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MSU-West Plains Grizzly Basketball
The Grizzly Basketball team (2-0) will host Trinity Valley Community College (TX) at 7 p.m. Friday in the Joe Paul Evans Arena at the West Plains Civic Center.
Everyone is encouraged to bring building materials or usable tools for Habitat for Humanity as part of the team’s community service project for the night.
The game sponsor is Shoe Factory Lofts.
For more information about the Grizzly Basketball team, visit http://wp.missouristate.edu/grizzly/bb. 

sports_photoThe Missouri State football program will hit a crossroads this weekend. The Bears have suddenly caught fire, winning three games in a row by double digits.

At 4-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, MSU is tied with Illinois State (a team the Bears have already beat) for third place in the league. A win at Southern Illinois this weekend would give the Bears their most league wins since 1990, which was also the last time MSU made the FCS playoffs.

It’s been a roller coaster season that began with an 0-4 start in the non-conference schedule, followed by losing two of the first three MVFC games.

But somehow, some way, the Bears are on the upswing/

MSU has finally found some offense to go with its stellar defense, and the results have been three straight convincing wins. Their game this Saturday will have long-term and short-term implications.

A win, and the Bears keep their slim hopes for the p-word (I can’t bring myself to type it and jinx it) alive. The Bears would be 5-6 overall and 5-2 in the MVFC, with a regular season finale at home the following week against last-place Northern Iowa.

You wouldn’t think a .500-level record would be good enough to get into the FCS playoffs, but the Bears have a few things working to their advantage.

For one, they play in what’s usually viewed as one of the toughest conferences in the FCS. Generally, the MVFC sends multiple teams to the playoffs. That at-large bid may be a pipe dream with a 6-6 overall record, but at least at 6-2 and alone in third place, the Bears would have chance.

In speaking with the media this week, Allen said: “If we can get this one (at Southern Illinois), then we’re coming home and might be playing for something pretty specially. So we gotta make sure they know that, but also stay in the mindset that it’s one game at a time.”

So, you mean to say MSU’s season might not be over after playing Northern Iowa on Nov. 16?

“(Players) understand that,” Allen said. “We’ve made sure of that.”

The FCS playoffs also expanded from 20 to 24 teams for the 2013 season. While it may have been bleak to get a bid two or three years ago, the Bears could land in one of those new playoff spots.

Here’s a recap of how many MVFC teams have made the playoffs in the last five years. Keep in mind, between 2010-2012, there were 10 at-large spots available. There are 13 at-large spots this year.

• 2012 – League champ: North Dakota State; At-large: Illinois State, South Dakota State
•  2011 – League champ: North Dakota State; At-large: Northern Iowa
• 2010 – League champ: Northern Iowa; At-large: North Dakota State, Western Illinois
• 2009 – League champ: Southern Illinois; At-large: South Dakota State *16-team playoff, 8 at-large spots
• 2008 – League champ: Northern Iowa; At-large: Southern Illinois *16-team playoff, 8 at-large spots

In the interest of full disclosure, the easy case against the Bears’ playoff chances would be that none of those at-large teams in the last five years had a .500-level record. That just makes the Bears’ early season struggles all the more frustrating.

If they don’t somehow pull a loss from the jaws of victory against Murray State, Central Arkansas and South Dakota, they’re at least 6-4 and a near-lock for the playoffs if they win out.

Let’s play along and say the Bears win their last two games, defy the odds, and squeak into the playoffs with one of the last at-large bids.

Suddenly, your head coach goes from the hot seat to the contract-extension seat. Allen will have given the Bears their most league victories and first playoff appearance in over 20 years. He also would go into 2014 in the final year of his contract.

You have to bring him back for 2014 and let the contract play out, but now do you reward him with an extension? Does one improbable late-season run into a playoff spot outweigh seven seasons of average-to-above average football?

It would be hard for Allen to go on the recruiting trail, coming off a breakthrough playoff appearance for the school, and try to land players while they know his contract will be up after their first season at MSU.

That contract extension depends on if the Bears can win at Southern Illinois, then return home and beat Northern Iowa (something Allen has never done at MSU.) Past history would tell us that this is the classic MSU sports scenario where we slightly get our hopes up, only to be let down.

If they lose one or both of the next two games, we could see a lot of changes with MSU football before next season. A “lame duck” situation would not be ideal for anyone.

Still, it’s a refreshing change that basketball season is about to start and the football Bears still have something to play for.

(West Plains) – The Missouri State University-West Plains Grizzly Volleyball team will take a 20-12 record into this weekend’s Jefferson College Halloween Classic tournament in Hillsboro, Missouri.

The Grizzlies, ranked 16th in this week’s National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I Women’s Volleyball Poll, will face Seward County Community College, Liberal, Kansas, at 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24, and Illinois Central College (ICC), East Peoria, the No. 3 NJCAA Division II team in the nation, at 3 p.m. Friday. At noon Saturday, the Grizzlies will face Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College.

“Seward is always competitive, so we have to respect them and be ready to play,” Grizzly Volleyball Head Coach Paula Wiedemann said. “ICC is a top five team every year in DII, and they’re very well coached. They’re scrappy, they’re very efficient, and they will force us to play patiently unless we can overwhelm them. And, of course, Hutch is a dangerous team. They’re huge, and after losing to us in our tournament a couple of weeks ago, I’m sure we’re on their radar. Trying to get a win will be first and foremost in their minds, so we will need to be ready.”

The Grizzlies reached the 20 win mark Monday, Oct. 20, with an important road win against Kansas City Kansas Community College in Kansas City, Kansas. Wiedemann said she credits a strong defensive effort by the Grizzlies for the 25-13, 25-18, 25-19 victory.

“We dug the ball really well,” the coach said. “Our defense has been really frustrating people in the past few matches, which is really nice for a change. A month ago, we were the ones frustrated, but right now we’re making great adjustments on defense, talking to each other and figuring out what we need to do on the court. This was a match where we needed to get in and get out, and our defense helped us do that.”

Statistically, freshman middle attacker Penny Liu dominated the Blue Devils, recording 24 kills on 36 attempts with only one error for an attacking percentage of .639. “Penny was so on target all night. She was able to see the floor and make great swings on good angles,” Wiedemann said.

Liu was assisted on most of her kills by freshman setter Susannah Kelley, who led the team in assists with 34. “Susannah did a great job feeding Penny the ball and keeping her in the offense constantly,” the coach said.

Defensively, redshirt freshman right side/middle attacker Ashley Bishton led the team in blocks with three, all of which were solos, and sophomore libero Alyssa Aldag led the team in digs with 34 and passing rating with 2.75. Liu earned the most points for the night with 26.

“We neutralized two of their players who were very effective against us earlier this season, and they weren’t a factor this time. That’s what good defense does,” Wiedemann said.

This weekend’s tournament will finish the Grizzlies’ regular season schedule. They will enter the NJCAA Region 16 Championship Tournament as the No. 1 seed and will play the winner of the Oct. 31 semifinal match between Mineral Area College, Park Hills, Missouri, and Jefferson College on Nov. 1 in the championship match at Jefferson College in Hillsboro.

“We’re in the postseason after this weekend, so rest is important,” Wiedemann said. “The way we need to approach our practice times next week is get in, get things done and get out.”

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) celebrates with teammates after kicking a field goal against the San Diego Chargers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos (5) celebrates with teammates after kicking a field goal against the San Diego Chargers during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Just about the worst thing that could happen to Chiefs rookie Cairo Santos came to fruition during his NFL debut, when he missed one of his two field-goal attempts while the man he replaced in Kansas City kept banging balls through the uprights.

Ryan Succop was perfect on his four attempts that day, helping Tennessee to a 26-10 rout.

Afterward, though, the veteran kicker who had spent his entire career with the Chiefs met the young upstart on the field. Succop told Santos that he struggled so much one season that he thought he was going to be cut, and then set a Chiefs record with 22 consecutive makes.

It was exactly what Santos needed to hear.

The Brazilian youngster with the booming leg missed another kick the following week at Denver, but has made six straight over the last three games. The coup de grace: A winning, 48-yarder with 21 seconds left in a 23-20 victory at San Diego last Sunday.

“With kickers, sometimes it’s a roller coaster,” Santos said. “You can’t run from it. It’s about being mentally strong. If you make one, it’s onto the next kick. Just like if you miss one. Nothing I did in San Diego is going to help us beat the St. Louis Rams.”

That may be true to some extent, but the kick that sent the Chiefs (3-3) past the Chargers last Sunday certainly filled Santos with confidence. And it also filled the rest of the Chiefs with confidence, too – if the offense can get the ball to an opponent’s 35, they know now that they will come away with at least three points just about every time.

“Listen, when you study some of these great kickers that first year, a lot of them have struggled,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “There have been some highs and lows, let’s put it that way, in their careers in that first year. So I’ve got it, I understand.”

Three kickers in the Hall of Fame provide proof of that.

George Blanda, who also played quarterback during his 27-year career, made just seven of his first 15 field goals as a 22-year-old rookie in 1949. Of course, the ball and the uprights and the field surface and just about everything else was different then, and most would argue it was far harder to kick. But he still wound up being one of the best of his time.

Three times Blanda led the league in field-goal percentage.

Lou Groza was also 22 during his rookie season in 1946. He made just 13 of 29 field goals that season, but would go on to lead the league in percentage five times. By the time he was kicking for Cleveland in 1963, he was hitting 23 of 26 attempts – absurd for the era.

Then there’s Jan Stenerud, who happened to play the majority of his career for the Chiefs. He made just 21 of 36 attempts as 25-year-old rookie, then led the league with 30 makes the next year. He was 20 of 23 in 1984, as a 42-year old kicking for Minnesota.

Those are all inspiring tales, but Santos has leaned on more recent kickers for advice.

Longtime Bears kicker Robbie Gould called him out of nowhere a while back, and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski talked to Santos for a while after their game last month.

“I’ve talked to a lot of vets out there that have helped me establish a better routine,” Santos said. “We do have a play clock, 40 seconds. So take your time, feel the wind. That’s what I’ve been doing and so far it’s been working.”

The kicks still haven’t always been pretty. The winner against San Diego shimmied and shook and danced through the air before skirting just inside the upright.

But the results have been simply gorgeous.

“I told Cairo, his cream is going to rise to the top,” said his holder, Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt. “He’s got a great leg, a great head on his shoulders. He’s had an opportunity to go on a roll here, so that’s huge. We’re really confident in him.”

Seattle Seahawks tight end Cooper Helfet, right, keeps his feet inbounds after catching a touchdown pass as St. Louis Rams strong safety T.J. McDonald defends during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

Seattle Seahawks tight end Cooper Helfet, right, keeps his feet inbounds after catching a touchdown pass as St. Louis Rams strong safety T.J. McDonald defends during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — T.J. McDonald played every snap last week before showing up on the St. Louis Rams’ injury report with a concussion and missing practice Wednesday.

The safety was back in a limited capacity Thursday after being allowed to work out by the medical staff. McDonald said he expects to play Sunday at Kansas City.

“I really don’t know exactly when it happened,” McDonald said after practice at Rams Park. “I can’t point to one play. I just know that after the game, I started to feel a little something. I was a little off. It was like a fog-type thing.

“I just felt like I was out of it a little bit. I was not myself. A little headache.”

He reported his condition to the Rams first thing Monday. He underwent the battery of tests necessary before stepping back on the field.

McDonald also saw a neurologist, who cleared him to practice.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher said the club followed the concussion protocol.

“He just didn’t feel right Sunday so we went through the whole process,” Fisher said. “Obviously, he’s been cleared, and he was out there.”

The Rams held him out of practice Wednesday as a precaution, McDonald said.

The second-year Ram downplayed his ailment.

“I’m fine,” McDonald said. “Nothing’s bothering me anymore. It’s nothing major.”

Missing practice meant taking some razzing from his teammates in the secondary.

“Any day that you sit out, these guys will give you a hard time,” McDonald said. “You don’t want to sit down and watch practice. You want to be out there.”

And he has been out there for St. Louis.

McDonald, a third-round draft pick in 2013 from Southern California, has been on the field for every defensive snap this season.

“I sat out enough last year to know what that feels like, so I don’t sit want to sit out at all,” McDonald said.

McDonald won a starting job in training camp in 2013. He played the first three games before a broken fibula in Week 4 caused him to miss six games. He returned to start the final seven games.

McDonald’s style of play creates collisions. He takes pride in making hard hits. Through six games, McDonald ranked third on the team with 56 tackles.

He also contributes on the special teams. In the Rams’ first win this season against Tampa Bay, McDonald blocked a punt and a field goal. They were the first blocks in McDonald’s career and marked the first time the Rams had blocked a punt and a field goal in the same game since 1979.

“I hope there’s more blocks in me,” McDonald said. “I hope that there’s one in me every week. It’s just about going out there and executing, and if the opportunity comes up, take advantage of it.”

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Ryan Miller was looking forward to his return to St. Louis with his new team, and the former Sabres and Blues goaltender made the most of it.

Miller made 15 of his season-high 31 saves in the third period, and the Vancouver Canucks scored three times in the final 15:06 of the game to beat the Blues 4-1.

“It was one I was actually really looking forward to, especially here in St. Louis,” Miller said. “It was fun.”

Nick Bonino, Linden Vey and Jannik Hansen broke open a tight game, scoring goals in the third period to help the Canucks (4-2-0, 8 points) snap a two-game losing streak. That made a winner of Miller, who signed a three-year, $18 million contract with Vancouver after the Blues opted not to re-sign him in the offseason.

“We didn’t get the job done, and I’m going to feel really bad about that for a long time,” Miller said of his time with the Blues. “But I’m going to continue to push in my career and this is where I ended up, and I’m happy to be a Canuck.”

The Blues fell to 2-3-1 with their second consecutive loss.

The Canucks scored just 41 seconds into the first period off a Blues turnover in the neutral zone. Alexandre Burrows’ wrist shot from the left circle was knocked down by goalie Jake Allen, but Chris Higgins was there to put home the rebound for his second goal of the season.

The Blues tied the score with a power-play goal from Kevin Shattenkirk, off assists by David Backes and Alexander Steen, with 12:22 left in the second period after the Canucks were called for too many men on the ice.

Bonino put the Canucks ahead to stay with 15:06 remaining in the third period when he scored on an odd-man rush following a Miller save of a Jori Lehtera scoring chance at the other end.

“The save he made in the third was the game,” Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins said of Miller’s stop on Lehtera. “If they score there, it’s 2-1 them. He made the big save, we went down and scored and that changed the game.”

Vey scored on the power play with 8:03 remaining, assisted by Henrik Sedin and Radim Vrbata, and Hansen added an unassisted, empty-net goal with 3:01 left.

Bonino, Burrows and Higgins each finished with two points.

“It’s good to get that one, especially for Millsy,” Bonino said. “He made some huge saves in the third and the second, so we’re happy to win it for him.”

Miller, who had allowed five goals on 13 shots in a loss to the Stars on Tuesday, came up big in the clutch on Thursday.

The Blues acquired Miller from the Sabres before the trade deadline last season, but after winning seven of his first eight starts he struggled down the stretch and posted an .897 save percentage in the six-game, first-round Stanley Cup playoff series loss to the Blackhawks.

“Listen, things didn’t work out here, but he’s still Ryan Miller,” Shattenkirk said. “We don’t forget that. He’s still a great goalie and one of the great goalies in this league, so he’s a hard guy to beat. Playing the way we did tonight, we had some good chances. We just have to put some more by him.”

NOTES: The Canucks recorded 23 blocked shots, including five from Luca Sbisa and four apiece from Christopher Tanev and Alexander Edler. . Thursday’s game was the 500th for Edler, a Canucks defenseman, and the 200th in the career of Blues forward Ryan Reaves. . There was a delay with 12:02 remaining in the first period when a piece of glass behind the Canucks goal had to be replaced. . The Blues played their second straight game without injured center Paul Stastny (upper body injury). . Lehtera won 11 of his 14 face-off attempts Thursday.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — John “Bull” Bramlett, a former professional football and baseball player who was nicknamed the “Meanest Man in Football,” has died. He was 73.

Shelby County Mayor’s Office spokesman Steve Shular told The Associated Press that family members say the Memphis native died early Thursday. Shular said Mayor Mark H. Luttrell was close to Bramlett, who had been in declining health. Terry Richards, funeral director of Memorial Park Funeral Home in Memphis, confirmed his death.

Bramlett was a star baseball and football player at Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis.

He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals out of college and played minor league baseball for three years before changing to pro football. He signed in 1965 with the Denver Broncos, which at that time were part of the American Football League.

He also played for the Miami Dolphins (1967-68), Boston (now New England) Patriots (1969-70) and Atlanta Falcons (1971) and, according to the website of a ministry he later founded, was a two-time all-pro linebacker. He was runner-up to Joe Namath for American Football League rookie of the year in 1965, the ministry said.

Because of his on-the-field aggressiveness and his antics off the field, Bramlett was given his nickname. But he changed his behavior when he retired from football, becoming a Christian evangelist.

According to John Bramlett Ministries’ website, “Bull” spent 40 years speaking to hundreds of churches, schools, prisons and conventions, as well as NFL and MLB chapel services.

“Indeed, he inspired many people as a professional football player,” Mayor Luttrell said in a statement. “Yet … John’s stories of forgiveness and hope through his Christian witness made a real difference in the lives of countless people throughout the nation and here in Shelby County.

“John Bramlett was … a dear friend. I’m grateful for having known him and his family.”

Kansas City Royals pitcher James Shields wipes his face as he is taken out of the game during the fourth inning of Game 1 of baseball's World Series against the San Francisco Giants Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Kansas City Royals pitcher James Shields wipes his face as he is taken out of the game during the fourth inning of Game 1 of baseball’s World Series against the San Francisco Giants Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Royals had adopted the scrappy, intense attitude of Royals starter James Shields during their thrilling postseason run. They followed his cue on Tuesday night, too.

It just happened that Shields was tight from the very first pitch.

The veteran starter was pounded for five runs on seven hits and a walk, failed to record an out in the third inning and was pulled from Game 1 to a smattering of boos. Kansas City went on to lose 7-1 to the San Francisco Giants in its first World Series appearance in 29 years.

“Maybe amped up a bit,” Shields acknowledged, “but I have to bear down and get the job done. That is the bottom line. I didn’t get the job done tonight.”

Neither did the rest of the Royals, who had swept through the playoffs but suddenly looked more like the 100-loss cellar-dwellers that Kansas City fielded so many times over the years.

The only run the Royals scored came on Salvador Perez’s homer in the seventh inning.

Their crisp defense had fallen apart, right fielder Nori Aoki at one point whiffing on a flyball that bounced past him for a triple. Their daring base-running had been made irrelevant. Their bullpen, too. And an offense that struggled all season managed three hits off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, flailing at his pitches as if they were hoping to make contact rather than expecting it.

“Maybe that happened because this group, we had a lot of guys making their World Series debuts tonight,” shortstop Alcides Escobar said. “Eventually we felt good.”

By that point, it was already too late.

Gregor Blanco tagged Shields for a leadoff single, Buster Posey added another single, and Pablo Sandoval doubled to right field before the game was 15 minutes old. Posey was thrown out at home on a nice relay throw by second baseman Omar Infante, but the Giants still had a 1-0 lead.

It became 3-0 when Hunter Pence homered on a full-count pitch in the next at-bat.

“That isn’t the way we planned it,” Shields said.

By the time Shields struck out Michael Morse to end the first, he had thrown 32 pitches. The anticipation that had built in the five days since the Royals won the AL pennant had evaporated, and a frenzied crowd that drove up ticket prices to an exhorbitant level had been silenced.

Shields, who shut out the Giants in August, set them down in order each of the next two innings. But even then, he was fortunate that several hard-hit balls found gloves.

His luck ran out in the fourth when Pence, who entered the game 0 for 11 in his career against Shields, connected for a leadoff double. Brandon Belt walked and Morse added an RBI single, forcing Royals manager Ned Yost to make a long, stoic walk to the mound.

Shields trudged to the dugout as Danny Duffy trotted in from the bullpen.

It certainly wasn’t the outing the Royals expected of “Big Game James,” who has been credited with changing the losing clubhouse culture in Kansas City. But it also wasn’t the first time Shields had failed up to the nickname given to him by his high school teammates.

After pitching marvelously down the stretch this season, Shields struggled in a wild-card win over Oakland. He fared a bit better against the Angels in the divisional round, but struggled again in the AL Championship Series against Baltimore.

“This is a funny game,” Yost said. “You can go out one night and give up seven runs and come back the next, your next five days around and throw a great game. But you have to know James Shields. You have to know that he’s a tremendous competitor. He has the ability to make adjustments.

“Right now he just hasn’t been as sharp as he has been,” Yost said, “But with the extra rest and then coming back five days from now, we think will benefit him.”

Assuming, of course, that Shields gets another chance in Game 5.

“We have a lot of character in this clubhouse,” he said. “This one obviously is our first loss in the postseason, but we’re not going to let it get us down.”

FILE - In this Sept. 7, 2014, file photo, Dallas Cowboys' Michael Sam shakes hands with fans before the first half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys have released Michael Sam from the practice squad, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, another setback as the NFL’s first openly gay player tries to make an active roster during the regular season for the first time. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

FILE – In this Sept. 7, 2014, file photo, Dallas Cowboys’ Michael Sam shakes hands with fans before the first half of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys have released Michael Sam from the practice squad, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, another setback as the NFL’s first openly gay player tries to make an active roster during the regular season for the first time. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

IRVING, Texas (AP) — Michael Sam will have to wait for a third team to give the NFL’s first openly gay player a chance to appear in a regular-season game.

The Dallas Cowboys released Sam from the practice squad Tuesday, dropping the rush end as they prepare for several potential reinforcements to return to the defensive line.

Sam spent seven weeks with the Cowboys after joining their practice squad Sept. 3, four days after he was among the final cuts by the St. Louis Rams at the end of the preseason. He was never placed on the 53-man active roster.

The Rams drafted the former SEC defensive player of the year from Missouri late in the seventh round in May. He was pick No. 249 out of 256. Sam had three sacks in the preseason with St. Louis playing mostly against second- and third-stringers.

Sam thanked the family of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Twitter, along with “friends, family, teammates, and fans for their support.”

“While this is disappointing, I will take the lessons I learned here in Dallas and continue to fight for an opportunity to prove that I can play every Sunday,” Sam wrote.

The signing of Sam by the Cowboys brought an overflow crowd to coach Jason Garrett’s daily news conference, and he was surrounded by about two dozen reporters in the only interview he conducted on the same day.

But he mostly blended in after that, making occasional appearances in the locker room when it was open to the media and earning praise from Garrett and defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli the few times they were asked about him.

“Comes to work every day and practices hard,” Garrett said last week. “One of 10 practice roster guys that we have, so he’s working on his skills, trying to develop, but also doing a lot of other things. Playing offense, defense, playing the kicking game. That’s what a lot of those guys do.”

Sam came out to his Missouri teammates before his senior season, when he had 11 1/2 sacks. He told the rest of the world three months before the May draft. After Sunday’s 31-21 win over the New York Giants, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told USA Today that Sam’s sexuality was “a dead issue.”

The Cowboys (6-1), off to their best start since they were 12-1 in 2007, are playing their second straight NFC East opponent at home, with Washington (2-5) visiting Monday night.

The Rams didn’t keep Sam because they had depth on the defensive front. The same situation is developing for the Cowboys, who are among the league’s worst in sacks but have been getting solid production with a rotation in the front four of a defense exceeding expectations.

Dallas has rookie second-round pick DeMarcus Lawrence close to coming back after breaking his right foot in training camp. He was placed on short-term injured reserve and will be eligible to play next week against Arizona.

Veteran defensive end Anthony Spencer gets stronger each week in his return from microfracture knee surgery that sidelined him all but one game last season.

Defensive tackle Josh Brent, who is serving a 10-game suspension for his intoxication manslaughter conviction in the 2012 death of teammate Jerry Brown, returns to practice next week. He will be eligible to play Nov. 23 at the Giants.

While releasing Sam, the Cowboys added linebacker Troy Davis of Central Florida and defensive tackle Ken Bishop of Northern Illinois to their practice squad.

CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Bulls say guard Jimmy Butler will miss their final preseason game with a sprained left thumb.

Butler was injured when he deflected a pass in the first quarter of Sunday night’s 101-96 victory over Charlotte.

The Bulls announced on Tuesday that an MRI and subsequent examinations had confirmed the diagnosis of sprained thumb ligaments. Butler will miss practice this week and will be re-evaluated after Chicago plays Minnesota in St. Louis on Friday night.

Butler averaged a career-high 13.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 67 games last season. He also is regarded as a strong perimeter defender.

Chicago opens the regular season on Oct. 29 at the New York Knicks.

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley answers a question during a news conference at the Southeastern Conference women's basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley answers a question during a news conference at the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball media day in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley knows the work it took to reach the top of the Southeastern Conference. She understands it’ll be an even greater challenge for the defending SEC champs to stay there.

Gone are the days when everyone would pencil in Tennessee to dominate the SEC, win the league title and easily move on to the Final Four. While the Gamecocks were picked to repeat, Staley expects the defending champions to be challenged by a hungry, talented group of teams looking to finish on top.

“You have to be prepared for this meat grinder,” Staley said Tuesday. “There isn’t a conference in the country that’s challenged like we are night in and night out.”

Last season, eight SEC teams reached the NCAA tournament with five making the Sweet Sixteen. Staley expects that to continue this season.

“If you can survive our conference, you’re going to put yourself in position to make some noise nationally,” Staley said. “That’s not just one team, that’s a number of teams.”

The Gamecocks were voted the preseason favorites to repeat in the SEC. South Carolina guard Tiffany Mitchell was picked to win a second straight player of the year award while teammate Aleighsa Welch was part of the preseason, five-member all-SEC team in a vote of media.

The host of title contenders start with the Lady Vols.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was on Pat Summitt’s staff with the Lady Vols from 1985 until succeeding her friend and mentor in 2012-13. Warlick was part of a run where the school won 15 SEC regular-season titles and 15 league tournament crowns. By the time SEC rivals and their administrators fully embraced Summitt’s vision, Tennessee had built a talent gap that took years to bridge.

Warlick has no such advantage.

She has, however, proved the Lady Vols are still a force in the SEC. Warlick led Tennessee to the regular-season title in her first season and the SEC tournament crown last winter – and the Lady Vols shouldn’t be counted out this year.

“We’ve been the hunted and we’ve hunted people as well,” she said. “This group enjoys a challenge.”

Georgia coach Andy Landers said the SEC has improved through expansion, most recently adding 2011 national champion Texas A&M and Missouri to an already difficult schedule.

“And whoever is the more traditional powers in the conference, the top five or six teams, haven’t changed,” said Landers, starting his 36th season at Georgia.

Those traditional powers stack up right behind South Carolina and Tennessee in the preseason picks. Texas A&M was voted third. Kentucky was fourth, followed by Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State and Florida. All but Mississippi State played in the NCAA tournament last year.

Auburn was 10th while Arkansas and Missouri tied for 11th. Alabama and Mississippi rounded out the selections.

Landers said league teams are looking for – and hiring – coaches who can succeed. Arkansas brought in ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes as its new coach. Nikki Caldwell has reached the NCAA all three seasons at LSU while Mississippi’s Matt Insell and Alabama’s Kristy Curry are in the second year of revamping their programs.

“Schools are finding the right fit in their coaches,” Landers said.

Vanderbilt forward Marque’s Webb believes the SEC’s depth motivates players across the league to push harder to stay in that lead pack.

“It’s not a goal,” Webb said. “It’s a standard, `We’ve got to make the NCAA tournament.’ We expect that of ourselves.”

Alongside the Gamecocks’ duo of Mitchell and Welch on the all-SEC team were Mississippi State’s Martha Alwal, Tennessee’s Isabelle Harrison and Texas A&M’s Courtney Walker.

Harrison, the Tennessee senior who averaged 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds a game last season, said it might be hard at times for Tennessee fans to adjust to the reality the SEC is no longer a one-team league.

“There’s a lot of teams rising up and getting great players,” she said. “Of course, I feel like Tennessee’s a great school to play for, but there are other great schools as well.”

That’s helped Staley build a power program with the Gamecocks.

Along with Mitchell as SEC player of the year in 2013-14, South Carolina 6-foot-4 freshman Alaina Coates won the award as the league’s top newcomer.

Staley added to her stocked roster with one of the country’s top recruiting classes, led by 6-5 A’ja Wilson, the nation’s leading college prospect who picked the Gamecocks over Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“It’s an exciting time,” Staley said. “Our players have done some tremendous things at South Carolina. We’ve won a lot of games in this league the last couple of years. We want to be one of the best teams in this league because it means you’re one of the best teams in the country.”

(Provided)

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(West Plains) – The West Plains Middle School 8th grade football team has ended its season undefeated.

The achievement happened this past Thursday, after the Zizzers defeated the Salem Tigers 50-6.