Monday, December 14, 2009

From Unknown Bengal to SI's Best

Last year at this time, Evan Dietrich-Smith was recovering from the end of Idaho State's 1-11 football season, and plotting how he was going to make a roster in the National Football League. It was a long-shot at best for the Bengal offensive linemen who couldn't even crack the top two all-Big Sky Conference teams his senior season. He wasn't drafted, but the Green Bay Packers took a flier on him as a free agent.

The chances of making an NFL team as an undrafted free agent are astronomical, but Dietrich-Smith beat the odds. The same versatility that allowed him to play all three line positions at Idaho State helped Dietrich-Smith to latch onto a roster spot with Packers. He's played in ten games so far, mostly on special teams. It was on the kicking team that a Sports Illustrated photographer captured the photo above of Dietrich-Smith (62) sending Tampa Bay linebacker Gene Hayes (54) rear end-over-tea kettle. It was selected as one of SI's best photos of the year. It also served as a fitting tribute to the determination of Dietrich-Smith, who is living the dream for one of the NFL's most storied franchises.

(Note to ISU's marketing department: what would make a better Christmas present for ISU fans than an autographed copy of this photo? It would also be a terrific item for the Bengal auction next spring -- I'd bid on it.)

What's Happened to Idaho High School Basketball?

As I was preparing for the ISU-Boise State basketball broadcast last week, I noticed that neither the Broncos nor the Bengals had a single scholarship player on their roster from Idaho. I did a quick check of the University of Idaho's roster and noted they do not have an Idahoan on scholarship, either. I'm sure there's no official stat on that, but I wonder if there's been a time when none of the state's three Division I schools had an Idahoan on scholarship at the same time.

When I first started covering prep sports in Idaho in the 1980s, the state produced more than its share of Division I basketball talent. Players like Donn Holston of Highland (an eventual ISU Hall of Famer), Tom Gneiting of Rigby (BYU), Richie Webb of Bonneville (BYU), Meridian's Scott Johnson (SMU), Danny Conway of Madison (Utah State), Teton's Gary Furniss (Utah State and BYU), Andy Toolson of Twin Falls (BYU and the Utah Jazz), Borah's Tommy Connor (Utah), Skyline's Cleve Lewis (Fresno State) and Pocatello's Wade Wyatt (Utah and Southern Utah) all made their marks in the 1980s. Just a few years before them, two of Idaho's all-time greats, Capital's Brian Welch (Stanford), and Aberdeen's Steve Hayes (my personal choice for the next member of ISU's Ring of Honor) came on the scene.

Today, there are a few Idaho-bred D-1 players (Pocatello's Nick Hansen at Weber State, for example), but not many. Idaho State's string of excellent in-state talent that included Logan Kinghorn, David Schroeder and Matt Stucki came to an end at the conclusion of last season. The Bengals looked at Hansen when he was at College of Southern Idaho, but had already filled their guard quota when ISU got a commitment from Kal Bay. (Given ISU's struggles hitting three-pointers this year, wouldn't Hansen look awful good in a Bengal uniform right now, particularly since Bay and his College of Eastern Utah compadre, Felix Caspari, have both left the program already?)

Bengal assistant coach Geoff Alexander was on our coach's show last night, and he said it's simply been a down period for Division I prospects in the state the last couple of years. He noted that the Bengals hope to refill the Idaho pipeline soon, and are currently recruiting a junior college player with local roots.

From the "Grass Isn't Always Greener" Dept.

Ardie McInelly and Jon Newlee were terrific women's basketball coaches at Idaho State who left for other options. You can't judge happiness solely by Ws and Ls, but you have to wonder if both ever second-guess their decisions to move on. Probably not, but this has been a difficult year for both.

McInelly, who entered this, her ninth season at Air Force Academy with a 54-174 mark is off to a 2-7 season this year. The Falcons have averaged only 237 fans for their home games.

Newlee, meanwhile, got off to a strong start at Idaho last year, lifting a moribund Vandal program to a 13-15 record overall, 10-6 in the Western Athletic Conference, one of the best turnarounds in the nation. The Vandals have slipped backwards this year, however, starting 1-10 and 0-6 at home, where they are averaging only 370 fans per game. They're 0-3 against Big Sky Conference teams, and Jon has had to suspend a couple of players for disciplinary reasons.

Both McInelly and Newlee are excellent coaches. Ardie is in a situation at Air Force, frankly, where victory is not expected. She's had two four-win seasons there and nobody is anticipating the Falcons to contend for an NCAA berth anytime soon. Newlee has a more manageable situation at Idaho, and I fully expect him to bounce back from this year's setback. But the experiences of both McInelly and Newlee after they left Idaho State speaks volumes about how good the situation is at ISU for women's basketball. Current coach Seton Sobolewski has already used those advantages to bring in seven freshmen this year, six of whom are making significant contributions. (The seventh, 6-3 C Ashlee Rigter, hasn't been cleared from a summer knee injury and may require surgery.)

I fully expect Sobolewski to be the next highly successful women's coach at ISU. And when he does, I wonder if he'll look at the experiences of McInelly and Newlee when other programs come calling?

A True National Champion? What a Concept

While all the BCS apologists continue to explain why it's not feasible to have a playoff, the FCS will quietly crown a true national champion in Chattanooga on Friday, when Montana and Villanova square off. I said it last year, and I'll say it again: I'm truly conflicted about who to root for in the national title game. As a Big Sky Conference fan, sure I want Montana to win another national championship. But again, it will only reinforce the notion that the Big Sky is a one-trick pony. No Big Sky school other than Montana has played in a national championship game since Boise State in 1994.

The Wildcats are an interesting team. Like Appalachian State, the team the Griz beat in the semifinals last week, they are led by a dual-threat quarterback named Chris Whitney. The 6-2, 230-pounder is Villanova's leading rusher with 885 yards and six TDS; he's also completed 64 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns against only 4 picks.

One of Whitney's leading targets is all-American receiver/kick returner Matt Szczur who lines up in the "Wildcat" and averages 7 yards a carry, as well as making 47 catches for 4 TDs. Szczur also averages 28 yards a return on kickoffs and 140 total yards per game.

'Nova really shines on defense, where they hold opponents to just 67 yards and 2.3 yards per carry on the ground. They are led by linebacker Terence Thomas (9 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks), and safety John Dempsey (11.5 TFLS, six sacks and two picks). And remember all those names, because everyone of Villanova's key players are juniors. No matter what happens Friday, Villanova will likely be a pre-season top five pick next year.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.


Anonymous said...

I ditto your thoughts on women's basketball at ISU. The cupboard wasn't exactly left full, and Coach S did a great job with what he had to work with. Two of ISU's best players left before last season (Cheever and Sisel), and ISU still managed to compete in conference. The drop off from the Doma-Lightfoot years was huge, more than Newlee was honest to admit (look how Idaho is doing so far with Cheever and Sisel.

It's funny that you never hear any of the "fans" whine about Idaho players when it comes to basketball. Utah received a commitment from an Idaho player (Madison HS, I believe), but it has been a pretty thin couple of years.

I was reading the AP writeup on the Idaho-Eastern Oregon basketball game from a couple days ago, and it mentioned a 3 point shot made by Jacques Wilson. Yep, the same former Century player (and son of former ISU assistant Louis Wilson). This is at least his 4th 4-year school (Montana State and Southern Utah were two schools he attended). I know some were upset he didn't play at ISU, but in this case, perhaps hindsight was 20/20.

Anonymous said...

Also, in addition to those two coaches that were mentioned, Gordon Henderson, who undoubtedly is ISU's most successful soccer coach ever, had resigned from his job about a year ago as head coach at Arkansas. He had a compiled a 41-49-5 record in five years coaching the Razorbacks.

idaho said...

Interesting, I didn't Jacques was at Eastern Oregon now. He's certainly had a checkered career.

--Brad B.

idaho said...

I certainly don't blame coaches for "going for the brass ring," like Gordon did at Arkansas. He probably doubled his income there, for one thing. But Air Force and Idaho are a bit different situation.

--Brad B.