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CAT | Sideline guy

As I write this, I’m sitting in the interview room for the Stagg Bowl teams — yes, in case you thought you were dreaming, it’s the same teams as the previous five years. I’ll spare you the formal introductions except to tell you that I’m Frank Rossi, your D3football.com “Sideline Guy” for Saturday’s online broadcast of the Stagg Bowl.

Oddly enough, we entered the Taliaferro Complex in Salem with a feeling of deja vu as about four inches of snow fell since last night. The forecast is for another potential clipper to produce precipitation sometime Saturday — but it’s unlikely we’ll see even close to the 21″ of snow we encountered last year.

So, you say you’re bored by this matchup again? Well, the cream rose to the top again, and we’re going to be treated to an excellent game — the 2010 matchup on paper looks as close as any of the prior five Stagg Bowl matchups between these teams. Yet, there are a number of back stories surrounding this year’s Stagg Bowl.

First, who will be quarterback? Okay, we had that question with Kurt Rocco’s injury last year, sure. However, this year, BOTH teams have that question facing them. It isn’t just of question of who is starting, though. The formations both teams have would enable play by multiple quarterbacks — for instance, Cecil Shorts ran the Wildcat for a few downs last week when Mount Union defeated Bethel. Will we know who will start as quarterback by Saturday at, say, 2 p.m.? Odds are against that — these coaches play this very close to their chest historically. However, there is an additional intrigue surrounding this game because of this question.

Second, there are many stories still to be told by fans of both teams that simply could not make it to the game last year. This wasn’t by choice — Mother Nature decided to force their hands. For instance, the Whitewater band and cheerleaders, weather permitting, will actually get to enjoy the game without having to resort to the warmth of a chicken wing franchise.

Also, for the first time, we do not know the winner of the Gagliardi Trophy quite yet. That announcement will be live at 7 .p.m EST, and all of the final four finalists will be on hand (again, weather permitting). We also will air the entire ceremony, including a pre-announcement show and a post-announcement interview and reaction streamed online so tune in and enjoy this excellent ceremony.

Every year, we have different angles, regardless of the teams. Remember that the players change every year (and the rosters, in their entirety, every four years). For those people who feel upset that the rest of the season is predictable, remember that this game has been very unpredictable. Stay tuned for more updates throughout the weekend, and travel safely to Salem if you can make it.

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Dec/09

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Sideline Guy: What a weekend!

What a wild 48 hours we all went through from Friday evening through Sunday night. Whether you were just a fan worrying about the final outcome, a traveler trying to get to Salem (and potentially not making it), a player put through the ups and downs of the weekend including the game itself or a broadcasters like us trying to help bring new coverage options to our friends in cyberspace, there were memories of this particularly unusual weekend for everyone.

While I know it is Christmas Week and not Thanksgiving, there are so many things and people for which your Sideline Guy is thankful. Let’s look at the top ten things I am thankful for after this Stagg Bowl XXXVII.

10. Ustream.tv. For all the press YouTube gets, we forget that the capacity for video broadcasting live events over the Internet is limited. However, D3football.com forged a friendship with Ustream.tv at the beginning of the playoffs this year that allowed us to maximize the possibilities of coverage free of charge (for both us and our viewers/listeners). Saturday was the first time we utilized live video for the site that was produced directly by us. Yes, the results were choppy at times — but we had a skeleton crew due to the weather. For this year’s game, the thing everyone wanted to see for themselves was the state of the weather in Salem before game time — and we provided those shots to put everything in perspective. Thanks again to Ustream.tv for their support and features throughout the playoffs. For those who were not able to see the pregame show, we have placed the 2009 D3football.com All-American Team Announcement portion on YouTube — Part 1 is embedded here:

9. The five-hour delay of the Stagg Bowl kickoff. There are some selfish and unselfish reasons for why I appreciated the five-hour delay. Selfishly, my sleep level was low heading into Saturday morning. Because of the 9:00am EST pregame show scheduling, we had to wake up at around 6:15am to get ready for the big show. The five-hour delay allowed me to refresh a bit more with about three more hours of sleep. Unselfishly, however, the delay allowed the City of Salem to clean up the surrounding roads enough to ensure the safety of the local fans or the fans that had already arrived for the game. In addition, it allowed the field to be completely cleared so that people could not blame the field’s condition for any results in the Stagg Bowl. I have put together a slide show of pictures taken by Peggy Erwin (with her permission to use the photos) to show just how bad the field and outside conditions were overnight at and around Salem Stadium (special thanks also to Peggy for the use of her camera lens for our photo coverage Saturday). Those extra five hours were key in protecting the integrity of the Division III Championship Game from a weather-based fluke, so thanks to Shonna Brown (Assistant Director of NCAA Championships), Dr. Joy Solomen (Chair of the NCAA Division III Football Selection Committee) and all others who were involved in making that key decision.

8. The safety of everyone involved, not just including the players. One thing I noted while patrolling the sidelines for the D3football.com broadcast was that the injuries we witnessed were, overall, minor. There was the need to re-tape a couple linemen’s legs after they got dinged up, and some other minor injuries were witnessed (i.e., Cecil Shorts entered the postgame press conference on crutches). However, the game did not lead to any debilitating injuries — the type of which you might expect from such a hard-hitting and close game. So, while I am thankful for that, I am also very thankful that we know of no injuries that were caused by the weather conditions to fans heading toward the game. Sure, some buses never made it to Salem and many people who did reach Salem had incredible journeys (including the over 24-hour drive experienced by our own Gordon Mann from Philly). Yet, the safety of everyone seems to be accounted for from the looks of the message boards and blogs I have seen. Let’s face it, the weather could have been a tragedy of epic proportions when it came to travel injuries and/or fatalities. The fact that it wasn’t makes us all truly thankful.

7. WarhawkTrombone. I figure since WarhawkTrombone has been such a loyal follower of these “Sideline Guy” blogs, I need to thank him for his unending support and information. For those that did not see the comments of the prior “Sideline Guy” entries (especially “Gagliardi, the matchup, snow”), WarhawkTrombone and the rest of the Wisconsin-Whitewater band did not reach Salem due to the conditions. Instead, their bus stopped at an Indiana Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant and watched the game there. While both bands’ presences were missed, the Wild Wings story proves the dedication of the Division III Football fan base as much as any story I could tell. So, thanks WarhawkTrombone for keeping the weekend informative and light with your upbeat spirit. We all appreciated it.

6. Karen from US Airways. Yes, I had my own travel nightmare after the Stagg Bowl. Pat Coleman and I shared a car but arrived and departed from different airports (Pat at Greensboro, but Raleigh-Durham for me). After we ended the D3football.com broadcast, I received a message from JetBlue that my 7:00am return flight was canceled. I quickly tried to find new accommodations and found a US Airways flight from Raleigh-Durham to LaGuardia Airport through Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. at 3:25pm. As I pulled in to return our rental car at 1:45pm, I received a robo-call that my flight to Washington was canceled. After waiting in line for about 90 minutes, Karen, the check-in manager at the US Airways counter, helped me. I was nice to her because I knew it wasn’t her fault and that she was already frazzled — the positive energy I think she appreciated, as she immediately rebooked me to a direct flight to LaGuardia at 5:58pm. While the flight was further delayed, we did take off at around 9:40pm from Raleigh-Durham. I can feel some of the pain the fans that had long journeys to the game endured Friday and Saturday (and so can Keith McMillan after his 16-hour return drive home from Salem to Northern Virginia — normally a three-hour trip). As for Karen, thanks to her for her quick work getting me on the flight home and for referring to me as the “cute Italian guy” when using me as a point of reference for a customer she needed to help next.

5. A more competent ESPN set of commentators. I won’t sit here trashing previous play-by-play broadcasters and color commentators over the years since I try not to be negative in these columns. However, I think it’s appropriate to relay that, for the first time I have attended the festivities, this year’s commentators (Clay Matvick, David Diaz-Infante and Quint Kessenich) actually attended the players’ banquet on Friday and mingled with the fans for a large portion of the day and night preceding the game. These guys showed a genuine interest in the game and in getting names, statistics and stories correct (and promoting things like an offensive lineman winning Division III’s highest award). Diaz-Infante, who won two Super Bowls in the late 1990s, came up to Pat Coleman and me Saturday morning in the hotel lobby to let us know he was impressed with the work we had done on the site and with the blog entries to that point. While I did not get to watch the broadcast, I have a feeling that these guys did a quality job handling a college football scene that was somewhat foreign to them (Clay Matvick even said after the Friday luncheon that the way the player representatives wished their opponents luck was a breath of fresh air compared to what he was accustomed). Thanks to those guys for the hard work they put in (and I hope they made it to the New Orleans Bowl Sunday night without problems).

4. The officiating crew. I bet you didn’t really think much about the officiating crew during the game, right? That generally is an indication that they’ve done an excellent job. In this case, I can vouch for their performance. First, the crew made sure the game moved along with minimal stoppages. With the colder weather beginning to set in during the second half, this again helped keep the weather from playing a major role. Second, whenever there were questions and necessary stoppages, they minimized those situations. There were three questionable touchdown calls in the game. The officials knew that there were questions each time, quickly discussed the appropriate “on the field” call amongst themselves and then proceeded almost immediately to an instant replay position since the calls needed to be confirmed or overturned. So, to the Northwest Conference officials, thanks for being a real non-factor in Saturday’s game.

3. Stone Station. Just because the Old Dominion Athletic Conference hosts the Stagg Bowl doesn’t mean that the ODAC is responsible for a tailgate party. Normally, that would be the fans’ doing — but the distance fans travel and the tough feasibility of planning a consistent tailgate party due to potentially different participants makes tailgating a special challenge in the Stagg Bowl context. Enter Stone Station — Bridgewater’s collection of parents and fans that put on an absolutely spectacular tailgating event annually in the Salem Stadium parking lot. The challenges this year with the weather were especially acute, making our appreciation stretch even further. When we arrived to set up for our pregame show, plates of food were sent automatically to us without us having to even ask — and I had yet to eat due to the time issues we encountered following our slow drive into the facility. Stone Station kept this Sideline Guy running — and even gave him some postgame fuel when Keith McMillan and I stopped by. Thanks again for everything!

2. Carey Harveycutter and his crew in Salem. For those of you that watched my interview with Carey on Friday before the game, you saw a somewhat pensive but upbeat Director of Civic Facilities mentally preparing for the challenges that laid ahead with the epic storm yet to hit. At 6:15am Saturday, I was awoken by a phone call from an energetic voice with a slight southern accent, but I really discounted the idea that Carey could be the man on the other end with that much energy. Well, it was him asking us to spread the word that the kickoff was pushed to 4:03pm EST. When Pat and I went to leave for the stadium, we were forced, with hotel cleanup’s help, to remove about 20 inches of snow from our car and said to each other how the field conditions could not be very good. We could not have been more wrong — as Warhawks quarterback Jeff Donovan told us, the field conditions were perfect for football. There was not a speck of snow on the playing field. Thank you to the entire Salem, VA crew (always numbering at least 12 people) who worked throughout the evening, night and day to make the weather a virtual non-factor in this year’s Stagg Bowl. If you do not receive special 2011, 2012 and 2013 bid consideration for your efforts this year, I will be the first one to cry “foul.” As always, it was a great three days of events, even without the snow removal situation.

1. 28-28 with less than two minutes left in the fourth quarter. Just because the field was clear and the teams were appearing for their fifth consecutive matchup did not guarantee a good game. Yet, the net result of everyone’s efforts on and off the field was a success from a competition standpoint. It appeared for a few minutes that we were destined for overtime until Levell Coppage’s 31-yard touchdown moved us away from that scenario. The game was fast-paced, exciting and energetic from start to finish, and that is a credit to the players, coaches, the City of Salem, the NCAA and ESPN for switching start times, the officials and many others. We may not all agree on the 32nd team selected to the NCAA Playoffs this year, but we can all agree on the excitement the final game provided and the final result on the scoreboard. That’s what truly matters in the end — and congratulations to both teams for putting on the show that entertained us all until the very end. Stagg Bowl XXXVII will certainly never be forgotten — and not just because of the snow.

Until next year, folks, thanks for reading my Stagg Bowl XXXVII entries. Feel free to leave your own stories and memories in the comments below, as we love your responses.

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Time for a catch-all blog entry, as the weather has caused things to be a little erratic around your broadcast crew. I’ll update the weather situation, among other things, throughout this entry.

GAGLIARDI TROPHY

For the first time in any of the Divisions’ highest college football awards (the Heisman, Walter Payton, Harlon Hill and Gagliardi Trophies), we finally have an offensive lineman as a winner in Blaine Westemeyer. I know the arguments will be forthcoming concerning whether the Gagliardi is akin to a “player of the year” award, but that’s not what Gagliardi night is about. It’s about showcasing the epitome of Division III Football — great student-athletes playing the game simply for the love of it. We met Blaine Westemeyer earlier in the day during the initial interview pool for the Stagg Bowl teams, and it was obvious right away that Westemeyer was a confident, smart and poised individual who does not embody the unfortunate stereotype many people bestow on linemen. It was a whirlwind week for Westemeyer, with a trip to Mexico City, a flight from there to Roanoke, Va., and then a return flight to Mexico City for the Tazon de Estrellas all-star game. If he was tired, you couldn’t tell it throughout the day.

Westemeyer’s speech was classy and a tribute to offensive linemen who have played and currently play football at any level. Keith Jackson used to call linemen the “Big Uglies” in the trenches, but there was nothing ugly about the setting nor the situation Thursday night. I think the interview Pat Coleman did with Westemeyer that we’ve linked below speaks to Westemeyer’s handling of the moment and the fact that the soon-to-be medical school attendee was a great recipient of this tremendous award.

THE GAME

I sensed a lot of frustration from fans concerning the idea that Mount Union and Whitewater are back for the fifth consecutive year. Sure, there have been plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the teams’ familiarity with the area and the game. In reality, though, how true is that?

I think we often forget that a 52-man roster means that only about 30-35 underclassmen on average will have the chance to participate in the events of the week. How many of those 30-35 players were sophomores or freshmen? Not that many. With our fifth consecutive year of the matchup, we’re essentially guaranteed a complete turnover of players on both teams that have had Stagg Bowl experience (and likely a second turnover if you consider the shrunken rosters). Whitewater experienced a coaching change a couple years ago, meaning that, in essence, the only real high-profile stalwart in this fifth rendition of the matchup is Mount Union Head Coach Larry Kehres — and he always provides a certain level of unpredictability and wisdom to everyone that knows or meets him.

So is Division III football stuck in a rut? No. Two things make me answer that way. First, looking at the semi-finals, we had some real good competition for both teams, meaning that the “gap” may be closing between the rest of the Division and these two teams. Second, as I’ve said above, for as much as we hate to admit it, there are plenty of new faces every year appearing on the field at Salem Stadium for the Stagg Bowl. The mascots may be the same, but the game is different every year.

That’s why I’m still energized by this game for a third year on the sidelines.

THE WEATHER

As of this writing (1:15am EST Saturday morning), Roanoke, VA has seen about seven inches of snow fall — with some slowing over the last few hours. However, The National Weather Service has advised that there may be up to 12 to 15 more inches of snow overnight and into Saturday afternoon. There could be white-out conditions during the game, assuming the game kicks off at 11:03am EST. However, that is still an “if” — it is highly unlikely that the game will be pushed to Sunday since both teams and the officials are in place in Salem. The only possibility that seems possible is pushing the start time of the game to a later point Saturday if the weather appears to allow for improved conditions past the 11:03am kickoff. Could ESPN2 still broadcast the game? There is no other live event scheduled for the network until around 4:00pm, so there is some chance for a push of the kickoff. ESPN also has other networks, including ESPN Classic and ESPNU that could potentially broadcast the game in the event of a major problem. The answer to this question will not come until an early morning meeting of the key players of the NCAA and grounds crew. When we know more, we’ll fill you in.

For now, plan to join us live on the D3football.com Pregame Show, being videocast live starting at 9:00am EST. We’ll have a lot more on the weather story and will release the D3football.com 2009 All-American Team live.

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