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Twins Need Santana Momentum Tonight

June 20, 2017 - (0) comments

 

A Tuesday notes column with items about the Gophers, Timberwolves, Twins and Vikings.

Losers of four consecutive games and now out of first place in the American League Central Division, the Twins are yet again counting on Ervin Santana. He starts tonight’s game at Target Field against the White Sox and he has won almost 25 percent of Minnesota’s games so far this season.

The Twins were outscored 28-8 by the Indians in their four losses from last Friday through Sunday. The Indians now lead the Twins by 2.5 games in the division and the two teams play this coming weekend in Cleveland. Before going on the road, the 34-33 Twins have three games at home against the White Sox, who are 31-37 and in last place in the Central Division.

Santana is 8-4 with a 2:56 ERA. A win tonight will keep him near other major league pitchers for most victories this season. Santana could finish the season as a 20-game winner and the club MVP. The 34-year-old right hander has exceeded expectations and the Twins need one of his better efforts tonight to end their slide.

The Twins have lost 12 of their last 16 home games.

Six of the team’s games at Target Field have been impacted by weather this spring. Three games were delayed and three postponed.

It was 40 years ago that the Twins’ Rod Carew made his famous run to become baseball’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. Carew was a national story and appeared on the July 18, 1977 cover of Time magazine. Carew finished the season at .388, the highest of his Hall of Fame career.

Williams, who played for the Minneapolis Millers before joining the Red Sox, hit .406 in 1941 and is still the last man to average over .400 for a season. Williams, when he was 39 years old in 1957, led the American League in hitting with a .388 average.

When the Gophers play Miami at Williams Arena next November as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, they will see five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker. The freshman is projected to be the No. 8 selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, according Nbadraft.net.

The website has former Apple Valley five-star shooting guard Gary Trent Jr. leaving Duke after one season and being the No. 9 player taken in the first round. J.P. Macura, the shooting guard from Lakeville North, will be a second round pick at No. 44 after completing his senior season at Xavier.

Amir Coffey

Nbadraft.net doesn’t project any Gophers being selected in either the first or second rounds in 2018. The Gophers, though, have a few players, including sophomore forward Amir Coffey, who might work their way on to hypothetical draft boards in the next nine months.

Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac, who led the Seminoles to a home win over the Gophers last season, seems like the right fit for the Timberwolves when they use the No. 7 selection in Thursday night’s NBA Draft—if he is still available. Isaac, 6-10, is a slender but versatile defender who reportedly could bring the kind of defense and toughness the Wolves need. He was a freshman All-American last season.

The Wolves, who would surprise no one if they trade their No. 7 pick, are hosting draft night parties from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday night at Kieran’s Irish Pub in Minneapolis, The Liffey in St. Paul, Bunny’s Bar and Grill in St. Louis Park, and Champps in Eden Prairie.

P.J. Fleck, the Gophers’ 36-year-old football coach, talking about all he has experienced at a young age: “It seems like I should be 67 by now and retiring. My high school gave me the lifetime achievement award in the hall of fame. I got that when I was 34.”

Former Gophers trainer Jim Marshall turns 87 on July 3, the same day ex-Minnesota and Minneapolis Lakers coach John Kundla has his 101st birthday.

Former two-time Gophers All-American tackle Bobby Bell was 77 last Saturday.

Sam Richter, a St. Louis Park native and former Gophers football letter winner, was inducted last week into the Minnesota Speaker Hall of Fame by the National Speakers Association. Richter is only the 28th person ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Richter, who was an Academic All-American, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on sales intelligence and digital reputation management.

Nemer Fieger, the St. Louis Park-based marketing agency, is working with the Gophers athletic department to better communicate the successes of women’s sports, according to Julie Manning.

Manning, executive associate athletics director, also said the department has launched a campaign to raise $10 million over three years to provide additional resources for head coaches of women’s sports.

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer will be in Dallas this weekend for a family wedding. After eight eye surgeries, there probably isn’t a player in the NFL who question’s Zimmer’s toughness.

After two rounds through yesterday, Minikahda Club teaching pro Jeff Sorenson was among the leaders in the PGA Professional Championship in Sunriver, Oregon, according to news from PGA.com. Sorenson finished third in the 2013 tournament at Sunriver Resort.

The Minnesota Youth Football Summit is a free event this Saturday at U.S. Bank Stadium that will look at how young players can have a better experience. More information, including online registration, is available at myas.org/football.

 

Early Critics Don’t Bother P.J. Fleck

June 16, 2017 - (0) comments

 

P.J. Fleck knows there are a lot of supportive Gophers football fans. Some talk to the new Gophers coach about getting Minnesota to the Rose Bowl before they die. Other fans buy “Row the Boat” t-shirts, or give him paddles to show they’re behind a program that has little to brag about since Minnesota’s last Big Ten championship in 1967.

And then there are the cynics—fans and media who say already they don’t like him. It’s a group who took a couple of looks at the 36-year-old coach after his arrival in Dinkytown last January and decided he’s a phony. Nope, they’re not buying into the energetic coach who talks frequently about changing the culture of Gophers football and winning championships.

“Elite.” That’s what Fleck says his vision is for Gophers football. The price to achieve that status must be paid every day until the goal is accomplished. Then the culture must be sustained to have ongoing success. Fleck lives and breathes that. He believes Gophers football can’t go to the Rose Bowl, play in the College Football Playoffs and restore greatness to a program that long ago lost its way unless he is true to himself and his beliefs.

The critics think Fleck should go about his business in a quiet, unassuming manner. They put him down for being so outgoing and passionate, and having lofty ambitions for the program, including expansion of TCF Bank Stadium by 30,000 seats within a few years. Instead of a helping hand, the Fleck naysayers would enjoy seeing his “boat” sink early and often.

Fleck sat in his office this week and talked to Sports Headliners about the fan and media environment he inherited when he took over the Gophers job. Fleck said he isn’t surprised by the varied welcome he’s received. He knows the carousel of coaches who have tried to win here and he recognizes that critics and skeptics abound in one of the nation’s largest metro areas. He characterizes himself as a coach who is a builder and welcomes challenges. The landscape of the Gophers program and all it encompasses is something he wanted.

“I came here to bring the positivity,” he said. “I am one of the most optimistic people you’ll ever meet. I don’t care what people say about me negatively, that will never affect me as a person.”

P.J. Fleck

Fleck willingly accepts that he should be judged by how he coaches, how his players perform on the field and in the classroom. Difficult for Fleck to understand, though, is how people judge him already as a human being and who they think he is without knowing him at all. Some of that judgment, he said, is done in the media to stir controversy and fill radio air time.

“The reason I took this job is because I could be the real me,” Fleck said. “…I’ve been this way my entire life. The ‘King of the Too’s.’ Too small, too short, too young, too inexperienced, too energetic, too much personality. That’s my entire life (those labels)—and (yet) everything I’ve said I was going to do, I’ve accomplished.”

Fleck was, in his words, a “minus two stars” recruit coming out of high school in suburban Chicago. At Northern Illinois the 5-10 Fleck became the team’s leading receiver, was Academic All-American, All-Mid-American Conference and team captain. Although he was an undrafted NFL free agent, Fleck was in the pros for two years before embarking on a coaching career that led to an appointment as head coach at Western Michigan at age 31. The Broncos were 1-11 his first season but by year four the team was undefeated going into last January’s Cotton Bowl game against Wisconsin. Last year Western Michigan won its first MAC championship since 1988.

Fleck has been gung-ho about life since he was barely out of diapers. “I’ve been this way since I was three years old, with the amount of energy,” he said. “(When) you are different, people will talk about you, but that’s okay. Don’t be a public figure if you don’t want people to talk about you.”

Fleck has thought a lot about who he is, his values, beliefs and how he relates to people. “We’re here to fuel people with energy,” he said. “There are two types of people in the world. There are people that give energy, and there are people that take energy away.

“I want our players to give energy to our community. Give energy to people that don’t have it. Give energy and spirit and hope and positivity to other people.”

Fleck looks at the culture of the Gophers’ neighborhood rivals, Iowa and Wisconsin, and sees a different history than Minnesota’s. Iowa has had only two head football coaches since 1979. Barry Alvarez, the miracle worker who brought Badgers football back to life in the early 1990s, is still in Madison preserving the winning culture as the Wisconsin athletic director.

The Gophers now have their third head coach in three years, and five different leaders since 2000. Successful programs have sustainability, Fleck preaches. It’s a key part of a culture that includes day-by-day commitment from the players. That’s why, Fleck said, team meetings start by the players giving ovations to the coaches.

“They go nuts,” Fleck said. “I blow a whistle twice, they say, ‘Row.’ They clap, and then they sit down.”

Fleck calls recruiting the “lifeblood” of a football program and the right players will help build the culture he wants at Minnesota. That culture focuses on four areas: academics, athletics, social and spiritual. Those are priorities and players have to show during the recruiting process that Fleck and his staff believe they are the right fit for the Gophers and they can help make the program elite.

During the months since Fleck’s arrival, the Gophers’ recruiting success has drawn local and national attention. The composite rankings by 247Sports of the nation’s football programs have had the Gophers flirting with the top 10, although it’s now at No. 17. Minnesota hasn’t been known for high recruiting rankings in the past, and skeptics might ask if the Gophers are adhering to NCAA rules, but Fleck assures they are.

“Everything we do, we run through our compliance office,” Fleck said. “You don’t have to break any rules to have success, and we refuse to do that.”

Fleck doesn’t judge his recruits by the rankings and offered no predictions where the Gophers might finish in the final composite national rankings for the class of 2018. He is a lot more interested in identifying players he believes have the talent and makeup to fit his culture.

The 2017 recruiting class was put together in a few weeks because of Fleck being hired so late and National Signing Day taking place in early February. Fleck looks forward to seeing what his recruiting classes of 2018 and 2019 look like in a few years. The expectation is those classes and the ones that follow will set the foundation for championships but Fleck won’t predict when. “There is no time frame,” he said.

While Fleck is not committing to a date, he trusts his plan and process in building the culture and results he wants. “It’s my job to be able to teach people to enjoy and love and respect the process of becoming a champion,” Fleck said. “That’s how you understand what it took to get there.”

Fleck was once a grade school teacher and he embraces the role of instructor. “I love what I do. I love the (coaching) profession and I love what it does for people. I love to connect people (in building a culture). I love to serve. I love to give. When those are your passions, you really don’t have time for tired.”

Because of his outspoken optimism, Fleck draws comparisons with former Gophers coach Tim Brewster who talked early on in his tenure about Rose Bowls and championships, and then produced a 15-30 career record. The comparisons are unfair because Brewster had never been a head coach at the pro or college levels. Nor had he been an offensive or defensive coordinator in major college football. He wasn’t as prepared as Fleck to be a Big Ten head coach.

Fleck came to Minnesota as one of the most talked about young names in college coaching. In four years at Western Michigan he completely turned the program around and drew national press including from Sports Illustrated. College football insiders speculated about him landing high profile jobs, perhaps even at Notre Dame within a year or two.

Instead, he’s at work in Minneapolis and is trying to bridge his program with the glory eras of long ago when the Gophers won six national championships and Big Ten titles in every decade except one from 1900-1970. The hardest thing so far, he said, is to change the attitude here about the Gophers.

Fleck said there are “cynical people out there that hate my guts already. There are a lot of them.” Fleck, though, doesn’t attack the critics and skeptics, even the most nasty of them, and acknowledges he hasn’t won any games yet.

“I don’t blame them. My job is to continue to show why I came here,” Fleck said. “But that doesn’t happen four years from now if I don’t win today. Winning doesn’t happen unless we win in recruiting today. We win in developing our players today. We win in the leadership council at 6 a.m. today. If we don’t win in those areas—academically, athletically, socially, spiritually—daily, then how can we win championships?”

It doesn’t seem like too much to ask the naysayers and everyone else to give Fleck a couple of years to show what he, his staff and players can do. “I am not going to give up,” Fleck said. “That’s why I came here.”

Not everyone has to “row the boat.” How about just being open-minded? (At least until after the opening game against Buffalo on August 31?)

 

Signability Didn’t Dictate Twins Pick

June 13, 2017 - (0) comments

 

The Twins used the No. 1 overall pick in last night’s Major League Draft on a surprise choice, California high school shortstop Royce Lewis. Although management had dropped no hints, a lot of Twins followers probably predicted and hoped that another California prep, pitcher-shortstop Hunter Greene, would be the choice.

But Twins president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners today that money and the likelihood of signing the club’s No. 1 pick didn’t dictate choosing Lewis who he said was at the top of Minnesota’s draft board. MLB policy allows a slot value of up to $7.7 million for the draft’s No. 1 selection. “We believe we can get a deal done with Royce for the allotted slot, but also maintain some flexibility deeper in the draft,” St. Peter said.

If Lewis signs for less than $7.7 million it will allow the Twins to potentially spend more on subsequent choices through the draft’s many rounds. But St. Peter said his club’s decision wasn’t based on saving money, and he talked enthusiastically about Lewis’ attributes including speed, potential power, leadership, charisma, and even describing Lewis as someone who “could evolve to be a face of our franchise.”

St. Peter referenced “a lot of different elements that we thought were separators for (drafting) Royce Lewis,” and that the club looked at many potential number one selections before deciding in the last 48 hours prior to Monday night’s draft to take Lewis, despite an acknowledged need for pitching in the organization. “We considered him the best player for the Minnesota Twins,” St. Peter said. “Time will tell. We are really comfortable that we have a great fit for the Twins in Royce Lewis.”

Greene was the glamour guy of the draft, playing two positions, throwing 100 miles per hour fast balls and landing this spring on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The Reds took him in the draft right after the Twins chose Lewis.

Greene was the top ranked player by Baseballamerica.com. Lewis, was ranked No. 5.  It’s interesting that the Twins used their first choice on a prospect who plays the same position as 21-year- old Nick Gordon. Gordon was the team’s No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft. Some authorities consider the young shortstop the No. 1 prospect in the Twins farm system. He is hitting .340 with the Double A Chattanooga Outlooks.

St. Peter said the Twins project Lewis as a player who can reach the majors as a shortstop. What about a potential competition some day between Gordon and Lewis to be Minnesota’s starting shortstop? “I put that in the category of a really good problem to have,” St. Peter said.

Falvey & Levine

Lewis was a player Twins evaluators have been watching for a long while and St. Peter said it was an “incredibly collaborative” decision by the club’s talent evaluators to choose Lewis. He also said that even “more voices’ than in the past were involved in the decision of what to do in the first round. That leadership is led by new baseball executives Derek Falvey and Thad Levine who St. Peter hired last fall.

Worth Noting

Twins’ 23-year-old pitcher Jose Berrios is 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA since being recalled from Triple A Rochester. He won his first Twins game May 13 and he has five of the club’s 13 wins since that date.

Lou Nanne’s left hip replacement went well last Friday and he arrived home from the hospital on Saturday, a day early. The Minnesota hockey legend has had two knee replacements, plus rotator cuff and prostate surgeries over the years following a career of playing in the NHL with the North Stars, the organization he also coached for and served as president.

Now a senior managing director for RBC, Nanne, 76, passionately follows the NHL. After watching the Stanley Cup Finals, he thinks the Wild could be close to making a deep playoff run next year.

Frank Ragnow, the Arkansas senior from Chanhassen High School, is the first team preseason All-American center choice by college football magazines Athlon and Lindy’s. Ragnow is a second team offensive line All-American by Street & Smith’s college football publication.

Athlon ranks the 21 major college coaching hires during the offseason and lists the Gophers’ P.J. Fleck as No. 2 in the country. Tom Herman, the new coach at Texas, is ranked No. 1.

Nothing has been announced but there is speculation the Gophers have extended the contract of men’s hockey coach Don Lucia beyond the 2018-2019 season. A year ago Lucia’s contract only went through the 2016-2017 season but was extended two years.

It likely won’t be long before an announcement regarding the Gophers’ opponent for a December 2018 basketball game in U.S. Bank Stadium, but one factor complicating a deal could be a return game. Minnesota may have to assure another school the Gophers will play a game on that foe’s home court at a later date.

Race Thompson

Race Thompson, the highly recruited Armstrong basketball player, leaves today for the prestigious NBPA Top 100 Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thompson, who will be a senior at Armstrong next season, reportedly isn’t close to selecting a college from a list that includes the Gophers.

Minnesota war hero and motivational speaker John Kriesel shares his story on June 28 at the Capital Club breakfast gathering at Town and Country Club in St. Paul. Years ago a roadside bomb in Iraq blew away his legs and he lost two buddies in the explosion. Kriesel is a former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. In recent months Alan Page, Lou Nanne, P.J. Fleck and Patty Wetterling have spoken to club members. More information is available about the club by contacting Patrick Klinger, Patrick@thebrandenhancementgroup.com.

Dave and Linda Mona’s annual fundraiser assisting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is July 11 at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The Wright Brothers, a favorite of Minnesota music fans, will perform in concert, and a silent auction includes items targeting sports fans. Learn more about the Camden’s Concert evening by calling 952-979-1111.

 

 

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