Blackhawks

Basketball creating a buzz at TF South

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Basketball creating a buzz at TF South

Before every practice and every home game, Paul Pierce walks into the gym at Thornton Fractional South in Lansing and gazes at the plaque hanging on the wall, the one that celebrates the basketball team's victory in the 1963 regional championship, the only title in school history.

"Our goal is to accomplish what the 1963 team did," Pierce said. "Coach reminds us of that every day. We came close to Thornton two years ago, then lost to Plainfield South by one point in the first game of the regional last year. It is important for us to do something that hasn't been done before."

In his third season, TF South coach John O'Rourke is trying to turn hamburger into filet mignon. A TF South graduate of 1995, he played basketball for four years and served as former coach Marc Brewe's assistant for three years. When Brewe became athletic director, O'Rourke moved up.

He knows the drill. TF South has never won a conference title in basketball. It is a football and basketball school. Pierre Thomas and Curtis Granderson went there. Brewe had only one winning team in seven years. He went from 1-24 in 2007 to 22-5 in 2008. Last year, the Rebels were 11-16.

"It was a challenge that I wanted to take on," O'Rourke said. "I wanted to build off what coach Brewe had started in his later years. Now we have started to get more kids in the building who are dedicated to basketball.

"This year we have a good group of kids who work hard, listen and want to improve every day. To be successful, you need kids who are committed. I believe is what we are doing and the kids have bought in. We're seeing more success. The community and staff and parents are more excited about the product on the floor. There is a buzz in the school."

TF South is 6-3 after losing to Joliet West 62-59 and Argo 63-60 last week. But two fender-benders don't make a train wreck. And they certainly don't force a sudden closing to an otherwise promising season. The Rebels hope to regroup as they prepare to meet Lincoln-Way Central in the opening round of the Lincoln-Way East Holiday Tournament on Dec. 26.

Their shortcoming is a lack of size. They were burned by Joliet West's 6-foot-9 Marlon Johnson, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds.

"Our biggest fear is if we face a big team that can handle the ball and can make plays. That would be a problem for us," O'Rourke said. "The strength of our team is good shooting. We play very hard for four quarters. We pressure the ball and harass the ball-handlers. That's why we press and play full-court man-to-man and trap all over the floor. We have to create steals and get scoring opportunities."

Pierce, a 6-foot senior, is one of the best players ever produced at TF South. He averages 15 points and six rebounds per game. He is attracting interest from North Park, Roosevelt and Northern Kentucky. A good student (he has a 3.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale), he wants to play basketball in college.

O'Rourke ranks Pierce in a class with former TF South stars Brian Flaherty, son of Mount Carmel coach Mike Flaherty who played at St. Xavier, and Paris Carter, now at Illinois-Chicago, who is described as "our best player ever."

"Paul is coming off a down junior year. He averaged only five points per game and struggled a lot. He lost his confidence," O'Rourke said. "But he improved a lot over the summer. He got his shot and his skills back. He is the leader of our team on the floor."

Pierce starts along with 6-3 senior Ira Crawford (13 PPG, 7 RPG), 5-foot-9 junior Donald Hardaway (7 PPG), 5-foot-8 sophomore point guard Robert Ryan (11 PPG, 5 assistsgame) and 6-foot-2 senior Kaleb Garrett (6 RPG). Kenny Doss (10 PPG), a 6-foot-1 junior, and Mychelle Bullock (7 PPG), a 6-foot-2 senior, come off the bench.

Pierce admits he lost confidence last year and credits his brother for reminding him that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." He never stopped working hard even though his shot wasn't falling and his scoring average dropped.

"Last year, I took a backseat because we had a lot of seniors on the team. It was their team, not my team," he said. "I was over-thinking, not just playing basketball. My shot was flat, not smooth. I was determined to turn things around."

Usually, Pierce goes to Starkville, Mississippi, in the summer to work out with his cousin, NBA player Travis Outlaw. Not last summer. Instead, he chose to stay in Lansing to play with the Illinois Wolverines, an AAU team featuring several players that Pierce had played with since sixth grade.

"I slept in the gym. I took 100 shots in the morning, then 300 the rest of the day. I got my confidence and my shot back," he said. "But the last two games told me that I have to take more control of the game, step up and take charge. I learned that when we face a big man that all of us have to crash the boards and play defense. We have to play as a team if we're going to accomplish our goal."

Patrick Kane hits milestone, but Blackhawks get blown out by Islanders

Patrick Kane hits milestone, but Blackhawks get blown out by Islanders

Probably not the way the Blackhawks wanted to start their second half of the season.

After a five-day break, the Blackhawks suffered a brutal 7-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday night at the United Center. This coming after a 4-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on home ice last Sunday.

"It was a game we had to win," Quenneville said after Saturday's loss. "Disappointing in a lot of ways."

The Blackhawks needed both goaltenders to get through 60 minutes. Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass combined for 39 saves on 46 shots.

On the offensive side of things, Patrick Kane hit a milestone.

The 29-year-old had two goals and an assist and recorded his 800th career point, becoming the fifth player in franchise history to reach 800 points.

The Blackhawks are now 22-18-6 on the season with 50 points and rank last in the Central Division, five points behind the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild.

The Blackhawks' schedule doesn't get any easier when the Tampa Bay Lightning — the league-leader in points — come to town on Monday.

See what Quenneville and Kane had to say about Saturday's loss in the video above.

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

One MLB executive thinks Kyle Schwarber can emerge as Cubs' best hitter in 2018

When the 2017 season ended, Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

He was stocky, slower than he wanted to be and he had just finished a very difficult season that saw him spend time back in the minor leagues at Triple-A after he struggled mightily through the first three months of the season.

Schwarber still put up solid power numbers despite his overall struggles. He slammed 30 home runs, putting him among the Top 15 hitters in the National League and among the Top 35 in all of baseball. But, Schwarber was honest with himself. He knew he could achieve so much more if he was in better shape and improved his mobility, his overall approach at the plate and his defense.

Schwarber was drafted by the Cubs out of Indiana University as a catcher. However, many scouts around baseball had serious doubts about his ability to catch at the big league level. The Cubs were in love with Schwarber the person and Schwarber the overall hitter and felt they would give him a chance to prove he could catch for them. If he couldn't, then they believed he could play left field adequately enough to keep his powerful bat in the lineup.

However, a serious knee injury early in the 2016 season knocked Schwarber out of action for six months and his return to the Cubs in time to assist in their World Series run raised expectations for a tremendous 2017 season. In fact, the expectations for Schwarber were wildly unrealistic when the team broke camp last spring. Manager Joe Maddon had Schwarber in the everyday lineup batting leadoff and playing left field.

But Schwarber's offseason after the World Series consisted of more rehab on his still-healing injured left knee. That kept him from working on his outfield play, his approach at the plate and his overall baseball training. 

Add in all of the opportunities and commitments that come with winning a World Series and it doesn't take much detective work to understand why Schwarber struggled so much when the 2017 season began. This offseason, though, has been radically different. A season-ending meeting with Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer led to a decision to take weight off of Schwarber's frame. It also included a decision to change his training program so that he improved his quickness, lateral movement and his overall baseball skills.

"I took two weeks off after the season ended and then I went to work," Schwarber said. "We put a plan together to take weight off and to improve my quickness. I have my meals delivered and I feel great. My baseball work combined with a lot of strength and conditioning has me in the best shape that I have ever been in."

Schwarber disagrees with the pundits who felt manager Maddon's decision to put him in the leadoff spot in the Cubs' loaded lineup contributed to his struggles.

"I have no problem hitting wherever Joe wants to put me," Schwarber said. "I didn't feel any more pressure because I was batting leadoff. I just needed to get back to training for a baseball season as opposed to rehabbing from my knee injury. I'm probably 20-25 pounds lighter and I'm ready to get back to Arizona with the boys and to get ready for the season."

Many around the game were shocked when the Cubs drafted Schwarber with the No. 4 overall selection in the 2014 MLB Draft, but a rival executive who was not surprised by the pick believes that Schwarber can indeed return to the form that made him such a feared hitter during his rookie season as well as his excellent postseason resume.

"Everyone who doubted this kid may end up way off on their evaluation because he is a great hitter and now that he is almost two years removed from his knee injury," the executive said. "He knows what playing at the major-league level is all about I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup.

"Theo and Jed do not want to trade this kid and they are going to give him every opportunity to succeed. I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order."

Watch the full 1-on-1 interview with Kyle Schwarber Sunday night on NBC Sports Chicago.