White Sox

Mooring puts the spin on Hillcrest

650016.png

Mooring puts the spin on Hillcrest

It all began on June 4 when Hillcrest senior basketball star Ryan Royall, the team's only all-conference returnee, was shot and killed during a disturbance following a birthday party in south suburban Lynwood.

"Our kids are playing the season for him," coach Don Houston said. "He would have been a starter, one of our best players. It is a credit to these kids that they are playing as well as they are. I'm not surprised. These kids are tough players."

Houston and his Hawks, who are 15-4 after beating Richards and Bremen last week but losing 59-53 to Farragut on Sunday, will experience another emotional moment on Tuesday when they play at Crete-Monee.

Crete-Monee's first-year coach is Tom Cappel, who won 504 games in 23 years at Hillcrest. Houston was Cappel's assistant for seven years, then succeeded his mentor five years ago. "There is a lot of love and respect for each other," Houston said.

Houston, 40, has picked up where Cappel left off. In fact, he has accomplished at least one thing that Cappel was unable to do, winning a state championship in 2010, in only his third season. Cappel reached the state quarterfinals twice but advanced no farther.

"Talent-wise, this team is as good as the state champion," Houston said. "Potentially, we could go pretty far (in the state tournament). This team has more depth and more athleticism. If they can buy into playing team basketball, they could be as good if not better.

"They have to realize the structure of the game, especially at the end. They have to execute to pull out close games at the end. They just like to play but there is more to it than that. They like to get up and down because of their athleticism. But it doesn't win all the games, especially the close ones. I keep preaching it a lot. I show them the value of execution."

Hillcrest returns some experienced hands from a 21-8 squad that lost to Morgan Park in last year's sectional semifinal. The leaders are 6-foot-2 junior Jovan Mooring (18 ppg), 6-foot-6 senior Jalen Loving (14 ppg), 6-foot-6 senior Jayone Troutman (13 ppg, 9 rpg), 6-foot-2 senior Virgil Fleming (8 ppg) and 5-foot-8 junior point guard Kyle Oden (8 ppg, 6 assists).

Houston describes Mooring as one of the best players in the class of 2013. "People don't know about him like they should. They will find out about him soon. He is getting some looks (from college recruiters), He is one of the best scorers around," the coach said.

"I am very underrated," Mooring said. "I want to play Division I in college. I know how good I am. Hopefully, people will realize it one day. I've always been a good player but haven't gotten the recognition I should have. I feel I should have been on the varsity last year but should have worked a lot harder to get there. I really improved my game over the summer."

His trademark is a spin move with a step back jump shot. "I drive left, spin back right, step back and shoot over the defender with my right hand. I have worked on it a lot. I've gotten it good this year. I started to notice that nobody could stop it," he said.

A pair of 6-foot-2 seniors, Brent Buchanan (8 ppg) and Chris Copeland (5 ppg), provide spark off the bench on offense and defense.

"These next few games will tell us if we have matured from the losses (to highly rated Bloom, Simeon and Rockford Auburn) that we suffered early in the season," Houston said. "If they can execute in the clutch and at the end of games, they will show they are ready to go to Peoria."

Mooring isn't surprised by the team's success. Although four returned from last year's squad, none of them started. But they have been together since sixth grade and were unbeaten as freshmen and sophomores. The tragic death of their teammate, Royall, has provided motivation and inspiration.

"He was the leader of the team," Mooring said. "When I heard about it, it didn't see real. We had just played together the day before. When I woke up and heard he was gone, it was a real shock. We helped each other to get through that time. It was motivation. We're doing this for him.

"We know he would be working just as hard as we would. He wasn't perfect at everything but he did all the right things. What we don't do, he did...get tip-ins, dive on the floor for loose balls, get offensive rebounds. He was a leader and great defender. All he talked about was winning state. Now we're all coming together."

Despite the losses, Houston felt his team learned some positive lessons that will benefit them as they prepare for the state tournament.

For example, the Hawks lost to top-ranked Simeon by 15 but got a chance to experience playing in a highly competitive environment. Against Bloom and Rockford Auburn (they led by 13 with five minutes left in the third quarter), they learned they have to execute at the end.

Mooring was a freshman when Hillcrest won the 2010 state championship. He played on the sophomore squad during the preliminary games and stuck around to observe the varsity. He knows what it takes to be a state champion.

"That team had a lot of heart," he said. "They never gave up. They played together, like we do. We aren't as athletic but I believe we can be a better team. We're a lot quicker than the 2010 team. It comes down to us doing it. Our defense gives us a lot of confidence against every team we play. As long as we move on defense, we can compete with anybody."

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

High School Lites is down to the final week of the regular season in local high school hoops as the Class 3A and 4A schools finish up conference play. The boys basketball playoffs have also started as the Class 1A and Class 2A regional championships will be played on Friday night.

The girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals will also be featured. You can catch all of those games on NBC Sports Chicago on Friday beginning at 11 a.m. with the 1A semifinals. High School Lites will air Friday night at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago

East Aurora at No. 11 West Aurora, 7:00 p.m. -- These two rivals meet for the 225th time. The Blackhawks (20-4, 9-0) won the first matchup by 22 points as they try to finish the season on a 12-game winning streak. 

Jacobs at Dundee-Crown, 7:00 p.m. -- Fox Valley rivals match up as Jacobs tries to go unbeaten in the conference. The Eagles (23-3, 15-0) has been playing very well as they've won 20 of 21 games heading into this one -- including an earlier win against Dundee-Crown. The Chargers (14-11, 10-4) has won seven consecutive games since dropping to the Golden Eagles as they're second in the Fox Valley heading into this one. 

Yorkville at DeKalb, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East play in this one. DeKalb (16-11, 11-1) has already clinched a share of the conference title as the team's only league loss has come against Yorkville. The Foxes (17-8, 10-2) knocked off DeKalb at their place on Feb. 3 as they try to win again to get a piece of the division title. 

T.F. North at Lemont, 7:00 p.m. -- Two of the better teams in the South Suburban Blue battle on the eve of the playoffs. Lemont (17-8, 9-3) has picked up three straight wins entering this one. T.F. North (11-9, 9-3) is trying to build some momentum after recent close losses to Hillcrest and T.F. South.

Carmel at No. 10 Benet, 7:30 p.m. -- The ESCC closes out its season with this one. Benet (22-4, 7-1) is coming off a nice road win at Marian Catholic earlier this week. Carmel (17-10, 4-4) knocked off Joliet Catholic during the week as they've been a dangerous team in the ESCC. 

Class 2A Boys Basketball Regional Championships

Leo vs. Marshall, 6 p.m. -- The Lions are the favorites but the Commandos are the host of this regional title game. Leo (20-5, 8-0) has a 13-game winning streak as they won the Catholic League White. Marshall (8-17, 4-5) struggled in the win column but they were a competitive 4-5 in a very deep Public League Red-South. 

Uplift vs. Northridge, 7 p.m. -- This should be an interesting battle as Uplift is playing on the road at Northridge. Uplift (17-9, 6-3) has played an extremely competitive schedule that includes a recent close loss to No. 1 Simeon as Kansas commit Markese Jacobs and senior forward Toraze Dobbs are one of the best combinations in the Class 2A field. Northridge (22-5, 12-0) went unbeaten in the Independent School League this season as they're riding a 13-game winning streak.

Class 1A Boys Basketball Regional Championships 

Aurora Christian vs. Harvest Christian, 7 p.m. -- These two teams play for the third time this season in what should be an interesting regional title game. Aurora Christian (23-1, 10-0) is the host as they only lost to Winnebago this season. The Eagles beat Harvest Christian twice in a six-day span in December. Harvest Christian (18-8, 8-2) finished third in the Northeastern Athletic as they played the second game within two points. 

Class 1A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Okaw Valley vs. Stockton, 11 a.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Okaw Valley (29-5) is making its first state appearance after winning its first regional title in school history. Stockton (31-2) finished under .500 last season (13-15) and had an amazing turnaround that includes a current 15-game winning streak. 

Lebanon vs. Schlarman, 12:45 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- These two teams have combined for two losses this season as this should be a good one. Lebanon (31-1) just won its first sectional title in school history as they've now moved on to state. Schlarman (31-1) is led by junior Anaya Peoples, a Notre Dame commit and five-star prospect in the Class of 2019. 

Class 2A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Harlan vs. Eureka, 5:30 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two red-hot teams play in the first semifinal in Class 2A. Harlan (25-6) is riding a 12-game winning streak as this is its first appearance at state for girls basketball. Eureka (28-3) has a 19-game winning streak as they make their first state appearance since 1988.

Marshall vs. Teutopolis, 7:15 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two storied programs in the state match up in this one. Marshall (20-7) will be making its 21st state appearance as head coach Dorothy Gaters is one of the most storied coaches in Illinois. Teutopolis is making its 17th appearance at state as the Lady Shoes (28-6) seek their first title since 1995.