Cubs

Can Mather repeat in soccer?

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Can Mather repeat in soccer?

Mather soccer coach Branko Cvijovic is still reveling in the aftermath of his team's monumental victory in the Class 2A championship in November. And he can't help but think about what the only Chicago Public League winner since 1973 can do for an encore in 2012.

"I love the feeling at the end of the season to see everybody is still there," Cvijovic said. "You start in the heat in August and end in the cold and wind in October. You look around and see they still are around and it's a good feeling. They are healthy and have fun and if they accomplish something, that's a bonus."

Cvijovic, 50, grew up playing soccer in his native Montenegro. He played for an organized club, a second-tier team, and always felt he could coach the game he loved better than he could play it. After he came to the United States in 1989, he got an opportunity to prove he was right.

He arrived at Mather on Chicago's North Side 10 years ago. He coached the frosh-soph team to the city title in 2002 and guided the junior varsity to the city final in 2004. This year, he was named head coach of the varsity. From the first day of practice, he had a different approach.

"Everywhere else but here, in this country, the core of the game is to have fun, to let everyone have an individual style but to not hurt the team concept, especially at the amateur level. In high school, you aren't paid to play. You should do it for fun," Cvijovic said.

"I don't know if it is fun here but the approach in different sports is to play to win as opposed to having fun. There is too much pressure from coaches and parents. You even see it at the national level.

"My philosophy? I love to see the technical ability of the player. Let him do what he might not have an opportunity to do. Dedicate some time during practice for free time, fun time. Let them play and enjoy the game. That's my style -- let them play and have fun, even if it isn't practical. Let them enjoy the game."

Mather's drive to the school's first state championship in any sport is a feel-good story, a first-year coach molding the attitudes and styles and personalities of teenagers from five continents and nine nationalities into a cohesive unit that came together in a relative short period of time.

The 21-member squad, which included players from Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bosnia and Mexico, started on Aug. 10 and only missed two practices in three months. A dozen played on last year's team that lost to Maine West in a Class 3A sectional final.

"From day one I believed there was great potential," Cvijovic said. "That's why I took the job. They need to work hard and come to practice and enjoy the game. But we are here to achieve great things.

"I saw them play last year when I wasn't coaching. I saw they had great talent. I saw a blend of styles and talent and stuff I enjoyed watching. I inherited a great team but I had to work hard to get them to believe in themselves and to develop team spirit and team cohesiveness. That's what they lacked last year. They didn't play together. They didn't know each other, being from five continents. They didn't know how to blend their styles and strengths. There was too much individualism.

"I wanted all of them to know that we shouldn't be happy with small things, that we are capable of doing great things. I didn't mention state but, deep down, I felt we could win state."

Mission accomplished. The Rangers, led by senior Qudus Lawal, crushed Chatham Glenwood 6-0 to win the state title and complete a 21-3-1 season. Lawal, the lone Public League selection on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area team and one of five Nigerians on the team, scored a record four goals in the final, including three in the second half (two within a span of 17 seconds) as Mather broke away from a 1-0 halftime lead. He finished with 41 goals for the season.

"Skill-wise, I wouldn't be surprised if Lawal plays professionally," Cvijovic told veteran Chicago newspaper reporter John Montgomery. "I've never seen anybody use his body on a soccer field as well as he does to make the plays (to score goals). He is a skilled player. It's hard to guard him on the field. You have to have more than just skill."

In a recent EastWest all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, Lawal scored two goals and assisted on a third as his West team won 3-2.

"He is one of the five best players in the country. And nobody knew about him until this year. In three months, he achieved it all. He became the best player in the state, the player of the year," Cvijovic said. "He wants to go to college. He has so many offers. He is a very good and very unorthodox player. You can't tell until you see him play the game and what he produces."

So what about next year? Lawal and seven other starters will graduate. Only three starters will return.

Cvijovic said junior Kenan Alihodzic, a Bosnian, will be next year's leader. An outstanding defender and very mature, he played centerforward as a freshman. "He has great potential," the coach said.

The other returning starters are junior Godman Eseh, a centermidfielder from Nigeria, and sophomore goalie Edwin Vazquez, a Mexican who had a hand in the team's nine shutouts in 2011.

Much is expected from Mahdi Mahdi, a centermidfielder who was the only freshman on the varsity last season, and sophomore Andres Torrez. "Both have potential to be very good players," Cvijovic said.

"We will be competitive but we won't be as good (as this year)," Cvijovic said. "It will be more of a challenge next year. Everyone wants to play us. We have a target on our backs. There will be more pressure on our team.

"But not much was expected of us last season, especially from a city team in the state tournament. We made a name for ourselves. Now suburban teams will have more respect for us. In the past, suburban and Downstate teams wanted to play city teams because they didn't think we were good enough. And we lost 10-0 and 11-0. It was a great lesson for our kids to see what organized soccer is."

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

Anthony Rizzo declines role as an activist, says trip to Florida 'was the hardest thing I've ever had to do'

MESA, Ariz. — Anthony Rizzo’s gone above and beyond for his community in the wake of one of the worst mass shootings in United States history, when 17 people lost their lives last week at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, Rizzo’s alma mater.

His actions and words have carried plenty of weight in the last week, but Rizzo’s comments upon returning to Arizona were more focused on the general need for change rather than specific actions related to the issue of gun violence in America.

The Cubs’ first baseman, who returned to spring training on Monday after spending several days being with his community in Florida, repeatedly voiced the opinion — though it’s ridiculous to think there’s a counter argument that could actually qualify as someone’s opinion — that these mass shootings need to stop happening with such an incomprehensible amount of frequency.

But he stopped short of taking a full step into the national debate on the issue, clarifying that his comments made on Twitter the day of the shooting were not referencing gun control or that specific debate at all.

“Obviously, there needs to be change,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know what that is, I don’t get paid to make those decisions. I can sit back and give opinions, but you just hope somewhere up the line of command, people are thinking are thinking the same things that a lot of innocent kids are thinking: ‘Why? Why am I scared to go to school? Why am I scared to say goodbye to my son or daughter?’ God forbid someone was in an argument with someone they loved that day, how bad — it’s a bad time right now in the country with what’s going on with all these shootings.

“My opinion is my opinion. I don’t think it’s fair to my teammates and everyone else if I come out and start going one way or the other. I think, my focus is on baseball. My focus is definitely on Parkland and the community there and supporting them and whatever direction that they go. But for me it’s hard enough to hit a baseball, and it’s definitely going to be hard enough to try to be a baseball player and a politician at the same time.”

Rizzo has no more of an obligation to be a spokesman on this issue than any other American does, and his presence at his old school last week, his words at a vigil for the victims of this tragedy were powerful. Rizzo has established himself as a remarkable member of his community in Chicago, and he won the Roberto Clemente Award last season for his charitable efforts off the field. His willingness to leave Arizona and be with members of his community was reflective of the type of person Cubs fans and Chicagoans have gotten to know.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Just going back, you don’t what to say. There’s nothing you can say,” Rizzo said. “When people get shot, you’re grateful that they’re alive. When they pass away, you’re grateful that you knew them, to look at the bright side of things if you can. But just to see how real it is, it’s sad.

“The more I just sat and thought about it, I felt helpless here. That’s where I grew up, in Parkland. I got in trouble there, I succeeded there, I learned how to be who I am because of Parkland, because of Stoneman Douglas. So to be across the country and not be there and then to find out some very close people have lost loved ones, to be there to help them and support them was very important to me.”

Rizzo repeatedly said how proud he is of the students of Stoneman Douglas, who have been outspoken on social media, directing their comments toward the president and other members of the government and sharing their opinions that gun control is necessary for the violence to stop.

But Rizzo refrained from wading into that debate and even chastised those who mischaracterized his Twitter comments as a call for gun regulation.

“To be very clear I did not say the word ‘gun’ one time,” he said. “Anyone out there who wrote gun control, saying I called for gun control, I think is very irresponsible and I did not say that once.

“I don’t know what needs to be done, I don’t know. I don’t know enough about it. I know there are a lot of shootings. I know they are done with a specific make, but I don’t know what needs to be done. But something, some type of change needs to happen for the better because I’m sure people in here have kids. No one right now feels very comfortable on a daily basis sending their kid to school and not knowing if they’re going to see them again.”

That kind of message might not be as declarative as some would have hoped. But it remained a powerful one, showing that even if he wasn’t ready or willing to declare himself an activist, Rizzo shares the feelings of many Americans who are simultaneously numb to the news of these shootings and completely and entirely fed up with their frequency and the lack of action taken to stop them.

“As a human being, probably everyone in here when they first the initial (reports of a) shooter, I took my next golf swing, because that’s how numb this country is to it,” Rizzo said. “Until something crazy happens, when you hear ‘open shooter’ nowadays, it’s like, ‘OK,’ take your next breath and keep going. Then I found out it was at Douglas, you get a little more concerned, ‘OK, what’s going on.’ At first it’s a few people injured, then you found out it was what it was, and it’s just — it’s gut-wrenching. You just go numb.

“I stand behind my community, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s coming together. Obviously I said there needs to be change, I don’t know what the change needs to be. I’m just really proud of those kids and how they’re coming together and becoming one in Parkland. It’s really inspiring to see, and it makes me proud.”

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman.