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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Mason Cox Aims High in 2017

Collingwood big man Mason Cox is healthy and ready to be a difference maker in 2017. Now on the senior list, he’s in line to play a larger role in part due to a couple of departures-- Premiership player Travis Cloke to the Western Bulldogs, and second ruckman Jarrod Witts, who is now a Gold Coast Sun.

At 211 cm (6'10") Cox is able to play some in the ruck, but his soccer and basketball skills make him versatile enough to win his fair share of marking contests on the Collingwood forward line. Certainly his teammates love having a big target up front.

By now you’ve certainly heard the story of the big man (and fellow Texan). He played on the scout team for the Oklahoma State University women’s basketball side, worked his way onto the men’s team, graduated with an engineering degree, and was about to start a new job when he showed up at the AFL combine in 2014. He played for the Collingwood reserves in 2015, got the call up after two VFL games in 2016, and went on to kick the first Pies goal in the ANZAC day match against Essendon.

Cox kicked 17 goals in 2016 but shoulder and hip injuries limited him to 11 games. While he felt he exceeded expectations, he told ESPN Australia he wants more.
“I'm definitely looking forward to next year and having a bit more of an impact and being a bit more consistent as far as games go. Toward the end of the season, I had a few injuries that split me out of the squad for a bit. Hopefully I'll be healthy the whole year and be able to give all I can to the team,” Cox said.

Cox is eager to prove that he’s not a sideshow and can compete at the highest level of footy. Early returns are positive-- he had solid preseason showings against Essendon, Fremantle, and Richmond. His stat line included one behind, eight disposals and 29 hitouts in Collingwood’s round one loss to the Western Bulldogs.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Jason Holmes: Still a Saint

            Jason Holmes’ time as a Saint will continue in 2017 after signing a one-year deal at the end of last season.  He also earned permanent status on the team’s senior squad since AFL rules state that players must be elevated or delisted after three years on a rookie list.
            His status, however, appears to be up in the air. The ruckman from Chicago, Illinois, USA was not in the lineup for any of St. Kilda’s preseason matches with Port Adelaide, Carlton, or Sydney.

            One reason for the uncertainty could be that the Saints already have three pure ruckmen signed beyond 2016—Tom Hickey, Billy Longer, and Lewis Pierce. Longer and Pierce are under contract until the end of 2018, while Hickey gained attention after a solid campaign last year.
            Adding Holmes to this mix would seem to create a logjam, giving the club four at the ruck position while many other teams have two or three plus another who could fill in as needed. You’d think the Saints would want versatile players who could also compete at the forward position. The other side of this is that they like Holmes enough to sign him and add him to the big club.

            Jason Holmes played college basketball in the U.S. for Mississippi Valley State and Morehead State in Kentucky. Saying no to the possibility of playing pro basketball, he impressed at the AFL combine in Los Angeles and then joined St. Kilda as an international rookie in 2013.

            Holmes played at Sandringham in 2014 and 2015, seeing action in 37 senior games and kicking six goals. He also saw action in 14 VFL games in 2016 and then made history when he suited up for the Saints’ final three games of 2015. This choice to become the first American to play AFL footy was likely a difficult one. His brother, Oakland Raiders’ (NFL) receiver Andre Holmes was getting married at that time.

            Holmes also played in the final two games of season 2016, with 59 hitouts total in wins over Richmond and Brisbane. So he has the experience and the feel of the big leagues and undoubtedly is ready to leave a larger impression.

            The Saints just missed out on making the eight in 2016, finishing at 12-10. They open season 2017 against Melbourne.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Heritage of the Game

** Editor's note: This is the first post I've written as a correspondent for World Footy News. I'm excited about where this can go and I look forward to contributing.

            I like that AFL sides do a good job of remembering their roots and telling their entire story, even if the memories aren’t as pleasant.

            St. Kilda matches don’t make it to the states, at least not through my cable TV package, so I’ve been watching a season 2016 tilt with Melbourne. On the back of the Saint unis is an “EST. 1873,” or established in 1873, which alludes to the first year of their existence. They’ve never relocated and granted, the majority of their footy hasn’t been of the winning type, but remembering your history and knowing where you’ve come from are both good things.

Front and back of the Sydney uniform top.
Note the SMFC above the number 8.
            The Sydney Swans do this on their guernseys by stitching in “SMFC” at the base of the neck. This of course stands for South Melbourne Football Club, which was this team’s identity from 1874 until 1982 when financial woes led to relocation that sent the team northeast. The initials were an addition in 2004.

            Moving a team like that is painful for supporters—it feels like something is being taken away, that their loyalty, their going to games and cheering with their families, ultimately meant nothing. So adding the old SMFC to the home and away kits is a very nice touch.

FFC is added in above the #22 on the
Western Bulldogs guernseys.
            Same thing in Footscray. The Footscray Football Club also had its share of money troubles and saw a path out by becoming the Western Bulldogs and potentially connecting with a larger fan base. You can see the “FFC” above the number on the back of the guernsey.

            I see teams here in the states move around and I don’t see the same thing. Can you imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder ever wearing anything that referred to the time the franchise spent as the Seattle SuperSonics? We don’t see the Baltimore Ravens talk about being the Cleveland Browns in a previous existence, nor do the Washington Nationals refer to ever being the Montreal Expos. But in Seattle, Cleveland, and Montreal, fans felt like they got stabbed in the back by owners who were seeking more money. Loyalty, history, and tradition meant nothing next to the almighty dollar.

            Nice that I don’t perceive these AFL sides disrespecting their fans like that. I get that a goal is to make money and not lose it, but very cool that a nod is given to a team’s heritage.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Wooden Spoons

When I worked in radio in rural North Central Kansas, we broadcast a daily sports interview program, and one of the things we did on Fridays during football season was pick winners of five games that were to be played that weekend. There were six or seven of us. We kept standings and everything, even had a end-of-season event where we celebrated the champion.

Something else we did was give the last-place finisher a spatula. The idea was mine, a derivative of the wooden spoon concept that is known in the Australian Football League. All I did was go get one from housewares at the nearby grocery store. I wasn't very good at picking games, so I usually wound up keeping the spatula in my office at work.

It was good, clean fun had by good people. Plus it helped fill an interview slot on Fridays.

So I thought I'd look into the wooden spoon history in the AFL. The side that finishes last on the ladder during the season gets the wooden spoon. It's not a recognized thing by the league, but it's a very common topic of discussion.

The wooden spoon custom apparently has its origins in academia in the late 1700s. Students at the University of Cambridge awarded the 'prize' to whomever got the lowest test scores but still earned a third-class degree. I haven't seen anything about how the concept migrated to Australia. Perhaps it connects to Britain's colonization of Australia which began in 1787.

Last year Essendon won last year's "award," their fifth but their first since 1933. That's impressive, but not as noteworthy as Carlton's wooden spoon drought that saw the Blues stay out of the basement for 105 years, picking up their first one in 2002. The bad thing for them is they've picked up three more since then.

The wooden spoon leaders are St. Kilda, with 27 last-place finishes, with their most recent one coming in 2014.

It looks like five wins is the magic number-- win that many and you should, *should* avoid it, at least nowadays, since the most recent five-win side to finish dead last was Brisbane in 1999. Every team has at least one spoon with the exception of newer clubs Adelaide which joined the AFL in 1990, and Port Adelaide, which began league play in 1997.

It also appears that us Yanks have latched onto the wooden spoon thing, as in Major League Soccer (MLS) the team with the fewest points at the end of the season takes one home. Chicago Fire won the inaugural spoon in 2015.

Friday, February 3, 2017

First Premiers

In doing research a while back I saw that the Essendon Bombers won the first premiership in the league that is now called the AFL, back in 1897. I love this sort of thing, so I thought I'd visit their site to see what sort of history page they had.

First, a brief overview. The team has played over 2400 games total, won 1350 of them, with a winning percentage of over 56%. All these statistics are third behind Collingwood and Carlton in the history of the AFL/VFL.

Anyhow I was looking for more of a year-to-year sort of thing on the Bomber website, similar to what I saw from some of the other clubs. What I did find was a page where each player is listed alphabetically. Not really what I was looking for, but it sure looks like every man who ever played for the Bombers has his own separate listing, which includes games played and a short bio. Very nice.

The Dons even have their own walk-in museum at their training facility in Essendon, which isn't too far from the Melbourne Airport.

The thing that wowed me was this museum is available via virtual tour, here. This is amazing stuff. It's where I learned that the Essendon Football Club was formed in 1872. They saw some success in winning VFA premierships in 1892-93-94 before leaving and joining the Victorian Football League for the 1897 season. There was no Grand Final that year-- Essendon won the premiership by virtue of beating Geelong, Collingwood, and Melbourne in round-robin play to finish 3-0.

screenshot of the Essendon Virtual Museum. A fantastic presentation
of their long and storied history. Great stuff.
The museum has displays of Bomber greats, a celebration of the back-to-back premiership sides of 1984 and 1985, and so much more. There is also homage paid to James Hird, who was a great player and coach for the team. His grandfather and father also have their place in team history.

However, James played a role in a doping scandal that has rocked the team for the last several years, costing him his place in the game. This scandal is part of the reason the 2016 Bombers took home their first wooden spoon (for finishing last on the ladder) since 1933.

However Hird's place in Dons history cannot be denied.

So much to see and absorb, so little time. This virtual museum demonstrates how history should be told, remembered, and celebrated. Well done, Essendon.

The Bombers open season 2017 on March 25 at the MCG against Hawthorn.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

2017 Fixture and History

We're still a little over two months away from the start of the 2017 AFL home and away season. Just as they did last season, Richmond meets Carlton in the first match to be played. It's always an exciting time, as every team is excited about the future. Richmond tries to rebound after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2012, and Carlton looks to take another step forward after taking some lumps over the last few years.

In 2015 Richmond put together a long winning streak in order to get into the playoffs after a slow start. With a win-loss record of 15-7, the Tigers lost to North Melbourne in an elimination final. Carlton had a rough time of it, sacking coach Mick Malthouse midseason and taking the wooden spoon after finishing in last position on the ladder.

With that as a background, Richmond beat the Blues 92-83 in the 2016 opener. Neither team made the eight last year, as the Tigers slid to 13th on the ladder. The Blues and their new coaching staff started out 5-5 but a nine-game losing streak sent things spiraling out of control. They finished with seven wins, stayed out of the bottom four and finished just behind the Tigers in 14th position.

The history of these two sides goes way back. The Tigers began play in the Tasmanian Football League in 1879 and joined the VFA (Victorian Football Association) in 1885. Carlton was a founding member of the VFA in 1864 and jumped to the newly-formed Victorian Football League in 1897, while Richmond joined the VFL in 1908. This may help explain why the Blues have played other teams more often than they've played Richmond.

Carlton has played five other teams more often than the 216 matchups with the Tigers while Richmond has played the Blues more than any other opponent in the competition. Carlton leads the all-time series 125-89-2, so this really seems like an interesting tilt to get the season going.

A cursory look back at the last few years sees that the AFL doesn't seem to place a priority on two particular sides playing every season opener. Collingwood/Fremantle started 2014 and Adelaide met Essendon in 2013. However this is the third straight time Blues/Tigers has had the honors.

Monday, December 12, 2016

2010 Grand Final

St. Kilda and Collingwood met twice during the 2010 home-and-away season. The Saints won a round 3 matchup way back in April, and the Magpies took the round 16 rematch three months later.

Collingwood won the minor premiership and were the #1 seed as a result of having the best win-loss record during the season, while St. Kilda finished third on the ladder. They would meet in what would normally be the last game of the season, and then they'd do it again.

The 2010 Grand Final between the two sides was a riveting affair, the Pies clinging to a one-point lead with under 2:00 to play and the Saints knocking on the door, bringing every ounce of desperation they had.

Saint Lenny Hayes kicked from just outside the forward 50-meter line, hoping to find a friendly face near the sticks. Not having the distance, the ball caromed away from teammate Stephen Milne and through for a behind, tying the game at 68. Had the ball bounced into Milne's hands (he'd gotten away from his defender), he had an open kick at goal from point-blank range that would've given the underdog Saints a five-point margin late in the match.

Instead that's where the scoring ended. Hayes won the 2010 Norm Smith Medal as the best on ground.

This match became the third of its kind in AFL history. In the other two, Melbourne beat Essendon in 1948 and North Melbourne defeated Collingwood in the rematch of the 1977 Grand Final.

The exhaustion...
and the stunned disbelief of both sides following a drawn Grand Final.

It's fascinating to watch the closing moments as the siren presided over drawn teams. The feeling is surreal at the MCG-- all the energy just completely left the building, replaced with a feeling of bewilderment at having to process a tie.

The sting must have been a little sharper for St. Kilda because they squandered a fourth quarter lead and lost the 2009 Grand Final to the Geelong Cats.

Instead the Saints and Pies went through more preparation and somehow tried to get their minds and bodies ready to play another match on the biggest stage of them all.

What's amazing about this is the overtime rules were in effect for all other finals matches, and were actually implemented in 1994 (North Melbourne over Hawthorn) and in the 2007 playoffs when Collingwood defeated West Coast.

Those games were settled with two five-minute extra periods, with sudden death in case scores are still level.

I compare this to America and the feeling that would be out there if the Super Bowl was still tied and everyone went home. It wouldn't happen of course because of how the rules are set up, but what if the Packers and Patriots were told to come back next week? Disbelief and outrage, correct?

So earlier this year the AFL amended their bylaws so that the Grand Final would also go to the two five-minute extra periods. I feel like this should have been done sooner, but part of the reasoning is that they seemed to like the possibility of having a tie. It makes sense, since they get to have another 100,000 fans buy tickets. Another stated reason is travel, as a non-Victorian side may have a disadvantage of added plane rides.

As for the 2010 Grand Final replay, Collingwood held St. Kilda to one first-half goal and won by 56 points. It marked their 15th (and most recent) Premiership. Scott Pendlebury for the Magpies won the Norm Smith Medal.