We’re speeding along through calendar year 2010, so it’s a good time to take stock of the sports world…at least, the sports world filtered through the lens of the Chippewa Valley.
Here, there are any number of teams that the masses follow and the local media covers. With 2010 half-over, I think it’s a good time to rate those non-high school teams/franchises, to see how well each is performing relative to expectations.
Before we begin, a few words on the year itself: can we all please agree to say “twenty-ten,” rather than “two-thousand, ten?” Seriously, who has the time for the latter? And when did this “thousand” creep into the vernacular, and who is responsible?
Ask anyone when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and assuming they know, they’ll say, “Seventeen, seventy-six,” not “One thousand, seven hundred, seventy-six.” I think all historians will agree that the War of 1812 was fought in “eighteen-twelve.” So let’s just say “twenty-ten” from this point through the end of December, okay? After that, it becomes “twenty-eleven,” and so forth. Seriously, people, it’s pretty easy.
PERFORMING BETTER THAN EXPECTATIONS
1. Eau Claire Express
At the beginning of any Northwoods League season, it’s difficult to handicap the teams, simply because there are so many new players on each roster. History has shown that some guys with great reputations & college stats don’t quite pan out, while others with lesser pedigrees perform well.
I figured the Express would be competitive in 2010, but I had no idea the team would be winning at a 70% clip through the end of July. Quality starting pitching helped carry Eau Claire to a 22-12 record and South Division first half title. So far in the second half, the offense has been key in a remarkable 17-4 record. Case in point: Thursday’s win over Waterloo, when the Express sat leading hitter Drew Heithoff and leading home run hitter Steve McGuiggan, but still scored 14 runs on 19 hits in a beatdown of the Bucks.
Overall, at 39-16, the Express’ record is 6 games better than St. Cloud. There’s no guarantee this hot streak carries over into the remaining regular season games or the playoffs, but at this point, Eau Claire is exceeding my on-field expectations. I’m a little concerned about a few of the defections that’ll occur over the next week or so (players leaving to return to school), but the Express is also a deep and versatile team.
Eau Claire is also doing well in terms of fan support. Through 21 home games, the Express is averaging 2,160 fans/game, placing them third in the 16-team NWL. 2,160 is also up from 2009′s final average of 2,011.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
A playoff appearance followed by some outstanding offseason work by general manager John Hammond, has created more positive buzz around this franchise than at any time in recent memory.
Hammond not only kept John Salmons, he added Drew Gooden, Corey Maggette, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Jon Brockman , while drafting some post depth with the selection of 6-11 Larry Sanders. The end result is a roster that’s capable of producing a 50+ win season in Milwaukee…something that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
3. Eau Claire Cavaliers
This team is celebrating its 40-year anniversary this weekend, and the 2010 Cavs are honoring their predecessors in the best way possible: by winning. After playing sub-.500 baseball early on, the Cavaliers had gone on a nice hot streak, improving their record to a very healthy 33-12. Kudos to manager Mark McHorney and his coaching staff for providing the appropriate level of leadership to a group of guys that really seems to have fun playing baseball.
4. Green Bay Packers
I know what you’re thinking: how can you rate a team that hasn’t played a regular season game yet? My answer is that the Packers played two games in calendar year 2010, both at Arizona, winning the regular season finale and then losing in the playoffs. Green Bay followed that with some solid selections in the draft, had good turnout for the OTA’s and minicamp, and had all players reporting for training camp. All those are good signs for the 2010 regular season, and most prognosticators (present company included) rank the Pack in that upper tier of 8-10 teams that have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Considering the level of collective angst a few years back about the departure of a certain gray-haired quarterback from Green Bay, I’d have to say that being a pre-season Super Bowl contender now is far beyond what most would have expected then.
5. Wisconsin Badgers
NCAA Tournament appearances for both men’s and women’s basketball, a national runner-up finish for men’s hockey, and high expectations for football, are all keeping the bar high at a university which once lagged well behind its peers in the “major” sports–hockey being the exception. Some might moan and groan about the lack of national titles in football and hoops, but as I’ve pointed out before, if you compare this era to the times pre-Shalala/Richter/Alvarez, you conclude these are the glory days of UW athletics.
6. Chippewa Valley Predators
Even though a two-year stretch of unbeaten football came to an end on July 31 with a disappointing and turnover-filled loss in the NEFL Divisional Playoffs, the Predators have exceeded expectations by showing a willingness to adapt to the new realities of the league. Chippewa Valley has sought to infuse its roster with new talent, and the result is a lot of wins.
PERFORMING AS EXPECTED
1. Minnesota Twins
My Minnesota bretheren might think their beloved Twins are not performing up to expectations, but from where I sit on this side of the St. Croix River, I think they’re right about where I would have expected them to be. I liked the Twins opening day roster, but I didn’t think it was significantly better than that of either the White Sox or Tigers. So, sitting 1/2 game back of first-place Chicago on August 1st is no reason to worry–unless, you’re prone to that sort of thing, like many of my pessimistic Minnesota bretheren are.
2. Minnesota Vikings
The early part of 2010 included a one-sided home playoff win over the Cowboys, followed by a crushing defeat to the Saints in the NFC Championship. Still, somehow, a lot of those same Minnesota pessimists are wildly optimistic about their NFL football team. Granted, the Vikes return the same core of key players that were very close to a trip to Super Bowl XLIV, but as I see it, a certain 40-year old quarterback is still prone to throwing interceptions, while the stud running back has a nasty habit of putting the ball on the ground. As much as the players stick to the party line regarding Favre, someone has to be a little bent out of shape that they’re in Mankato and he’s not. If the Vikings win this season, than Favre Watch 2010 is a non-issue–but if the team starts losing, especially if Favre isn’t playing to ’09 standards, then it becomes the elephant in the locker room. Beyond that, the franchise has seemingly put all its eggs into the “win now” basket, so if Minnesota doesn’t make it to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, this team could be in for some lean years in the future while it rebulds.
3. Eau Claire American Legion Baseball
Playing on the final day of the American Legion Class AAA State Tournament was the expectation for this program, with a roster filled with players from two of the better high school programs around (North and Memorial were both ranked in the state high school coaches’ poll all season long). Besides, this group of guys will never shake the fact that they were part of a Babe Ruth National Tournament team…even though that was years ago, at a much different phase of their development as athletes.
4. UW-Eau Claire/UW-Stout
All in all, the Blugolds and Blue Devils are competitive across the board with their WIAC counterparts. Still, even though the same revenue pressure on the “major” sports doesn’t exist in Division III as it does in Division I, fans and boosters at both schools would sure like to see Blugolds and Blue Devils teams in football and men’s basketball start putting together some postseason runs.
PERFORMING BELOW EXPECTATIONS
1. Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers came out of spring training with suspect pitching staff, but this group has been worse than just about anyone could have imagined. Couple that with a sub-par offensive output, and the result is a team that’s lagging 10.5 games off the pace, in the middle of a fairly week division. Beyond that, Milwaukee made no deals prior to the MLB trading deadline, making this team’s plans for the future even more difficult to discern. I’m not one to advocate change for change’s sake, but it’ll be very interesting to see what owner Mark Attanasio does with the current brain trust of Doug Melvin/Gord Ash/Ken Macha.
2. Minnesota Wild
Is the bloom off this rose of a professional franchise? The team has a very solid fan base, but you wonder how long they keep showing up to watch a home team with little front-line talent and seemingly few prospects in the system…especially if that team is not playoff-caliber.
3. Minnesota Gophers
I wrestled with this one, because one could argue that expectations in Gopher-land were overinflated because of two factors: the arrival of men’s basketball coach Tubby Smith and the construction of a very nice football stadium. Both came with the promise of an influx of talent, but whether that actually happens remains to be seen. Minnesota’s football fan base seems to be energized, but if they don’t start seeing actual progress in the program, Tim Brewster might be the latest in a line of fast-talking coaches to be shown the door. Smith is probably in Dinkytown for a while, but with his name surfacing every time a better job opens up, you wonder for how long. Speaking of coaches who are facing criticism, men’s hockey head man Don Lucia may want to get the Gophers back into the NCAA Tournament and soon.
4. Eau Claire Crush
This team had a ton of momentum after its inception, but that momentum has waned in the past few years. The Crush faces the dilemma that almost every amateur team does as some point in its existence: do you stick with the players you have, or do you try to re-tool? The NEFL is changing, and there’s a lot more talent than in years past, so the Crush needs to decide how to get back to the level of the top teams.
PERFORMING WELL BELOW EXPECTATIONS
1. Minnesota Timberwolves
This woeful franchise gets a category all to itself, and for good reason. T-Wolves fans who called for the head of Kevin McHale may be pining for him soon, if the “Wrath of Kahn” continues in the Twin Cities. Among the things Minnesota GM David Kahn has done just recently: get fined $50,000 for making inappropriate comments about the dope smoking donw by new acquisition Michael Beasley, trade away the Wolves’ best player (Al Jefferson) for far less than his value, re-signing Darko Milicic and then comparing Milicic to Chris Webber. About the only thing Kahn’s had success with is stockpiling way too many point guards on his roster. The 2009-10 Wolves went 15-67, and if they hit 20 wins in 2010-11, it’ll be a huge surprise.
As always, feel free to agree or disagree with these observations–but post your comments to the blog and we can continue the debate.
Posted under Hometown Sports
This post was written by bbradovich on August 1, 2010