White Sox

Bloom lands first playoff berth since 1989

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Bloom lands first playoff berth since 1989

Bloom's 1957 football team could have been the best ever produced in Illinois, better than St. Rita 1971 or Evanston 1971 or Joliet Catholic 1975 or East St. Louis 1985 or Wheaton Warrenville South 1998 or Mount Carmel 1950 or Fenwick 1962 or Loyola 1969 or Thornton 1965 or Rockford East 1974.

Trouble is the Chicago Heights school hasn't had a winner since.

In the 1950s, Bloom was the gold standard of high school sports in Illinois. The Trojans were dominant in football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and track and field. Bloom's track team won four state championships in a row.

Cecil Sarff's 1957 football team, led by future NFL player Leroy Jackson, Chuck Green, Homer Thurman and Roger Elliott, was unbeaten and unchallenged in nine games in the old South Suburban League.

Since then, Bloom football has been non-competitive. This is a program that went 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 0-9, 1-8, 0-9 and 1-8 from 1995 to 2001.

Coach Tony Palombi, in his eighth year, was 18-45 for the past seven, a .286 winning percentage. Last year's team was 2-7. But this year's team is 6-3, the most wins in a season since 1990.

The Trojans lost to Glenbard South 31-27 in Game 2, to unbeaten Crete-Monee 41-6 in Game 6 and to Rich East 20-14 in Game 7. It appeared the long drought might continue but Bloom defeated Rich Central 21-0 last Saturday to clinch the school's fourth trip to the state playoff and first since 1989. They'll play perennial Public League power Simeon on Friday night at Gately Stadium in a Class 8A opener.

Against Rich Central, middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt sparked the defense with two sacks and an interception. Justus Brantley rushed 23 times for 112 yards and one touchdown and also caught a 60-yard scoring pass from Kendall McGinnis. Linebacker Dominique Taylor recovered a fumble in the end zone for another touchdown.

"We made history," Hurt said. "We came out here and fought with our hearts."

"We played like it was a playoff game, our last game. If we lost, we felt we would hand in our equipment that night," said senior wide receiverdefensive back Charles DeLoach III. "You can talk the talk but not walk the walk. We let our play do the talking for us."

"This is the first time we've had a group of kids who had a team atmosphere," Palombi said. "They are easy to coach. They do anything you ask. This is awesome, what you wait for as a coach, a belief in one another."

After going 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 in the last three years, Palombi said he "needed something for these kids to hang their hats on, something for them to work with." A friend, former Thornwood coach Andre Collins suggested a psychological gimmick he called "faith, fight, finish, family."

"It made the kids believe in something bigger than us, a faith in people around you to do better, that you would have the strength to do what is needed to be successful, to fight through all the adversity that life throws at you," Palombi said.

Despite the negative numbers, he saw some positive signs. He returned 12 starters from last year's 2-7 squad, including 10 on offense. As sophomores, the seniors were 6-3. And the juniors were 6-3 as sophomores. The two classes had a taste of winning.

"The kids were buying into our calling card," Palombi said. "It's not about football but about life. You have to see it to believe it. We're still running the same spread option and three stack defense. We still use the same speed and lifting and conditioning programs.

"I tell the kids to go to the Internet and see what other players are doing. What are your goals? What are your dreams? Look at Thornton and Lincoln-Way East, the perennial powers. They commit. They want to be something."

Palombi said he sat down with his players and talked to each of them.

"What do you want to be and what do you want to do to get there?" he asked them.

"They know what Bloom used to be. The banners from Bloom and Bloom Trail are hanging there. Another factor is how well the basketball team did last year (28-5, fourth place in Class 4A). They have to understand what drove those kids to succeed. For me, the biggest thing is being a part of it."

Bloom overcame adversity from the outset. The quarterback, a two-year starter, transferred to Lincoln-Way West three days before the start of double sessions in August. "We had no idea he was leaving," Palombi said.

Kendall McGinnis, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound junior, stepped in and the Trojans didn't miss a beat. He has passed for more than 700 yards and rushed for 500.

"He was our No. 2 quarterback all summer," Palombi said. "But the team came around him. He directs everything. He sits in the shotgun and has the ball in his hands all the time. He makes great decisions. I'm surprised he took charge so quickly. He even worked out as a tight end in the summer. He has so much maturity. We knew he was capable. He has the tools."

Brantley, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 270 yards against Fenton and 387 yards and five touchdowns against Rich South.

"He was on the sophomore team last year. We knew he was a good runner but we didn't know he had the capability to rush for almost 400 yards in a single game," Palombi said. "We knew he was a good athlete. He has speed and vision and ability to make a cut."

Brantley has come on like gangbusters. He didn't establish himself as the No. 1 running back until Week 3. Up to then, he was sharing the spot with a returning starter. When Palombi had to move the senior to linebacker because of an injury, Brantley stepped up.

Other contributors are 6-foot-2, 185-pound senior defensive back Josiah Dailey, 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior middle linebacker Malcolm Hurt, 6-foot, 228-pound senior center Brandon Rockett, 6-foot, 260-pound senior guard Collis McCloud, 5-foot-10, 230-pound senior guard Alan Hall, 6-foot, 220-pound senior tackleend Jalen Thomas, 5-foot-10, 230-pound tackle Antwan Bluster and 5-foot-9, 230-pound linebacker Mr. Clark.

"Going to practice is a joy," Palombi said. "It is extra special when you make adjustments and they know what you are talking about."

DeLoach, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound senior, is aware of Bloom's history. A sprinter, long jumper and pole vaulter on the track and field team, he is aware of the school's four state championships in the 1950s. And he sees the banner for the 1957 football team hanging in McCann Gym and the team picture displayed outside the gym. "It was the greatest team in Bloom history," he said.

Most of all, he recalls where the program has been and why it has gone from 1-8, 1-8 and 2-7 to 6-3 in the last four years.

"When I was a freshman, they were 1-8 and some kids said they didn't want to play for Bloom. Even students said: 'Why don't you play somewhere else where you can be a winner?' It didn't matter to me. If you keep working hard and work in the off-season, you will do something great," DeLoach said.

"We ignored all the negative talk. We bought into what the coach said. Our motto is: faith, fight, finish, family. We looked at other schools and saw how they came together. In the past, our teams weren't together. But we are together this year."

There were times last summer, however, when DeLoach and his teammates wondered if it was all worthwhile. Palombi put them through countless hours of running, running and more running, long distance runs and sprints.

"It was one of the hottest summers I can think of," DeLoach said. "We were out there every day...800 meters, five times, over 100 degrees. We pushed ourselves to keep going. We had to keep going and not give up. It was very painful at the time, very tiring. It was hard work but it was worth it."

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

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MiLB.com

The youngest coach in baseball manages some of the White Sox top minor leaguers

Most minor league managers have graying sideburns, wrinkled skin and a birth date well before 1980.

They’ve been through the battles of baseball and life, placed in rural dugouts across the country to teach the younger generation how to play the game.

But in a town outside Charlotte, North Carolina, the White Sox are bucking this trend with a fresh-faced millennial who one day could be sitting in a major league manager’s office with his name on it.

Justin Jirschele is the manager of the Kannapolis Intimidators, the White Sox Class-A affiliate.  At 27 years old, he is the youngest manager in all of professional baseball.  

Jirschele (pronounced JIRSH-ah-lee) goes by “Jirsh” to those who know him and who play for him, which last season included top prospects like Jake Burger, Alec Hansen, Dane Dunning and Dylan Cease.

When Jirschele played the game, he was a guy every team would have wanted.

Not for his speed: He never stole more than four bases in a season during his minor league career. Not for his power: He didn't hit a single home run in 622 career at-bats.

But because he treated every game like it could be his last.

“I never took a play off. I never took an at-bat off,” he said.

This was his mindset even in his very last minor league at-bat for the Birmingham Barons in 2015.

“I remember walking up and I said out loud to myself, ‘This is it. Do something.’ I’m getting the chills right now thinking about it.”

Jirschele knew his playing days were over. So did the White Sox. They signed him out of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 2012 as an undrafted free agent. Nobody else wanted him. Over the next four seasons, he played for five White Sox minor league teams. The results on the field were overwhelmingly average.

Then one day, Nick Capra, then the White Sox Director of Player Development, came to Jirschele with an idea and an offer that would change his life.

“He asked, ‘Are you ready to start coaching yet?’ Jirschele recalled. ‘And I looked at him and went, ‘What do you mean?’”

The White Sox offered Jirschele a job to be the hitting coach for the Grand Falls Voyagers, the team’s rookie league affiliate.

“I was in shock. It was the end of May, the season was still young. I was at three different levels. I started at Winston-Salem, went to Charlotte and came back to Birmingham. It was a whirlwind. When he first said it, my first feeling was excitement. That kind of told me right there that it was the right time to do it.”

So Jirschele took the job.

He was 25 years old.

Then he went out and took that final minor league at-bat for Birmingham, which turned out to be a fitting conclusion to his playing career.  

“I think it was the second pitch, right down the middle and I was tardy, hit it off my fist, a dribbler to the shortstop and I bet you I ran as hard as I had in my entire life. It wasn’t that I was fast, but I was running as hard as I possibly could to first and I don’t think there even was a throw I hit it so soft, perfectly past the pitcher.  I just said to myself, that’s it right there.”

An infield dribbler for a base hit to close his playing career.

Coaching made sense for Jirschele. His father, Mike, is the third base coach for the Kansas City Royals. He won a World Series in 2015. His older brother, Jeremy, is the head baseball coach back at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Pretty soon, the younger Jirschele would be leading a team of his own.  

In 2017, the White Sox gave him the managerial job with Kannapolis. Sure, some of his players would be around the same age, but the White Sox looked past the birth date on his driver’s license and recognized a person who was wise beyond his years.

“It was identified early on that he has the leadership qualities we look for in a manager regardless of his age,” said Chris Getz, White Sox Director of Player Development. “He has good baseball knowledge, good communication skills, a willingness to learn and adapt, and carries out a consistent message. We feel lucky to have him and think he has a bright future ahead.”

Although the ages of the Intimidators players ranged from 19 to 25 years old, it didn’t matter that their manager was slighty older than them.

“Never once had an issue with the age thing,” Jirschele said about his players. “I think from Day 1 when I showed them the respect like I’m not going to be the guy that’s two years older than you hammering things down your throat, I’m going to have that respect and you’re going to show it back.”  

While the White Sox prospects spent the season developing their playing skills, Jirschele was honing his managing skills, which go beyond what happens on the field. A big part of the job is handling issues that arise off of it.  

“It’s a long grind season and there are so many things that are going to come up non-baseball related to where you might be in that clubhouse and you might feel alone,” Jirschele explained. “You might feel like you’re on an island all by yourself even if you’ve got three best friends that are going to stand up in your wedding one day, you might not feel comfortable talking to those guys about that.  Come on in, we’ll talk about it at 12:30 in the afternoon or 7:30 at night or midnight. I tell the guys you’ve got my phone number.  Call or text no matter what time if you need to talk.”

Following his thirst for managing knowledge, Jirschele often reaches out to his dad for late-night phone calls, rehashing the game that night. He’ll even text an opposing manager, like Patrick Anderson, a friend who has managed the Hagerstown Suns, the Nationals Class-A affiliate for the last four seasons.

“He’s a guy I could pick his brain about things," he said. "Once the series was over I’d send him a text and ask, ‘Why did you do this?’ At the end of the day we’re all in it together and first and foremost it’s all for these players and making them better each and every day and doing whatever we can to get them to the top. But at the same time we’re developing ourselves as well along the way.

“I’m sure I annoy a lot of people of asking questions but that’s how you learn. I was brought up that way.”

Jirschele’s impressions of some White Sox top prospects he managed last season:

Alec Hansen: “When he takes the ball, you feel like you have one of the best chances in the country to get a win that night in minor league baseball.  His stuff is just off the charts.”

Dane Dunning: “It would be the 8th inning, he wanted that complete game and he wouldn’t be too pleased with me coming out there to take him out, but you want that.  You want that out of a competitor on the mound every 5 days. He’s definitely a guy you want in the foxhole with you, no doubt.”

Micker Adolfo: “He has a special, special arm.  I don’t know if there’s a better one right now.”

Jake Burger: “Looking forward, the ceiling is unbelievably high for him. 100 percent no doubt in my mind, someday he will be a captain in the big leagues.”

Like many of his players, Jirschele left an impression with the White Sox in his first season as manager. He helped lead the Intimidators to their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first trip to the South Atlantic League championship since 2005.

Earlier this month, the White Sox named him their Minor League Coach of the Year.

“First and foremost, it means we had good players this year. It’s those guys between the lines,” he said. “As coaches, we can’t go out there and pitch. We were fortunate to have a great group of guys. We came up a little short (winning the championship), but we got there and it was fun.”

Once upon a time, Jirschele’s dream was to make it to the majors. That dream still exists.  Just now instead of having his own baseball card, he wants to get to the big leagues holding a lineup card.

“I think I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t a goal, but at the same time I don’t worry about it. I know I’m 27 years old," he said. "I’m just fortunate to have the job I do right now with the White Sox. I go out and do my job every single day and the rest will just take care of itself.”

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast Tracey Myers and Jamal Mayers join Pat Boyle to discuss the teams wins over the Rangers and Penguins.  Have they figured some things out and what is the identity of this team after 20 games?

Jammer weighs in on Artem Anisimov’s big week and are there enough Hawks committed to net front presence?  They also discuss the surging play of the blue liners and did the Hawks fail to send a message to Evgeni Malkin, after he kneed Corey Crawford in the head?