Notes on the Gophers, Twins, Vikings and Wild:
John Cunningham, the athletic department administrator who oversees University of Minnesota basketball, said the Gophers don’t know the opponent they will be able to schedule for their December of 2018 game at U.S. Bank Stadium, but he is aiming high. “We’re going to get the best opponent that we can get,” he told Sports Headliners.
Coach Richard Pitino’s team is participating in the trial run game for the April 2019 Final Four scheduled for the new stadium. Minnesota is the host school for the 2019 Final Four and in December of next year they will play the first college game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Local and out of town NCAA representatives will observe and critique the setup for the U.S. Bank Stadium game that will preview by only a few months the 2019 Final Four to determine the men’s national champion.
For awhile the plan was to stage the Gophers game in December of 2017 but Cunningham said it became apparent the timeline for scheduling was too tight. “We felt like we could get a better opponent by moving it back one year,” he said.
U.S. Bank Stadium will also be the site of the 2020 NCAA wrestling championship, the first time the event has ever been staged at a non-arena venue.
Cunningham reported via email today the Gophers have sold over 400 new season tickets for men’s basketball. “Well above where we were last year at this time,” he wrote.
There are various basketball top 25 rankings for next season and they are paying attention to the Gophers. Athlonsports.com put out a top 25 and among Big Ten schools, only Michigan State at No. 13 was ahead of No. 17 Minnesota in the website’s rankings last Wednesday.
Lou Nanne endorses the evaluations of other authorities regarding former Eden Prairie star Casey Mittelstadt who is the state’s 2017 Mr. Hockey and will play for the Gophers next season. Nanne believes the talented forward will be selected among the first 22 players in the June NHL Draft, perhaps going in the top 15. He projects Mittelstadt as some day being an “excellent pro” but sees him maturing in college for a couple of seasons.
Dick Jonckowski, who finished his 31st and final season last month as Gopher basketball public address announcer, will be roasted by the Minnesota Minute Men starting at noon Friday, May 5 at Jax Café. Scheduled roasters include Vikings executive Lester Bagley, former Gophers football star Jim Carter and WCHA men’s commissioner Bill Robertson. More information is available by calling Terry Sullivan, 952-451-2104, or at Minnesotaminutemen.com.
Gene Taylor’s name was mentioned over a year ago as a possible candidate for the Gophers athletic director vacancy. Taylor, the former North Dakota State AD who was deputy athletics director at Iowa, has been hired to run Kansas State’s athletic department at a starting salary of $450,000 per year, according to an online story Monday by the Topeka Capital-Journal. That’s $400,000 less than Gophers AD Mark Coyle earns.
Word is fundraising for the Gophers Athletes Village now under construction is over $100 million. The projected cost is $166 million.
Don’t bet the title to your lake home but it’s difficult to believe the Wild won’t win tonight’s Game 4 against the Blues in St. Louis. Coach Bruce Boudreau’s Minnesota team trails 0-3 in the best of seven series but could have won any of three close games. Odds now seem to favor the Wild.
Home ice is no guarantee of victory in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Wild is 0-2 at home in the Blues series and last season lost two of three games at Xcel Energy Center in a playoff series the Stars won 4-2.
Three of the 20 highest paid NHL players are in the Wild-Blues series, according to Spotrac.com. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise from the Wild each earn $7,538,642 and are tied for the 17th highest salaries this season. Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues, who earns $7,500,000, is tied for 19th with two other players.
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison, who turns 34 on April 27 and is saying he may retire after the 2018 season, is married to Jayme Miller, an accomplished rodeo barrel racer. She attended college on a rodeo scholarship.
J.D. Spielman, son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, caught a touchdown pass in the Nebraska spring game last weekend and could be an impact player as a receiver for the Cornhuskers next fall after redshirting as a freshman in 2016.
The Vikings Miller Lite DraftFest will be at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 29. The tailgate-themed event is from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and will provide fans the opportunity to meet Vikings players and alumni, while watching rounds four through six of the NFL Draft.
Vikings scheduled to appear throughout the day are linebacker Kentrell Brothers, wide receivers Stefon Diggs and Isaac Fruechte, defensive end Everson Griffen and tight end David Morgan. Ex-Vikings running back Chuck Foreman and safety Paul Krause also plan to attend. A complete schedule of player appearances can be found at Vikings.com closer to the event, which requires paid admissions for adults and teens.
After last night’s win by the Indians over the Twins, Minnesota has now lost three consecutive games for the first time this season. The Twins, 7-7, have lost six of their last eight and are mostly drawing crowds of under 20,000 at Target Field.
Twins third baseman Miguel Sano hit his fourth home run of the season last night. He hasn’t gone more than four games this year without homering.
Malagacy, whose sister Classy Shackles is a Minnesota bred racehorse, has qualified for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby May 7. Advance wagering on the Derby at Canterbury Park starts May 4.
NHL authority Lou Nanne was asked if the Wild can come back to win their opening playoff series against the Blues. “The statistics are really bad against you, but four teams have done it,” Nanne told Sports Headliners. “You just gotta hope you’re the fifth.”
The Wild trail 3-0 in the best of seven series after yesterday’s loss in St. Louis. Nanne, who was a player, coach, general manager and president of the old Minnesota North Stars, referred to four teams in NHL history that came back from 3-0 deficits to win in a playoff series.
The Wild has lost games by scores of 2-1 twice and 3-1 yesterday. Nanne is “very surprised” the Wild are winless in three games and thought Minnesota would defeat St. Louis in the series. The key difference in the series, Nanne believes, is the goaltending, with Blues goalie Jake Allen out-performing the Wild’s Devan Dubnyk. “This guy (Allen) is giving you nothing,” Nanne said. “He’s playing terrific.”
Allen has stopped 114 of 117 shots in the series from becoming goals. “He’s just been excellent right now,” Nanne said. “You just gotta hope that it changes.”
The Wild had a regular season record second only to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference and was a favorite earlier this month to make the Stanley Cup Finals. Now Minnesota will be desperate for a win Wednesday evening and try for step one in a miracle comeback. Obviously the Wild need to score more goals, but Nanne also believes Dubnyk has to play better.
“They (the Wild) gotta make sure they cut down the chances they give up,” Nanne said. “Dubnky has gotta make sure he doesn’t give up a bad goal. These last two games there’s been a goal a game he should have had. You gotta have them. St. Louis is not giving up those kind of goals. You can’t, then.”
Any other advice for Wednesday night? “Just keep playing hard is the main thing,” Nanne said. “You gotta play hard every shift.”
The Wild isn’t living up to the potential Sports Illustrated headlined in its latest issue. The six-page story began like this: “The State of Hockey, AKA Minnesota, has never won a Stanley Cup, but with a fiery coach, a resilient core and some homegrown stars, the Wild are giving their loyal fans hope.”
Another feature in the issue included “what if” scenarios for various prominent sports figures, imagining different outcomes in their careers. Included was a photo of legendary college basketball coach John Wooden wearing a Gophers jacket. Back in the 1950s Wooden chose UCLA over the Gophers when Minnesota officials called him later than he anticipated because of a snowstorm and telephone issues. Wooden had already accepted the UCLA job and chose not to go back on his word, even though he was attracted to Minnesota including because of his Midwestern roots.
Don Lucia lost a longtime coaching rival when Red Berenson retired after 33 seasons at Michigan. Berenson retired earlier this month and Lucia recalled that Michigan defeated his Colorado College team in overtime in 1996 for the national championship. “He owes me a ring,” Lucia said with a laugh.
When Lucia had moved on to the Gophers, the two schools met in Frozen Four games. “…I was able to get my revenge in ‘02 and ‘03 because both those years we beat Michigan in the semis,” Lucia told Sports Headliners.
Lucia has long admired Berenson for his competitiveness and professionalism. Lucia thought the Big Ten coaching legend might even retire a year ago. “There was always speculation. I mean, hey, let’s be honest. Not many guys are coaching when they’re 77 years old.”
Lucia, 58, has been the Gophers coach since 1999 and has a contract with two more seasons. No date has been scheduled but he expects to meet sometime this spring with athletic director Mark Coyle. Adding a year or more to Lucia’s deal certainly could be part of discussions. “More is always better than less in any industry,” Lucia said.
Lucia has been conducting meetings with his players and doesn’t expect to lose any underclassmen to the pros other than junior defenseman Ryan Collins. “I’d be very surprised if anything else happened. …I think we’re pretty much getting our group set for next year.”
The Gophers have elected captains for next season but Lucia said an announcement date hasn’t been scheduled.
The Gophers spring football game on Saturday drew several thousand spectators including school president Eric Kaler, and major athletic department donors Dick Ames, and John and Nancy Lindahl.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck used the game as a recruiting tool for his 2018 class that already has 10 verbal commits and is so far No. 11 in the nation, according to 247Sports composite rankings.
Stanley Jackson, the Big Ten Network color commentator who analyzed the spring game, said during the telecast the Gophers are a “dark horse” candidate to win the West Division next fall.
Free tickets are being offered to state high school and college head football coaches for the 10th annual Minnesota Football Honors event May 7 at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Minnesota Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame is hosting the event, and making six tickets per school available upon request. Coaches needing more information can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the Twins have lost two of their last three games, during that period Minnesota’s starting pitchers have a 0.43 ERA. Preseason Central Division favorite Cleveland is in Minneapolis starting tonight for a four game series.
Notes on the Twins, Gophers, MIAC and horse racing:
Byron Buxton, the Twins 23-year-old centerfielder who has failed as a hitter in parts of two previous years with the Twins, is striking out at an alarming rate during the first two weeks of the season.
Buxton has struck out 19 times in 34 plate appearances—an eye-catching 56 percent of his at bats. He has three hits and a batting average of .088.
In 298 at bats last season he struck out almost 40 percent of the time while hitting .225. In 2015 it was 34 percent of his plate appearances, along with an average of .209.
Buxton looks overmatched by big league pitching, frequently not able to make solid contact when his bat does put the ball in play. If he receives enough plate appearances he could threaten Miguel Sano’s team record for striking out the most times in one season, 178. While Sano struck out 40 percent of the time last year, he also hit 25 home runs with 66 RBI as part of his .236 average.
Buxton has never approached that kind of production with the Twins, but his fielding has often been spectacular. He has already made plays this season that have both teammates and fans applauding. He hasn’t been producing runs but he has been saving them.
Buxton is an asset running the bases, too, but his dismal hitting performance will have to improve if manager Paul Molitor is going to start him everyday. It’s understandable that a young hitter like Buxton will struggle early in his career but it’s difficult to remember a player looking as feeble as Buxton who then went on to stardom. Such a future has long been predicted for the Georgia native who the Twins made the second player selected in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Buxton was one of nine players who had at least one hit yesterday when the Twins had their most productive run scoring of the season, winning 11-5 against the Tigers. Buxton had a bunt single in five at bats, including two strikeouts, as the Twins continued their impressive start to the season. Minnesota, 6-3, plays the White Sox at Target Field tonight.
The Gophers spring football game at TCF Bank Stadium starts at noon Saturday, and will be telecast later by the Big Ten Network beginning at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free for the game which is expected to last about two hours. Then, head coach P.J. Fleck and players will sign autographs on the field for 30 minutes.
Former Gophers football star Jim Carter told Sports Headliners that Wake Forest defensive coordinator Jay Sawvell has reached out to Mike Sherels for input. Sawvell was the Gophers defensive coordinator last season when Sherels worked for him as linebackers coach. Sherels dealt with life-threatening health issues in 2016.
The defensive preparation by the Gophers and the upset win over heavily favored Washington State in the Holiday Bowl last December represents one of the great coaching jobs in U history. My opinion is the 17-12 win over the Cougars was the second best Gophers bowl win ever—with only the 1962 Rose Bowl victory against UCLA more impressive.
For the 15th time in 16 years, Saint John’s led Division III football schools in average attendance per game, 7,787. Bethel finished 11th nationally in per game attendance at 4,201. The MIAC, for the sixth consecutive year, led Division III conferences in average, 3,193.
The Gophers basketball team is being mentioned for preseason top 25 rankings and possibly a Big Ten championship in 2018. Minnesota coach Richard Pitino acknowledged that in his April 6 blog on Gophersports.com.
“Expectations will be sky-high going into next season,” he wrote.
Pitino is looking forward to coaching Texas A&M transfer Davonte Fitzgerald who missed last season with the Gophers because of a torn ACL. “When healthy, he shows flashes of being our best player,” Pitino wrote about the 6-8 forward. “There were times last year that he blocked just as many shots as (center) Reggie (Lynch). He’s getting healthy and working hard in his rehab. Will look at him at the 3 and the 4 next season. Great versatility!”
Former Gophers playing pro basketball overseas include Andre Hollins, Braunschweig (Germany); DeAndre Mathieu, Valga (Estonia); Trevor Mbakwe, Zenit (Russia); Carlos Morris, Oliveirense (Portugal); and Maurice Walker, Worcester (Great Britain).
Collegehockeyinc.com reported Wednesday that a record 307 players from NCAA schools—or 32 percent—appeared in NHL games during the 2016-2017 season. The Gophers have 18 alums: Nick Bjugstad, Alex Goligoski, Seth Helgeson, Hudson Fasching, Eric Haula, Eric Johnson, Phil Kessel, Nick Leddy, Paul Martin, Aaron Ness, Kyle Okposo, Kyle Rau, Mike Reilly, Nate Schmidt, Jordan Schroeder, Brady Skjei, Thomas Vanek and Blake Wheeler.
Arizona State’s hockey program appears likely to make a commitment to the WCHA this summer, with league games starting in the 2018-2019 season.
Canterbury Park opens its live horse racing season on May 5 and will also have racing May 6—the same day as the 143rd Kentucky Derby. This will be the first time since 2008 the Shakopee racetrack has offered live racing on Derby Day which annually attracts more wagering dollars than any other day at Canterbury. Combined wagering, including from various simulcast sites and live racing at Canterbury, is expected to exceed $1.5 million this year. Advance wagering at Canterbury for the Kentucky Derby starts May 4.