Christmas tournament title is up for grabs

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Maybe the 2004 Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament will be wide open after all.

When the basketball season started, most people around the area were pointing to a fairly easy road for Charleston, which has dominated the annual event in recent years with eight titles since 1991.

The Bluejays -- who returned considerable talent from last year's state final four team --have struggled some during the early part of the season, although they still should wind up as one of the region's premier squads.

But Charleston's slow start --against a rugged schedule --coupled with the impressive play of several other squads has, on paper at least, put the tournament up for grabs.

Defending champion Jackson, despite returning just one starter, is off to an undefeated start and is the top seed, with Charleston second. The Bluejays lost to the Indians in last year's semifinal round.

Third-seeded Scott City has been solid in a 3-3 start; fourth-seeded Cape Girardeau Central has rebounded nicely from a rough start; fifth-seeded Bell City has picked up steam after some early struggles; and sixth-seeded Advance has been impressive, including a victory against Scott City.

And several of the other squads in the 16-team field could be capable of pulling off an upset or two.

If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Charleston getting its act together and reclaiming the title it last won in 2002. There is no doubt the Bluejays are the most talented team in the field.

But as we've seen before in the tournament, the most talented squad doesn't always prevail.

That's why things should be mighty interesting when action begins at 9 a.m. Monday at the Show Me Center.

* Local college basketball fans who want to watch some holiday hoops will get the opportunity as the Southeast Missouri State University's men and women have several home games scheduled around the New Year's holiday.

The women will play a 12:30 p.m. contest Thursday against Chicago State -- the final round of the Christmas tournament will follow -- and a 6 p.m. game on Friday against Oakland City, meaning you can watch that one and still have plenty of time to celebrate New Year's Eve later that night.

The men take on Lincoln in a 7:30 p.m. New Year's Day matchup on Saturday, that coming after Wednesday's game at St. Louis University.

Both Southeast teams currently have losing records, but each squad has shown the potential to put together a strong Ohio Valley Conference season, with the start of league play just around the corner.

The 4-5 women certainly have the talent to contend for an OVC title, although a rebuilt roster is still trying to blend together. But anybody who saw Wednesday's competitive loss to powerhouse Southwest Missouri State has to be excited about the prospects.

The 3-6 men have a poor record but certainly haven't played poorly. Five of their defeats have been by a total of 22 points -- sounds familiar considering all of last year's narrow setbacks -- and four of their five road losses have been to teams with a combined 26-8 record. All told, the six squads that have beaten Southeast are a combined 39-17.

* Former Southeast baseball star Kerry Robinson, who a few days ago signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets, told me he believes that organization will provide his best opportunity to play in the major leagues next season.

Robinson had been a free agent after spending last season with the San Diego Padres organization. He has spent the majority of the past four years in the major leagues, including 2001 through 2003 with the Cardinals.

Robinson said he signed a split contract, meaning he agreed to terms on both the major and minor league sides, depending on where he plays next season. His major league contract is worth $800,000 and stipulates that if he does begin the season in the majors, he will also earn that amount even if he is later sent down to the minors.

Even though he is not assured of beginning the 2005 campaign with the Mets, he believes he will have an opportunity to do just that depending on how well he performs in spring training. He said the Mets showed the most interest in him and seemed genuine about wanting him on their big league roster.

* It was a great couple of days last weekend for two former Southeast All-Americans who now make their living in the National Football League.

On Dec. 18, Willie Ponder -- a wide receiver/return man in his second season with the New York Giants -- scored his first NFL touchdown on a scintillating 91-yard kickoff return against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ponder finished the game with a team-record 259 yards on eight returns and entering this weekend he led the entire NFL with a 28-yard average.

Then on Dec. 19, Eugene Amano -- an offensive lineman/special teams performer in his rookie season with the Tennessee Titans -- earned his first start as he filled in at center for the Titans' injured regular. And by all accounts, Amano handled himself well.

It's great to see Ponder and Amano doing so well -- and, despite Southeast's struggles as a team this year, there is a decent chance one or two more Southeast products might join that duo in the NFL next season.

Senior offensive lineman Dan Connolly probably is the leading candidate as he stands a strong chance of being drafted, just as Ponder (sixth round) and Amano (seventh round) were. And several other seniors off this year's squad might also get looks from the pros.

* While it was a big NFL weekend for Southeast, the same can't be said for the St. Louis Rams, who turned in an absolutely pathetic performance during a 31-7 loss to the Cardinals in Arizona.

Thank goodness Marc Bulger should be ready to go Monday night against a Philadelphia team that just might rest many of its key players since it has already clinched home field for the playoffs.

Amazingly, St. Louis --despite a 6-8 record -- still has a shot at the playoffs. But the Rams are fast running out of time.

* And speaking of the Eagles, what a recent turn of events they experienced.

Philadelphia looked almost like a lock to make the Super Bowl from the woeful NFC, but now the Eagles appear to be anything but a sure thing after the serious ankle injury to star wide receiver Terrell Owens.

* I hope everybody had a very Merry Christmas, and my best wishes go out for a wonderful and safe New Year's.

Here's hoping 2005 is good to us all.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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