Category: Sports

Head injuries leaving impact on Ole athletes

“My head was pounding and I felt a bit dizzy. I still got back up and tried to finish the race, but [I] realized that I only had one ski left.” 

This is the head-spinning aftermath St. Olaf alpine skier Madison Valent ’20 experienced following a brutal 40 mph impact with a gate during a ski meet earlier this year. Flying 20 feet in the air and violently cracking her head against the ground, Valent was diagnosed with a concussion – eight months later, she still is not fully recovered.

Even though playing sports has always been a popular and thrilling endeavor for people of all ages, concerns over head injuries, specifically concussions directly resulting from harsh contact sports such as hockey and football, have risen exponentially in recent years. Enhanced awareness and analysis of long-term degenerative brain diseases like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), has led to adjusting and prioritizing head safety protocol with heightened urgency, especially in more potentially dangerous sports. 

Valent is not the only St. Olaf athlete that has sustained a concussion participating in the sport they love. Julie Johnson ’19, former starting goalkeeper of St. Olaf women’s soccer, was forced to leave the team following her fourth concussion during a June contest in which she took a hard cleat to the face. According to her, the injury was the culmination of numerous previous head traumas suffered throughout her career. 

“My most recent concussion was definitely affected by the one before when the ball came flying and hit my head at 80 mph,” Johnson said. “For four whole days, I had to stay in a dark room with no stimulation. I took two weeks off of school and was never able to catch up in my classes that semester.” 

Concussions usually result from a blow to the head during games or practices, often when they are least expected. Tim Bergeland ’18 became suddenly and unexpectedly concussed earlier this school year when he dove for the ball in an intramural beach volleyball game. The first immediate symptoms athletes experience after the hit are usually temporary dizziness followed by nagging headaches. As time passes, more evident, tangible symptoms, such as abnormal sensitivity to brightness and noise, difficulty concentrating and irregular sleep disturbances emerge. 

Athletes who experience concussions all undergo the St. Olaf concussion protocol. St. Olaf’s former head athletic trainer Dan Hage developed a five-stage protocol for concussion recovery, involving multiple exercises and eventual integration back into regular participation on the athletes’ respective team. An athlete remains at one stage until they can successfully complete it without demonstrating any hint of lingering concussion symptoms, the first stage being simple physical exercise and mental stimulus, and the fifth and final test being unlimited participation in a live game. 

The middle stages of St. Olaf’s official concussion protocol see the afflicted athlete resting until symptoms settle down. Once stability occurs, they will gradually participate in increasingly strenuous exercises every 24 hours provided no concussion symptoms occur during each respective activity, starting with asymptomatic brain function during light aerobics and moving through stages of sport specific exercises, non-contact training drills and participation in full contact practice.

 This deliberate system helped Johnson recover from her third concussion and triumphantly return to the soccer field within 15 days. Valent also described exercises that St. Olaf provided to help strengthen her neck, decrease the pounding headaches and rehabilitate the brain. 

One significant effect that concussions have on student athletes in particular is that it interferes with their daily cognitive abilities. Whether it is taking twice as long to finish a test or quiz or three times as long to comprehend a person talking at a faster pace, cognitive processing of common everyday interactions is significantly hindered, which has a noteworthy negative influence on athletes’ academic capabilities.

“I am someone who loves to put a lot of energy into my academics and intellectual explorations, and to be held back because my cognitive process in that was very frustrating to me,” Bergeland said.

Some concussions are obviously worse than others. Johnson’s fourth concussion forced her to quit the team and the sport she had adored for the previous 17 years of her life. Being kept in a dark room with little to no cognitive stimulation for a week, Johnson was not allowed to exercise, study, see light, be in a loud environment, listen to music or even to think too hard. Her only option was to either fall asleep or keep attempting to do so. When people ask about the injury, Johnson did not experience much empathy when she said she had a concussion. 

“It feels like you are being a wimp when, really, you are brain damaged,” Johnson said. “I think it is important that people realize that, to take it seriously when it happens because it can affect you forever.”

“The brain quit the team,” she said. “Not me.”

Coming out of this painful experience, athletes are still hopeful about their road to recovery. 

“The recovery is slow, but I should celebrate the fact that I am healing,” Bergeland said. “I also think it is one big thing about having a concussion is when other people have concussions I can understand where they are coming from and express my empathy.”

“There are people who are so badly concussed that they can’t even remember who they were anymore,” Johnson said. “I’m lucky that I’m not extremely affected. I’ll be fine, I can still finish college, go to grad school and be a human.”

The effects of concussions are long, painful and frustrating, but Oles who have sustained severe and repeated head trauma and who are left with impacted cognitive abilities are still patiently recovering while remaining optimistic about the future ahead. 

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Oles win nine straight, claim first round bye

MLB’s future looks skewed

The Houston Astros were triumphantly crowned 2017 World Series champions one week ago, and with their champagne celebrations and victory parade in the books, it’s time for every other organization and fandom to look toward the near future. Except perhaps the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are likely still grieving after having woefully ended up on the wrong side of history once again following one of the closest, most pulse-pounding championship series of all time. That’s more than understandable – it’s perfectly harmless considering their particularly auspicious position. While nearly everyone else will scramble to align potential deals with the upcoming free agent crop, the Dodgers should have their pick of the litter considering their vast financial resources and favorable status as a perennial contender, cementing them as the 2018 favorites if they didn’t already unanimously carry that label. 

See, the scary thing that makes Los Angeles so fearsome is that, despite possessing the largest payroll in baseball, they really haven’t spent a fraction of what they will soon be capable of dishing out. Their MLB-leading $242 million Opening Day payroll can trick some into believing that the Dodgers essentially purchased a National League pennant, but don’t be deceived. A considerable portion of that money is the residual aftermath of several long-term, mistake signings of aging, underwhelming or one-season rental players who weren’t even on the World Series roster. Carl Crawford’s disaster contract of $21 million per year significantly inflates that total, but he was cut in the summer of 2016. Thanks to the emergence of Cody Bellinger, Adrian Gonzalez’s $21.5 per year is now a liability. Trading for Curtis Granderson at the July deadline didn’t net L.A. anything except a $15 million benchwarmer. Scott Kazmir, $16 million. Yu Darvish, $11 million. Andre Ethier, $17.5 million. All of this money is coming off the books with minimal drawbacks in the next two years, leaving the Dodgers with options. For an organization possessing arguably the strongest young core of position players in baseball, options are a scary prospect for any of L.A.’s opponents. 

The same can be said for the Dodgers’ American League (AL) equivalent, the New York Yankees. Featuring a young roster with a frightening parallel to the New York dynasty of the late 1990s – a dominant closer, a multi-faceted catcher and the MLB’s new poster boy – and expecting more electric young prospects such as Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres to emerge next season, the appropriately dubbed “Baby Bombers” finally ditched a decade’s worth of damage wrought by poor free agent signings in favor of the fastest rebuild in MLB history. What’s more, like the Dodgers, a good chunk of their Opening Day payroll of $201.5 million is owed to aging veterans who only served a minimal supporting role in 2017, such as Todd Frazier, Matt Holliday, Chase Headley and C.C. Sabathia. With those toxic contracts now off the payroll and others being removed next year, the Yankees possess arguably more money than God and have barely scratched the surface of their bottomless funds during the last few seasons – essentially, they’re still just biding their time. They’re still waiting to actually compete. You know, the near-AL pennant winner.

Here’s the catch: the next two free agency periods directly align with all this financial liberation and 2018 in particular features arguably the most deep pool of talent ever seen in one winter market. Over the next two years, these players will become free agents: Jake Arrieta, Josh Donaldson, Eric Hosmer, Adam Jones, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Lorenzo Cain, Manny Machado, Andrew Miller and the potential $400 million man himself, Bryce freakin’ Harper. With the Dodgers and Yankees holding complete financial control, they essentially get first pick of whoever they want, supplementing their championship roster with the best all-stars money can buy. Imagine a Yankee team featuring Harper, Machado, Arrieta and Miller in addition to Aaron Judge, Aaron Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka, or a Dodgers team with those same players rounding out Bellinger, Justin Turner and Clayton Kershaw. You’ve just pictured the next decade of baseball. In a league with no salary cap, only other big market teams with a core of young stars under extended club control, such as the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs, will possibly be able to keep pace.

The MLB is on a collision course to become the next NBA, where competition is monopolized and small market organizations are rendered irrelevent. It’s been fun, but it’s inevitable that this era of improbable underdog baseball championships will disappear in favor of a return to a logical routine in which money tips the scales. Welcome to the future.

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Oles win nine straight, claim first round bye

St. Olaf winter sports preview, 2016-17

Heading into his second year with St. Olaf, the focus for men’s hockey head coach Mike Eaves is simple: develop a more balanced offensive attack that can consistently produce wins. During the 2016-17 season, the Oles were tied for seventh in the MIAC with 61 total team goals while averaging only 2.44 goals per contest, second to last in the conference. The good news is nearly a quarter of all those scores came from returning all-MIAC breakout star Drew Otto ’19, whose 15 goals and 28 points were tied for the third and fourth highest totals in the conference, respectively. Unfortunately, the next most prominent scorers on last season’s team, J.T. Paine ’17 with 11 goals, Patrick Sivets ’17 with 6 and Steven Sherman ’17 with 5, all graduated, meaning St. Olaf will have to rely on significant improvement from its young supporting cast if it wants to seriously compete this winter. 

However, if its first few games are any clear indication, this issue should steadily improve as the season progresses, demonstrated by the early improvement from Chris Koziel ’20 and Gordon Wells ’19, who have already tripled their goal totals from a year ago to tie for the MIAC lead, alongside Otto, with three apiece through four contests. If they continue impoving, and if the combination of Jude Hull ’18 and Eric Hancock ’19 can remain steadfast in goal – the two managed a respectable .911 save percentage last year – St. Olaf can make significant strides toward a playoff spot as indicated by its early upset victory over MIAC champion St. Thomas.

The same can be said for women’s hockey, though in this case St. Olaf is in dire straits when it comes to addressing a dearth of offense that plagued last season’s team. The Oles’ 44 total goals from a year ago placed dead last in the MIAC, the only team to average less than two scores per contest (1.76). Furthermore, an overwhelming 35 goal gap compared to the MIAC’s best defensive team (Augsburg, 38 goals allowed) means St. Olaf needs to make significant strides this winter if it hopes to become an elite competitor in an otherwise lopsided division. Reading between the lines, however, reveals a relatively young squad that demonstrated significant improvement and resilience last year after two consecutive seasons in which it won three games combined. Furthermore, of those seven wins, six of them came against conference opponents in addition to two ties against playoff teams Concordia and St. Thomas, the latter of which emerged as the MIAC champion. In short, St. Olaf knows its conference opponents and matches up fairly well. If statistical leader Jane Vezina ’18 (11 goals, 16 points) can receive some additional support from a promising crop of first years, women’s hockey could potentially surprise.

Following three consecutive dominant playoff runs, including two NCAA appearances, men’s basketball continued the trend of scoring deficiency among St. Olaf winter teams, finishing under a .500 winning percentage and dropping to a seventh place conference finish for the first time since 2012. Only surpassing 75 points in a single contest four times last winter, the Oles struggled to the lowest three-point shot percentage (33.3), total points (65.5) and turnovers (12.8) per game in the MIAC, now with its top scorer, Austin Majeskie ’17 (318 points), graduated. Robert Tobroxen (312 points), Nate Albers ’20 (255) and Austin Korba ’19 (253), return to give St. Olaf some spark, but they’ll need to dramatically surpass their previous totals and receive enhanced support from a very young roster – Tobroxen is the only senior – if this team expects to keep pace with opponents and return to its former glory. The Oles can hang in there with a respectable defense – 5.4 steals and 2.7 blocks per game both ranked fourth in conference – especially considering Tobroxen placed first and second on the team in each respective statistic last season. But if they can’t score, they won’t see many victories on their way to a likely developmental winter. 

At risk of sounding like a broken record, women’s basketball also needs to generate a more intimidating offensive approach after ranking 11th in the MIAC in points per game (56.6) and finishing in the cellar for field goal percentage (34.1). Makenna Ash ’19 stands out as a top 10 scorer within the MIAC (50.5 field goal percentage and 350 total points) and should step into a more veteran leadership role this season. The dropoff of proven talent beyond Ash is fairly vast, but Ella Skrien ’20 returns to the Oles after being named to the all-first-year MIAC team after producing 9.4 points per game last season. In addition, Margaret Anderson ’19 emerged as a prominent three-point threat, placing within the conference’s top 20 in three-point percentage (30.7), a major asset that should only prove more valuable as she continues to improve as an upperclassman. There’s certainly enough proven talent on this squad to warrant excitement over its potential first above-.500 season since 2013, but several additional stars will need to emerge from an abnormally young team – thirteen of its fifteen roster spots are occupied by either first years or sophomores – in order to make that dream a reality.

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Oles win nine straight, claim first round bye

Game 5 is why baseball rocks

We all thought Game 2 was the climactic pinnacle that would come to define the 2017 World Series between the abnormally deep, star-studded Los Angeles Dodgers and the tenacious, explosive Houston Astros. Four days later, it’s nothing but a distant memory, paling in comparison to what can only be described as pure, concentrated insanity on a baseball diamond.

Game 5 is undeniably the most purely exciting game in MLB history. It was so exhilarating, those possessing apathy or even disdain for America’s pastime could momentarily perceive beyond the facade of an ostensibly “boring” sport and come to truly understand why mass participation in its fandom is such a rabid mania successfully ensnaring the hearts and souls of people who dutifully invest into its intoxicating ethos. If you believe the previous sentence to be overly-romanticized, hyperbolic schlock about a superficially mundane sport, you likely didn’t watch the Astros and Dodgers lay it all on the line for over five hours Monday night.

“Oh, there goes Ben, gushing about a children’s game in pretentious vernacular again like the big, dumb manchild nerd he is.” Yeah, you know, maybe. But I would insist that Game 5, an extra inning, 13-12 slugfest thriller, was a staggering microcosm of the myriad unfolding stories between an iconic playoff mainstay and a relentless newcomer playing with a ravaged city on its back. 

With the Dodgers jumping out to an early 4-0 lead behind the best pitcher in the world, Clayton Kershaw, Houston appeared to be in dire straits, on pace to drop two of its final three home games and expecting to return to L.A. down 3-2 in the series. 

Suddenly, the Astro offense awoke and ignited a domino effect of insanity that spiraled out of control long before the contest would end. A four-run fourth inning stirred the Houston crowd into an absolute frenzy, knocking Kershaw out of the contest and shifting the momentum 180 degrees in favor of the home team. Sure enough, L.A. responded immediately with three emphatic runs during the next half inning, robbing Astros fans of hope as soon as they sniffed it. Continuing the turbulent roller coaster ride, Houston icon and likely American League MVP Jose Altuve, the pride of short athletes everywhere, mashed a three-run homer in the following half inning, gridlocking the score at 7 and escalating the energy in Minute Maid Park to an arguable all-time high.

L.A. Houston. L.A. Houston. Back and forth, back and forth, lead change after lead change until the Astros finally emerged victorious after the Dodgers accomplished an improbable three runs with their backs to the wall to send the storybook game into extra innings. What makes this Game 5 in particular so uncanny is the near identical match it shares with each team’s story up until its first pitch. 

The Dodgers, always the bridesmaid but never the bride, consistently jumpstarts regular seasons with a torrential pace, a stacked roster and more financial resources than any organization could hope for, yet always ends up belittled in October for faltering on the biggest stage in spite of their numerous advantages. While only the most cynical of fans could claim they choked in such a closely contested competition, the fact remains that they put themselves in a near-optimal position to stranglehold Houston into submission and once again let a golden opportunity slip through their grasp. While certainly not eliminated, it’s a feeling that L.A. fans have grown woefully accustomed to during the past decade.

The Astros face impossible odds in the middle of a metaphorical hurricane and represent a rare spark of hope for a city in ruin after a disastrous literal one, rising to a herculean challenge and refusing to concede. The people of Houston desperately needed something to get excited over, and, like the 2013 Boston Red Sox before them, the narrative of tenacity and unity that the Astros have consistently displayed through the playoffs, World Series and especially Games 2 and 5 is a perfect match to uplift those devastated by tragedy.

By the time this article is published, Game 7 will have definitively dictated the next baseball champion – if last season’s zany conclusion between the Cubs and Indians is any indication, things could, somehow, get even crazier. However, Game 5 will always be the one to remember, as it not only perfectly encapsulates what it means to follow either the Dodgers or the Astros, but, more importantly, reminds baseball fanatics that the impossible is never out of reach while simultaneously inviting outsiders to understand its potentially unrivaled allure. For my money, it doesn’t matter who wins – Houston and L.A. have already imprinted their mark in history.

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Oles win nine straight, claim first round bye