Road to the Summit: Playing Catchup, pt. 2

The next weekend after our Western Illinois-IUPUI trip was supposed to find us again in Brookings, but we were deterred by some magic words issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation:

Towing Services Prohibited.

So, we stayed home and watched the Thursday night SDSU-UMKC game on the local cable sports channel, Metro Sports, then caught the Saturday games vs. Southern Utah on the Internet stream. Winter weather. What can you do?

Next weekend, it was Rivalry Week which means NDSU. We flew up to Fargo (and how many of you can say that?), checked into yet another Fairfield Inn, ate at another restaurant, slept, woke up, ate at the Fairfield, blah blah blah. Guys got blown out. Painful to watch. More painful to experience on the court, I’m sure. Life was not good.

Father-in-law’s old house in Moorhead

New day. Woke up, ate breakfast, visited Moorhead (where Snookums’ dad grew up), hit all three of the F-M Metro CVS stores so Snookums could do her rebating, went to the women’s game, where this time the Bison got blown out. Life was again good. Flew home, did laundry, etc., etc.

The BSA

So now, it’s the IPFW-Oakland weekend. We flew from Kansas City to Detroit via Southwest, with a connection at Chicago Midway. We arrived in Detroit and . . . our one piece of checked luggage didn’t. No big problem. We headed over to the Southwest baggage office and filled out the lost luggage form. The guy at the counter was quite friendly and helpful (as is the norm for Southwest folks), so we thought we were in good hands. We sweet-talked a couple of very nice Southwest toiletry kits out of the baggage office guy, then we picked up our rental car and headed west and south towards Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

About an hour out of Ft. Wayne, Snookums’ cell phone rang. It was the Southwest baggage office guy, who apologetically told us that since their luggage delivery service only served Michigan and Ohio, he’d have to Fed-Ex our luggage to Ft. Wayne. Good thing we had those toiletry kits.

Toiletries courtesy Southwest

Our destination in Ft. Wayne was the Baymont Inn, and we got checked in. We then discovered that just down the road was a Hyatt Place, which was more or less Hyatt’s up-scale entry into the lower end of the lodging industry. By that I mean that it’s a step up from the Fairfield Inns and such, but not a full-service hotel like Hyatts and Hiltons and the like. So after one night at the Baymont (at which our lost luggage dutifully turned up the next morning), we packed up and moved over to the Hyatt Place in Ft. Wayne.

War Memorial Auditorium

The guys played well in spots but again, didn’t have enough and suffered another road loss.

So, back up to Detroit we went. Snookums was delighted to stay at another Hyatt Place, in Auburn Hills quite near the Oakland campus in Rochester Hills.

Oakland University has to be the most geographically confused university in the country. Oakland to most people means California. However, Oakland University in Oakland County, from which it quite obviously gets it’s name. OU is in Rochester Hills, Michigan, which is right next to Rochester, Michigan (not Rochester, Minnesota, or even Rochester, New York). I really think this is one of the few cases where a directional name (Southeast Michigan State) would be superior to the geographically nebulous Oakland University.

The O’Rena

The SDSU women’s basketball team won a thrilling overtime game against a determined Oakland team. I’d note in passing that it’s apparent from places like Oakland that in fact there is no conference rule about reserving the three rows behind the visitor’s bench for visitor’s fans in the Summit League.

The guys–well, once again the Jacks play a decent game marred by some lapses which basically cost them the game. Following a young team like SDSU that is continually struggling with their confidence against pretty good competition isn’t easy. But there are more games next week, so we have an uneventful 45-minute drive back to the Detroit airport, drop off the rental car, and fly back home to Kansas City. With five of the last seven games at home in Frost Arena, we’re hopeful that our guys can still end the season on an upbeat note.

The next weekend was IUPUI and Western Illinois up in Brookings. Fairfield Inn, blah blah blah, lose on Thursday at home, blah blah blah . . .

We talked with the Williamses on Friday, as they headed out to get Kai and have him fitted with a mouthpiece. Snookums was a bit amazed that he didn’t have one already.

Saturday opened with the Showdown in the Summit, where our heroes, the SDSU women’s team absolutely blasted the WIU Westerwinds, utterly running them out of Frost Arena and leaving no doubt as to who the best women’s basketball team in the Summit League was in 2007-08.

Even better, the men finally broke through and got a victory, avenging that disheartening loss in Macomb. The guys seemed more aggressive all game long. We attributed it to Kai’s mouthpiece. But even in victory there was a big loss, as senior center Mo Berte’ badly broke his arm falling to the court in the second half.

Another long Sunday drive back home to Kansas City, then took another Southwest flight to Las Vegas, picked up our luggage and a rental car, then went off to stay at Snookums’ newest favorite hotel, Hyatt Place.

Thursday, we set out for the 3 hour drive up to Cedar City, but as our rental car, a Toyota RAV-4, got up to about 50 mph on I-15, it started shaking terribly. We turned it around and limped back to the airport rental car facility, and swapped it for a Saturn Vue. It was OK (a bit better, actually, because it had XM radio) and the drive northeast into the mountains and Cedar City was uneventful.

The drive up to Cedar City (3 pics)

That morning, Cedar City had gotten about eight inches of snow. It was mainly slush and melting fast as we went to a restaurant that we’d found two years ago, when we’d gone to a football game at Southern Utah. The Cedar Creek restaurant is in that small-town restaurant market spot just above the greasy-spoon diner, and just below the “nice, quaint local steakhouse” segment. We had the Valentine’s Day special of two salads, two ribeye steaks with veggies, and strawberry pie dessert for under $20. You gotta love small-town restaurants.

Centrum Arena

We followed that with another tough road loss. Sigh.

We drove back to Las Vegas, had supper at the Terra Verde Restaurant (TV viewers may remember this as the restaurant that Rock won on Fox’s show Hell’s Kitchen. We were a bit disappointed to find that Rock was “just” a staff chef there, not the executive chef. Still, the Italian cusine there was very good, and we recommend it the next time you’re in Vegas with a car.) Then we took in Wayne Brady’s “Making $^#& Up” show at the Venetian. If you like improvisational comedy, you’ll love the first hour of this show. The last half hour was a musical tribute to three black musicians, which wasn’t bad but after the wildness of the improv comedy, was a bit of a letdown.

Saturday, we jetted home to Kansas City, got home, changed, met our friends who had arrived at our house two days earlier, and went to the SDSU get-together at Connie’s Genessee Inn just down the street from Kemper Arena. Man, the place was full of Jackrabbits.

The women went into Kemper Arena and ran the Kangaroos right out of the building. The men put up a fight but again came away empty on the road. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that this will be the last time SDSU will ever be shut out on the road in men’s basketball in the Summit League. (Gulp!) Come on, guys, prove me right!

So with the last three games for both the men and the women at home in Frost Arena, I’ll close out this tale of the Road to the Summit League. I can tell you one thing–I have immense respect and sympathy for those parents who travel every weekend to follow their sons and daughters on their college teams. It’s pretty hard to be on the road every single weekend. Really, really hard. I don’t think we’ll try it again.

And now, a bonus for you who have stuck around to the bitter end of this little travelogue.  Having seen all of the Summit League’s facilities (except Mabee Arena), here’s my take on the league’s basketball venues, based on the following criteria:

Seating/Attendance–the right fit of arena size and crowd. Bigger is of course better–if you can put people in those seats. A smaller, 80% full arena is much preferable to a bigger, 10% full venue.

Seating Convenience — Basically, a combination of type of seat, comfort, and sightlines to the court.

Crowd — Not just numbers, but how into the game the crowd is. Bigger crowds who get into it are better than a big, apathetic crowd.

Scoreboards — How much game info you can get from the venue’s scoreboards.

Concessions — Number and variety.

Access and parking — Convenience of getting in and out of the venue.

I awarded up to 5 points awarded on each category, for a total of 30 points.

Big caveat: My sample size in every venue (with the exception of Frost Arena) is limited to a single recent experience there this year. These are just my snapshot impressions, listed in order from best to worst, with score and each category’s rankings.

1. Frost Arena: 4.33: 5, 4, 5, 5, 3, 4
2. Oakland’s O’rena: 4.17: 5, 5, 4, 3, 3, 5
3. NDSU’s Bison Sports Arena: 4.08: 4.5, 3, 4, 4, 4, 5
4. Southern Utah’s Centrum Arena: 4.0: 5, 5, 4, 3, 3, 4
5. Oral Roberts’ Mabee Arena: 3.83: 4, 5, 4, 4, 3, 3
6. UMKC’s Municipal Auditorium: 3.42: 3, 4, 3, 4, 3.5, 3
7. IPFW’s War Memorial Auditorium: 3.17: 2, 3, 3, 3, 3, 5
8. UMKC’s Kemper Arena: 2.92: 2, 3, 1, 4, 3.5, 4
9. IUPUI Gymnasium: 2.83: 2, 3, 3, 2, 3, 4
10. Centenary’s Gold Dome: 2.50: 4, 3, 2, 2, 2, 2
11. Western Illinois’ Western Hall: 2.17: 2, 2, 1, 2, 2, 4

Frost Arena’s only real problems are a relative lack of variety of concessions, some bad sight lines in the upper level corners and in the upper end seating (when it’s pulled out), and it’s not quite as easy to get in and out of as some other league venues (believe it or not!)

Oakland’s O-Rena is a pretty nice facility, well suited to the size of crowds the Grizzlys draw. It is a bit reminiscent of Augustana’s on-campus facility, but with 100% chairback seating.

The Bison Sports Arena benefits greatly from NDSU’s good crowd support. Its configuration is very much like Western Illinois’ facility but has much nicer scoreboards.

The Centrum Arena would move up in the charts with better scoreboards, but is otherwise a very nice facility, being a complete bowl of chairback seats and pretty good crowd support.

Mabee Arena’s ratings are mailed in, since I haven’t actually been there yet. I probably should have left it off, but what the heck, it’s not as if any of these rankings are chisled in stone or anything.

Municipal Auditorium is a nice old facility. If UMKC could put more seats in the seats, it could be a rocking place. Scoreboards aren’t bad, and if all of the concession stands are open, the selection isn’t bad there either.

Ft. Wayne’s War Memorial Auditorium is way too big for the crowds IPFW gets. It’s basically a 10-12,000 seat hockey arena, with the commensurate bad sight lines for basketball. Scoreboards are average.

Kemper Arena is basically a somewhat bigger War Memorial Auditorium. Most of the concession stands aren’t opened up for UMKC, making the trek to get a soda a bit challenging.

The IUPUI Gymnasium is basically a high school gym, with chairback seats. Considering the relative lack of fan support, it can still get pretty loud though. Still, the smallness of the facility is kind of embarrassing in a major metro area like Indianapolis.

The Gold Dome is an interesting facility. It is, however, basically unchanged from the 1970’s as far as I can see. Centenary struggles to get fans into the facility. With some seating and scoreboard upgrades, and more fans in the stands, it could be a contender as a pretty nice, small D-I facility. Parking would be a major issue for bigger crowds, though. As it stands right now, though, it’s just kinda there.

Western Hall in Macomb is . . . terrible. Bad, old scoreboards, elderly seating, feeble fan support. Easily the worst the Summit League has to offer. Deserving of my nickname for the facility–The Waste.

We still need to get to Mabee Arena in Tulsa. Maybe next year (no pun intended.) In the words of a famous rabbit which has absolutely no relation at all to a (now) former cartoon mascot of SDSU: “That’s All Folks.”

Road to the Summit: Playing Catchup, pt. 1

Wow, that season went by incredibly fast. So fast that I fell far, far behind in posting the Road to the Summit series. It’s all over, now, the traveling to all of the Summit League basketball venues. We made it to all of them except Oral Roberts in Tulsa. I’m now sitting at my sister’s house here in South Dakota, waiting for the final weekend’s games in Frost Arena.

So, I’ll try to catch up, with the final two installments of the Road to the Summit.

We headed back north from Kansas City to Brookings for the Summit League home openers for the South Dakota State University men’s basketball team. They hosted Oakland University of Michigan on Thursday night, and are the nightcap of a women’s/men’s basketball doubleheader with Indiana-Purdue Ft. Wayne (IPFW) on Saturday night. The weather was good–clear to partly cloudy, and highs above the freezing mark. This rates a 10 on the South Dakota January weather scale.

The drive was, as always, uneventful. The usual drug interdiction law enforcement activity in Iowa had a couple of cars pulled over as we pass. That’s about as exciting as it got. We pulled into the Fairfield Inn for our stay, went across the parking lot to the Applebee’s, then headed to the Oakland game.

The Brookings Applebee’s

All I’ll say about the Oakland game is: that wasn’t goaltending.

Friday morning, we shuffled down the hall to the Fairfield’s breakfast area, and encountered Mr. and Mrs. Williams–parents of SDSU’s sophomore forward Kai Williams. We had a pleasant chat with them, then hustled off to meet my sister and brother who came over to see us for the day. My sister was after scrapbooking supplies, and my brother wanted to find a globe light fixture to replace a broken one, so we spent the day shopping in Brookings. (We found scrapbooking stuff, but not an acceptable light fixture, by the way.) They headed back home about mid-afternoon, and we retired to our room for a while before going out to supper at the Pheasant restaurant.

The Pheasant Restaurant was about as up-scale as a restaurant gets in Brookings–actual cloth tablecloths and napkins, even, and a non-smoking room separate from the larger bar/dining area for smokers. The only downside of the non-smoking area was that it was very cool–OK, it was cold. Real cold. But we huddled together for warmth and broke down one of the chairs at the table to start a little fire, and we were good after that. (Yes, I’m kidding. But it was pretty chilly.)

I started with a very meat-rich bowl of chili–marred only by being a bit too salty, but otherwise very flavorful. This was followed by a pretty good side salad–a bit better than your usual iceberg lettuce and grated carrot affair. My entree was prime rib–a required staple of any self-respecting steakhouse in meat-eating South Dakota on a weekend evening. It was, of course, quite good, as you expect when eating beef in the North Plains. Snookums had the pork tenderloin sandwich, which she reported to be quite good, although the sauce on the sweet potatoes she ordered as her side were a bit too sweet. We both agreed we’d have to come back to the Pheasant.

The next morning, we again availed ourselves of the complementary breakfast at the Fairfield, and again were joined by the Williamses. Then, we settled down for a day of travel writing, of which this is one of the work products.

The results of the two Saturday games were most satisfactory–two wins. So on Sunday we packed up and headed back home to K.C.

Three days later, we were on the road again, this time to Macomb, Illinois to watch the guys take on Western Illinois University. The drive from Kansas City was a bit easier than I thought it would be, with some two-lane roads between Columbia and Hannibal in Missouri, and between Quincy and Macomb in Illinois. But we arrived in good shape on a fairly gloomy, cloudy day, checked in at the Holiday Inn Express, and quickly discovered that it was the SDSU team hotel. We taped up our SDSU flag to our room’s window–which was right over the main entrance to the hotel.

The eternal question when on road trips is: where to eat? A local steakhouse named the Red Ox was recommended to us, so we went there. It was what you’d expect from a long-established steak house–wood paneling, poorly lit, etc., etc. I had what they called an “ugly steak” which was basically a blackened steak, but the blackening wasn’t the usual peppery seasoning. The seasoning is, of course, a house secret and our waiter couldn’t or wouldn’t divulge the secret ingredients. It wasn’t bad at all, but at $21 certainly overpriced, especially when the side was just potatoes. I had the shredded potato with  cheese with jalapeños, Snookums had them without jalapeños along with her teriyaki chicken. The potatoes and cheese were pretty bland without the jalapeños, but quite zippy with them.

The next morning (Thursday) we ran into SDSU assistant coach Deryl Cunningham and were happy to hear that the team saw our flag in the window as soon as they came off of the bus. Rah rah Rabbits! Some of the guys were studying (or, at least, reading really, really big books) beside the hotel pool.

Lunch was next up, so we went over to the Student Prince, and old-school greasy spoon of a restaurant, open since . . . well, open for a long, long time. I had a very good hamburger and Snookums had a good open face roast beef sandwich (with, she admitted, too much gravy, as if such a thing was possible). The restaurant had the requisite saucy waitresses, cheerfully abusive local patrons, and was really quite an excellent example of the classic American Greasy Spoon Restaurant.

We scouted out the Western Illinois campus and got our bearings, before heading back to the room. We lounged there reading, doing some writing and Internet surfing before heading out to . . . yes . . . eat. This time we picked out Rocky’s Bar and Grill. Another long-time Macomb institution, or so it seemed. We ordered a mixed platter of appetizers (chicken nuggets, mushrooms, cheese sticks, and fried cauliflower). The cheese sticks were oddly made of a mozzarella stick with a wonton wrapper around it. Odd, but not bad. Snookums followed up the appetizers with a very good Cajun chicken sandwich, with the chicken breast fillet twice as big and half as expensive as the teriyaki chicken dinner at the Red Ox. I had a patty melt sandwich on rye bread that was on the greasy side, but otherwise OK.

Since the Western Illinois’ home arena is Western Arena but their basketball court is the Waste Management Court, I have decided to call their home arena “The Waste.” No offense, of course.

WIU’s football stadium (2 pics)
Jackrabbit practice in the Waste
The Waste, ready for Basketball

Of the men’s game with Western Illinois, the less said, the better.

Friday morning and we were on the road again. We stopped at Le Roy, Illinois for a late brunch at Woody’s just off I-74, and found a pretty extensive lunch buffet. They even had fried smelt. I don’t like smelt. But they also had fried chicken, shrimp, cod, and chicken-fried steak, and a pretty good Yankee pot roast, all for $6.99 a person. We tried and mostly succeeded to avoid eating too much–a common hazard of buffets.

The Indiana State Capitol from our room

The Indiana State Capitol from our room

We settled into the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency and, after the Le Roy brunch wore off, wandered out at about 9 PM to find somewhere to eat. We ended up at The Ram Restaurant and Brewery, a brew pub in downtown Indianapolis. (Not affiliated with Brookings’ Ram Pub, this Ram was a chain out of the Pacific Northwest). Their calamari appetizer was very good, with a good portion of breaded, fried calamari in a spicy sweet chili sauce. Snookums had chicken quesadillas, and I had a steak salad. Both dishes got thumbs up.

The Jungle

On Saturday we walked about 1.5 miles to the SDSU pre-game rally in the restaurant of the hotel on campus at IUPUI, and met some local SDSU fans and alumni. We got a drive across campus to “The Jungle,” a small high school gym somehow transplanted onto an urban 30,000-student university campus. The SDSU women’s team beat the Jaguars.

The men, um, don’t.

The drive home to Kansas City was a straight shot on I-70 (except a short diversion through the northern suburbs of St. Louis on I-270).

Our story continues . . .