Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Behind the Scenes of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament

By Stayson Isobe, NAU Media Relations/Couchsideshow.com writer

Last week, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work the NCAA Men’s Basketball West Regional in Tempe and what an experience it was.

For those that don’t know, when I’m not moonlighting as a Couch Side writer, I work at Northern Arizona University as a graduate assistant in the media relations department as the Sports Information Director for the Lumberjack women’s soccer and men’s and women’s tennis programs.

This past fall, Arizona State, the host of last week’s West Regional Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games at the U.S. Airways Center, asked our media relations department if we would like to volunteer at the games and really who would turn down an opportunity like that? Well the four of us in the department as well as our assistant AD for marketing made the trip down to the Valley last Wednesday and I can’t lie, I was stoked (and again who wouldn’t be?)

Upon arrival at the U.S. Airways Center, the home of the Phoenix Suns, we made our way to the media press conference room. Immediately I was amazed by the rows of tables set up for media members from across the country and the press conference seating area on the stage which would soon be the scene of the Regional’s star players and the incredible coaches that would lead them into battle for a spot in this year’s Final Four.
Of course we had to eat, so it was then off to the media buffet area. Need I say more than free food? After filling up on chicken tenders and hot dogs (again I’m not complaining, it was free!) we got our first assignments. We would be in charge of gathering locker room quotes from the players that would not be speaking to the media in the press conference room. I was assigned to Louisville, so instantly I read through their media guide and tournament notes to gather as much information as I could about the Cardinals.
After learning as much as I could about the Big East Tournament champions, I made my way to the locker room where the players were sitting around following their first practice on the U.S. Airways Center courts. My three player selections to interview: Gorgui Dieng, Chane Behanan and Kyle Kuric. Of course I would’ve loved to speak with starting point guard Peyton Siva, but he was on his way to the press conference room so opportunity lost. I’ve never been one to get nervous during interviews dating back to my days as a member of The Lumberjack sports section, but this was clearly a level I’ve never been at before.

The interviews went well and it was cool just to introduce myself and tell these guys I was gathering quotes for the NCAA! After speaking with the three players, my next duty was to transcribe the quotes, which was then placed in quote packet along with a transcription of the press conference for Louisville and distributed to the media for use. Who knows, maybe my quotes were used in a story for the Louisville/Michigan State game in some newspaper somewhere in the country?

That was really my only job on the first day, so I spent the remaining part of the day listening to Buzz Williams (Marquette head coach), Tom Izzo (Michigan State head coach) and Billy Donovan (Florida head coach) among others speak to the media in the media room. I also got to stand courtside and watch these four teams practice in preparation for their games the following day, which was amazing. I couldn’t believe I was watching these first class basketball programs with first class coaches leading the practice right in front of me! Not to mention, I got to see Reggie Miller, Len Elmore and Kevin Harlan (the broadcasters for the game) as well as they sat watched the practice sessions from their courtside seats.

The following day was game day and I was eager to head back to the arena for what would be the most exciting basketball games I’ve ever had the chance to watch live in person. There wasn’t much to do pregame except for another trip to the media buffet! My stomach satisfied, it was then time to get our game day assignments, which in my case was distributing halftime and postgame stats to my designated media area. There were 60 media members just in my row alone! One thing that I found astounding was that we could not hand out the starting lineups for the first game of the afternoon no sooner and no later than an hour before tip-off.

Aside from my halftime and postgame responsibilities, I was free to watch both games from the sweetest seat I’ve ever had to any live sporting event (well other than the ones I work here at NAU). I was just a normal fan in awe from my seat across the benches in the first row behind the media. If it didn’t hit me that I was actually watching Sweet Sixteen basketball before, it was at the tip-off of the Michigan State/Louisville game that I was here and this was really happening.

Of course, the West Regional portion of my bracket was busted that day as both Michigan State (the top seed in the Regional) and Marquette (the third seed) lost one game shy of my prediction of them making it to the Elite Eight. Nevertheless though, I saw two excellent games that featured a handful of potential NBA prospects including first-team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green (Michigan State), Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder (Marquette) and First-Team All-SEC selection Bradley Beal (Florida).

Not to mention that both Dieng and Behanan were the players that were invited to the press conference room to accompany head coach Rick Pitino after Louisville’s win over Michigan State. I guess I did a good job picking the key players to interview the day before? After all, Dieng (5 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 7 blocks) and Behanan (15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals) were key in limiting Green to just 5-of-16 from the field!
Couchsideshow.com blogger Stayson Isobe met his favorite baseball player, L.A. Angels slugger Albert Pujols and former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, at the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament in Tempe, Ariz. Isobe worked at the West Regional of the tournament, gathering quotes for the NCAA.

If all of this wasn’t enough, I was in the presence of huge names in the sports world including Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Steve Mariucci, Kirk Gibson and Tony La Russa. But none of them mattered more than the guy that I happened to be sitting right in front of the entire night: Albert Pujols. As a die-hard and lifetime Angels fan, I could not believe he was right behind me and I didn’t even know! Best described as the closest I’ve ever gotten to hyperventilating, I very nervously told him that I was a huge Angels fan (whether he actually believed me is another question) and shook his hand before asking for his autograph and getting a picture with him! To think I met the greatest hitter of my generation and newest $240 million member of my Angels is absolutely surreal to me and days later I’m still in shock. I spent two whole days at Angels spring training to come up short and here he was at the Sweet Sixteen games I happened to be working and he was just a row behind me. I guess I’ll always have the game lineup card with his autograph on it to remind me of that exact moment.

In all, it was two days I’ll never forget. Would’ve loved to have spent the final two days there to catch the Elite Eight game, but my beloved tennis teams were playing up in Flagstaff and my actual responsibilities called. Still, to have that experience is something not everyone gets to enjoy.

I got to see three coaches with national championships to their name in action and speak to the national media. I saw maybe the greatest point guard in the history of the NBA and got the autograph of the new star of my favorite sports team of all, a guy that is already mentioned along the likes of Ruth, Mantle and Aaron. I spoke with Rick Reilly and told Rick Pitino congratulations after his win. And that’s just a few of the things that made those two days two of the best I’ll ever have in my entire life.

How many people get to do any of that, much less all in a two-day span?

A dream come true beyond my wildest imagination, that’s the only way I can describe it.

Check out couchsideshow.com for more blogs by Stayson and other NAU students.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Swimming & Diving Coach Andy Johns Performs at Carnegie Hall

NEW YORK - NAU swimming & diving head coach Andy Johns got a chance to perform last week at the legendary Carnegie Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Johns is a member of the Master Chorale of Flagstaff, which performed along with NAU's Shrine of the Ages Choir on the stage of the one of the most prestigious musical venues in the world. Johns chronicles his visit to New York for the Lumberjack Talk Blog:

We departed for New York, all 166 of us from Flagstaff, on Thursday morning March 8th.  Members of the Master Chorale of Flagstaff, NAU’s Shrine of the Ages Choir, alumni from both choirs, and friends and family of everyone.  Upon arrival, we were bused to the Park Central Hotel on 7th Avenue, between 55th and 56th streets, a great location, as it is across the street from Carnegie Hall and only a few blocks from Central Park, Times Square, Broadway, 5th Avenue – you name it!  Friday morning included a four-hour rehearsal for the combined choirs that were gathered for the first time to perform at Carnegie Hall.  After dinner at the Carnegie Deli that included a pastrami sandwich stacked so high we made it into four sandwiches, we were off to the theatre district for the Disney classic “Mary Poppins”.  My daughter and I were not disappointed.  The staging, the sets, the costuming and singing and dancing were all fabulous.  The New Amsterdam theatre on 42nd St was quaint and filled to capacity.  After the show, we wandered through Times Square and stopped at yet another great cafĂ© to enjoy a slice of New York cheesecake.  Not a bad start to the trip, for sure.

Saturday morning started with a walk through Central Park and meeting Coach Luciano and his wife, Lori, at the Time Warner Center.  I had another rehearsal, while my daughter was shown around Greenwich Village, Soho, Little Italy, and Chinatown, by two of the best tour guides NYC has to offer (Coach Luciano and Lori).  Saturday night was capped off after dinner with cupcakes from the Magnolia Bakery – yes, that magnolia bakery from “Sex in the City” fame.  Sunday morning we headed south on the subway and went to the 9/11 memorial and ground zero.  A very somber setting, but an important part of the trip to NY to pay respects.  Sunday afternoon included more rehearsal and more shopping on 5th Avenue. 

And finally the hour arrived for our first peak inside Carnegie Hall.  We were escorted in the side stage doors and to a rehearsal room on the 3rd floor and arranged in our rows.  The sound check was scheduled from 7:10 – 7:40, and that was our first rehearsal on the stage with the New York City Chamber Orchestra.  Walking on to the stage and into an empty hall for my first glimpse of Carnegie was enough to begin to understand the specialness of this place - The cream colored walls and red seats.  The balconies that extend to the ceiling.  The intricate details of workmanship.  The perfect acoustics.

At 8:00, I was able to meet my daughter and the Luciano’s in the hall as we got ready for the downbeat at 8:30. Northern Arizona University’s Shrine of the Ages Choir started the evening with an incredible set of acapella singing that really stole the show.  These collegiate singers are vocal performance majors and some will undoubtedly end up singing again at Carnegie or on Broadway or perhaps even with the Metropolitan Opera.  It was an honor to sing with them during all of the rehearsal hours and especially on stage.  After intermission we gathered again in the rehearsal room and then made our way on the stage to sing John Rutter’s “Magnificat”.  The house was full and singing to a full house anywhere is great, but a full house in Carnegie – “are you kidding me?”  - incredible!

Dr Edith Copley, the Director of Choral Studies at Northern Arizona University, told us right before going on to enjoy the moment, have fun and smile.  I did all three, especially the smiling part apparently, as my daughter and others told me afterward.  I couldn’t help it.  Beautiful music in an historic place.  This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and for the performance to coincide with my birthday and to share the moment with my daughter and great friends made it all the better.

My trip to New York concluded with a serendipitous free ticket to the taping of The Late Show with David Letterman.  Will Ferrell was the special guest.  Unbelievable! Awesome, Baby! – March Madness had begun 3 days early.  What a trip! 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

NCAA Indoor Championships Blog: Diego Estrada

Junior distance runner Diego Estrada will compete Friday and Saturday in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field National Championships.  He'll be blogging his thoughts and experiences throughout the weekend.

Friday Night (Following his fifth-place finish in the 5,000 meters)
Frustrated to say the least! Fifth place would have been a great accomplishment a year ago, not this year. Last year I placed 4th indoors and 5th outdoors, so I would have been content with a top 3 finish but unfortunately that wasn't the case. What to do, what to do? MOVE ON! That was only half of the task; I still have another event coming up [Saturday]. Tired or not I better bring my A game because 12 months are a long time to wait for another opportunity. 

The race went out in a pedestrian pace for the opening laps.  I was in great position and covered many moves but failed to capitalize in the closing stages. The coaching was there, so was the health; nothing failed, I just didn't respond.  It's a hard pill to swallow as an athlete but with a few hours in between I have to stop thinking about the "could have, would have" and accept the fact that I dropped the ball. Champions have a short memory and I have to regroup and give it another go! I am still in it to win it! 

Go Jacks!


Thursday Night
I am 24 hours away from show time and unlike years before I feel more relaxed than ever. If anything I feel a bit sleepy, but I haven't lost any sleep over the competition.  It has been a fairly easy day here in Nampa, Idaho, just a lot of eating and sleeping. Around noon or so I headed to the track with Coach Heins to do my usual pre-race routine, just an easy 35 minute jog with Coach and did some quick strides to finish tuning up for tomorrow.

There isn't much of game plan for this weekend, no over-analyzing the competition or race strategies for once on my part. My main focus will be recovery and having a short term memory no matter the outcome of Friday night as that will only be half of the job.  Saturday the real test will come racing on tired legs against the best in the country. Four or five years ago I would be walking in as a heavy favorite for a national title in my respective events, but thankfully that is not the case and I will have my hands full if I am to win a national title. While winning is always good, it is more satisfying losing knowing you gave it your all than winning unchallenged. Still, the fact of the matter is I am running out eligibility. My clock is ticking and I have yet to match up with the likes of Lopez Lomong and David McNeill. while I have broken their records I have yet to put myself at their level. I have proven I can time trial, but I have yet to prove I can be tactically smart and patient to strike against the best in the NCAA. There really aren't any place or time goals but to prove I can be successful in tactical affairs and hunt down the best in the NCAA.

Well, its nap time here once more in Nampa, ID hope everyone is enjoying the fresh air of Flagstaff. I will try to report back on Saturday morning.

Thanks for reading, Diego