A Friday notes column:
Former Gopher junior linebacker Blake Weber and players from three other schools are transferring to Glenn Caruso’s St. Thomas football program. The St. Thomas coach told Sports Headliners yesterday he is “tremendously happy” to have Weber, Michael Frankl, Peder Olson and Cody Stanger joining his team.
Weber, from Prior Lake High School, played on special teams for the Gophers in nine games in 2015 after transferring from Rochester Community and Technical College. He redshirted last season, and did go through spring practice this year with the Gophers before deciding to transfer. Linebacker is perhaps Minnesota’s deepest position going into the 2017 season.
Frankl is a quarterback transfer from Iowa State, while Olson is a linebacker joining the Tommies from North Dakota State. Stanger, a defensive lineman, comes to St. Thomas from Rochester Community and Technical College. Frankl played high school football at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa, while Olson is from Maple Grove and Stanger is from Stewartville, Minnesota.
All four transfers are expected to be eligible this coming season, joining a powerhouse program that is undefeated in the MIAC the last two seasons. Caruso is 99-15 in nine seasons at St. Thomas. He has won several Division III coach of the year awards.
Athlonsports.com ranked all 130 major college football coaches this week. The Gophers’ P.J. Fleck is No. 41 on a list that has Alabama’s Nick Saban first, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer second and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh third. Among those Fleck ranks ahead of are Nebraska’s Mike Riley (46), Georgia’s Kirby Smart (65), Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin (80), Illinois’ Lovie Smith (106) and former Gophers defensive coordinator Everett Withers (127) now head coach at Texas State.
Kiffin, the Bloomington native, has his 77-year-old dad, Monte Kiffin, on the staff as a defensive assistant. Monte’s long coaching career includes eight years with the Vikings in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gophers fans followed ex-U quarterback Phil Nelson last year for his one season at East Carolina. Now the 2017 Pirates will have former Gophers defensive end Gaelin Elmore who will play his senior season for East Carolina.
Former Gophers assistant coach Tony Petersen is offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the Pirates.
Congratulations to former Gopher All-Big Ten tight end Ray Parson on his recent 70th birthday.
A crowd estimated from several hundred to a few thousand watched the Timberwolves’ Jimmy Butler news conference yesterday at the Mall of America. Many more followed live coverage on local radio and TV, and NBA TV.
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said of Butler: “He’s a great person. He’s a great leader. We’re thrilled to have him.”
Thibodeau coached Butler with the Bulls and helped take him from a late first round draft choice to an All-NBA guard. “Thibs has molded me into the player that I am today,” Butler said.
After the news conference general manager Scott Layden told Sports Headliners the Wolves are “excited” to have Ricky Rubio on the team. The veteran point guard is the subject of ongoing media speculation he will be traded because his shooting isn’t consistent enough to suit the Wolves.
Layden, though, referred to the strong play of Rubio as “incredible” in the closing months of the 2016-2017 season. Rubio’s shooting and scoring were at times the best of his six-year career. He had career highs at 11.2 points per game and field goal percentage, .402. He had 25 double-doubles during the season, with 23 in the final 45 games.
U.S. Bank Stadium, already the winner of local awards, was honored this week with the David Vickers Award for “Venue Project of the Year” in Dublin, Ireland. Part of the international Stadium Business Awards lineup, the award won by the Vikings was determined by a panel of global stadium industry leaders and online voting by stadium industry peers, according to a Vikings news release.
The award is “given to a new stadium, arena or major sports venue that opened (or re-opened after renovations) to great success between January 1, 2016 and January 27, 2017.” Among earlier awards presented to U.S. Bank Stadium was Best Sports Venue by Minnesota Meetings & Events magazine.
The expansion Minnesota United FC ranks No. 11 in average home attendance among the 22 Major League Soccer franchises, according to Wednesday figures from Soccerstadiumdigest.com. Playing at TCF Bank Stadium, Minnesota is averaging 20,115 per match so far this season. Atlanta United FC, another expansion franchise, leads the MSL in average attendance at 46,698.
The MIAC’s total of Academic All-Conference athletes for the 2016-2017 school year has set a new record of 1,033, one more than the previous year. Student-athletes must be sophomores, juniors, or seniors with a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5 on a 4.0 scale to qualify for MIAC Academic All-Conference recognition.
Local basketball fans already have incentive to watch Twin Cities Pro Am games but next month becomes even more appealing. Tyus Jones, the Timberwolves reserve point guard and 2014 Minnesota Mr. Basketball, will join brothers Tre Jones and Jadee Jones on Team Jones.
The NBA doesn’t allow players to participate in summer league games like the Twin Cities Pro Am until July. It’s then that Tyus can make undefeated Team Jones even better.
Tre is preparing for his senior season at Apple Valley High School, where Jadee, 31, has coached the junior varsity. Tre is one of the nation’s most sought after prep point guards and in a Team Jones win over Hybrid Nation on Monday night was at times the best player on the floor. That’s saying something since the first-year league has rosters filled with college and pro players on the six teams.
Tre played his first game since injuring his ankle in late May. He said “the rust” was coming off Monday night. That pleased him and so did the anticipation of playing with Tyus for the first time since Tre made the Apple Valley varsity as an eighth grader.
There’s more to the anticipation, too. “Once Tyus is back and all three of us get to be out there, that will be kind of cool,” Jadee said. “That will be the first time we’ve ever played together.”
At times all three Jones brothers will be on the floor together at the TC Pro Am games that are played at DeLaSalle High School. Jadee, who played collegiately at Mankato, profiles himself more as a shooter, while Tyus and Tre can do many things but are often praised first as playmakers.
“We really know each other’s games so it will be fun.” Jadee said. “We’ve talked a lot about it. Get a chance to be out there together. Can’t wait until we can make it happen.”
The Team Jones roster also includes Gophers sophomore forwards Eric Curry (now with short hair) and Michael Hurt. Even without Tyus, Team Jones is 3-0 so far on a league schedule that started June 19 and continues for several more weeks. Should Team Jones be made the favorite to have the best regular season record and win the playoffs?
“I don’t know if you can put it on us yet,” Jadee said. “See how we do once Tyus comes…but we really like our team.”
Pro Am Notes
The draw for many fans attending the free games of the Pro Am league is the Gophers players including incoming freshman Isaiah Washington. Known for flashy moves and shots, the New York City point guard might have a skillset unlike any player who has ever been a Gopher. The best comparison could be with Ray Williams, the former Gopher guard-forward, also from New York, who dazzled crowds at Williams Arena in the 1970s before playing in the NBA.
Washington has made an early impression on Pro Am commissioner Jamar Diggs. “He is a special athlete,” Diggs said.
Former Gopher Trevor Mbakwe, who plays for Hybrid Nation, was asked if Washington’s flamboyant style might make it more difficult for the former New York City Mr. Basketball to fit in with older teammates. “I am sure there’s going to be times when Nate (Mason) is going to have to bring him to the side to do something. Change what he’s doing, but I don’t think that‘s going to be an issue at all (fitting in),” Mbakwe said. “We have great upperclassmen.”
Mason plays in the Pro Am league for Hybrid Nation so he isn’t on Washington’s N1 Motion team that includes Gopher Jordan Murphy, but as a senior point guard Mason’s job will be to mentor the freshman. Monday night he sat next to Washington on the bench during N1 Motion’s game against Diggs Team.
Washington looked disinterred in playing defense in the game but earlier in the evening Diggs cautioned about making too much of any player’s profile in Pro Am games. “To be honest, this is glorified pickup (basketball),” Diggs said. “No matter who comes in here, you can’t notice too much what’s going on. It’s not a college game. It’s not a professional game.”
Mbakwe, though, has picked up on the excitement of fans about Washington. “We’re lucky to have him here,” Mbakwe said.
Mbakwe stays in touch with former Gopher teammates including Royce White, who is trying to make a comeback after being an NBA No. 1 draft choice in 2012. “He’s a hell of a player,” Mbakwe said.
So good, Mbakwe contends, that White is worth a $100 million contract in the NBA. And Mbakwe compares White, a versatile scoring, rebounding and playmaking forward with Draymond Green, a star front court player on the NBA champion Warriors. “What Draymond Green is doing right now, Royce could be doing,” Mbakwe said.
Mbakwe and Diggs both played professionally overseas last season. Mbakwe was in St. Petersburg, Russia but isn’t sure about where he will be next season. Diggs, who was a high school standout at DeLaSalle, was MVP in the Lithuania League and is also sorting out plans while running the Pro Am league he organized.
A Sunday notes column with the Twins leading off:
The Twins are a surprise contender for the American League Central Division title, and this morning were only a half game out of first place. The turnaround from 2016 when Minnesota finished with a 59-103 record doesn’t predict, however, whether the front office will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline July 31.
Club president Dave St. Peter told Sports Headliners on Friday it’s too early to determine what direction the franchise will go with its roster by the end of July, and even in August when MLB teams can still make moves through waiver deals. He made it clear that whatever course the club determines will be decided by Derek Falvey, the chief baseball officer who was hired last fall.
“We’ll try to do what’s best for our club,” St. Peter said. “I have great confidence in Derek Flavey to lead that decision making process. … It’s a little early to get into where we stand in that. Obviously our club has been competitive but it’s also obvious we have a lot of work to do.”
Falvey and others involved with the Twins leadership, including general manager Thad Levine, are taking a long-term view in rebuilding the franchise. While it’s a positive to be playing above .500 with a 38-34 record, the goal is to become a consistent winner that can deliver championships. The Twins have holes on their roster, including at times an alarming lack of quality pitching. The farm system only has a couple of prospects who will make top 100 lists of baseball’s most promising players.
“There are a lot of positives with this (current roster) group of players,” St. Peter commented. “That said, we’ve also seen challenges and we need to find ways to get better. I am optimistic that Derek is going to explore every avenue going forward, and not just in the short-term but probably more importantly over the long-term.”
On July 22 the Twins celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 World Series championship team during a pregame ceremony at Target Field before Minnesota plays the Tigers. That Twins won the first world title by a Minnesota pro sports team since the 1954 Minneapolis Lakers were NBA champs.
The 1965 Twins were in the World Series, the 1981 North Stars reached the Stanley Cup Finals, and the Vikings lost four times in Super Bowls in the 1970s, but St. Peter said Upper Midwest sports fans are “eternally grateful to that group (the ’87 Twins) for actually bringing home a world championship.”
The ’87 team wasn’t a preseason favorite to reach the World Series. Part of the love affair for fans with that team was how they surprised most everyone with their success. “It’s by far, in my opinion, the most popular group-team in Minnesota sports history,” said St. Peter who expects many members of the team to be in Minneapolis for the reunion.
Earlier this year the Twins’ Eduardo Escobar represented the club in a cow milking contest against the Angels’ Blake Parker in Anaheim. St. Peter said a milking contest could be part of his franchise’s plans for next season and help celebrate agriculture.
Asked about potential Twins to participate, St. Peter identified Escobar and Chris Gimenez who he said was known as a “decent milker” while participating in cow milking with other clubs. Years ago the promotion was popular at Met Stadium.
It’s not believed (just kidding) cow milking skills or experience will be factors in determining the Twins’ roster coming out of spring training in 2018.
Longtime Wolves followers might wonder about the reported relationship between Jimmy Butler and coach Fred Hoiberg during the last two seasons in Chicago. Butler, the All-Star small forward traded to the Wolves last week, was apparently critical and challenging of Hoiberg’s coaching. Hoiberg, who played for the Wolves and worked for the organization years ago, is a terrific person and classy guy.
Westgate sports book moved the Wolves from 100-1 to 60-1 to win next year’s NBA title after the Minnesota-Chicago trade, according to a Friday online story by Todd Dewey for the Las Vegas Review–Journal. The Bulls’ odds went from 100-1 to 200-1.
Athlon Sports is celebrating 50 years since its inception and its Big Ten football magazine now on newsstands includes a feature ranking the 50 top college players dating back to 1967. Minneapolis’ Larry Fitzgerald Jr., the wide receiver who played at Pittsburgh, is No. 23. Former Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss, who scored at least one touchdown in each of his college games at Marshall, is No. 22. Running back Herschel Walker, who also played for the Vikings and won the Heisman Trophy while leading Georgia to the national championship, is No. 1 on the list.
Teddy Bridgewater’s rehabilitation of his knee is ongoing but optimism about his chances of playing quarterback again for the Vikings is more certain than several months ago.
Jennifer Hines, tournament director for the 3M Championship, is one of three women in the country directing PGA tournaments. Another director is Hines’ sister, Tracy West, with the Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor, Florida.
This year’s 3M Championship is July 31-August 6 at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine. Jack Nicklaus will be among the golf legends expected to play in a special event. Joe Durant won the tournament last year. Admission is free all week.
Creative Charters, the Stillwater-based fan tour company, is offering a package with more than football for the Gophers game on September 9 in Corvallis against Oregon State. The trip includes activities on the Oregon coast with fishing, whale watching, wine tasting and more. Details at Creativecharter.com.
The 29th annual Bruce Smith Golf Classic last Monday at Faribault Golf Club included former Gophers Seth Helgeson, Darrell Thompson and Ben Utecht. The fundraising event benefits Faribault schools and has generated about $225,000 over the years. It honors Bruce Smith, the Faribault native who won the 1941 Heisman Trophy playing for the Gophers.
Kaitlin Langer, who finished her senior season at St. Thomas as the D3Hoops.com Player of the Year, majored in real estate studies and is “affiliated with a RE/MAX office in Rosemount,” according to the latest issue of the University of St. Thomas magazine.