At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The End of a Legacy

2016 will unfairly be remembered as the year in which life seemed to come off the rails. Mainly due to what seemed to be a rash of celebrity deaths, the consensus from human conversations is that this year can't end soon enough for our liking. How dare such a long list of folks go the way of all the earth, we ask.

Cautionary memo to all: 2016 did not kill these people. Death happens as a regular occurrence. I don't say that to mock death, but to recognize we're having this recognitions as a more fevered pitch than before. Possibly because we're more aware of our own mortality that we blame things on a year.

In fact, 2016 brought some good things. Thousands of teachers and mentors helped a number of students through difficult times and encouraged them to succeed. Simone Biles took Rio by storm in gymnastics and Michael Phelps wrapped up an amazing Olympic career run (with full possibility he could try again in 2020). The world giant panda population jumped by more than 15 percent, moving that lumpily cute creature off the endangered species list. Although pancreatic cancer is still terminal, chemotherapy breakthrough have lengthened the survival rate of five years from 16% to 27%. The suicide rate among males is decreasing. 

And the Cubs won the World Series. Which means that everyone except for the twenty percent of St. Louis Cardinal Universe that has no soul or heart can acknowledge the wonder and joy of that moment.

In the midst of it all, one legacy and life ended on Christmas Eve that brought me both personal sadness and joy in one lump. My esteemed college history professor and dear friend, Dr. Louis J. Voskuil, died that morning after a considerable and brave battle against Parkinson's Disease. It's hard to calculate his imprint in my life...Every day I teach, there's something either consciously or unconsciously I'm borrowing from Sweet Lou in my approach or philosophy.

It was soon after I got news of his death, that I wrote a tribute to the man on my Facebook page. The beauty of his life and work is such that I want you to know of this fine man before 2016 closes. This year may have taken Dr. Voskuil from us. God gave him to us for a good and wonderful season. 

Even as Christmas approaches, there is still the clarion reminder that we live on this side of glory and those we treasure, honor, and love reach the end of their earthly journey. Today I received word that my college history professor, senior integration project advisor, mentor, intellectual shepherd, and dear friend Dr. Louis J. Voskuil breathed his last and left the Shadowlands behind to enter the presence of the God who directs history. To calculate the impact that "Sweet Lou" had on my life, my decision-making, and my teaching is impossible...the world cannot contain it. His impact went beyond the classroom: He was a willing reference for several positions I pursued; he was highly concerned for my physical health when I suffered from post-concussion syndrome my senior year at Covenant; and when my time as a pastor ended rather shabbily, he was one of the first people to reach out to me and call to encourage me through it. Many memories of the man will endure...his patience with myself, Sean Carrick, and Kal Dawson in Age of Europe class during the fall of 1988; his dribbling skill at faculty talent night, plus his dry humor (such as thanking another "prof" at said talent night for being an "athletic supporter"); his vast knowledge and sheer ability to see the patterns in historical complexity; the Cultural Paradigm; and his calm, deep, and persevering faith. All of these remembrances are causing me to smile with gratitude today in the midst of the sadness.
Forty-four months ago, I shared how much Dr. Voskuil mean to me as a student, teacher, and human being. In thanks for his life, I reproduce it now here:…/my-greatest-teacher…
Rest well, Dr. Voskuil. Christmas came early for you. The comfort that Christ will give us in the wake of your passing will come, because He is faithful to us as He was to you.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Key to College Football's Playoff

Those of you who wanted a playoff with a team having a shot at beating Alabama, you got your wish. Think about it.
Since Nick Saban became coach at Alabama, he has led his team to a bowl in each season, winning after 2007 (beat Colorado in the Independence), 2009 (vs. Texas in the BCS title game), 2010 (crushed Michigan State in the Citrus), 2011 (beat LSU in the BCS title game), 2012 (toppled Notre Dame in the BCS title game), and 2015 (pounded Michigan State in the Cotton and Clemson in CFP title game).

Losses? Those were in 2008 (beaten by Utah in the Sugar), 2013 (popped by Oklahoma in the Sugar), and 2014 CFP (run over by Ezekiel Elliott and Ohio State in the Sugar).
You see the trend? Yep. When Saban's Tide teams play schools that begin with CONSONANTS, the Tide wins the bowl matchup. When Alabama plays a team whose name begins with a VOWEL (Utah, Oklahoma, Ohio State), the Tide goes down in defeat.
It ALL comes down to consonants and vowels, people. Which means if the trend holds, neither Washington nor Clemson have a chance. It has to be Ohio State.
Consonants and vowels. Consonants and vowels. That's the key that undoes the lock. My work is done here, folks.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Victory of the Ages

The power that breaks cedars and redwoods, the magic that attends those who seek glory, and the joy indescribable which peals through the caliginosity of the Ohio air...all have visited Earth tonight heralding the dawn of restoration. The warmth of the divine smile upon the myriads of the devoted has rested with the weight of mercy previously forgotten.

With the nestling of two strips of bound cowhide in the glove of one called Rizzo, the mountains shake with the power and fury of a universe of followers too long silent. And from their throats echo forth the good tidings of curses broken, chords of passion that have too long lain dormant in a cruel history too oft remembered. And now we declare to Earth's widest bounds that the curse is over, and the Goat is dead!

Let no man be haughty over his lofty position, for the Breakers of the Curse have risen upward in a tidal wave that shatters such ugly pride and scatters it like chaff in the wind! And let no one despair in the throes of their humiliation, for those once driven low--no matter how long their subjugation--are raised up vicariously through the endeavors of these warriors under a clear November sky.

So let the oceans roar and foam, and may the munificent rumbling of victory resound from coast to coast, shaking the foundations of the world from age to age and evermore. Let angels and archangels thunder forth perpetual acclaim from their highest dwelling with power that splits the rocky depths of hell below! That which was spoiled in the land of grass and vines has been restored, the lowly have been raised up, and all who waited through the ages have gained their reward! Rejoice and be glad, the time is fulfilled, for the Chicago Cubs are the champions of the world!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 13)

Hello Wildcat Universe after a one-week hiatus. Like foliage in the spring, recurring gall stones, and Richard Nixon after his gubernatorial loss to Pat Nixon in 1962....I'm back! 

Although to be fair, spring foliage is the only thing on the above list we should really feel good about. (#GallstonesAreAllTooReal)

It's playoff first-round week on tap, and the Cat contest this Saturday comes as a result of one of the most incredible legal thefts in sports history. With less stealth and more success than the Committee to Re-Elect the President exhibited in 1972 in the infamous Watergate break-in scandal (#ContinuingPokesAtNixon), the Wildcats sneaked into Washington, Missouri, last Friday and stole--not only a win, but also the fourth place in Class 4, District 4, from the St. Francis Borgia Knights with a scintillating 46-35 win on the opposition's turf. With the clinical approach of Arsene Wenger and the enthusiasm of Jurgen Klopp (#PremierLeagueManagers), Westminster turned the game on its ear, continuing a one-week metamorphosis after its loss to Christian High of O'Fallon. There were plenty of balls in the air on both sides, but ultimately the Chad Briden-led Wildcats had enough muster remaining.

The offensive explosion from last week, featuring touchdown strikes to Dylan Conway and Logan Sells, along with ground game scores by Atlin Hall, gives hope to Wildcat Universe that the trend might go on unabated. Briden seems to be fully recovered from his collarbone smackdown in week 2 against St. Dominic and is creeping toward 1000 years for the season after playing only four games. The offensive line must bring discipline and desire to another week in the trenches to help Steve Webb spring loose and increase his 723-yard season total so far. With the Borgia defense--led by top tacklers Matthew Sinnot and Justin Heggeman--certain to attempt a full-scale Conway clampdown, look for wideout Grant Lavalle to be an needed target as the game wears on.

The Knights average nearly the same yardage running the ball as through the air. Jacob Unnerstall gives the Borgia offense a boost with 1254 passing yards to go with 13 TD passes. The Wildcat secondary will have their hands full with receivers Andy Rott (21 catches, 353 yards, 6 TDs) and possession receiver Louis Eckelkamp (24-293-2), among others. Rattling Unnerstall will be the job of the Wildcats' pass rush, which is due for a big game. On the ground game, the Knights can call on four players who have rushed for at least 200 yards for the season (#SpreadTheWealth). That list includes the previously mentioned Heggeman (81 carries, 419 yards, 3 TD) but also fills out with Jonathan Braun (42-300-2) and Chris Brodeur (50-232-3) along with Unnerstall's 218 yards off scrambles or the option. "Contain, contain, contain" will be the byword this week for Westminster, who cannot let the Knights beat them to the edges of the offensive box.

Aside from the obvious match-ups, kicking game, turnovers, and field position will count in droves. It took the Wildcats a whole half to shake the turnover bug last year in the regular season finale in a 37-20 win, but the playoffs were a whole new story in a 63-14 wipeout. That brings up another item...the mental game. The Wildcats have triumphed in eight straight affairs with Borgia, and that dominance must play in the minds of the Knights. Head coach Dale Gilderhaus remarked to journalists this week that "we hope the ninth time in the charm". (#BeautifulCliche)

Whether it is or not remains to be seen, but a Borgia-Westminster game is NEVER lackluster. This Saturday at 3 pm at Westminster, bring your passionate yells and $5 per head for admission. Another page in this intense rivalry turns this weekend.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Where Angels Fear To Tread

I think that--to be completely fair--a number of people find comfort in the phrase "ignorance is bliss". Not that they spout it off, but their default mode is to hold to the principle of that statement.

I think a number of Christians can hold to this, too. The naive path can be fetching for some. The idea of "I know what I believe, so don't confuse me with facts" can be rampant anywhere. It should not be so in the context of Christian belief. Even St. Paul admonished the early church to "test yourselves."

This year, I began a new initiative in my Ethics classes of making the familiar unfamiliar. Concerned about the lack of Bible reading and understanding in the culture at large, I decided that--approximately every other week--we'd take a day off from the rest of the curriculum and really plunge into a passage of Scripture and work through some directed questions about it.

These have been--for the record--some of the most intoxicating, dynamic classes I've been a part of. I can't believe I didn't try this sooner. Stuff pops out of nowhere, like when a student says after reading Genesis 3, "Hey, why is Eve talking to a serpent as if it's the most natural thing?" Kids really respond to the beauty of how Scripture is put together in its story.

And they also respond to the disturbing aspects. The flood narrative in Genesis 6-7, for example.

Yes, we covered a lot of items yesterday after a reading of those chapters. There's plenty to keep people busy. "Who are the Nephilim?" "So it wasn't just rain from above, but the mangling of the ocean floor happened, too?" "Was it a global or local flood? (By the way, that's a fun question to explore down a rabbit hole!)

I want students to move through and even beyond that. I take a Philip Yancey view of approaching the Bible. Confront the hard parts. Ask the tough questions. Don't act like they don't exist. Be honest and ask students to be honest.

I asked the students yesterday, "Permission to speak freely...what sort of vibe do you get from God in the flood story?"

The answers? "He hates sin." Yep, I agree, but then students felt more free to open up further. "He seems harsh," others said. "This disturbs me and makes me uncomfortable," said a few more.

That's good on several levels. First, I don't think God's job is to make us comfy. You can be loving and still people can be confused by your actions (although that's for another blog post). But it was also good in that, even if my students don't completely understand the message of the text there, they feel a lot of freedom to question things and be trusted to be honest. I don't think someone's nascent faith is helped by being told "Listen, sugar britches...just believe what God said and don't doubt and don't question. It'll all be okay if you just have faith."

Crap, that line gets uber-annoying. Almost as annoying as putting "uber" before anything to denote the ultra-side of things.

That brings me to a conversation I had with a student after one of the classes yesterday. She told me she had read Genesis 6-7 in preparation for class the evening before. She told me she cried at the end of it. Because when God said "everything on the earth that has the breath of its life in its nostrils will die", that struck her down. Yes, the world was filled with violence. Yes, it was a horrible place outside of Noah's family (although they're not too sterling in Genesis 9 later). But a good chunk of the animal kingdom? Kids? Washed away like that? It was too much for her to take, and too much for me, to be up front.

So what did she tell me? That she was grateful were reading these hard passages. She said, "I would like to stay naive and not have to deal with the discomfort. I'd rather have the Sunday School image of Noah's ark in my mind. But if I confront things that are hard to deal with now, that prepares me for later. It's not about having the answers so much as it is being willing to take the risk of wrestling with the questions. Because this faith needs to be my faith, not just a belief my parents gave me."

Awesome. She gets it. Or rather, she is getting it, because this is a process.

Am I taking a risk by having students move in where angels fear to tread? I believe I am. Some may come to the Bible and say it's garbage if this is in there, and they walk away from belief. But the rewards outweigh the risks. Looking at the warts of faith now will make a faith in the future--if it takes root--that much more durable. And if God exists, I think that's the kind of faith that honors him.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 12)

The character-building times continue for the 2016 version of the Westminster Wildcats. Last weekend's 33-14 loss to Metro League winner MICDS at Carnival marked several areas for improvement, but the winds of change bring positive vibes akin to the hardships facing Premier League side Swansea City AFC (#GoSwans). Just as Swansea City has experienced difficulty finishing games (#CrapLiverpoolPenaltyKick), so the Wildcats have had difficulty sustaining and finishing offensive drives. But like the Swans, changeover in personnel has arrived for the Wildcats. Across the pond, it comes in the person of Bob Bradley, the first American coach to lead a Premier League Team. For the Wildcats, it comes in the person of a more healthy Steve Webb and the return of Chad Briden at the quarterback position, a recovery more refreshing and bizarre than Rebecca Lowe's attempt at a Valley Girl accent (#CueVideo).
As Josh Pottebaum is able to get a break from 24/7/365 shepherding of the offense and defense, we channel our inner Scott VonderBruegge and ask the essential question for this week: "How does Briden expedite getting the timing down between him and his receivers?" The illustrious Dylan Conway--rumored to be the second coming of legendary receiving and return whiz Henry "Gizmo" Williams--is itching to close out his career with wins aplenty and more school receiving marks. Conway currently stands two receptions behind Ryan Blackwell's career catches mark and one TD reception behind Blackwell in that career category (#DaddyWants). Given that the opponent is Christian High of O'Fallon, and Conway's big party night last year was against the Eagles, we could see some dashes reminiscent of when Gizmo Williams himself could take some Grey Cup groceries all the way back to the house. (#MightyMite)
The Wildcat defense must be prepared for whatever Christian High throws at them, which from the stat sheets we discover begins and ends with quarterback Brady Tolle. The Eagles may be coming in at 0-7 (including a heart wrenching 28-26 loss to Duchesne last Friday), but it's not for lack of effort from their pivot. The second-leading rusher (behind JJ Simon's 355 yards), Tolle has 127 carries, which is 22 more lugs than the entire remainder of the CHS roster. Of all players, only Tolle has a rushing TD to his credit, and he has all nine on the ground. The successor to flash-and-dash D.J. Christiansen, Tolle has also completed 101 of 176 passes for 1284 yards, nine TDs and six picks. Not since Gareth Bale this summer for Wales have we seen such nonstop reliance on one player (#TheDragonRoared). The message for the Wildcat stop force is clear: Stop Tolle first, last, and always.

On offense, the Cats will go as far as Chad Briden's arm and rebuilt collarbone will take them in distributing the ball to Conway, Atlin Hall, Logan Sells, and Grant Lavalle. Steve Webb will test his shoulder against the Eagle defense, and we could see L.B. Battle get a significant amount of snaps depending on how hard the Wildcats jump on their opponents. Last year took some time before the Westminster army fired up their arsenal at full force, but once they did, they coasted to a 45-28 victory.

There is still reason to cheer vociferously, Wildcat Universe. We have much to play for in a couple of very winnable games against CHS and Borgia. Enough to tweak upwards in the district standings to snag a home game on October 22nd? Very possibly. And that would be significant reason to cheer.

But of course, we'll keep all of our loud support within the proper decibel range (#ordinance).

Game at 7 pm this Friday night at CHS-O'Fallon. Get there early. Trust do NOT want to park in the grass behind the stadium (#GoodbyeSuspensionSystem).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 11)

No official picks this week, Wildcat Universe. This is a clarion call of the highest measure. The Snarling Ones are playing spoiler this year for a change, and all the events go down on the Senior Day/Carnival/Ladue Road Classic game this coming Saturday, as the Rams make the short bus ride from just east of Lindbergh to the friendly confines of Town & Country (#HeyNeighborsNoLightsNoProblem) for the thirteenth playing of the Ram-Cat Derby. Locked in at six wins apiece, both squads have more to play for than Libertarian presidential contender Gary Johnson and, unlike Johnson, one team will see their stock rise significantly after this weekend. (#WhyTwoPartySystem)

Both teams are coming off needed wins. MICDS broke the stranglehold of John Burroughs' home field win streak, ending it at 35 games with the abruptness of a Bill Belichick press conference (#HesNotADoctor).
The 26-24 win established two things. First, MICDS can make the most dangerous weapons, like the ballistic missiles of Tyler Foote and Jake Bain, look as ordinary as the screenplay of The Davinci Code. Secondly, the Rams de facto clinched at least a tie for the Metro League title, a championship the Wildcats earned for Westminster last year by bottling up Bain and Foote pretty well themselves. So MICDS comes in on a four-game win streak and full of confidence, while the Wildcats are swiping and clawing their way through injuries to yield brightly burning character. Westminster's 20-6 win over Priory last week posed many items for the grist mill. Significantly, we learned L.B. Battle can both spell Steve Webb at running back AND get stronger as the game goes on. Refusing to go down like David Cameron's poll numbers after Brexit (#DaddyWants), Battle drove his legs hard enough to get three to four yards more after first contact. With Webb on the mend and ideally in the lineup for Saturday, the Wildcat running game has to be at an encouraging spot for head coach Chris Pederson. Dyllan Conway is six catches away from the school receptions record and one TD snag away from a career touchdown catch mark in that category. Despite the giftedness and talent of the elusive Dyll-Pickle, quarterback Josh Pottebaum must still look to find other receivers like Grant Lavalle, Logan Sells, and Atlin Hall to keep the Ram secondary on their heels. If Jo-Potty can string together a myriad of consistent deliveries, he could have the Ram defense as bewildered as Jose Mourinho after a spanking by Liverpool.
But speaking of defense, this Saturday's game could be the stoutest challenge yet for the young Wildcats, not because of the smattering of stars on the MICDS offense, but due to the lack of them for the sake of teamwork. Not since Joseph II of Austria have we seen a propensity for spreading around the glory (#EnlightenedMonarch). Six different MICDS players have at least double-digit rushing attempts for the season, and three have at least 129 yards apiece, led by Preston Buchanan's 173. Graham Bundy, Jr., has completed only 46 percent of his 67 throws, but his 633 total passing yards yield over 20 yards per completion! And although MICDS averages only a little over 200 yards a game (nearly evenly split between rush and pass), they are absolutely deadly when given opportunity. The Three Musketeers of Keiondre Jordan, Ryan Thompson, and Alexander Feldman account for 23 catches for 521 yards and 7 TDs. More than anything, the evenness of the individuals stat sheets is what grabs your attention when looking at the MICDS Rams, and they'll look for the #SuccessByCommittee slogan to come true one more time.

So to sum up and end it and not drone on like William Henry Harrison's inaugural address (#ThirtyDayPrez), here are the keys to the game:

(1) Rise above the negatives: MICDS is facing a four-year losing streak to Westminster by an average margin of 19 points per contest. It is true the margin of victory has shrunk from 34 to 20 to 14 to 8, but the Rams know there is a monkey on their back (#WhatDoesThatMeanAnyway), and if they're going into Peter Gabriel mode to shock the monkey, it will take a keen effort to avoid memories of seasons past. No doubt that's a sermon coach Matt Buha will preach this week in practice to the front-running herd of Rams with the fervor of Joel Osteen on amphetamines. For the Wildcats' part, they have just broken a four-game losing streak of their own in the midst of this campaign. The young Cats must put paws up and claws out all over again and be prepared for a more difficult task than last week. Neither team can afford to put their heads down in distress like a wildebeest and allow the savage lion of negativity to tear them limb from limb. The team that keeps its collective head up the most wins this game. (#DoNotBeAWildebeest)

(2) First down fortitude: For each defense, the success at stunting the opposition's drives will be a direct result of how well they limit yardage on first down. Can the triad of Fred Maune, Jayson Love, and Keiondre Jordan force the Wildcats into second- and third-and-longs? Will it be Cooper Moore, Steve Webb, and company stunting the Rams and preventing their "Hear the Crash, See the Flash" style from stretching the field? What happens on first down will pay dividends for the remainder of each offensive series. And that comes down to discipline, containment, and making reads.

(3) Location, location, location: No doubt, compared to all the other games so far this year...this one is the game where field position will be at a premium. Outside of opening day, Westminster has not been in shootout mode, and MICDS has neither scored more than 28 points nor given up more than 24 in any single contest (#Consistency). All of which means that ball control AND WHERE you are controlling said pigskin is of prime importance. In a game that figures to be a grinder, what end of the field gets used most will most likely tip the balance in favor of the winner.

It's the Carnival matchup of dreams, fans. MICDS vs. Westminster in the thirteenth edition of the Ram-Cat Derby. We'll see you for kickoff at 2 pm this Saturday with a huge crowd. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 10)

Just the facts this week, folks. Just the facts. No hashtags. we mean business. It's time for a win.

1-4 is not what was planned, but life rolls on into the autumn with the Wildcats still poised to make a move upward in both the Metro League and district standings. Priory is the next challenge up for Westminster after our 24-17 defeat in the rain and mire at Lutheran South, and though the Rebels might be standing at 0-5, we cannot take them for granted.

Although being outscored by an average of 6.6 to 37.2, the Rebels will throw everything at the Wildcats in the person of quarterback James Dimitroff, who has completed 50 percent of his passes so far for 354 yards as the successor to record-breaking Andrew Rund. Holden Wilmsen and Dan Willman anchor a durable running game, the latter churning out 247 yards on 34 carries for a rate of 7.3 ypc. Connor Donnelly heads up a young receiving corps with 11 receptions for 205 yards, and he can take a hit, too, as he showed in the playoffs last year against Josh Pottebaum.

On defense, Anthony Kraus, Christian Hulett, and Dan Willman all have more than 30 tackles each for the year and will endeavor to slow down the Wildcat offense. With the ball in the air early and often, that might stretch the Rebel stop forces. LB Battle is due for a solid game at running back as the coaching staff hands him the start behind Pottebaum, whose arm might fall off in an attempt to nudge receivers like Dylan Conway upward on the stat pack. Conway stands ten receptions from the school career lead, and if there's a day that could see him snag double-digit catches, it's tomorrow.

After several bruising rounds in the Metro League, the Wildcat defense is prepared to roam free and make high-impact plays behind the generalship of Cooper "Knock 'Em Around Some" Moore and Austin "Smack 'Em, Yack 'Em" Greene. Look for young players to get some game time to spell five players who are playing both ways.

Kickoff is at 1 pm. Be there and be loud. Your team needs you. (And while you're at it, show up for a $5/head Straub's BBQ tailgate at 11 am in conjunction with Sporting WCA High School Gameday!)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Volume 9)

Another week gone by and more laid on the table for improvement. It's clear that the Wildcats are not going to get anything easy this season; every measure of success will be earned...on purpose with no accident. There are no magic fixes of team-building, no quickly devised quirks. Naturally, one would hope for a one-size-fits-all remedy to slay the vicious rabbits on our schedule, but (1) we do not bear a Holy Hand Grenade and (2) the difference has always been negligible for those who do (#MontyPythonAndTheHolyGrail)
The historic and immutable truth--right up there on the certainty meter with the Nicene Creed, Men in Blazers' optimism, and Mick Foley's lacerated kidneys after being pitched off the cage top eighteen years ago... that it's rare we play a quality end-to-end game on John Burroughs' field (#HardcoreMemories). This on top of the injuries and reshuffling we face in the Wildcat den as we march through a difficult Metro League slate. The Bombers' 28-12 victory was a clear indication they had this game marked on their calendars. Tyler Foote's 250 yards passing set the tone and stretched the Wildcat secondary to their limits. On the plus side, the Cats never quit in adverse circumstances, and the timing of their offense continues to improve as they seek to polish off drives more consistently.  One particular bright spot was Steve Webb outrushing Jake Bain for the second consecutive year, which means our smaller offensive line is doing its job, moving toward the moments when we can kick our opponents around on a regular basis (#MeanHorsey).
Turning toward this Friday night's road opponent, one wonders which teams will be showing up. While Westminster looks to assert itself back into the Metro League upper division level, the Lutheran South Lancers want to exorcise the demons of two years ago, when they inexplicably blew a 21-0 third quarter lead in even more reasonable then-coach Chuck Faucette fashion as the Wildcats stormed back for a thrilling 28-21 victory (#HeyLancers1984MiamiHurricanesLostThatWayToo).
The question becomes, will we see the Lutheran South team that has crunched Roosevelt and Priory by a combined 91-6? Or the team that came back to beat Soldan by four? Or the team that fell apart AGAIN versus MICDS to continue a streak of sadness longer than Kentucky had against Tennessee before 2011? Whatever the case, the Lancers will rely fully on last year's Metro League Player of the Year, Cody Schrader. The all-world junior continues to put up eye-popping numbers with the strength of Jerome Bettis and the durability of former NFL quarterback Jeff Hosteler (#NotBackingDown). Schrader has rushed for 823 yards--691 yards more than the second-place Lancer--and 11 touchdowns, while actually throwing three times, completing all three with one TD pass to go with it. In fact, Schrader has touched the ball of three of every seven Lancer offensive snaps. As Schrades goes, so go the Lancers.

Yet there's more to this team than their tailback. Quarterback Vito Orlando has improved greatly since last year in mobility and throwing stats. Presently completing 65 percent of his tosses for 705 yards, Orlando will look for connections to receivers Colton Bates, Derek Scott, and Keshon Spraggins. The trick will be "Can they spread the field and keep Schrader running up the middle as well?" The Wildcat defense faces a stern test, but it's one they passed with flying colors in a 49-14 romp last season at home, when Schrader was held under 100 yards. Limiting Lutheran South's run success and forcing Orlando to throw on third-and-long will give the Cats better odds on taking over the field (#LikeWilliamWallaceAgainstTheEnglish).

On the offensive side for the Wildcats, Josh Pottebaum continues to gain better timing with receivers Dylan Conway, Grant Lavalle, and Logan Sells, and if Steve Webb has an outing this week like he had against Burroughs, Westminster fans will have a lot to cheer for (#DaddyWants). Don't forget also the critical role of special teams and turnovers as well. A short or flipped field can be a source of joy or misery. If we win the turnover battle, it could be a long night for the Lancers.

Which, incidentally, is exactly what we want (#HaveNoMercy).

Kickoff is 7:00 pm Friday, September 16th at Lutheran South's field. As Notre Dame fans would chant, "Onward to Victory!"

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Volume 8)

With the MSHSAA regular season one-third in the books, the conference races start to go from warm-up to rising heat (#FrogInTheKettle). That image in mind, it's most appropriate to look ahead to this weekend's wrangle at the corner of Clayton and Price Roads as Westminster visits John Burroughs in a rematch of last year's Metro League championship-deciding clash won by the Wildcats, 27-14. (#GloryRoad)

The sting of that one loss drove the determined Bombers all the way to the Class 3 state championship, with the Oct. 3rd shocker being their only defeat of last season. But they have already matched that total this year with their opening-weekend loss to equally stunning St. Dominic. Returning from that loaded team is the Nuclear Payload himself, Jake Bain. With the name that should be familiar to Westminster fans, Bain has totaled 410 rushing yards and 7 TDs this year. Still dangerous to strike from anywhere in the backfield or on special teams, it is noteworthy that Bain's yards-per carry total is down this year from 9-plus to "only" 5.9. (#ThatsNoDowngrade) Nonetheless, the Wildcat stop forces will need to contain JB of JB to keep the Bombers from more advantageous down-and-distance possibilities. (#DaddyWants)

Passing has been an area of improvement, as Tyler Foote, who shone last year during the title run, is even better this season, completing over 55% of his passes for 642 yards, 4 TDs and no picks. It could be argued that the determined Wildcat secondary could pose a stiff threat to Foote and his posse of receivers. Ronald Smith has graduated, but Suleman Burrows (#PhoneticMatch) complements his kicking prowess with an uncanny knack for finding the ball out of the air, as his nine receptions for 280 yards have given him a 31.1 yard per catch average, electrifying Bomber fans like CM Punk thunder- bolting Chicago (#StraightEdgeChampion).
On defense, John Merritt's boys are hungry and disciplined as usual, and they don't get caught napping often. Look for Harris Malik to come hard and fast from his linebacker position and add to his 28 team-leading tackles.

The Wildcat defense knows they have to key both Bain and Foote, but Cooper Moore is capable of rallying the troops as the defense has improved since week 1. The secondary matchups with Burrows will be critical, and the Cats realize that they have to eliminate the big plays they gave up against Lutheran North lest we be stung with something the likes of the Miracle at Michigan (#GiveKordellStewartSomeLove). 
The offense will go as far as the offensive line will protect and open holes. To that end, quarterback Josh Pottebaum will seek to build on his 216 yards against Lutheran North, many of which ended up in the hands of Dylan Conway, who is closing in on several career receiving records (#TheLittleEngineThatWill). Steve Webb will look to get back on track and re-capture the form he flashed against St. Mary's on opening day. But again, it comes down to the advances of the line. And on a day that should feature some gorgeous weather, the elements should stay clear of affecting their movement.

We're getting there, Wildcat Universe. Brick by brick. It's time to make Burroughs part of that wall at fourteen hundred hours on Saturday.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 7)

For those of you wondering when this will stop, stand firm.

Your team is doing so.

For the first time since 2012, the Westminster Wildcats have been hit with a two-game losing streak. As such, that means this year's senior class is coping with something unknown. That also means that the Wildcat Universe needs to give them room to deal with it.

The heartbreaking 24-21 loss to number-one area small school Lutheran North puts the Wildcats at 1-2 on the season with a daunting game against John Burroughs coming up this Saturday. I'm not going to go into all the details of the play-by-play. John Hough has captured the highlights of the contest here at Gateway Sports Venue (by the way, there is no better sole proprietor-run vehicle of high school football action in the St. Louis than what John Hough puts really need to check him out). I'll simply say a few things.

1. It's disheartening to give up big plays, especially the game-winner when you have the opponent on their side of the field. I think it's fair to say the players and the coaching staff are of one accord in saying they will improve in this area.

2. Josh Pottebaum came in and did a great job spelling the injured Chad Briden. This is in addition to playing defense. Great mobility, too...and as we move through the stretch of games we have remaining, that should be a tremendous asset to the offense. Just stay healthy, Josh.

3. Dyllan Conway continues to impress, if that was at all possible given what he's already done in his career. Two more touchdown grabs last Saturday makes people wonder what could possibly be an encore. So there are good things here.

Now let me offer one more insight. Yes, I realize we are 1-2. Let's also recalibrate this matter in a different light (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

Gilles Tippette's book Saturday's Children recounts the 1971 Rice University football season under head coach Bill Peterson (whose surname is a phonetic hair's breadth away from that of Westminster head coach Chris Pederson). The Rice Owls played a fierce schedule loaded with powerhouses like Houston, USC, LSU, Texas, and Arkansas. The final record was 3-7-1, which means Rice was relegated to the lower division of the then-Southwest Conference.

But look at the results week-by-week and you'll see many close games. To wit:
     9/11/71        Houston                    Lost        21-23
     9/18/71        (#17) USC                 Lost          0-24
     9/25/71        Tulane                       Won       14-11
     10/2/71        @ (#16) LSU            Lost          3-38
     10/16/71      SMU                         Lost         10-16*
     10/23/71      @ (#16) Texas          Lost         10-39*
     10/30/71      @ Texas Tech           Won          9-7*
     11/6/71        (#16) Arkansas         Tied         24-24*
     11/13/71      Texas A&M              Lost         13-18*
     11/20/71      @ TCU                     Lost          19-20*
     11/27/71      Baylor                       Won         23-0*

The conference games are marked with an asterisk (this was before Houston joined the SWC). And therein lies the wonder. Note the margins of defeat. Six points to SMU. Five points to Texas A&M. One point to TCU. And a last-second tie against Arkansas when the Hogs kicked a field goal at the final gun.

After the last game vs. Baylor (the Bears were a tepid 1-10 that season, nothing like the recent powerhouses), Peterson told the team about "sixteen points". That was the spread that kept the Owls OUT OF THE COTTON BOWL AS CONFERENCE CHAMPS! Had the Owls scored 7 more points vs. SMU, one more against Arkansas, six more against A&M, and two more against TCU, they'd have finished 7-4 overall but a sterling 6-1 in the conference. They would have tied with Texas and--under the conference rules of "most recent appearance"--because the Longhorns had been to the Cotton Bowl more recently, in the event of a tie, Rice would've gone to Dallas!

3-7-1, and sixteen points was the spread that kept the Owls from a New Year's Day trip to Dallas to play Penn State.

What does this have to do with Westminster, you ask? Well, we're not that far away from lofty heights ourselves.

A high snap on a punt vs. St. Dominic. Punching in another TD against the Crusaders. Defending the last TD against Lutheran North.

Courage, fans. We are three plays away from being 3-0 on the season. That's how close we are.

That should be a bolstering encouragement to our team. We're on the verge of something great. We need to gain more experience, but we're getting there.

The ride has only begun. Look out, Burroughs. Because we're coming at you.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 6)

The upper respiratory gunk sneaks into my system, spreading with all the certainty and stealth of kudzu in the Deep South, land of grits, accents, and night-time train passings (#MyCousinVinny). But never fear, Wildcat fans, because no matter what else occurs from week to week, the Lair is doubly determined to keep you informed and ready for this weekend's game (#DaddyWants).

With enough talent to make deep runs in the Class 2 playoffs for years to come--or at least longer than Eddard Stark held on as Lord of Winterfell (#GameOfThrones)--the Lutheran North Crusaders host our Wildcats this Saturday on Lucas & Hunt Road just a potato gun shot from the UMSL campus (#GoTritons). Last year, LN had come off bruising encounters with Clayton and SLU High before they visited Thomas Cranmer Field at Westminster Stadium, and after holding u off the first couple possessions, the Cats broke through for a 28-0 halftime lead--utilizing a Cameron Tucker pick-six and a Steve Webb rip-six on defense--en route to a 35-6 win. But North recovered down the stretch, parlaying an explosive offense which averaged 52 points per game over the next nine games (#ArenaFootball). Losing to Palmyra in the Class 2 quarterfinals was no shame for Carl Reed's men, who finished the year 8-5.

The supersonic slinger Aqeel Glass takes his final season behind center, having committed already to the Sun Belt Conference's Florida International University (#GoldenPanthers). Clocking in at a completion percentage just south of sixty, Glass is averaging 235 yards a game and can spread the wealth around to a talented posse of pass-pluckers. Jordan Sommerville is the primary deep threat to the Wildcat secondary, with his twelve catches for 291 yards evoking comparisons to the legendary Wolverine, Anthony Carter.

Not content merely to tear up the airwaves, Glass can roll out and keep the ball, or hand it off to Donovan Marshall and his 211 total yards on 5.1 yards a crack (#WheresJeromeBettis). The Crusaders will stretch the Wildcats' front and see if they can contain their speed, but, having seen the workhorse effort of Jacob Larson in last week's game, they are sure to test the middle of the vaunted Westminster defensive line.

The injury to Chad Briden has given Coach Chris Pederson and his cohorts a chance to hit the reset button and change personnel if not the visionary approach. Josh Pottebaum will likely be called on to fill Briden's shoes, and Steve Webb no doubt wants to recover from being reined in against St. Dominic. Lutheran North has size along the line, and it may come down to how much conditioning each side has when the game moves into its latter stages. (#RunBabyRun)

All in all, it comes down to what team shows up for Westminster tomorrow in Normandy (#NotTheD-DayOne). Who steps into their roles and flourishes will go a long way toward securing victory over a talented North squad. Yes, the road is a tough slog, much like the slip and slide effort of the Panthers and Jaguars...
...but difficulties do not a field of horror make. Above all, remember your Narnia history on the pages of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as the White Witch didn't go down until the reserves showed up. (#CSLewis)

There's always a place for the hidden champion. And may we find that way to victory on the road tomorrow.

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 5)

One loss is not sufficient cause for suddenly quoting Nietzsche in a dark room with lit candles. A stumble along the way is no cause for nihilism. The brooding Bard perhaps, for the difficulties that beset our beloved Wildcats are enough to cause the garden-variety Westminster fan to lilting "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires." (#Macbeth) But in a year that has already seen quality reaction to raw talent and new faces, rest assured that the Cats will claw right back into contention, St. Dominic loss aside.

'Twas a game that had all the sensation of running a 5K race in three feet of cooked oatmeal (#HealthyBreakfast). Knotted at a 3-3 tie at the halftime break, the 'Saders and Cats had slugged it out in a defensive bout worthy of a clash between SEC powers (#BAMAvsLSU). But skittish special teams put Westminster behind to stay when an errant punt snap flew over Grant Lavalle's head and through the north end zone, giving St. Dom a 5-3 lead they would never relinquish. Eighty-three seconds later, SD quarterback Dominic Demerath scrambled into the end zone to make it a two-score game, also topping that run with another tally five seconds into the fourth quarter. As St. Dominic tipped the balance in their favor by a 19-3 count, one could sense the world starting to go "BOOM" around Westminster Stadium with considerably less joy than showed by the Teutonic Care Bear. (#WeLoveKlopp)

But in just under two minutes, here came the Wildcats running and shooting with the pinball like action of a June Jones setup. An 11-yard scoring toss from Chad Briden to Dylan Conway and a two-point run by Steve Webb made things a one-possession game as the stands came alive. On the next Westminster possession, none other than Lavalle himself made a Sportcenter-worthy snag of a Briden toss and took it to the Crusader 7, and Wildcat fans felt their team back on the prowl again.

Alas, with the swiftness of the gods when they condemned Prometheus, disaster struck on the next set of downs when Briden took a hard shot to his left shoulder and crumpled to the turf. Soldiering on to the end of the drive, he barely overthrew Conway on fourth-and-goal before leaving the game with a broken collarbone and our fans with broken hearts. (#WhatAStinger)

Inexplicably, the Crusaders channelled their inner Jeff Fisher on their next possession, calling a fake punt inside their own 20, and the Wildcat special teams smelled it out like Nancy Kerrigan sensing Will Farrell's advances at a disciplinary hearing (#BladesOfGlory). The ball went back to the Westminster "O" and backup signal-caller Josh Pottebaum. The attack forces fought valiantly, but the Wildcats had peaked and spent themselves, and much like Swansea City in rain last week at Leicester, it wasn't enough to catch the victors. (#PremierLeaguePlug)

Looking at the game, it is a difficult pill to swallow, much more so than 1000 mg acetaminophen. But Wildcats know they have no time to waste. Shifting pieces around the chess board with the resolve of a Garry Kasparov will be a must throughout this week, as well as opening up holes for Steve Webb, who was held to 48 yards rushing against the St. Dominic defensive front. But we have a team and coaching staff that refuses to quit as we head into Metro League play this coming weekend. And that is the focus of our next post.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 4)

The cruelty of looking forward on this day of all days! Such historical disaster is surely not a portent of good vibes for the near future. On August 24th in years past, our human race has undergone the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroying Pompeii (AD 79), the sacking of Rome by German barbarians (410), the capture of Washington D.C. (#RedcoatRetaliation) in 1814, the landfall of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and--in the ultimate disgrace--the 2006 downgrading of Pluto to a dwarf planet, mocking both the periphery of our solar system and Peter Dinklage all in one fell swoop. And getting Dinklage into "angry elf" mode is simply not a good idea.
Certainly there are good and holy moments of August 24 in days of yore (#ThatRhymes). Baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti did what so many pitchers failed to do, and that is keep Pete Rose off the base paths, this time by keeping him out of baseball (#WhatAreTheOddsAskGamblingPete). But even a moment like that cleansing the national pastime's colon is balanced out by the designation of the fourth and twentieth of this month being United Nations Day (#OhTheInertia!).

Nonetheless, we look forward, not behind, and an army of Crusaders invades from the land of O'Fallon. Although headed by head coach Blake Markway and not by Richard the Lion-Hearted, the hordes from St. Dominic pose a stout challenge for the Westminster Wildcats, matters of X's and O's that have been prime fodder for the grist mill over a plate of fish and chips (#ScottishArms). We go to the preview.

The offense begins and ends with the running game, as 45 of the Crusaders' total 60 offensive snaps in their upset win over John Burroughs stayed on the ground. The 277 yards were split among four backs, none doing more damage than the rugged Jake Larson. His 21 carries for 127 yards kept the ball out of the hands of the defending Class 3 state champions, and there are few more damaging between the tackles. Then again, that's where the Wildcats' defensive strength gained in potency over the course of their win over St. Mary's, much like the won-over undecided voters in the final week of the Brexit campaign (#ByeByeEU). Keith Beckman and Theo Pardee bring more flavor to the mix, so that's it's not a one-man show, like Penn without Teller. 

The pivot is where the game can turn. Not only did Dominic Demerath score the win with his touchdown pass to Alex Hoff with thirty seconds to play, he is a fine runner. In fact, his roving ability is so maddening and quick, it makes legendary University of Georgia and Minnesota Vikings scrambling man Fran Tarkenton look like an obese buffalo on Quaaludes. Although able to strike at a moment's notice, Demerath simply has to get his completion percentage up from his 4-of-15-for 74 yards stat line to keep Crusader drives moving along and not fizzling out like their namesakes' siege of Tunis in 1270 (#RIPLouisIX). One simply cannot expect two wins in a row with those stat-lines, as lightning simply does not strike twice in the same place.

Unless you believe Jim Trott in the third episode of The Vicar of Dibley.

Jim Trott: "Oh yes, my father was struck twice by lightning."
Hugo Horton: "Oh, how did he feel?"
Jim: "Heavy. We buried him the next day."

The keywords for the Wildcat offense? Protect and advance. Win the turnover battle. Mix the run and pass and keep the ball moving. On a humid afternoon that contends with any steamy day in the Palmetto State (#SouthCarolinaGamecocks), keeping the St. Dom's defense on the field and getting them worn out will only help things.

On defense, the stop troops need to ramp up their containment, as they simply cannot allow Demerath to bust outside and cause havoc. But have faith, because like Rick Astley, the defense will never give us up. Or give up. Whatever. (#CueTheManHimself)

Expect a dogfight. This is not last year's St. Dominic's team that got steamrolled by the Wildcats. Then again, this isn't last week's Wildcats. Improvement coming. Guaranteed.

#PawsUp #ClawsOut #BlueReign

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 3)

The maxim is "Defense Wins Championships", but whoever was the provenance of that glorious quote took a savage beating this past weekend. In a contest that seemed more like old-time Tecmo Bowl video gaming than old-school three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust (#WoodyHayesWeRememberYou), the Wildcats of Westminster ran into some rough headwinds in the Dragon fire of St. Mary's. Right out of the gate, much like Ronda Rousey against Holly Holm, we got kicked square in the jaw. Unlike Rousey, however, (#SecondRoundKO) the Wildcats refused to stay on the mat, clawing back for a 49-47 triumph sealed by a late interception, making the defensive gem quite ironic. (#ChannelingAlanisMorissette)

Within minutes, the Cats were tested severely, with St. Mary's mixing pass and run in expert fashion. The young and green Wildcats snarled with ferocity but, like Arsene Wenger during halftime adjustments, had few answers for the initial onslaught (#ArsenalProblems). The score was a disconcerting 13-0 before Westminster asserted its muscle in the second quarter, with Dyllan Conway taking an eighteen-yard toss from field general Chad "Air Raid" Briden and smoking into the end zone with the speed of an F-16 Fighting Falcon (#AirForceFlyboys), leaving a clan of Dragons sputtering in their heat vapors. The Wildcat running game asserted itself, with the indomitable Steve Webb lighting things up with 16 carries for 207 yards and three scoring jaunts. Before the crowd knew what hit them, Westminster had snapped back for a 14-13 lead. The Dragons stole another score and had the ball with under two minutes in the half and a 20-14 lead. To sit on it or want more? Like Stephen Douglas did in penning the Kansas-Nebraska Act, they wanted more, and like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster (#IdiotFranklinPierce). Dyllan Conway gathered in an interception near midfield, the ball nestling into his arms like it was his firstborn child, and there was no Gandalf raised up against him on the return journey to stay his ilk from pay dirt (#YouShallNotPass). 21-20 was the score as the teams broke for the locker rooms after a half as vexing and exhausting as the historic Salem Witch Trials (#PuritanShame).

The fast break tempo continued in the second half, hearkening back to the halcyon days of yore when NBA teams knew what a fast break was and Magic Johnson led the way (#RedHotChiliPeppers). Re-born pivot man Gus Dattolli chiseled away at the Wildcat defense, finding wideouts like Jalen Bethany and Antonio Burks at the end of improbable frozen ropes. Burks himself plucked an eye-popping 16 receptions for 324 yards, absolutely inhuman numbers--or at least Jerry Rice-like stats (#GreatestOfAllTime). Briden answered the bell and took on the challenge, finding Grant Lavalle for two second-half scores as part of his 16 of 26 for 226 yards stat line. At no point in the second half did the Wildcats trail, but at no point were they out of danger, for Dattolli's heroic effort of 29 of 50 for 528 yards (you read that right) kept the pressure on (#BringBackAndreWare). Although running back Jordan Grant (104 yards) inflicted early damage, the Wildcat stop troops adjusted as the game went on, bringing the Dragons' rush average down to their pregame defensive goals, and the swagger from the Cats went from #MeowKitty toward #RegalRoar. Westminster gave the ball over on downs deep in St. Mary's territory late, and here came the Dragons again down the field. In the press box above, the sentiment was it was strange a defensive play was needed to secure a Wildcat win. No sooner had that sentiment turned into functional carbon dioxide than Steve Webb stepped in front of a Dattolli zip line to take it back safe from threat of loss.

So, the takeaways:
(1) The Wildcats showed themselves to be a team with much work to do, but a team of much spit-and-polish grit. Not since the town coal miners in Richard Lleweylyn's How Green Was My Valley has one seen such a lunch pail effort in the face of hardship. You can argue with the fact that St. Mary's came to our house and plunked down nearly 700 yards of offense, but you can't argue that it was a win, and to gain the first victory of the Chris Pederson era, these Cats needed to pull themselves up and face threats square in the eye and plunge into danger as if facing a meteor (#DeepImpactOrArmageddonMovies). Remember that we still have players--I'm looking at you, Cooper Moore and Josh Pottebaum--who can split players in twain in Roman Reigns-like fashion. 

(2) As much air yardage as Dattolli got, the Wildcats managed to improve their clamps on the Dragons' ground game as the contest progressed. In talking to Coach Pederson, it was clear that they had a goal of limitations for their Job 38:11 defense ("Here thou shalt come, and no farther") and the yards-per-carry average was one of which the staff was pleased (#ProjectStuffTheRun).

(3) The offense is still clicking for Westminster. Chad Briden has not skipped a beat in taking the baton from Evan Johnson in a smooth stride (#UsainBolt). Conway is complemented by receivers Grant Lavalle and Logan Sells, so that Briden has several dangerous weapons. Webb is...well, vintage Steve Webb, always at full throttle. So all these ingredients add up to a fully loaded offensive cache (#DaddyWants).

(4) To the critics who felt that was a very un-Westminster-like performance: Your team took it on the chin, between the eyes, and in the groin, and STILL got up and came back to throw haymakers. The slumbering giant awoke upon invasion like a throwback to the Falkland Islands when Great Britain flexed its muscle against bully Argentina (#MaggieThatcherGoesFreakingNinja). What happened last Saturday might not have been pretty. Then again, neither was Manuel Noriega. But unlike the Pulveriser of Panama, your Wildcats are unparanoid men of character. Better to face adversity now and grow stronger through it than to coast easily and never learn at all. We can leave behind the Dragons as if it was a bad memory from Game of Thrones (#JonSnowLives). I guarantee you they're already preparing at full steam for St. Dominic.

Speaking of which, that'll be the subject of the next post when we preview this Saturday's game against the Crusaders from across the Missouri River. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 2)

And away we go...

Welcome to the first game preview issue of the entire 2016 Westminster football campaign! It's a new year, but the same principles remain from the coaching staff: run the ball well, stop the opposition's running game, protect the ball, limit mistakes, take adversity head-on. The dream re-ignites this Saturday at 1 p.m. on the verdurous gridiron at Westminster Stadium. The Wildcats are stoked like the bonfires at Texas A&M during Rivalry Week (#CollegeHijinks). Will we see high-impact plays? Of course. Will our younger team make some mistakes. Probably, although one doubts it will be a mishap of the severity like drafting a dead guy (#CanadianFootballBlunders). The St. Mary's Dragons are coming to give us their best shot and, although the Southsiders from Grand Boulevard have fallen on more difficult times as of late, they like their late alum Yogi Berra, might truly say it's not over till it's over.

Despite St. Mary's 1-9 ledger last year (#MilkThatDubourgVictory), the Wildcats can take nothing for granted. Three Dragons' losses last season were by razor-thin margins: four against Confluence, three at Priory, and a 50-49 heartbreaker at home against a Borgia team that gave us all we could handle on Carnival day. Nothing lasts forever, whether it be a Watergate prison term, Elizabeth II's reign (#GodSaveTheQueen), or a bad spell for a high school football program (although Houston [TX] Scarborough came close).  Fans may be quick to forget that just four years ago, when our Wildcats slogged into the playoffs to a loss at Sullivan, St. Mary's was enjoying its own Cinderella 11-3 season that didn't end until a loss to state power Webb City in the state semifinals. Head coach Corey Bethany and his army will bring the fire this Saturday.

Among the charges that come forth from the shadow of Dad's Scotch Oatmeal Cookie factory, Gus Dattoli has matured in his time at quarterback. Leading impressive offensive outputs against Borgia and Dubourg last year, Dattoli is back and will look for brothers Alex and and Jacob Fesi to get open out wide. In the backfield, bruising running back Corbin Lee returns for his senior season, and the 5'11" bowling ball is capable of running over his share of barriers. Fellow backfield mate Jordan Grant can scurry for yardage and displays speed that--while falling short of Usain Bolt--at least comes closer to Carl Lewis (#OlympicGlory) when chasing down runners on special teams. And look out for Lee on defense; he's a monster from his OLB spot.

For the Wildcats, it all comes back to the basics as we begin the Chris Pederson era: block, tackle, run, encourage. Whatever the specific play calls, look for the Cats' skill position players to put pressure on the edges of the Dragon defense to wear them down. For the defense, keying on Lee is a must. A fast start, a plus-margin in turnovers, and staying within themselves means that Westminster could very well prevent the Dragons from celebrating at the Iron Barley later in the evening (#BallisticElvis). All that being said, the curtain lifts on Saturday, and the new-look Wildcats are ready! #PrepareToRoar

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 1)

It's back. No, not the Reform Party under Ross Perot (further advancing proof of a benevolent God). It's pigskin bliss at 800 Maryville Center Drive, where behind the hallowed gate leading into Westminster Stadium, we have the proverbial changing of the guard. With all the anticipation and even more confidence than the dawning of the Jose Mourinho regime at Old Trafford for Manchester United (#IHaveNothingToSay), the Chris Pederson era dawns on the Wildcat horizon.

After the historic playoff run by last year Blue Surge (#PawsUpClawsOut), one asks questions about the coming campaign. Specifically, who will carry us through the fields of conquest as Joshua led the Israelites through the milk and honey of ancient Canaan (maybe with less bloodshed)? And while graduation hit the Wildcat ranks with a stiff blow, there are more soldiers rushing to fill the phalanx. Are we rebuilding or reloading? Are we as well stocked as Diana Ross' luggage for a road trip with the Supremes? On exploring the team's outlook, I have to say it has me like the Nordic posse in Reykjavik celebrating Iceland's epic EURO2016 run (#VikingClap)

On offense, over eighty percent of our rushing yards and touchdowns scored return for the 2016 season. Steve Webb and his 1874 yards and 23 TDs are in everyone's cerebral cortex right now, but Coach Pederson rightly points out that the offensive line earned those yards. An offensive line that is entirely graduated and gone like Barbara Hershey in Beaches (#SappyChickFlick) means putting new personnel storming the Dardanelles of defensive fronts. It means our line will not average 300 pounds per man this year (unless Luke Vasel survives consumption of five gallons of pulled pork before Saturday's game), but it can be a more mobile unit that thrives on increased misdirection. The key, as always, will be getting feet into the neutral zone like Wile E. Coyote invading the comfort zone of the Road Runner (#ChildhoodMemories). For the running backs, the key questions is: Will they have great vision, shiftiness, and the ability to run over people like last year? The illustrious Steve Webb has those qualities in spades, as do backups like Altin Hall and LB Battle. What will matter is how they respond to getting hit at the line of scrimmage. Misdirection, counter, zone reads...all these are known parts of our game. The question will be how we maximize them to shatter defenses like the late Madeline Kahn's voice could do to wine glasses. (#DaddyWants)

The passing game brings a new, yet seasoned, face to the Wildcats' pivot. Chad Briden can turn his attention from the Missouri gubernatorial primary elections (#OnToNovember) and bring his leadership skills to bear as he succeeds the record-snapping Evan Johnson. According to Pederson, Briden exhibits the football intelligence needed for the position and works incredibly hard. He picks up the offensive system with the speed of Secretariat, has the vision of Seattle Slew, and displays the epic tenacity of American Pharaoh (#TripleCrownWinners). The way of improvement comes with thousands of reps and dedicated practice, and Briden is showing synergy with the receiving corps, both with returning veterans (#OfferDyllanConway) and rising members from last year's junior varsity. Conway and Logan Sells will mentor upcoming snag-men like Jeremiah Thompson, Grant Lavalle, and Caleb Layton, among others. And of course, the dangerous Conway can hit you from any direction, running, catching, or throwing (#FirstScoreAgainstBurroughs).

The defensive side of the ball contends with its own losses, although we come off looking better than the Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae (#300). Despite the losses of three defensive backs and practically the whole defensive front, the cupboard is hardly bare. Three returning players logged more than 100 points each in the team's defensive point system. Cooper Moore and Jimmy Thomas give the Cats a seasoned look at linebacker, and hard-hitting Josh Pottebaum returns in his role as High Priest of the Church of the Painful Beatdown (#JackTatumFlashback). As Coach Pederson states over and over, it's all about finding the right combinations of personnel, for the sets that are most effective to stuff the run and force opposing offenses into the discomfort of a lifetime.

Moving to special teams, it's interesting to note that out of all the plays of the past year in which Westminster had the ball at the start of said play (scrimmage, kickoffs, punts, field goal attempts, conversion attempts), an astounding 23% of those were some variety of special teams. (#NotEvenFiguringInPuntReturnsOrKickoffReturns) Knowing full well the high-chance possibility of this area to shift a game and field position, Coach Pederson gave huge props to assistant coach Greg Schoenberg and his preparation of the Wildcat special teams. Andrew Kempen returns as placekicker, and Grant Lavalle and Kempen's older brother Alex have taken reps at punter. Setting the bar high, Pederson declared they're shooting for a net punt average of 35 yards. Additionally, fans can look forward to Dylan Conway's shifty speed on kick returns, although Pederson mentioned it is imperative to have someone shoulder the load there to protect Conway's focus on plays from scrimmage, for one can't let in exhaustion the way Hope Solo lets in Swedish penalty kicks. (#TooSoon?)

Nothing is a given, and the work ahead for the Wildcats is still daunting, even as they are bedecked with the #4 ranking in the state in Class 4 (#PreseasonHonors). But the journey begins this Saturday at 1 p.m. on the verdant turf of Westminster Stadium, as the Cats claw with the St. Mary's Dragons (#YogiBerraAlmaMater). Look for the upcoming preview of that game in another post tomorrow. For now, we in the Wildcat Lair bid you a temporary Tchuss! for now as we #PrepareToRoar.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Broadened Broadcasting

One more week, and I'm back in my sanctuary.

Teaching? Oh no. That begins Tuesday with a new crop of students. I meant I'm back in the press box at our football stadium, ready to make more games come alive for Westminster fans.

It's a new season as we come off a sizzling 2015 campaign in which we went 13-1 and got to the Missouri state Class 4 semifinals before falling to eventual state champ Kearney (in weather that would've made the South Pole look like a balmy upgrade). We are replacing two wide receivers, our record-setting quarterback, our starting offensive line (which averaged 300 pounds per man!) and defensive front, plus three defensive backs.

Yet new coach Chris Pederson is not rebuilding but reloading. We have talent.

But that waits until mid-week when I do my season preview issue of our unofficial team newsletter, the Wombat.

PA announcing dominates my thoughts now. I'm not going to repeat what I've said before. Right now, I'm excited about getting back in the booth and capitalizing on some areas I've grown over the last couple years as a broadcaster. To wit:

1- Anticipation: Doing the little things in between plays is essential to smooth storytelling. Notice who breaks from the huddle before the play. Have an understanding of the team's playbook. Keeping track of who is on the field will help you get a call right of who snags a 17-yard reception or who makes a dazzling open-field tackle.

2- Preparation: Research the history between teams and share details of the series, who's won the most recent game, and so forth. Announce who the opposing coach is, how many years he's been there, and anything else. 

3- Get the little things right: I always go to the opposing coaches' room in the press box with their team's roster and go over players' names and pronunciations. It takes only about five minutes, and it promotes good relations between schools. Plus, you're more guaranteed to prevent a parent from MICDS, John Burroughs, Priory, or Borgia from getting upset their son's surname got mangled on air. Well, maybe not Borgia. They tend to hate me no matter what.

4- Celebrate the milestones: I study the regional stat sheet at the week before each game. If a player is close to breaking 1000 yards rushing or passing for the season, or throwing his 20th touchdown pass, I keep running stats during the game while I'm announcing. That way, if he breaks the milestone, I acknowledge it on the microphone and the fans get to cheer. Yes, this goes for opposing teams, too. (You have to be objective) When a Westminster player breaks a school single game, season, or career record in any category, I'm always on top of it. That always gets a roar from the crowd.

5- You're there to announce, not coach the game. I still have to learn this in spots, because I can still go back to my coaching days and get into the play-calling chess match on occasion. Or, even worse, I just go nuts. I mean, absolutely nuts...albeit with the microphone turned off. Last year, when we beat John Burroughs in a huge game, our lead was sliced before halftime after we got hit with two personal fouls and Burroughs took advantage. I got so blistering mad that I jumped out of my chair and punched the seat of a steel chair next to me. Didn't even think about it. The newspaper guy next to me looked as if I'd lost my mind (I wrote him an apology three days later), and that was nothing compared to how my pinky knuckle swelled up and bled. At halftime, my wife looked at me and said gently, "Remember, you're not coaching anymore." Yep, room for growth.

All that being said, I'm anxious to get in the booth again and being back in my game storytelling mode for another season. If you're in the area, come to Westminster at 1 pm on Saturday, August 20th, as we take on the Dragons of St. Mary's.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wayne Grudem and the "Morally Good" Question

In the theological world, an interesting article was put out there this past week. Wayne Grudem, a professor of theology at Phoenix Seminary, wrote a post at Townhall that posits the point "Why Voting For Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice." Just click on the link in the previous sentence to read through it if you haven't and then what I say next will be more clear. Or maybe less murky.

First of all, I’ll put a few things out there. (1) I’m a registered independent with strong neo-Libertarian leanings. (2) I didn’t vote for Trump in the Missouri GOP primary. (3) I agree with Grudem that we need to respect one another and keep talking to each other over the angst that is coming with decision-making in this very unusual election. (4) I don’t have the time or volume to interact line-by-line with Grudem on Trump’s qualifications or character, so this will be somewhat selective.

Now, to my impressions of what Grudem has said…

I respect people who have come to a thoughtful conclusion that they believe Trump is, on balance, a better choice than Clinton. I even understand that, especially given the way Hillary has conducted herself—not only as Sec of State, but throughout her career in government (and a “career in government” tag should send a lot of people tilting the other direction in the voting booth, IMHO)—people conclude Trump is the wiser option. Could the GOP population have nominated someone better than Trump (cough, Rubio, cough)? Yes, but they didn’t and we have what we have.

However, I think Grudem needs to stick with teaching systematic theology and give ethics a rest. To say voting for Trump over Clinton might be a better strategic choice, even a wiser choice, is within bounds. To say it is a morally good choice is not.

First, Grudem never develops what a “morally good choice” is. He needs to do the Francis Schaeffer thing and define his terms. He may have tried when he spoke about Jeremiah 29:7 and the “seek the welfare of the city” and then he tied that to “By way of modern application, I think Christians today have a similar obligation to vote in such a way that will “seek the welfare” of the United States. Therefore the one overriding question to ask is this: Which vote is most likely to bring the best results for the nation?”

Secondly, by way of agreement, I will say Christian should seek the welfare of the places where they are “in exile” (i.e., the secular culture of our day). However, Grudem shows a lightning tendency to tie it to the fact that “[t]his year we have an unusual opportunity to defeat Hillary Clinton and the pro-abortion, pro-gender-confusion, anti-religious liberty, tax-and-spend, big government liberalism that she champions.”

Well, if Clinton loses, you’ve defeated a candidate. You have kept one person from becoming president. But is that a thoroughly effective "morally good" choice?

You have not stopped “pro-abortion liberalism”, whatever one means by that. People will still hold their beliefs.

You have not stopped “pro-gender-confusion liberalism”, whatever one means by that. People will still believe what they do.

You have not stopped anti-religious liberty liberalism”, which many try to define anecdotally through court cases involving Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor (by the way, I support both Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters in each case and believe they were in the right).

You have not stopped “tax-and-spend” policies. If you want to do that, you need to build a bonfire as big as Connecticut and hold Congress’ feet to it constantly.

You have not stopped “liberalism” in general. If by that you mean a more paternalistic government intervening into individual life, you need to have patient, persuasive dialogue with the wider culture, and you need to be involved in your local communities to make impact and assist in breaking the stranglehold of dependence on government. That attitude is a cultural phenomenon, and putting Trump in office instead of Clinton will have impact that is closer to zero on the Richter scale. Sorry, but it’s true.

Thirdly, Grudem commits a fallacy by pulling a perceived future into the present when he lifts a curtain of sorts and shows what he believes will happen under a Clinton administration and a Trump administration. I’m not going to nail all the particulars (you can read them in the article), but my larger point is this:

How do you know what is coming down the pipe in the next 4-8 years? Do you really have that much foresight?

No, Grudem doesn’t. One can give their best prediction, but ultimately you don’t know what will happen.

You don’t know the makeup of the Senate and the House of Representatives, so you don’t know what sort of legislation will pass the President’s desk.

You don’t know what the relative health or implosion of the market will be in the next 4-8 months, let alone the next 4-8 years. If insurance companies jettison Obamacare, for example, en masse and the contraption collapses of its own weight and unwieldiness, then several issues (religious liberty among them) end up looking better for fans of liberty. But then again, that’s a “future possibility”, and I am willing to say that may or may not happen.

You don’t know what world events will shape the next President’s term and cause a shift in policy. The September 11, 2001, attacks made George W. Bush’s time in office a lot different than what was envisioned when he gave his inaugural speech on January 20th of that year.

[Also, on the criminalizing dissent and freedom of speech issues, Grudem criticizes Clinton (rightfully so, I’d say) but ignores that Trump has been willing to—if he becomes President—go after outlets that talk smack about him. Granted, that was a few months ago, but still…]

Also, on the Supreme Court issue, Grudem says Trump has said he would rely primarily on advice from the Federalist Society, the organization that promotes the “original meaning” view so strongly exemplified by Justice Scalia before his death…If Trump would appoint a replacement for Scalia from his list of 11, and probably one or two other Supreme Court justices, then we could see a 5-4 or even 6-3 majority of conservative justices on the Supreme Court. The results for the nation would be overwhelmingly good…Such a Supreme Court would finally return control of the nation to the people and their elected representatives, removing it from dictatorial judges who repeatedly make law from the bench.”

No problem there. I like the Federalist Society. I loved Scalia. Any tipping point edge on the SCOTUS is key for a President. Supreme Court nominations are critical.

But don’t go thinking that solves everything. Conservative Christians hailed George W. Bush’s selection of John Roberts to the Supreme Court.

You do recall who made the critical choice that saved Obamacare in National Federation of Independent Businesses vs. Sebelius by a 5-4 vote, and wrote the majority opinion, don’t you? Yep, that John Roberts.

Admit it, we don’t know how the choices a President will make will be entirely different than what we might imagine.

And, oh my goodness, the abortion issue, according to Grudem? He states that
“[s]uch a court (i.e., with Trump’s fingerprints on it) would likely overturn Roe v. Wade and return abortion laws and the regulation of abortion to the states.”

Word to Grudem: You don’t know that this will happen. Also, a SCOTUS decision on abortion means nothing other than changing the law. Changing the culture and ensuring that society tethers itself passionately to an ethic of life takes more work.

Okay, let me end the rambling and pull some things together…

I think we have two tremendously flawed candidates, more so than any election I can recall. But if you are wanting to have a say and a stake in the process of our Republic (yes, it’s a republic; we are NOT a democracy), then you need to be in the voting booth on November 8th.

There are strategic elements that go into the decision-making process. Which person is more effective. What is the wiser option for me—given what I can guess about the near future?

But there is a distinction between strategy and wisdom and a clear moral division on the other. At what point along the way of that spectrum do we call Trump the morally good choice? When I hear “morally good”, I think of an action that is crystal clear; the same goes for “morally bad”. Murder is a morally bad action of heinous levels. Fidelity to one’s spouse is “morally good” behavior of the highest quality.

If one is going to say “This is a morally good choice”, the choice had better be quite clear. Political leanings aside, that reality remains.

Out of the Big Two candidates remaining, Trump may well be a more strategic choice for America’s national health.

But to cast a political vote in moral terms? I really don’t know that Grudem has clinched it.

And now, to lift my spirits, I’m going to watch the “age question” moment from the Reagan-Mondale debate. Because however you label it morally, that was funny!