Sunday, December 6, 2009

Back home again ...

... in North Carolina (imagine Jim Nabors singing that, to the tune of "Back Home Again in Indiana").

We have returned from the trip to the promised land of "The System," Grinnell, Iowa. What a great time. It's almost secondary that my Pioneers lost both games, including 105-84 on Saturday night to the Ripon Red Hawks.

Coach Arsenault and his son, Davey, couldn't have been nicer, and the same goes for Sports Information Director Ted Schultz and everyone else on campus. Tim and I met a student during our visit Friday to the bookstore, and ran across her multiple times during the visit. Each time, she asked if we were having fun and enjoying the games and generally just made us feel welcome.

The same goes for everyone else in town. Except for the weather (why's it gotta be so cold?!?!?), Grinnell is such a wonderful town. The downtown area is vibrant and full of local businesses, including a neat-looking old-time theatre complete with a traditional marquee. Movies showing this weekend included "2012" and "The Blind Side."

On Saturday, we grabbed lunch at Lonnski's Pub and Deli, conveniently located at 922 1/2 Main Street. It's a good thing we got there when we did; after Sunday, they were moving because of the "unsafe" conditions of the floor in their upstairs space. Not that I noticed.

Alicia, who helped us while were there, was great, and even helped Tim pick out his roast beef sandwich. That's harder than you would think, since she's a vegetarian (she also is a fan of "The System"). We opened with some queso and chips, which were right on time, before moving to the main course. My club sandwich was absolutely perfect.

We also got the chance to watch most of the North Carolina-Kentucky hoops game, thanks to a couple who rolled in around halftime to request one of the TVs be changed to it. Imagine that, traveling all the way to Iowa to sit beside Tar Heel fans. Ultimately, Kentucky proved to be too much, but it still was a great game.

Then it was on to the women's contest at Darby Gym, with the men to follow. It was a sweep by Ripon, and here are some highlights of the men's game:

  • The Pioneers finally gave up a 3-pointer! Aris Wurtz, the leading scorer for the Red Hawks, calmly pulled up for an uncontested jumper late in the first half that found nothing but net, ending Grinnell's six-game streak without allowing a trey. Wurtz, who came in as Ripon's leading scorer at about 19 points a game, finished with 29 on 13 of 19 shooting, falling short of my prediction of 35. I saw he played forward and likely would be in finishing position against the press, so went with that high guess. I'll discuss later why he didn't make it.
  • Ripon shot 64 percent for the game, including nearly 66 percent in the second half. An assist-to-turnover ratio of 27-to-19 likely helped those numbers.
  • Grinnell took only 71 shots, well short of "The System" goal of 94, and 49 were 3s. The Pioneers hit 16 from beyond the arc, including 5-of-7 from Griffin Lentsch and 4-of-5 from Ross Preston. Xander Strek, John Bruns and Dylan Seelman each added two.
  • Despite forcing 19 turnovers, Grinnell finished with only four steals, which points to the difficulty it had controlling tempo and getting easy baskets.
  • Sadly, it appears point guard Scott Kaitz broke his hand late in the first half and will miss some games. A junior from Plymouth, Minn., Scott was very accommodating during our interview Friday, and even asked if we were staying around for the whole weekend. His parents were in town for Saturday's game and were planning to travel with him to the hospital for X-rays when Tim and I left.
  • When the Ripon lead ballooned to 94-64 midway through the second half, Coach A called off the press during a long session with the fellas on the sideline. He requested back-to-back full time-outs to discuss strategy for the rest of the game, which included a 2-3 zone. The Red Hawks played a 1-3-1 when they got a comfortable lead.
  • Ripon point guard Scott Gillespie, the son of the head coach, played wonderfully against the pressure. He scored 14 points in a game-high 34 minutes with five assists against only three turnovers and added four steals. A free throw early in the first half gave him 1,000 for his career.
  • Grinnell's Joe Fouche, pretty low on the playing rotation despite his start Friday night, had a great run in the final 3 minutes of the game. He didn't shoot or add any numbers to his stat line, but he did draw a charge in the final 30 seconds. He had a wonderful attitude during both games and encouraged his teammates throughout; it was great to see him rewarded with a nice moment near the end.

As I said, Coach A was great. I've told others, I was more nervous interviewing him and his son than when I've sat with Coach K at Duke. He was understandably down after Saturday's game, when he walked over to tell Tim and me goodbye, and even talked about scrapping "The System" somewhat with this group. He said he hasn't really gotten what he is accustomed to from his point guards, demanding double-teams or scoring the ball (there's that expression again!) against one-on-one defense. I hope that isn't the case, and not just because I now have a closet full of Grinnell gear. It is an amazing treat to watch, even with the troubles this weekend. You easily can see why it works; in stretches, the Pioneers dominated play, even with less-talented players.

In the second half, with Kaitz out, Coach A experimented with Matt Skelly and Marques Valdez at the point, and both showed some potential. Skelly drove right to the rim a couple times and finished over Gillespie, and Valdez did the same. As I mentioned, Lentsch and Preston found range from deep, so maybe things turned around a bit. We'll find out Wednesday, when the Pioneers travel to Knox College in Galesburg, Ill.

So the trip is over. Tim and I bolted right after Saturday's game -- following a stop at McDonald's for some food, where we ran into the Ripon team bus -- and drove through the night to return home. I took care of the first leg, making it almost all the way into Indiana, and then Tim took us to Gallipolis, Ohio. It was my turn again, and we got to Randleman, N.C., before we needed gas. We got to my house in Rockingham at 11:30 a.m., about 15 1/2 hours after we left.

Thanks again to Tim for going and allowing us to use his ride, and for anyone out there who followed this little adventure via this blog. Also thanks to Colleen for allowing it to happen. I guess next year I ought to fly.

Take care.

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