Tuesday, February 24, 2009

So, Where Does It Rate?

Last night’s monumental win by A&M over No. 2 Oklahoma begs the question: how does the landmark victory stack up in the Aggies’ all-time record book? “Best-Ever” lists are hard to compile, particularly when A&M’s flashes of success have come in such different times. So, to make this list, I only considered games played in the modern era, which for all intents and purposes began with Gary Blair’s arrival in College Station.

Previous teams captured some special victories (the 1994 team made the Sweet 16; the 1996 team beat ranked Texas and Texas Tech to win the SWC Tournament; and the 2002 team upended No. 5 Iowa State and No. 14 Texas) but I only looked at games since 2003-04 to compile this list.

No. 19 Texas A&M 60, No. 9 Baylor 52 (1/13/07)

The Aggies had lost 27 straight to ranked opponents heading into this Reed Arena showdown with top-10 Baylor. A&M rallied from an early 17-5 deficit to whip the crowd of 8,886 fans into a frenzy. After the game, Gary Blair told the media “it’s time for people to understand we’ve got a program here.” How right he was.

5) No. 14 Texas A&M 67, Texas 60 (2/28/07)
The stars lined up perfectly for the Aggies on the final night of the regular season—a home game against rival Texas, where an A&M win would clinch a conference crown. The Aggies didn’t play their best game of the year, but they played well enough to hold off the struggling Longhorns down the stretch. The post-game celebration was extra sweet, as coaches, players and even a few fans cut down the nets for the first time (and, to date, the only time) in Reed Arena history.

4) No. 12 A&M 57, No. 2 Oklahoma 56 (2/23/09)
Wait, so the Aggies just knocked off the highest-ranked opponent in school history, and the accomplishment doesn’t even make the top three? I struggled with placing this tremendous moment so low, but my caveat is that what happens the rest of the season could easily catapult this game much higher. When you consider the Aggies pulled this off with one of their main contributors in foul trouble and another with health (and foul) issues, it’s certainly a fair argument to say this is ranked too low. Takia Starks’ game-winning shot with five seconds left might go down as the greatest play in school history.

3) No. 3 Tennessee 53, No. 8 A&M 45 (4/1/08)
This game had more on the line than any other contest in program history, and it was a study in contrasting styles—the dean of women’s coaches in Pat Summitt and her dozen high-school All-Americans against Gary Blair and his band of unheralded scrappers. The Aggies more than held their own for the first 35 minutes of the game, cobbled together a five point lead late in the second half against the defending national champs. The much deeper and more talented Lady Vols eventually won and claimed another national title, but A&M won over a lot of fans and a ton of national credit with this Elite Eight near-miss.

2) No. 21 A&M 54, No. 6 Oklahoma 52 (1/27/07)
The fact that this is the only true road game on the list is what bumps it up to such a lofty perch. Oklahoma had finished a perfect 16-0 in league play the season before and was riding a 24-game league unbeaten streak. The Aggies battled the Sooners possession for possession and needed one last defensive stop to seal the win. Danielle Gant, playing in her home state, blocked a 3-pointer at the buzzer, stunning the 11,000-plus in the Noble Center and giving A&M its first road win over a ranked team since at least 1994. As an added bonus, the closing moments of the game were shown live inside Reed Arena, where a large crowd was awaiting the tip-off of an A&M men’s game. Pandemonium ensued inside Reed after Gant’s block, and the Aggies officially took their place at the Big 12’s head table.

1) No. 8 A&M 77, No. 9 Duke 63 (3/30/08)
Loud-talking Duke entered this Sweet 16 match-up against A&M with a touch of arrogance, as players told the media leading up to the game that they weren’t too worried about overcoming the Aggies’ high-pressure defense. Second-seeded A&M took control from the outset and never trailed past the three-minute mark in the first half. As it turned out, Duke’s offense was outclassed all night, and the Aggies ran away with the victory. For the first time ever, A&M was one win away from the Final Four.

Would you order these differently? Would you include different games in your top five? Should I have included last year’s Big 12 Tournament finals win against Oklahoma State? Post a comment or shoot me an email — true@12thmanfoundation.com — and let me know your thoughts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

.900 – Batting average this weekend for sophomore Caleb Shofner. Shofner reached base on 15 of his 16 plate appearances, scored 11 runs and tallied five RBIs.

14 – Strikeouts recorded by pitcher Alex Wilson in just 6 2/3 innings Saturday. Wilson allowed only three hits and one baserunner through the first six innings. His 14 Ks were the most by an A&M pitcher since 2004.

9 – Walks allowed by A&M pitchers in 36 innings. The Aggies held Wright State to a .207 batting average to help claim the four-game series sweep.

21 – Career-high in points for Chinemelu Elonu in the Aggies’ 79-73 win over Texas Tech on Saturday. Elonu also pulled down 12 rebounds.

5 – Consecutive victories over Texas for the women’s basketball team. A&M completed the season sweep of the Horns on Saturday with a 76-65 win.

12 – Consecutive games for Takia Starks to score in double figures. Starks, who had 18 points against Texas, has score in double figures in all of the Aggies’ Big 12 contests.

25 – Runs in two Friday games for the softball team in Houston. A&M rolled to a 14-2 win against Northern Illinois and an 11-1 victory over Prairie View A&M. On Saturday, the Aggies knocked off No. 18 Houston on the Cougars’ home field.

16-under – The final-round score for the men’s golf team in Wahiawa, Hawaii, enough to erase an eight shot deficit and claim the team title in the Burns Intercollegiate. Freshman Geoff Shaw led the last-day charge, firing a six-under par 66 in his first college tournament.

16 – Combined number of goals and assists for freshmen Beth West and Jennifer Kmezich in A&M’s annual spring 7v7 tournament. The Aggies finished the weekend with a 3-0 record after convincing wins over Rice, Houston and North Texas.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Armed For Omaha

Column by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

Twenty years ago this month, one of the best Texas A&M baseball teams in school history began a remarkable run to No. 1. Ten years later, another great A&M team began a memorable and magical journey to Omaha.

This year, the Aggies will mark those anniversaries by fielding what could be the school’s best team ever.

Seriously folks. The 2009 Aggies are not merely capable of making it to the College World Series; they are capable of dog-piling on the spongy infield grass of Rosenblatt Stadium and painting Omaha maroon.

Repeat after me: The Aggies are legitimate national title contenders.

That sounds sweeter than a double butterscotch milkshake at Zesto’s, the famous dairy-whip stand across from the parking lot of Rosenblatt.

The current team will probably not produce outlandish offensive numbers of the ’89 or ’99 squads. The ’89 Aggies, for example, scored 635 runs—119 more than last year’s solid offensive team. And the ’99 Aggies blasted 125 home runs—37 more than any other team in school history.

The hearts of those lineups were phenomenal, feared and freakishly good. John Byington, Terry Taylor, Chuck Knoblauch and Eric Albright were absolute mashers in ’89. John Scheschuk, Daylan Holt, Dell Lindsey and Steven Truitt turned Olsen Field into a launching pad in 1999.

Led by centerfielder Kyle Colligan and first baseman Luke Anders, the 2009 Aggies appear to be an extremely solid offensive team that will test and torment opponents. Brodie Greene, Kevin Gonzalez, Nick Fleece and Nick Anders will also provide plenty of firepower for third base coach Matt Deggs, who specializes in creating chaos on the base paths and forcing foes into mistakes.

It should be a productive and entertaining offense. But offense is not the reason that this team will start the season ranked No. 1 nationally by Baseball America. Unlike the ’89 and ’99 teams, these Aggies are not built around offense.

The top three reasons this could be the best team in country and the best in A&M history are:

1. Pitching.
2. Pitching.
3. More pitching.

Last year, the Aggies won 46 games. This year, A&M returns pitchers who were responsible for 41 of those victories—89 percent of them.

The entire weekend rotation from last year—Friday starter Brooks Raley (7-2, 4.76 ERA), Saturday starter Barret Loux (6-2, 4.18 ERA) and Sunday starter Clayton Ehlert (6-2, 3.41 ERA)—is back. So are the top relievers: Kyle Thebeau (6-5, 2.12 ERA), Travis Starling (8-2, 3.70 ERA, nine saves), Scott Migl (3-3, 4.26 ERA), Shane Minks (4-1, 3.27 ERA) and Hank Robertson (1-0, 3.75 ERA).

Then there are youngsters like freshmen Denny Clement and Ross Hales, both of whom may prove to have “weekend stuff.”

The wildcard may be Alex Wilson, Baseball America’s 2006 National Freshman Pitcher of the Year at Winthrop. Wilson turned down a significant, six-figure contract offer from the Chicago Cubs last summer because he believes he can be better than a 10th-round draft pick. He also believes this team has national title talent.

Wilson dazzled scouts in the Cape Cod League last summer with his 98 mph fastball. He’s also proven in tough venues. He baffled some of the best teams in college baseball as a true freshman in 2006, beating nationally ranked Miami, Alabama, Clemson and Coastal Carolina on their home fields.

But here’s the true indication of just how good the A&M staff is in 2009: Wilson is not a lock to be a weekend starter.

“When you look at it on paper, the rotation that Coach (Rob) Childress has put together is really amazing,” said former A&M pitcher Mark Thurmond. “They obviously have to go out and prove that they are as good as they look on paper, but based on what I know, I think it could very well be the deepest pitching staff we’ve ever had.”

Thurmond was an anchor on an amazing staff in the late 1970s. He and teammate Mark Ross still hold the record for most career wins at A&M with 34 each from 1976-79. Thurmond, who would go on to start the first game of the 1984 World Series for the San Diego Padres, also holds A&M records for most career shutouts (11), lowest career conference ERA (1.61) and most complete conference games in a career (20).

“Those were obviously much different times,” Thurmond said. “Back then, (former A&M head coach) Tom Chandler would hand you the ball to start the game and say, ‘I’ll see you when the game is over.’ We didn’t have the closers and situational guys that you see today. So, we were certainly not as deep as these guys are today.

“Coach Childress has done an amazing job of grooming these guys, teaching the guys how to pitch and building the entire staff. It sure looks like the kind of staff that can get you to Omaha and keep you there.”

Trey Moore, the owner of Extra Innings baseball training center off of Highway 30 in College Station, knows something about taking a team to Omaha. In 1993, Moore and Jeff Granger headlined a stellar staff that helped A&M win 53 games and make it to the CWS.

During the season, Moore went 12-0 with a 2.77 ERA, while Granger went 15-3 with a 2.62 ERA. The ’93 Aggies also featured some impressive depth behind the top two weekend starters. Kelly Wunsch went 7-2 with a 4.45 ERA, while Brian Parker, Chris Clemons and John Codrington combined for 15 more wins.

The ’93 team is the last A&M squad to win a game at the CWS. Moore says he hopes that streak comes to an end this year, and he believes this staff is capable of making its own history.

“It will be a lot easier five years from now to rate this staff against all he others in A&M’s past—once the dust has all settled and we’re able to see how they did and how far the team went,” Moore said. “But I can tell you that I believe Rob Childress has a really nice problem on his hands right now. There is going to be some serious scrutiny and competition for every inning. If someone has a bad start or two he could quickly find himself at the end of the bench.

“It remains to be seen if some of those guys can take the next step to go from good pitchers to elite pitchers. But just in terms of pure depth, this is a pretty unique situation. You can imagine a lot of possibilities with a staff like this.”

I, for one, can imagine the 2009 Aggies earning a top eight national seed, hosting a Regional and then hosting the Super Regional.

A&M has played in three Super Regionals since last making it to the College World Series in 1999. All were on the road, and they all ended in agonizing losses.

In any one of those years—2004 at LSU and 2007 and ’08 at Rice—the Aggies only needed a couple of breaks to reach Omaha. But at that time of the year and in those tension-packed moments, the home team usually receives the breaks.

Clearly, the road to Omaha is far less menacing the longer you can stay at home. And with this staff, the Aggies should have an outstanding opportunity to be a top eight national seed.

In each of those years where A&M reached the Super Regionals but failed to advance to Omaha, you can look back at losses on Sundays or weekdays that proved to be extremely costly to A&M’s national seeding.

Hopefully, that won’t be an issue this year. No matter who emerges at the top of the rotation, the Aggies will be sending weekend-caliber pitching to the mound every time they take the field.

Obviously, there are no guarantees in baseball. You can have a super staff and not even make it to the postseason. The 1990 Aggies, for example, produced a team ERA of 2.80. Rich Robertson went 10-1 with a 1.77 ERA and Kerry Freudenberg was 7-1 with a 1.51 ERA. Ronnie Allen, Pat Sweet, Jason Bullard, Brent Gilbert, Bo Siberz, Steve Hughes and Sean Lawrence all produced impressive numbers, as well.

But the ’90 Aggies couldn’t hit and dropped five of their final six games. A&M didn’t even make it to the Regional round.

That isn’t likely to happen to the 2009 team. While there are some offensive holes to fill with the departure of Dane Carter, Jose Duran and Blake Stouffer, this team is still quite explosive.

And with the depth of this staff, if the Aggies have a lead in the fifth or sixth inning, you might as well turn out the lights.

This is an extraordinary staff. It’s also quite easy to imagine this being the most exceptional season in the history of Texas A&M baseball

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Containing Abrams

Came across this recently and thought folks might enjoy giving it a look.

Seems like the Aggies have played AJ Abrams as well as anyone over the years. The junior from Round Rock was certainly flustered throughout Monday's game.

Here is a run down of Abrams' last four games against A&M. Keep in mind that Abrams is averaging 17 points per game this year and shooting just shy of 40 percent:

2008: 8, 9 points (combined 5-for-21 from field--23.4 percent)
2009: 9, 7 points (combined 6-for-22 from field--27.2 percent)

Abrams has fared much better against other Big 12 South squads.

vs. OU: 15.7 points per game
vs. OSU: 11.7 ppg
vs. Texas Tech: 13 ppg
vs. Baylor: 17.3 ppg

OSU has defended Abrams pretty consistently, allowing him into double figures only once. Still, no team has kept him in check quite like the Aggies.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

High Intensity On Tap For Saturday

A few words of advice to anyone who has a ticket but is considering skipping out on Saturday’s A&M-Baylor basketball game: Don’t. You. Dare.

Sure, this year’s Waco version of the Battle of the Brazos appears to lack the same pizzazz and fanfare that surrounded the 2008 contest, but both teams have no choice but to bring their best games into the Farrell Center this weekend. Take an already emotional series, add in two teams scrambling for their postseason lives, plus two fan bases eager to hold bragging rights over the other until next year, and the stage is set for an all-out dogfight.

Each team certainly brought all the emotions it could muster last year. If someone had lit a fuse anywhere in the vicinity of the Ferrell Center last March, there’s a good chance the building wouldn’t be standing there today.

Last year’s powder keg began brewing during pre-game warm-ups when Baylor students ruthlessly taunted Texas A&M’s players and coaches. The hysteria nearly reached a full-fledged riot after A&M’s Donald Sloan put his emphatic stamp on the Aggie victory during the waning seconds of the game with his one-handed, throw-it-off-the-backboard slam.

In the end, though, the Aggies walked out of Waco with a big 71-57 win and an eventual spot in the NCAA Tournament. This go-round, however, includes two squads mired in a Big 12 funk. The Aggies are 3-6 in conference play while Baylor has lost six straight to fall to 3-7.

A&M claimed the early-season meeting between the two squads with an 84-73 victory—certainly not the five OT affair the two had in College Station last year—and neither fan base appears particularly giddy about Saturday’s 5 p.m. game.

Since 2004, though, A&M and Baylor have waged some classics. Each game in Waco has come down to the final moments, catapulting this into perhaps the most under-rated rivalry in the Big 12.

Indeed, the Ferrell Center will be hopping on Saturday, particularly in the wake of last year’s uber-intense Sloan-dow—err showdown.

“I’m pretty sure they’re going to have something in store for me,” Sloan said on Wednesday. “Whether it be signs, chanting, whatever. Baylor has had a bad stretch, so they’ll (really want to start a good run against us). It’s an important game for us and an important game for them.”

Anyone who expects Saturday’s game to be more pillow fight than slugfest should look no further than January’s meeting at Reed Arena. Baylor entered with a 13-2 record, but A&M took it to the Bears early and often in a game that featured its share of hard fouls and tough play. And, with both squads currently in full-on scramble mode, all signs point to a no-holds-barred showdown on tap Saturday.

Sloan’s dunk from a year ago, after which officials ended the game early as Dr Pepper bottles rained down on the court, remains a hot topic between fans from both schools.

“I’m sure a lot of people didn’t like it.” Sloan said. “I figure (if our fans) had been out there in that atmosphere and going through everything that was going on, they probably would have done the same thing. When you think about it, there’s really nothing else you can do (during a game) that wouldn’t get you in trouble. That was maybe the only thing I could have done that would have made me feel good and my teammates feel good without anybody getting in trouble.”

Hopefully, this year’s contest will be debris-free. It will certainly be worth price of admission.

photo above from Aggieland Illustrated--what a great shot

Monday, February 9, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

6 – Field goals in the first half of the men’s basketball game against Kansas State, A&M’s lowest offensive output in Big 12 play this year. The Aggies had seven field goals in the first half at Kansas on Jan. 19.

2-8 — The Big 12 South’s record against the Big 12 North in men’s basketball games played since Jan. 31. Oklahoma is the only South squad to win a game against the North, going 2-0 in that span. Texas, meanwhile, is 0-3, with two losses coming at home.

43 – Margin of victory for the women’s basketball team against Nebraska on Sunday. It was A&M’s largest margin of victory ever in a Big 12 game.

28 – Turnovers forced by the Aggie defense against the Huskers, the most turnovers by Nebraska this season.

61.0 – Shooting percentage by A&M against Nebraska, the team’s highest of the year. It was the Aggies best shooting night since connecting on 63.8 percent against McNeese State on Nov. 21, 2006.

7 – Home runs by the softball team during its weekend tournament. The Aggies went 3-1 to claim the tourney title, outscoring the opposition 22-4.

1-1 – Weekend record for the women’s tennis team, which played Friday and Saturday matches against SEC schools ranked in the top 25. A&M captured a 5-2 win against No. 25 Auburn on Friday before dropping a tough, 4-3 decision to LSU on Sunday.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Bubble Notes Heading Into The Weekend

It seems like everyone has their own version of an NCAA Tournament Bubble Guide these days, so here’s my stab at one that is centered around what Aggie fans should keep their eyes on in the coming days.

Big 12 Teams We Want To Win
Kansas vs. Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. in Lawrence – Both Kansas and Texas can help the Aggies cause by getting home wins in the next few days against the Cowboys, who are currently 3-4 in the Big 12. If OSU drops both games, it’ll have nine total losses, with games against Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and @ Oklahoma remaining.

Texas Tech vs. Baylor, 7 p.m. in Lubbock – Yes, nobody ever wants the Red Raiders to win, but they can do the Aggies a big favor by upending reeling Baylor at home. The Bears have gone from almost a guaranteed lock to a team on the ropes after losing four in a row. Plus, with Tech having an RPI outside the top 100, a loss in Lubbock would give Baylor a black eye on its resume.

Random Team To Root For
Tulsa @ Memphis, 7 p.m. on Wednesday – It’s not a weekend game, but Tulsa currently represents A&M’s poorest loss, according to the RPI rankings. It seems like Memphis, RPI No. 11, hasn’t lost a Conference USA game since Clinton was in office, but Tulsa lost by only one point in the first meeting between the two. A win by the Golden Hurricane on Wednesday would likely give A&M’s computer numbers a nice bump.

Random Team To Root Against
Siena @ Rider, noon on Saturday – Nothing personal against the Siena Saints, but they have a pretty good profile right now (RPI No. 21) and are off to a 12-0 start in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. If Siena runs the table in the regular season but gets upset in the MAA conference tournament, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll still make the NCAA Tournament. That would mean one less at-large spot to go around. For fans of bubble-residing teams like A&M, seeing Siena get nicked a time or two can’t hurt.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

165 – Career three-pointers for senior Takia Starks. Starks’ three against Kansas tied her with former All-American Lisa Branch for the all-time A&M lead.

3 – Consecutive games in which the women’s basketball team has allowed seven or less field goals in the second half. The Aggies allowed just four to Oklahoma State on Jan. 24, seven to Texas on Jan. 28 and six to Kansas on Jan. 31.

20 – Games in a row in which B.J. Holmes has made at least one three-pointer. Holmes’ streak is the third longest in school history.

32-4 – A&M’s record under Mark Turgeon when the team makes at least 45 percent from the field.

17 – Points by Josh Carter against Oklahoma State, a big-time turnaround from being held scoreless in Stillwater on Jan. 10.

6.59 – School-record mark in the 60 meters by Gerald Phiri, set in the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium during the Texas A&M Showdown on Saturday. Phiri also earned the previous school record, clocking 6.64 twice last year.

1 – Porscha Lucas’ place on the world and collegiate list this year in the 200 meters. Lucas clocked a 23.39 over the weekend to take over the world lead by one one-hundredth of a second.

10 – Ranking for the softball team in the ESPN.com/USA Softball preseason poll. The Aggies are one of three Big 12 squads, with No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 19 Missouri also appearing.