Blackhawks

Another winner in the Lenti family

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Another winner in the Lenti family

Gena Lenti considers herself to be a perfectionist. Nothing less than an A-plus is acceptable, whether the subject is AP biology or pre-calculus or Spanish or basketball or softball. Her worst grade in four years of high school? An A-minus in choir as a freshman.

"I am a perfectionist. I always have been more competitive with myself than others," said Lenti, a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep. "I strive for A-plus, not just A on a test. If you look at my grades, you might consider me a nerd. But I can't let myself slack off. I tried this year but I can't do it. I just think of what I can do to make myself better."

She comes from a very competitive family. Her father Eugene coaches a nationally ranked softball team at DePaul. Her mother Candace played on a state championship basketball team at York and played softball at DePaul.

Aunt Jeanne Lenti Ponsetto is athletic director at DePaul. Uncle Frank, the head football coach at Mount Carmel, has won more games and state championships than any coach in state history. Uncle David is Frank's longtime defensive coordinator.

When the big Italian family gathers on Thanksgiving Day at the Ponsetto house near the DePaul campus, there are 27 in all...at least two turkeys, casseroles, stuffing, appetizers, desserts. Before sitting down to dinner, however, they adjourn for a family basketball game. To Gena's regret, the table conversation isn't reserved for sports only.

"The big question after 'How is the season going?' is 'How are the boyfriends going these days?' I try to avoid the question at all costs. I try to keep my family out of my social business as much as possible," she said.

But Gena, who has committed to play softball for her father at DePaul, has added another paragraph to her impressive resume that surely will be a topic of discussion at the next family gathering.

The 17-year-old senior has been named to the Illinois High School Association's 2011-12 All-State Academic Team. She is one of 26 student-athletes selected from among 450 nominees who will be honored at the annual banquet in Bloomington on April 16.

She carries a 4.32 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 30 on her ACT. She was the leading scorer on her basketball team this season and plays shortstop on the softball team. She hopes to improve on last year's .450 batting average, then will take her skills to DePaul.

"She always had a competitive nature in anything she did, sports or academics," her father recalled. "When she was 4 or 5, we'd play any game and I'd have to find a way to cheat so we could go to bed. She wanted to play until she won. I knew when she was 12 or 13 that she had the skill and drive to be successful in college."

When she was 10, her father converted her from a right-handed to a left-handed hitter to use her speed as a slapper, an Ichiro Suzuki-type hitter. She would show up at her father's games to take extra swings. Always fearless, she once broke an arm when diving for a ball in the outfield.

"I never thought I wouldn't play sports in college," she said. "I love basketball. If you gave me a choice, I would play basketball in college. But I'm better at softball.

"Softball can become boring at times. There is a lot of standing. Basketball is full of action. I can see where my work pays off more in basketball. Softball isn't as fast-paced, not as much action. I put more heart into basketball. It's a longer season and there is more time to bond with my team."

But her mother and two sisters played softball. And her father has coached the game for 32 years. She knew she wasn't tall enough to play basketball--and probably wouldn't get any taller. Her father is 5-foot-8 and her mother is 5-foot-5.

"There were times when I was young that I said I would go to DePaul to play softball for my dad. I thought it was guaranteed when I was younger but I knew it wasn't guaranteed," Gena said.

She recalls the day when her father asked her: "Would you want to play for me? We're starting to recruit your class." They were driving home after a game in a travel league tournament and Gena was mad at herself. She had played badly, struck out a few times and couldn't even put the ball in play with runners on base.

"I went off to the car and sat alone. On the way home, it was quiet. I didn't want to talk. My dad brought it up," she said. "After that game, I didn't think he'd be thinking of me. For sure, I'd be interested in going to DePaul. But I didn't think I was good enough.

"I saw there were other girls in my class who were very good, other kids my age, kids who only played softball while I was playing two sports, girls who were faster and stronger and had better arms.

"But my dad treated me like other recruits. I got letters in the mail signed 'Coach Lenti.' I was invited to visit the campus. I made unofficial and official visits. I toured the campus, saw the dorms for the first time, the science building, the quadrangle.

"He knew I was coming. I wasn't thinking of anywhere else. I chose DePaul because it is the best softball school I could go to. I didn't seek out anyone else. I looked at myself and felt I was going to the best school I could go to. And I wanted to stay close to my family."

Gena loves Chicago, especially the Downtown area. She rides her bicycle to North Avenue beach two or three times a week during the summer. She also prefers the Flat Top Grill at Southport and Belmont.

"I am the kind of person who doesn't like free time," she said. "I don't want a lot of TV and I don't go to movies. I have to balance school and sports and my social life."

Gena's day begins at 6 a.m. on school days. Breakfast is eggs or cereal. She car pools with two friends and arrives at St. Ignatius at 7:30a.m. Classes begin at 8 a.m. AP Biology, her favorite. Dance, pre-calculus, film, journalism, religion, Spanish. Then basketball or softball practice for two hours after school. Afterward, during the basketball season, she went to DePaul for a shootaround. During the softball season, she takes extra swings at a homemade hitting station in her basement. Then homework for at least two hours.

"I push myself too hard in sports and academics," she said. "Going into my senior year, knowing I was going to DePaul, my parents suggested that I should ease off. They gave me permission not to take a lot of AP classes, to enjoy myself more. But I am a perfectionist. I can't let myself slack off. I tried but I can't do it."

But she concedes that it is more difficult to be a perfectionist in softball. Her father reminds her that hitting is a losing battle, that you're always below .500, that the majority of the time you won't hit the ball safety, that major league baseball players with .300 batting averages are in the Hall of Fame.

"It is a mental game," she said. "You have to come back the next game if you strike out five times in the past game. You have to be mentally tougher. My dad said I have to have a swagger. My goal this spring is to hit higher than .450 and focus on fewer errors and more stolen bases."

So she'll have something to talk about next Thanksgiving.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.