The Vibe Tribe: How Principia Re-Wrote the History Books on Saturday

“Well, if this is it then we’re going down swinging”

Deep into the 4th set of a Saturday slugfest with defending conference champions Greenville, Principia’s junior captain Sophia Hathaway muttered the game changing words to herself as Allyson Mitchell went back to serve with her Panthers leading the set 19-13 and the game two sets to one.

Having already played 4 hours of volleyball at this point in the day and with their backs to the wall against one of the best D3 teams in the nation, it appeared as though Principia had given everything and was set to come up short. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be today.

At this point, watching from behind the baseline with notepad in hand and heart pounding, I began wondering how I was going to formulate a recap of the day’s events after what was shaping up to be a sobering 4 set loss to Greenville. I mean, 300 wins for head coach Mary Ann Sprague is cool, but that would sure feel a bit muted after a loss like this.

A Devon Marunde serve broke my train of thought and snapped me back into the game at hand just in time to watch Principia neatly tidy up a Greenville swing and return fire with one of their own. On that very same point, with Principia now down 19-14, a thunderous kill courtesy of Sophia Hathaway would begin a defining comeback that encapsulated September 30th, 2017 and cemented its status as one of the greatest days in Principia volleyball history.

……….

A week before Saturday’s events transpired, I was approached by assistant coach Heather Fairbanks with a proposition. “Next Saturday should be Mary Ann’s 300th win up at Eureka” she told me, “and I think you should be there to cover it.”

Me?

An event like that?

Seriously?

I’m all in.

Over the week between that conversation and the actual games, I crunched numbers and discovered that yes, Mary Ann would be in line for her 300th win on Saturday morning against Iowa Wesleyan in the first game of a double header that would culminate against defending conference champions, Greenville.

Now, with a potential win over the SLIAC’s other Panthers would give coach Sprague her 301st win, joining Lee Suarez as the winningest coach in Principia Athletics history. For whatever reason, while 300 wins seemed like a formality, that 301st and record setting win was the big number that I had in mind when officially putting together my plans to travel up to Eureka for the magic day.

From the second I walked into the Red Devils’ gym on Saturday morning, I could feel a palpable sense of importance in the air. Something special was set to happen today, but that wan’t meant for just anyone. Today was meant to be Prin’s day, and nothing was going to be able to take that away.

Game 1 was never in doubt.

From the opening serve of the game that sliced its way between two Tiger defenders for a first point ace, Principia set the tone of the day and announced that win #300 for their beloved head coach would not be denied.

Sophia Hathaway convened the matchup with 7 straight serving points, highlighted by 3 aces, while Emily Tippetts further christened things with a game high 13 kills before Cha Cha Fisher adjourned with a game-ending and 300th win clinching kill.

With the entire team possessing the knowledge that coach Sprague was sitting on 299 wins, it just wasn’t possible that they would let a victory over conference bottom feeders Iowa Wesleyan slip away.

“We wanted the ‘W’ either way” said Hathaway after the game, “but knowing that made us want to play even harder.” For a team that, after that historic win, sat at 14-2, playing “even harder” than a normal effort level should be a scary thought for any other team in the conference.

But, for as special as the first game was and for as much history as it made, the main event of the day was still yet to come. Yeah, it was a cool win, but it sure wouldn’t have felt as cool if Greenville had come through and stomped out the fire in Principia’s second game of the day.

And, in game 1, stomp out the fire was exactly what Greenville did.

The orange and black Panthers came out swinging, piling up 17 first set kills, (compared to only 9 for the blue and gold Panthers), en route to a 25-19 victory, doing part 1 of 3 to dampen the Principia mood, still high after that first win of the day.

“To be honest, I think [the first win] made us a little cocky in terms of how our attitude shifted from game 1 to game 2” said Hathaway when asked about the slow start against Greenville.

Set 2 flipped the script.

One of the biggest keys to Principia’s game all season long has been hitting efficiency. The blue and gold Panthers have only lost one set this season when swinging above a .200 hitting percentage and a second set tally of 12 kills and 0 errors soared past that magic number to register a .343 hitting percentage.

Suddenly, after that 25-14 second set win, a would be blowout now felt like an evenly matched dogfight. Winning a set by 11 points over the defending conference champions is helpful within the canon of trying to win a volleyball game, but the second set awoke something inside Principia that they hadn’t had in the first set.

Confidence.

“I think we were apprehensive about competing with them because they have always been a really strong team” senior captain Cha Cha Fisher commented when asked about what changed between the first and second sets. “Once we realized we could play with them and had the confidence to play our game, we came out strong.”

From the second set onward, Principia began showcasing the game that has brought them such early season success so far; phenomenal defensive positioning and digs, scrappiness, scrambling, clever and calculated attacks and reliable serve receiving.

However, after Greenville comfortably won the 3rd set 25-16, the magic appeared to have run out and reality appeared to be setting in. A tired group of Panthers struggled their way through the early stages of the 4th set and suddenly found themselves down 19-13, with hands on knees, desperately in need of a side out against Allyson Mitchell.

……….

In any sport at any level, truly special teams always have signature wins. Whether that be a big upset victory, a significant comeback or a hard fought overtime win doesn’t particularly matter.

As Devon Marunde went back to the serving line with her team down 19-14, I sure wasn’t thinking about how this could potentially be one of those signature wins for a Principia team that, thus far, had won a bunch of games, yet none that I truly considered to be any more special than all the others.

And then the comeback began.

An angry Sophia Hathaway slashed three straight kills right into the heart of the Greenville defense and suddenly it was 19-17. Was this really happening? Was this really the same team that had just had hands on knees, looking defeated and downtrodden while searching for any semblance of offense they could find?

As I kept asking questions, Principia kept providing answers and the score kept getting closer. 19-18, 19-19, 20-19; this was really happening and I couldn’t believe it. Devon Marunde had served the blue and gold Panthers all the way back into this game and suddenly Greenville were the ones metaphorically wobbling on the ropes.

Unsurprisingly, the orange and black Panthers weren’t even close to done, quickly ending Marunde’s magical serving run at 6 straight points, but not before Principia had improbably taken the lead.

In her own words, a team mentality of “do it for her” helped Principia’s sophomore setter calmly put together her game changing serve run. “Oh gosh that was fun!!” Marunde said excitedly before continuing, “when I got back there, all I was thinking about was how badly I wanted this [the win] for our team and how much I was willing to give to get us there.”

After trading points back and forth until the score was tied 23-23, Sophia Hathaway stepped back and served out the set, giving the blue and gold Panthers a frantic and miraculous 4th set victory, tying the game up at 2 sets apiece.

“Going into that 5th set, we didn’t feel relieved or accomplished because we knew there was still more work to be done,” said Hathaway. “But seeing the grit and determination in everyone’s eyes and based off how we won the 4th set, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we would win the game.”

Principia came out firing in the 5th set in an attempt to minimize the drama and make good on Sophia Hathaway’s between-set feeling. 5-1, 8-2, 8-5, 10-8, the score went up and down and did its best to mimic the pulse of my thumping heart while watching the most exciting live sporting event I’ve seen in quite some time.

Much like they’d done all game, the blue and gold Panthers stepped up when it mattered and pulled ahead in the closing points, ending the deciding 5th set on a 5-1 run to seal up a scintillating 5 set win over the defending conference champions.

Signature win does not even begin to describe it. Against a Greenville team that Principia has not beaten since 2008 (yeah, 2008) the blue and gold Panthers were able to buck a seemingly automatic historical trend and squeak out the most crucial win of the season thus far.

Having lost their last 20 games against Greenville, it would have been easy to understand an apprehension or timidness from Principia entering the game. However, as junior libero Mia Gill pointed out, having the confidence to know that they were just as good a Panther team as their mascot counterparts made all the difference in such a tight matchup.

“When we realized that we could not only keep up with them, but play well enough to force them into making mistakes, we were able to take the game and recreate it at our speed,” said Gill when asked about what change allowed Principia to be so successful. “I don’t know man…I just love these girls.”

And therein lies the biggest takeaway from such a historic and momentous day. Above all else, this team loves each other, and that means everything in what has been the best start in the history of Principia volleyball through 18 games.

Of the 9 players that I interviewed immediately after the Greenville victory on Saturday, all 9 mentioned, at some point, their love for team and teammates and how much that has helped the team come together and play so darn well thus far.

The team moniker of the ‘vibe tribe’ continues to show through in every set, every pass, every win. “Hah that came from Emily [Tippetts]” said Gill when I asked her about it. “She always says it whenever we’re in sync together on the court and everything is aligned. Good pass, good set, huge kill…that’s the vibe, man. Also, the fact that Love literally carries our team only adds to the ‘vibe’ idea that we try to emulate.”

With Saturday’s signature win, (yes, I officially have given it the ‘signature win’ label), the ‘vibe tribe’ has now announced themselves as a serious player in the SLIAC. This is no longer a cute story of a happy little Principia team having some early season success, this is a tightly knit, scrappy group of young women who are playing beyond any and all expectations except their own.

“Our team sets such high standards for each other and we know that this is the level of play we can reach,” said junior outside hitter Noelle Shoemake. “Today we just put it all together.”

On a day of destiny, in which a legendary head coach was set to enter the history books, Principia not only set the expected history, but continued to write their own history book.

Here’s hoping that September 30th, 2017 was merely an opening chapter.

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The Vibe Tribe: How Principia Re-Wrote the History Books on Saturday

September 25th, 2016

I’m not at all sure how to put into context what happened today; everything still feels so raw and I had a hard time decide whether or not to actually write this article. But, today was just such a monumental day that I needed to get my feelings out on paper.

Regardless of the fact that I have never met him, and have absolutely no connection to him at all, I woke up to news that no one should ever have to wake up to.

Jose Fernandez has passed away at the age of 24.

It’s still hard to believe that the sentence I just put down is true. It’s not my place to grieve over Fernandez, I give all of my most sincere condolences to his family, friends, teammates, and anyone else who he impacted over his life. But it’s still hard to sit here and try and wrap my thought around him being gone.

Whenever anyone passes away, all of their good qualities shine through because we, as humans, choose to illuminate the good that we do in retrospection. And, that’s exactly what we are doing with Fernandez.

His light literally could not have shown any brighter. Never have I ever seen a Jose Fernandez frown. That infectious smile is absolutely everywhere today, as it well should be. Countless stories have been recounted of his kindness, from rescuing his mother from drowning while defecting from Cuba to spending joyous time with Casey McGehee’s cerebral palsy-stricken child, Fernandez had as big a heart off the field as he did on the field.

On the field? Jose Fernandez was as good as anyone I have ever seen.

Ever since his rookie season in 2013, that wipeout slider and 100 mph heat made Fernandez one of my favorite pitchers to watch. In the live ball era, no one has had a lower FIP than Fernandez’s 2.32 with at least 700 IP.

Even further, Fernandez will be remembered as a part of the Cuban renaissance in baseball. When he debuted, Cubans were few and far between in Major League baseball. Now, between him, Yasiel Puig, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Abreu, Aledmys Diaz – and tons others – Cubans are all over the game of baseball, and the United States government has begun negotiating with the former Soviet friend in an effort to mend their relationship.

Now, did Fernandez do this all by himself? No, but he was part of a mini-revolution that may change two countries entirely. And he did all by just being himself.

Jose Fernandez was a star, and he shone as bright as any star has ever shown. It’s almost impossible to hate him because his smile and his joy are just so infectious and genuine, and even on days when he was starting, he would still make time to go sign autographs and talk to reporters.

Baseball lost possibly it’s brightest star today, and I still struggle to find the right words to honor him. But, the game will honor Jose Fernandez by continuing on, and every one of us can honor Fernandez by simply doing his favorite thing.

Smiling.

……….

As heartbreaking as the news was this morning, baseball continued on, but everything just seemed overshadowed by something.

The Mets defeated the Phillies by a massive margin of 17-0 to increase their lead in the Wild Card standings to a full game over the San Francisco Giants and a game and a half over the St. Louis Cardinals. In their dugout hung a Mets replica jersey with Fernandez’s name and his number 16 on the back.

The Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their fourth straight division title with a walk-off home run by Charlie Culberson. Amid all of the joyous celebration was a tearful Yasiel Puig, a fellow Cuban and close friend of Fernandez’s who had also hung a Fernandez replica jersey in the Dodgers dugout.

Combined with all of this was the realization that today was the final home game that the Vin Scully would ever call. A great way for Scully to go out, no doubt, but still a sad day for anyone that has ever listened to Scully and just been amazed by his simplistic greatness.

The greatest broadcaster that there will ever be calls his final game this weekend in San Francisco,  so there are still 3 more opportunities to listen to Scully’s voice before he rides off into the sunset.

But, amid all of the joyous Dodger celebration were Puig’s tears at the loss of Fernandez, and the bittersweet reminder that this was Scully’s final home game.

Every team held a moment of silence before their games in honor of Fernandez. Many players wrote JF 16 on their caps to pay tribute, and close personal friends such as Aledmys Diaz and Jose Iglesias had to be scratched from their respective lineups to collect themselves in such a heartbreaking moment.

There just seemed to be a gray cloud over all of baseball today. In the midst of a heated and chaotic stretch run that has seemingly divided the league, the games didn’t seem to matter today.

The jarring news of Fernandez’s passing serves as a tragic reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Fernandez was supposed to be a long term fixture in the Marlins rotation, a Cy Young contender for years to come, an infectious presence that would lead baseball’s Cuban revolution and make baseball fun again.

I keep finding myself lamenting the fact that I didn’t watch him pitch enough. I didn’t fully appreciate his greatness because I just assumed that he would be there for years and years and years.

Same thing with Vin Scully. I remember when I first heard him and thought he was dry and boring. With age, I learned just how unique and brilliant and special Scully is and, this season, I find myself wishing I could hear him call every game. I’m not even a Dodger fan, but it just will never be right to not hear his voice while watching a Dodger game.

During what was supposed to be one of the most exciting days of the season, baseball endured a heartbreaking tragedy and saw its greatest broadcast of all time call his final home game.

Appreciate what we do have in this great game, because you never know when it might get taken away.

I love you all.

Thanks for reading.

-Ryan

September 25th, 2016

Darren O’Day and Bullpen Market Inflation

The modern bullpen has become, quite possibly, the biggest key to success in today’s league. What used to be 2-3 arms back there ready to put out the fire that a starter got himself into – i.e. the term “fireman” being coined for closers – has now become 7-8 arms, all with highly specialized roles.

I really hope someone corrects me on this, but for my money the modern bullpen was engrained in baseball by Tony La Russa, and made even more imperative during his Cardinals’ 2011 World Series run – highlighted by the NLCS, where Cardinal relievers threw more innings than Cardinal starters.

I remember hearing stories about, specifically, the Oakland A’s of the early 1970’s, and how Rollie Fingers would be sitting off in the bullpen with maybe one or two other guys. His job? Put out any fire that star pitchers Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter or Ken Holtzman got into. Other than Fingers being the closer, there were no defined roles. They just came in when manager Dick Williams told them to.

I am a massive proprietor of the modern bullpen. I love how important it has become, the jobs it creates, the careers it saves, and the strategy it produces and emphasizes. But I bet you if Dick Williams had himself a specified ‘long man’ or ‘LOOGY’ he would have no idea what to do with them.

And he might be especially confused if the team told him that they were paying that ‘long man’ or ‘LOOGY’ over $4 million. But obviously a lot has changed in the 40 years since Williams was managing, and the bullpen has been intensely inflated – in both importance and market value – to the point where spending on your bullpen has become less of an afterthought and more of a priority that must be adhered to.

At the start of the offseason I pegged out what the Cardinals needed to do to put out a successful on-field product in 2016. One of the main things was that they needed to spend on the bullpen. I’d be willing to bet that the phrase, “spend on the bullpen” wasn’t in the vocabulary of baseball executives even 5 years ago.

But today, I look up and see Boone Logan – he of the aforementioned ‘LOOGY’ species, and he of a career 4.55 ERA – making $16 million over 3 years. A guy that is on your team to, more often than not, pitch less than one inning every few days is making comparable money to guys that will go out there and play every single day.

Logan
Boone Logan. Photo courtesy of the New York Post

Why do I bring up the topic of bullpen inflation on this particular occasion? Because one of the specific targets that I had in mind for the Cardinals to pursue at the beginning of this offseason is requesting quite a bit of money.

Darren O’Day wants between $28 and $36 million over 4 or 5 years. To give you a sense of the kind of contract that O’Day is asking for, let’s pretend that he got 4 years for $36 million, an average of $9 million a year.

O'Day
Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Sun

Now compare that to the 6 year, $52 million contract that Matt Carpenter signed two years ago. O’Day would be making an average of about $300,000 more than Carpenter per year. Carpenter, in 3 full major league seasons has accumulated 14.4 total WAR, while in 8 full major league seasons, O’Day has accrued 14.1 total WAR.

Darren O’Day is asking for more money than a guy who plays every day and provides remarkable value every day; which isn’t his fault, but is a perfect example of the kind of near hyperinflation that the reliever market has experienced.

With the current state of bullpens, a guy with 14 career saves in 8 years can command the type of money that a guy like Matt Carpenter makes. I bring up the saves statistic because the highest paid relievers in the game – Papelbon, Andrew Miller, Mariano, Kimbrel – are all established closers. But a 7th or 8th inning guy making that kind of money? Game changer

Granted, O’Day is tremendous in his role, and can provide shutdown relief that can bridge the gap to your highly compensated closer, but is there nothing more important that your $9 million can be put towards?

But, alas, such is the current market. Relievers are in higher demand than ever, and O’Day will get his payday. Could he really every be worth $9 million? In my eyes, no, but for a team like Los Angeles or now Boston that has a dominant closer but porous bridge relief, O’Day could be the savior of their bullpen.

So the bullpen is at a crossroads. It’s added strategy, it’s added excitement, and it’s saved careers; but is your bullpen really worth nearly $43 million like the Dodgers’ pen was? I’m not so sure…

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

Darren O’Day and Bullpen Market Inflation

The Detroit Tigers and Bullpen Problems

Something that hasn’t been talked about enough with regards to the recent rise to prominence and dominance by the Kansas City Royals is the fall of the Detroit Tigers.

A proud franchise from a proud city that had won 4 straight division titles, with a World Series appearance sprinkled in that run, Detroit has been the class of the American League Central for quite some time now. The Twins have come and the Twins have gone, (and they’re coming again), the White Sox have come and the White Sox have gone, but the Tigers have consistently been there.

The Tigers are in big, big trouble right now. They are an aging team that owes a bazillion dollars to a pair of stars on the wrong side of 30, has the 30th ranked farm system in the league, (that’s dead last, by the way), and finished in the cellar of the very division they ruled for such a long time.

And then their star GM, Dave Dombrowski, was canned and headed for Boston. Why was Dombrowski fired? Because he wanted to rebuild. Because he wanted to help the franchise get back to their winning ways. Unfortunately for him, Mike Ilitch, the Tigers 86 year old owner, understandably wants to win a World Series before he leaves this earth and will not tolerate a rebuild.

dombrowski
Photo by John Wilcox for Boston Globe

So instead of going about the rebuild like, say, the Twins or the Cubs did – that is, really successfully – the Tigers are about to enter a nuclear winter that might doom the franchise for many years to come.

Now, the only real, perceivable issue the Tigers have dealt with over the course of the past 5 or so years is that their bullpen has been bad, rather appallingly so. They have never been able to find an effective closer, and, puzzlingly, have never really gone out and attempted to get one.

Yeah, yeah Ryan we know all of this. Why are you bringing it up now?

I bring it up now because of the recent trades that Dombrowski has made in Boston, and that new Detroit GM, Al Avila, made just about 3 hours ago.

Since he never really went after a closer in Detroit, naturally the first thing that Dombrowski did when he got to Boston was go out and acquire Craig freaking Kimbrel from the Padres. If there were any closer issues in Boston, they have been solved. And Avila went out and acquired Francisco Rodriguez from the Milwaukee Brewers.

K-Rod
Photo by Jesse Johnson for USA Today

Kimbrel needs no introduction, but Rodriguez has quietly been one of the better closers in baseball for the Brewers. Excluding a half season hiatus in Baltimore following a deadline trade, in his 5 years with Milwaukee, Rodriguez has posted a 3.45 FIP to go along with a 136 ERA+ and 9.6 K/9 in 250.2 IP. Those are really solid numbers from a relief ace, something Detroit really knows nothing about.

So Al Avila deserves a pat on the back for going out and finally addressing Detroit’s closer issue. And his acquiring of Rodriguez looks extra impressive when you consider the farm resources and blue chip talent pool that he had to deal from.

As for Dombrowski and Boston, the fans in Detroit are left to wonder why in the hell it took him so long to go out and make a move on a reliever. It was literally the only deficiency the Tigers had during about a 7 year stretch of his tenure, so why didn’t he fix it?

My two cents are that he didn’t want to give up Detroit’s limited farm resources for a potential rental closer, but in Boston he’s got a completely different situation. Boston’s farm system is totally jacked, so Dombrowski had no issues scooping up enough talent to coax AJ Preller into sending him Kimbrel.

But, regardless of what Dombrowski did – or, in this case, didn’t do – during his time in Detroit, Al Avila just made a good move for the Detroit bullpen.

Al Avila
Al Avila. Getty Images

Detroit obviously believes they can contend in 2016, and they are sort of right for thinking that. But this trade won’t really change the fact that they are a team stuck in neutral with a potential nuclear winter, reminiscent of what the Astros went through a few years back, on their horizon.

The Tigers need much, much more than just Francisco Rodriguez to avoid said nuclear winter, and Al Avila had better get hopping if he wants to see his way through it.

Thanks for reading…

-Ryan

The Detroit Tigers and Bullpen Problems