Matt Sweeney steps down

If haven’t had the chance to read today’s Times sports section, Matt Sweeney told us yesterday that he has stepped down as the football coach at Foothill High School after 21 years. It came as a surprise to those us in the media (okay, maybe just me) who have covered Sweeney teams in the past, particularly this year. As he guided the Falcons to 12 straight wins in 2006, his level of intensity never waned and his ability to play-call and make in-game adjustments were as deft as ever.

Yet he just couldn’t get the juices flowing for football this spring as he did in previous years. Part of that was because he was guiding the Falcons softball team to a 25-3 record and the NCS 3A East Bay title, and was committed to those players his best effort. When it came time to devote his attention to the football team, the energy just wasn’t there.

Anyway, everyone who has covered high school football in the East Bay has a favorite Matt Sweeney story. Here are a couple of mine.

In 2001, California was having one of its best seasons ever and had designs on upsetting the Falcons. The Grizzlies took a 7-3 lead early as the Falcons kept shooting themselves in the foot. After a particularly ugly play, Sweeney called a timeout, brought his players around him and issued a paint-peeling lecture that I’m sure a few people in the bleachers could hear. Excuses? He didn’t want to hear ’em.

The Foothill players got the message too, winning 24-19.

Then this April during the Livermore Stampede, Sweeney was in the press box talking to another sportswriter who had been covering Foothill games for years. Sweeney talked about a play that had been successful for him in 1987, and how he kept using that play with slight modifications over and over in big games since. He diagrammed every single one on a piece of paper, going over in detail what every player was supposed to do.

Foothill administrators are searching for a permanent replacement for Matt Sweeney. But there will never be another one like him.


NCS baseball heats up

Well after the opening round of NCS baseball action, there were few surprises.

Here were a few highlights:

Best game
: Alameda’s 7-6 come-from-behind win over Berkeley. The Hornets got hot at just the right time last year to take the 3A East Bay crown. Could it happen again?

Best pitching effort:
Who else? Clayton Valley’s Sean Burns tossed a two-hit shutout with nine strikeouts to notch his 12th win of the season and send the Eagles into a quarterfinal at James Logan.

And here are some things to look forward to in the next two rounds:

Best quarterfinal pitching matchup: California’s Josh Slaats against De La Salle’s Taylor Reid. Unfortunately for Slaats, taming the DLS lineup will be a greater challenge than Reid’s assignment against California’s hitters.

The team that could turn the most heads:
It’s between Piedmont and San Ramon Valley. Piedmont could just pull off an upset of Albany and reach the 2A East Bay semifinals, and San Ramon Valley is definitely capable of sneaking past Alameda in the 3A bracket.

Enjoy the games.


Postseason begins today

The North Coast Section baseball and softball playoffs begin today and, I gotta say, it’s my favorite time of the prep year. Nothing quite like some high stakes baseball to get the juices flowing. For now, I’ll focus on baseball and what I’m seeing are a few really good matchups both today and tomorrow that you might want to go check out:

No. 13 Amador Valley at No. 4 Deer Valley: This could be a wild one. It may depend on who the Dons decide to toss out there between Bryce Miller and Rob LeClair. For Deer Valley, Dylan Rath will most likely take the hill and this could be a game that either spirals into a big-time offensive slugfest or evolves into a pitchers’ duel. The unpredictability of this matchup is what makes it so intriguing.
No. 8 Bishop O’Dowd at No. 9 California: The Dragons made it to the 3A championship last year and this first round matchup does them absolutely no favors. What they do have going for them is the fact that California’s rather snug home field is very familiar since their home field is much the same way. While a matchup of O’Dowd’s Graham Rodriguez and Cal’s Josh Slaats is what most people would predict, I would not be surprised to see Ben Zemmelman and Tyler Costa starting either. This is a tossup.
No. 12 Monte Vista at No. 12 Livermore: Why does the NCS insist on matching league opponents up again? In the 3A bracket there are three league matchups and in 2A there are two. I understand why it happens in the smaller 2A field but if you’re the Cowboys, aren’t you kind of worried that you have to face MV again? Should make for entertaining baseball anyway.
No. 14 San Ramon Valley at No. 3 Pinole Valley: Yours truly picked the Spartans fifth in their own league to begin the year. Yep, got that one wrong. They’re riding high entering the playoffs but Alameda did prove the Spartans are human by beating them recently. SRV is emotionally charged right now and it would not shock me to see an upset here. That said, PV has a big home-field advantage and that might carry them through.
No. 10 Alhambra at No. 7 Miramonte: A classic DFAL game to start the playoffs. The Mats beat Alhambra just last week in Orinda so you know the Bulldogs are going to be fired up to get some revenge. If Matt Baesa has to come out of the game for Alhambra, the key (as it has been all year) will be who steps up to carry the torch on the mound.
No. 11 Berkeley at No. 6 Alameda: Two ACCAL rivals clash yet again. This one is very simple. Whoever plays better defense is going to win. Alameda struggled with their D early in the year but by the end of the season, it came around. Berkeley, on the other hand, turned in it’s worst defensive performance of the year last week against El Cerrito and backed into the playoffs. Neither team strikes out a ton, so whoever flashes the leather is going to win.

Well, the long and short of all this is that you should get out and see some ball. It’s everywhere this week. Seniors like Clayton Valley’s Sean Burns, nearly the entire De La Salle team, California’s Slaats and the like are worth seeing at least once more, not to mention St. Mary’s junior Matt Flemer. The season starts now.
-Ben Enos


Fun in the sun (a volleyball dream)

It’s May. And though the first round of the North Coast Section boys volleyball playoffs took place on a cold and overcast evening, a thought came to mind: wouldn’t it be great to take this game outdoors?
High school volleyball typically takes place during months when folks want to be outside. Boys volleyball is inhibited, some argue, by the fact that it takes place indoors in spring when people want to move into the sun and fresh air after a winter of sitting in crowded gyms for basketball games.
One practical advantage of a move outdoors comes to mind: from a journalistic viewpoint, my photographic colleagues won’t have to put up with the guff they occasionally take for using a flash during the course of a match (an aside: those who complain about flash photography during indoor or night sports are unable to see the greater good – – publishing photographs actually benefits the sport being covered. But I digress).
In reality, our high school sports plates are beyond full. Still, imagine high school beach volleyball. No beach at your school, you say? Well, just import some sand. Fun in the sand and sun.
It’s a nice dream, anyway!


I wanna play, too! (and other volley musings and comments)

While covering the North Coast Section Division IV match between Head-Royce and St. Joseph Notre Dame at Alameda High on May 15, I felt an urge to get on the court myself. Maybe I was feeling nostalgic, having played the game on an asphalt court during P.E. as a student at Alameda High during the days when what is now called the “historic” high school was the actual high school.
Or maybe it was just a mini-midlife crisis, with a milestone birthday – – The Big Five-Oh – – coming up next month. Or maybe it was just a sugar high kicking in from consuming the M & M’s a colleague had brought to the office earlier in the day.
Whatever the case, it had been a long time since I had last played (unless you want to count the times my kids, wife and I played a netless “game” in the house with the kids’ smiley-face miniature beach ball), and I felt a yearning to get in a few hits, digs, passes, sets and serves of my own.
High school kids today soon will enter an adult world with sky-high prices for housing and transportation. And higher education costs more than ever, too. But the high schoolers of today also enjoy certain privileges not afforded folks of my generation. Back in my high school years, for example, there were no volleyball teams for either boys or girls (the same applies to soccer).
Some weeks ago, I posted an entry wondering whether boys volleyball would catch on in Northern California the way it has in SoCal and perhaps some other locales. Some folks might have thought I was dissing the sport. What I was dumping on, though, was some of the prevailing attitudes surrounding the sport.
I’ve sat in packed gyms to cover girls postseason matches. I’ve yet to experience the same atmosphere at a boys match. For the record, Head-Royce and St. Joseph drew an enthusiastic and loud gathering. But both the Jayhawks and Pilots represent small schools and the match took place on a school night, so I can’t infer much from that. In addition, the Warriors were competing in the NBA playoffs the same night.
Still, when I see teams wearing what look like hand-me-down uniforms, I can only wonder whether the sport is receiving the funding and support it needs to flourish (again for the record, both the Pilots and Jayhawks were neatly attired, but I’m not sure if those teams are the rule or the exception).
Overall, boys volleyball is a great sport. It has a huge upside and a mountain of potential as a high school spectator sport. It screams to have the state title games girls volleyball has in the fall. It screams for respect.
But will it ever get it beyond what appears its cult following?


Poker anyone?

Do not play poker with De La Salle golf coach Leo Lopoz.
Lopoz has said all season that his team wasn’t very good, and that all the Spartans wanted to do was advance to the next round.
And he has said this all year with a straight face.
If the Spartans aren’t a good team, I don’t know who is.
De La Salle fired its best 18-hole round of the season with a five-golfer score of 6-over-par 366 to win the NCS South Qualifier on May 7.
Andrew Haggen and J.P. Gross led the Spartans with 1-under-par 71s, and the rest of the Spartans shot a 78 or lower to best second-place Foothill by five strokes.
I wonder what he and the rest of the Spartans have in store for Monday’s NCS Tournament of Champions.
In Lopoz’s defense, De La Salle did graduate three of its top five golfers and lost a fourth to the David Leadbetter Academy. Brian O’Regan is the lone Spartan that returned from last year’s state title team. De La Salle beat Cathedral Catholic-San Diego by one-stroke to secure its first title.
If Lopoz is this good at believing the Spartans aren’t very good, then imagine what he is like with green felt, some cards and plastic chips in front of him.
I know one thing, I’m not playing poker with him.


Earning Green

It’s not Augusta, but he still earned his green attire.
Foothill High School junior Justin Gabbert picked up his leafy colored gear for the first time at Monday’s North Coast Section South Qualifier.
Gabbert fired a 1-under-par 71 at Lone Tree Golf Course in Antioch for his first sub-par 18-hole round of his career.
The Falcons’ No. 3 golfer, Gabbert has been even-par or one or two over, but could never quite break the par barrier.
His round at Lone Tree earned him a green golf bag from Castlewood Country Club, which rewards its junior members with a green golf bag when they achieve their first under-par 18-hole round.
“It took me long enough,” said Gabbert after his round. “I played solid all day long and was hitting my irons well all day long.”
At the NCS South Qualifier, Gabbert started the 8 a.m. shotgun start on the eighth hole and was two over after his first four holes. But birdies on holes 12, 13, two and six helped him card one of the day’s eight rounds under par at the event that featured 139 golfers.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Gabbert’s round plus that of teammate and fellow junior Anthony Machi, who also shot a 71, helped Foothill finish second at the qualifier with a five-golfer score of 11-over 371.
De La Salle won the qualifier with a 366 and also had two golfers in Andrew Haggen and J.P. Gross card 71s.


Viva Volleyball

Hola compadres! (In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I figured I’d throw in a little Spanish to spice things up.)
So what’s the best way to celebrate Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla in 1862?
By doing the cucaracha dance?
It’s all about volleyball, amigos.
The Foothill Tournament begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday and this 12-team field features a bunch of teams that can beat one another. Cal can’t figure out Foothill in EBAL play, but certainly beat them at the Chico Tournament. Chico will be there too, the same team who played deep into the Deer Valley Tournament. How about Washington, who lost to Las Lomas in the quarterfinals of the Northgate Tournament. De La Salle also made the quarterfinals and Northgate just beat Las Lomas (again) in league play.
Amador Valley can be a threat and St. Joseph-Notre Dame leads the BSAL.
But again, we’ll go with Foothill to win the whole thing.