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Schatz: The year of the Jaguar

For 18 weeks, the NFL has control over American living rooms. Out of 32 teams in the league, only one gets the coveted Lombardi Trophy each year. People bet millions of dollars on the outcome of a three-and-a-half-hour game. Throughout the span of 56 Super Bowls, 12 teams have yet to take home the crown. And out of those 12 teams, four have yet to make it to the game: the Browns, the Texans, the Lions and of course, the Jaguars.

This year, I am here to inform you all that it will be the year of the Jaguar, and I have three statistically proven reasons you should all agree with me.

Who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Seriously, if you don’t absolutely love an underdog story, I don’t know who you are. Do we seriously want the Patriots to win again? I love New England more than the next person. But their football team is simply not it.  There are only four teams that have never made it to the Super Bowl, and you already know the Jaguars are one of them. Ok, I know it’s tough to root for Trevor Lawrence. But can you seriously look me in the eye and tell me you would want Tom Brady to win over him?

Listen, I might not know much about football. But I know you’re wrong about that one. “Oh but Olivia, he’s the best of all time.” I do not care. Simply could not care less. He’s not the narrative we are looking for in this upcoming Super Bowl. You could maybe get me on board if he didn’t quit and then come back, and then quit and then come back. That’s a lame storyline and all of his fans know it. 

They are right on the cusp 

To be fair, I learned less than five minutes ago that not all teams make it to the playoffs. But after some more (very simple) research, I have determined that the Jaguars are right on the cusp of making it. And as my friend and assistant managing editor Mannion McGinley, who pays attention to football way more than me, puts it: “Especially for Jaguar standards, they have a chance.”

If you are sitting here reading this thinking, “There is absolutely no way they are making it,” I want you to look in your past as a Notre Dame fan and think about how many times you have wished for a long shot. Done thinking? Great, let’s get back to dreaming.

We are going into week four of NFL play, which gives the Jaguars plenty of time to beat their current odds. Yes, their first game of the season. But they won the last two! Can Notre Dame fans tell me we really cannot support this? And the Jaguars’ last two wins have been blowouts, beating the Colts 24-0 and the Chargers 38-10.

The Jaguars face the Eagles next, and while the odds are not in their favor, I believe the Jaguars still have a chance. Especially coming off of their last two wins. If the Jaguars can continue in this direction, I believe they can make the playoffs. And once they make the playoffs, I believe they can take it all the way. 

They have a sick mascot

How are you rooting for teams like the Patriots, the Texans and the Chargers when a team like the Jaguars exist? The alliteration in the name alone should be the reason you should want the Jaguars to go all the way this year and years following, as well.

For football fans, this might be a dumb reason to want them to win. But if they didn’t want us to rally behind the mascot, why provide it in the first place? When you think of Jacksonville, there is not too much that comes to mind. When you think of a Jaguar, you immediately think of a viscous but beautiful predator. Whoever thought to put the two together is simply genius.

Stats aside (which I have conveniently left out of this argument), the Jaguars are simply the best pick. They have the storyline and the mascot and are already doing better than they normally do. 

There are plenty of weeks left to switch teams. So, will you stay with that same old team you do every year? Or are you going to make the right choice and take a chance on the Jacksonville Jaguars?

Contact Olivia Schatz oschatz@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Crow: Three takeaways from Week 4 in College Football

The Big 12 is officially up for grabs

Through four weeks of the college football season, we are at the stage where conference hierarchies typically begin to emerge and pecking orders come into focus. At the very least, it should now be clear which teams are legitimate conference championship contenders and which are not. Even that cannot be said for this year’s Big 12, which feels more wide open than ever after Saturday’s results.

The presumptive favorite in the conference had previously been No. 6 Oklahoma, winners of six of the last seven Big 12 championships. That presumption came crashing down on Saturday, as the Sooners were upset by Kansas State in Norman, Oklahoma behind a dominant five-touchdown performance from Wildcats quarterback Taylor Martinez, a Nebraska transfer. Likewise, No. 22 Texas had a strong start to the season with a near-victory against Alabama, but it was ultimately defeated in overtime by rival Texas Tech. Suddenly, Kansas State and Texas Tech are both 1-0 in Big 12 play with head-to-head advantages over Oklahoma and Texas, respectively, leaving the Sooners and Longhorns with a significant amount of ground to make up.

No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 16 Baylor are likely the current Big 12 favorites, but they face off next Saturday, and a Baylor loss would saddle them with an 0-2 conference record while teams like Kansas (who can usually be penciled in for last place prior to the start of the season) and TCU remain undefeated. The conference’s “worst” teams may be Iowa State and West Virginia, yet it would be no great shock to see either string together a few wins and find themselves in the hunt for a Big 12 title. Iowa State’s resume includes a win over a solid Iowa team, and the Cyclones’ only loss was by one-possession against Baylor. West Virginia started 0-2 with close losses against a ranked Pitt team and a should-be-ranked Kansas team. The Mountaineers have since turned their season around with a pair of victories that includes Thursday’s 33-10 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

All of this is to say that it is anyone’s guess who will win the Big 12. Maybe December’s championship game will pit Oklahoma against Oklahoma State, or Baylor against Kansas State, or Kansas against TCU. There is certainly an element of excitement that comes from conferences having one or two clear favorites. The season-long buildup to a single game that could alter the entire playoff race, like Alabama-Georgia or Ohio State-Michigan, creates a special sense of heightened drama unique to a sport in which the regular season carries so much weight. If chaos is what you seek, though, look no further than the Big 12, which is sure to deliver it in abundance throughout the rest of the season.

Mixed bag for ‘basketball schools

One of the off-season’s strangest stories was the feud between two Kentucky head coaches, men’s basketball’s John Calipari and football’s Mark Stoops, that arose after Calipari referred to Kentucky as a “basketball school.” While the comment was not without validity, given the school’s illustrious history on the hardwood and comparatively dismal track record on the gridiron, taking a jab at another program within the Kentucky athletics umbrella felt unnecessary and in poor taste. Stoops quickly came to his team’s defense, noting that the football program is on the rise while its basketball counterpart has struggled as of late. Notably, Kentucky football has won ten games twice in four seasons after last doing so in 1977, while the two most recent men’s basketball seasons ended with a missed NCAA Tournament and a first-round tournament loss to Saint Peter’s.

Kentucky has taken care of business through the early stages of the football season, currently sitting at 4-0 and ranked No. 7 as Stoops has made good on his word. Ironically, given the unusually high amount of discourse about what qualifies as a basketball school, the six schools widely considered to be college basketball’s “blue bloods” all entered week four with a 3-0 record. While some, like Kentucky, stayed hot, others saw their perfect start to the season come crashing down.

The Wildcats played host to Northern Illinois on Saturday and used 17 consecutive second-half points to break open a game that was tied at halftime. Kentucky star quarterback Will Levis threw four touchdown passes in a 31-23 win that did not earn any style points but kept the Wildcats in lockstep with a red-hot Tennessee team in the battle to be Georgia’s biggest SEC East challenger.

Further west, a pair of 2022 Final Four participants squared off as Kansas hosted Duke in front of a sold-out crowd in Lawrence. The Jayhawks continued their surprising resurgence in a 35-27 victory as quarterback Jalon Daniels continued to build his Heisman case, compiling over 400 yards and five touchdowns. Even further west, UCLA remained perfect with a dominant 45-17 win on the road against Colorado. The Bruins have benefited from a forgiving non-conference schedule and will have their first true test when they host No. 15 Washington in a critical Pac-12 battle next Friday.

Indiana and North Carolina joined Duke in suffering their first losses of the season, both of which could be primarily attributed to defensive struggles. Indiana surrendered 38 first-half points on the way to a 45-24 loss on the road against Cincinnati. The Tar Heels hosted Notre Dame in Chapel Hill and allowed a previously struggling Irish offense to gain 576 yards as they coasted to a 45-32 win. As the season kicks into high gear, the next few weeks will reveal if the rise of the blue bloods in football is just a flash in the pan, or if this really is, to the dismay of Coach Calipari, the year of the football school.

Top teams show signs of vulnerability

A common critique of college football is that it lacks parity, that the same handful of teams compete for the national championship every year. This notion mostly holds true, and this season, teams like Georgia, Alabama and Ohio State already appear to be closing in on playoff lock status. Beyond that trio, however, the next tier of contenders has provided more questions than answers, and several top-ten teams were put to the test in week four.

No. 4 Michigan began its season with three consecutive blowout wins, though the legitimacy of their dominance was questioned due to an extremely weak nonconference slate. There now appears to be some truth to those concerns after the Wolverines were played tight by Maryland in a 34-27 win in their conference opener. Similarly, No. 5 Clemson faced its toughest opponent to date in No. 21 Wake Forest and required two overtimes to escape Winston-Salem with a 51-45 win. Clemson’s first few games established its offense as a relative weakness, but it was the defense that struggled against Wake, as Deacon quarterback Sam Hartman torched the Tigers to the tune of 337 yards and six touchdowns. Clemson showed encouraging signs of offensive improvement but will need to sort its defensive issues out in a hurry as they prepare to face No. 10 NC State this week.

Elsewhere, No. 7 USC featured one of the nation’s best offenses during the season’s first three weeks but struggled to move the ball against a subpar defense as they clawed out a 17-14 win over Oregon State. Kentucky also picked up their fourth win, using a second-half surge to beat Northern Illinois, but Oklahoma, and No. 10 Arkansas, were not as lucky. The Sooners fell at the hands of Kansas State while a potential game-winning Razorback field goal that bounced off the top of the goalpost before falling short proved costly in a 23-21 loss to No. 23 Texas A&M. It is difficult to say that college football is moving toward greater parity when another Georgia-Alabama championship matchup looms; but this season promises a great deal of shakeups near the top as the race for the elusive fourth playoff spot continues.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this sports authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Observer.

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Irish win over Virginia should bring overdue respect in coaches poll

Notre Dame entered the 2022 women’s soccer season ranked 16th in the NCAA Women’s Soccer Coaches Poll. Five weeks later, after a 7-1-0 start that matches some of the best in program history, the team currently sits in the rankings at a nonchalant No. 18.

In the four polls between that preseason ranking and the most recent edition, Notre Dame has jumped around at a ridiculous clip. After winning their first two games, the Irish fell to unranked status ( after being incredibly jumped by the likes of Wisconsin, who drew their opening game).

With a point to prove, Notre Dame cruised past No. 19 St. Louis and Illinois by a combined score of 6-0. Sure enough, they were rewarded with a ranking of No. 16 in the week two poll. Following a 4-1 dismantling of previously ranked Wisconsin, the Irish moved up to 12th. Then the week after that they progressed to sixth, staying in the win column once again.

But then disaster struck. The Irish, after being one of the five programs in all of women’s soccer to start 7-0-0, lost a game. On the road to a ranked opponent, no less.

This loss sent Notre Dame tumbling down to 18th in this week’s coaches poll, behind the likes of (among other teams), Penn State (one loss and two draws), TCU (two losses and two draws), Pepperdine (one loss and two draws), St. Louis (who you might remember from earlier in this article as having lost to Notre Dame in St. Louis), Northwestern (one loss and one draw to 3-1-6 Oakland) and South Carolina (one loss and three draws). 

Some of this, you might imagine, could be due to the other teams having a stronger strength of schedule. Their worst records perhaps came because they were playing better teams. This would be a fair defense if it were true. Per wosoindependent.com, Notre Dame leads the country in adjusted RPI and is second in unadjusted RPI. Those measurements that rank teams based on their wins, losses and strength of schedule. Only No. 1 UCLA ranks above them in the latter department.

This isn’t to say the Irish should have moved up into the top five following their loss to Clemson. But their drop of 12 spots is ridiculous and exposes the flawed nature of the coaches’ poll. The Irish have played at a fairly consistent clip week in and week out this season. But they’ve never come in within three spots of their previous ranking in each new edition of the poll. And after losing one game (on the road to a team ranked in the top 15, no less), the Irish fell below more than a half dozen different teams with worse records.

Thankfully, Thursday night Notre Dame showed why games are decided by how teams play on a field and not how they are ranked in a poll. With No. 2 Virginia in town, their schedule offered the Irish a perfect chance for redemption.

And prove a point they did, dispatching the Cavaliers emphatically in front of an excitable Alumni Stadium crowd. Controlling the tempo of the match throughout, the Irish held a Virginia offense to a single shot on target. And just days after that same offense found the back of the net three times against another College Cup contender in North Carolina to boot.

With the win, the Irish now once again, with perhaps not-so-baited breath, await their ranking for week six of the Coaches Poll. With the win over Virginia now in hand, the Irish seem destined for yet another roller-coaster ride in the poll. It will nearly certainly make this week the sixth straight one Notre Dame moves up or down at least four spots in the rankings.

Such a tumultuous first month of the season only goes to expose the poll’s biggest flaw: its recency bias. There were not 17 teams with no losses to go ahead of the Irish in last week’s poll. There certainly weren’t 17 one-loss teams with better resumes. But Notre Dame happened to be the most recent to lose, and that was the metric that mattered most.

Now, recent top-five win in hand, the Irish are in line for a likely drastic rise in ranking. Perhaps on some level, it will be a correction. An apology from the pollsters for dropping Notre Dame so harshly last week. But it is also because Notre Dame will be one of the most recent teams to deliver a statement win.

Which, of course, will be great news for the program. There will be celebrations. Prior snubbery will be forgiven. But it will also be another reminder, this time thankfully with a positive result for Notre Dame, that the coaches’ poll is in its present state is a largely flawed metric.

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Dividing the Premier League into tiers

Seven matchdays into the Premier League season, teams have played enough to create an identity and define expectations for the rest of the season. For the purposes of this column, I’ve divided the 20 Premier League clubs into tiers and briefly explained why I’ve placed them where I have.

Title contenders – Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham

These are the teams I believe have a genuine opportunity to challenge for the Premier League title. Two of them are here after blazing starts to their league campaigns, the other two simply have too much talent not to compete at this level.

Manchester City is the juggernaut that was expected after four titles in the last five years and is undefeated through 7 matches. Their summer signing of striker Erling Haaland has turned out better than anyone could’ve hoped with the Norwegian sitting on 11 goals through his first 7 games.

Tottenham has built on their success under Antonio Conte last season and are off to an undefeated start this season as well. Harry Kane is back to his best with 6 goals in 7 games after a down season last year.

Chelsea has underwhelmed early after a $300 million+ spending spree this summer transfer window. They even fired their Champions League-winning manager Thomas Tuchel after a loss to Croatian club Dinamo Zagreb in Champions League group play. Regardless, they have an insanely talented squad and I believe in new manager Graham Potter who has been sensational at Brighton over recent years and figures to do well with a far stronger Chelsea squad.

Finally, there’s Liverpool. The club – along with City – has been the team to beat in the Premier League over the last three seasons. They’ve been an elite club at the European level as well, reaching 3 Champions League finals and winning one over the last five seasons. This year though they’ve had a wretched start to the season. They lost Sadio Mané over the summer and his $82.5 million replacement, Darwin Núñez hasn’t been as effective as hoped. He was even suspended for three games after receiving a red card against Crystal Palace for headbutting a defender.

Regardless, Liverpool has too much talent to play like this all season. They have a track record of success and have proven that they’re capable of going on a run. They’ve also got Jurgen Klopp at the helm and I’m not sure there’s any other manager in world football I’d trust more to turn it around than him.

European places – Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle United

These are the teams that will compete for the lower Champions League places and the Europa and Conference League places.

First is Manchester United. The most successful club in Premier League history looked brutal after two games. A 4-0 defeat against Brentford had fans imagining the worst. But new manager Erik ten Hag has turned it around and now United has won four straight and played some good football. They’ve also brought in Casemiro to address their midfield vulnerability and a victory over rivals Liverpool has revived the mojo in Manchester and made the Champions League a legitimate goal for the club.

Arsenal has been unbelievable to start the season and they top the table after seven games. However, I think it’s unlikely that their storming start will keep going throughout the year dropping them to the second tier. Even as recently as last year, the Gunners were in a strong position toward the end of the year before losing 5 of their last 10 games to fall out of the Champions League places.

Meanwhile, Newcastle has spent well in the transfer window and played well under manager Eddie Howe. Allan Saint-Maximin is electric up front and summer-signing Alexander Isak has done well to start the season.

Upper mid-table teams – Brentford, Brighton, Fulham and Leeds United

These are what you might consider “the best of the rest” teams that are good enough to comfortably avoid relegation but not quite enough to challenge the upper echelon of the league.

Brighton has started really well and even beat Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier in the year, but losing Graham Potter to Chelsea is a huge loss that limits the ceiling for a team currently sitting 4th in the table ahead of giants like Liverpool and United.

Fulham is another team who have gotten off to a great start with leading man Aleksandar Mitrović leading them after scoring 6 goals in 7 games. Around Mitrović the team has built a relatively strong core of youth and experience so I back the newly-promoted Fulham to stay up with ease.

Leeds United is another team with a lot of potential and I back manager Jesse Marsch to prove the doubters wrong and lead them to a strong finish in the league. A 3-0 victory over Chelsea showed their potential and there are good vibes all over this team that make it easy to believe.

Lower mid-table teams – Aston Villa, Everton, Leicester City, West Ham and Wolverhampton Wanderers

This is an interesting group. Aston Villa and Everton are two teams that fought off relegation last season and then made some smart transfers in the summer. Villa kept Coutinho after he was essential for them as a loanee last season. Everton lost top-scorer Richarlison but signed some proven Premier talent to replace him. They’ve also got some Premier League legends at the helm in Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard who I trust to keep them up once again this season. 

Then there’s Leicester and West Ham. These two teams finished comfortably in the upper half of the table last season but have played very poorly to start the season. Both managers, Brendan Rogers for the Foxes and David Moyes for the Hammers, have a long and successful track record. However, they both have a reputation for leading good teams that eventually fall apart. It seems that collapse may have arrived at their current clubs. Still, I hesitate to say these teams will go down. There’s simply too much talent and Premier League pedigree on these squads for me to believe they will get relegated. 

That leaves Wolves who find themselves in an interesting spot. After some hugely competitive seasons under Nuno Espíritu Santo, they’ve been on a bit of a downward trajectory for the last few seasons. This summer there were rumors they might lose their best player, midfielder Ruben Neves. They were able to keep him though and even add some more young talent to the squad. They’re currently in a bit of a bind with injuries to strikers Diego Costa and Raúl Jimenez limiting their options up front too so it’s reasonable to expect some positive regression as they get healthy. 

Relegation-threatened teams – Bournemouth, Crystal Palace, Nottingham Forest and Southampton

These are the teams that I expect to be fighting for their Premier League lives down the stretch. Two of these clubs, Bournemouth and Nottingham Forest, are newly relegated and I believe they will struggle to match the level of competition in the first division. 

Crystal Palace was a solid team last year but had a quiet transfer window while a lot of teams around them improved. This reality coupled with a difficult start leads me to believe there might be a long season ahead for Patrick Vieira and his Palace squad. 

That leaves Southampton. The Saints are one of the stranger teams in the league. They seem to have games every season when they just don’t show up. Last season they had a 6-0 loss to Chelsea and they had a pair of 9-0 losses, once to Man United in 2021 and in 2019 to Leicester. Still, manager Ralph Hassenhutl has found a way to keep them up. I’ve got a feeling their magic might run out this season.

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Reidy: Breaking down the MLB playoff race

MLB Postseason Push: Two Weeks Out

Just over six months ago, commissioner Rob Manfred lifted the lockout and gave the green light for the 2022 MLB season. What a season it’s been. Between Aaron Judge’s record-breaking campaign, Shohei Ohtani’s unprecedented skills and a magical crop of rookie phenoms, this year has been truly captivating from all angles. However, as the dog days of summer give way to the chill and thrill of autumn, the spectacle of October baseball looms. 

This year’s installment of the playoff race features a mix of postseason regulars and intriguing newcomers. The format has been altered to include three wild card spots and a best-of-three between the wild cards and the third-best division winner. The next two weeks are loaded with make-or-break matchups and endless possibilities for the 12-team field. Here’s how it all looks today.

American League Divisions

The AL West is a done deal, as Houston has already locked up its fifth consecutive division title. Having won seven consecutive series, the reigning American League champions have surged past the Yankees to put a stranglehold on the top seed in the league. The Astros need just a few more wins to lock up the AL’s best record and gain the inside track to a sixth straight league ALCS appearance. 

Even after the Bronx Bombers raced out to a 61-23 start, the East is still very much up for grabs. The Yankees led the field by 15 games in early July, but the Blue Jays and Rays are now both within striking distance after a bumpy second half in New York. Beginning tonight, the Yanks will play ten straight games against division opponents, including three in Toronto early next week. The Jays have taken four of the last five head-to-head matchups, so there is plenty of room for fluidity down the stretch. Second-place Tampa Bay and third-place Toronto meet for four games this weekend, though, giving the leader a chance to pull away while the chasers stumble upon one another.

The most intriguing division battle lies in the Central, where Cleveland and its miniscule payroll of $58 million cling to first place. The Guardians have single-handedly brought Minnesota to the brink of elimination in September, taking seven of eight from the Twins over the last two weekends. Chicago, the presumed division champion prior to the season, is now the clear and present danger to first place. The White Sox are currently engaged in a three-game clash with the Guardians but dropped the opener on Wednesday night. Over the next two weeks, the cards are lined up in favor of the status quo. Chicago will embark on a tough final road trip in Minneapolis and San Diego, while Cleveland will close with six home games against Kansas City. The Royals have not once taken a road series from an opponent with a winning record in 2022.

American League Wild Card

Toronto, Seattle and Tampa Bay actively hold the three AL Wild Card positions, and that is not likely to change. The Mariners have the clearest of paths to the postseason with the four worst teams in the American League appearing in their final five series. Ability and timing alone can propel the Blue Jays to October, as Toronto is now undefeated in its last seven series. The Orioles and White Sox have a shot at the Rays, but the field of challengers may be cut down to one within a week. Baltimore is in a downward spiral, having started the month 5-10 behind an offense tallying just over three runs per game since August 24.

National League Divisions

The book is closed in the West, as the Dodgers have reclaimed the division after a narrow loss to the Giants in 2021. The final pages could take a dramatic turn in the Central, though. St. Louis leads Milwaukee by just under 10 games, but scheduling leaves a slim window open for the Brewers to storm back. The Brew Crew has only two games remaining against playoff contenders; both are with St. Louis. On the other hand, the Redbirds head to Dodger Stadium this weekend. Their pennant hopes will hinge on their ability to close out a Pirates ballclub that is 16-10 against NL Central opponents since June 15.

The NL East race has been and will continue to be the belle of the ball. The Mets have captured more headlines than any other squad since the All-Star Break, yet the reigning world champion Braves are neck-and-neck with them. Both teams are barreling toward 100-win seasons and have guaranteed themselves a seat at the postseason table. New York has controlled the division outright for all but three days this year, but the home stretch indicates that the final result is seemingly a coin flip. Atlanta is the slightly hotter team with four win streaks of four games or more since August 13, but the Mets have an easier closing slate with series against lowly Oakland, Miami and Washington. Fortunately, these two fireballs will collide in a season-defining set in the ATL next weekend.

National League Wild Card

Atlanta will undoubtedly walk away with the top wild card spot, so this contest will come down to San Diego, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee battling for the next two positions. The Giants have an outside chance with an upcoming string of winnable series, but they are nearly ten games back of the promised land at this point. The Padres play their final nine games at home, so expect them to remain consistent upon approach to October. A setback may be imminent for the Phillies, however, as they host the Braves this weekend after Atlanta swept them a week ago.

This views in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Tyler Reidy at treidy3@nd.edu.

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Guffey: Why tennis is the best fan experience in sports

On Sunday, Sept. 11, Carlos Alcaraz won the U.S. Open in New York and subsequently became the youngest men’s tennis player to reach No. 1 in the world. That name was especially familiar to me. At only 19 years old, Alcaraz has become quite popular among young tennis players. I texted my brother, “didn’t we see him practice?” The answer was yes, we did.

Less than a month earlier, I had gone to the Western & Southern Open, a hard court tournament in Cincinnati just before the start of the U.S. Open. It’s less well known than the grand slam, but all of the major players — both on the men’s and women’s sides — go there every year without fail. It was at this tournament my family and I saw Alcaraz practicing on a court with just three rows of bleachers set up on either side. (There are high schools with more seating room than that.)

I had gone to the Western & Southern nine years ago and hadn’t been back since this August, but it had me thinking: Professional tennis is the best sports experience for fans out of any sport out there. Don’t believe me? Here’s why. 

There’s nowhere else you can get closer to athletes

Carlos Alcaraz, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams. One day in Cincinnati gave me and my family the opportunity to see all of these top-ranked players, along with dozens more. We went on one of the qualifying days, where players are competing to make it into the main draw of the tournament. This means the top players are probably not playing actual matches, but that’s even better. Instead of having an assigned seat in a large stadium court setting, you can stake out your favorite players on the practice schedule and attend their 30-minute to two-hour practice sessions. 

And most will stay after practice to sign hats and tennis balls for all the fans who stuck around for the entire practice session. When I went to the tournament in 2013, Novak Djokovic stayed for nearly an hour interacting with fans along every inch of the fence.

What other sport has professional practices open to everyone in the venue? The athletes even just walk on their own to the courts, meaning the player casually walking next to you could be No. 1 in the world or someone’s hitting partner. You never know. 

And, you have the freedom to choose who you watch. For instance, in the early days of bigger tournaments, you buy your grounds ticket with an assigned seat in the center court stadium. However, you have free reign to any of the practice courts and other matches for the entire day. It’s almost too much freedom as you have to decide which players you want to see the most. 

It’s international and year-round

The men’s ATP tour and fellow women’s counterpart WTA tour spans over 30 countries with players of more than 100 nationalities. And while you most likely know of the four grand slams in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York, the tours are hosted in countries and cities all over the world, giving its global fan base a chance to see their favorites anywhere.

Talk to a tennis fan in the U.S., and I would bet there’s a good chance their favorite tennis pro isn’t American. But even though they’re from a different country, they can most likely see them play in person in several cities across the U.S., from Miami to D.C. 

And with the four major tournaments spread out from January to September, there’s never a shortage of high-level tennis to watch.

It’s fun

As a disclaimer, I have played tennis my whole life, and it’s sort of a family sport, so I am a bit biased when it comes to rating how enjoyable tennis is to watch. But, there’s nothing tennis fans care about more than seeing good tennis, and it’s easy to get sucked in. 

Whether you want to check eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon off your bucket list or need something to do in Cincinnati for a day, try a tennis tournament. Go to watch tennis, hang out with friends, drink, eat — whatever! I promise it’ll be a grand slam.

Contact Alysa Guffey at aguffey@nd.edu.

The views in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Breen: The U.S. Open

The conclusion of the U.S. Open, overshadowed overwhelmingly this year by Serena Williams’ retirement, has had me thinking.

It is difficult for me to parse out my relationship with the sport of tennis. Unlike football, basketball or even baseball, I cannot help but feel a little vulnerable when discussing my memorable life encounters with the tennis court.

Being born on Cuyahoga County soil in September 2001 automatically endowed me with rights as a Cleveland Browns, Indians and Cavaliers fan. No one can or would argue that. But did that birth guarantee me any right to be a tennis fan? I suppose that no circumstance of birth could ever take away one’s right to be a tennis fan. Perhaps the better question is: What circumstances of birth impel one to be more likely to exercise his or her right as a tennis fan? In theory, I am American and should be rooting for American tennis players during the four grand slam tournaments, the U.S. Open most of all. Yet, as I came to notice growing up, in practice most people will not exercise their rights as tennis fans unless they are born in particular areas of that county, Cuyahoga, and its composite suburbs.

As my mental topography of my home suburb of Shaker Heights expanded as I grew up, so did my knowledge of the various tennis courts in the city. What were the circumstances of my birth that allow me to remember right now a certain catalogue of tennis courts dispersed around my hometown?

The only locations of tennis courts that I know in Shaker are located at country clubs or schools. I have noticed some tennis courts in homeowners’ backyards on my summer jogs around the
suburb, but I do not know the names of the homeowners. Tennis is exclusive. All the country clubs cost thousands of dollars to belong to and all the schools but one I can think of are private. The one public location that comes to my mind that is free for anyone to play tennis is located at Shaker Heights High School. I have seen how often those courts get used on the summer nights where I have practiced baseball on the high school’s field right across the street. They get busy. I suppose I have seen the tennis courts at the country clubs or private schools grow crowded from time to time. I do not think I have ever seen someone play tennis on a court in the backyard of someone’s private home.

It has been years since I have played a tennis game. Growing up, I used to participate in tennis camps at a local country club my family belonged to.

I remember one year my brother and I decided to get more into the sport. The club’s tennis pro encouraged us to sign up for a tennis tournament. We showed up in our neon Nike athletic gear like we always had at the camps, and we were the only kids not wearing a suit of white. It was one of the most embarrassing days of my young life. That day I did not belong.

The circumstances of my life have blessed with incredible opportunities like the chance to attend the University of Notre Dame. The circumstances of my life have also allowed me to encounter the sport of tennis within an exclusive level. With the Williams sisters fading out of the sport of tennis, what reason do I have to keep up with the sport? Cool tournament names like the Australian Open surely will not be enough.

Contact Peter Breen at pbreen2@nd.edu.

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Sports

Coolican: Major League Baseball rule changes a step forward for game

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has often found himself in hot water with fans, from his handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal to using two types of baseballs, but he finally was able to enact change that will improve baseball for years to come. Of course, the new rule changes aren’t without controversy, but data in the minor leagues has proven that these changes will be a positive for baseball overall. 

One of the leagues’ goals has been to reduce the so-called “three true outcomes”: strikeouts, walks and home runs (which have seemingly taken over the league in recent years). The changes have been rumored for months, but they were officially announced on Friday. They range from a pitch clock to banning the shift to larger bases. I’ll outline the changes, and what they will mean for the game. 

Pitch clock

If you’ve been to an MLB game in the past few seasons, you’ll have likely seen a clock somewhere in the outfield counting down before a pitch was thrown. Next year, this will be enforceable, with pitchers having 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on, to deliver the ball. Hitters must be in the box and “alert” at the eight second mark, and the catcher must be ready with 10 seconds to go. 

The timer resets with a pickoff throw, or when the pitcher steps off the rubber, although pitchers can only do this twice per batter. This effectively means they can only step off once with a runner on base, because if the runner knows the pitcher cannot throw over, they would be halfway to second base before the pitcher even starts his motion. 

A violation of this rule by a pitcher leads to an automatic ball, and vice versa for batters. This rule has proven effective in the minor leagues, where it has been implemented this year, with average game times falling by at least 15 minutes at every level. In some cases, game times dropped as much as half an hour, according to Baseball America. For reference, in rookie ball, where there is no pitch clock, game time has remained roughly the same. 

It is important to realize that the pitch clock does not mean less baseball, it simply means less dead time. We’re no longer likely to see a pitcher shake off the signs three, four, five times, or a hitter step out and adjust his batting gloves after every pitch. 

Another important aspect to note is that it will likely lead to slightly reduced velocity, because when a pitcher is throwing upwards of 100 miles per hour, even an extra few seconds of rest between pitches is vital. This leads to more balls in play, and fewer strikeouts, which along with a faster pace of play, is the league’s goal.

Larger bases

Traditionally, bases have been 15 inches; next year, they will be increased to 18 inches. In practical terms, this leads to a 4.5 inch decrease between the bases. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it will almost certainly increase stolen base attempts. Additionally, it is more likely players can beat out a ground ball, encouraging more balls to be put in play.

Again, the minor leagues have tested this rule and it has proven successful, with the rate of steals per inning rising from 0.65 in 2019 to 0.96 this year in Triple A, according to The Score. Another stated aim of the league was to reduce collisions and injuries on the base paths, and the bigger bases will give players more room to maneuver. 

Steals have increasingly fallen out of favor since analytics began taking over baseball, but these changes will perhaps bring them back this year. We may be witnessing the beginning of the small-ball renaissance, which I would argue is much more exciting than the baseball being played now. 

Banning the shift

This is the rule change that has created the most controversy among fans and players alike. Teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two on each side of second base. The league aims to “increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls.”

The batting average on balls in play this year is 0.291, which is 10 points lower than in 2006 which was before the analytics and the shift had taken hold of the game. Some have expressed concern that this will merely help players who have struggled to adjust to the shift — think Joey Gallo — rather than improving batting average on balls in play (BABIP) league wide. The data has been mixed in the minor leagues as to whether this will have a great impact on batting averages, but it will certainly be interesting to see. 

Overall, Manfred and the league did a great job on these rule changes, and I believe they will make baseball a more exciting sport for years to come. Many baseball traditionalists will always argue against any sort of change, but baseball has been declining in popularity compared to other sports for a long time now. It was clear that a change was needed, and Manfred was able to do exactly that without compromising any aspect of the game we love.

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Sports

Sanchez Cordova: Appreciate Albert Pujols

The St. Louis Cardinals are a good baseball team this year. As I write this, they lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. They’re led by two National League MVP candidates in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado who are in the prime of their careers. They’ve also got young talent all over the roster with players like Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Andre Pallante who’ve come up from the minors and contributed at the big-league level. 

But that’s not why I’m writing about them. I’m writing about the Cardinals because I want to talk about the old guys, specifically the oldest guy: Albert Pujols.

Pujols is 42 and he’s in the middle of a hunt for baseball history. Sitting at 695 home runs, he needs just two more home runs to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time. He’s also just five long balls from the 700 club. Baseball has been played professionally for over 150 years and only three players have ever reached that mark: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. And Albert Pujols fits in perfectly on that list of all-time great power hitters.

If you are someone who prefers other sports, you can think about as the equivalent of averaging 30 PPG for your career in the NBA (only MJ and Wilt) or having 80,000 passing yards in an NFL career (only Brady and Brees). That’s the kind of history we’re talking about here. It is an almost unfathomable level of consistent greatness.

If you break it down, to reach 700 career home runs you’d have to hit 35 home runs a year for 20 years. Only 19 players in MLB hit 35 home runs or more in the 2021 season. Those 19 players were the top 4.8% of the 400 or so position players in MLB at any given time. That means that to hit 700 home runs you’d have to be in the top 5% of power hitters for two straight decades, at which point you’d be at 700 on the dot.

Pujols is now just five home runs away from having completed that incredible feat. As such, I think it’s time to look back at how he got here. It all started on April 2, 2001 (over a year before I was born, by the way) when he made his debut at Coors Field against the Rockies. Batting sixth in the lineup, Pujols notched his first career hit in the 7th inning, a single up the middle against Mike Hampton. 

His first career home run came just four days later against the Diamondbacks when he hit a no-doubt 2-run home run to left field. The announcer’s call on MLB’s YouTube video of the homer proved prophetic: “First career big-league home run and after watching this kid in batting practice and that swing right there, it will not be nearly the last.” 

At the time, Pujols was the #42 prospect in baseball and the youngest player in MLB. By the end of the year, he was the cleanup hitter for the Cardinals. In his rookie year, he led his team in batting average, hits, doubles, home runs and RBI. He was an All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finished fourth in NL MVP voting.

That was pretty much the story of his first stint with the Cardinals: absolute domination at the plate. For the next 11 years in St. Louis, Albert racked up historically great offensive numbers. Over that period, he had a .328 BA, 1.037 OPS and hit 445 home runs and had over 2,000 hits. Maybe the most impressive fact about this period is that he had 10 straight seasons where he walked more than he struck out, an astounding achievement that speaks to how hard it was to get him out when he was in St. Louis. He even earned the nickname “The Machine” for his disciplined and methodical approach to the game of baseball.

Early on, his greatness was overshadowed by Barry Bonds who from 2001-2004 put together the best four-year stretch of baseball anyone has in the history of the sport. However, with Bonds hurt in 2005, Pujols firmly took hold of the title of best player in baseball. He also started racking up accolades, winning 3 NL MVPs from 2005-2009 and finishing as the runner up in 2006 and 2010. 

He also won two World Series with the Cardinals, putting together some legendary postseason performances along the way. Maybe the most iconic of all was his towering home run off Astros closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. With the Astros one out away from moving on to the World Series, Pujols hit a game-winning home run to the train tracks at Minute Maid Park to extend the series and keep the Cardinals alive. For his career, he has a 1.007 OPS with 19 home runs in the postseason.

Following their 2011 World Series championship, Pujols entered free agency and signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, his time in Anaheim wasn’t even close to his first stint in St. Louis. His decline began almost immediately and by 2017 he was a below-league average hitter, posting an 80 OPS+ (100 OPS+ is league-average).

His time with the Angels ended unspectacularly when the team released him in May 2021 in the final year of his contract. Altogether, he did have some solid seasons with the Angels, including three 30-homer seasons, including 40 dingers in 2015 to make his only All-Star team with the Angels. On May 4, 2018, he picked up his 3,000th hit against the Mariners becoming just the fourth player ever with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. During his time in Anaheim, the Angels only made the postseason once while he was there, getting swept out of the 2014 ALDS by the eventual pennant-winning Royals.

Last year, he was picked up by the Dodgers as he moved across town to a World Series contender. He put up good numbers for the Dodgers, finding a lot of success as a bat off the bench against left-handed pitchers. Their season ended in the NLCS with a loss to the eventual World Champion Atlanta Braves.

This offseason, he announced 2022 would be his last year and signed a 1-year, $2.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, returning to the place where it all began. To wear once again the cap he’ll have on his Cooperstown plaque. 

Entering the year, he was at 679 home runs, making 700 very unlikely. By the All-Star break, he had only hit 6 home runs this year. Then Albert got hot. In 30 games since the break, Pujols has hit 10 home runs and has an OPS just under 1.200. Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters in baseball during the second half. The stretch has reignited the chase for 700 and with 29 games to go, he’s got a real opportunity to make history.

Albert Pujols is 42 years old and he’s still contributing to the St. Louis Cardinals and lately he has been reminding everyone just how incredible he was in his prime. Yes, he’s not the perennial MVP candidate he used to be, but he’s a legend of the game. One day you’ll enter Busch Stadium and see his number 5 next to Musial’s 6 and Gibson’s 45. So, appreciate Albert Pujols while he’s here because there’s not long to go now.

Joche Sanchez Cordova

Contact Joche at jsanch24@nd.edu

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Sports

Sirianni: Captain Jack’s Buckeye attack

“Hello ladies and gentlemen, my name is Jack and I will be your captain today; if there is any way I can be of service, please let me know.”  This is a line that has become almost permanently ingrained into my head during the course of my summer job at Frankenmuth Funships in Frankenmuth, Michigan.  If I had a dollar for every time that I uttered these words this summer, I could buy my whole section tickets to this Saturday’s game.  

Over my two summers working at Funships, I have met people from England, New Zealand, Dubai, Russia, Canada and all across the United States.  

However, out of all the passengers I have served the last two summers, there is one group that stands out among the rest.  This population of native Midwesterners hail from a place so mundanely abysmal, yet it will soon play host to one of the most highly anticipated sporting events of the year.  

These passengers came from the state of Ohio in droves during what I would come to call “Ohio days”.  Super creative, I know.  These were the days when I would sail more people from that commonly teased state down the river than I would from my own home state of Michigan.  

It seemed that with each new group of guests from Ohio, not one of them wore anything but merchandise from THE Ohio State University.  They dressed their dogs, babies and begrudging spouses in the garish scarlet and gray that I could see a mile away as they walked down to my dock.

Whenever I saw a group of passengers like this, I knew exactly what I was in for.  We would share some small talk on the boat, and I would soft drop the bombshell to them that I went to Notre Dame.  This would usually be followed by a period of silence and then some banter about the game that lay waiting at the summer’s end.  

The Buckeyes on my boats never failed to bring entertainment to my other passengers and myself.  There was the woman who pulled up her shirt in the back to reveal her giant block “O” and buckeye nut tattoo to the rest of the boat during the tour.  How could I forget about the man who had worn the same Buckeye shirt for the past three days of his vacation because he had forgotten to pack anything else? 

My personal favorite, however, was the retirement-aged woman who, when asked if she had any connection to O.S.U., proceeded to unzip her hoodie and in a Superman-esque motion, reveal her bedazzled buckeye shirt.  Afterwards, she held onto my arm and as if it was her dying secret revealed to me that she would be buried in a scarlet and gray casket.             

In a way, I do have to thank this motley crew of Buckeyes.  I know Jack not the time for this, for their zealous spirit because with every T.O.S.U. fan I met, I began to imagine the days when I would soon be together with my friends cheering for Notre Dame Football once more.  The more they teased me about my home in South Bend, the more I visualized watching these Buckeyes have their hearts ripped out from the comfort of South Quad’s game watch.       

The Buckeye Battalion that I encountered throughout this summer as Captain Jack left me with one underlying message.  This is a fanbase and a team that is confident in their abilities and, frankly, rightly so, many people have them as their pick to win the title this year.  Even some of the Irish faithful feel that this is a challenge too great for Coach Freeman’s first regular season game.  To these passionate passengers of my boat and those needing some hope for this Saturday… pride cometh before the fall.                

Captain Jack signing off,

Go Irish. Beat Buckeyes.

Jack Sirianni

Contact Jack Sirianni at jsirian2@nd.edu.