Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sobolewski Growing in the Job

There were some pretty good coaching jobs turned in by Big Sky Conference women's basketball coaches this year: Wendy Schuller took an Eastern Washington team picked in the bottom half of the league to a regular season championship; and Jamie Craighead, the youngest Division I coach in the country, reinvented the Sacramento State program, winning a school record 10 conference games and initiating her own brand of "40 minutes of hell." So I don't expect Idaho State head Coach Seton Sobolewski (left) to win conference coach of the year honors.

But the second-year Bengal mentor did a great job as he continues to grow into his position at ISU. He took a team that lost its top scorer and rebounder in Michelle Grohs, and its steals and assist leader in Jenna Brown, mixed in six freshmen, all of whom played significant minutes, endured a brutal non-conference slate, and wound up tied for second in the conference with ten wins. Sure, the loss in the first-round of the tournament to Portland State was disappointing, but finishing with a .500 overall record after playing such a difficult non-conference slate was something to relish.

As further testament to Sobolewski's coaching, consider the Bengals were 5-0 in games decided by five points or less, 3-1 in overtime, and finished 4-4 on the road in Big Sky games. He also shook off the loss of 6-5 freshman center Ashlee Rigter, who left the program before ever playing a game, and the mid-season unavailability of wing players Morgan Wohltman and Chelsea Pickering due to illness and injury, respectively. It was no coincidence the Bengals finished the season with a six-game winning streak after both returned to the lineup, but Sobolewski managed to keep the Bengals together while they struggled during their absences.

The next phase in Sobolewski's coaching "growth," if you will, comes next season, when the Bengals lose leading scorer and rebounder Oana Iacovita, assist and steals leader Andrea Videbeck and defensive stalwart Devin Diehl. Those three seniors depart with 53 percent of the Bengals' scoring, 44 percent of their rebounding and 63 percent of their assists in conference play.

The good news is that Sobolewski has built a nice foundation for the program with the six freshmen who got significant playing time this past season. Aussie Ashleigh Vella was the most consistent of the frosh, starting 29 of 30 games and averaging 8 points and 5.6 rebounds a contest. She started off the year focusing primarily on rebounding, then shifted to becoming a regular double-figure scoring threat. She shot almost 53 percent from the field in Big Sky play, 40 percent from the three-point line.

The other freshmen all played roles this year, but some of them are going to have to take that next step in development and become key contributors next year. Wohltman is a great three-point shooter, but needs to work on quickness and creating her own shot. Kaela Oakes got 13 starts at point guard, but shot only 27 percent from the field in league play. Two-guard Brea Matthews and power forward Ashley Smith need to become more aggressive on the offensive end of the court. And Shannon Byrne, well she needs to start living up to her many physical skills, which Seton has praised all year. The 6-3 lefthander runs, jumps and shoots well -- now she needs to translate that ability into something more than the five minutes, two points and one rebound a game she averaged in conference play.

Pickering and guard Andrea Blodgett hopefully will grow into leadership roles as the key seniors next year, and Sobolewski's early signing period recruiting class produced three players who will likely see some minutes next year: post Cydney Horton, point guard Sheryl Bitter and wing player Kara Jenkins. Because Sobolewski has built some depth and versatility on his roster, none of those freshmen will have to carry an inordinant burden next year, however.

That young depth also has given Seton the ability to gamble a bit in spring recruiting. He already has one commitment from a high school forward this spring, and he's going to use his final three scholarships to pursue high-risk, high-reward prospects where he may be going up against a stronger level of competition. He's pursuing a couple of players who could be "difference makers" this spring. If they sign, they could elevate ISU to the next level in the Big Sky Conference; if they don't, well the Bengals should still remain competitive for the next several years as a very young team -- and a young coach -- continue to grow together.

Broncos Look for New Coach

Boise State made the decision to fire head basketball coach Greg Graham, and eat the last year of his $362,000 a year contract, not, primarily, because of his up-and-down win-loss record, but rather because of raging apathy in the Boise Valley. Graham, just two years removed from a WAC championship, was axed last week on the heels of a season that saw BSU draw an average of just over 3,100 fans a game to spacious Taco Bell Arena. I know when I broadcast the ISU-BSU overtime loss to the Broncos at TBA in 2008, I was stunned at how much the game-day atmosphere had deteriorated in Boise. There was simply no life in the place.

With the Broncos knocking on the door of the Mountain West Conference, they need a relatively healthy and vigorous men's basketball program to enhance their appeal to MWC administrators.

The success of the BSU football team has certainly raised the bar on expectations for the basketball program. I see some parallels between Boise and Missoula, which used to be a great college basketball town, but has seen enthusiasm and attendance for its basketball program drop in almost inverse proportion to the way Montana's football program has grown in dominance. The Griz, who won a first-round NCAA tournament basketball game not so long ago, and won over 20 regular season games this year, still averaged just over 3,300 fans a game.

The Broncos and Griz are also feeling the national fallout from the dropping interest in college basketball. As we've noted before, attendance and television ratings for college basketball are diving all over the country, and Boise and Missoula are not immune.

It will be interesting to see what impact Graham's demise will have on Idaho State's future basketball schedules. ISU Coach Joe O'Brien was working on a home-and-home deal with the Broncos before Graham's firing.

With the announcement that Eastern Washington is keeping men's coach Kirk Earlywine for at least another year, it appears the Big Sky Conference coaching rosters, on both the men's and women's sides, will be stable going into next season. That's barring any late-breaking developments, of course. Last year Portland State's Ken Bone was hired for the Washington State opening, and Sac State's women's coach departed in late spring for an assistant's job at Oregon. Both were replaced by assistant coaches from the existing staffs.

Football Tidbids

I got a chance to chat with Bengal football Coach John Zamberlin last week for the final episode of Bengal Review, and came away with some nuggets of information. First, Coach Z told us he's adding Josh Fetter, a former defensive line coach at Portland State, to his staff. Fetter, who played at Idaho with current Bengal defensive coordinator Brian Strandley in the 1990s, worked for both Tim Walsh and Jerry Glanville at PSU. I'm assuming he'll take over the duties of Joe Cullen, who went back to the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaquars.

Zamblerin also noted that, even though it's off-season, football players are still not immune to the injury bug. He told us that incoming freshman quarterback Justin Level will not take part in spring ball due a knee injury; and transfers Jahmel Rover (running back) and Bo Hudeen (linebacker) are both struggling with leg injuries that could restrict their spring availability. Returning linebacker Phil Arias is also dealing with a stomach ailment that could sideline him as well.

Coach Z said the search for a kicker/punter continues. He brought a prospect to campus last weekend but they haven't confirmed his academic status as yet.

--Brad B.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Office Closed

If all seems quiet on the media relations front in the next few days ... that's because it's going to be pretty quiet around here. Our entire office will be working the Spokane Regional from Thursday through next Sunday, with a full days drive there on Wednesday and back on Monday. The only event going on this weekend is a women's golf tournament....that's it. No softball, no tennis, no track ... no nothing. Weird, right?

There will be some football popping up this week though. I'm waiting for the official eights and weights from the Pro Day stuff that goes on today (I just found out about that one). That is going on at Holt Arena from 11:30 (the guys who are done with their eligibility), and then upcoming seniors at 2:30, and everyone else around 3:30ish or so. Mark Campbell takes the weights and heights at that event and will get those to me, and then I can have the prospectus finalized. That reminds me...last year I got a bound prospectus from Oklahoma....bound. Full color cover. Money is great, isn't it? This year by the way Oklahoma's spring guide is 100 pages....100 pages? ISU's 2001 media guide for the fall season...i.e. the one that counts, was only 96 pages.

Now onto a bunch of things around the office/school/department you folks might find interesting..

Football Team Collects Food for the Idaho Food Bank
Nice job by Wes Horrocks of Channel 3 covering the proceedings here. Not sure why they went with the orange jerseys though.

Thankfully Southern Utah's Quarterback Won't be the One Going Off This Time
Back in 2000, South Utah quarterback Matt Cannon led the Southern Utah Thunderbirds with three rushing touchdowns and 1,153 yards rushing. Well, not really, it only seemed like it...it was actually 262 yards, and it still is the record for the most yards by a visiting player, as SUU beat ISU 62-24 (on Homecoming....uugh).

Now, a much different cannon is being talked about....one that actually goes boom. It's been pretty funny from my end, because a fan is putting all of this together, and sinking some $$ into it (I'll get him a Bengal Foundation membership for all of this at the very least), but some folks seem to be against it, harping on that you can't shoot a cannon in the dome. Really? They have fireworks during concerts in here, and a cannon will not be any louder than the freakin' Monster Trucks that rev themselves up outside of my office that forces me to go home early. It's not shooting a real cannonball, it's just powder...it will be fine, really. And yes, the man doing this (who by the way is in the Army, so yes, he knows of what he speaks) has talked to the folks needed, including the guy who runs the building, who is all for it. So, we got the building folks to OK it, the team OK'ed it, and the players OK'ed it. Be warned...we might very well have a cannon shooting at home games.

LOST Video Contest
Some folks might wonder "What does Frank Mercogliano do on a Sunday in his downtime?" Well, I make contest entries for LOST. If I get in the top 10, I'm coming back here begging for votes, because I want that van. If I don't make the top 10 I'll post the thing on Youtube anyways....

If you haven't been watching the greatest show on television....you don't even have to miss the NCAA Tournament, because it is on Tuesdays. Just go to Hulu.com, and catch up on the first five seasons, and you can be caught up in five weeks.

Charlotte's Web
Let me tell you a little story. Sit down...please...get a brownie or some chips. Back in 1998 when I came to Idaho State, the ISU athletic website sucked. It was HORRID. I had never done anything with the internet or a website ever, and so it continued to suck for a few months. It really was bad. Well, in the fall of 1998, a friend of mine named Ray Emery helped me revamp it so that we had a way to update it, get stats and news and rosters and stuff on there, and it was serviceable. Here is what it looked like back fall of 1999 (look at how cute the football page was back then), here is it in December of 2000, and in October of 2001, and the last incarnation of to old www.isu.edu/athletic site, the day before we switched to www.isubengals.com.

Flash forward to 2002, and ISU unveiled www.isubengals.com, which actually debuted on August 9, 2002, and it now more note worthy because I had a goatee at the time. At the time, we were ahead of the pack in terms of a website, it was clean, fast, organized, and everyone in Bengalville was happy, and kudos went to Howard Gauthier, who was the A.D. and agreed to spend the money and make the switch.

Well, it's 2010, and we have had the exact same website for the last eight years, and while I will still say it's totally function, we have no bells and whistles, and we are trying to keep up with the Joneses while trapped in the sites mandated design (case in point, there is NOTHING but white space on the right side of the page, and the videos we post are just sort of crammed into the page).

Now, we can fix that, but it would cost money. Eventually the question becomes this...do you keep adding and fixing, or do you just start over? Do you keep fixing your car, which is functional and runs, but can't maybe do everything you want, or do you just go down to Meador's and get a new car? Well, we are approaching the new car portion of the discussion.

We are looking at potentially switching our website for a radical redesign, very possibly with a new company. CBS College Sports, formerly CSTV, formerly Fans Only, formerly something else I can't remember, is getting a bit cost prohibitive, and so we are looking at a different company possibly, that handles and caters to more schools our size (view Montana State's website for an example).

So this is where you guys come in....what do YOU want in a website? There are things Katie, Jamie and I definitely want (more dedicated spots for video, facebook and twitter links in a better format, and a better layout graphically), but if you have any comments or suggestions on what you want to see on a website (be reasonable), email me at mercfran@isu.edu. If the cannon thing is any indication...yes, we listen to folks down here. We may not do it, we may not agree, but no idea is too dumb to be listened too, as Mr. Garrison was so nice to point out a few years ago.

Former Bengals in the Tourney
Amazingly enough, two former ISU Bengals are both in the NCAA Tournament. Paul Bubb, now the Sr. Associate Athletic Director at Murray State, will no doubt accompany the Racers to San Jose as the #13 MSU Racers take on #4 Vanderbilt, and Russ Eisenstein had possibly the best call of the day on Saturday (it's the inside the second video clip here...nice to have that in-house TV production eh?) as his Ohip Bobcats shook off an 7-9 conference record, and a #9 seed in the conference tournament to earn a 14-seed and head to Providence, RI to face off with the #33 Georgetown Hoyas. Dance boys, dance....

It sure was interesting ...

This blog entry is from women's basketball announcer Mark Liptak...enjoy.

It sure was an interesting and unexpected season wasn’t it fans?

The 2009-2010 Bengal women’s basketball season was like a wild ride at Six Flags. It had twists and turns, climbed hills and shot into valleys. It provided dramatic moments that we’ll remember for a long time and ultimately ended much too soon.

But what a ride it was while it lasted.

This team played a brutal non-conference schedule. It had six freshmen play major minutes. It had to overcome injuries as well as the difficulties that being in Pocatello cause from a travel standpoint. It had to play, at times, back to back Friday-Saturday conference games. It even had to overcome a “locker room” set up right next to a swimming pool. (I’m not joking!)

Yet when all was said and done, they had a winning regular season, increasing their win total by four from the previous year. They won ten conference games, upping that mark by three from the previous season and they finished in a tie for second place. They made the conference postseason tournament again for the second time under the current coaching staff and seventh time overall, a school record. No one and I mean no one, was predicting that when this club got ready to take the floor at St. Mary’s to open the year.

Seton Sobolewski and his staff guided this club through the growing pains and the uncertainties that all young clubs face. The players accepted that guidance, and learned their lessons well. The foundation has been set which will lead to a lot more success at a higher level in future years.

This team took the up’s and down’s in stride…they took it with a smile, a laugh, sometimes a tear but they took it.

To me it’s hard to point to one moment, one highlight, or one event when I think back on the season… there were a lot to choose from.

Ashleigh Vella’s put-back shot at the buzzer to beat Utah State and start the team on a run where they won eight of 10 comes to mind. The blow out win over Great Falls where little used players like Kari Green and Rayneiqua Edwards scored their first collegiate baskets is remembered. How do you not include Oana Iacovita destroying Montana State with 31 points to open up conference play and start her down the path that would lead to a first team all conference selection or Andrea Videbeck, not once but twice, going 10 for 10 down the stretch from the free throw line to sink Weber State and Portland State? Do we overlook Morgan Wohltman coming off the bench and drilling a game tying three with time running out to tie Sacramento State and give ISU a chance to win in overtime and stretch a winning streak to six in a row?

It’s not a stretch to say that every single active player on the roster this year can look at themselves in the mirror and say “I helped, I made a contribution to the success we had. I wasn’t just along for the ride.”

It was that team spirit, that drive to excel, that caused Iacovita to jump up and down on the court and then throw herself into Vella’s arms after a win against the Hornets of Sacramento State. At the same time Chelsea Pickering, with an expression of pure unadulterated joy was running to chest bump with Videbeck. Winning mattered to this team; they “got it.” They figured out what they had to do, when they had to do it, to get wins. Sometimes, like my partner Brad Bugger said, it was “winning ugly,” but it was a win and winning is beautiful.

Next season will be another challenge. Expectations will be higher- yet this team will be even younger. They’ll have six sophomores and at least four freshmen on the roster next year. They lose Iacovita, a definite low post scoring threat. They lose Videbeck, one of the top point guards in the league. The question will be, can the returning players raise their game to a higher ground and take the next step? It will not be easy but does anyone doubt that they can do it?

Fans you’ll want to be a part of this. Jump on this bandwagon sooner rather than later…this coaching staff, these players, is going to make you proud and you’ll want to say that you were there when it was really starting up.

One final note on next season’s recruiting class. As of this writing Seton has three signees and a fourth who just made an oral commitment. I’ve met three of the players and I can tell you, they are big, they are strong and they appear to be young women of great character. There are still a few scholarship openings and Seton and the staff are continuing to look for more individuals who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to win.

This is a team, a program, on the rise.

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be able to broadcast the games. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as I enjoy bringing them to you. Have a safe and wonderful off season and I hope we’ll get together again next November when they throw the ball up on the 2010-2011 campaign.

Mark Liptak