Wow! What a match!

“The thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition.”

“Wide World of Sports” was a favorite television program while growing up. And the above famous words of the program’s intro, as spoken by host Jim McKay, played over and over in the mind while watching the April 10 nonleague high school boys volleyball match between St. Joseph Notre Dame and host Encinal. For sure, this derby between Alameda schools, which saw St. Joseph rally for a thrilling 21-25, 27-29, 25-22, 26-24, 15-11 win, would have made a great “Wide World” installment.

Yes, the thrill of victory was present. As was the agony of defeat. And in terms of the human drama of athletic competition – – well, this match was sporting theater at its finest. Fact is, the match offered everything a fan would want to see: Intensity. Emotion. Excitement. Effort. Athleticism. Skill. Long rallies. Strong serves. Daring play. Diving for balls. Momentum swings. Lead changes. Energy to spare. And plenty of controversial calls to add to the spectacle. In sum, both teams went all out, playing the game the way it was meant to be played.

The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. The human drama of athletic competition. The Pilots and Jets provided all of that.


Blue collar volleyball for the Jets-set

Some years ago, a volleyball publication ran a story about the sport’s appeal as an after-work activity for urban factory workers in the early decades of the 20th century.

Fast forward to the present, and high school boys volleyball is a hit-and-miss proposition throughout Northern California. Yeah, some large-enrollment schools – – especially well-heeled ones – – can dominate their leagues. Some players here and there even get college scholarships. The Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League, however, is more a throwback to volleyball’s blue-collar roots. While the ACCAL might not produce many – – if any – – Division I college players, many of the games will please the average fan.

Encinal High School’s island derby with crosstown archrival Alameda at the Hornets Nest on March 20 serves as a case in point. Encinal won 25-12, 25-20, 25-12; and true, Alameda was short four players, including a starting setter and hitter, who sat out for undisclosed reasons. But that’s not to take away from Encinal’s effort. There was flow. There was style. There was synergy. There was enthusiasm. And there was a distinct feel for the game among the experienced Jets, who have 10 seniors on their roster. Oh, and the Jets’ Hawaiian floral-print trunks add a sense of fashion, too.

Volleyball is a second sport for a lot of guys. Often, teams reflect this reality. Encinal middle hitter Jason Silsdorf offers a refreshing exception. An All-ACCAL basketball player as Encinal’s center in the winter, Silsdorf looks very much at ease in the middle of volleyball coach Chris Bautista’s frontcourt. The senior is not a bad server, either. Could it be that Silsdorf actually is a volleyball player who doubles as a basketball player?

Volleyball, of course, is a team game, and the Jets are not only about one player. Fact is, frontline play is an overall team strength. Aaron Wang (a match-high 11 kills against Alameda) and Ryan Perdiguerra would be welcome additions to most any team. And Kamaka Baculpo brings an added presence off the bench.

As for setting, Steve North gave 16 assists against the Hornets. And libero Mervin Arquero was a strong presence in the back row, as were Melvin Arquero and Francisco Cano.

Encinal’s primary team color is blue. Fittingly, the Jets are a throwback to blue-collar volleyball.  And if one match tells a story, such a level and style of play are pretty darn good. Division I prospects or not, it’s volleyball well worth seeing.


Heart and soul

Granted, the talent level doesn’t approach that of the pros and colleges, but for an entertaining sporting experience the form of basketball played in the high schools can’t be beaten. On Wednesday (Feb. 27), I was at St. Elizabeth High in Oakland for its NCS Division V boys semifinal with visiting Lick-Wilmerding – – but it could have been any other school gym here or elsewhere. Yes, the gym was small, but the atmosphere was great, with plenty of fans of both teams packing the seats and cheering their teams. In larger venues, something gets lost. The NBA has the best players, but that league also is a big business enterprise. A long regular season and bloated playoffs make a lot of those games seem like contrivances. The college game is OK, but games work best in smaller venues. The higher levels might have the names and the talented players. But with school spirit overflowing, high school basketball is the heart and soul  of the game.


NCS soccer wrap-up

Unless you’re a coach, student-athlete or parent/guardian of a student-athlete whose high school soccer season takes place in spring, this year’s soccer season came to an end Saturday night, Feb. 23.

And what a conclusion it was. I was assigned to the North Coast Section 2A boys final between Piedmont and Campolindo at Acalanes High School. Not to belabor a point, as I’ve written about this game in a previous entry, but both teams did themselves proud. OK, so the score was 6-1 for Campolindo, but there were a lot of elements in this game to appreciate.

I wish there could have been two of me that same night, as colleague Matt Smith looked as if he caught a very good game in witnessing Pittsburg beat Amador Valley for the boys 3A title. Can only wonder, though, how Richmond High would have held up against either of those teams. Richmond, as described in an earlier post, was the team of skill in its Feb. 16 quarterfinal at home against Deer Valley, which relied largely on force. Deer Valley might have prevailed on a late penalty kick in that game, but the biggest loser was the sport of soccer itself.

In the long run, though, soccer itself was no loser come Feb. 23. Colleague Bill Kruissink, from all reports, saw a real barnburner when covering the 3A girls championship game between San Ramon Valley and Foothill at Dublin High. SRV won this game in a shootout. OK, so shootouts never are perfect; they’re a tough way to lose and maybe not the most satisfying way to win. Still, it sounded like a great game for both teams, who can only be proud of the performances they gave.

Colleague Phil Jensen covered the 2A girls title match between Piedmont and Miramonte that preceded the boys match at Acalanes High. Having arrived at Acalanes well in advance of the boys game, I was able to catch the last few minutes of the girls match. The scoreboard read, “Home 1, Visitors 0,” when I arrived, but until I asked Phil specifically, I could not tell which team was ahead as both the Highlanders and victorious Matadors kept attacking until the final whistle.

Yes, the winter soccer season is finished. And for the sport of soccer itself, it ended on a high note.


Changes at BOD

The news earlier this month that Bishop O’Dowd coach Tim Newman had stepped down from his post came as a surprise. Also stepping down with Newman were assistant Patrick Acebo and JV coach Dean Fukawa. As veterans of 16 seasons at the hilltop campus, Newman and company had become an institution at the Oakland hilltop campus after having produced 10 league titles and four NCS titles. In addition, 22 O’Dowd players went on to college programs after playing for Newman. The latest news has it that recent O’Dowd player, Ariell Cooke, now at the University of Miami, took part in U.S. national team tryouts this past weekend (Feb. 23-24). Newman, et al, indeed have built an excellent program, one with a 51-game Hayward Area Athletic League winning streak intact. Newman, Acebo and Fukawa, who began at BOD together, we’re told, decided to step down together in order to pursue other interests. Newman remains at O’Dowd as a teacher and head of the science department. He also leaves behind a reputable, respected and successful program he helped build. Whoever takes over the coaching reins at O’Dowd is going to have some big shoes to fill.


Piedmont/Campolindo: the kickin’ Cougars

To soccer nonbelievers (of which there are many, unfortunately), the thought of either a scoreless or lopsided contest is sure to induce a roll of the eyes and perhaps a feigned snore for added effect.

The poor souls just don’t know what they’re missing.

Take the Feb. 23 North Coast Section 2A boys final between Campolindo and Piedmont at Acalanes High School as a case in point. Sure, Campolindo won 6-1. But the teams were more evenly-matched than the score might indicate. Both teams showed some fine skills and an overall feel for the game. But the Cougars, most especially, gave a wonderful display of their abilities on set pieces, a part of the game that is grossly undervalued by many.

Seems the Cougars have a lot of strong-legged players. Alika Okamitsu was a joy to watch, a revelation for those who had never before seen him. Okamitsu set up the game’s first goal with a booming free kick from beyond midfield. A defender, Okamitsu exhibited speed and ball skills to go along with his booming shots and free kicks. A junior, Okamitsu surely will be one player to keep an eye on next season.

Beyond Okamitsu’s well-placed assist (Max Smith-Gee was credited with the goal), free kicks led to two other Cougars goals. And a throw-in that was flicked on before being put into the net accounted for a fourth. Further, Okamitsu wasn’t the only Cougars player capable of long-distance accuracy, as both Georgio Tavecchio and Jason Kimura scored on second-half “crackers,” as British commentators are wont to say.

A free kick also led to Piedmont’s only goal as Nikolai Littleton finished a William Young serve into the box in the late minutes. In all, Piedmont had most of the early play and finished with 12 shots to Campolindo’s 13. But in this game, every Highlanders mistake proved costly.

On paper, a 6-1 final score might not impress. But Campolindo-Piedmont made for great soccer and a great NCS final – – and on a cold, wet evening, too boot! What a great display in the value of set pieces and accurate long-range shooting!

It makes a fan want to scream for an encore!


O’Dowd at Miramonte

This season’s NCS 2A playoffs featured a double dose of Bishop O’Dowd playing at Miramonte. On Feb. 16, the Matadors beat the Dragons 2-0 in a boys quarterfinal. Four days later, Miramonte’s girls made it 2-for-2 over O’Dowd in a 1-0 semifinal win. I wasn’t able to get to the boys game, so any impressions from those who were present always are welcome. As the reporter assigned to the girls game, however, there was plenty to, well – – report.

For starters, both teams struggled to possess the ball, and long passes tended to pick up speed on the FieldTurf at Miramonte. As it rained Feb. 19 and earlier in the day on Feb. 20 when the game was played, I offer this hypothesis: that FieldTurf tends to play faster in the hours and days after a rain than it does in drier weather. Perhaps you can share your thoughts on this subject, too.

Overall, the game was fast-paced (perhaps too fast-paced), physical and had plenty of emotion. Still, neither team ever shifted into high gear. O’Dowd – – in spite of two missed chances in the first half – – was akin to the football team that plays well between the 20-yard lines and struggles in the “red zone.” Miramonte was reminiscent of the ice hockey team that works the puck up to the center line or blue line and then just dumps it into the opponent’s zone and hopes for the best. Most unfortunately, the EPL-ish elements of the game (long passes and footraces between the forwards and defenders) just didn’t mesh with the fast field. 


Incorrect calls

As a writer, I’m not one to knock officials. You see, they are a lot like the rest of us. Many have day jobs like the rest of us, they get tired like the rest of us, and they make an occasional mistake like the rest of us. Fact is, they’re human just like the rest of us. And when it comes to high school basketball, trying to keep pace with teenage athletes is no easy task, either.

All the above said, it makes a reporter trying to keep score cringe when fouls are assessed against the wrong player (for instance, player No. 4 getting charged with a foul actually committed by a teammate, player No. 5). This year, I’ve seen this happen in at least two games I’ve covered. And it happened three times alone in last week’s ACCAL girls finale between Encinal and Alameda high schools.

One of the wrongly-assessed fouls took place with 7.2 seconds left in the game when an Alameda player fouled out on what actually was a teammate’s foul. Then with 4.3 seconds to go, Encinal lost a player to a fifth foul after an earlier foul should been been charged to a teammate. Maybe these errors were attributable to fatigue. Still, the most bizarre call took place in the first half when an Alameda player got fouled as she drove to the basket. In the confusion that followed, that same Alameda player was assessed the foul, though Alameda proceeded to in-bound the ball, and the game continued as it should have.

In the din and emotion of Alameda High’s Hornets Nest, the incorrect calls slipped under the radar screens of both teams. Fortunately, none of these calls (nor a scoring table error that led to Encinal losing a basket) had an effect on the outcome of Encinal’s well-deserved 61-56 win. Still, they could have had an impact in a closer game.

Perhaps there is no “cure” for these scenarios. Maybe they’re just part of the human element of the game. Still, they represent one area of high school basketball that screams for improvement.


Oilers spirit

This season – – no, make that for many seasons – – the Oilers of Richmond have exuded pride and poise when it comes to boys soccer. This is a team that plays with skill, passion and a deep love for the game. And Oilers fans are enthusiastic with a knowledge of the game that is second to none.

On Saturday (Feb. 16), the Oilers lost 1-0 at home to Deer Valley on a penalty kick in a North Coast Section 3A quarterfinal. For Richmond, the penalty call (the referee ruled a trip in the box) was cheesy. For Deer Valley, it was a wonderful call.

Regardless of rooting interest, skill did not prevail in this game. Deer Valley played a physical style and Richmond players paid the price. One even got a concussion. This wasn’t a game for the faint of heart.

Credit Richmond, though, with a show of spirit, as after the game, players and coaches danced around in a circle while doing their traditional “Vamos, Vamos Aceiteros”  (“Let’s go, let’s go, Oilers”) chant.

There is a sense of community and togetherness on this team that others in the NCS could well emulate. When it comes to the core meaning of what high school sports are about, the Oilers are champions year after year.


In search of the American Platini

Back in the ’80s, my favorite games to watch involved Juventus of Italy’s Serie A on the club level and the French national team at the international level. The great midfield maestro Michel Platini played for both, serving as captain of the latter. Though there were many great players of that era, none could match the flair, class and elegance of Michel Platini  (http://www.ifhof.com/hof/michelplatini.asp; http://edition.cnn.com/2006/SPORT/football/05/01/worldcup.dreamteam.platini/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Platini).

Granted, Michel Platini was an extraordinary player, and most would be hard-pressed to replicate his skills, vision and feel for the game. Given his playing style, though, the now-UEFA president would be a great role model for those looking to bring their games up to a higher level. Having retired from competitive play in 1987, perhaps his zenith simply was too long ago for many of the current generation to remember.

In my coverage of high school soccer through nearly two decades, I have searched for that one player to emerge as the American Platini. Perhaps here in the states, Michel Platini exists as “Michelle” Platini, as girls soccer relies less on speed and force, and more on finesse, than boys soccer. Still, there has been only one Platini – – the original.

The search continues.