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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

At the very top of the minor leagues, athletes can almost taste the promised land. In baseball there's Triple-A, in basketball there's the D-League, in hockey there's the AHL, and in football there's the SEC (oops, never mind). But in golf, there's the Web.com Tour, and that's the one place where competitors control their own destiny. They can play their way onto the biggest stage, and last fall it became official when the Web.com circuit became the primary vehicle to get to the PGA Tour. The top 25 Web.com money winners during the regular season have always been guaranteed spots on the big tour. But now there are an additional 25 PGA Tour berths up for grabs based on winnings in September's Web.com Tour Finals, which include 150 players (the top 75 from the Web.com Tour and Nos. 126 through 200 on the PGA Tour money list).

That's how Troy Merritt earned his return to the PGA Tour last fall. Merritt barely made it into the Web.com Tour Finals in September, finishing 74th on the regular season money list. Then he caught fire, winning more than $36,000 in the three-tournament series, placing 15th. The former Boise State star is the poster boy for those scrambling to stay within the top 75 on the Web.com Tour with six tournaments remaining, including the Albertsons Boise Open that tees off tomorrow.

In my haste to scroll through the list from Monday's Albertsons Boise Open qualifier, I missed the fact that one Idaho golfer did indeed make it through the 158-player field into the main draw. Justin Snelling, a 37-year-old Boisean, will be playing his home course this week at Hillcrest Country Club. Snelling, who played college golf at Utah Valley State, was on the Canadian tour from 2006-08. He birdied five of his last seven holes at Ridgecrest Monday to make the grade with a seven-under 65.

Graham DeLaet enters his third major of the year tomorrow in the British Open at Royal Liverpool. His theme for this one: "relax." DeLaet told the Toronto Star he might put too much emphasis on the big tournaments and wants to throttle things back a little this week. "I think I've been putting a little too much pressure on myself and making them bigger than they are," the Boise State product said after a practice round yesterday. "So I'm going to kind of go in here and just play like I would any other week. We're playing against the same kind of field—obviously it's a little bit different kind of golf, but it's a lot of fun."

Boise State's Matt Miller has been named to the watch list for the 2014 Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's top receiver. Miller is a worthy candidate, do ya think? He goes into his senior year with 216 career catches, 13 short of Austin Pettis's school record, covering 2,588 yards with 26 touchdowns. His 88 receptions last year were the most in a single season in Boise State history. Miller has caught at least one pass in each of his 39 career games, the longest such streak in the country.

Can Miller parlay those numbers into some playing time in the NFL? There are those who see him as an undrafted free agent, including Dane Brugler NFLDraftScout.com. In his rundown of Mountain West prospects, Brugler writes, "Miller is a flexible athlete with coordinated movements, but his average speed won't take the top off defenses and lack of dynamic routes makes it tough for him to consistently create separation. He is a possession target who needs to be a more consistent hands-catcher to prove he's a draftable player."

Brugler's view of Boise State's Jay Ajayi is something else. He rates the junior running back as the top draft-eligible player in the Mountain West this season. Writes Brugler, "The top returning rusher in the conference, Ajayi has quick feet and controls his acceleration well with the explosive qualities needed for the next level. Ajayi has a limber, flexible body type with rubber joints and nimble lateral moves to juke, flashing the balance to make defenders miss or brush off contact. He plays fast, but sometimes too fast and will run into his own blockers and needs to improve his ability in pass protection. But above all, Ajayi needs to eliminate the fumbles and improve his ball security. Based on tape study, it wouldn't surprise me if he earns second and third round grades from NFL scouts." That may be enough for Ajayi to forego his senior season.

Boise State basketball coach Leon Rice revealed yesterday that the Broncos have a marquee road game set at North Carolina State the day after Thanksgiving. The Wolfpack were 22-14 last season, 9-9 in the ACC. NC State is entering its fourth season under coach Mark Gottfried—it made the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three campaigns. Last March, the Wolfpack beat Xavier in the First Four in Dayton before falling to Saint Louis in the main draw.

After an explosive Monday at Memorial Stadium, it was a pitchers duel-type Tuesday as the Boise Hawks edged Spokane 4-3 in 10 innings. The Hawks were blanked over the first five frames—then Mark Malave doubled in two runs in the sixth to give them a 2-1 lead. After Spokane tied it in the seventh, Boise regained the advantage in the eighth when Charlie White executed a suicide squeeze to score Chesny Young. The Hawks were one out away from a 3-2 victory in the ninth when Spokane tied it on a wild pitch. But Jeffrey Baez finished it off in the bottom of the 10th, singling home Young to give the Hawks their 10th win in 13 tries in the month of July.

Four former Hawks were named to last night's All-Star Game, although only three were eligible to play after Jeff Samardzija's trade from the Cubs to the A's. Oakland's Josh Donaldson and Pittsburgh's Josh Harrison were both 0-for-2 in the American League's 5-3 victory. Milwaukee's Francisco Rodriguez, in his fifth Midsummer Classic, tossed a scoreless sixth inning. Donaldson's lasting memory will surely be sharing the dugout with Derek Jeter in his final All-Star Game.

This Day In Sports…July 16, 2009, five years ago today:

The most successful coach in Idaho Stampede history resigns to take an assistant's spot with the NBA's Sacramento Kings. Bryan Gates, who didn't play basketball as a student at Boise State, rose from a job as an unpaid intern under Bobby Dye during the Stampede's first season in 1997-98 to become the team's head coach in 2006. Gates had a three-year regular season record of 100-50 and won the D-League Coach of the Year award in his first two seasons. More importantly, he guided the Stampede to their first and only D-League championship in 2008. Gates is now on the staff of the New Orleans Pelicans.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB's Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB's telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)

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