Nov 25, 2011

The ups and downs of sports journalism

Everybody has their favorite sport. Sometimes it's the sport that they played as a child. Sometimes it's the sport or the team that they grew up watching on TV. Whatever the situation, there is one in particular that people seem to gravitate to. Whether it's because that is a sport in which they are gifted, or just that the sport happens to fit their preferences, they enjoy it more than the others.

Journalists are the same way. Each sport has it's ins and outs. Some are strong photography pieces, while others are difficult to shoot and hardly anything turns out. For writers, certain sports are filled with action and statistics, but others are sparse and finding a story line can be difficult.

Most people would run away from this.
I ran toward it, and it ran toward me.
Men's Basketball: As far as storyline goes, basketball is simple to follow. It's easy to write down which team scored when and you are given a lot of stats to look at after the game is finished. Strengths and weakness for each team are easy to figure out by just looking at a sheet of paper. If you have the right equipment, this sport can be a lot of fun to shoot. Lots of players get into the action, and you get plenty of opportunities for good pictures. Sitting behind the basket is a good place, but if you're not careful you can get run over.

Women's Basketball: The women's game is the same as the men's, it just moves slower and has more outside shooting. The players are smaller and the game is less physical.

Wrestling: Covering wrestling can be a bit of a challenge. A lot happens, but it's difficult to figure out what to write about and what to gloss over. It's easy to say who won, how they won and by what score, but it's hard to describe how an individual match went. Oftentimes in this sport, you have to depend on the wrestlers themselves and their coaches to describe a specific happening, as they will most likely remember it/understand it much better than you will. Photos, as long as the lighting is decent, can be easy and fun. As long as you're attentive, you can capture the wrestlers in some fantastic poses. Crotch grabs are fairly common, and make for plenty of laughs in the newsroom.

Plus, sometimes you get fun faces like this.
Volleyball: Volleyball can leave an unprepared writer in the dust with some of it's newer terms, but it pauses a lot and gives a note taker time to catch up. It's broken up into smaller chunks, and you can compare stats for each set and put them together to tell the story of the whole match. Depending on the camera/lens you've got, this sport can be a challenge. If you want to get shots with the players facing you, you have to be on the far side of the court, putting you a long distance from the action. The best shots are usually of the right side hitters. That gets you close to the players and, since most players are right handed, a majority of the time their faces are turned towards you.

Cross Country: If it weren't for the fact that cross country normally loops around and crosses the same place several times, it would be nearly impossible to get photographs of. The trick to shooting cross country is to follow the coaches. They know the course better than you ever could, and are always at the right spot to watch their runners race past. Writing this sport is difficult, to say the least. The only statistic that you get to work with are times for each athlete. That's why it's best to focus on other things. Like the biker wiping out during the race.

Women's Soccer: The biggest issue with soccer is just that... the field is huge. For a photographer, you have to choose where you stand carefully to get as much of the action as possible before it moves to the other end of the pitch and makes shooting difficult. As a writer, a plotline can be difficult to find for soccer because much of the game is scoreless and is about strategy rather than offensive stats. Also, it can be difficult to figure out who to attribute shots on goal to as the game moves on quickly without pausing for you to catch up.

Just look at the gold you can capture when they don't know you're watching.
Baseball: America's pastime or not, baseball moves slowly for somebody that didn't grow up following it. "Highlight" performances can mean different things for each game, so you can't have a go-to stat that you look for in a recap. You have to watch everything, not just the offensive game. Players spend most of their time dawdling around the dugout and the bullpen, and are usually willing to talk during the game, making interviews easy to attain. Photos are great for this sport, as it is played outside and the sun/sky can be utilized.

Track and Field: This sport has plenty of things going on all at once, and even more athletes competing. There are a lot of stats to look at and a lot of highlights to pen, but little real plot to follow. You have to choose a few big performances and focus on them, telling their story. Photography for this sport can turn out well, but everything is happening all at the same time, and it can be difficult to capture all of the action.
Sometimes the best shots are AFTER the race.

Could I pick a favorite? Probably. Will I? Probably not. Each sport has it's challenges and each sport has parts that I enjoy. You can find a story anywhere, as long as you look hard enough. Sometimes the most interesting thing just isn't what you initially showed up to watch.

Nov 21, 2011

Oh, How I've missed basketball

Clackamas Sophomore Andre Dickson (center, in white) looks to
score during practice on Nov. 21. Dickson had a game high four
steals in last week's season opener verses Linfield University JV.
After I finished classes today, I went to get some photos for one of my writers that was doing a preview of the CCC men's basketball season. I didn't think much of it. It was just a few photos of practice. Quick and easy, in and out.

When I got there, I realized that I'd be staying a lot longer than I planned.

I'd forgotten exactly how much I loved the sport of basketball. Lately I've gotten really in to volleyball and I've always been a soccer lover, but it wasn't until I stepped back on to the basketball court that I remembered how much I've missed it since the season ended so many months ago.

The next few minutes were lost to the squeak of sneakers, the pounding of the ball, the swish of the net and the click of the camera. It's more than easy to be absorbed in the action, it's practically intoxicating.

Then after a few minutes, I came down to earth. I realized that part of the reason I'd missed basketball so much was because there really is less of it now then there was a year ago. Last November, the Rose Garden would pack with 20,000 fans a few times a week to watch the Portland Trailblazers play. This November, the action on ESPN isn't on the court, it's IN court.

That might just be because the NBA isn't just basketball anymore. It's a business. And to be fair, it's a really good business. They attract millions of fans worldwide with their talent and the entertainment that it provides and rake in billions of dollars in ticket sales, TV deals and merchandise.

Clackamas freshman Jake Dewit (12) and Matt Bryant collide 
during practice on Nov. 21 in Randall Hall. Bryant had a 
double double in last week's game against Linfield JV with 12 
points and game high 14 rebounds. Dewit scored five points 
and drew the season's first charge.
For that very reason, many basketball fans shun the NBA, claiming that it's too flashy and has gotten away from the pure sport that it used to be. Most of those fans choose to follow the NCAA, where all the athletes (depending on how you see it) are amateurs. At that level, the athletes are still largely moldable and they depend  more on their coach to teach than do the pros.

However, even at the NCAA level, the game can still be muddled by money. You don't have to dig very far before you find a case of a recruiting scandal. The reason for those? Money. Better players means more success, translating to better attendance and increased revenue for the college that the team is affiliated with.

In order to escape that, you might have to go one level down, where money means even less. That's where small college basketball comes in to play. At Clackamas Community College, for example, the stands would seat only about 1000 people if completely full, which they never really are. And that's only if they open up each set of bleachers, something that only happens for graduation.

In a situation like that, the revenue for filling the stands wouldn't be a huge difference in the athletic department's budget. The benefit from having a successful team is simply that they win more. Winning calls the attention of prospective players, feeding the success of the program even further. That's as it should be. The sport is focused on the players, not the coaches, not the fans and certainly not on money. Just basketball.

Nov 14, 2011

Apparently, nobody cares about junior college athletics

If you were in Oregon City on a Saturday afternoon in the mid 1970s, it's likely that your plans would include taking in a football game. And not by driving down to Eugene or Corvallis, but right there in the city. You'd pack your food and beverage of choice and head over to a packed Pioneer Stadium and take in real college football with several thousand other fans.

Fans cheer on the Clackamas Community College Cougars 
football team during the 1971 football season. College 
football was one of the hotter tickets in town and drew 
extensive coverage from local media before being cut after 
the 1977 season.
Community College football wasn't the only sport that drew the attention of the community. Basketball games held in Randall Hall were full, complete with a pep band and a cheer squad. Football and basketball games were covered by the Oregonian and people came from all over the area to watch the teams play. After all, the college sports teams were made up mostly of home grown players from schools just a few minutes drive away.

That was the '70s. Somewhere along the line, things changed. Football was cut in 1978, and many sports have been added since, but attendance and fan support seems to have dwindled miserably. Often times a women's soccer game can't muster more fans than players and the holes in the audience at basketball games would imply that the teams are terrible and not worth watching. This, however, is completely backwards. Clackamas has built one of the strongest athletic programs in the entire league, winning 16 NWAACC titles and one NJCAA title since 2000. They've taken either first or second 32 times in the last 11 seasons including back to back men's basketball titles in 2009-10 and back to back women's soccer titles in 2004-05.

That begs the question: where are all the spectators? Normally when a team has success, the fans follow. In this case, the success is largely unknown to outsiders. Few even know about the 2011 NJCAA title won by the wrestling team. Even fewer know that women's soccer has advanced to the NWAACC final four six out of the ten years they've been playing at Clackamas.

I happen to think that sucks. And it's not entirely on the Athletic Department. That is happening at the junior college level all over the north west. Media coverage has gone down the toilet, fans have dwindled to naught and the programs are often dismissed as "just community colleges."

The source for that, I think comes from several different places. The first is that it's much easier now to see sports without getting off of your living room couch. ESPN made things easy enough, but with the rise of handheld technology like the iPad and the the Android, fans can see stats, highlights and even stream televised games live wherever they are.

That's a far cry from the '70s and '80s where the hometown team was by far the easiest team to watch. It wasn't division one, but by golly it was still college football right in our backyard.

That leads to another reason. Many many years ago, the college teams in the state of Oregon were good for nothing. They were at the bottom of the then Pac-8, and were hardly worth watching. Memories from those decades are mostly bad, including the 1983 "toilet bowl", a civil war ending in a scoreless tie and featuring eleven fumbles, five interceptions and four missed field goals.

In recent years, things have changed around. Not only is college football considerably better at Oregon and Oregon State than it was years ago, but they've improved in many sports across the board. Fans who wouldn't have been caught dead in Ducks gear now sport it proudly and the home town team is thrown to the wayside.

I think it's time there was a little bit of a revival. Yes, there are more players from outside the area than there used to be, but it's still a chance to see high school stars compete at the next level. The rosters are filled with athletes from Molalla, Rex Putnam, Oregon City, West Linn, Gladstone and Estacada, to name a few.

They're home grown, they're home town and they're good. Why not give it a chance? After all, retro is making a comeback.

Nov 10, 2011

Shift of power in women's soccer

Clackamas CC (white) and Lane CC face off in the one of the final
southern region matches in the 2011 season. Lane (7-6-1finished
second in the south behind Clackamas (10-5-1). Both teams are
 still alive in the NWAACC playoffs and will play Saturday.
Normally a fledgling program takes time to build a legacy. They struggle for years in futility until they finally strike gold and begin to gain traction. Other times, the complete opposite is true. Some teams hit the ground running and find immediate success. One of those teams is the still rather recently formed Clackamas Community College women's soccer program.

Started up in 2002, they finished the season an impressive 15-5-2, taking second in the powerhouse Southern Region in just their first season of play. Since then, the Cougars have made even more progress, winning an impressive six region titles and three NWAACC titles from 2004-2011. Clackamas has made it to the final four every year except 2006, when they lost to the eventual NWAACC champion Spokane CC in the first round, and 2009.

This year Clackamas has again won their region title and will be hosting a quarterfinal match, but there are some questions as to the strength of the southern region verses years past. Yes, three teams from the NWAACC south, Clackamas, Lane and Clark have all advanced past the first round, but the days of complete dominance seem to be behind us. The East and South aren't alone in women's soccer any more. 

That's not to say that the North and West haven't been there. The two conferences have seen plenty of appearances in the final four and championship games, but neither conference has won a title since 2003. That was before the NWAACC split into four divisions, and the team that won, Northern Idaho, is no longer a member of the league. 

The balance of power seems to be shifting. The South and East are still dominant, accounting for five of the eight teams still alive, but the Northern region is beginning to rear it's head with two representatives, and an impressive 2-0 defeat of the East's 3 seeded Yakima Valley. The South is having a down year, coming in second to last in non-league play just above the pitiful western region. 

2011 NWAACC Women’s Soccer Non-League Play

Part of that shift comes from a switch that the NWAACC made a few seasons ago. It used to be that the south would play the north and the east would play the west. It wasn't uncommon to see a 10-0 win for a southern or eastern team, and both divisions dominated until region play began. Now the south and east face off, and the north and west face off. This pitches the two strong conferences against one another and the two weak conferences against one another.

That creates a problem. Squads from the power regions that would normally roll to easy victories in non-league games are starting to lose more often when matched up against better competition and teams that would normally get steamrolled are able to make headway when playing much weaker competition. That can create the illusion that the south has faltered and the north has taken it's place, if the casual fan isn't careful.

But is it really incorrect? Could the perceived success in the northern region turn the tables on the NWAACC and create a new power conference? I think so.

People tend to look at wins and losses rather than the strength of schedule, so a team's attractiveness to recruits will be based on that team's record, regardless of who they play. An Everett Community College team that normally would have finished 0-3 against the powerful east now finishes at a respectable 2-1. All of the sudden, soccer players from around the area take a second look at the team that won the "strong" north division and back away from teams in the south and west. What started artificially now begins to gain some substance as the north continues to improve and work toward it's first NWAACC title in eight seasons.

Time will tell. It could be that the south will bounce back, and the north and west fill fall into mediocrity again, but now all eyes turn to the last three rounds of the playoffs. That's when the true test of superiority will be taken. Will the north finally rise to the top? Will the south reclaim the NWAACC title for the first time since Clackamas won in 2007? or will the east continue it's reign? We'll all just have to wait and see.

Nov 6, 2011

Much more than a game

It seems that playing against the odds usually tends to make the best stories. We get the most excited about David vs. Goliath, a Cinderella team or succeeding despite huge setbacks. The Superbowl that everyone remembers isn’t the one where the two best teams scrapped with one another for 60 minutes, it’s the one where the nobodies came back to win against their powerhouse opponents.

It also seems there is nothing quite so inspiring as watching a player struggle with an injury, but prevail.

Yes, Clackamas lost their final home match to Lane Community College last Wednesday and yes their seven game win streak has been snapped, but that wasn’t the story of the game.

The story of the game was watching injured Clackamas goalkeeper Tori Wilkinson.

Some time between the Oct. 22 game at Clark College and the Oct 25 game against SW Oregon, Wilkinson acquired an injury to her right knee. At that time, Wilkinson had four shutouts in a row and hadn’t allowed a goal since the end of September. Coach Szpara declined to comment on the injury itself. “[I’m] taking the Chip Kelly approach,” said Szpara. “I don't really want to talk about injuries.” 

During the SW Oregon game (which Clackamas won in a 6-0 blowout), Wilkinson was being rested to help heal a minor injury heal. When the team ran out on to the field last Wednesday, it was clear that things weren’t completely back to normal.

The first thing you’d notice was the ugly black brace. If that didn’t tip you off, you might not think to watch the home end of the field when nothing was happening. You’d see Wilkinson jogging across the field after her shin guard that had gone astray. You’d see a grimace. You’d definitely see the pronounced limp after every brush of action.
Wilkinson’s first test came early in the match.

In the 5th minute, Lane’s Kenzie Harding lobbed a corner kick across the face of the goal to the far post, where Kiki McDonagh headed the ball past Wilkinson and into the net. There wasn’t even time to raise her arms before Lane had scored, putting Clackamas down a goal for the first time since losing to top ranked Spokane on Sept 24.

Normally when a goal is scored early in a match and especially an easy one, it can take the air out of the game. It happens even in big professional matches. The crowd quiets considerably and the players get chippy with one another.

Perhaps it was a lack of focus or the knowledge that the game was meaningless for Clackamas, as they’ve already clinched the Southern Region Championship. Maybe they were caught a little by surprise by Lane’s physicality.

Whatever it was, they fixed it. And Wilkinson fixed it.

From that point on, limp or no limp, Wilkinson and the Clackamas defense tightened things up considerably. After each time the Lane forwards would near the goal, Wilkinson would corral the ball and boot it back towards the center of the field. As the game continued, Wilkinson’s pain level seemed to rise and she could be spotted gingerly favoring her good knee between attacks.

Once the final whistle sounded, the injured freshman didn’t hobble over to the bench and wait to be treated by the team trainer. She jogged over with the rest of the team. The only sign that she was ailing was that instead of cooling down, she sprawled on the ground to remove her brace. 

Wilkinson’s secret? She had just put it out of her mind.

“I just don’t think about it,” said Wilkinson.

And you know what? I’d like to see more athletes like her. All too often, a minor bump or bruise will keep a player sidelined for far too long. Show some toughness.

Not without reason, of course. If you could hurt yourself worse and threaten the rest of your season, then ok, sit on the bench. But if you can play through the pain and make a difference for your team, then you should be out on the field. Or court. Or wherever it is you play.

Those are the performances that we remember. We remember watching Tiger Woods win at the US Open in 2008 with a torn ligament in his knee an a stress fracture in his tibula. We remember Brandon Roy’s return during the 2010 playoffs against Phoenix. It’s those times that you see somebody do something extraordinary that stick in your mind. Those memories help us to remember that in whatever we’re going through we should just stick it out to the end.

It’s not just a game. It’s not just a distraction from life’s worries. There are lessons to be learned and I just learned another one. 

Nov 3, 2011

Soccer a 'goal' with soccer city, USA

It wasn’t long ago that nobody cared about soccer. And in fact, in much of the country that’s still the case.

Hatred of soccer can be attributed to many different factors. Not the least of those is that Americans simply like to be the best at everything. We’re basically the only people that play American Football (except for the Canadians, but who really counts them?). The United States absolutely dominates everyone at basketball. and while Japan and the Dominican Republic have made strides with baseball, they still lag behind.Americans are rabid fans of all those sports and why not? We invented them, after all.

That story is different with soccer. Soccer originated in Europe, taking on European rules and ideals, which differ greatly from what the US is used to. Americans are king of the quick-fix. Examples: microwaves, drive through restaurants and diet pills. Instant gratification is built into our brains and if something isn’t exciting right away, we quickly find it boring and return to something else.

That’s why soccer doesn’t work. Soccer is a long, low-scoring game. There is plenty of drama and action, but little to ‘show’ for it. Americans like scores that are easy to grasp with numbers in the tens and hundreds that show the flow of the game and make it simple to understand what happened. Soccer can be the complete opposite. Two teams can battle defensively and score in the 90th minute, or a team can put in a goal inside the 1st minute and will be held scoreless the rest of the game.

The ‘slow’ pace is combined with the idea that soccer players are whiners, fakers and generally overdramatic. Anybody who has youtubed professional soccer will know that there are plenty of examples of players bumping wrists and falling to the ground holding their ankles. The truth is, the sport of soccer doesn’t allow time to stop for players to state their case to the officials, so they often have to over exaggerate things in order to get the attention of the referee. Americans dismiss that as softness, opting for the more ‘masculine’ sport of football, where the players are covered in protective pads from head to toe.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love football. I just happen to be from Portland, where we’re a little different than the rest of the country.

Portland is a place where soccer has not only scraped a living, it has thrived. Dating back further than the early 1920s, when a local team was rumored to have played sailors from a British freighter, soccer gained a foothold in the area’s culture. We’re a city where we like things with a distinct European twinge. We like scarves (even during the summer), we like the rain, we like being green and face it: we like soccer.

While the most visible representation of soccer fever is the Timbers, whose jump to Major League Soccer sparked an even larger and more rabid following than before, the soccer movement can be seen at all levels of the game, starting with youth sports.

Over the past decade or so, soccer has become the most popular sport for children to play, eclipsing youth football, basketball, and even little-league baseball. Much of that success can be attributed to the simplicity of the sport at the youth level. Soccer involves kicking a ball, while baseball, basketball and football require more practice and more skill to get the basics of dribbling, passing and hitting down.

Add in that football is expensive and dangerous, it rains too much in the northwest to play baseball year round and basketball requires a hoop to make it fun and you get why soccer has done so well here: It’s an inexpensive, low-contact sport that can be played anywhere that there is enough grassy space to kick the ball.

With the large fan base a strong pool of talent, soccer has made leaps and bounds in the region. In 2002 and 2005, the University of Portland women’s program won the NCAA championship and since has produced four current members of the US national team, including star Megan Rapinoe. Even closer to home, the Clackamas Community College women’s team took back to back NWAAC titles in 2004-05 and another in 2007, while winning the Southern Region five times since 2002.

Now it makes sense why the University of Portland Pilots are a national women’s soccer power. Now it makes sense why Jeld-Wen stadium fills to the brim every time that the Timbers play, or the US Women’s National Team visits. Soccer is part of our culture here. It’s in our blood. It’s been built from the ground up, and isn’t likely to fade any time soon.