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.


More Jackets/Oilers soccer

Given their long, strong rivalry, the much-anticipated Jan. 24 boys soccer match between Berkeley and Richmond high schools was not all it could have been. Not only has Berkeley struggled, but nine of its players were out either for reasons of illness, discipline or simply to study for final exams. Coach Janu Juarez brought three players up from junior varsity, and the young Yellow Jackets responded nicely in a 0-0 tie.

Berkeley, to its credit, executed its game plan very well.

On the other hand, Richmond was the more skilled team. Its creative, play-to-feet approach work mixed elements of jogo bonito (the Brazilian word for “beautiful game”), totaalvoetbal (Dutch for “total soccer”), along with control and vision. There was art. There was flair. There also was a purpose and a strong sense of team. For the first two-thirds to three-quarters of the field, Richmond’s game was a wonder to witness. For the Oilers, the art of soccer blended beautifully with the science of soccer.

 Defensively, however, the Yellow Jackets were virtually impenetrable at the deep end of their field. And freshman goalkeeper Elder Alegria was more than equal to the task in stopping whatever got by his teammates, as he finished with eight saves.

Again, Richmond is most effective when it keeps the ball on the ground. Berkeley, perhaps as a matter of its own style, perhaps as a way of disrupting the Oilers’ flow, or perhaps from a combination of the two, put the ball in the air a lot. On the other side, though, Richmond central midfielder Jose Vasquez was extremely effective on headers and re-settling the ball.

Also impressing for the Oilers was sophomore goalkeeper Ramon Ortiz. Though his only save came in the waning seconds of the game, Ortiz displayed confidence, mobility, a strong knowledge of his position and command of the box throughout. Maybe most impressive were his strong throws to the wings that helped the Oilers get going again in the opposite direction.

Currently, the Yellow Jackets are a team in transition, a squad in a rebuilding phase. But the team still is good. If it can build from the Jan. 24 result, Berkeley would deserve a spot in the NCS playoffs.

As for the Oilers. Well, the season is long, and they might not win out in the playoffs. But there might not be a more exciting team within the entire North Coast Section.


Berkeley-Richmond boys soccer, take 2

Moviegoers often find that sequels don’t always match up to the original. What holds true with films sometimes follows suit in sports. Take Thursday night’s (Jan. 24) Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League boys soccer match between archrival Berkeley and Richmond high schools.

When the teams previously met at Berkeley High on Dec. 11, those in attendance witnessed a partidazo (that’s a super-colossal outstanding great game, for those who don’t follow soccer on outlets such as Univision or Telemundo). In a 2-0 Richmond win, the fans and players fed off one another in a dazzling display of spirit and energy. Forget the sectional playoffs, this was futbol at its finest.

Thursday night, however, was a different story. Sure, the fans came out to Richmond High with their horns, cheers and an all-round spirited passion for soccer. Still, an element of the original was missing in a 0-0 tie.

Sure, Berkeley’s struggles this season might have taken some luster off the contest (the Yellow Jackets are just 4-3-2 in league while the Oilers remain undefeated in ACCAL play at 8-0-1). Also, the wet and bitterly cold weather arguably put a damper on things. Heck, even with an all-weather surface at Richmond High, any soccer game is more enjoyable, say, in the middle of May.

But that’s another issue.

As for what happened on the field, Richmond dominated play, finishing with a 20-6 shots advantage, and was the more skilled and experienced team. Oilers coach Rene Siles hit the nail on the head when he said the Dec. 11 game was “open” and the second “more closed,” as Berkeley’s players clogged up their defensive third of the field.

Though Thursday’s game had more fouls and yellow cards (the latter all belonging to Berkeley) than the earlier contest, this still was not the “football of negativity” that British commentators are wont to say. Rather, the first game was more technical, the second more tactical.

Every game, of course, has elements of both. On Thursday, the Oilers won the technical part of the game while the Yellow Jackets triumphed in the tactical. The result was a standoff, a 0-0 tie, a justifiable result given the way the teams played.

In the vein of motion pictures, few sports events ever earn the “classic” designation. And for 2007-2008, Berkeley-Richmond, Part II, had a high standard to live up to. Still, even though the Jan. 24 match did not equal the energy level of Dec. 11, the Yellow Jackets and Oilers remain the best high school boys soccer rivalry in the East Bay.