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Te'o preparing for Notre Dame's final home game

Te'o preparing for Notre Dame's final home game

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Manti Te'o will play at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time Saturday, giving Fighting Irish fans the chance to celebrate one of the best linebackers in the history of the storied program and thank him for leading the team to one of its best seasons in decades.

Expect it to be a memorable moment, but certainly not the end of Te'o's tale at Notre Dame. Not the last time he'll make a big play for the Irish, thump his chest and point to the sky.

``When those books are written, they're written about championships. They're written about the great days at Notre Dame. Certainly this has been a great year, but there is more to accomplish,'' Irish coach Brian Kelly said. ``I think he would be the first one to tell you that this story is not over with. There are some more chapters to be written.''

Notre Dame fans are hoping those chapters include an undefeated season, the school's first national championship since 1988 and Te'o getting a trip to New York with an outside shot to win the Heisman Trophy - which would be a first for the Irish since receiver Tim Brown in 1987.

Te'o said Wednesday he's focused on winning a national championship, not personal accolades.

``I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue,'' he said.

The game against Wake Forest (5-5) on Saturday is the primary reason Te'o returned for his senior season instead of leaving for the NFL after last season. He saw how important senior day was to his teammates and then saw how important it was to their parents when videotape of the day was shown at the team banquet.

``That's something that money can't buy. Money can't buy that experience,'' Te'o said. ``I've realized that. Like I said before, I'm really excited. I'm very grateful that I'll be able to experience that with my family.''

The Hawaiian standout said he expects his parents, Ottilia and Brian Te'o, his siblings and more than 30 other family members to attend the game and to celebrate his career. He likely will finish third on Notre Dame's all-time tackles list and he already holds the record for interceptions in a season by a linebacker with six, but it's his intangibles he will be remembered most for.

Kelly said he's never had a leader such as Te'o.

``His relationship with me and the defensive coordinator and how that helps others lay it on the line and say, `Hey, whatever our coaches ask us to do.' There's just so many things,'' Kelly said. ``He's a leader. He really has galvanized this football team by the way he has performed.''

Kelly said others try to emulate Te'o, and that makes them better.

``There is a mirroring effect and a trickle-down effect to the other players in the program that go, `I want to be like that guy,''' Kelly said. ``That's something you don't get very often.''

It wasn't always that way. Te'o was a hesitant leader as a sophomore, when Kelly first arrived and pushed Te'o to take command.

``He didn't really feel it was his place to tell others how to do things,'' Kelly said.

It took a while, but Te'o eventually understood that he needed to push his teammates if the Irish were going to get better.

``We call it peer accountability, to hold others to the same level that you are,'' Kelly said. ``Once he started to take to that kind of philosophy, you could see everyone else around him raise their level of play.''

The other change in Te'o came when he stopped trying to do too much and just focused on doing his job, Kelly said.

``I think sometimes he was feeling as though he needed to make more plays and he needed to gamble here and there because of not winning enough games. So sometimes he pressed. He knows he doesn't have to do that anymore,'' Kelly said.

It's been a bittersweet season for Te'o, who has been outstanding on the field but dealt with tragedy off it. His maternal grandmother, Annette Santiago, died in Hawaii after a long illness on Sept. 11 and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died in California of leukemia several hours later.

``Somebody told me once that the hardest thing about goodbye is that when you wake up in the morning you have to say it again when you realize they're not there. So every morning I wake up and my girlfriend is not on the phone. It reminds me that she's gone. That's the hardest part,'' he said.

Te'o said his Mormon faith has kept him strong.

``I may not be able to see her, I may not be able to hear her, but I know I will see her again. Sometimes I can feel her. I can feel her presence,'' he said. ``So that's what gets me through.''

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Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

Alex Ovechkin goes for gold before a needed break from hockey

The Capitals’ season ended a month ago, but Alex Ovechkin has yet to take his break.

That will happen soon enough, but for now Washington’s captain is leading Russia at the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Slovakia. After that, he gets his first real rest since the end of the 2016-17 season. He has played in 194 NHL games, including the postseason, in 18 months.  

Ovechkin will turn 34 on Sept. 17 and the questions now start in earnest: How long can one of the world’s greatest goal scorers keep up his pace? Ovechkin recorded his eighth 50-goal season this past season. And while it ended in disappointment with a first-round loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin deserved little blame after adding four goals and five assists in the series.

“As a captain and as a leader, I thought he took another step this year from how he showed up to training camp to how he played all year long two-way hockey, commitment and when the games mattered the most,” Capitals coach Todd Reirden said last month. “He scored big goals and showed fantastic playmaking ability. A physical force. I'm excited to see what he comes back with now after a little extended time away because he was tremendous this year.”

Washington won the Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas last year and after a hectic summer of celebrating and, eventually, training, players were back less than three months later for another grind of a season that ended after 89 more regular-season and playoff games. Ovechkin missed just one of them. 

Next year could be another one filled with milestones for Ovechkin. He doesn’t even need 50 to reach them. With 42 goals he reaches 700 for his career. Only seven players have ever hit that mark.  

Ovechkin passes Mario Lemieux (690) with 32 goals and moves into the top 10 all time. He has a reasonable chance to catch Brett Hull for second-most power-play goals (265) in NHL history. Ovechkin has 247 right now and has averaged 17 per year each of the past four seasons.     

At some point, even for Ovechkin, scoring 50 goals will be too much. Only Johnny Bucyk (36) and Jaromir Jagr (34) have ever topped 50 goals at an older age. But if he could just do it one more time he would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most 50-goal seasons ever (nine). We’re at the point where nothing should surprise, but we’ve gone off the known map. 

“That's the best I've seen him play in my three years here,” teammate Lars Eller said. “He just took some games over. It was impressive. He was our best player. Him and Nick, but especially O, he just took it to another level. Physicality-wise, he enforced his will out there and when he decides to do that, he's almost unstoppable. That was exciting to see."

Almost everything Ovechkin does now is unprecedented. In the past 20 NHL seasons dating to 1998-99, there have been 28 different 50-goal seasons as scoring has become harder thanks to better goalie play, equipment and more tactical defensive systems. And yet Ovechkin owns 29 percent of those 50-goal seasons. His 89 points (51 goals, 38 assists) were his most since 2009-10.  

For now, Ovechkin will settle for another IIHF World Championship. He has helped Russia win gold at the event three times (2008, 2010 and 2014). 

But Russia was 6-0 heading into the matchup with Sweden on Tuesday night and had outscored its opponents 29-3 in Group B despite just a goal and an assist from Ovechkin. 

There can be wild fluctuations in the competition level during the group stage at Worlds. The Russians beat Italy 10-0 last week. And the United States, Canada and Finland are all formidable opponents in Group A. 

Russia will likely play one of those teams in the quarterfinals on Thursday so nothing is guaranteed. The semifinals would be Saturday if they do win and then the gold-medal game - or the bronze-medal game - would be Sunday. Then, finally, Ovechkin can rest and get ready for his 15th NHL season with two years left on his contract with the Capitals. 

“[Ovechkin] elevated his game in the first round. He's just got a hunger to him to contribute and to score goals,” teammate Brett Connolly said. “You could tell that he was committed and that he was going to give everything he had to win it again. He was great last year and arguably even better this year….This fan base is very lucky to watch what he does on a consistent basis. You're not going to see that ever again. So, enjoy it while it's here.” 

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Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly explains his interview with Wizards, decision to stay with Nuggets

Tim Connelly sat down with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis about the head front-office opening on Friday.

On Monday, NBC Sports Washington confirmed that he decided to stick with his role as president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets

A day later, he spoke to the media at a press conference and answered questions about his meeting with Washington.

Clear in Connelly's comments were his respect for Leonsis, but commitment to continuity in Denver. 

"I had a really nice conversation with Mr. Leonsis and his staff. He's a fantastic owner, I think a real visionary. I was really impressed by who he was and his thoughts for the team. That team's going to be special quickly under his leadership. We just had a conversation and not much more than that."

As for the reason for the discussion with Leonsis, Connelly said it came down to his love for the franchise. 

"I spent 14 years there. Certainly it's where I'm from, it's where my wife's from, so I just wanted to have the conversation because I care about the organization," he said.

"I'd never had an audience with [Leonsis], so to have that conversation and exchange of ideas, you know, it's flattering." 

Ultimately, however, the Baltimore native emphasized that Washington couldn't entice him away from the franchise he'd spent the last six years building. 

"Loyalty and patience is such a rarity in professional sports and that's here in spades. Those things matter to me," he said. "I had a hard time envisioning myself elsewhere."

With Connelly out of the picture, the list of candidates for the Wizards front-office opening is narrowing. Currently, Tommy Sheppard, Danny Ferry and Troy Weaver remain in the conversation. 

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