Category Archives: Classwork

These are stories I wrote for journalism classes at UW-Madison.

Warner Park’s Wild Side

I took these pictures this afternoon at Warner Park. It was a nice day to spend at the park, it really felt like summer. I made an audioslide show to accompany my story on Wild Warner but I don’t think I can post it to wordpress.

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Warner Park’s wild side gets a voice

A group of passionate Madison north side residents have joined together to preserve and celebrate the wild side of Warner Park.

Warner Park, founded in 1962, is Madison’s largest urban park. The park, encompassing just over 200 total acres, features 41 acres of “wild,” untouched land home to numerous birds, foxes, deer, rabbits and other animals and 60 acres of wetland.

The story of Wild Warner begins in the fall of 2009 when the city of Madison released a tentative neighborhood plan for the city’s north side. Details of the plan caught the eyes of some nature-loving north side residents. The plan called for numerous changes to Warner Park, including the addition of pontoon boats on the lagoon, a new soccer field, a new parking lot and more sidewalks.

A group of 25 residents appeared before the Madison Parks Commission where they asked for and won a delay in the plan. The controversial items were eventually removed from the final plan. The plan that was approved by the Madison city council had a statement written into it stating that Warner Park’s natural areas were to be “carefully evaluated to protect, preserve, and enhance habitat for birds, fish and other wildlife.”

In April 2010, the Parks Commission approved a plan that called for the kill of over 150 geese at Warner Park in order to protect Dane County Regional Airport. Many people were outraged at the plan, believing that the city had broken their promise to protect nature at Warner Park.

In response, a group of north side residents decided in July 2010 to formally create an organization to advocate for the protection of Warner Park’s wild side.

“People weren’t respecting the nature and its limitations and no one was speaking for the wild side,” said Wild Warner founding member Dolores Kester.

On Aug. 10, Wild Warner became a non-profit corporation. Doing so allowed the group to accept charitable contributions and also helped with grant eligibility.

The organization received their first grant of $2500 from the city of Madison last month. Members hope to use the money for a summer community learning project and materials, such as binoculars and magnifying glasses.

Jim Carrier, a writer and filmmaker, is the chair and co-founder of Wild Warner. Carrier designed and edits wildwarner.org and leads the group’s monthly meetings.

Carrier is pleased with the amount of progress the group has made in its short existence.

“We’ve only been around for a small time, I think we’re doing great work,” said Carrier.

The group speaks up for Warner Park’s wild side at city council and Parks Commission meetings. They also teach others about the park’s natural areas through events and nature walks, like the April 30 bluebird walk led by Paul Noeldner, an Audubon bluebird expert.

A birding club was recently founded at Sherman Middle School by Trish O’Kane, a leading member of Wild Warner and a graduate student at the UW-Madison Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. The “Bird Buddies” study the birds at nearby Warner Park. The middle schoolers spotted the yellow-bellied sapsucker, the 100th different bird species found in Warner Park, last month. Warner Park is home to 105 known birds species as of May 3, according to O’Kane.

Carrier called the Bird Buddies programs “another feather in our cap.”

The Madison Parks Commission unanimously decided last month that the Cyclo-Cross bike race would not be held at Warner Park in 2011 after members of Wild Warner spoke up in opposition of the race. Last fall, members of Wild Warner worked with organizers of Cyclo-Cross, held on Nov. 7, to lessen the race’s impact on the park’s nature areas.

“The Parks Commission finally recognized that we have nature that needs to be preserved. Warner Park is visible as nature to people that didn’t see it that way before,” Carrier said at the Wild Warner meeting held on May 3.

A few members of Wild Warner, nicknamed the “geese peeps,” focus on the protection of Warner Park’s geese. The city is in the midst of developing a goose management plan. Throughout the process, Wild Warner has been giving the city advice on how to control the goose population without killing the geese.

“We want the park to be an example of humane management,” said O’Kane.

Wild Warner’s next step is to expand and become a more formal organization.

Nine members attended the May monthly meeting at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, and according to Carrier, their biggest meeting had just over 20 attendees. The group has an e-mail list of about 50 people.

“Right now we’re just a great group of volunteers,” said O’Kane.

In recruiting new members, Carrier said he hopes the group can better reflect the north side by becoming more diverse. All nine members who attended the May 3 meeting were Caucasian.

Carrier also wants the group to create a develop a charter with some formal rules and regulations.

Even at their small size, Wild Warner will continue to fight to preserve the wild side of Warner Park.

“I love this park, and I want to preserve it so future generations can enjoy it too,” said Kester.

I wrote this story in May 2011 for my advanced reporting class at UW-Madison. I’m covered the Sherman neighborhood of Madison, WI.

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2011 Madison, WI Protests: The World Is Watching

It is unlikely a state Capitol building would ever be mistaken for a sports arena, but on Thursday the Wisconsin Capitol building was rocking like the Kohl Center as thousands of people flocked to Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget bill.

The Capitol echoed with chants of “kill this bill” and “this is what democracy looks like,”  loud applause, and the banging of drums.

The loudest moment of the day occurred just after noon when it was announced that the 14 Democratic state senators had fled the Capitol, delaying a vote on the budget bill.

If a vote is held, the bill will likely pass with ease as Republicans outnumber Democrats 19-14. But as long the Democrats remain absent, no vote can be held per senate rules that state 20 senators must be present.

While most of the red-clad protesters were members of the public unions being threatened in the bill, members of private unions also joined the protests in solidarity.

As night fell, over 50 uniformed members of the Madison Fire Department marched behind their bagpipe band down the streets surrounding the Capitol before entering the rotunda to boisterous applause.

The protests also drew many high school and college students, most of whom had their classes cancelled as teachers across the state called into work sick so they could protest.

Seniors Alex Dorn, Doug Krapf, Christian Foster and Connor Kelly of Waunakee High School wanted to support their teachers.

“It’s been an amazing experience, so glad we came here,” said Dorn.

For Dorn and his classmates, the bill also hit home. Dorn is the son of two state workers who are union members.

“My mom is a teacher, I came to support her. She does so much for me and her students, it’s only right I try to do something for her,”  said Krapf.

“My mom is a state worker, and she deserves better than this,” said Foster.

While Connor Kelly did not have any family members affected by the bill, he still had a strong opinion.

“I’m here to support the underpaid and the under-appreciated,” said Kelly. “Making state workers take pay cuts is the wrong way to help the budget. There are ways to help without hurting education.”

The protesters are being heard loud and clear in the governor’s offices, said Patrick Roetker, a policy assistant for Gov. Walker.

“It’s been crazy, we can definitely hear everything in our offices, but we’ve just been trying to do our normal work,” said Roetker. “We expected some backlash, and we planned for it, but we didn’t expect this.”

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011 for my advanced reporting class at UW-Madison. I’m covered the Sherman neighborhood of Madison, WI.

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Maguire brings new voice, ideas to Sherman neighborhood

Megan Maguire created excitement among Sherman Neighborhood Association (SNA) members when she walked into the association’s quarterly meeting in Dec. 2009. Maguire was the first new attendee at a SNA meeting in several years. Maguire continued to impress SNA members at the next meeting when she brought a neighbor with her.

“They were floored. They thought, ‘not only is she new, but she brought someone with her!,’” said Maguire.

Just over a year after attending her first meeting, Maguire now serves as co-chair (along with Lynette Jandl) of the SNA.

Maguire first came to Madison in 1987 when she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. After living in downtown Madison for nine years, Maguire moved to the Sherman neighborhood in June of 2000. Sherman became a target of her house hunting because she believed it was one of the only “decent-seeming” neighborhoods that had affordable houses.

Maguire was surprised by the diversity of the neighborhood she chose to live in.

“There is a truly amazing mix of average people. It’s a surprisingly eclectic neighborhood, much more so than maybe a lot of west side neighborhoods,” said Maguire.

Maguire says that she first became active when she felt frustrated by Wiggies’s Bar, which lies just a block from her home. Maguire spent 18 months working with police and city officials in an attempt to stop the increased crime, noise and littering from patrons of Wiggie’s.

In response to complaints from Maguire and other Sherman residents, Madison police imposed a comprehensive security plan on Wiggie’s Bar in Nov. 2010 that has led to dramatic improvements in the neighborhood.

Maguire decided to join the SNA after reading a news article about the association in the Oct. 2009 edition of the North Side News.

“They listed the date of the next meeting, and I realized I wanted to be more involved in the neighborhood as a whole, it seemed selfish to just focus on my little area,” said Maguire.

In Jan. 2011, Maguire and Jandl were named co-chairs on the SNA, replacing Diane Brown who could no longer hold the position due to other obligations.

While the other members of the SNA had been involved with the association for much longer than Maguire, they did not want to take on the extra responsibilities of being chair. Maguire was willing to give it a try, and according to Brown, Maguire is ready for the challenge.

“Megan seems to have a lot of energy and broad array of interests,” said Brown. “She enjoys visiting with neighbors and discussing issues of the day, and seems to have a gift for engaging people.”

Inexperience has made being co-chair has been a bit stressful.

“They have a way of doing things. I am new and have a different perspective. Some have been really great, some have been a little resistant to new ideas. However, I think they realize that if they don’t want to be chair, they have to at least consider change.”

Working along side the more experienced Jandl has been helpful for Maguire.

“I think we are perfect compliments. I think I am the one that gets the ball rolling, but she is the one that makes sure the ball doesn’t veer off track. I could not ask for a greater person to work with as co-chair. ” said Maguire.

Maguire spends three to four hours a week dealing with her duties as co-chair. Her main responsibilities include acting as a contact for the SNA and setting agendas for and running the quarterly association meetings.

Maguire’s first goal as SNA co-chair is to expand the association’s membership, bringing in fresh faces with new ideas.

“The SNA was wise but a but a bit stagnant, so getting more people in my neighborhood involved is essential. We have three new members that have a lot of great ideas and energy. We need many more to be a really great neighborhood association.”

The SNA received a grant from the city to increase membership through a mass-mailing and flyer distribution campaign. Maguire is hopeful that the grant will make more Sherman residents aware that the SNA is a useful, neighborhood resource.

Brown believes her successor will be able to meet her goal.

“I believe she will bring an infusion of new members or at least participants in information dissemination and discussions. I hope she will be able to encourage and involve people to assist with activities so SNA can make some progress,” said Brown.

As co-chair, Maguire wants the SNA to work with police to address increased instances of random property damage and excessive speeding on Aberg Avenue and Northport Drive. Maguire also hopes the SNA can make the neighborhood a more desirable location to businesses, hopefully filling some of the empty spaces in Northgate Shopping Center and Northside Town Center.

While being co-chair of the SNA has brought increased responsibility and accountability, Maguire is enjoying representing Sherman neighborhood and Madison’s north side.

“I think the north side is an under appreciated Madison gem, but sometimes I think I like it that way,” said Maguire. “I think the north side gets a bad rap, but northsiders are very down to earth, unpretentious and we’re a community oriented group.”

I wrote this story in March 2011 for my advanced reporting class at UW-Madison. I’m covered the Sherman neighborhood of Madison, WI.

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Madison’s Goose Management Plan Still Being Finalized

Almost a year after the controversy over Warner Park’s geese population began, Madison is still finalizing a goose management plan for all of the city’s parks.

The Parks Division will hold their last goose management public informational and listening session meeting on April 20 from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Goodman Maintenance Facility.

The final plan will be put up for consideration before the Board of Parks Commission in May, according to Parks Division spokeswoman Laura Whitmore.

Madison’s quest to develop a goose management plan has been full of twists and turns.

It all began on April 14, 2010 when the Board of Parks Commissioners approved a plan to kill 80 to 100 geese at Warner Park. The plan would have involved the first lethal measures taken against geese by the city of Madison.

Representatives of Dane County Regional Airport proposed the plan. They believed the geese at Warner Park, located about a mile and a half away from the airport’s main runway, posed a threat to flight safety.

The threat of geese and other birds to airplanes became a national issue after the highly publicized “Miracle on the Hudson.”

In Jan. 2009, a flock of geese struck a plane outside of New York City. The pilot was forced to perform a “miracle” landing on the Hudson River. In response, New York officials approved a plan to kill 1,200 geese near the city’s main airports.

“I think you’ve got a dangerous situation in there. I don’t want to test out another Miracle on the Hudson here,” said Ald. Joe Clausius, a member of the Board of Parks Commission, at the April 14 meeting.

The plan was approved the same day it was proposed and no indication that a goose management plan would be discussed was given prior to the commissioners’ meeting.

“It is, however, clear to me that very few people knew that ‘goose management’
would be discussed, much less that it meant killing geese in the park,” wrote Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway in an April 23, 2010 letter to the parks commissioners.

The plan’s passage was immediately met with protest from Madison residents. A “No Madison Goose Kill” Facebook group quickly gained over 1700 members.

“Things are fairly quiet now, but it was a huge issue for us last spring,” said Megan Maguire, co-chair of the Sherman Neighborhood Association. “People were really against killing geese. There was a huge uproar.”

Many believed that the geese did not pose as big of a threat to flight safety as the airport reported, and that there were alternative, non-lethal measures that could be taken to control the goose population.

In response, the Parks Commissioners held a meeting on May 12, 2010 to receive input from the public.

The meeting was well attended, and upset citizens spoke up against the plan, including Jim Carrier, co-founder of Wild Warner Inc., a non-profit advocacy group protecting wildlife in Warner Park.

“Do not take all our geese. Do not silence our spring. Do not kill their call of the wild,” Carrier said in a prepared speech.

After being presented with new information and receiving input from the public, the commissioners unanimously voted to put the plan on hold and vowed to develop a non-lethal goose management plan.

“I think the Parks Department needs to think broadly to come up with a strategy. I think its a mistake to focus on just Warner Park,” said parks commissioner Betty Chewning.

The commissioners said that they would look into numerous management techniques including habitat modification, egg addling/oiling and goose harassment.

Wild Warner has made numerous recommendations, one being that Madison must start obeying their own no-feeding ordinance. The organization says that the city is feeding and attracting Canada Geese by continually mowing the grass at city parks.

While the final goose management plan is still being debated, Madison has already taken one step to control its goose population.

Last June, the city began killing goose eggs in Warner Park using a technique called “oiling.” 96 eggs were suffocated with corn oil.

The Parks Division hosted two public forums last fall. An October meeting focused on golf courses, while a November meeting focused on general parklands.

The birds’ potential threat to flight safety is not the only reason the city is developing a goose management plan. The high number of geese in Madison’s parks is also threatening public health.

A goose leaves behind up to a half pound of waste a day. That waste contributes to elevated levels of E. coli, salmonella and cryptosporidium, according to the Dane County Health Department.

Vilas Beach, the city’s most heavily used beach, was deemed unfit for swimming by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 due to excessive levels of E. coli, according to the Friends of Lake Wingra advocacy group. Five other Madison beaches were deemed impaired for swimming by the EPA.

Geese have also proven to be a nuisance to park goers.

“It would definitely be nice to have less goose poop all over the parks, but I don’t think its worth killing them over,” said Ben Daniels, a Warner Park regular.

Goose waste often ends up on the city’s soccer fields, basketball courts and playgrounds, and on the bottom of people’s shoes.

“Things can get pretty messy when I’m walking my dog here,” said Michelle Conley on Saturday afternoon at Warner Park. “I have to double check the bottom of my shoes before I walk back into my house.”

I wrote this story in March 2011 for my advanced reporting class at UW-Madison. I’m covered the Sherman neighborhood of Madison, WI.

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Wiggie’s Security Plan is Working, But How Long Will It Last?

Three months after Madison police imposed a security plan on Wiggie’s Bar (1901 Aberg Ave.), residents of the Sherman Neighborhood in which the bar is located are noticing improvements.

“The change in the neighborhood since the implementation of the security plan has been 180 degrees,” said Megan Maguire, co-chair of the Sherman Neighborhood Association. “There have been no disturbances, and I have personally not made a call to the police.”

According to police reports, there have been no incidents at the bar since the security plan was put in place on Nov. 30.

However, Maguire and other Sherman residents are worried that the security plan may be removed in May when the bar’s alcohol beverage license comes up for review before the Alcohol License Review Committee.

“I anticipate the bar owner [David Wiganowsky] will try to have the plan removed. Many people have indicated to me they will be adding their input in support of maintaining the plan,” said Maguire.

During a Sherman Neighborhood Association meeting in February, Wiganowsky stated his desire to return to the bar’s old operating hours in the near future. Since November, Wiggie’s has been closing between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m to avoid some of the stipulations listed in the police mandated security plan. Wiganowsky said he was losing too much money to be able to maintain his business with shorten hours.

Mark Woulf, Alcohol Policy Coordinator for Madison, also believes Wiganowsky will try to have at least some of the plan removed.

“It is likely that his license renewal will be separated for review in front of the ALRC, and it is also likely that Wiganowsky will ask for at least some of the provisions within the Chief’s security plan be removed from his license,” said Woulf.

Woulf said he did not know if the ALRC would be likely to remove the plan, saying “that it it largely depends on the issues as they arise, if any, from now until May.”

Attempts to reach Wiganowsky for comment were not successful.

Maguire has been very pleased with the results of the security plan. She says the neighborhood is in much better shape now than it was just four months ago, and she fears that without the security plan the neighborhood would go back to how it used to be.

“I was no longer able to sleep through out the night without being woken up by some disturbance outside, no matter what season,” said Maguire. “I think only now has that finally gone away. The neighborhood is really, really quiet now.”

Maguire, who lives just around the corner from Wiggie’s, said that she used to witness  unwanted and illegal activity right outside her home.

“People would be drinking in their cars, there would be drug dealing, prostitution, and littering,” said Maguire, who was elected co-chair of the neighborhood council in January. “For awhile I had an impressive collection of empties I collected from my own yard, just in a month’s time.”

Police decided to impose a comprehensive security plan on Wiggie’s after a series of incidents last fall.

On Oct 26., two women were sent to the hospital, one with a knife wound, after getting in to a fight in the bar’s parking lot.

On Nov. 6, an unidentified person fired multiple shots outside the bar.

The tipping point came on Nov. 8, when a 49-year-old man was arrested in the bar’s parking lot, and police confiscated a knife, marijuana and cocaine.

Police finalized the security plan on Nov. 30, and the elements of the plan became conditions on the bar’s alcohol beverage license.

As part of the security plan, the bar is required to hire two licensed, uniformed security officers to monitor the lot for problems. However, this is only required Thursday through Sunday after 11 p.m. According to Woulf, Wiganowsky has avoided hiring extra security by voluntarily closing the bar early.

The security plan also requires the bar to: purchase an ID scanner; maintain and utilize a video surveillance system; maintain a log of all incidents, and share that log with police; post a notice of no trespassing or loitering in the parking lot; and prohibit loitering on the north or west side of the building.

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011 for my advanced reporting class at UW-Madison. I covered the Sherman neighborhood of Madison, WI.

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Book Review – The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America

     Joe Posnanski is generally regarded as one of the finest sports writers and brightest baseball minds in America.  In 2009, he became a full-time senior writer at Sports Illustrated.   From 1996 to 2009, Posnanski was a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star.  In that time, he was twice named the best sports columnist in the country by The Associated Press Sports Editors.  He still occasionally writes columns for the Star.  Before becoming a columnist in Kansas City, Posnanski worked in various roles for the Cincinnati Post, Augusta Chronicle and Charlotte Observer.  Posnanski is also an extremely active blogger.  He posts daily on his personal Joe Blogs site, and while he focuses mainly on sports, he also touches on various other topics, be it travel, movies or food.

      Baseball was a topic that had always interested Posnanski, and he hoped to make it the subject of his first full-length book.  According to the prologue of The Soul of Baseball, he first aimed at writing an entire book on a single game, one that numerous Negro Leaguers had told him was the greatest game ever played.  However, he abandoned that idea after finding information on the game proved too difficult.  Almost all of the game’s participants were dead, and the Negro League did not keep sufficient records or documentation.  Posnanski then thought about writing a novel about a white talent scout sent to the Negro Leagues in search of the next big thing but as he said, he quickly came to understand that the idea was “all too real” to be fiction.  Posnanski soon realized that the best way to tell the story of the Negro Leagues would be through the eyes of Buck O’Neil.   Buck was a Kansas City legend, and one the few Negro Leaguers still alive.  Buck had been a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before becoming a coach and scout for the Major League’s Chicago Cubs.  Buck had a strong presence in Kansas City and attended many Royals baseball games, so Posnanski had met Buck on numerous occasions.  Being one of the few Negro Leaguers still alive, Buck became the main ambassador for the league and its museum, which was located in Kansas City.  He made trips all across the country to talk about the league and his experiences.  From New York to Atlanta to rural Kansas, Buck spoke in schools, on radio shows and at banquets.  Posnanski decided to join the eloquent Buck for a year as he made his trips across the country.

      Posnanski is successful in his quest to tell the story of the Negro Leagues.  The Soul of Baseball is not just a simple narrative about Buck’s speaking engagements, it’s a story of Buck’s entire life story, the Negro Leagues, baseball and life itself.  Buck had every reason to be resentful of the past.  He was never given a chance to showcase his talents in the Major Leagues.  Buck and his Negro League teammates traveled across the country in old, rickety buses to go play on inferior fields, littered with rocks and broken glass.  After the games, Buck and his teammates were excluded from the main dining halls of restaurants, they were only allowed to eat in the kitchen.  However, if you listened to the stories Buck told, his time in the Negro Leagues could not have been any better, it was a blessing.  Buck spoke of the beauty of Negro League baseball and how much playing the sport meant to him.  Buck talked about the great talents and personalities of the Negro Leagues, the latter of which was exemplified by the nicknames of some of the league’s biggest stars.  Cool Papa, Turkey and Double Duty were just a few. Posnanski found Buck’s voice to be musical.  He stylized that point by occasionally presenting Buck’s words in a lyrical form.

“Where does bitterness take you?
To a broken heart?
To an early grave?
When I die
I want to die from natural causes
Not from hate
Eating me up from the inside. ”

That quote embodied Buck.  He did not believe in hate.  Buck would often offer hugs to anybody he thought needed one, and for some reason, they always obliged.  As Posnanski said many times, Buck just had that look to him, he brought a smile to the face of anybody he dealt with.

     A writer is nothing without a worthy person, place, event or object to write about.  In the case of The Soul of Baseball, the subject was Buck O’Neil and he was definitely captivating. He was the star of the show.  In The Soul of Baseball, Posnanski deferred to Buck. He used Buck’s quotes to tell the story of the Negro Leagues, and the result was powerful. Buck dropped countless gems of knowledge and advice though out his stories.  Since finishing the book, I’ve questioned the power of hate; is being bitter worth the effort?  Buck was able to withstand the ugliness of racism even though it robbed him the chance to play baseball on a national stage.  Buck died before the book was published, but his story and message lives on. Buck lived an exceptional life and his story of success offers hope to all.

I wrote this book report in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Butler Beats VCU, Advances Back To Title Game

Butler’s unprecedented run to the 2010 National Championship Game seemed at the time like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now it seems like an annual event.

Butler defeated Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 Saturday night in Houston, earning the Bulldogs a second straight trip to the National Championship Game. Butler will play Connecticut on Monday night with a title on the line.

“We’re not going to settle on just getting back,” said senior guard Zach Hahn. “I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we’re here now and we have a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”

Butler’s defense is the main reason they will get another chance to play for a national championship.

VCU took a 15-7 lead seven minutes into the game thanks in part to three three-pointers from guard Bradford Burgess. From that point forward, Burgess only made one more three-pointer as Butler adjusted their defensive approach and slowed down the pace of the game.

The Butler defense held VCU to zero fast break points. The Rams had been averaging nine fast break points a game in the tournament.

“Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game. We had our runs,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart.

The Rams set a record for most three-pointers made in an NCAA Tournament (61) but only shot 8-22 from the three-point line against Butler.

Butler’s guards Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant did an excellent job locking down VCU’s shooters.

VCU guard Brandon Rozzell, who had made 17 of his 35 three-point attempts in the tournament coming in to the national semifinals, was 0-3 from the three-point line on Saturday.

Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez only made one of his eight field goal attempts.

“Some of our shots didn’t fall. Open shots, shots we’d been making,” said Rodriguez. “I think if you go back and look at the tape, you’ll see some of them were in and outs. Almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen or something.”

On the offensive end, Butler rode second half hot streaks from two of their guards.

Hahn made two three-pointers and a layup in a 90 second span, helping the Bulldogs maintain the lead they took into halftime.

“[Zach Hahn] is not the most athletic guy in the world. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. But there’s a reason why he’s playing major minutes in the national semifinals,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens.

With 11:53 remaining in the game and Butler leading 44-43, Mack missed two straight free throw attempts. The misses seemed to motivate Mack, who soon took control of the game. Mack sank a three-pointer at the top of the key on the Bulldogs’ next possession, and kept going. Mack scored 10 consecutive points over a three minute stretch, giving Butler a 54-47 lead.

With three minutes remaining and the shot clock running down, Mack found Vanzant in the corner with a bounce pass.  Vanzant then sank a three-pointer to put the Bulldogs up 61-54.

Mack led the Bulldogs with 24 points and made five of his six three-point attempts.

“[Shelvin Mack] is an incredible basketball player. He has a will and determination that’s unlike other guys,” said senior forward Matt Howard. “He many times carried this basketball team and that’s still playing within our offense. That’s what Shelvin is, he’s a great basketball player. Again, you saw evidence of that tonight.”

VCU’s loss ended a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament. The 11th seeded Rams knocked off five opponents from power conferences, four by double digits, on their way to the Final Four.

Smart, who’s star has risen to great heights during the Rams’ run, said he thinks VCU can repeat their success in the future.

“Of course it’s not a once in a lifetime run. We’re going to try to do this every year,” said Smart. “It’s not easy, there’s no question about it. If we’re capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it’s certainly possible.”

Smart and the Rams don’t need to look far to see that history can repeat itself.

Butler lost to Duke 61-59 in last season’s title game. Gordon Hayward, now playing for the Utah Jazz, missed a half court shot at the buzzer that would have given the Bulldogs the championship.

“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s on the back of my mind,” said Mack.

On Monday night, Mack and the Bulldogs will have a chance to replace that memory with something greater.

I wrote this story in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Rose, Bulls Blooming Into Title Contenders

With four victories in their recent five-game road trip, the Chicago Bulls made a statement loud enough for everybody in the NBA to hear. For the first time since Michael, Scottie and Phil left town in 1998, the Bulls are legitimate championship contenders.

The Bulls showed their mental toughness and resiliency in bouncing back from their 83-80 loss in Atlanta Wednesday night. The Bulls blew a 17-point halftime lead against the Hawks and scored only 30 total points in the second half, and point guard and MVP candidate Derrick Rose took the blame for his team’s collapse.

“The game was definitely on me,” said Rose. “But I guarantee it won’t happen again.”  It didn’t. The Bulls finished off their five-game road trip through the Southeast by defeating the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.

The Bulls’ 87-86 victory over the Heat on Sunday completed a season sweep of the squad former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy thought would challenge the 1995-1996 Bulls’ NBA-record 72 wins.

The Bulls’ win literally left the Heat in tears.

“This is painful for every single one of us to go through this, there are couple of guys crying in the locker room right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

While the Heat, losers of four straight, hardly look like the NBA’s best team, the Bulls keep impressing.

The Bulls have moved ahead of the Heat into second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 43-18. They have proven themselves against the the NBA’s best, holding an 11-6 record against the league’s top teams.

For the Bulls, it all starts with Rose. The Chicago native and Eastern Conference All-Star starter leaves fans and opposing players breathless with his electrifying moves. In a league where a superstar is needed to win championships, the Bulls definitely have one.

Rose leads the team with 24 points and 8 assists per game, and has emerged as a favorite to take home this season’s MVP award. Even teammates of LeBron James, the player considered Rose’s main competition for the award, believe Rose is the NBA’s MVP.

“I think I would give it to Derrick if I were a voter. He’s playing well,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh. “He’s playing like the best point guard in the league and the best player in the league. He’s the most valuable player if you really think about it. You take him out of the lineup there’s no telling what you get.”

While Bosh’s last statement may be true, the Bulls are more than just Rose.

Forward Luol Deng has emerged as an all-around star on his own. Deng is averaging 17 points and 6 rebounds per game, and has become the Bulls’ go-to-player in the clutch. On Sunday, Deng hit three free throws in the game’s final seconds to give the Bulls the lead.

It’s obvious from coach Tom Thibodeau’s praise that Deng’s improved play has been essential to the Bulls’ success.

“When you’re around him every day and you see his leadership and the way he works, you can’t say enough about him,” said Thibodeau. “He’s our glue. He keeps us together. When things are tough, he’s the same. He doesn’t get rattled.”

One of the reasons the Bulls will be a tough team to play in the postseason is the depth of their front court. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Kurt Thomas all receive regular time in Thibodeau’s rotation.

Because Boozer missed the season’s first 18 games with a broken hand and Noah recently missed 30 games with a broken wrist, the other three big men all received more playing time than they would have normally. This gave the backups a chance to gain experience playing with the starters, and gave youngsters Gibson and Asik a chance to develop their skills.

Asik, a seven-foot-tall rookie from Turkey, improved drastically while filling in for the injured Noah.  Asik had a career-high 13 rebounds against Dwight Howard and the Magic on Friday night.

Having not played a full 82 games, Noah and Boozer should be fresher than their opponents entering the playoffs. As well, now that both are back, Thibodeau can rest the 38-year-old Thomas so he’s ready and able to be a defensive enforcer in the playoffs.

The Bulls still need to improve if they are going to win a championship this season, and the players realize it.

“We’re just trying to play the best we can,” Noah said. “I think we still have a long way to go and we can get a lot better. That’s what is so exciting about this team. Our defense is really improving. We can still improve offensively as well. We can take this pretty far.”

I wrote this story in March 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Why is Bruce safe?

Illinois basketball continued its march towards the NCAA tournament bubble on Saturday, falling to Michigan State 61-57 for the team’s seventh loss in their last 11 games.

After beginning the season ranked No. 16 in the country, the Illini now sit unranked with a record of 17-10 overall, and 7-7 in Big Ten play. Things will not get any easier for the Illini in the near future, as they travel to Columbus on Tuesday to play No. 3 Ohio State.

The Illini experienced a similar downfall last season, losing six of their final eight games as the team failed to make the NCAA tournament.

As Illinois fans continue to grow tired of the lackluster results, coach Bruce Weber’s job appears to be completely safe.

In a state of Illinois Athletics address on Wednesday, Athletic Director Ron Guenther spoke glowingly of Weber.

“I feel very confident that Bruce can get this thing figured out. He’s a wonderful coach and a great human being,” said Guenther.

Guenther’s words should come as no surprise. This is the same A.D. that has stuck with head football coach Ron Zook despite the program’s free fall after reaching the Rose Bowl in 2007.

While Guenther has made it clear that Weber’s job is safe, the Illinois A.D. should be seriously considering whether parting ways with Weber would be best for the Illinois basketball program.

Weber, who came to Champaign before the 2003-2004 season, led the Illini to success early in his tenure. The Illini won eight NCAA tournament games over Weber’s first three years, including a trip to the national title game in 2005.

However, Weber and the Illini have not won a tournament game since 2006.

“There’s no reason why we can’t compete at the highest level here,” said Guenther at his Wednesday news conference.
Guenther is right, so why has Weber failed to keep Illinois among college basketball’s elite teams?

A lot of the program’s struggles stem from Weber’s poor recruiting in his first years as Illini coach. Weber’s early results came coaching players he did not recruit into the program. Bill Self recruited the core of the 2004 and 2005 teams – Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine.

Weber failed to cash in on the  massive media attention the Illini received in 2005 as they started the season 29-0 and made the national title game.

From 2005 until 2007, Illinois high school stars Julian Wright, Sherron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose and Evan Turner all left the state to play their college ball. To make matters worse, Collins and Wright joined Self at Kansas.

Of the five players that made up Weber’s 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes, four ended up transferring from the program before their junior years.

To Weber’s credit, his recruiting has improved. According to Scout.com, the Illini’s 2010 recruiting class featured the state’s top three prospects, including Meyers Leonard, Weber’s first five-star commitment.

However, the state of Illinois’ two five-star recruits of the 2011 recruiting class, Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear, both spurred the Illini, committing to Kentucky and Louisville respectively.

Weber has not only faced difficulties in recruiting, he has also had trouble developing the talents of his players.

One of the main reasons the Illini were ranked highly entering the 2011 season was the perceived strength of their senior class, headlined by guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale.

However, all three of the Illini senior stars have been removed from the starting lineup at some point this season for poor play or poor leadership.

It also seems Weber has had trouble keeping control over his program. In an interview with Chicago’s ESPN 1000 two weeks ago, Weber said outside forces have negatively affected McCamey.

“It’s disappointing, some of it is Demetri, obviously,” Weber said. “But the outside influences, just kill kids, I’m just telling you. I feel bad. He was playing so well, and all of a sudden, the runners, the agents, the third-party people, they’re all telling him he’s an all-American and this and that.”

The future looks bright for the Illini. They have a young, talented core in Leonard, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Jereme Richmond waiting to take over control of the team once McCamey, Davis and Tisdale exhaust their eligibility.

It’s time for Guenther to seriously ponder whether the future of Illinois basketball would look even brighter with someone other than Bruce Weber as head coach.

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011  for my Sports Jounalism class with Len Shapiro.

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