Sorenson: Off The Top Of My Head

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So far this season I have spent time in Arizona, the Bay Area and around here in SoCal. I have to admit, I am sick of all this temperate weather. Tired of the sunshine. Tired of all the surfers, the blondes and the salt-water in the air. I want to go where there is REAL weather. I wanna go to where there is Viking weather. Literally.

In two words: Minny. Sota.

Yep, I’m heading to the great white North here people. I’m planning to fulfill one of my bucket list dreams by finally making my way to the Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis. The four-team tournament started back in the early 80s and always includes an intriguing set of participants. It has been MIA for a few years since the Metrodome roof collapsed and the Viking Stadium was being built. But now, the Vikings administration has allowed three weeks of college baseball to be played inside its warm and dry confines, so coach John Anderson and the Gophers took full advantage, scheduling this four-team round-robin and also having games with Seattle, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and next week’s tasty weekend matchup with Missouri State.

Here is a pic that was sent to me last week of how the stadium looks with the baseball configuration. (Don’t worry, I’ll get more when I’m there.)…

THE DAIRY QUEEN CLASSIC IS BACK
The four teams involved in this year’s DQ Classic will be Oral Roberts, Hawaii, Iowa and of course the host Minnesota Gophers. When you peel back the onion a little bit you see that this is a pretty good field for the reintroduction of the Classic. I had Minnesota awarded the team to receive “Best From Sundance” as an off-the-radar team to watch in my StitchHead Oscar Awards last week. They feature the top hitter in the country in Luke Peterson (.667) and the fourth-best defense with a .991 fielding percentage. ORU? The Eagles merely went into refurbished Alabama and swept three straight inside Sewell-Thomas Stadium in a trio of tough-minded, close-knit games. Like Minnesota, the Eagles have a solid defense, sweeping at a .984 percentage, good for 20th in D1. Hawaii is just 3-4 so far, but has beaten No. 6 North Carolina State and split four games with a very good San Francisco squad. So we’ll see how they play here in their first trip to the mainland. Iowa comes into the weekend with a 4-3 mark, including a win over a highly regarded South Florida team.

Stay tuned here for updates on the games this weekend from the great white North. Oh, and don’t blame me if I happen to catch a college hockey game while I’m up here.

WHAT WE LEARNED FROM THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY

A few knick-knacks we learned from keeping our ear to the ground the first few weeks of the season.

– Everybody is overrated, especially YOUR team.
Upsets abounded during the first two weeks of the season. And I mean, like, seemingly more so than usual. And we’re talkin’ a whole mess of them in weekend games, not just midweek flukes. So no matter who your team is, they have shown dents in the armor already. Just look at some results from the first few weeks for some of the ranked teams:

No. 2 Florida lost to Jacksonville
No. 3 Florida State lost to VCU and South Florida
No. 4 LSU lost to New Orleans.
No. 5 South Carolina lost to Wright State, Kansas State and UNC Greensboro
No. 6 North Carolina State lost to Hawaii and Austin Peay
No. 12 Cal State Fullerton lost to UNLV.
No. 15 Texas A&M lost to Pepperdine
No. 16 Louisiana lost to Murray State and Nicholls State
No. 17 Vanderbilt lost to Illinois-Chicago twice.
No. 20 Clemson lost to Wright State twice.

You get the idea here. It doesn’t matter how big your britches are, you are at risk to lose against anyone. (Check back on this when we get to the Regionals and Super Regionals).

– I’ll Be Damned, The West might just get a Regional this year.
Yes, we can call that shot already, I swear. Oregon State appears to be the real deal, having raced out to a 7-1 mark. Also in the top 12 is Cal State Fullerton with all its high-octane pitching. Both of those teams are postseason hosting vets and look to be on their way again this year. This past weekend also showed a promising development as Arizona State beat TCU once and played well in Fort Worth all weekend long, proving that maybe this top-flight recruiting class could be ready to challenge earlier than expected. I got to see Stanford up close this past weekend and they too have some young bucks that have indicated they are bent on returning to the national scene. The evolution of Kris Bubic on the mound was huge, from midweek starter to some dominant performances so far. When the Trees get Tristan Beck back, they become national monsters. And definitely keep an eye on Washington, Oregon and UCLA as well.

– Coastal Carolina is not comfortable with the target on its back.
A 5-5 start? With THAT pitching staff? Ugh. This has not been what the Chanticleers fans were expecting. But hey, living with high expectations is a double-edged sword, man. CCU is feeling the wrong side of it now. Yes of course, it’s still early so let’s not freak out too much. Gary Gilmore didn’t get to his lofty position in our business by cowering when things go wrong. Let’s take stock again here in a few weeks, things could change quickly.

– It might be a “down year” in the Palmetto State.
First off, as mentioned many times, it’s early. But secondly, on top of Coastal’s struggles, the other big hitters have shown to be struggling a little more than expected. As pointed out above, a team from the Horizon League beat both Clemson and South Carolina at their home stadiums. Seems so weird for me even write that, much less think it was possible. But redemption comes immediately for the Gamecocks and Tigers. They’ll face each other in a three-gamer this weekend and should do their usual job of setting attendance records. Will the Gamecock bats start to ignite? Can Seth Beer and Chase Pinder turn this into an offensive shootout? This one could go a long way in determining which team is legit and which team is a pretender… for now. (Long season here folks, lots could change).

– There are some really good under-the-radar teams that deserve more pub.
While St. John’s improved to 8-0 and jumped into the latest D1 rankings, there are many others who are waving their banner at us. West Virginia is 5-2 with two wins over CCU. Baylor is 8-0 for the first time since big brother was watching in 1984. Michigan is 6-2 and might have the best middle infield east of Santa Barbara. Wichita State could be “back” after sweeping Grand Canyon. Tennessee went 4-0 on a West Coast trip and might be ready to emerge. And of course, Kansas State going to South Carolina and winning was impressive. Oh my, there are so many more worth mentioning. Oral Roberts. Old Dominion. South Florida. UCF. James Madison. Charlotte, Southern Miss, The list goes on… but lets see if we’ll still be talking about them in “What we learned in the month of March.”

– The best conference so far: Horizon League
Oh Wright State and Illinois-Chicago, you know not what you’ve done, right? Beating teams like Clemson, South Carolina and Vanderbilt aren’t going to do you any favors. The worst part of their pulling big upsets is that the Power Five teams are going to start shying away from scheduling you guys again. And the other bad part? Despite clearly being a pair of solid teams, unfortunately the remainder of the league will probably pull you down with the RPI Anchor Effect, so only one of you will go to the NCAA tournament. Pshaw.

THE BEST WEEKEND OF THE SEASON
Sure conference play is really intense and has meaning, but this coming weekend is the best non-conference weekend of the season. It’s our equivalent to college football’s opening weekend, which was labeled by ESPN as “The best opening day weekend in history.” In addition to the previously mentioned Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis, here are a few more places you need to be and the most interesting facets of each.

– The Shriners Classic, Houston.
Teams: No. 11 Ole Miss, No. 4 LSU, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 1 TCU, No. 10 Texas Tech, Baylor

Ahhhh, the ole Houston College Classic is back with a new name. But it is still taking place at Minute Made Park in downtown and will feature some heavy hitters who don’t normally leave their home confines often this time of year, so naturally I’m geeked about it. Ole Miss, LSU and Texas A&M from the SEC will take on Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU of the Big 12. That’s as tasty as it gets.

What To Watch For: LSU’s comfort level.
As usual, we all see the Tigers roar being much meaner at home. But when was the last time the Tigers played a ranked opponent away from home in pre-SEC play? (If I had a research staff, I’d have them look it up… but for me it was “Hey Eric, you can have a team of researchers or use of the company LeerJet during the season…” I chose the jet.) Either way, it has to be a very rare occurrence. Let’s see how Messrs. Lange and Poche fare in a strange environment against TCU and Baylor. The Texas Tech matchup will be uber-intriguing too.

What To Watch For 2: Baylor’s legitimacy
There is a buzz about this 8-0 Bears squad. Coach Steve Rodriguez seems to have started to hit his stride in year two in Waco. But taking on Ole Miss, LSU and A&M will be a much different animal. Stay tuned.

– The Frisco College Baseball Classic
Teams: No. 24 Arkansas, No. 14 Arizona, Nebraska, Oklahoma State

The two A’s have started fast at 7-1 and 8-0 respectively. Meanwhile, the two former Big 12 rivals need a little bit of a shot in the arm. This one will be played at Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, Texas, outside of Dallas. They might have to dodge some rain drops, but this features four teams with legitimate Omaha hopes here. Arizona has been a scoring machine (91 runs in eight games) and Arkansas’ pitching got a little roughed up in three wins over Bryant. Okay, who wants to make a statement here?

What To Watch For: Oklahoma State’s pitching.
The Pokes lost a few arms from a year ago, so you figure there would be some wobble to their early part of the season. Still, a series loss to Grand Canyon – granted it was on the road – and a team ERA that currently sits at 5.02 means OSU probably has the most pertinent need for improvement. Lanky right-handed sophomore Elliot Jensen, a CWS hero last year, has had a rough go of it with 13 hits and seven runs in 10.1 innings. His bounce back is going to be huge in this early season.

– The Keith LeClair Classic
Teams: No. 18 East Carolina, Western Carolina, No. 22 St. John’s, Appalachian State

This weekend round-robin got a lot more intriguing when the Johnnies raced out to their 8-0 start, including wins at North Carolina and Coastal Carolina, and started getting a large amount of cool pub for it. The Catamounts can hit with anyone, swinging it at a .340 average right now. And as you know East Carolina will take any quality wins it can get after their close shave losses at Ole Miss.

What To Watch For: Is St. John’s (.351 average and 2.22 ERA) for real?
Yes, those are actually the RedStorm’s team statistics. Now, keep in mind they have done this with eight returning starters in the field and all three weekend pitchers coming back this season. They have also built up these stats against teams like Coastal Carolina, North Carolina, Kansas State and that very Western Carolina team that is here this weekend. SJU beat the Catamounts 14-3 on opening day, so they’ll have revenge working against them.

– The Dodgertown Classic
Teams: UCLA, USC, San Diego, Michigan

These teams bring up a lot of Jekyll & Hyde talk. All of these teams have had some good wins and a bad loss or two, especially USC, whose pitching got ravaged at Wake Forest last weekend. San Diego, who stunned Vanderbilt in its first game of the year, rattled off impressive wins over UC Irvine and Oregon in the Tony Gwynn Classic last weekend. And as for the Bruins, their 4-3 start is tempered a bit by the fact that all three of their losses have been by a single run, so they are THISCLOSE to being unbeaten.

What To Watch For: Michigan’s motivation
The Big 10 has improved greatly since officially becoming a “Power Five” conference. But there is still always a need for RPI-friendly wins. This should motivate the Wolverines, who have already won a tournament out West, having gone 3-0 at the Jack Gifford Memorial Tournament in Santa Clara last weekend. Let’s see how their ace, Oliver Jaskie, does on Friday when squaring off with the Bruins’ Griffin Canning, who had 12 Ks in 7.0 innings vs. Gonzaga last week. That should be a great duel in Westwood.

– The SEC/Big 12 to the Pac 12.
Teams: Mississippi State at Oregon and No. 17 Texas at No. 19 Stanford

Can’t wait to see how these two work out. I’ve had the chance to see the Ducks and Cardinal already, but I’ll give the Bulldogs and Longhorns major brownie points for going on the road this weekend to take on big-time programs on the West Coast.

UO and MSU seem to be in the same boat with lots of new faces and still some high expectations. But the Bulldogs have had Jake Magnum, Ryan Gridley and Brent Rooker hitting .474, .447 and .394 respectively. Booker is third in the nation with 8-for-8 stolen bases. With the Ducks offense is swinging it at just .240, they will have to lean on their pitching staff. And that staff will need to be stout.

The Longhorns being on The Farm is not out of the ordinary as these two have matched up a number of times over the last few years. These two tradition-rich programs need a rebound season, and both seem to be on their way to having that as both teams are ranked. But there is one stark difference: Stanford can hit. UT cannot. Kacy Clemens is the exception in the batting order, hitting .429 with three home runs, but the rest of the team hits just .211. The bad news is that Stanford is 11th nationally with a 2.02 ERA. and their offense hits .291 with Alex Dunlap and Duke Kinamon hitting .400-plus and Mikey Diekroeger is hitting .393 in what has been an All American-type season so far.

 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
Creighton head coach Ed Servais said to me after his team committed five errors and three errors in back to back games.

“I’m gonna look like you in a couple of days because I’m going to rip all my damn hair out of my head if we keep playing defense like this.”

THIS WEEK IN COLLEGE BASEBALL HISTORY
One of the entries I had for my college baseball history on my twitter feed this week (@Stitch_Head) was about Raphael Palmeiro and his freshman season at Mississippi State. The story goes that the future college baseball Hall of Famer stepped up to the plate in his first-ever at bat for the Bulldogs on February 25, 1983 and hit a home run with the first pitch that was thrown to him by Mississippi College.

A reader, Shawn Wansley, wrote to me, “I was there. Clear, cool, brisk day. MSU fell behind in the top of the first something like 5-0. First two batters for MSU reached base in the bottom of the first and Palmer lined a home run to right field.”

The thing I found amazing was that the Bulldogs actually lost to Mississippi College 12-8 that day. Would that ever happen in this day and age? In front of those 12,000-plus fans? No freakin’ way. Anyway… Palmeiro would go on to hit 61 career home runs, which was second to Will Clark’s 67. He would also be the only player in SEC history to win the triple crown.

ONE MORE THING ABOUT THE MINNESOTA SCENE
And I can’t end this edition of Off The Top Of My Head without mentioning the music of Minnesota. In the spirit of my trek this weekend, I’d like to delve a little into the very underrated music scene in the Twin Cities. I know everyone will point to that little waif Prince and his ultimate tribute band Morris Day and the Time as the most popular music acts to come from there, but there is a lot of very good rock bands that hail from Minneapolis or the state of Minnesota in general.

The Best Bands To Come From Minnesota:
1- Husker Du.
“Raw” is the one word to describe this highly-influential band that had a affect on the entire rock world. Raw energy. Raw sound. Raw emotion. Was the first hardcore act to sign with a major label in the 80s. Though it’s one of their lighter moments, go ahead and download “Hardly Getting Over It” if at all possible.

2- The Replacements.
Paul Westerberg and Co. had a knack for melding angry drunk songs with outstanding lyrics. But later, the more melodic mainstream ‘Mats emerged. And you have to love the anti-video stance the band took in the song “Bastards of Young.” The song “Die Within Your Reach” was perfect for the movie Say Anything.

3- Soul Asylum.
With soaring guitar firmly in hand, the aggressive rockers hit their stride in the early 90s by playing a President’s Inauguration, winning a Grammy and helping re-unite runaways with their parents with the video to “Runaway Train.” Then Dave Pirner dated Winona Ryder and everything went to hell.

4- Babes in Toyland.
The all-girl band became one of the pioneers of the riot grrrl movement. Leader Kat Bjelland also helped initiate the “kinderwhore” look that Courtney Love stole. (Of course, Courtney is the only one keeping that look alive today.)

5- The Trashmen.
This band was sort of punkish before the genre started. The early 60s sensations managed to specialize in “surf rock” despite being thousands of miles from any breakers. The hit “Surfin’ Bird” went to No. 4 on the Billboard chart.

Keep in mind this list also does not include such Minnesota luminaries as the music icon Bob Dylan (who was from upstate town of Hibbing), folk-rock favorites The Jayhawks, Bob Mould’s remarkably underrated band Sugar (How could I leave them off, right?), light college hit-sters Semisonic, the last one-hit wonder of the disco era, Lipps Inc., the influential pop/R&B production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and jazz-guitar prodigy Leo Kottke. Lots of good stuff came out of the land of 10,000 Lakes.

THIS WEEK’S EIGHT FOR OMAHA
If the season ended today, we’d have a giant snowball fight outdoors while these eight teams would be shivering in Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park…
– TCU
– LSU
– Texas Tech
– Florida State
– Cal State Fullerton
– Oregon State
– Florida
– Ole Miss

I know, same as last week. Sorry, there just wasn’t enough upheaval in the top rung.

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