Urban: USF Baseball -- A proud program

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Urban: USF Baseball -- A proud program

June 2, 2011
URBAN ARCHIVEMychael UrbanCSNBayArea.com
They aren't exactly household, with one star-crossed exception, but the University of San Francisco baseball program has been producing some notable names for a while now.Head coach, Nino Giarratano, who was named 2011 WCC Coach of the Year, has built up tremendous respect in the college ball ranks over his 13 years at the helm on the Hilltop.Star third baseman, Stephen Yarrow, who recently helped the Dons to both their second West Coast Conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six years, was recently named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He and five teammates represented a school-record six first-team all-conference selections.Former Giants pitcher Jesse Foppert, former Athletic Jermaine Clark, Joe Nelson, Justin Speier and Jeff Harris are among the former Dons who have reached the Majors in the past decade or so. Several others are at various levels of the minor leagues, and yes, Scott Cousins of the Marlins is a former Don.Now consider some names familiar only to family, friends and a handful of former fellow students.Al Smoot. Mike Mooney. Kevin Cronin. Joe Williams. Buddy Holm. Paulo Della Bordella. Chris Gaggero. Eric Enos. Arnie Sambel. Mike Terry. Bob Freschi. Rob Hanke. Greg Wieser, Duffy Aceret. Buzz Lawson.A certain 6-foot-7, soft-tossing lefty, who eventually traded his spikes in for the tools of a less rigorous life in sports media, was among them, too.All of them played baseball at the USF when the program was a losing program.Good players, all. Good enough to play at the NCAA's Division I level, which is the highest level of amateur ball in the country that doesn't feature "USA" across the chest of your jersey. Some of them good enough to earn selections in the MLB draft.While playing for the Dons, virtually all of them lost more games than they won. But don't you dare call them losers.The losers were the members of an apathetic administration that regarded the baseball program as something of a necessary evil.Minimal scholarship money. Ridiculously outdated facilities. Absolutely zero effort to drum up even cursory support from the student body -- even when national powerhouses such as Stanford were rolling into the bandbox that was Benedetti Diamond, named after the program's patriarch.The head coach drew a passable salary, but the assistants could have qualified for food stamps. So bad was it that for two consecutive seasons, in 1990 and 1991, the new pitching coach was the same pitcher who led the previous year's team in losses.The results of the athletic department's gross institutional neglect -- losses, and lots of them -- were predictable. A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.So how did the Dons get from there to here, as the No. 4 seed facing the top-seeded UCLA Bruins on Friday evening in the first round of the double-elimination Los Angeles Regional of the NCAA Tournament?With a committed and loyal head coach, a collection of talented players, a dedicated core of enthusiastic alumni, and an administration that eventually stepped up and started providing the type of support any major collegiate sports program deserves.The turnaround actually started with the hiring of Rich Hill, who preceded Giarratano. But Hill, taking advantage of the fact that any improvement in the wake of the prolonged success drought would make him look like a champ, used the job as a stepping stone and was gone shortly after he arrived.Giarratano was different. He not only built on the momentum Hill started to establish, but he was in it for the long haul. Recruits look for stability in a program, and Giarrantano provided it.A modest man clearly beloved by his players, Giarratano isn't interested in taking much credit, though. After appearing with Yarrows on Chronicle Live on Tuesday, he went out of his way to gush about the increased support -- in the form of scholarship money and major improvements at Benedetti Diamond -- that helped him land the players he needed to compete with the big boys.He mentioned the alumni support, too, and Cronin has been front-and-center in terms of getting former Dons excited and involved, sending a relentless stream of e-mail touting both the program's rise, and the Dante Benedetti Foundation, the mission of which is "helping children through the game of baseball." The combination of these efforts, along with the steady rise of the program's standing in Division I, generated unprecedented interest and pride.These days, many of those aforementioned players who went through the lean years keep in touch via Facebook, swapping war stories and lauding the latest feats of the current club. Gone are the days of 25 parents, sisters, brothers and girlfriends being the only people in the stands. "We'll get 400 on a good day," Giarratano said. It doesn't sound like much, but in context, it's huge.So is Friday's game against the Bruins, where guys such as Wieser, one of the former Dons pitcher-turned-pitching coach, will again be frantically looking for updates however they can. This was was the case Sunday when USF had to beat host Gonzaga in a do-or-die WCC finale.And while UCLA is the favorite in the L.A. Regional, in a way it won't matter whether the Dons win or lose. Not to guys such as Lawson, Mooney, Smoot, and yes, that big lefty whose best fastball looked like a big-league changeup.To those guys, here's the bottom line: By putting the program on the national map, the Dons already have pulled off an upset of epic proportions.

Ward's sacrifice keys 'bounce-back' game for Sharks

Ward's sacrifice keys 'bounce-back' game for Sharks

SAN JOSE – Joel Ward has been in the league long enough to know that the Sharks got outworked and outhustled in their decisive loss to the Blues on Saturday.

That could be why he put his body on the line in the second period against the Jets on Monday afternoon at SAP Center. Ward hustled to a loose puck along the wall with the Sharks holding a slim 1-0 lead and slipped it ahead to Chris Tierney, before getting absolutely plastered by Mark Stuart on a hit as big as you’ll see in today’s NHL.

While Ward was sluggish to get up as a result of his head bouncing off the ice surface, Tierney gave it to Timo Meier, who finished off a breakaway goal early in the second period.

While he was seeing stars from what he called a “clean hit,” Ward also heard the goal horn.

“I tried to get the puck out, obviously, and next thing I knew I was on my back and heard the horn go off,” he said. “I wasn’t too sure what happened after that.”

What happened was a 5-2 Sharks win, two days after one of their worst performances of the season, a 4-0 home defeat to St. Louis. San Jose withstood an early push by the visiting Jets but took over the game in the second period, particularly after Ward’s sacrifice.

"That's the commitment we talk about,” Pete DeBoer said. “Taking that hit, making that play, [Meier] scores the goal. We need that. Joel's a guy that brings that to the rink almost every night. That's what it's going to take at this time of year in order to have success."

In a rare afternoon start, the Sharks looked sleepy in the beginning. The Jets were the better team for the first few minutes, but Martin Jones made sure they didn’t get on the board. He made a key stop on a Shawn Matthias one-timer just 1:29 into the first period, and then bailed out David Schlemko on a defensive zone turnover a few minutes later, again denying Matthias.

The Sharks went to the penalty kill after Schlemko’s cross-checking minor at 11:39, but Ward scored 15 seconds after that, picking the corner over Michael Hutchinson for a pretty shorthanded marker. He correctly read a Justin Braun clearing attempt, when Braun rimmed it past Dustin Byfuglien, who couldn’t keep it in at the blue line. 

After that, “just kind of saw glove side and fired it there as quick as I could,” Ward said.

That led to a dominant second period for San Jose. Along with Meier’s goal, Brent Burns scored on a power play and the slumping Jets were noticeably deflated from there.

Jones said the Jets “came out real hard,” but, “that’s pretty much all [my teammates] needed from me today. You can’t really ask for much more than that from the guys. They put up five, and slowed down a pretty fast team.”

Tierney said: “Joner did a great job of keeping us in it and not giving up a goal there and putting us behind. After that, we kind of got it going a bit and started playing our game.”

There was even some late comedy. Trailing 4-1 at the time, Jets coach Paul Maurice decided to take Hutchinson out for an extra attacker. Jones noticed the empty net and was lining up a shot after he retrieved a dump-in. It didn’t go more than a foot in front of him, though, as Mark Scheifele blocked it and slipped it into an empty net.

Jones could be seen grinning through his mask, while Tierney said he was “laughing on the bench.”

“That’s the first time I’ve tried [shooting at an empty net], and probably the last, too,” Jones said.

In total, Monday's result offered quite the change in mood from Saturday’s whipping.

DeBoer said: “I don't think anyone in our room was happy with how last game went. It was a good bounce-back game."

“It was definitely good today to rebound, and get back to winning,” Ward said.

In divided days, Steve Kerr turns to the words of Martin Luther King Jr

In divided days, Steve Kerr turns to the words of Martin Luther King Jr

OAKLAND -- Two hours before tipoff of the most anticipated game of the season, Warriors coach Steve Kerr entered the room for his pregame news conference, seated himself and immediately began a monologue unrelated to basketball.

Kerr took a couple minutes Monday afternoon, prior to Cavaliers vs. Warriors at Oracle Arena, not only to acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but also to share a story that provided a glimpse into his family.

“First, I want to wish everybody a happy MLK Day,” Kerr began. “I think about this story every year. My son was five years old. He was in kindergarten and he came home from school a couple days before MLK Day and he had this really sad look on his face. And I said, ‘What’s the matter, buddy?’ He said, 'Well, Monday is Martin Luther King’s birthday, and I didn’t get an invitation.'

“So I hope if there was a party today for any of you, you did get invited.

Warriors-Cavs, featuring the teams that met in each of the past two NBA Finals, is one of nine NBA games -- five of which are nationally televised -- scheduled on MLK Day. The NBA makes a concerted effort to use the national holiday as an opportunity to educate while also entertaining.

“We celebrate the game, we celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and his impact and, I have to say, I’m really, really proud to be part of the NBA and proud of (commissioner) Adam Silver’s leadership,” Kerr said. “I’m proud that the league is so progressive in terms of really promoting tolerance and equality -- and they back it up. It is truly from the heart.

“I’m proud of our players for the work they do. And I just want to say thank you for all the people out there who are working toward all those ideals, not only in the league but everywhere -- teachers, mentors, philanthropists, a lot of people out there doing wonderful stuff.”

Asked about significance of MLK Day, as it relates to the America’s contentious political landscape four days before Donald Trump, the most bombastic president-elect in modern times, is inaugurated, Kerr didn’t flinch.

“There’s definitely a divide right now,” he said. “Today is full of significance in terms of reminding everybody to be compassionate, to be empathetic. I was looking at some of Martin Luther King’s quotes this morning. And one of them that I hadn’t seen before that was really simple and to the point was: ‘We may have all come over here on different ships, but we’re now in the same boat.’

“I thought that was really well said. It’s a reminder that we are all products of our environment. Some of us are much more fortunate than others. I know from my own life that there’s no way I’d be sitting here without the family support that I had, the upbringing that I had. There are so many people are left behind.

“And so it’s critical for people to have compassion and have empathy. And I would hope in these times, with so much anger and divide, that we’ll be reminded of that today.”