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Dreaming of a Thunderwolf Christmas – defense is key

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thunderwolfCSU-Pueblo was on the all-to-familiar road to the NCAA Division II championship last season. The ThunderWolves once again ran the table in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and headed to the playoffs hungry for a title. The end-of-the-season result was no different.

Grand Valley State left ThunderWolf fans less than grateful after a 34-30 loss at home on November 30, 2013 for another early exit in the playoffs.

Their postseason appearance may have satisfied some fans, but it was another frustrating end to the season for ThunderWolves’ players and staff. But there was no time to sulk. The Pack needed recruits to fill graduating seniors’ spots for the upcoming year.

Coach John Wristen utilized the offseason for anything but a vacation as he and his staff nabbed 32 recruits to repair the few issues CSU-Pueblo faced last year.

The ThunderWolves relinquished just a shade less than 20 points per game, however, the defense gave up 500 or more yards in nine of the 12 games last season.

Key stops and well-placed takeaways helped keep the points down against the ThunderWolves at 19.8 points per game.

The defense had plenty of talent, but it needed a boost. It definitely received it.

Isaiah Palacio, Deyon Sizer, Marcus Culhane , a 2-star recruit from Arvada, along with a slew of other talent round out the defensive class for the ThunderWolves. An improvement on defense could have propelled CSU-Pueblo deeper into the playoffs. This class of 2014 can provide a spark along with key returnees. Senior Darius Allen shines bright as the beacon on defense.

Allen has succeeded at all levels, and adding an NCAA Division II title to his resume boosts compliments his accomplishments. The former South Central League Defensive Line MVP won the Gene Upshaw award, given to the top linemen in Division II, and earned RMAC Preseason Defensive Player of the Year honors for his efforts. Allen’s stats more than satiate his credentials for the awards he has collected.

In 2013, Allen literally led the Pack on defense. The former East Eagle led his team and the nation in sacks with 15.5. Cornerback Stephen Dickens pulled down five interceptions and had various more break ups. The combination of Allen and Dickens provide leadership on and off the field that the ThunderWolves need for the 2014 season.

A bolstered defensive line and more depth in the backfield this season should allow the Pack should see a decrease in yards allowed.

RMAC Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Chris Bonner, Preseason All RMAC Offense receiver Paul Browning, the Pack are more than capable of sustaining their high-octane offense.

The ground game as well as the aerial assault combined for more than 500 yards per game last season, the most since the school reinstated the football program, according to Gothunderwolves.com.

The offense provided monster stats in 2013 for Wristen and should the team continue its year-after-year growth, acquisitions during Wristen’s “downtime” should provide another boost on offense this season.

And there is no better time to prove it than during the second game of the season.

Offseason tweaks and modifications to the defense will be tested Sept. 13 at No. 14 Football Championship Subdivision Sam Houston State. Facing this Division I FCS school is arguably one of the most important games in ThunderWolves football history.

Last year, in Jerry’s World a.k.a. Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, CSU-Pueblo defeated Angelo State 45-24 at the Lone Star Conference Football Festival. The Rams were a competitive opponent, but Angelo State is in a different league. Literally.

The Bearkats went 9-4 against FCS opponents in 2013 and averaged more than 265 yards per game on the ground. Running back Timothy Flanders led the Bearkats with 1,430 yards rushing last season and averaged 102 per game. The ThunderWolves defense held opponents to just under 115 yards per game, good enough for 21st in the nation. Something’s got to give and hopefully it isn’t through the quarterback’s arm.

CSU-Pueblo’s overall defense ranked 87th allowing opponents to tally 4,701 yards in 12 games last season. With the various offseason tweaks and tinkers, those issues can be resolved before it becomes an problematic this season. The offseason recruiting ventures from Wristen and his staff provide the opportunity for young players to get their feet wet early as well as make a case for playing time against a highly touted opponent.

Coach Wristen proved his team could make something into nothing when he took the reins of the program in 2008. The ThunderWolves quickly became a powerhouse and a dangerous regular-season squad. Hopefully, their work to bolster the defense pays dividends and carries the Pack into December.

Wouldn’t that be a merry Christmas for Pueblo?

 

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Finished Business

A special Mostly Sheep on the impact of the Colorado State University – Pueblo’s National Championship and its effect on the community.

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Eight years ago, Colorado State University-Pueblo football was dormant; alive in only the memories of alumni and former players. Football, among many programs at the then University of Southern Colorado, were cut to save money.

Football would have a resurgence in the city that no one could have predicted.

An empty lot filled with dirt, cacti and wildlife occupied the area where the Neta and Eddie DeRose ThunderBowl currently sits. John Wristen, a coach at the University of California-Los Angeles, desired the head coaching spot for the revamped football program at his alma mater.

A to-the-point phone call confirmed Wristen would trade the UCLA blue and gold to take the reins of the red, white and blue of the ThunderWolves. The former USC quarterback had an opportunity to lead his team and adopted city of Pueblo to a place it had never been—a collegiate football championship game.

That goal was obtained. And then some.

Thirty years after USC’s final game, CSU-Pueblo played in the final game of the Division-II football season and flourished. 13-0, ThunderWolves prevailed. The first ever champions from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. CSU-Pueblo’s first national title for football. Just what Coach Wristen pictured when he took the job eight years ago.

The ThunderWolves finally overcame the hump to sit atop Division-II football.

The championship trophy and biggest victory in Pueblo history restored a presence missing from the town for decades.

“This is amazing for the community as a whole,” Director of Alumni Relations at CSU-Pueblo Tracy Samora said. “This puts Pueblo in the national spotlight and shows what sense of family and pride we take in everything here.”

CSU-Pueblo swiftly went from start-up program to powerhouse and garnished TV time during its rise.

The ThunderWolves secured a deal with Altitude Sports, a network that broadcast in more than 6.5 million homes across the Rocky Mountains, which allows for more exposure for the school and its players. CSU-Pueblo’s final four and championship games were broadcasted on ESPN U and ESPN2, respectively.

Former Pack players Ryan Jensen and Mike Pennel secured spots on NFL rosters without the mass media exposure CSU-Pueblo currently enjoys. Giving this championship roster as well as future prospects that attention bodes well for building a possible career out of football.

The success of the program doesn’t just affect players and their future, however, it provides more customers to local and chain businesses in town. More wins. More butts in seats.

Hotels receive more bookings from alumni and family of players making the journey to see winning football. Chain restaurants see huge turnouts after games and local businesses benefit from the flood of fans coming from the ThunderBowl, also.

The struggling enrollment and financial situation of the school could improve upon the national title. Future students have the opportunity to enjoy the peace of a small town and still enjoy the perks of a college student.

“From my perspective, I think this will definitely boost enrollment,” Samora said. “I think it’ll have an impact on the enrollment and the alumni involvement as well.”

Monetary value cannot measure the significance of this title to the city of Pueblo. Winning builds a sense of pride stronger than ever before. It illustrates Pueblo football isn’t acceptable at football, it is exceptional.

After a high school state title for Pueblo East in November, December’s title game victory for the ThunderWolves, Pueblo is on the map. And there’s a nice little football to indicate that location.

“This puts us in the national spotlight,” Samora said. “It showcases not only our successful athletics program but also our academics.”

The potential for this program still has no ceiling and the future for ThunderWolf football is as bright as it has ever been. When the players and coaches hoisted the championship trophy in triumph, the spirit of Pueblo rose with it.

The slogan of the ThunderWolves’ players was “Win the last game” and the motto for the team was “Unfinished business.”

Mission accomplished.

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Squadron Leader

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Pueblo East High School entered the fourth quarter of its first ever football state title game tied at 14 with Rifle. Had the Eagles failed to soar, many would have understood; making it to state and playing at Dutch Clark was historical.

The journey to the 3A state championship game put the Eagles through a gauntlet chock-full of adversity, struggle and doubt.

East started the season 2-0 but stumbled, losing three of four bring its record to 3-3. The 34-20 loss in the Cannon game against South left players and coaches disappointed. But to end the season, East recovered the pieces of its broken the state title game.

In that final 15 minutes of the 2014 season, Eagles coach David Ramirez and his boys made it look easy, dismantling their opponent with ease and taking a well-deserved spot in Pueblo football history.

Smiles graced the faces of coaches and players and a collective sigh of relief was let out by many. It was over. They were champs. All the hours and practices for the distinction as best in the state came true.

The accounts of the road traveled show the triumph and struggles of the 3A championship team.

Colorado State Champions of 3A football pose for a team photo with the championship trophy. Photo by Alan Anderson

Colorado State Champions of 3A football pose for a team photo with the championship trophy. Photo by Alan Anderson

TRAINING CAMP

Coming off a 7-5 season in 2013, championship or bust wasn’t the motto for the East Eagles. This program never took a whiff of a football championship game. In 2014, however, something was in the air. A different vibe existed among players and coaches when East headed to the Colorado State University-Pueblo camp.

“We felt like we left the CSU-Pueblo camp as one of the better teams,” Ramirez said. “Our group of guys were willing to work hard and were goofy when necessary and ready to get serious when necessary. We felt strong about this group.”

Various teams across the state enter the season with title hopes. With the performance of East at the camp, it was understandable. Confidence swelled and players showed it to start the season.

A 41-25 dismantling of eventual 4A state runner-up Longmont in their first game left the Eagles confidence sky high and ready to tackle the remainder of the season. The start didn’t go as expected, however.

CANNON GAME & STRUGGLES

The game no one wants to lose. A heated rivalry that South won in 2013 left the Eagles with a bitter taste in their mouths carried over to 2014. A year worth of bragging rights and a cannon the winner gets to sport while the loser listens to the boom in agony. This season, it still booms black.

“It was a frustrating loss, we knew we were better than how we performed,” Ramirez said. “We didn’t play our best football that night.”

The loss brought East to 2-1. It didn’t sit well with East fans and the defeat irked the team. There were no moral victories September 5th, nor were there in the back-to-back losses to Discovery Canyon and Pueblo West.

After starting 2-0, the Eagles were a modest 3-3. The .500 record temporarily demoralized the team. In the locker room after the loss to Discovery Canyon, eyes were glued to the ground, a disturbing silence occupied the room and questions surround the Eagles and their future.

What appeared to be a dream season swiftly became a typical year for East football. During that uncomfortable silence, Ramirez was fuming inside about the effort from his Eagles. Once he cooled off, Ramirez realized this was a moment of clarity.

Ramirez made certain all eyes were on him during his succinct speech. A nine-word message was all it took to turn around the season for East.

“We’re not going to lose another game this season,” Ramirez said. Players and coaches discussed what they needed to do to improve their season.

From there, the path was clear.

THE TURNAROUND/WINNING STREAK

East lost its final non-league game to Pueblo West 27-21. Third time was the charm for the Eagles and three losses was plenty for Ramirez’s team to gather inspiration to build a championship team.

Once league games began, East dissected opponents week after week; four straight games of 40-plus points, two straight 40 point victories and four games with a running clock. The Eagles gave up just 12 points in league play while amassing 183.

The Eagles played dominating football and knew they were headed down the road to glory.

“We played some damn good football throughout our league games,” Ramirez said. “We wanted to make a statement heading to the playoffs.”

A switch was flipped and the Eagles became immaculate, winning the league title and making a bold statement in the process. Carrying that same flame throughout the playoffs was the challenge holding East from its first state title.

STATE TITLE RUN 

A year ago, Ramirez and his wife had their son Miles — a fitting name to how far the Eagles traveled down the road to success. The birth of a child is already a blessing, but Ramirez felt like Miles provided an extra boost to his Eagles in 2014.

“He was our good luck charm,” Ramirez said. “To have that peace and happiness in our life, it carried over into some things within the professional aspect.”

East needed luck for its first title. Distractions grew as the wins compiled.

East’s first state title game at Dutch Clark, facing the No.1 3A team in the state who defeated the Eagles early in the season, social media chirpings, buzz around town and in the halls. Asking teenagers to focus on one game at a time was a near impossible task, but, hey, they’d done it all season.

“It was a little bit of a challenge,” Ramirez said. “But we told them ‘the ball is the same size, the lines on the field are the same. Just go out there and have fun.’ We wanted them to know they’ve done this for years and trust the work they’ve done. The hard stuff was done, just go out and play the damn game.”

A 14-game season and enduring the rigors of class and studying seemed daunting at the time. With the goal in sight, however, no obstacle was too large.

Rifle ended East’s best season ever in 2012 with a 56-6 rout at Dutch Clark in the semifinals. Two years later, the Eagles dealt the devastating blow to the Bears.

Stifling defense from Kevin Ribarich, Danny Martin’s second-half performance, and a gritty battle won by East culminated the season.

The clock hit 0:00, players and coaches shook hands and the Eagles realized what they accomplished. 30-14, East wins. Ramirez let out a laugh of relief before talking about how it felt to earn East’s first football title.

“It was better than I could have imagined,” Ramirez said. “It affirms a lot of the things you’ve done as a coach and the philosophies we’ve instilled at East.”

The eight-game winning streak to end the season confirmed that the Eagles had the makings of champions, and at the same time learned an invaluable lesson in overcoming adversity and turning it into gold.

It’s a story the 2014 East Eagles can recite for years.

 

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Charities of the Athletes

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Smiles plaster the faces of parents walking out of stores as they grabbed that final item on their children’s wish list, various holiday decorations brighten the skies and egg nog (possibly spiked) fill our mugs and stomachs.

It’s the holiday cheer; an inescapable feeling that consumes so many during the month of December. Generosity graces the hearts of shoppers and as a result, charities see a rise in donations during the final month of the year. More than 40 percent of donations come during December, according to slate.com.

‘Tis a wonderful time to open wallets and hearts and give to the less fortunate. The Grinch, however, is always lurking in the shadows. Sometimes the Grinch takes the form of famous athletes.

John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie wrote these lyrics 70 years ago, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” He, referring to Santa Clause, is not coming to town, but if he were, Kris Kringle would check his naughty list more than twice in disbelief at the pro athletes on the list.

For decades professional athletes have established charities for all the right reasons; family members lost due to terminal illness, provide money to the less fortunate and countless other ordeals they faced growing up. A year or two later, however, we find out there was little upkeep with the charity and the money never provided a spark towards a cause.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in October faced off-the-field issues, not with his ethics regarding his children, but with his charity. The “All Day Foundation” stated that its mission is to support at-risk youth. Tax returns and numerous calls showed Peterson’s alleged donations to food banks in Texas and other organizations never made its way to the respective charities.

Former NBA power forward Lamar Odom also established a charity in his mother’s name in 2004, shortly after she died from a bout with cancer. The organization, Cathy’s Kids, raised more than $2 million during its existence, and not a single penny funded cancer research. Instead, it went to fund Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams. It’s somewhat encouraging to know his money provided assistance and funds for youth basketball. But was it right?

“No it’s wasn’t,” ESPN Outside the Lines reporter Paula LaVigne said. “(Odom) misled people. If he wanted to fund an AAU team, great. The charity was meant for cancer research and he was disingenuous about that.”

LaVigne reported in 2013 that 115 male and female charities fizzled or failed to donate money to certain organizations. A myriad of those athletes who discarded or misused their foundations failed to recognize the dedication required to run a charity mirrors their vigorous offseason regiments. Having the wherewithal financially won’t run a charity on its own; too many athletes fail to grasp that concept.

Along with charity failures, the money sometimes goes “unclaimed” by those organizations. So where does that money go?

“In some cases it may go back to the athletes, their friends or relatives,” LaVigne said. “Majority of the money goes to overhead; caterers, management companies. It rarely ever goes to a legitimate charity or people in need.”

It’s disheartening to know a plethora of causes go without assistance because high-profile athletes adopt a selfish attitude toward distributing funds to their charities. Cash generated goes every except where it’s intended and kids endure tribulations pro athletes have the power to minimize.

“In most cases it’s just ignorance,” LaVigne said. “It’s disappointing because these athletes have such ability to generate good will and raise money for good causes.”

Why take on the responsibility of a significant issue if you cannot spare the time to a foundation you started? A player’s history plays a role in those actions. Growing up in the ghetto, going days without a meal, growing up without one or both parents and having to support brothers and sisters as a teen were typical childhoods for many sports icons. As they blossom into super and megastars, they feel obligated to give back.

Reputation and a couple of cameos won’t suffice for a charity, however. It requires time. It entails an understanding of the group chosen by each respective charity. Neither of which many athletes have.

“It seemed as if in so many cases, they were wasting their potential,” LaVigne said. “So many times the “charities” they were running resulted in no actual money going toward those charities, which is so unfortunate because of the ability they have to do such good.”

Providing a side income for buddies and family members because they feel indebted shouldn’t be a reason to embezzle money and trust. Imbruing the image of good charities, and there are plenty, damages the very causes they attempt to aid.

If you feel discouraged about donating to charities this holiday season, have no fear. The foundations of Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong (ironic, right) provide great service to their respective causes and have proof of the work. LaVigne said it is rare that charities experience the high level of success of Woods and Armstrong’s foundation ($500,000 per year), but it illustrates that some athletes work for the causes they’re fighting for.

Charity Navigator, an online site that monitors charitable standards, provided 10 ways to avoid scams during the rush of the donation season. While you’re checking your kids’ wish lists, swing by Charitynavigator.org to double check ways to avoid scammers this season.

(Photo JD Cuban | Tiger Woods Foundation)

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