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March 13, 2007

Idaho March Madness








Spring football starts with a battle for the starting quarterback position, the star running back appears after a lengthy program-imposed hiatus from the media, and the women's basketball team earns a number-12 seed into the NCAA National Tournament.

Not a bad Monday, eh?

Such is life for sports fans in southern Idaho right now, where there's a whole lot going right. The term "March Madness" is derived from basketball tournaments, but right now it applies to much of the Gem State's sports scene.

The women's basketball team, just a couple years removed from a sub-.500 record, is headed to the "Big Dance." It's not quite as big as the men's national tournament, but don't tell that to this group of ladies. Smiles adorned faces throughout the team's makeshift theater for the tournament bracket unveiling. Hands raised, voices cheered, and smiles beamed in the football office's auditorium shortly after 6:30 PM on Monday when ESPN unveiled Boise State's name on the big bracket, headed to Los Angeles for a first-round matchup against George Washington.

It's the program's first appearance in the national tournament since 1994 and, with just two seniors departing from this year's squad, there's no reason to think head coach Gordy Presnell can't get the women back there again in the very near future.

Just hours before, the BSU football team stepped onto the blue turf as a unit, taking the field for the first time since their dazzling win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's Day. Four quarterbacks will vie to replace departed senior Jared Zabransky in one of football's favorite debates. Who will be the quarterback on opening day this fall?

It'll be either senior Taylor Tharp, junior Bush Hamden, sophomore Nick Lomax, or freshman Mike Coughlin.

Let the contest begin.

Along with the quarterbacks, star running back Ian Johnson was on the field, though only holding a clipboard. Coaches say they'll lighten the junior-to-be's workload this spring in an effort to keep him healthy. It also could be a thinly-veiled way to get more repetitions for Johnson's backups now that Brett Denton is gone and Vinny Perretta is slated to move back to wide receiver.

After the post-bowl media crush, the athletic department essentially made Johnson off-limits for the better part of two months. Monday was the local media's first chance to hear from Johnson since the game. He said he plans on bulking up between 8-10 pounds for the upcoming season in order to help him withstand the rigors of being an every-down workhorse back for the Broncos.

The Boise State tennis programs, as has become the norm, are soaring. Mark Tichenor's women's program is 9-2 overall and Greg Patton's men's squad is ranked 27th in the nation. Luke Shields is ranked 14th individually for the men's team, though many say a case can be made that he may only be the second (or perhaps third) best player on his own team.

On Tuesday, the College of Southern Idaho (who gave the Bronco hoops program high-flying Reggie Larry) plays for a spot in the NJCAA national basketball tournament. The Golden Eagles, often referred to as "the Kentucky of junior college basketball," will play Arizona Western for the district championship and a berth into the national tourney in Hutchinson, KS. CSI is ranked nationally in the top ten.

When it comes to basketball, things are almost always good at CSI.

The Idaho Stampede of the NBA's Development League, led by Boise State graduate Bryan Gates, have the D-League's best record at 27-11. For a little perspective on the job Gates has done with his team, on December 5th, the Stampede lost at home to Dakota to fall to 1-6 on the season. They're 26-5 since then. Gates is on track to run away with league Coach of the Year honors and he could very well have the league's Player of the Year on his team as well. Randy Livingston leads the league in total assists (averaging 10.4 per game), has turned in a pair of triple-doubles, and scores 12 points per contest as well.

Former Bronco guard Jermaine Blackburn is averaging 7.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game for the Stampede.

Sharing their venue at Qwest Arena is the Idaho Steelheads, currently holding onto 4th place in the ECHL's National Conference playoff race. A 4th-place finish would give Idaho home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs in April.

A third pro sports team calling Qwest home, the Boise Burn of arenafootball2, has opened training camp. The field has arrived, the goalposts are on the way, the roster is being set, and the countdown has begun for the March 30 opener on the road at Louisville.

Before anyone says "yeah, but they're an expansion team..." keep in mind that the Spokane Shock won the af2 title last year as an expansion team. Home opener is April 21st.

More good stuff.

It doesn't end in Ada County, either. To the west, in Caldwell, Albertson College baseball coach Shawn Humberger is positioning his Coyotes (15-2) for another trip to the NAIA World Series. The team has won 11 straight going into this weekend's series against perennial NAIA power Lewis-Clark State from Lewiston at Simplot Stadium in Caldwell.

Humberger has a bona fide pro prospect taking the ball on the mound in lefty Jason Roach. The Sacramento native is 5-0 with a 2.77 ERA thusfar for ACI, striking out 38 batters in 33 innings. Pro scouts are already familiar with Roach, who has been drafted before but opted to stay in school.

Is that everything?

Hardly.

The Idaho State women's basketball team will join BSU's women in the NCAA national tournament. Head coach Greg Randall will send three of his Boise State wrestlers to the national championships. Albertson College's softball team has won a pair of games over NCAA Division I opponents. Their men's basketball team reached the NAIA Division II national tournament... again. Northwest Nazarene's Ashley Puga finished in the top-10 nationally at the NCAA D-II indoor track and field championships. Centennial High School graduate Jordan Latham is 4-1 (with 3 complete games) with a 1.36 ERA for the CSI baseball team in Twin Falls.

Take a breath.

It's only the middle of the month.

As Idaho's very own "March Madness" continues.


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