’s fleeting thoughts, we have less insight into what they truly stand for.
Consider this: do you follow any athletes, professional or collegiate, on Twitter? Check their bios, and note how many reference God or faith in some way. Then check out how many of their tweets support that belief, or any other.

Athletes, like all celebrities, have a unique opportunity as public figures to further the discussion on topics other than who won last night’s game or who is the NBA’s best point guard. Soccer star Didier Drogba, the captain of the Ivory Coast National team, has played a key role in the mediation of the nation’s internal conflict. Brown’s reputation as an activist precedes him. King advocated for gender equality both on and off the court. Where have the activists gone?

Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe Twitter and the 140-character limit is the problem. Maybe it’s the concern that any words might get twisted as soon as they are posted or spoken. Maybe it’s just apathy on the part of the athletes.

Rare is the time when I’m proud of the Miami Heat. Embrace it Lebron and co., because come playoff time, I’ll be cheering against you every chance I get.

Four Teams to Root For Now That Your Bracket is Shot

Author’s Note: This column appears in the March 22 issue of The Villanovan

If you’re like me, your bracket is wrecked. We’re talking missing-the-Erin-Express-because-you-were-driving-the-struggle-bus wrecked. Count me among those drinking the Missouri Kool-Aid, because I had them headed to the National Championship game before falling to North Carolina. I had Duke in the Elite Eight, and Vanderbilt and Belmont were my two sleeper teams. Clearly you don’t have to be good at predicting NCAA Tournament games to be a column writer.
But now that your bracket is ranked lower nationwide than Markus Kennedy’s free throw percentage—that’s 6.3 percent for those keeping track at home—it’s time to throw your support behind some new teams. Thankfully, I have a team from each region for you to root for this weekend.

Midwest Region: No. 13 Ohio
This choice is an obvious one, almost as obvious as picking a No. 2 seed over a No. 15 seed. As the lowest seed remaining in the tournament and the first No. 13-seed to make the Sweet 16 since 2006, the Bobcats of Ohio U should be your new favorite team. Ohio is a member of the Mid-American Conference, which features powerhouse teams like Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Ball State.
After knocking off Villanova’s sworn enemy of the 2012 Big East season, South Florida, Ohio finds itself facing a UNC team that is without its most important player, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall. If Ohio can get past the No. 1 seeded Tar Heels, they could find themselves facing another double digit seed for a trip to the Final Four.

West Region: No. 7 Florida
I can’t bring myself to pick any Big East teams, and considering Michigan State is the seeded favorite out West, the Gators are the default pick here. No team has crushed their opponents quite like the Gators this March—they smoked No. 10-seeded Virginia 71-45 Friday before eliminating Cinderella story Norfolk State by 34 on Sunday. Junior point guard Kenny Boynton has stepped up his scoring this season, and has seen his field goal percentage rise in each of the last two seasons. After dropping 20 points against Norfolk State, Boynton and the Gators take on Marquette today with a potential matchup against the Spartans on Sunday. Cheer against the chalk in the West, and take the Gators.

East Region: No. 4 Wisconsin
Every self-respecting college basketball fan needs to have that one team that they despise more than any other. For many, it’s the Duke Blue Devils or North Carolina. But for me, it’s Syracuse. The Orange, who are soon leaving the league they founded for the ACC, make my skin crawl. Some of my happiest moments at Villanova basketball games have been screaming “Toaster!” at Paul Harris or other not-AP-approved-things at Eric Devendorf and Wes Johnson. So this pick is for any self-respecting Villanova fan that can’t stand those god-awful orange jerseys and Head Coach Jim Boeheim’s constant complaining.
And the Badgers aren’t half bad either. A consistent underachiever in the NCAAs, Head Coach Bo Ryan’s team is the model of Big Ten basketball: slow, low-scoring and to be frank, boring. Facing ’Cuse’s 2-3 zone, the Badgers will need to have a strong shooting night to keep up with the Orange. It probably won’t happen and Syracuse will probably move on to face Ohio State in the Regional Final, but let’s think positively. Or is it negatively?
South Region: No. 3 Baylor
Baylor ought to move on against No. 10 Xavier, leading to a likely matchup against No. 1 overall seed Kentucky in the regional final. Baylor was the third best team in what I considered to be the deepest league in the country: the Big 12. But with Mizzou sent packing early, it’s up to Baylor to take the lead along with the JayHawks of Kansas.. Baylor’s balanced offensive attack is led by sophomore stud Perry Jones III, who gave up the opportunity to get drafted to lead his team on another tournament run—cough, cough, Maalik Wayns.
Another player to keep an eye on is senior forward Quincy Acy. Acy averages two blocks and what seems like at least four thunderous dunks per game. Watching Acy matchup against Kentucky freshman phenom Anthony Davis might be the best one-on-one matchup of the entire NCAA Tournament.

Who wins the Upper Gulph All-Star 3 v. 3 Tournament?