Cubs

Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

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Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

Ryan Solomon and Kenny Obendorf are proud members of the first senior class at brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art Metea Valley High School in Aurora. They are anxious and determined to set a standard for others to follow, to establish a tradition where there is none.

They were freshmen at Waubonsie Valley but were aware that they would move to Metea Valley as sophomores. Everything at the 124.7 million complex was new...teachers, 2,400 students, gym, fieldhouse, weight room, swimming pool, energy, excitement, expectations, school song, school colors, nickname.

Everything but tradition. If you don't inherit it, as at schools like Joliet Catholic or Mount Carmel or Thornton or Wheaton Warrenville South, you have to build it...game by game, year by year.

"Not many people have the opportunity to start off new," Solomon said. "We have the opportunity to start our own tradition. What we do this year will set the tone for future years to come in basketball. Knowing we are competing for a new school and having all our classmates behind us creates a fun atmosphere."

Winning is fun. Metea Valley is 8-0 after Friday's 68-58 victory over Bartlett and Saturday's 55-43 victory over South Elgin. Obendorf scored 22 points against Bartlett and Solomon had 15 against South Elgin. The Mustangs play at Neuqua Valley Friday, then compete at the Hinsdale South Holiday Tournament.

"I knew we had a chance to be 8-0," coach Bob Vozza said. "Expectations are high. Each and every day these seniors are building what Metea is and shaping what the program is going to be.

"We put them in big-game situations last year with East Aurora, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley and they learned to handle pressure. They are building a tradition. This is their team, the first senior group. In the future, we'll be talking about them to younger kids. Their motivation is to build success that others will be building to achieve."

With all five starters and four others returning from last year's squad, Vozza had a solid foundation to build on. Obendorf, a 6-2 senior guard, averages 15 points per game. Solomon, a 6-1 senior guard, averages 12. Milan Bojanic, a 6-4 senior, averages 13.

Other major contributors are 5-10 senior point guard TreSean Mackey, 6-4 junior Sean Davis, 5-10 senior LaShawn Cargo and 6-2 senior Raysean Parker.

"Our strength is pressure man-to-man defense," said Vozza, whose team forced 16 turnovers in the second half against Bartlett. "We can match up with a lot of people."

"It was tough coming in...no upperclassmen, no tradition. But it's just basketball," said Obendorf, who carries a 4.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 35 (out of 36) on his ACT. "A lot of us have been doing this for a long time. We felt we had the talent to compete.

"Our chemistry is a big thing. All of us like each other. We get along. We have built up a trust in everyone else. When we get in big-game situations, we know that everyone is working together and on the same page and doing what they have to do to help the team succeed. We've been in close games this year and haven't panicked."

But Obendorf and Solomon, who played on the sophomore team at Waubonsie Valley as freshmen before moving to Metea Valley, agree that athleticism also gives the Mustangs an edge.

"We enjoy the fast pace of basketball," Obendorf said. "We can play against any team in the area. The difference is our athleticism on defense gives us an ability to make stops and get up and down the court."

"We have so much energy," Solomon said. "We have a lot of fast kids, moving at a fast pace. We excel at going up and down the court. We feed off the energy we create with one big play. All of us are athletes. Not many teams have as much athleticism as we do."

Vozza, 39, is as excited as his players with the challenge of breaking in a new school and establishing a new identity and a new tradition. A Waubonsie Valley graduate of 1990, he played basketball under Spike Grosshuesch on teams that went 50-6 in two years and reached the sectional finals. So he knew something about winning.

He tried to coach other sports, including baseball and soccer, but always came back to basketball. He recalled his experiences at Waubonsie Valley and his trips to the state finals in Champaign and Peoria. "I fell in love with the atmosphere," he said.

"Why basketball? It is one of the high school sports that generates fan support and excitement in the high school and community," he said. "It gives kids the same experience you had."

After graduating from Aurora University in 1995, he coached and taught at Geneva, at a middle school in Aurora, Waubonsie Valley for one year, then to Neuqua Valley as an assistant coach, teacher and guidance counselor from 1997 to 2009. When the job at Metea Valley opened up, he applied and was hired.

"I'm excited to start from the ground up, a new school and a new staff," he said. "I saw growing pains there. But I learned how to build a foundation."

Vozza was allowed to handpick his staff--former Geneva head coach Tim Pease, who was an assistant at Waubonsie Valley; Andrew Browning, who was an assistant at Geneva; Matt Wolpole, who came from Waubonsie Valley; Pat Brusveen, a former player at Neuqua Valley; Grian Giovanini, who was an assistant at Neuqua Valley; and Patrick Grady, who came from Maine West.

He formed his philosophy "by taking bits and pieces" from Grosshuesch and coach Todd Sutton at Neuqua Valley.

"Honestly, we had mixed feelings coming over to a new school, leaving the kids at Waubonsie Valley," Obendorf said. "But it is interesting to go to a new school and start something new. It is a challenge to start something new. There is a lot of energy here.

"We were 15-13 in our first year. We played better than others expected but we felt we could have a winning record. It was a matter of getting experience in big games and pulling out wins in the end. We're all excited about the school, starting something new."

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.