Friday, March 27, 2009

Aggies Representing At Big Event

Story courtesy Texas A&M Media Relations

A record number of Texas A&M student-athletes, approximately 169, will participate in the Big Event on Saturday, Mar. 28.

The Big Event is the largest, one-day, student-run service project in the nation where the students of Texas A&M University come together to say ‘thank you’ to the residents of the Bryan and College Station communities. For the past 26 years, the Aggies have shown their appreciation by completing service projects such as yard work, window washing and painting for community members.

Every team not currently participating in athletic competition will be represented. Teams such as the Aggie men’s swimming and diving squad are competing in the NCAA Championships on campus this weekend and the women’s basketball team is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Championships in Trenton, NJ, while the Aggie baseball team hosts Kansas this weekend in a Big 12 series.

“We have had close to 100 student-athletes participate in this wonderful event in previous years, but this is a record year with 169 currently signed up,” siad Director of Athletics Bill Byrne. “What great young people we have willing to volunteer to assist in our community. I am very proud of all of those who are participating. I am especially pleased that Coach Mike Sherman and the Aggie football team have set aside practice to participate.”

A group will assist the St. Mary’s Catholic Center with some general upkeep as well as cleaning up the area surrounding the Country Club Lake near the Bryan Municipal Golf Course. Another group will assist with work surrounding the Bryan Little League East Ballpark and another group will assist the Wootan household at 1205 Walton Drive in College Station.

Some other projects in the community include the Stuth household at 506 Dexter St. in College Station, the McNeill household at 2924 Cherry Creek Circle in Bryan, the Fritz household at 307 S. Haswell in Bryan and the Sparks household at 1500 Red Oak in Bryan.

Three Texas A&M football players, Cody Beyer, Roger Holland and Chevar Bryson, will be excused from participation in the Big Event as they have been selected to participate in the Football Physics program at the George Bush Presidential Library beginning at 10 a.m. and lasting until 3 p.m.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Colson Is Instant Energy For Aggies

At first blush, the notion sounds ridiculous.

How could Sydney Colson, one of the highest-ranked recruits ever to sign with the Texas A&M women’s basketball program, be a valuable cog in the Aggies machine when she’s not even in the game? Surely, a player of Colson’s caliber and importance has to be on the floor as much as possible for A&M to remain one of the Big 12’s top teams.

According to A&M coach Gary Blair, that’s not necessarily the case.

Blair isn’t shy to point out that he doesn’t fret too much when Colson comes off the court. Certainly, he’d appreciate the luxury of the silky smooth playmaker from Houston remaining in the game as much as possible, but his point, rather, was that Colson still has a largely positive impact even if she’s not running the Aggies’ offense.

“How many times can a starter go to the bench after they’ve been playing poorly and still be a leader on the bench?” asked Blair. “She’s the most vocal kid we have on the bench. She energizes the whole floor.”

The engaging Colson certainly does that, both from the sidelines and when she’s on the court. Colson has appeared in every game this year, starting all but three, and she’s been a big-time reason the Aggies are in the midst of another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Consider the back-to-back games recently against Oklahoma and Kansas State as evidence for Colson’s contributions.

During A&M’s stirring 57-56 victory over No. 2 Oklahoma on Feb. 23, Colson played just 18 minutes and didn’t register a single point. Meanwhile, backup Sydney Carter, a freshman, tallied 11 points in 31 minutes. But after big shots or steals, Colson was the first Aggie off the bench to pump her fists, high-five her teammates or chest-bump Carter during a timeout.

Colson shined days later in Manhattan, Kansas, a place A&M had never previously won under Blair. She finished a perfect 4-for-4 from the field to chip in nine points during the Aggies’ road rout of then-No. 15 Kansas State.

Indeed, Colson helps make A&M tick no matter where she is.

“I love to see my team doing well,” Colson said. “If I come out of the game for not doing what the coaches want and (Carter) goes in and does well, that’s one of the most exciting things to me. I love to see her go in there and do well, just like she did against Oklahoma.

“I feel like with our energy on the bench, the girls on the court can see it and feel it. They’re not totally paying attention to the bench because they’re focused on the game, but we know when they’re (feeling it), especially on away games when we need that energy. That’s how we get our momentum, and that’s what can really get us going.”

A&M has certainly been up and going lately.

Even after losing last year’s program-changing senior class, the Aggies again finished in the upper crust of the Big 12. A&M rolled through the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and will battle Arizona State in the Sweet 16 on Sunday. Last season’s Elite Eight run remains the programs all-time benchmark (for now), but going a step further isn’t out of the question considering A&M’s talented players.

Colson, one of A&M’s most heralded recruits ever, is certainly one of them.

She spent her freshman year mostly out of the spotlight, as senior Aqua Franklin captained the Aggies in expert fashion. Franklin, a four-year starter, proved to be a valuable teacher to Colson, as well. Colson absorbed the way Franklin prepared for every game. She soaked in how Franklin interacted with teammates during practices and games, noting how the former Aggie captain knew where every player should be at every second of an offensive set. And when Franklin finished her final season with a career-best 173 assists to become one of A&M’s all-time best distributors, Colson was right there, observing every step of the way.

No matter the situation, Colson took it all in.

“She was a great vocal leader on the court, and the girls always respected her and looked up to her and listened to what she said,” recalled Colson. “She led the way for everyone, and that’s a big reason A&M ended up doing so well over the years. She would always pull me to the side if I was frustrated or didn’t know what coach Blair wanted. She knew the plays inside and out, she knew where people were supposed to be, and she knew what (Blair) wanted. It was awesome to have someone there who could be that calm and sensible voice for me that I could listen to and learn from.”

Having a mentor like Franklin proved to be important. Blair demands a lot from his point guard, and it’s the one position he recruits personally. Blair wants his lead guard to possess a total understanding of the team’s offense and even be able to think like the veteran coach.

Franklin didn’t have the luxury of playing behind a veteran starter. Instead, her first season was the year following star Toccara Williams’ graduation. By Franklin’s upperclassmen seasons, it was clear she had blossomed into a prototypical lead guard for Blair. This year, Colson is still going through the growing pains that come with leading the team—and excelling under Blair’s demanding eyes.

“Last year, I feel like I played more freely, because all the responsibility wasn’t on me,” Colson said. “I was just going in and playing my game. Now, I have to go in and know where everybody’s supposed to be, know what coach wants. I can either feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me, or I can step up to the plate and get the job done. That’s really what I want to do, and that’s really what I need to do. I need to develop that relationship with him like Aqua did, and get the job done.”

Considering the off-season injury Colson endured, it’s remarkable she’s performed as well as she has.

Team members were playing a game of pick-up basketball one early summer afternoon when Kiley Finstad stripped Colson of the ball near mid-court and raced to the basket for a layup. Colson, in an effort to make up for her mistake, raced back and leaped in an attempt to block Finstad’s shot. She came down awkwardly and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.

The injury could have been devastating, both to A&M’s hopes in 2008-09 and to Colson personally. After all, according to Blair in this season’s media supplement, Colson was the player that A&M “couldn’t afford to lose.”

“I had never been seriously injured in my career (before the ACL),” Colson said. “The worst I had ever had was a twisted ankle or a busted lip. To have something torn…I was going through a lot emotionally.

Colson knew the team couldn’t risk her being out long and started rehabbing immediately. Just five months after surgery repaired her right knee, she took the floor for the Aggies’ season opener against Mercer. Colson logged eight minutes that night, hit her only three-point attempt of the game and dished out four assists with zero turnovers. Six days later, she made her first start of the year, and A&M picked up a road victory against Michigan.

“The most you ever improve is between your freshmen and sophomore years,” said Blair. “That was taken away from Sydney because of the injury this summer. She’s been making some mistakes, but she also makes a lot of things happen. She’s a true playmaker.”

Though she’s not quite back to 100 percent—she said 80 percent is more like it—Colson has been a mainstay in the lineup. She averages more than 20 minutes per game, shoots 40 percent from the field and has a positive assists-to-turnovers ratio. Colson’s man-to-man defense has improved as her knee strengthened, and she’s tallied four or more steals in a game six times this year. In fact, her 74 steals through 33 games is just one off the team lead.

The Aggies, meanwhile, have rallied from a tough early portion of their Big 12 schedule. A&M started 2-2 before winning nine of its next 11 contests. Included in those victories was a season sweep of Texas, a feat the Aggies have now accomplished in three of the past four seasons.

“I wanted to work hard,” said Colson. “I knew that I needed to be out there. (Carter) was coming in as a freshman, and I didn’t want to leave her out there and handle that responsibility alone. I knew it would be hard (for her), because it was hard for me last year…and I had Aqua with me.

“I also knew this would be my last chance to play out there with Takia (Starks), Danielle (Gant) and (La Toya) Micheaux being in their last year. I wanted to be a part of it with them on the court, not just sitting on the sidelines cheering.”

Although, as she’s proven this season, Colson is certainly effective from that vantage point, as well.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Wright Way

Story by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine

DALLAS—Inside the Dallas Mavericks’ lavish locker room, shooting guard Antoine Wright leans back in a plush leather chair in front of his spacious locker and playfully begins boasting to teammates and assistant coaches.

It’s shortly after 6 p.m. on March 7—roughly 90 minutes prior to tip-off of the Mavs-Wizards game at American Airlines Center. But the bright-eyed, animated Wright is not yet interested in discussing Washington.

There will be time for that later. Now he’s talking Texas A&M. Loudly and proudly.

He’s announcing the Aggies’ victory earlier that afternoon over Missouri, and he is thoroughly enjoying the fact that A&M has not lost since he returned to College Station to see the Texas game on Feb. 16.

“(The Missouri win makes it) six in a row, baby,” Wright says in the direction of eight-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, who smiles and rolls his eyes sarcastically as he passes Wright and heads toward the training room.

“Oh no, here we go again,” says assistant coach Dwane Casey, a former player and graduate of Kentucky. “If Antoine is getting loud, the Aggies must have won today.”

Wright beams and nods smugly. He quickly looks around the “technology toyland” (every locker is equipped with flat screen TVs, DVD players and stereo equipment) for a couple of teammates: LSU graduate Brandon Bass and Arizona alum Jason Terry. Wright is the only former Big 12 player on the Mavericks’ roster, but he owns major bragging rights over Bass and Terry this year because the Aggies beat both LSU and Arizona earlier this season.

To Wright’s chagrin, neither player is at his locker. Wright shakes his head in mock disgust. A smack talk moment has been missed.

“I talk about my school to these guys every day,” Wright says. “These guys know where I’m from. I leave no doubt. The big German (Nowitzki) tries to get under my skin by calling my school Texas Christian. He says, ‘Where’s Texas Christian, Antoine? Isn’t that where you went?’

“I let that slide because he didn’t even go to college, so he doesn’t know any better (laughing). But it is a lot of fun to talk about A&M these days. Going back to the Texas game and seeing the full arena was a lot of fun, too. Knowing where we came from—seeing our own fans in the stands with bags over their heads—and seeing where the program is today is a major source of pride for me. It’s amazing how far we’ve come since my sophomore year.”

Indeed, it is. It’s also amazing to see how far Wright has come since that dreadful 2003-04 season, when the Aggies went 7-21 overall and 0-16 in Big 12 play.

That miserable year ended with a loss to Missouri in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament. Ironically, the loss occurred in the same American Airlines Center that Wright now calls home.

Following that setback, a dejected and frustrated Wright sat in another locker in the underbelly of the arena and pondered whether he would even return to A&M for the following season. The coach who had recruited him, Melvin Watkins, had been fired. The program was in shambles, and Wright’s once-bright future seemed to be in serious doubt.

Coming out of Lawrence Academy in Groveton, Mass, Wright was rated as the top shooting guard in the country by In choosing Texas A&M, he turned down, among others, UCLA, UConn, Arizona, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The 6-foot-7 Wright may have been the highest-profile recruit in A&M basketball history at the time. By the end of his sophomore season, though, he looked like yet another victim of A&M’s dreadful basketball history.

In a 15-year span from 1990-2004, the Aggies produced 13 losing seasons and just one NIT appearance. The lowest of the low points came in 2004, when the Aggies lost at home to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, dropped seven of their last 11 conference games by double-digit totals and became the second school in Big 12 history to complete the conference race without a single win.

Wright, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2002-03, had come to A&M intent on turning the program around. But his scoring average decreased to 13.5 points per game as a sophomore. His three-point shooting percentage, rebound numbers, steals and blocks also declined. And the bright, trademark smile that had been so prominent during his freshman season disappeared by the end of his sophomore year.

After the loss to Missouri in the Big 12 Tournament, Wright and freshman Acie Law both made comments about the possibility of not returning to A&M.

“After that 0-16 season, I was seriously depressed,” Wright recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, did I ruin my chances for the NBA by coming to Texas A&M?’ I was just fortunate that Billy (Gillispie) came in at the right time. He saved my career. I definitely would not be (in the NBA) without him. I tell him that, but he doesn’t want credit for anything. But there’s no telling where I would be without Coach G.”

Likewise, there’s no telling where A&M would be today without Wright’s decision to immediately buy into Gillispie’s relentless, in-your-face defensive style and his grueling workouts.

Now head coach Mark Turgeon leads a program that has made five consecutive postseason appearances, while recruiting to some of the nation’s finest basketball facilities. In about half a decade, A&M has become a national basketball name with a remarkably bright future.

It could be argued that A&M owes everything it is today—its current national reputation, its recruiting reach and its sparkling new facilities—to one extremely important sales job involving Gillispie and Wright.

“If you want to (trace the evolution of the basketball program) back to one point in time, you probably need to go back to when Coach G got Antoine to buy into the program,” Acie Law once told 12th Man Magazine. “Antoine was probably on board before any of the rest of us.”

According to many of the so-called media experts, Billy Gillispie is not a good fit at Kentucky. According to many other sources—some credible and some volatile Internet message boards—the Kentucky players have not bought into Gillispie’s brutal workouts, blunt honesty and blue-collar work ethic.

Gillispie’s practices—even on game days—are not for the weak minded or self-righteous superstars. He is intent on breaking all of his players down. Gillispie has absolutely no tolerance for laziness, timidity or apathy. In practices, he’s as driven as a drill sergeant, and he belittles and berates players who fail to give maximum effort.

He typically kicks players off the court for missed assignments and stares daggers that seem capable of piercing the soul. His language isn’t typically foul, but his tone is usually unmercifully harsh. “Pitiful” is one of his favorite practice words; “pathetic” is a close second.

He is so unyielding on his players that the rest of his coaching staff spends much of practice building the players’ confidence back up after Gillispie has told them to “leave my court.”

But his practice strategy, along with his fanatical obsession to play suffocating defense, paved the way for miraculous turnarounds at Texas-El Paso and Texas A&M. So, why isn’t it working at Kentucky?

“Honestly,” Wright says, “they’re probably not desperate enough. I don’t know Kentucky’s program, and I haven’t talked to Coach G much this year. So, I can’t talk about why things aren’t working out. But I know why they worked out for me and Texas A&M. He came in and laid it on the table.

“I dug that about Coach G. We had our little rifts early in the season, but once I started to get a little momentum and see what was happening, I was all about playing his style. As time went by, the rest of the guys bought into the system. I was just the first to buy in because I had no other choice. My (dreams) were slipping away.”

Instead of continuing to slip away, Wright became the physical and emotional leader of a team that won the hearts of A&M basketball fans. The 2004-05 Aggies went 21-10 overall and became just the third team in NCAA history to record a .500 finish in conference play (8-8) after going winless the year before. The Aggies tied San Diego for the most improvement (12 more wins than the previous year) in all of Division I-A basketball.

After helping to resurrect the program, Wright entered the NBA Draft. He was taken by New Jersey with the 15th selection in the first round, becoming the highest pick in A&M history. He was also the first Aggie taken in the NBA Draft since Brooks Thompson in 1994.

After playing sparingly as a rookie with the Nets in 2005-06, Wright began to blossom in New Jersey in his second season. Playing alongside Jason Kidd in the backcourt, Wright started 23 games in 2006-07 and earned a prominent role in the Nets’ rotation.

The articulate Wright was also becoming well known in the glare of the New York/New Jersey media spotlight. So, he was not particularly surprised when he was requested to appear on HBO’s “Costas Now” in March of 2007. Wright was told that the show’s host, Bob Costas, wanted to discuss the educational opportunities/difficulties for college basketball players, especially during “March Madness.”

Once the interview was edited and shown on HBO, Wright says he felt blindsided. The interview cast Wright in a controversial light. Here’s a couple of exchanges from the show:

Wright: “Once I got to college, I kind of let my hair down a little bit. I (didn’t) have to write term papers any more—I just had to get a grade and play basketball.”

Costas: “Tell me what it was like in these agriculture classes (at A&M).”

Wright: “In certain classes you’d see a quarterback, me, a running back and then a farmer. So, it definitely was a little bizarre. But, we’re all in poultry science for a reason. We’re in this class because we need to get this grade. We’re not really trying to learn about chickens.”

Wright doesn’t deny saying any of those things. Be he says that he actually elaborated much more. His intent was never to demean Texas A&M or the agricultural classes he took. He was simply explaining that some colleges within the university worked more with student-athletes and their schedule demands than others. And not just at A&M.

“It was really just me addressing my opinion on college sports,” Wright said. “I never wanted to take a shot at my school. I love my school, and I owe so much to all the people at A&M—from the academic advisors to the professors and so forth—who did so much for me. I would never want to take a shot at them. I really didn’t get a chance to rebut that whole deal, and I regret doing that interview.

“But if you look back on that interview, many of the things I said are true across the board in all colleges. At many colleges across the country, the athletes are in the same majors. That’s just a fact. But when I saw the interview, I was really upset because of the sound bites they took and spliced together. I was like, ‘I didn’t say it that way. I didn’t mean it that way.’ Anybody can take a sound bite and twist it the way they want. It’s something I learned from, and I want to apologize to anyone at A&M who took that the wrong way. I would never take a shot at my own school.”

When Wright was traded from New Jersey to Dallas on Feb. 19, 2008 in the Jason Kidd-for-Devin Harris deal, part of his initial concern was that A&M fans in Texas might still be upset with him about that interview. He was also initially disappointed about the trade because he was playing exceptionally well in New Jersey.

“I talked to (Gillispie) after I got traded,” Wright said. “He said, ‘You’re a tough kid. It will work out.’ I was down because I felt like I had momentum in New Jersey. They were the team that drafted me; I was getting to know the area really well; and I was playing a lot. There was some bitterness when they decided to add me in the trade, and then when I got here, it was even worse. I was just a practice guy. I didn’t initially fit into what the Mavericks were doing.

“The best thing about coming here at that time was being close to so many Aggies. They embraced me immediately. I felt appreciated by the A&M fans. There are not many Aggies that come to New Jersey Nets home games. I would occasionally run into Aggies when we were on the road, but coming back down here was great. I remember the first few times I got on the court as a Maverick, I could feel the A&M love in the stands. It was awesome.”

Being in Dallas (he lives in a high-rise apartment near American Airlines Center), also afforded Wright the opportunity to attend a couple of A&M games during the NBA All-Star break. He went to the Baylor game on Feb. 14 in Waco, which proved to be the last loss of the regular season for A&M. He spoke to the team after that loss, and he was introduced to the home crowd at Reed Arena two days later—where he received a loud ovation—during the Aggies’ 81-66 win over Texas.

“I wish I could go back to Reed Arena every night,” Wright joked. “It’s good for my ego. The fans are great. It’s a different type of rivalry now, too. Now, we are beating them regularly at home. That is so awesome to see.

“I am actually starting to become friends with some of the current players. I’ve been talking to B.J. Holmes and instant messaging with (Holmes) and Dash Harris. I’ve just been encouraging them to show that fight and that fire. I went to the Baylor game, and I thought they had it. I just encouraged them to stick together and to keep fighting through those difficult times. Now look what they have done. I’m proud of those guys.”

That is obvious by how much he talks about Texas A&M with his current teammates.

“I’ve never been to A&M, but I’ve heard it’s great,” says back-up point guard Jose Juan Barea. “Of course, most of what I’ve heard is from (Wright).”

Wright is, indeed, a spokesman for the Aggies.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

1,942 – Career points for Takia Starks, making the senior from Houston the Aggies’ all-time leading scorer. Starks surpassed former All-American Lisa Branch on a three-point play late in the second half of A&M’s win against Evansville on Sunday.

20 – Points for Tanisha Smith in her first NCAA Tournament game. Smith’s total against Evansville also marked her career high, eclipsing the 19 points she scored against Baylor on Jan. 21.

7 – Players on the baseball team with a team-high three home runs: Dylan Petrich, Kevin Gonzalez, Brodie Greene, Luke Anders, Adam Smith, Caleb Shofner and Nick Anders.

2 – Top-10 opponents defeated by the men’s tennis team. The Aggies knocked off No. 7 Illinois and No. 10 Southern California in back-to-back matches last week.

119 – Wins in the last five years for the men’s basketball team. The Aggies have won at least 20 games each season. Before the 2004-05 season, A&M had six 20-win seasons in its entire history.

9 – Deficit facing the women’s golf team entering the final round of the Thompson Invitational in Honolulu. However, solid rounds by Lauren Johnson, Sarah Zwartynski and Ashley Freeman helped boost the Aggies to a six shot victory.

101 – Career goals for soccer signee Chelsea Jones of Belton. Jones, just three goals away from setting Belton’s all-time record, has led her school to four consecutive district titles. She already owns Belton records in season scoring, season assists and career assists.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Christmas Come Early

Say what you want about the first fall weekend at Kyle Field or the buzz at Olsen on opening day. More power to you if you get your kicks during a fantastic autumn evening at the Aggie Soccer Stadium, or if you live for catching some rays during a spring softball game or tennis match. It’s all good; no arguments here.

For my money, though, there is nothing like March Madness.

From the bracketologists who start predicting the 64-team field every week during conference play, to the drama of Selection Sunday, to the bonanza of games during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, nothing tops the month of March (and the first week of April, if your team makes the Final Four). It’s Christmas come early for a college sports junkie—the most intense, pressure-packed form of college athletics.

No other college sport dominates the headlines with its postseason tournament, and no other spectacle can compete with the emotion of a packed gym during a tight elimination game.

And our Aggies are right there in the middle of it.

The A&M men, a 9-seed, get underway Thursday at 11:30 a.m. against BYU in a rematch game from last year’s tournament. The women earned their second consecutive 2-seed and will open up Sunday against Evansville in South Bend, Ind., at 11 a.m.

(As an aside, if you’ve never been able to experience one of the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament games, please do yourself a favor and put it on your bucket list. There’s simply nothing like it. The suspense and importance of every shot, pass and rebound is immense, with the crowd sitting (and often standing) on edge throughout. It dwarfs the mid-to-late December snooze-a-thon that is football bowl season.)

Fans are usually the ones who get caught up in the drama of it all, but basketball coaches aren’t immune to the excitement this month often brings.

“It’s what March Madness is all about,” said A&M women’s coach Gary Blair, who coached the Aggies to a 25-7 record this year. “I love for people to go, because it’s a great experience. It’s excellent basketball. This is our time. It’s like baseball, when it gets to the playoffs and World Series—that’s baseball’s time.

“But, right now, it’s our time.”

Indeed it is.

And it’s a big deal when your team is playing in it. Just ask men’s coach Mark Turgeon. He played in four straight NCAA Tournaments during his days at Kansas, and he’s successfully guided A&M to its third and fourth straight trips to the Big Dance.

“It’s the music for the Tournament on TV; it’s the smell in the air; it’s how big every game is,” said Turgeon. “If you have any competitive spirit in you at all, it gets your juices flowing. I don’t sleep as much this time of year because I can’t wait for the next day to start. I love it; I always have. It’s a time to be grateful for what we get to be a part of. That’s what I try to tell our guys all the time. We’re so lucky to be doing what we’re doing.”

Many thought the Aggies’ string of three consecutive NCAA bids would come to end after Turgeon’s team sank to 3-7 in Big 12 play. But a magical run of six consecutive wins propelled A&M back into the tournament, making it one of just 16 schools to qualify for the last four NCAA fields.

Prior to this stretch, the Aggies had never made back-to-back appearances. When you consider that the women’s team is also making its fourth straight NCAA trip, these are special times in College Station.

“I hope fans here don’t take this for granted,” Turgeon said. “Just because we’ve been there four years in a row, people should be really excited of their men’s and women’s basketball programs and the things we’ve done. To lose the players we’ve lost over the years and continued to be an NCAA Tournament team says a lot about the kids in our program. I don’t want anyone to take this for granted, because there’s so much hard work to do what this group’s done and get where they are.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

On And Off Track, Star Sprinter Shaped By Experiences

The NCAA Indoor Championships, hosted at Texas A&M’s Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium begin today and continue through Saturday. For heat times, participants and ticket information, please go to: 2009 NCAA Indoor Track Championships

Gerald Phiri is an interesting case study in contrasts.

For instance, the easy-going sophomore resembles just about any other Texas A&M student when he quietly ambles across campus on his way to class. Phiri offers a quick smile and handshake when he meets a new face, but his soft voice is almost difficult to discern as he exchanges pleasantries.

It’s quite the contrast that with the flamboyant sprinter who confidently struts into the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium before a meet. Phiri is loud, determined, brash and, more than anything, he exudes confidence. The mild-mannered young man from the previous day is long gone, and in his place is a finely tuned sprinter, readying himself to explode off the starting blocks.

While the differences in Phiri’s demeanor are certainly noticeable, so too are the differences in his cultural background. Phiri owns a travel log that dwarfs most classmates or competitors his age. Born in Ndola, Zambia, in 1988, Phiri’s family also lived in South Africa, Wales, England and Chicago before he arrived in College Station. Phiri’s father, Huggins, is a Pentecostal pastor, and the family often moved to accommodate Huggins’ evolving church duties.

“I don’t remember a lot of things (about Zambia),” recalled Phiri, pronounced “FEER-ee”). “Sometimes, somebody from Zambia will add me as a friend on Facebook and say we were good friends, so I remember some people. I loved South Africa. It was very much like the U.S.A. in the way people talk and the tall buildings and cities.

“(After that) We lived in a small town in Wales, (with a population of) maybe 3,000-4,000 people. There were only two other black families there, so it was a different experience. But I still have great friends there who I stay in contact with.”

It’s no surprise that old friends want to stay in contact with him.

Phiri, in his second year as a member of the A&M track and field team, is a seriously talented sprinter. He owns the five best marks in school history in the 60 meters (which is only contested during the indoor season). After setting the record with a time of 6.64 at the NCAA Indoors in 2008 to earn All-American honors, Phiri bettered the mark this season with a 6.59 clocking at the Texas A&M Showdown on Jan. 31.

Phiri was just as dominant during last year’s outdoor season. He picked up early-season wins against loaded fields at the FSU Relays and the Penn Relays while clocking a second-place finish at the prestigious Texas Relays in Austin. Phiri rolled through the conference meet, picking up gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4 x 100 relay. His stellar performance in the sprints made him the first male athlete in Big 12 history to win the 100 and 200 sprints in the same year, and it helped him earn men’s high-point award (22.5 points) and the conference’s Freshman of the Year honor.

Phiri’s record book should likely be even more impressive. He qualified for three events in the 2008 NCAA Outdoor meet, but was held out of the competition after sustaining an injury during the Midwest Regional, the final event before nationals.

To those who have known Phiri for a long time, his success probably isn’t a big surprise. He began competing at age 4, and it didn’t take long before Phiri was dominating the competition.

“In fifth grade, I ran a 12.49 in the 100 meters, which is what most people run in eighth grade,” Phiri said. “It’s a gift I’ve always had, and I’ve always worked hard to make sure that I could make it to where I am now.”

Recruiting Phiri was a no-brainer for A&M coach Pat Henry.

Phiri owned a well-established reputation and wasted no time making a national name for himself after his family moved to England. He quickly locked down his age group in the sprints, winning the national crown in his age group from 2003-06. Perhaps one of Phiri’s most impressive accomplishments came in 2005, when, at age 16, he finished fifth overall in the British Indoor Championships. He was the youngest sprinter in the final by three years.

“He is a good talent,” Henry said. “He’s done very well, but he’s young and is learning every time he gets on the track. We have to be pleased with how he’s done since he’s been here. He is very, very talented. (What he’s done indoors) is a good look at what he can do, but when you look at last year’s conference meet outdoors (when he won the 100 and 200)…as a freshman, that doesn’t happen.”

Another instance that rarely happens is finding a college student as well-spoken and experience-driven as Phiri. In fact, in this season’s media guide, Phiri noted that he came to College Station for “life changing experiences.”

For Phiri, who has experienced a multitude of cultures and nationalities, living in College Station has opened his eyes even more. Even the Texas slang—words like “howdy,” “y’all” and “fixin’ to”—were a new experience.

“It was kind of funny the first time I was in a class during my first semester,” Phiri said. “The professor came in and said “Howdy!” and about 300 people all shouted it back. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I have quickly joined in that.

“I’ve met people from different countries, and even people from different parts of Texas are completely different. My life changing experience (here) is about learning more from different people and different cultures. (It’s more about) maturing in myself and being more competent in terms of what else is out there.”

The opening of the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium inside the McFerrin Athletic Center has helped shape Phiri’s immediate future, as well. Prior to the facility’s ribbon cutting earlier this year, A&M track and field had not hosted a home meet in four-and-a-half years. Consequently, an entire class of Aggie athletes graduated without ever performing in front of a home crowd.

That will likely never be the case again.

A&M played host to five indoor meets from January-March, including both the Big 12 and NCAA championships.

Phiri, in particular, was grateful for the opportunity to compete in front of his fellow students. He’s done his part in telling classmates and people in the community about upcoming meets, and Phiri noted that even his barber has come out to watch him race.

Phiri’s parents now live in Frisco, Texas, and the new facility has allowed them to see their son compete for the first time in two-and-a-half years.

“That’s been the greatest thing about having this fantastic facility here,” Phiri said. “Last year, we were traveling to New York and Arkansas, and with my mother working and my brother having school, it was hard for them to fly away on Friday and back on a Sunday. They were able to come to three meets this year. I got them tickets right on the finish line. Every time I cross (the line), I can see them there…it’s been fantastic.”

The Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium has also given fans a chance to see just how impressive A&M’s athletes truly are. The 60 meter dash and 60 meter hurdles have become a fan favorite. Unlike some indoor track facilities, the sprint lanes at A&M are set up outside of the main competition oval, basically pressed up against the grandstands. That means some spectators are literally just feet away from the lanes when the competitors speed by.

In Phiri’s case, running also represents a way to express something very important to him: his faith. With a father who is a pastor, religion has played a large role throughout Phiri’s life. Phiri currently attends a non-denominational church in College Station, and he said he often finds his faith intertwined with his athletic endeavors.

“I believe I’ve been given a fantastic gift,” Phiri explained. “I feel it would be insulting if I did not use this gift to its fullest. To me, track is more about me showing people what God can do through me. I’ve learned to rely on God a lot. I always find that when my relationship with him is strongest, I perform at my best. I go through my Bible often, and it does help a lot when I read my Bible because it will relate to my everyday life and to my track.”

Phiri said one Bible verse he draws inspiration from is Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

“It helps me be strong and keep trust in God,” Phiri said. “It’s really helped me a lot, so I keep giving God the glory. I want people to see me do well in track, and I want people to say ‘there’s something about him.’ That something that they will be seeing, hopefully, is God. Whether it’s the hard work or perseverance—I want people to see that and say if Gerald can work hard, I can work hard and do great things, too.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

Weekend By The Numbers

6 – Consecutive wins for the men’s basketball team. The Aggies sat at 3-7 after the loss at Baylor on Feb. 14, but the magical run over the last three weeks has A&M in good position for another NCAA Tournament bid.

132 – Games played by Josh Carter, tying Dominique Kirk’s school record. Carter has a career record of 97-35, making him the winningest player in school history.

18-0 – A&M’s record when it scores at least 27 points in the paint. The Aggies had 36 points in the paint against Missouri.

62 percent – Season-high shooting percentage for A&M, achieved Saturday against Missouri. Its previous best was 57.1 percent against Kent State on Nov. 29.

800 – Career wins for softball coach Jo Evans. Evans captured the milestone after the Aggies claimed an 11-0 run rule victory over Louisiana Tech on Sunday.

.444 – Batting average for sophomore Brooks Raley last week. Raley went 8-for-18 at the plate, scored six runs and picked up the win on the mound Friday against Utah.

61 – Strikeouts for A&M pitchers in the five games played last week. The Aggies have now struck out 10 or more batters in seven straight games.

6 – Double-doubles this season for Danielle Gant. Gant scored 16 points and had 13 rebounds in Saturday’s game against Baylor.

4 – Consecutive years of third place or better finishes for the women’s basketball team.

Friday, March 6, 2009

B.J. Holmes Coming Up Big For Aggies

The pages devoted to B.J. Holmes in the Texas A&M men’s basketball media guide this season are filled with the essentials on the sophomore from Houston: his high school accolades, last year’s statistics, previous career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals, and even a tidbit about his penchant for playing the piano and singing.

Nowhere, however, does it mention what may very well be one of his most unique talents—predicting the future.

The day before the Aggies played Texas Tech at Reed Arena on Jan. 28, Holmes made an ear-catching statement to a reporter.

“I think we are getting ready to explode,” proclaimed a confident Holmes.

The fact that A&M entered the match-up against the Red Raiders on the heels of a brutal 1-4 start to the Big 12 schedule left the reporter questioning Holmes’ prognostication skills.

Sure enough, the following night Holmes more than made good on his words.

With A&M facing an early 13-4 deficit, coach Mark Turgeon substituted Holmes into the game, and he quickly knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers. Later in the half, Holmes entered the game again with the Aggies down by three. Three possessions led to three more 3-pointers, with last giving A&M its first lead of the game. His final bomb of the night came in the second half, and the Aggies never trailed again.

After the dust had settled on the 79-70 win, Holmes finished his career night with a game-high 24 points on a smoking 6-of-7 from behind the arc. Indeed, Holmes’ fortune-telling ability may be about as exact as his pinpoint shooting accuracy.

In fact, the Aggies wouldn’t be charging toward an NCAA berth without Holmes’ recent contributions. He hit a big three-pointer late against Nebraska to help set up Josh Carter’s last-second bomb, and his seven-points-in-30-seconds in Colorado essentially erased a late eight-point Buffaloes’ lead.

The diminutive Holmes, listed officially as 6-feet but he admits it’s probably more like 5-10, has developed into a legitimate scoring threat for Turgeon’s team. He’s also seen his minutes increase exponentially after being relegated to the bench for most of 2008. Last year, Holmes barely averaged six minutes per game in spot duty. In Big 12 play this year, he’s logging around 20 minutes per night.

While he didn’t gain much playing time in 2008, he certainly took in some valuable lessons from some veteran players.

“Last year was kind of frustrating because of the (lack of) minutes,” said Holmes, who played his high school ball at Hastings High School in Houston. “But, I was able to learn a lot from Dominique (Kirk) and even Joe (Jones) in what it means to be a leader of the team. I took that into this year, knowing that I had to work harder in the offseason so I could get more minutes this year.

“I admired the fight that they had. Whatever was happening, whether we were up or down, they always had the same look in their eyes that they were ready to get even better. Dominique’s leadership—he directed everybody on the team. If somebody didn’t know what they were doing, he’d go over and talk to them. He didn’t yell at them, but he’d go tell them what they needed to do. I learned from Joe’s intensity, whether it was in practice or games, he was always very intense.”

Holmes hobbled out of the gates this year. He missed all six of his shots in the season-opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and that was followed by another 0-fer against Stephen F. Austin. He made his first field goal of the season in the third game before hitting his stride against UNC Wilmington on Nov. 25. Holmes exploded for four 3-pointers against the Seahawks to set a new career high.

While those in the stands at Reed Arena that night might have been surprised to see Holmes get hot, his teammates and coaches certainly expected the shots to fall.

“Last year, he really didn’t get a chance to show what he can do,” said junior guard Donald Sloan. “We all knew he was a great shooter who can make plays, plus he’s a good finisher. Just him getting the opportunity (is the biggest difference this season). I’ve always known he could be a player, but this year, he’s getting that opportunity to make plays, and that’s helped him grow all year.”

As non-conference play progressed, Holmes played a vital role in two of the Aggies’ signature preseason wins. Against Arizona on Dec. 5, the Wildcats threatened to run A&M out of its own gym. But Holmes keyed they Aggies furious second-half comeback with three triples in the final 10 minutes of the game. His two free throws with 1:01 remaining pulled A&M to within two points and set the stage for teammate Nathan Walkup’s game-winning shot in the closing seconds.

Then, in a road game at Alabama, Holmes capped another big Aggie rally. His 3-pointer with two seconds on the clock forced overtime, where A&M escaped with an 86-78 win.

While Holmes has certainly hit some clutch shots this season, it’s his play on other areas on the floor that have drawn solid reviews from the Aggie coaching staff. Holmes is no longer a liability on defense, and his ability to serve as a stopper has helped him earn more minutes in the pressure cooker of conference play. Holmes’ sixth man role is more than just scoring, as he is second on the team in steals.

He’s managed to stay strong on defense against some stiff competition. Holmes was part of the A&M defensive corps that held Longhorn A.J. Abrams to nine points on 3-of-10 shooting earlier this season in Austin, and Oklahoma State guard James Anderson’s 3-point threats were mostly neutralized in the two match-ups between the Aggies and the Cowboys.

“B.J. is really helping us defensively,” said Turgeon. “He’s really playing with intelligence on both ends of the floor and he’s started to make some shots. When he does that, he’s pretty good for us. I’ll say this. All across this staff and all across with his teammates, we know B.J. is going to be in the right spot to do the right thing every time, and that’s good to have.”

Holmes said his defensive presence was improved greatly in the off-season. After weighing in at 180 pounds at the end of last year, Holmes decided to dedicate himself to shedding a few pounds. To accomplish that, he sought out longtime NBA player and coach John Lucas, who also worked with Holmes in his youth days. Holmes played with Lucas’ son, Jai, on the same AAU team in Houston, and the two have worked out together since the eighth grade.

As a result of Lucas’s tough workouts, Holmes checked in before the season at a more respectable 168 pounds. Carrying less weight has led to improved foot speed on defense and been a big factor to his success on that end of the court.

“Last year, (defense) was all new to me,” Holmes said. “I didn’t get the reps that I needed, but the more I’ve played, the better I’ve become. With Dominique graduating, I knew another guard would have to play, so I figured why not me? I’m feeling better about myself, moving faster, having more energy—(losing weight) helped that.”

Two of his quietest contributions to the team have come in other areas.

Holmes, who spent a majority of his time at point guard before coming to A&M, currently has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team. While his assist numbers aren’t as high as primary lead guards Donald Sloan or Dash Harris, Holmes has proven to be a good decision maker who can protect the basketball. In his first 505 minutes of play, Holmes had just 15 turnovers—much less than one per game.

He’s also helped the Aggies from the charity stripe. Holmes has made 83 percent of his free throws this season. As opposing defenses wise up to his jump shooting accuracy, A&M coaches want him to be able to drive the lane and try and draw fouls.

“(Other teams) are starting to realize about my shooting ability,” Holmes said. “I think it was in the Baylor game that I was about to get a pass and shoot, but when I turned the guy was right there in my face. I wasn’t used to that because defenses are usually so worried about Josh (Carter) and Sloan.”

Holmes never made it off the bench for the Aggies in last year’s tournament, but there’s little doubt that he would play a large role if the Aggies eventually earn a bid.

Holmes initially committed to A&M after being recruited by former head coach Billy Gillispie. After Turgeon was hired in the spring of 2007, he made one of his first recruiting pitches to Holmes, who was rated one of the top 20 players in Texas by Other Houston natives Nathan Walkup and DeAndre Jordan were also members of Holmes’ signing class, and Turgeon’s words convinced the trio they had made the right decision in committing to the Aggies.

“The program was rising (when I signed),” Holmes recalled. “When coach Turgeon came, we all had some questions but he came to one of my practices and talked to me and my family. He reassured us all that things were going to be OK, and they have been.

“Me, Nate and DeAndre all talked about it and stuck with our decisions. We were so close, and I think that was a big reason why everybody stayed. I don’t know what (Turgeon) told the other guys, but he told me everyone would have a fair chance. That’s what I wanted to hear, and that nobody was going to be over anybody else.”

Turgeon has certainly proven to be a man of his word. Jordan played significantly last season before being drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers, and Walkup and Holmes have both hit big shots in key situations this year. And if he stays healthy, Holmes will have many more chances to make clutch plays—and maybe even a few more bold predictions.