Line Forms Here for NCAA Softball

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My phone was busy this morning (Tuesday, May 17) with fans and friends calling me about the line forming outside the Michigan Athletic Ticket Office.

A few had concerns about the deadline for football tickets, and others were just curious as to why everyone was gathering. What they were told was probably unexpected. Today's line was for the Michigan softball season ticket holders as they made their way to the ticket office for their NCAA Regional tickets.

The line formed early, and the people waiting for these tickets were the fans who have appreciated the winning ways of the Wolverine softball team and know this might be the best sports value for the money in the Greater Detroit area.

The stats are easy to recite:

  • The 17th consecutive NCAA appearance for Michigan;
  • Jordan Taylor is one of -- if not -- the best pitchers in the nation;
  • Carol Hutchins has the most wins of any coach in Michigan athletic history;
  • The Michigan program was the first softball team east of the Mississippi to win a national title

And we could go on.

Still, stats alone don't bring fans to an event. The reason they come is simple: these games are fun.

In today's hectic-paced individual schedule, softball is played in two hours or less. Fans are right on top of the field. They can listen and get a feel for the game. And they are watching the best players in the game go against each other in a double-elimination tournament format.

Once a teams loses two games, it is out.

The site, the sounds and the atmosphere is college athletics at its best. The best reason is the top priced tickets are only $12 for a session.

This is the 10th straight year U-M will host an NCAA Regional. The public sale for the regional tickets begins Wednesday (May 18).

The Michigan action starts Friday night (May 20) when it hosts Western Michigan at 8 p.m. at the Wilpon Softball Complex. Notre Dame and Kentucky kick off the four-team tourney at 5:30 p.m. On Saturday beginning at noon, three games will be played. The NCAA Regional championship game(s) are Sunday starting at 1 p.m.

If you have never attended a U-M softball game, you need to go at least once. And with the weather finally getting better, this would be a great weekend to see for yourself why 2,000-plus fans will be out in force each day to enjoy one of the best collegiate events.

Go Blue!

Mandich Memories More Than Just Football

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It was a Twitter feed that informed me Tuesday night (April 26) of the passing of Jim Mandich. And while Twitter is a relatively new social media platform, the old fashioned ideals of personal relationships are what set my mind in motion.

Of all things, I didn't think about Jim Mandich the Michigan Wolverine and Miami Dolphins football great. I thought of the last time I had a conversation with Jim and what he didn't talk about.

I was fortunate to have been able to travel to Green Bay's Lambeau Field last season to watch the Dolphins plays the Packers. I had never been Lambeau Field and this was on my so-called bucket list.

As I stood on the sideline, exchanging pleasantries with Chad Henne, waving at Jake Long and low-fiving Charles Woodson as he ran onto the field, Mandich came over to talk. He was still working radio, covering the Dolphins games despite his battle with cancer.

He was nattily attired in a Dolphin colored long-sleeve shirt, tie and sweater vest. He really looked and sounded great. Along with former U-M assistant coach Bill Sheridan (now with Miami), we discussed Michigan football until Mandich had to get back to the press box for his radio gig.

Even though he was thin, he did not look frail. He had great color in his face, he had excitement in his voice, and was he talking about the future -- the future of Michigan football.

He did not talk about his battle with cancer. He did not talk about doctors' visits or hospital treatments. He just wanted to talk about Michigan.

Last night a tweet told many of us Mandich of Michigan is no longer with us. Like many other M Men and Women, he has left a lasting legacy made by a personal touch.

That is what we will remember.

A Fitting Memorial for Snik

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Special people that cross your path come around more often than one thinks, the problem is sometimes you don't realize it until they are gone. It especially happens when someone is young. You expect to see that special person tomorrow, next week, next month or next year.

You enjoy your discussions, you think the world of this person, then all of a sudden that person is gone.

Eric Namesnik was that individual. And this weekend (April 8-10) at Canham Natatorium in Ann Arbor his persona will be honored with the Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix, one of seven stops on the USA Swimming Grand Prix Series across the United States.

Snik (as he was known) was the perfect team player in a sport that for the casual observer seems to be an exercise in individual ability.

He always seemed to be on the verge of Olympic gold. He was ranked No. 1 in the world in the four-stroke medley event in 1991 and 1993. Two times he represented the United States at the Olympics.

In 1992, he won a silver medal in the 400 IM at the Barcelona Summer Olympic Games. He also took home silver and bronze medals in 1991 (Perth) and 1994 (Rome) in the World Championships. And he worked his tail off to win the gold in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. This would have been the culmination of his efforts.

Instead, his Wolverine teammate, Tom Dolan, came into the mix.

"Everybody remembers that," said former Michigan swimming coach and Michigan Sports Hall of Fame member Jon Urbanchek in a recent USA Swimming article written by Bob Schaller. "But if you ask people whom they cheered for -- it was so hard for me because both of these kids could have won the gold medal -- nine out of 10 would have said they were cheering for Eric. Tom was talented, but Eric had such dedication and desire. People pulled for Eric because he didn't have that great talent but did have the dedication and commitment. As a coach I look back at Snik and see that he literally gave everything he could in every workout, every battle. He came in second but did his best, and I was never more proud of anyone. And I was very proud of Tom, too. As long as we went one and two, I didn't care. I told them, 'I can see either of you winning.'"

Snik lost the gold medal to his teammate -- and rival -- Dolan by 35-hundredths of a second, once again receiving the Olympic silver medal.

But if it weren't for Namesnik pushing Dolan at practice every day, Dolan might not have been able to win the Olympic title.

Now turn back the calendar to January 7, 2006. The weather was awful. Icy conditions plagued all of southeast Michigan and travel was treacherous. For Snik and his family, it turned into the day they will never forget. A terrible car crash eventually took the life of Eric Namesnik. He died on January 11. Snik was gone. A special M-Man dedicated to life, family and his sport.

Fortunately, his family allowed his organs to be donated and truly he is still breathing the life of a champion into others today. That donation and the Erik Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix are fitting memories for the man we remember as Snik.

Go Blue!

It was probably part naiveté but plenty of confidence that Bev Plocki, a graduate assistant coach at West Virginia, started to look for a coaching position in the sport she loved and competed -- gymnastics. After all, she wasn't looking for an assistant position; she was looking for the top job, a head coaching spot.

Letter after letter were mailed out and only two schools were interested in this young coach -- Wisconsin-Whitewater and Michigan. She never expected what would come next -- an offer from U-M.

Just a few years after competing as a student-athlete, Plocki now was heading a up a Big Ten program that finished dead last and winless in the conference. Now, she was the head coach and it was her job to turn a major Division I program into a winner.

The team won seven contests in her first season (1990) and 13 in 1991. In 1992 she led the team to its first Big Ten championship and a second-place finish in the NCAA Regional.

Once she got the team rolling, her next task was to help build the fan base and get a new facility for the budding program. She knew she had to cultivate fans and supporters. And she did that quite well.

She worked closely with the community, promoting her sport at every opportunity presented. She developed strong relationships with her supporters and the results were similar to her success she had with the team.

The fan base started to grow in the late 1990s. The team had to move many of its events out of the smaller Cliff Keen Arena over to Crisler Arena. In 2005, all Wolverine women's gymnastics meets were held in Crisler. Now, Michigan is annually one of the top 10 in NCAA attendance every year.

In 2002, the team moved into a brand new 22,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art practice facility. The Donald R. Shepherd Women's Gymnastics Training Center has 17,000 square feet of training area that is outfitted with the latest in gymnastics training equipment, including resi- and free-foam pits for each event. It was Shepherd's love for the sport and the relationship with the team that led to a $3.5 million gift that made it possible for this grand facility.

Turn the clock ahead to April 2011 and the Wolverine women gymnastics program has more Big Ten championships (19) than any other women's sport in the entire Big Ten.

Now, Plocki is the third winningest active coach at U-M. Only softball coach and 2011 Michigan Sports Hall of Fame inductee Carol Hutchins along with legendary ice hockey coach Red Berenson have won more contests.

Saturday night (April 2) at Crisler Arena, No. 9-ranked U-M will host the NCAA Regional Championships at 6 p.m. looking for a berth to the NCAA finals. This will be the team's 20th consecutive appearance in an NCAA Regional. Top seed and No. 4-ranked Stanford, third seed and No. 16 Ohio State, No. 21 Iowa State, No. 23 Minnesota and No. 24 Kent State round out the field. The top two teams in each of the six NCAA Regional Championships will advance to the NCAA Championships, to be held April 15-17 in Cleveland, Ohio.

In just three seasons, Plocki helped create Michigan as a perennial contender for the NCAA championship. If things go right for the Wolverines, they will be making their 18th NCAA finals appearance in the last 19 years.

There is no naiveté now with this veteran coach. Instead, it is the knowledge, hard work, the team's resolve and the love for the sport and the University of Michigan that have allowed her to flourish and make the Wolverines women gymnastics program an integral part of the great Michigan athletic and academic tradition.

One Loss Can Make the Future Bright

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Sunday morning (March 20) at Yost Ice Arena was a time to look ahead. The NCAA Ice Hockey Championship selection was taking place and televised live on ESPN2. You could hear the hoots and hollers from the locker room as the Wolverines were named to play Nebraska-Omaha in the West Regional in St. Louis this Friday at 4:30 p.m. CDT (5:30 EDT).

The same city to which head coach Red Berenson returned just a few weeks ago when the St. Louis Blues honored their great No. 7s before an NHL game. A city where Red helped make hockey a relevant major league sport. A city where Berenson was named NHL Coach of the Year in 1980.

But before this team and Red could look ahead, it was important to look back about 36 hours and take to heart what happened on the ice at Joe Louis Arena.

It was a game most Michigan fans probably thought the Michigan ice hockey team would like to forget. It was Friday night (March 18) and the Wolverines lost to Western Michigan in the semifinals of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association Tournament, 5-2.

Sure, everyone knew Michigan was going to make its 21st consecutive NCAA appearance, but this wasn't the hard-nosed, sense-of-urgency type of style the Wolverines display as they battle in tournament play.

Senior captain Carl Hagelin noted how the team felt embarrassed after the loss. Berenson even mentioned to the media during his availability after the ESPN show how the team had been "playing down" to the level of its competition in the last few weeks.

Instead of forgetting about this game and the last few weeks of the season, Hagelin thinks this loss might have been the wake-up call the Wolverines needed. On Saturday afternoon (March 19) just over 16 hours after the loss to WMU, U-M bounced back with inspired play from goalie Shawn Hunwick (a career -high 42 saves in a regulation game) and two goals in a 15-second time span by Chris Brown and Hagelin to lead Michigan to a 4-2 win over Notre Dame.

This rebound game is what the seniors on this team are keying on. Hagelin even mentioned this loss might have been "good for the team" since they had been on an eight-game winning streak despite not playing up to their potential.

Now, the captain from Sweden and the other seniors have to show the importance of each and every detail. One 30-second shift can mean the difference between advancing or going home in the NCAA Tournament.

"In this tournament, if you don't get that first goal it can be tough to come from behind," said Hagelin. "Air Force got that first goal against us a few years ago and then we scored the first goal against Bemidji."

His plan is to help U-M jump on the momentum from the opening faceoff just as a team would be battling during the last minute of closely contested contest. His belief is the team needs to play with that sense of urgency. Everyone needs to know the importance of each aspect their preparation and play on the ice means to the success of this U-M team.

"The way we played (on Friday night), we don't want to be like that," said Hagelin. "This is Michigan and everyone including ourselves expects more."

Yes, it is time to look ahead. Without looking back, the fortunes of this Michigan team might not be as bright as they are this week.

Go Blue!

The game will be shown live in HD on ESPN3.com.

Arena Renovation Puts U-M Women on the Road

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Through the years, when Michigan Stadium was renovated, the football team found itself somewhat displaced. In the past, spring football games were held on the practice field with no public invited, a game was moved to Saline High School, and practices that might have been held at the stadium were not allowed -- except for the Friday walk-through, that is.

Now, for the first time in recent history, the basketball teams are facing a similar issue. It first started with the basketball offices moving to temporary quarters in trailers in the arena parking lot. Now the women's basketball team finds itself unable to host any postseason games because of the renovations to the interior of Crisler Arena that, along with the new Basketball Player Development Center, will modernize Michigan's basketball facilities.

Instead of playing in the home confines of Crisler, the team will board a bus and play Eastern Michigan tomorrow night (Thursday, March 17) at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti. Tipoff is 7 p.m. for the first-round game of the WNIT postseason tournament.

The coaching staff thinks about the renovation and the building. They understand by forgoing the home games and renovating Crisler now, the quicker the program can move ahead.

The players are a different story. They want to get it done now -- on the court.

This has been truly an up-and-down season for the Michigan women. And, like the men's team, these Wolverines were not expected to do well.

Despite the predictions and some setbacks along the way, U-M defeated four teams in the top 25 this season -- including a regular-sesason sweep of conference tournament champion Ohio State -- and was the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament after winning 10 league games. Again, like the men's team, they faced Illinois in the first round of the tournament in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, unlike the men's team, the women's team suffered a rough loss.

One game provided a different outcome for two teams so similar. A win provided one with the opportunity to celebrate a NCAA Tournament selection, while the loss left the women's team on the outside looking in during the ESPN Women's NCAA Tournament Selection Show Monday evening.

Tomorrow, these players will be focusing on the first game of the WNIT.

A strong run in the WNIT along with the renovation of Crisler Arena can go a long way in building this program and making this 2011 season the foundation for the future of the women's basketball program at Michigan.

A Golfer in the Snow

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If snow is involved, a story about a golfer usually involves the fact that he or she:

  1. Played when it was so cold it started snowing;
  2. The dare -- "I dare you to play in the snow;"
  3. A Chili Open -- an event played during the winter with black/orange or dark colored golf balls on a snow-covered course. Usually, these rounds are a few holes and played for charity. It's the golfers' version of the "Polar Bear Clubs" -- individuals in the north jumping into freezing lakes or rivers for charity.

This past week the story was a little different.

This story involves men's assistant coach Chris Whitten helping out both his squad and the U-M women's golf team.

Of course, "Snowmageddon" came a few weeks after it was predicted, and this past Monday morning we found ourselves under close to 10 inches of the white stuff. A few more inches on Monday night didn't help the situation, creating small problems for some and havoc for others.

So, when Whitten arrived at University Michigan Golf Course clubhouse Tuesday dressed in his normal attire -- for a golfer that means golf clothes, of course -- he noticed a potential issue.

Whitten, who did not accompany coach Andrew Sapp and the team on their trip to the Puerto Rico Classic, knew both golf teams would be returning late that night -- the women's team of head coach Cheryl Stacey had traveled to its second competition of the year, in Parrish, Fla. -- and he noticed their cars. The cars were parked before the snow fell and had been sitting outside through the nearly 10 inches of snow and freezing rain. Add the wake of the snow that was pushed toward the cars by plows cleaning the area, and there was a couple feet of snow and ice packed around each automobile.

Whitten didn't "putt" around, he jumped into action.

He wrapped garbage bags around his shoes (yes, golf shoes without the spikes) and his pant legs and spent the next few hours digging cars out of the snow and then cleaning their windows, with golf course employee Steve Plunkett helping finish the project.

"It was about a half dozen cars he had to dig out and clean," said Michigan Golf Course general manager Chantel Jackson. "The snow was piled up so high I wish I could have taken a picture of what was happening."

"If we had an employee of the month award, Chris Whitten would have to be the winner," said longtime clubhouse manager Charlie Green. "He went well beyond what most any of us would do to make sure that when the teams returned at 1 a.m. they wouldn't have to spend the next hour or so digging out."

Kudos to Chris Whitten -- he went above and beyond his duty as a golf coach.

And now, if he says one of his golfers has a swing like someone shoveling snow, one can easily say with confidence, "Whitten knows what he is talking about."

True Grit Turned U-M's Hoop Fortunes

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Watching the Michigan men's basketball team over the last few weeks has given us all plenty to cheer about. Four wins in the last five games is a run that has excited the crowds and has made many "experts" take note.

During this run, certain moments stand out. Zack Novak's emotional pitch in East Lansing, Darius Morris' layup and deep three in the comeback against Penn State, Jordan Morgan's 11-of-13 shooting and 27-point performance against Northwestern are just a few of the memories I have of the recent success.

But as a team, the last five minutes of last night's game at Crisler Arena against the Wildcats showed me the tenor of this young team.

With U-M leading 67-52 with five minutes left, Northwestern went on a 14-0 run. A three-pointer by JeShon Cobb, then a quick steal and an easy layup by Cobb just 12 seconds apart cut Michigan's lead to one with just 2:20 left.

This young U-M team didn't wilt. It showed poise, determination and true grit.

The Wolverines scored the game's final eight points for the 75-66 win, keeping the team's momentum going.

Yes, momentum can change on a dime. Just 14 days earlier, the struggles of Big Ten play and a long season were taking their toll on these young players. The Wolverines had lost six straight games. This is where a veteran team learns to cope with the ups and downs.

But what about a young team?

This young U-M team proved it's a tough-minded bunch. Last night, they pulled together when they could have easily folded. They are pulling together with much more consistency. They are becoming an exciting, fun team to watch.

The pendulum of momentum turned quickly, and it turned in favor Michigan. Now, the final days of the season will be harbinger of what the future might hold for this group of young men.

Snow, Snow, Snow

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The snowstorm of the century (according to news reports) has hit the eastern half of the United States, and here in Ann Arbor we are fortunate that we didn't receive the full brunt of the storm. We had the high winds and cold weather, but the snow accumulation was around half a foot, much less that many areas in the storm's path.

Living in Michigan, we are familiar with the inclement weather that plays a role in everyone's life, so we have plans in place for when the weather hits, and today in Ann Arbor those plans worked well.

This is a long way from the days when the athletic department had fewer staff, fewer teams and a smaller budget.

In the mid 1960s, a snowstorm hit Ann Arbor late in the football season. Fritz Crisler and Bump Elliott mobilized the student-athletes to shovel out Michigan Stadium and clean the surrounding area to make sure the game could be played.

In the early 1970s, another winter snowstorm hit and the Indiana-Michigan basketball game at Crisler Arena had to be moved back a day or so. The Hoosiers and coach Bob Knight were in town, but we could not get our fans safely to Crisler.

Today, we have more staff. We also have more teams and more ancillary issues (e.g., television). Fortunately, we do not have any scheduled events for tonight, but that didn't lessen the concerns as the storm approached.

Travel plans for the men's basketball and gymnastics teams plus a real concern for the Penn State women's basketball team to make it here safely from Happy Valley for Thursday night's game at Crisler Arena weighed heavily on our staff.

The men's basketball team was scheduled to bus to Columbus, Ohio, this evening. Instead the team left Tuesday night for tomorrow's televised game at Ohio State (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Tomorrow's important women's basketball game at Crisler Arena (7 p.m. ET, BigTenNetwork.com) was also worrisome. Penn State was planning to arrive in Ann Arbor tonight. At the last minute, the PSU administration found a Tuesday evening flight, and the team is now awaiting Thursday night's game in an Ann Arbor hotel.

Fortunately, the "Snowmageddon" turned out to be a minor inconvenience in our area, and both basketball games will be played with few if any problems.

But the plans were in place just in case. And this time, we did not have to marshal any student-athletes to clean any stadiums.

Mock Rock Adds to Fundraising Efforts for 2011

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Flyer for Pizza House Event (PDF)
Flyer for Noodles & Company Event (PDF)

One of the most enjoyable events of each school year is Mock Rock, as the University of Michigan student-athletes get together to entertain a sellout crowd with their dance moves and crazy costumes and, at the same time, raise money for charity.

This year, to help reach its 2011 goal of raising $100,000 from donations and ticket sales from Mock Rock, the U-M Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) has expanded fundraising efforts by adding two Restaurant Days.

"We've never done anything like this before," said Mock Rock chair Jordan Sexton, a fifth-year senior on the women's gymnastics team. "We always set our fundraising goals high, and last year we raised $70,000 from Mock Rock but we think we can do better."

The first Restaurant Day is coming up this Wednesday (Jan. 26) at Pizza House (618 Church Street). Fifteen percent of all orders will go to Mock Rock if the customer presents the benefit flyer (download as PDF) in the restaurant or mentions Mock Rock when ordering for takeout or delivery. This is an all-day event.

The second event will be at Noodles & Company (320 South State Street) from 4-9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 10, with 25 percent of the bill going to Mock Rock if the customer mentions Mock Rock when ordering (download flyer as PDF).

"These restaurant fundraisers are a way to get the community involved a little more in the event and rally more student-athletes to the cause," said Sexton. "The generosity of these local businesses will help raise the profile of Mock Rock and hopefully bring in more money for three very deserving charities."

Three charities hand-picked by SAAC -- the Child and Family Life program at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Student-Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC), and the Michigan Autism Partnership (MAP) -- will receive donations from SAAC from funds generated by Mock Rock, an annual variety show featuring skits from Michigan's varsity student-athletes. This year's event is scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 16, starting at 7:30 p.m. at Hill Auditorium. Tickets will go on sale in early February.

SAAC is also accepting Mock Rock donations online at its website. Donors may specify a team to receive credit for the donation or select "None" to make a general donation.

For questions or information on corporate sponsorship, contact Taylor Day at tayday@umich.edu.

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