Cubs

Nelms 'snow job' defines career

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Nelms 'snow job' defines career

Brian Nelms is a 5-foot-9 senior point guard at Rolling Meadows who isn't ranked among the top 100 players in the nation and doesn't have scholarship offers to Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina.

But, take coach Kevin Katovich's word as gospel, Nelms is a "special type of kid." He is very intelligent and highly motivated and likely will make some Division III coach very happy.

As a freshman on the varsity, in a win or lose situation, Nelms commanded such confidence from his coach and teammates that he was allowed to take a three-point shot in the closing seconds of a game.

He missed. His team lost.

Afterward, he shoveled about three inches of snow off his driveway and shot hoops for an hour in the dark.

"The first thing I did was walk to the spot where I had missed the shot, the right corner," Nelms recalled. "I took about 30 or 40 shots from there. The worst part is I was making them. I asked myself: Why couldn't I do it two hours ago?

"It was senior night. Having a chance to win the game and not being able to convert, it hurt pretty bad. It was painful. It would have been a nice way to send the seniors out.

"It meant a lot to me, having the confidence to give me the ball in that situation. I have been fortunate enough to hit some big shots since then. But it took me awhile to figure out what good could come of it. Then I realized it happens to everybody. Even the pros miss game-winners."

Nelms has made more game-defining shots than he has missed. "I was able to deal with myself missing the shot. I still want the ball in my hands at the end of a game," he said.

Later in his sophomore year, with Rolling Meadows trailing Elk Grove by three points with four seconds to play and having to go the length of the court, Nelms couldn't deliver the ball to a teammate in the corner so he came off a ball screen and buried a fadeaway three-pointer to force double overtime.

Last year, he drained a game-winning shot from two steps inside half-court to beat Glenbrook South.

Nelms is averaging 15 points and eight assists for a 14-6 team that clinched a tie for its first division title in the Mid-Suburban League since 2005 by beating Buffalo Grove 60-51 last Friday. Now the Mustangs are eager to claim their first conference title since 1991 and first regional title since 2001.

Nelms, the school's all-time assist leader, had 19 points and 12 assists in the victory over Buffalo Grove. On Saturday, he had 15 points and 10 assists as Rolling Meadows beat Niles West 59-45. The Mustangs will meet Barrington on Tuesday, Wheeling on Friday and Leyden on Saturday.

Rolling Meadows isn't a mecca for high school basketball. Since 1971, only one of five coaches has posted a winning record. In five years, Hank Szymanski won three regional titles. But the school has qualified for the state quarterfinals only once, in 1990 when Dave Brown's team went 28-3.

"It's a matter of numbers. We are the smallest school in District 214 and we have trouble getting kids out for basketball," said Katovich, who is in his 10th year as head coach.

"Winning helps. We're drawing more kids. We were 15-13 last year and had four starters back. We're drawing more interest in the program. We try to keep our kids working on their skills. Losing isn't fun."

Katovich and his staff work with other coaches at the school to encourage athletes to participate in more than one sport. Only two of Katovich's 17 players compete in basketball only. Several of them play in three sports.

And they constantly remind their players of former Rolling Meadows star Aaron Williams, the only NBA player ever produced at the school. Williams, a 1989 graduate, played with 10 teams during a 15-year professional career. He currently is an assistant coach at his alma mater, Xavier University.

"We talk about him a lot, a successful alum. We work at it as a big picture thing," Katovich said. "Most of these kids have been on the varsity for three years. They want to do something the school hasn't done in a long time. They want to leave a mark for themselves and the basketball program."

Nelms and his teammates are reminded of the school's futility on the basketball court every time they walk past the trophy case. "Given our past, we usually surprise people. We don't get publicity or make opponents fear us because we aren't a known program. So we try to prove people wrong all the time," he said.

"We were picked to finish second or third in our division but no one picked us to win. We want to leave our own legacy for people who come in after us. There is a plaque in our team room that says: 'Play hard, play smart and play together.' That's what drives us."

Underneath the plaque are a set of numbers that are a source of motivation and inspiration, numbers that remind each player--as if they need to be reminded--of the last time the school won a division or regional title.

Katovich is familiar with the school's basketball history. A 1989 graduate of nearby Conant in Hoffman Estates, he played and later coached under Tom McCormack. He also worked for ATT. But he liked being around kids and obtained a masters degree in education.

"Coaching drove me into it," said Katovich, who coached at Prospect for four year before arriving at Rolling Meadows in 2001. "Other coaches convinced me that was what I wanted to do."

Nelms is more than a basketball player. He ranks in the top 23 percent of his class, has a 4.6 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale, scored 31 on his ACT and is looking to play basketball at Division III Augustana, Lake Forest, Illinois Wesleyan or DePaul or Division II Hillsdale.

Other starters are 6-foot-3 senior Tyler Gaedele (15 ppg), who is second in the area in three-pointers and whose brother Kyle plays for the San Diego Padres; 6-foot-3 senior Mike Rose (10 ppg, 10 rpg), who was a freshman B player at one time; 6-foot-3 junior Mike Dolan (8 ppg); and 5-foot-10 senior Eric Lowe (4 ppg), a defensive stopper who is committed to play baseball at Villanova, or 5-foot-9 senior Mike Olson (5 ppg). Rose scored 17 points in Rolling Meadows' victory over Niles West on Saturday.

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-6 senior Chuck Lynk, 5-foot-9 senior John Ott and 6-foot-3 junior Brian Sabal.

To advance in the Class 4A sectional at Barrington where Warren likely will be the top seed, Katovich said: "We need to get back to what makes us a good team--sharing the basketball, rebounding and playing good defense. This is an exciting time for the basketball program. There is a buzz around the school."

Nelms and his teammates hear the buzz. They are a close-knit group that spends a lot of time in the weight room, on the basketball court and around the dinner table. Each week, before a Friday game, they gather at the house of one of the players for a pasta party.

Mike Olson's mother is a favorite. "She is a great cook," Nelms said after feasting on lasagna, salad, chocolate chip cookies and "some of the best breadsticks I've ever had."

Nelms is as superstitious as he is a food critic. He wears No. 11 because Isiah Thomas, Dee Brown and Drew Neitzel once wore it. He asked for the jersey in sixth grade and has stuck with it.

"I have a long list of superstitions," he said. "I wear the same pair of compression shorts and the same socks for every game. I listen to the same song. I'm huge on static guard. I spray it on my clothes and uniform before games.

"And I eat the same meal lunch--chicken and cheese sandwich on white bread, yogurt, oat meal, pretzels and lots of water and Gatorade. I tried it once and scored 28 points. I said it must be the food. So I've had the same lunch ever since."

It beats shoveling snow off the driveway.

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

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USA TODAY

Cubs' World Series expectations are no surprise, but they show how radical transformation from Lovable Losers has been

MESA, Ariz. — Tom Ricketts sure doesn’t sound like the guy who met his wife in the bleachers during the century-long tenure of the Lovable Losers.

“Everyone knows that this is a team that has the capability to win the World Series, and everyone will be disappointed if we don’t live up to that capability.”

Yeah, the Cubs have been among baseball’s best teams for three seasons now. That curse-smashing World Series win in 2016 was the high point of a three-year stretch of winning that’s seen three straight trips to the National League Championship Series and a combined 310 wins between the regular season and postseason.

But it’s still got to come as a strange sound to those who remember the Cubs as the longtime butt of so many baseball jokes. This team has one expectation, to win the World Series. The players have said it for a week leading up to Monday’s first full-squad workout. The front office said it when it introduced big-time free-agent signing Yu Darvish a week ago. And the chairman said it Monday.

“We very much expect to win,” Ricketts said. “We have the ability to win. Our division got a lot tougher, and the playoff opponents that we faced last year are likely to be there waiting for us again.

“I think at this point with this team, obviously that’s our goal. I won’t say a season’s a failure because you don’t win the World Series, but it is our goal.”

The confidence is not lacking. But more importantly, success drives expectations. And if the Cubs are going to be one of the best teams in baseball, they better keep winning, or they’ll fail to meet those expectations, expectations that can sometimes spin a little bit out of control.

During last year’s follow-up campaign to 2016’s championship run, a rocky start to the season that had the Cubs out of first place at the All-Star break was enough to make some fans feel like the sky was falling — as if one year without a World Series win would be unacceptable to a fan base that had just gone 108 without one.

After a grueling NLDS against the Washington Nationals, the Cubs looked well overmatched in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and that sparked plenty of outside criticism, as well as plenty of offseason activity to upgrade the club in the midst of baseball’s never-ending arms race.

“I think people forget we’ve won more games over the last three years than any other team. We’ve won more playoff games than any other team the last three years. And we’ve been to the NLCS three years in a row,” Ricketts said. “I think fans understand that this is a team that if we stay healthy and play up to our capability can be in that position, be in the World Series. I don’t blame them. We should have high expectations, we have a great team.”

On paper, there are plenty of reasons for high expectations. Certainly the team’s stated goals don’t seem outlandish or anything but expected. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that already boasted Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana makes the Cubs’ starting staff the best in the NL, maybe the best in the game. There were additions to the bullpen, and the team’s fleet of young star position players went untouched despite fears it might be broken up to acquire pitching.

“I think this is, on paper, the strongest rotation that we’ve ever had,” Ricketts said. “I think that being able to bring in a player of (Darvish’s) caliber reminds everyone that we’re intending to win our division and go all the way.

“We’ve kept a good core of players together for several years, and this year I think our offseason moves have really set us up to be one of the best teams in baseball.

“Just coming out of our team meeting, the vibe feels a lot like two years ago. Everybody’s in a really good place. I think everyone’s really hungry and really wants to get this season off to a great start and make this a memorable year.”

There should be no surprise that the team and its players and its executives and its owners feel the way they do. The Cubs are now expected winners, even if that’s still yet to sink in for the longtime fans and observers of the team they once called the Lovable Losers.

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks deal Michael Kempny to Capitals for conditional third-round pick

The Blackhawks dealt defenseman Michael Kempny to the Washington Capitals for a third-round pick. Kempny had seven points in 31 games this season.

Kempny, 27, recorded 15 points in 81 career games for the Blackhawks. He tallied an assist in Saturday's 7-1 victory over the Capitals.

Kempny signed a one-year extension through the end of this season back in May.