CVIndependent

Fri06232017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Steve Kelly

The recently concluded BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells has grown into one of the biggest events here in the valley; people flock from all over the planet to watch the greatest tennis players in the world ply their trade.

Along with the players and fans, members of the media also come from various places around the world—and one tournament volunteer has the job of making sure they all get what they need.

Judy Strobl of Oceanside is in charge of the press room of the BNP Paribas Open. She has been a volunteer for the tournament for 13 years. It’s no secret that any large event here in the valley is dependent on volunteers—and the BNP Paribas Open is no exception.

“We have over 1,500 volunteers who handle everything from the media, to ushering duties,” Strobl said. “It’s impossible to understate the impact these volunteers have. Without them, there is no tournament.”

Strobl is very diplomatic when asked what it’s like to deal with members of the media. When asked if they can be difficult, she replied: “They want what they want, when they want. I try to take into consideration that many of them are jet-lagged and are used to working on deadlines. We work very hard with the PR staff to try to be as accommodating as possible.”

Of course, there’s always a chance that problems will come up—such as what happened last year when a French TV crew arrived.

“They airline had misplaced their luggage,” Strobl said. “They literally only had the clothes on their backs. We set up appointments with local thrift stores so they could be properly attired. It was a mad scramble, but eventually, they were able get clothes and get it done. I don’t know how, but we got it done.”

As the tournament grows, so, too, does the workload in the media room. “We have already over 400 media members here,” Strobl said. “It will require more and more finesse, but we are ready.”

As part of the multi-million-dollar improvements made to Stadium 1, the press room just received major improvements. Everything is now state of the art, with TV screens and digital hookups throughout the press area.

“Even though the modes and methods of communication and media are changing, the media always needs to see a friendly face—and that one hopefully will continue to be mine,” Strobl said.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

As much of the country shivers in the grip of old man winter, residents of the Coachella Valley get to enjoy sunshine and warmer temperatures—and we get to enjoy the grand old summer game of baseball in January, at Palm Springs Stadium.

Back for its eighth season, the California Winter League is the brainchild of 37-year-old Andrew Starke. Starke has run the Palm Springs Power summer collegiate baseball team for 13 years in the valley, and eight years ago, he came up with the idea of a winter league in Palm Springs. The California Winter League is basically a big, four-week tryout camp for players who come from all over the world. They play on 12 teams and receive instruction from former professional players as well as current coaches and managers.

The league is run in conjunction with the Frontier League, an independent baseball league. (An independent league is not affiliated with any major league teams.) Scouts from other independent leagues and 20 major league teams have also been seen in attendance.

“This is a great opportunity for these players to get exposure and hopefully signed for a summer job,” Starke said. “The instructors come with a wealth of experience. Plus, many of the instructors are also managers and coaches in the independent leagues, so (players) get a firsthand look by the men they could be working for. Last year, we had three players who were signed out of the league to contracts by major league clubs.”

The players are in the midst of a 3 1/2-week schedule of games, with two games played most days at Palm Springs Stadium, and another three on an auxiliary field. The championship game is slated for noon, Sunday, Feb. 12, at Palm Springs Stadium. The games are each seven innings. For traditionalists, there is good news: The game is played with wooden bats, not aluminum. Pitch counts are enforced, as the managers do not want to over-tax the players. The stadium also offers deals on tickets, food and concessions.

The level of play is probably around that of the A level of pro ball. It is interesting to see the international players come here, many from Japan and South Korea. Like all of the other young men, they come chasing a dream—even though most of these players will not advance beyond the independent leagues.

“They love their experience in camp. The up close instruction can’t be beat,” Starke said.

On a recent weekend, I attended two days of Winter League games. About 200 fans were in attendance each day. Some were friends and families of the players; others were regular fans like me, who simply love watching baseball.

For more information, visit californiawinterleague.com.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

One of the keys to the success of the big sporting events here in the Coachella Valley is the ability to attract top-notch volunteers. It is a not-so-secret fact that without volunteers, these tournaments would grind to a halt. After all, volunteers are the people work in the trenches and help with everything from parking to general information.

Meet Ellen Roy. She’s an Indian Wells resident who will begin her 20th year of volunteering this week at the local PGA Tour event, now known as the CareerBuilder Challenge, taking place Jan. 19-22. One of Ellen’s jobs is to keep a walking scoreboard, which allows fans to see the tournament leaderboard. The grandmother of four says she does it to help the community—and to meet new people, too.

“I consider many of the volunteers my friends,” she says. “We share the same interest in golf, and I have known some of these people for many years. If you are new to the valley and sitting around feeling lonely, this is a great way to get out of the house and meet some new people.”

Ellen is also competing in PGA Tour Volunteer Challenge. The winner can get up to $10,000 for the charity of their choosing. Roy—along with three other volunteers—is supporting the Boys and Girls Club of Coachella Valley.

“I have been very fortunate in my life, and I want to pay it forward,” she said. “Two of my grandchildren lost their father when they were young, and they spent a lot of time at the Boys and Girls Club, so I know firsthand how valuable the clubs are. They do marvelous work locally, especially in the East Valley.”

People can vote for Ellen’s team—or for the CareerBuilder Challenge volunteers as a whole—at PGATour.com/volunteer.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

It is the biggest local sports event of the year, bringing thousands of visitors and millions of dollars to the Coachella Valley—and the BNP Paribas Open will return to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden March 6-19.

The event is a Masters 1000 event—meaning it’s one of the nine most prestigious tourneys after the four Grand Slam events and the ATP World Tour Finals—on the men’s ATP Tour, and one of the esteemed premier tournaments on the women’s circuit. Those designations ensure that the top players in the world come—including Serena Williams, who returned in 2015 for the first time since a controversial exit in 2001. Total attendance could hit the 500,000 mark this year; only the four Grand Slam events have more visitors.

Last year, the event was again marred by controversy when then-tournament director Raymond Moore made what some considered to be disparaging remarks about female players during a press conference. Moore was forced to resign as tournament director, and in an unusual move, the tournament’s owner, billionaire tech guru Larry Ellison, last June selected Tommy Haas—an active German pro player who now lives in Los Angeles—as the new tournament director. Haas is currently getting ready to play in the Australian Open (taking place Jan. 16-29). This creates the intriguing and highly unusual possibility that Haas could play in a tournament that he’s directing come March.

“Tommy is definitely excited (about) joining the team, and it has been a nice transition to the other side of the game for him,” said Steve Birdwell, the chief operating officer of the BNP Paribas Open. “Tommy is focused on learning as much as he can. He will concentrate on strengthening existing relationships to create more meaningful interactions between players, sponsors and fans.”

There have been major renovations to the main stadium at the Tennis Garden, which first opened in 2000.

“We have upgraded concessions as well as all our luxury suites,” Birdwell said. “There are new restrooms as well. The walkways and concourse have been enclosed, freeing up over 100,000 square feet of space.”

Birdwell said that despite the worldwide appeal of the BNP Paribas Open, locals are important to the tourney organizers; in fact, locals receive discounts (along with seniors, students and military personnel), and Birdwell pointed out that admission is free on March 6 and 7, the first two days of the tournament.

While American men’s tennis has been in decline for a while, the BNP Paribas Open continues to grow—in part because it has become more of a festival-type event, with many ways to entertain tournament-goers both inside and outside of the main stadiums. Plans for a tennis museum are also in the works.

For more information on the BNP Paribas Open, visit www.bnpparibasopen.com.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow him on Twitter @skellynj.

In 2017, there will quite a few changes taking place at the annual local PGA Tour event that many of us still call the Bob Hope Classic.

For the second year, the tournament—celebrating its 58th year in January—is officially called the CareerBuilder Challenge. However, the Clinton Foundation, which had played a role in the tournament since 2012, is no longer involved—and there’s a new man in charge, too.

The tournament will be run by a self-described “golf nerd”—Dallas native Nick Raffaele, 53. Raffaele has extensive golf-industry experience and was upbeat about the tournament.

“I am a glass-half-full kind of guy,” he said. “I salute the work done by (previous sponsor) Humana in helping stabilize the event. We here in the Coachella Valley are lucky to have a PGA Tour event because of our size and population. We are basically in a rural area, and without some great work previously done, who knows if the tournament would be here?”

Raffaele was not shy about addressing complaints from some about the Clinton Foundation’s association with the tournament, which concluded last year.

“The (Clinton Foundation) was brought in by their partnership with Humana, not by the PGA,” Raffaele said. “Again, I believe the community owes a deep debt of gratitude to Humana for stepping in” when the tournament faced an uncertain future. “We will continue to make sure this event serves local charities. It is part of our mission statement.”

In 2017, the event will also have a new ambassador—golfing great Phil Mickelson. Mickelson recently underwent surgery for a sports hernia, and at this time, it’s not clear whether Mickelson will be able to play in the tourney. Regardless, Raffaele is not concerned.

“We want Phil playing at 100 percent,” he said. “As crazy as it sounds, it may be beneficial if he can just stay and hear and learn up-close everything the tournament encapsulates.

“Both Phil and the CareerBuilder Challenge expect a long and lasting partnership. Phil is committed 100 percent, and when you talk about the current stars of golf, few get any bigger.”

One of the things Raffaele praises about the event is the on-site volunteer staff.

“The people who volunteer are the ones who see the value in the tournament being here in the Coachella Valley,” Raffaele said. “We couldn’t do it without them. We want them to know they are important. The other day, I was with Lee Morcus of Kaiser Grille, and he was extremely gracious in donating gift cards for our volunteers, totally unsolicited. It is that kind of spirit that makes this tournament what it is.”

The CareerBuilder Challenge kicks off on Thursday, Jan. 19, with play at three courses in the East Valley. A whole week of events begins Monday, Jan. 16. For tickets, event information and details on deals for locals, visit www.careerbuilderchallenge.com.

Steve Kelly can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

It was a balmy 86 degrees when I decided to drop by the Desert Ice Castle in Cathedral City.

Built via a public-private partnership in 2011, the rink is at what was once the site of a Coca Cola-bottling plant. On this day, it was a beehive of activity as members of the Desert Blaze hockey program skated on the ice. Overseeing the practice was Jeff Larson.

A 54-year-old native of Minnesota, Larson played collegiate hockey at the University of Minnesota and was an acquaintance of Herb Brooks, a hockey legend who coached the U.S. men’s hockey team to the “Miracle on Ice” gold medal in the 1980 Olympics. He works with a cadre of coaches in the program.

“The owner of the rink approached me and asked if I could help start a hockey program five years ago. Having played since age 6, the game is in my blood, so I signed on,” Larson said. “We started out with some free and open tryouts. We didn’t even have enough equipment for the kids. The rink bought 30 sets of gear, and we got a grant from the National Hockey League Players’ Association for another 30.”

Of course, you can’t play ice hockey without knowing how to skate, and when the Desert Blaze teams began, many of the players had only seen hockey on television—and had never been on ice. Larson called in some favors, and some former Canadian and U.S. players helped get the program off the ground.

“We had about 40 kids raring to go,” said Larson. “We opened up the gate—and 40 kids fell right over. Fortunately, we had some good skating coaches around, and we righted the ship.”

Nowadays, most players have taken skating lessons before joining. The Desert Blaze program includes five teams, set up according to age groups, that travel. The players range in age from 6 to 17, including some female players at the younger levels.

Being a hockey mom or dad means a lot of driving: The Blaze teams play throughout Southern California.

“It takes a tremendous amount of sacrifice on the part of parents,” Larson said. “Parents travel many miles to support the Blaze on the road. It takes a special kind of parent to be a hockey mom or dad, and we are lucky to have them.”

While still somewhat exotic here in the desert, ice hockey is receiving increased support. The Desert Blaze teams have received help, including coaching clinics, from the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. The two NHL teams and the minor-league Ontario Reign also try to schedule game outings for the teams. In fact, several Los Angeles Kings alumni are scheduled to compete in a fundraising golf tournament hosted by the Blaze on Friday, Dec. 2.

“There are quite a few ex-NHL players like Grant Fuhr and Jim Pappin who live in the desert. We reach out to them and they stop by. The kids really enjoy that,” Larson said.

The future looks bright for hockey in the desert. There are rumors that an NHL team may use the Desert Ice Castle as a one- or two-day practice facility in 2017. The St. Louis Blues, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have stopped by Cathedral City, and at least two NHL team owners have homes here in the desert.

For more information on the Desert Blaze or the Dec. 2 fundraiser, call 760-578-9080, or visit www.desertblazehockey.com.

Being in charge of a college athletic department can be quite a challenge. Not only must your teams be competitive on the field; you must also make sure your athletes are doing well in the classroom.

Those tasks are even more arduous when your program has been rocked by scandal—and that’s the task Gary Plunkett faced when he became College of the Desert’s athletic director early last year.

In early 2012, one COD football player was shot to death by police in Palm Desert while in the process of committing a burglary. Several others were subsequently arrested for criminal activity. Later in 2012, then-new COD President Joel Kinnamon vowed to clean up not only the football program, but a culture that allowed such miscreant behavior to occur.

The 45-year-old Plunkett is the man charged with continuing to change that culture. The South Bay native previously spent nine years as the head women’s basketball coach at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. At COD, he oversees 14 sports—seven each for men and women. With the exception of the football team, the COD Roadrunners compete in the new Pacific Coast Athletic Conference.

“I was coaching basketball against COD in the same conference when the issues with the football program arose,” says Plunkett. “While Dr. Kinnamon did not specifically address the past in the interview process, I was fully aware all that had transpired. I knew the challenges we faced. I took the job with the goal of meeting high standards and making sure we were in compliance both on and off the field.”

Plunkett is aware that community colleges have had a lousy reputation for “parking athletes”—in other words, bringing on athletes who are only looking to earn a scholarship to play at a four-year school, and who don’t care about academics. He said that COD is working to emphasize the academic component.

“At this level we have academic requirements,” he says. “We have a full time academic coordinator who meets with athletes weekly. Also, faculty members alert us to students having problems, and we try to help.”

The yearly athletic department budget at COD totals a little more than $300,000, not counting coaches’ salaries. A large chunk of that goes toward travel expenses.

Plunkett says coaching is one of his biggest challenges. “Our coaching staff is excellent, but with the exception of the men’s golf coach, who also a professor here, the coaches are part-time and have other jobs,” Plunkett says. “They are extremely dedicated, but they have time constraints as well. It also makes it difficult to retain coaches who have been offered full-time opportunities.”

One of the unusual things about the Coachella Valley is the large amount of retirees—including retired coaches from major sports who live here at least part-time. Therefore, Plunkett says, his coaches sometimes get some good unsolicited advice.

“My staff has some connections to these people, and every once in a while, they get a message,” he says. “They are very grateful to get advice from those who been at the top.”

As the college continues to expand, COD wants its athletic program to better reach out to the community. About a year ago, it hired a sports information specialist to work with local media to publicize events. Plunkett says he’d love to see more community and fan support to grow the Roadrunner brand.

“We absolutely want to ramp up our local outreach. When we see young kids at our events, we know that these are potential COD students or athletes,” he says. “I hear from many local people who say after attending a local event, ‘I never knew you had such a beautiful campus or facility. I am definitely coming back.’”

Plans are in the works to reach out more to local high school coaches as well. A high school basketball tournament that was played at the COD gym led to some financial problems, but Plunkett says he is open to a new tournament if arrangements can be made.

According to Plunkett, good things are ahead for the Roadrunners.

“The future is very bright. We are in a new league with a great staff,” he says. “Not only are we poised to win championships; we want to see more and more of our student athletes leave COD and compete successfully on the four-year level.”

For more information on COD Athletics, visit codathletics.com. Steve Kelly is freelance writer/broadcaster who can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..