Horse Racing

Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

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Johnson gives Joliet West a boost

Marlon Johnson was cut from his seventh and eighth grade basketball teams. As a freshman at Joliet West, he played on the B team. As a sophomore, he spent most of his time on the bench.

Now the 6-foot-9 senior is being described as "the next Anthony Davis," comparing him to the former Chicago Perspectives star who now is freshman sensation at Kentucky.

Obviously, like Davis, Johnson has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. In a year-and-a-half prior to his senior year, he grew from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-9. After observing him in AAU competition, college coaches began to call. Illinois State offered a scholarship.

"He has a long way to go but he has great potential," Joliet West coach Luke Yaklich said. "He will have to attend a junior college next year to get his academics in order. But in two years, with more experience and 10 to 15 pounds of muscle, he will be a major Division I recruit."

Johnson is averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds for a Joliet West team that is 17-9, has won two games in a row and will play at Thornton on Friday night for the Class 4A regional championship.

"He was coming together as a junior but he didn't have drive or a work ethic. No kid was coached harder or yelled at more," Yaklich said. "But something finally clicked within him. He got motivated during his junior year. He didn't play much early and it bothered him. He made a lot of changes in the second half of the season.

"He is a unique kid. He loves the game. He kept showing up for workouts in the summer. put in a lot of hard work over the summer and in AAU and he kept getting better. He added skills. We got a lot of calls from college coaches about him during the AAU season. Some people said they saw the next Anthony Davis. We told him he would be a beast as a senior."

Well, the beast is loose. A five-game winning streak in January set the tone for the second half of the season. With Johnson, 6-foot-3 junior Morris Dunnigan (13 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Edwards (11 ppg, 5 rpg), 5-foot-11 junior point guard Carl Terrell (8 ppg, 3 assists) and hot-shooting 5-foot-10 junior Ryan Modiest (6 ppg) coming off the bench, Yaklich believes his team can contend with top-seeded Bloom in the sectional at Lockport.

Joliet West has been there before. Last year, the Tigers were 9-16 and lost to Marian Catholic in the regional. But they were 24-8 two years ago and eliminated Bloom and Homewood-Flossmoor before losing to O'Fallon in the supersectional.

"We're focused now. A lot of pieces are fitting together," said Yaklich, who coached at Sterling and La Salle-Peru before landing at Joliet West five years ago.

Dunnigan, who started as a freshman on the supersectional team, is back after missing his sophomore year with an ACL injury. Without him, last year's team had no identity on offense. "He has expereience as a scorer in big games. He likes the ball in his hands," Yaklich said.

In Tuesday's 64-61 victory over Plainfield South, Dunnigan was limited to nine points but made a basket and free throw with eight seconds to play to spell the difference.

Edwards, who had 17 points and 15 rebounds against Plainfield South, is committed to St. Francis University. Last year, he was the team's seventh or eighth man but has developed into a valuable contributor this season.

Terrell is the floor leader...emotional, vocal, full of energy. And Modiest is the team's best shooter, a scoring threat off the bench.

"In the summer, we talked about Friday night's game, the regional championship, that we had what it takes to win it," Yaklich said. "We knew this team had good potential and good athletes."

He was disappointed that his team finished 9-5 in the Southwest Suburban Conference and third behind Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook.

"We felt we could be better than 9-5 in the league," the coach said. "But we're playing as well as we have all year right now. We really hope we are capable of carrying it over through the regional."

There's no rainouts in horse racing

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There's no rainouts in horse racing

It is playoff time here in Chicago. The hometown Cubs are back to their third consecutive NLCS. The Bears have played in gorgeous weather to open their season. The Bulls and Hawks get optimal conditions indoors. In racing, this isn’t always the case and last Saturday was one of those instances. 

After nearly two months of drought conditions in the Chicagoland area, racing at Hawthorne Race Course to close out the summer harness season was optimal. While the sprinklers were used constantly to keep the turf course green, the pond at Hawthorne had nearly dried up.

All of that came to an end last week at Hawthorne as Mother Nature was not quite as generous to open October. With the fall thoroughbred season commencing, the skies opened as well, with rain falling on numerous occasions to kick off the season. That was clearly the case last Saturday, when over five inches of rain came down during the course of the Hawthorne racing card.

In baseball, there would be a rain delay or cancellation. Youth sports teams get the day off. Outdoor attractions closed as flooding was prevalent in numerous locations. Here at Hawthorne…..we race.

At any racetrack, the equine stars are the showcase, but there are so many others necessary to put on the show. The folks brave the conditions and have to be well prepared.

Five stories above the racetrack, Hawthorne track announcer Peter Galassi provides the play-by-play for the racing action. With over 65,000 races called on his career, Peter has seen it all.

“I’ve called races in every weather condition possible and what we raced in Saturday was one of the tougher conditions to call in,” Galassi said. “When I announced races at Balmoral Park, fog would be my biggest concern. Fog was the worst. We had an occasion where myself, and our track stewards had to go from our location on the roof down to trackside for a race because the fog was so bad. We had to get below the fog to get a vantage point. Here at Hawthorne, dealing with the rain, especially at the rate it came down last Saturday, is very tough. Consider the windows of my announcer’s booth being the windshield of a car, but without window wipers. Streaks of water rolling down the panes of glass in your direct view. Add to that the glare of the lights off the glistening racetrack and thoroughbreds and riders covered in mud. It isn’t always the easiest, but what these athletes deal with on the track and in those conditions are far worse than what I am subjected to.”

Moving trackside, the race begins at the Hawthorne starting gate. Veteran assistant starter Bill Fultz and crew are responsible for safely loading the horses into the gate and keeping the horses calm in preparation for a fair start. While the job is complicated and dangerous on a clear day, the focus needed on a day where the weather conditions are menacing only increase.

“When the weather is tough and we are dealing with rain or snow, additional clothing and gear for our crew is needed,” Fultz said. “This is a physically demanding job as we are in the mud, working with horses, making sure they are safe, while also focusing on our safety. Fortunately we have an experienced crew that takes a lot of pride in their job and I feel it shows in the horses’ clean starts and performances.”

On horseback, the jockeys are limited in numerous aspects. On a good day, a rider has to not only worry about maintaining their weight, but also controlling a 1,000 lbs. thoroughbred, racing at 35 MPH, while balancing on a pair of two inch wide metal stirrups. In harsh weather conditions, limited additional clothing is allowed as the jockeys goggles become one of the most important pairs of equipment. Last Saturday was a good day for Hawthorne’s second all-time leading rider Chris Emigh as he won a pair of races in the monsoon.

“I figure you can either go out there and be miserable or go out there and have fun,” said the affable Emigh. “A lot of dirt and water gets thrown back at you and you just have to find a good spot in between the sprays of water and mud. Goggles are the key, a normal race I may have three pairs on, but on Saturday that amount doubles. We are controlling our mount, keeping balance, and trying to flip down to a clean pair of goggles numerous times each race. I get concerned when I come to that last pair and still have a quarter of a mile to go. When that happens, we just focus on what visibility we have and your finger becomes your window wiper.”

As all of the action takes place, cameramen positioned in towers around the track televise the action. Positioned at the finish line are Ryan Thompson and Nicole Thomas, the track photographers for Four Footed Fotos that work tirelessly to capture the Hawthorne action. When others may choose to wait until the last minute to capture to winner on the finish line, Ryan and Nicole take the weather as an opportunity to capture great images.

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

Predicting Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 5: 'Why not us?'

"NOT IN OUR HOUSE!" a Cubs coach yelled as he walked through the media throng awaiting entry into the clubhouse.

There was Kyle Schwarber standing at his locker, emphatically saying, "we're not gonna go down quietly."

There was Jake Arrieta, already making plans for what he would do to celebrate after the Cubs beat the Dodgers in the NLCS.

What a difference a day makes.

The Cubs looked completely beat and worn down after Game 3 Tuesday night. Kris Bryant echoed the same line — "why not us?" — he delivered last fall when the Cubs were down three games to one in the World Series, but this time, it just didn't feel the same.

Bryant looked shellshocked and admitted the team was drained after the NLDS and traveling across country to get steamrolled by the Dodgers in the first two games of the NLCS.

Wednesday night, things were different.

Even though the offense still hasn't broken out. 

Even though all the Cubs' runs still came off early homers — they have yet to score in this series not off a longball.

Even though Wade Davis is unavailable for Game 5 Thursday — the Cubs haven't won a game this postseason in which Davis did not pitch.

Even though the best pitcher on the planet — Clayton Kershaw — awaited the Cubs Thursday night at Wrigley Field.

The belief was back in the home clubhouse at Wrigley, even if it was just for one day.

But was it just for one day? 

I've been saying it all fall — the only time this Cubs team has played up to their potential is when they've had their backs against the wall. Your back couldn't possibly get more against the wall when down 0-3 in the NLCS, a deficit only one team in baseball history has come back from.

Conceivably, yes, the Cubs can pull this off. They can climb all the way out of this hole and make a second straight World Series.

If any team can do it, it's the group that erased the longest championship drought in American sports history and did it in the most dramatic way imaginable.

Will the Cubs be able to pull it off? 

I have no idea, honestly. I know that's a cop-out, but screw predictions at this point of the postseason. 

There's a very real possibility the Cubs offense finally breaks out and takes one more step toward writing this team's entry into the baseball history books.

There's also a very real possibility Kershaw comes out and slams the door on any talk of Cubs magic and finally pitches his way into the World Series for the first time.

Either way, the build-up to Thurday night around Wrigleyville is gonna be fun as hell.