White Sox

Have you ever heard of Universal?

600388.png

Have you ever heard of Universal?

Mahmood Ghouleh and Omar Mansour had important decisions to make. That both of them ended up at Universal School in Bridgeview, a small and private Islamic institution governed by Muslim professionals and designed to turn Muslim children into well-rounded individuals, wasn't surprising.

Ghouleh, a 2004 graduate of Reavis High School in Burbank, was playing basketball at Morraine Valley Community College when he received a telephone call "out of the blue" from athletic director Bill Finn.

"I could go to New York to play basketball for a Division II college or I could coach basketball at Universal School," Ghouleh said. "I had no idea how he knew about Universal. I had never heard about Universal. But I'm Muslim. I don't like to be very far from home. So I took the job."

At 26, Ghouleh is in his fifth year as Universal's head basketball coach. After beating College Preparatory School of America, another Islamic school in Lombard, 92-48 last Friday, the Stars are 10-0. They'll play at Reavis on Tuesday and at Bremen on Dec. 28.

"I promised them that we would do nothing but win," Ghouleh said. "Previously, the program was new. They won only two or three games a season. But they've never been under .500 since I came.

"When I came in, I promised we would win conference titles and be a very good team. They looked at me as if I was crazy. They were missing structure and organization and fundamentals. To them, basketball was recreation previously.

"It was funny because I had never run across people who knew nothing about basketball before. They only knew how to throw the ball at the hoop. They had no technique. My reaction was: 'What have I got myself into? Maybe I made a mistake here.' I didn't know if I had made the right decision.

"But I couldn't go wrong because I was still around basketball. It's my life. When they started to believe in themselves, that's when I knew this would be a good club. They are very smart kids. It was a matter of teaching. I saw progress in the first half of the first year."

Meanwhile, while Ghouleh was sorting things out and trying to stamp his fingerprints on the program, Mansour was trying to make decision of his own: Should he stay home and enroll at Carl Sandburg in Orland Park? Or should he go to Universal?

After graduating from eighth grade, Mansour trained with Sandburg's basketball team during the summer prior to his freshman year. But his parents wanted their son to attend a private school. He talked to Ghouleh, friends who were attending Universal and teammates on an Indiana AAU team that also attended Universal.

"They convinced me that it was a great school," said Mansour, who is an Egyptian. "A good percent of my decision was based on academics and religion. I have no regrets. I'm enjoying my experience. I enjoy our team. It's like a family. I'm happy I made the decision I did."

Mansour, a 6-foot sophomore point guard, is the epitome of a student-athlete. He is averaging 22 points per game and carries a 3.6 graduate point average on a 4.0 scale. He had 31 points and eight assists in Universal's victory over CPSA.

"I'm trying to get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school. That's my goal," Mansour said. "And we're trying to build a good team. Last year, we were pretty good (18-4, losing to St. Benedict in triple overtime for the regional title). But we have a really good team this year."

To date, Universal, a Class 1A school with an enrollment of 220 boys and girls, hasn't been tested. But upcoming games against larger Reavis and Bremen will give Ghouleh, Mansour and everyone else in the program a good idea of where they stand, if they are as good as they think they are.

Mansour is surrounded by 6-2 senior Hossan Sudek (20 ppg), 6-3 senior Ahmet Sakiri (10 ppg, 13 rpg), 5-11 senior Ahmad Ahmad (8 ppg) and 6-3 senior Suheib Boundai (12 ppg). Seniors Maher Hamadeh and Musa Musleh and junior Saphe Falaneh come off the bench. Against CPSA, Sakiri had 24 points and 16 rebounds.

"I love their dedication and hard work from the off-season," the coach said. "Their goal after last year was to hit the gym every day and add muscle and weight. They wanted to come back hard and try to make some noise. What I think this team will do if we stay focused is get to the sectional this year. I am there to push them. As far as I can push them is as far as we're going to go."

Mansour and his teammates love to be pushed. Last summer, he and his parents went overseas. Omar usually goes plays with an Egyptian team during the summer. But last summer, he chose to stay home.

"I had my own personal trainer and my coach worked with me all summer," Mansour said. "We went one-on-one. I worked on my dribble, my shot and my vertical leap. I took 1,000 shots a day.

"(Ghouleh) won't let anything get in our way. He will do anything to help you to get better. We're trying to build our program. We want to set a tone so everyone knows who Universal is. We want to build a tradition, an identity, a reputation."

Until then, Ghouleh will continue to raise eyebrows. "I get it all the time. 'You're head coach of where?' I love to see the surprise on people's faces when they see what this program is all about," he said.

It took awhile to put the pieces all together. He still has a way to go. Only 14 kids showed up for his first practice. Only seven were there at the end of his first season. He could get the gym for only three days a week for practice. So he took his team to the Bridgeview Park District gym and the Oak Lawn Pavilion or outside courts.

"It's a religious and academic school first. Sports was the last thing on their minds," Ghouleh summed up. "But we've come a long way. Come watch us play to see who we are and how dedicated these kids are."

White Sox prospect Micker Adolfo sidelined with elbow injuries

mickeradolfo.jpg
USA TODAY

White Sox prospect Micker Adolfo sidelined with elbow injuries

PHOENIX, Ariz. — One of the White Sox prized prospects will be on the shelf for a little while.

Outfielder Micker Adolfo has a sprained UCL in his right elbow and a strained flexor tendon that could require surgery. He could avoid surgery, though he could be sidelined for at least six weeks.

Though he hasn’t received the same high rankings and media attention as fellow outfield prospects Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, Adolfo is considered a part of the White Sox promising future. He’s said to have the best outfield arm in the White Sox system.

Adolfo had a breakout season in 2017, slashing .264/.331/.453 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs in 112 games with Class A Kannapolis.

Adolfo, along with Jimenez and Robert, has been generating buzz at White Sox camp in Glendale, with a crowd forming whenever the trio takes batting practice. Earlier this week, the three described their conversation dreaming about playing together in the same outfield for a contending White Sox team in the future.

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

Javy Baez can do anything defensively, but what's next for him at the plate?

MESA, Ariz. — You don’t need to spend long searching the highlight reels to figure out why Javy Baez goes by “El Mago.”

Spanish for “The Magician,” that moniker is a fitting one considering what Baez can do with his glove and his arm up the middle of the infield. The king of tags, Baez also dazzles with his throwing arm and his range. He looks like a Gold Glove kind of player when you watch him do these amazing things. And it’s no surprise that in his first media session of the spring, he was talking about winning that award.

“Just to play hard and see what I can do. Obviously, try to be healthy the whole year again. And try to get that Gold Glove that I want because a lot of people know me for my defense,” he said Friday at Cubs camp. “Just try to get a Gold Glove and stay healthy the whole year.”

Those high expectations — in this case, being the best defensive second baseman in the National League — fall in line with everything the rest of the team is saying about their own high expectations. It’s been “World Series or bust” from pretty much everyone over the past couple weeks in Mesa.

Baez might not be all the way there just yet. Joe Maddon talked earlier this week about his reminders that Baez needs to keep focusing on making the easy plays while staying a master of the magnificent.

“What I talked to him about was, when he had to play shortstop, please make the routine play routinely and permit your athleticism to play. Because when the play requires crazinesss, you’re there, you can do that,” Maddon said. “But this straight up ground ball three-hopper to shortstop, come get the ball, play it through and make an accurate throw in a routine manner. Apparently that stuck. Because he told me once he thought in those terms, it really did slow it down for him. And he did do a better job at doing that.”

But the biggest question for Cubs fans when it comes to Baez is when the offense will catch up to his defense. Baez hit a game-winning homer run in his first major league game and smacked 23 of them last season, good for fifth on a team full of power bats. But arguably just as famous as Baez’s defensive magic is his tendency to chase pitches outside of the strike zone. He had 144 strikeouts last season and reached base at a .317 clip. Seven Cubs — including notable struggling hitters Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist — had higher on-base percentages in 2017.

Baez, for one, is staying focused on what he does best, saying he doesn’t really have any specific offensive goals for the upcoming season.

“I’m not worrying about too much about it,” he said. “I’m just trying to play defense, and just let the offense — see what happens.”

Maddon, unsurprisingly, talked much more about what Baez needs to do to become a better all-around player, and unsurprisingly that included being more selective at the plate.

“One of the best base runners in the game, one of the finest arms, most acrobatic, greatest range on defense, power. The biggest thing for me for him is to organize the strike zone,” Maddon said. “Once he does that, heads up. He’s at that point now, at-bat wise, if you want to get those 500, 600 plate appearances, part of that is to organize your zone, accept your walks, utilize the whole field, that kind of stuff. So that would be the level that I think’s the next level for him.”

Will Baez have a season’s worth of at-bats to get that done? The versatile Cubs roster includes a couple guys who split time between the infield and outfield in Zobrist and Ian Happ. Getting their more consistent bats in the lineup might mean sacrificing Baez’s defense on certain days. Baez, of course, also has the ability to slide over to shortstop to spell Addison Russell, like he did when Russell was on the disabled list last season.

Until Baez learns how to navigate that strike zone a bit better, it might make Maddon more likely to mix and match other options, rather than considering him an everyday lock like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

But like Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras, Baez is one of the young players who despite key roles on a championship contender the last few years still have big league growth to come. And Maddon thinks that growth is right around the corner.

“I want to believe you’re going to see that this year,” Maddon said. “They’ve had enough major league at-bats now, they should start making some significant improvements that are easy to recognize. The biggest thing normally is pitch selection, I think that’s where it really shows up. When you have talented players like that, that are very strong, quick, all that other stuff, if they’re swinging at strikes and taking balls, they’re going to do really well. And so it’s no secret with Javy. It’s no secret with Addy. Addy’s been more swing mode as opposed to accepting his walks. That’s part of the maturation process with those two guys. Albert I thought did a great job the last month, two months of getting better against righties. I thought Jason looked really good in the cage today. And Willson’s Willson.

“The natural assumption is these guys have played enough major league at-bats that you should see something different this year in a positive way.”