Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Years' Eve....sports style

Well, the 2011 calendar is winding down, so here now, some New Year's Eve resolution suggestions for the sports teams and athletes around the state.

The Carolina Panthers should resolve to stay the course. The pieces are in place for this team to be a playoff contender for years to come. Starting next year.

The Charlotte Bobcats should resolve to find a way to get Cam Newton to every home game, and sit him with Michael Jordan. That way, when pictures of Newton and MJ hit the wire services, the name "Charlotte Bobcats," will continue to circulate. If anyone knows how to brand things, it's Jordan. Get on that.

The Charlotte Knights should resolve to get a shovel in the ground on their new Uptown ballpark. I know they have been resolved to this for years. I would then suggest that the shovel be presented to Jerry Reese when they are finished. Along with a season ticket. And a smile.

The Charlotte Checkers should resolve to doing all they can to further enhance their relationship with the Carolina Hurricanes. Problem with that is so many Checkers players are being recalled to the big club, it might be hard to recognize the Checkers before long. Such is the price of minor league sports. Still worth a trip to TWC Arena to see them, no matter who is in the lineup.

The North Carolina Tar Heels should resolve to stay healthy in hoops, and stay committed to the promises of making the football program something they can be proud of once again. The scandal has tarnished not just football, but the school to a certain extent. Gotta reclaim that image.

For Wake Forest, their resolution should be to keep Jim Grobe as their Head Football Coach (and I am not saying he is in danger of being let go, but could be courted again for another job).

For NC State, resolve to keep the momentum high from the Belk Bowl win, and push the program to new heights. Also, pack the RBC Center for the basketball team. They work hard. Represent.

For Duke, well, David Cutcliffe should resolve to continue making those bold pre-season prognostications. One day, maybe next year, he'll be right.

Finally, my own New Year's resolution, just for you. I resolve to do everything I can to keep this blog fresh, and give you a reason to check out Sports Night every night on News 14 Carolina. I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Happy New Year,

Mike Solarte

Monday, December 12, 2011

Another lead up in smoke for Panthers

The 4-9 Carolina Panthers continue to drop games, even after holding a lead through the first half, and sometimes behind. The latest example, coming Sunday against Atlanta. Carolina held a 23-7 lead at halftime, only to surrender 24 unanswered points in the final 30 minutes and lost 31-23.

All season long we've watched this team do so many good things through the course of a game, only to see the end result come up in defeat. There is a common thread in the losses, and that would be turnovers. In all 9 losses, Carolina has committed at least one turnover. In the 4 wins, the Panthers committed none.

The turnovers, in my opinion, were not the root cause of the loss to Atlanta, although they certainly didn't help. This loss comes down to coaching. Sure, the players play, but Carolina got worked in the coaching department, especially in the second half.

Head Coach Ron Rivera preaches that his team needs to 'find that killer instinct,' and 'find a way to put teams away in the second half.' Earlier this year, he recalled a story about former teammate Dan Hampton, who said once the Chicago Bears had a team in a hole, that it was "time to grab them by the collared shirt, and drag them through the gravel." Sunday was a PRIME opportunity to do that, and Carolina let the Falcons spread their wings, instead of clipping them.

Why do I say that? Well, it is simple. Carolina got the football back late in the first half, and when facing a 3rd down and 2 situation, Carolina chose to run a play that looked more like a first down call. The Panthers had a dynamic force in Cam Newton. This guy can gain two yards on his own in a variety of ways. Yet, the Panthers went conservative. The play call, a run off the left side of the line, went nowhere (in fact, it went backwards for a loss of one), and led to a punt.

That play may not have meant much in the big picture, statistically, but the fact the "go for the throat" Panthers decided it was best to hold the lead, rather than try to press the Falcons was a bad message to a young team trying to find its identity.

In the second half, the Panthers defense was worked over as Atlanta went no-huddle for most of the half. The Panthers could not get proper personnel groups on the field, and with that Falcons offense, they were going to have success. It fell on the shoulders of the offense to do their part to play keep-away from Atlanta's offense, and with three 3-and-outs, and two interceptions, it wasn't getting done. Certainly credit is due to Atlanta for making adjustments, but the Panthers seemed to make none.

Still, this is another lesson learned for all involved. Newton knows not to try and make ill-advised, left-handed, underhanded desperation tosses in the future. He will learn control of that howitzer attached to his shoulder (the 2nd pick was a sailed pass over a receivers head). The defense will learn learn better coverage schemes, and most of all, the coaches will learn that football is much like a chess match: you have to think 2-3 moves ahead. You have to be ready for whatever the opposition is going the throw at you, and be ready with a couple of counter-punches. It will come, but if blame is going to be assessed, this one falls on coaching. Yes, there were players at fault for missing a tackle, or blowing an assignment, but overall, this is a coaching loss.

Hats off to Steve Smith on his 6 catch, 125 yard effort in the. Smith became the 35th receiver in NFL history to reach the 10,000 yards mark in career receiving. He gave credit to the QB's that have thrown him passes in his career, as well as his receiving corps mentors. For a guy that has had his share of greatness on the field, and as he admitted, some bonehead issues off of it, he remains the same guy. There is something to be said for that.

Want to send a shout out to Connell Maynor and the Winston-Salem State Rams football team, that came up 7 points short of reaching a national title game in football. According to coach Maynor, his team was disrespected by many folks, and all they did was roll to a final 13-1 record. His team was good enough. His team played fast, and physical, and were entertaining to watch. Most of all, he got his kids to give max effort on every play. Sadly for the Rams, I am not sure how long they will have him there, as good coaches find their way through the ranks. I am not saying he is leaving right now, but I would recommend that Rams fans enjoy him while they have him.

Finally, congratulations to the Charlotte 49er men's soccer team for their wonderful run through the NCAA tournament. From what I saw of the match, which admittedly was the 2nd half, Charlotte dominated UNC. The Heels had, in my estimation, two legit scoring chances, and cashed in on one. They had a cross that was headed across the face of the net, and then the only goal of the game, a slick top-spin shot that was, in a word, perfect. The ball is stopped if it is kicked with less pace, and sails high if it carries too much pace.

Still, the 49ers came in unheralded, and most of all, unappreciated in the college soccer community. Head Coach Jeremy Gunn and his players did a terrific job of putting the program on the national map. Again, major hat-tip to them. It was a fun ride.

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wednesday nuggets...

Carolina Panthers looking ahead to their Sunday meeting with Atlanta, and they'll go in without DT's (yes, plural) Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Both players suffering injuries in Tampa Bay, severe enough to end their seasons. Panthers signed Jason Shirley off the practice squad, and Ogemdi Nwagbuo to the roster, and former NC State DT Demario Pressley to the practice squad.

This is a serious blow to the Panthers defense. Even though Fua and McClain are rookies, they had played every game this season, and were really getting comfortable with the scheme, as well as NFL life. Perhaps this is a good thing, as the first year duo may have been running into the wall a little bit. The Panthers are thinking long term about goals, so in that vain, that's likely how they are looking at this.

Also, keep in mind, the Panthers only had McClain available in Tampa, and that was only for the first half. Yet the defense did a solid job against the run. They'll need more of that this Sunday with Michael Turner rolling into Bank of America Stadium.

UNC football appears to be on the brink of naming Larry Fedora as their next Head Coach. Other than his win over Houston, I know very little about him. I do know he's a native of College Station, TX, which incidentally is where Texas A&M is located. The Aggies apparently have some interest in him, and if Fedora chooses Chapel Hill over his hometown, that would say a lot about what UNC is offering.

It would also say a lot about the coach. Fedora (or whoever would take that job), will be walking into a situation that would be considered less than desirable. The school is going to face sanctions of some kind, whether its the one's they imposed on themselves, or something from the NCAA. Fedora, and other coaches know this. They know that there will potentially be some lean times. They know it will be a tough assignment to keep Carolina trending upward.

Listening to talk radio on Wednesday morning, I had to laugh hearing some of the e-mails read on air. One UNC fan wrote in saying he opposed the Fedora hiring because a coach with 4 years Head Coaching experience is "beneath" UNC. Did I miss a memo? When did UNC football win a basket of national title? Oh, that's right, never. UNC football was at its pinnacle (recently) with Mack Brown at the helm. His name was brought up during the radio conversation as well, with fans recalling his back-to-back 10-win seasons. A history lesson: Brown didn't leave UNC to take the job at Texas because UNC treated him poorly or he viewed the school as a "stepping stone" job. Brown left because after winning 20 games in 2 seasons, and not getting into a BCS game, he viewed UNC as a place that wouldn't garner national respect in football.

I don't dislike UNC at all, and I know people will perceive my thoughts as hateful. the facts are this: UNC CAN be a national power in football. Making that happen is the job of a Head Coach, his staff, and the right mix of players. UNC hasn't had that combination since Mack Brown, in 1996 and 1997. It will be up the next regime to try and lead them back there.

As for Everett Withers, I commend him on being the company guy. He did his very best, but only a national title would have helped him stay on as Head Coach. It's my opinion that anyone connected with the Butch Davis era will be gone by next season. That house cleaning simply can't be avoided.

Mike Solarte