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Spring '10 Mutterings

By Jeff Mayfield

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[May 06, 2010]  Sorry for the delay in getting back to you sports fans. It's been a busy spring with way too much work on the plate, and we need to get caught up on the world of sports locally and everywhere else. I did try to send you some updates from the Final Four in Indianapolis, but they never made it to post... They must've wound up in cyberspace somewhere, and for that I apologize. Let's jump right in and get up to speed...

Railer basketball: putting the decade into perspective

As I've traveled more of Illinois and now into Wisconsin, I see why people might get a little tired of Lincoln. Especially of Railer basketball. They know they have to have an almost perfect game to derail our hoopsters. I also know that several high schools would give just about anything to have just one year like the Railers string together EVERY year.

I think what Neil Alexander and his staff have put together over the years is nothing short of astounding. It will be talked about 50-100 years from now even if there are some who don't appreciate it now. Over the course of the last 10 years the Railers have not just had successful teams. They have not just had teams that have had occasional 20-win seasons... still the national barometer for a great season. The Railers have averaged MORE than 20 victories a year over that time span. Actually, if my math is correct, they've averaged over 25 wins a season. In fact, they had only one year when they didn't make 20 wins, and coincidentally it was the only year they finished under .500! That... is pretty incredible!

Including this campaign's solid season, let's take a look at what the boys have accomplished during this remarkable run:





















The only comments I want to make about this stellar run are these: Most of this is done in a very tough league -- the Central State Eight. And, the Railers get every team's best shot EVERY night. It makes a team's year, sometimes their history, IF they can beat Lincoln just once. To me that is amazing. That is dominance!


Oh, and one last thing... Coach Alexander, who just happens to be the winningest coach in Lincoln Railer history with a record of 429-142, has now tied another great Lincoln coach, Loren Wallace, for most average wins per season at 22.6! Alexander will soon topple the all-time winning percentage record, assuming his teams continue to execute like this. All we can say is that the LDN tips its proverbial hat to the coach and his players. Nice going, fellas! It's GREAT to be a Railer!

Cleaning up the college basketball year

I guess covering and following the Illini this past season and being asked to come up with a description of the season, only one word would do justice. Disappointing. I saw glimmers of hope early in the year, but I didn't see a sense of urgency, and ultimately that bit this team in the rear.

They did finally muster an all-out effort at the Big Ten tourney. However, it was not without some controversy. Sitting near the team for two days, it appeared that the league wanted one of their teams (I'll let you figure out which one) to get a very high if not a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance. There were just a lot of weird things that happened that it appeared to not be a coincidence.

I can give you one small example. I thought that Illinois totally outplayed Ohio State in their semifinal game. But that wasn't the final outcome. I guess it happens, but it just left a bad taste in my mouth. That's just one man's opinion, and I admit that I may be just a little too blind to see it objectively, but c'mon!

At any rate, the Men in Orange did put together a nice little run in the NIT and hopefully got some work in for next year. Though it is possible, I just don't think they will be quite as snakebitten next season. I will hold my collective breath and I will not tout them early in the campaign until they show us what they can do, but I am hopeful of a really decent season. Couldn't we all just use one?

The Final Four was at least a place for me to go to forget my Illini frustrations. Of course that didn't happen, but it wasn't due to lack of effort. My colleague and former assistant coach Craig Zastrow could not stay the whole weekend in Indianapolis, the site of this year's basketball championship. My son stepped in and volunteered for the assignment. This was his first Final Four.

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My first Final Four didn't come about until I was 31 years old. At that age I was almost too old to appreciate it. Payne at 9 years old was at the perfect age to get everything out of it.

The plan was for him to attend the semifinal games with me and then return to my wife and her family for Easter and spring break. However, he figured out right away that the championship game would be on Monday, and since he was on break, why not stay a couple more days and be waited on hand and foot?! One day or one game usually maxes out his senses and he almost can't stand himself after that much fun. But he was so good that I told my wife that it was OK with me if he wanted to stay.

So, it was off to the championship game to see the upstart locals, the Butler Bulldogs, take on the Goliaths of Duke University. It also didn't hurt that he got to sit next to two kids about his same age who were sons of a D-1 coach that I know.

It was a great game. In fact, it was a much better game than I had prepared him for, as I thought that the Blue Devils would blow them out. He got very worked up and almost had an anxiety attack during the final two minutes, so there is still room for growth. A final half-court heave very nearly dropped that would've allowed us to see perhaps the most historic Final Four championship game in history. As it was, we had a memorable trip and something that I'll never forget!

Central Division baseball is not over yet

Some of my friends have called or e-mailed to congratulate the Cardinals on winning the Central Division. Now if they want to mail that in, I'll take it, but there's still a lot of baseball left. As we go to post, here's what the divisional standings look like:






St. Louis





Chicago Cubs

























Yes, the Cardinals are off to a good start, but y'all know that baseball is a marathon; it is never a sprint. As the weather warms up even more, things will settle down and we'll see more of what some of these teams are capable of. I still think that the Cubs will push St. Louis a little bit, and I really like what the Reds have done in building their club.

For those of you who haven't been paying any attention to MLB yet this year, you may be wondering how the Cards have gotten off to such a good start. The casual fan would point to Pujols or Holliday, the everyday lineup, etc. But the reality is that while we knew, or at least hoped, that the starting pitching would be decent, it has been downright phenomenal! With Adam Wainwright's fantastic start on Tuesday night that dropped his ERA from 2.13 to 1.96, the Cardinal staff has achieved something that hasn't been seen in over 30 years! It was the starting staff's 13th consecutive quality start (a game where the starter hurls at least six innings and gives up three or less runs). The last time that happened for St. Louis was in 1973. I probably followed them more closely then than I do now, and I sure don't remember the '73 team doing that! The Cards staff currently leads ALL major league teams with a 2.56 ERA. Let's just say that if they keep that up, then I really like their chances this season!


This 'n' that

Congratulations to Kirk Whiteman and the Lincoln College Lynx on winning their first men's basketball national championship! I think they made a Final Four appearance last season but brought home the bacon this year. Nice going, guys!

It made me remember that coach Allen Pickering brought home a national runner-up finish several years back with one of the best junior college teams I have ever seen. Those were the days.

The Illini football squad had a good showing at their annual spring game. The Orange, comprised mostly of starters, took down the Blue 24-6. I wish we had a traditional schedule, but once again the Illini will have to beat some tough teams to turn things around in 2010. I'm all for it and am hoping for the best.

That's it for me, folks, on this installment. Make it great one, everybody!


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