Sorry that it has been dead around here at the blog in recent weeks. I started my new role at ESPN.com – covering a variety of college sports beyond women’s basketball – in late September, and it’s taken up not just a lot of time, but a fair amount of emotional energy.
I don’t say that in a bad way. It’s really good. I had followed some of the other college sports _ such as volleyball, women’s soccer, wrestling and cross country/track _ formerly for the Kansas City Star, so catching up on them again has been a little easier. Still, each year in every sport brings you a new cast of characters.
Other sports, such as men’s soccer (which unfortunately is not a Big 12 varsity sport) and field hockey (which I never covered but watched a bit when I lived on the East Coast) have required more of a learning curve to get up to speed on the most compelling stories.
But it’s been great. Monday, I was reviewing men’s and women’s NCAA tournament soccer results, looking ahead to the final week of regular-season volleyball and watching the NCAA cross country men’s and women’s championship races on-line. And also doing the women’s sports radio show that I co-host here in suburban Kansas City with broadcaster Brenda VanLengen.
Brenda was flying to the Virgin Islands to do the broadcasts for the Paradise Jam women’s hoops event, and so I was solo on the show. Texas women’s hoops coach Gail Goestenkors and Maryland field hockey coach Missy Meharg – whose team won the NCAA title on Sunday – joined me, and it was like the hour just flew by before I knew it.
And I was thinking how fun it is to feel a little plugged in to the sports that are more away from the spotlight and to have the chance to give those kids a little recognition, too. As I said, I did that on a local front when I was with The Star, but it’s also neat to be able to do it on a national basis with ESPN.com.
Sometimes, though, the “national” is also local – or at least regional – such as with Nebraska, which is a 3 1/2-hour drive from where I live in Kansas. The Huskers have one of the nation’s top volleyball programs – they are currently ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ poll and are second in the RPI _ and recently I’ve worked on a couple of stories about the Huskers that will appear on ESPN.com’s college page.
I also have a piece that is up now on the Huskers’ women’s hoops program, specifically on freshman Jordan Hooper. It’s one of those stories that kind of writes itself. She grew up on a ranch in the western part of Nebraska and is a delightful kid to talk with. She is also one of the best athletes that program has ever had.
Interestingly enough, when I was in Lincoln, Neb., on Saturday, I crossed paths with two superstar Jordans. First, after volleyball practice, I talked to Jordan Larson, an extremely talented former Huskers standout who was visiting her alma mater before going to Russia, where she plays professionally.
Larson was part of the Huskers’ 2006 NCAA title team, but her more “signature” season was in 2008. That year, Nebraska was in what passes for a down cycle for that program, in terms of the amount of sheer talent on the floor. But kind of like Diana Taurasi for UConn women’s hoops in 2003, Larson took the ’08 Huskers on her shoulders and led them to the Final Four.
Todd Henrichs of the Lincoln Journal Star covered the 2008 NCAA volleyball regional final in Seattle, when Nebraska rallied from down two sets to beat Washington on the Huskies’ home floor and advance to the Final Four in Omaha, Neb.
Larson was not named the regional’s most outstanding player there – teammate Tara Mueller was – but it was Larson who really brought the Huskers back from the dead in that match through sheer force of will. Henrichs said it was as mesmerizing an individual performance as he’s ever seen in a team sport, and I recall watching the match on TV and being amazed by it.
At any rate, after chatting with Larson on Saturday, I then later in the afternoon spoke with another Jordan from small-town Nebraska: Jordan Hooper. (Incidentally, Jordan Larson is from a town called Hooper, Neb., believe it or not. Jordan Hooper is from Alliance; Jordan Larson is from Hooper. Try to keep that straight.)
And the truth is, this is what college sports is still about, no matter how understandably cynical we get with the recruiting shenanigans, agents paying players, athletes not going to class, coaches screaming at officials and fans making obnoxious fools of themselves.
All that stuff is there, and it’s a big part of the college landscape. There’s no getting away from that. But college sports is also about kids named Jordan, who, when done with their chores on the ranch, perfected their sports skills on a concrete slab that covered up their grandma’s former garden (and she didn’t mind.)