By HJ Mai
New Knights manager Julio Vinas strives for a championship in his first year in the Charlotte dugout. But Vinas knows he has to rely on Charlotte’s major league affiliate, the Chicago White Sox, to provide him with a competitive team to make it happen.
“Every year we put a team up in all of our minor league systems we are trying to win it everywhere,” he told ESPN 730. “I know the White Sox really do a great job in filling the team. I’m sure they are going to do a great job this year as well, and we’ll have a championship team out there hopefully.”
The 2016 season will be the sixth for Vinas as part of the White Sox organization and his first in Triple A. After stops in Winston-Salam (2011) and Kannapolis (2013), he guided the Class AA Birmingham Barons to a Southern League championship in 2013. The Knights haven’t won an International League pennant since 1999.
The 42-year-old attributes his rise through the managerial ranks to the quality of players at each minor-league level.
“To be honest with you we are only as good as our players are,” he said. “We had good players throughout the years, and it really makes it a lot easier for us to manage a ball team. We always had pretty good teams to battle and trying to get into the playoffs. We are also very big on fundamentals … All those little things combined makes it a complete program.”
Vinas, who was named Knights manager in January, replaces Joel Skinner after four years as the team's skipper. Skinner led the Knights to two winning seasons in 2012 and 2015. Charlotte last played postseason baseball in 2012, when it lost to the Pawtucked Red Sox in the league championship series.
Vinas said that succeeding the winningest manager in franchise history does not add any pressure.
“It’s just another year, another season for us and we are going to try to win it,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is trying to get our guys to the next level. If Chicago calls and needs a player, we want to have him ready to go up there and contribute, and within that we are also trying to win ball games. There‘s a fine line. It’s tough to try and do both but it’s doable.”
The Knights will open their International League schedule on the road with a four-game series against the Durham Bulls and a three-game series against the Norfolk Tides starting on April 8.
Charlotte’s home opener at BB&T Ballpark is scheduled for April 14 and kicks off another four-game series with the Bulls.
Preparations for the new season are in full swing, Vinas said, with the first players reporting for spring training on Friday.
“We will be in big league spring training for the first couple of weeks and then we’ll see more or less what type of team we are going to have,” he said. “Hopefully we are going to have a team that comes out and battles every day and gives us a chance to win.”
By HJ Mai
The Charlotte Checkers’ current winless streak continues after the team finished a six-game home stand with yet another loss. Charlotte lost its final home game of the month by a score of 5-4 to San Diego on Saturday.
The Checkers’ franchise-long winless streak stands now at nine games after last night’s loss. The team is 0-7-2 since their last win on Jan. 23, including 0-5-1 at Bojangles’ Coliseum.
It took the visiting San Diego Gulls a mere 82 seconds to take a 1-0 lead on Saturday. The puck made its way through Charlotte's crease untouched and ended up on the stick of Matt Berry who put it past Daniel Altshuller to get the Gulls on the board.
The Checkers needed a couple minutes to collect themselves before Patrick Brown tied the game with a shot from the slot at 8:41 in the first period.
Coming out of the first intermission, San Diego once again needed only seconds to put themselves back in front. Shea Theodore gave the Gulls a 2-1 lead after 52 seconds of play in the second period. San Diego added two goals on power play and one while short-handed to take a comfortable lead 5-2 into the final period.
The Gulls’ four-goal second period was ultimately enough to beat the Checkers.
“Undisciplined play,” recalled head coach Mark Morris his team's second-period performance after the game. “Two slashes and a hook. What’s that going to do? Not going to help you. We’re so thin right now as a group, we can’t afford to be killing penalties and muster a huge attack. Our energy stores are low right now.”
Charlotte tried to mount a comeback in the third period but came up short as San Diego hung on to a 5-4 win. The Gulls swept the two-game series after beating the Checkers 3-2 in overtime on Friday night.
While it was too little too late, Morris liked what he saw from his players in the third period.
“I liked our third,” he said. “I challenged them in the third to play bigger and to be more responsible and we did. We had some early success there in the third.”
Over the course of the current streak the Checkers have fallen from second in the Central Division to fifth. The drop in standings should provide the team with a sense of urgency as only top four teams of each division qualify for the playoffs.
However, despite the team’s lack of results the Checkers’ locker room tries to stay positive.
“It’s been kind of frustrating,” said Zach Boychuk, who had two assists in the loss. “We’ve been playing some good hockey and we just haven’t been able to get rewarded. I think we’re just trying to stay positive.”
Charlotte’s defenseman Ryan Murphy, who had the first two-goal night of his professional career, does not anticipate the losses will lead to fractures within the team.
“I’ve been on teams before where we go on losing streaks and everyone kind of separates and everyone kind of gets mad at each other, but to be honest this team is a very tight group,” he said. “If one person is down the others are picking him up, and that’s probably my favorite part about this team right now. Everyone stays up and everyone helps each other.”
The Checkers will kick off a six-game road trip on Tuesday against the Milwaukee Admirals. The upcoming road trip might be positive for the team, but Morris warned that the task at hand does not get easier.
The Checkers have a 14-7-2 record on the road, compared to their 11-12-3 record at the Coliseum.
“It’ll be good for the guys to get back on the road,” Boychuk said. “Going on the road, hopefully we can find our game and start playing better.” The Checkers' next home game will be on March 4.
By HJ Mai
The South Carolina Gamecocks have moved into a three-way tie atop the SEC Conference standings following their 94-83 victory over the LSU Tigers on Wednesday.
The win also keeps the team’s unbeaten streak at Colonial Life Arena alive. The Gamecocks are now 13-0 at home this season.
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin credited his players for finding a way to win the intensely fought battle against LSU and freshman sensation Ben Simmons.
“Here’s what helped us win the game today – our offense,” he said. “On defense we were on survival mode the whole game.”
South Carolina shot close to 50 percent from the field (30-62), including 7 of 19 from three-point range. Sindarius Thornwell, who scored a game-high 24 points on 6-of-15 shooting, set the tone offensively for the Gamecocks. The junior guard also made 11 of 14 free-throw attempts.
The Gamecocks had a total of four players in the double figures. South Carolina’s bench also came up big, outscoring their LSU counterparts 31-14.
Martin, who called the Tigers a deep NCAA team, highlighted his team’s shot selection and limited number of turnovers as contributing factors for the win. South Carolina committed a total of nine turnovers.
LSU, however, kept the matchup between two of the top teams in the SEC close until the end. South Carolina’s 11-point victory also equaled the game’s biggest lead.
Simmons, who is widely regarded as the top prospect in the upcoming NBA Draft, cemented his status with yet another strong performance. To give you an example of his versatility, the 6-10 forward played the point on LSU’s opening offensive possession before guarding the center position seconds later on defense.
Simmons finished the game with 20 points, six rebounds and a game high six assists. Antonio Blakeney and Keith Hornsby added 22 points and 14 points, respectively, in the loss.
“It was a number of things,” Simmons said. “Free throws, fouls, turnovers, all those combined.”
The Tigers committed 30 personal fouls during the game as they struggled to contain South Carolina’s offense. The Gamecocks connected on 27 of their 36 free-throw attempts.
LSU also committed 12 turnovers and shot a dismal 57.1 percent from the line (16-28).
The Gamecocks held the game's lead for more than 36 minutes, including 39-35 at halftime.
South Carolina (21-3), LSU (15-9) and Kentucky (18-6) are now tied for first place in the SEC as each team has an 8-3 record in conference play.
Martin, while satisfied with his team’s big win, showed frustration about the league’s public perception.
“You have two teams that are that good,” he said. “They are in first and second place in the league and neither team is ranked. That’s the frustrating part. How is either one of those two teams not ranked nationally? It makes no sense.”
He’s right. The SEC is the only power-seven conference in which neither of the top two teams are nationally ranked. The SEC currently has two teams in the top 25 - #15 Texas A&M and #22 Kentucky.
The Gamecocks will welcome John Calipari’s Wildcats on Saturday, while the Tigers and Aggies face off in Baton Rouge.
By HJ Mai
The Carolina Hurricanes are faced with a tough decision this month. Should they trade Eric Staal or not? The team’s 31-year-old captain will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season on July 1.
A player of Staal’s caliber is a hot commodity on the open market, and if the Hurricanes want to get something in return they have to make a deal before the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 29.
Staal is in the final year of his seven-year, $57.75 million contract, and while he only scored 54 points last season - the lowest number since his rookie year - Staal is still a top-line center.
In his 11 seasons with the Hurricanes, he scored 70 or more points in seven consecutive seasons from 2005-06 through 2012-13, including a personal-best 100 points during the team’s Stanley Cup winning 2005-06 season.
However, asked about Staal’s future with the franchise, Hurricanes GM Ron Francis told ESPN 730 that he would do what’s right for the organization.
A vote of confidence for the team’s franchise player sounds different if you ask me.
Francis said that he talked to Staal prior to the start of the season and they agreed to touch base again this month.
“The trading deadline isn’t until the end of February,” he said. “[We will see] where things go and how the team is playing and make a decision at the appropriate time. Certainly term and money factor into those decisions. We will continue to have those talks and see what can be worked out and go from there.”
The team’s surprisingly strong performance this year doesn’t make the decision any easier for Francis. Touted as a rebuilding year for the franchise, the team is currently only four points out of the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Hurricanes’ last playoff appearance came during the 2008-09 season.
Staal stated that he would like to stay in Raleigh and make another run at the Cup. Staal’s younger brother Jordan Staal is also playing for the Hurricanes, which might play a role in his considerations.
Staal earns a base salary of $9.5 million this season – his hit to the salary cap is $8.25 million - and he will command at least $9 million annually going forward.
The big question will be if Francis and the Hurricanes believe their captain is worth that kind of money and whether they can agree on contract length that gives Staalsecurity and the franchise flexibility.
By HJ Mai
The Charlotte Checkers team is full of talent and future NHL players. That’s the assessment of Carolina Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis.
The Hurricanes’ active roster currently features two Checkers, Phil Di Giuseppe and Jaccob Slavin. The Raleigh-based NHL franchise has used a number of Checkers players this season as it fights for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Francis told ESPN 730 that having a strong minor league affiliate is crucial to the Hurricanes' success and that is exactly what Charlotte provides.
“It’s critical to have the right development for these young guys,” he said.
The two-time Stanley Cup champion credits Checkers owner Michal Kahn with creating a successful environment in Charlotte.
“He knows that he may lose players at certain times, but I think he takes a lot of pride in the organization and helps these guys develop and have the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League,” he said.
Kahn bought the Checkers in 2006 and aligned them with the Hurricanes in 2010. He was also instrumental bringing the franchise back to Bojangles’ Coliseum after five years at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The move, however, meant the team spent the first month of the season on the road as the arena underwent a $16 million renovation. And as the Checkers 11-9-2 home record indicates, they are still adjusting to their new permanent home.
The Hurricanes hired Mark Morris during the offseason to take charge of the young Checkers team, whose average age is 24.45 years.
Morris, who is the only coach with more than 300 victories on both the collegiate and professional level, turned the team into an instant playoff contender. The Checkers’ last played postseason hockey during the 2012-13 season.
“I think he has done a nice job in getting those guys to respond and play them the way we want them to play on night in and night-out basis,” Francis said.
The team currently ranks 5th in the AHL’s Western Conference. After injuries early on in the season, the team went on a franchise record 12-game point streak from Dec. 9-Jan. 12.
“They are really playing some great hockey and hopefully the people in Charlotte are appreciating what they are doing,” Francis said.
The Checkers will take the ice against the San Antonia Rampage tonight at Bojangles’ Coliseum. The team will try to end its current five-game winless streak (0-4-1) against an opponent it has already beaten twice on the road this season. Puck drop for tonight is set for 7 p.m.
By HJ Mai
The reigning Eastern Conference Player of Week might be able to disguise the Hornets’ defensive shortcomings but it won’t be enough to get them into the playoffs.
Kemba Walker played out of his mind during the past week. He averaged 34.4 points per game, including a franchise-record 52 points in the team’s double-overtime win against the Utah Jazz on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
He led the team to a 3-1 record last week. Walker then added another 24 points in Charlotte’s 129-128 double-overtime win in Sacramento on Monday.
The Hornets have now won three in a row and four out of their last five games, after losing eight out of nine to kick off the New Year. With a 22-23 record, Charlotte is currently only one game behind the eighth-seeded Indiana Pacers in the race for the final playoff spot in the East.
Those statistics, however, do not conceal the team’s inability to stop any other team in this league. The Hornets have given up an average of 105.8 points per game in their 14 games this month.
Only three NBA teams are worse than Charlotte when it comes to keeping opponents from scoring – Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers.
Not the company you want to be in if your ambition is to play postseason basketball.
"Our problem is we don’t defend," Hornets head coach Steve Clifford said after the win over Utah on MLK Day. "I told (the players) that guys can talk about belief but if we don’t play defense it’s hard to believe for me."
Clifford is known around the league for being a defensive-minded coach and as such he can’t be happy with his team’s performance on the backend.
The Hornets are one of the better offensive teams in the league. The team is averaging 102.4 points per game this season and role players like Jeremy Lin, P.J. Hairston or Troy Daniels on Monday have contributed their part to support Walker and Nicolas Batum, who have carried the team offensively this season.
But the Hornets fate this season will come and go with their defensive effort. Clifford time and time again said the players have the right mindset, but for whatever reason the mindset does not carry over onto the court.
Charlotte’s coaching staff has to find a way to correct the defensive mistakes that allow their opponents to score easy baskets.
“It’s about getting our defense set and being able to play better defense,” Clifford said before Monday’s game against the Kings.
The Hornets will take on the Utah Jazz, Portland Trail Blazers and L.A. Lakers, which have a combined record of 49-89, to close out the month.
Charlotte faced each of those teams - and beat each of them - earlier in the season, but without another All-Star performance by Walker, wins are all but guaranteed.
The Hornets have eight more games until the All-Star break and are only four-and-a-half games behind the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks.
The Hornets have all the ingredients, but they are currently lacking the right recipe to stir up the East.
Charlotte will get their next opportunity to improve their 6-15 road record tonight against Utah. The game’s tipoff is scheduled for 9 p.m.