Cubs

Norberg adds punch to Cary-Grove's flex-bone

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Norberg adds punch to Cary-Grove's flex-bone

After last year's 8-3 finish, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg began a search for a fullback to fill a void in his flex-bone triple option offense.

"Someone who adds another dimension that makes us potentially very dangerous and explosive," he said, scanning the roster.

Seaburg settled on Kyle Norberg. It was a smart decision. But would the 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior, who was a starter at linebacker as a sophomore and junior, accept the transition to fullback? Could he do the job? And what about his goal of being a linebacker in college?

"We don't have a lot of Division I players, just tough Division III type of players," Seaburg said. "We looked at Norberg. He is so physical, big and strong. And he has 4.6 speed. We felt he could be a difference-maker on offense. He hits the hole faster than any fullback we have had."

Norberg has made a difference. He has rushed 186 times for 1,933 yards and 23 touchdowns. He has averaged 10.4 yards per carry. He has fumbled only twice. In limited duty on defense, he has two sacks and two interceptions. In last Saturday's 7-0 victory over Crystal Lake Central, Norberg rushed 10 times for 133 yards.

Cary-Grove (12-0) will play at Lake Forest (9-3) on Saturday in a Class 6A semifinal. It marks the first time the Trojans have reached the semifinal round since winning the state title in 2009.

"Norberg is having a great year," Seaburg said. "He turned himself into a workhorse kind of fullback who gets tough four or five yards but also has had several touchdown runs over 70 yards. I'm surprised at the number of explosive plays he has had over 50-60 yards."

Norberg is surprised, too. "I never saw myself in a position where I'd be running the ball," he said. It finally dawned on him in Week 8, when he rushed for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Dundee-Crown to set school and Fox Valley Conference records for yards in a single game.

Growing up, he was a three-sport athlete who thoroughly enjoyed football, basketball and baseball. Later, he competed in track. As a sophomore, however, he dropped everything else to harness his energy for football. "It's my favorite thing to do. I strive to be good at it," he said.

His hero is his grandfather, who was a 6-foot-3, 290-pound noseman at Iowa State. "I'm not as big as him but I wanted to be like him. He has been my hero. I compare myself to him. He made it to Division I and that has been a goal of mine," Norberg said.

He was a lineman in eighth grade, then was shifted to linebacker as a freshman and promoted to the sophomore team. He played linebacker on the varsity as a sophomore and junior.

He figured to play linebacker as a senior so he attended the Elite 7 camp in Barrington, a training facility for athletes which is run by former Cary-Grove star Alex Kube, who played at Northern Illinois and once had a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings.

Then Norberg began to sense that his life was about to change.

"We had meetings. The coaches came to every senior's house to tell us what would be in store for the season," he said. "At first, the coach talked about a few plays at fullback. But when summer camp started, I was taking more reps at fullback than linebacker. He wanted me to learn the position."

At an out-of-town camp in early August in Whitewater, Wisconsin, Seaburg and his coaching staff began to cement the starting lineup during three-a-day practice sessions and scrimmages. During every scrimmage, Norberg was playing fullback.

"I figured that's where they wanted me to be, where I could help the team the most," he said. "At first, I was scared and worried. I had been training to be a linebacker. I texted some teammates. They said: 'They put you there (at fullback) for a reason. You have to make it happen.'

"After the camp, I had a week off to think about it. It finally sunk in. I said to myself: 'Let's make it work and be the best I can be at this spot.' It was cool to try something new.

"At first, it was confusing, remembering plays, who to block, reading the blocks. As a freshman, I also was a backup wingback on the sophomore team. From a fullback's standpoint, the offense isn't difficult to understand. I'm lined up directly behind the quarterback and running downhill all the time.

"How will this affect my college recruiting? Are they looking at me as a fullback or linebacker? I still look at myself as a linebacker. Fullback gives me more athleticism. But I still want to be a linebacker in college. I want to hit people rather than be hit. I like the instinctive part of the game. I like to make plays."

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

Are Cubs feeling drained? The clubhouse is divided

For the second straight week, Kyle Schwarber halted his postgame media scrum to get something off his chest.

Standing at his locker — the same spot he stood exactly a week prior — the Cubs slugger got about as forceful as he's ever been with the cameras rolling.

Are the Cubs drained right now?

"Never. Nope. Not at all," Schwarber said. "I'll shut you down right there — we're not running out of gas at all."

Really? 

You gotta admire Schwarber's grit. He's got that linebacker/football mentality still locked and loaded in mid-October after a brutal first three games of the NLCS.

But...come on. The Cubs aren't drained? They're not tired or weary or mentally fatigued?

Schwarber says no, but it doesn't look that way on the field. They look like the high point of the season was that epic Game 5 in D.C. It was one of the craziest baseball games ever played, very reminsicent of Game 7 in last year's World Series.

Only one thing: Game 7 was the ultimate last game. They left it all on the field and that was cool because there was no more season left. Last week's wacky contest wasn't the final game of the season. It was just the final game of the FIRST series of the postseason.

So if the Cubs aren't feeling any weariness — emotional, physical, mental or otherwise — they must be superhuman.

Yet Anthony Rizzo — the face of the franchise — backed Schwarber's sentiment.

"I'm 28 years old right now," Rizzo said. "I could run laps around this place right now. I've got a great job for a living to play baseball.

"We have a beautiful life playing baseball. You gotta keep that in perspective. So if you wanna try to get mentally tired, realize what we're doing."

Rizzo talked that talk, but his performance on the field has hit a wall. After his "Respect Me!" moment in Game 3 of the NLDS, Rizzo went hitless in his next 16 at-bats before a harmless single Tuesday night. He then struck out in his final trip to the plate.

Bryzzo's other half — Kris Bryant — actually took the opposite stance of his teammates.

"Yeah, [that Washington series] was pretty draining, I think," Bryant admitted. "Some good games there that I think were pretty taxing for our bullpen and pitchers, too. 

"Kinda expect that around this time of year. The games mean a lot."

It's not surprising to hear those words from Bryant. In fact, it wouldn't even be mildly shocking to hear every player in the clubhouse share the same point of view.

The Cubs played all the way past Halloween last fall, then hit the town, having epic celebrations, going on TV shows, having streets named after them, etc. 

Then, before you know it, there's Cubs Convention again. And shortly after that, pitchers and catchers report. 

From there, the "title defense" season began, featuring a lackluster first half and a second half that took a tremendous amount of energy just to stave off the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central and get into the postseason.

Oh yeah, and then that series with the Nationals where the Cubs squeaked out a trio of victories by the slimest of margins.

These Cubs have never really had anything resembling a break. 

However, they're now just one game away from getting that rest they so badly need (and deserve).

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

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USA TODAY

Ben Zobrist breaks down how Dodgers pitching has made Cubs offense disappear

Ben Zobrist didn’t look for any deeper meaning in Kyle Schwarber’s first-inning homer off Yu Darvish on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, or hope that one swing could change the entire momentum of this National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Zobrist knows what it takes to win in October, the Cubs identifying him as the missing piece to their lineup after he helped transform the 2015 Kansas City Royals into a championship team, and then getting a World Series MVP return on their $56 million investment.

That “Schwarbomb” turned out to be fool’s gold, the only run the Cubs would score in front of a quiet, low-energy crowd of 41,871, the defending champs one more loss away from golfing/hunting/fishing/signing autographs at memorabilia shows.

“That was great to get a homer, but I’d rather see some hits strung together,” Zobrist said after a sloppy 6-1 loss, standing at his locker for almost 10 minutes, answering questions in the underground clubhouse. “I’d like to see a couple doubles together, a few singles, three or four hits in an inning. We just haven’t done that.

“That’s what makes rallies. They’ve stayed away from those kinds of innings. That’s why they’re ahead right now.”

Darvish – Jake Arrieta’s replacement in the 2018 rotation? – canceled out the two singles he allowed in the first inning by getting two of his seven strikeouts and answering some of the questions about how he would respond to all the pressure in October.

Darvish – a trade-deadline acquisition that had echoes of Theo Epstein’s “If not now, when?” explanation for last year’s Aroldis Chapman trade – walked one of the 25 batters he faced and pitched into the seventh inning before handing the game over to a lights-out bullpen.

“There’s nothing that we didn’t see beforehand on video,” Zobrist said. “It’s just a matter of we need him to make more mistakes, and we got to take advantage of those mistakes when he makes them.

“When he got to 3-2 counts, he wasn’t throwing a heater. He was throwing the cutter, and it’s a tough pitch to hit. You have to sit on it, and even then it’s got good movement to it. He kept us off-balance.”

Forward-thinking manager Dave Roberts is at the controls of a Los Angeles bullpen that can match up against right- and left-handed hitters, target locations, unleash upper-90s velocity, execute the elevated fastball that messes with eye levels and lean on All-Star closer Kenley Jansen for multiple innings.

The Dodger relievers essentially put together a no-hitter that lasted nine-plus innings across Games 1, 2 and 3. Together, they have pitched 10.2 scoreless innings, facing 36 batters and allowing two hits and a walk and hitting Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

“They kept the ball on the edges and kept us off-balance,” Zobrist said. “They’re not throwing the pitch in the middle of the plate when we need them to. They’re keeping it on the edges and those are hard (to hit). When you got guys with good stuff on the mound, you need them to make some mistakes for you, or at least start walking some guys.

“When they’ve gotten in those situations with a three-ball count, they’re still making the pitch when they need to. They’re not walking many guys – and we are.

“That’s why they’re up 3-nothing.”

Zobrist (4-for-23 this postseason) is now more of a part-time player/defensive replacement, no longer the switch-hitting force who dropped the bunt at Dodger Stadium that helped end the 21-inning scoreless streak during last year’s NLCS.

Zobrist insisted the Cubs are still all there mentally, not checked out after a grueling first round against the Washington Nationals and a brutal walk-off loss in Game 2 at Dodger Stadium. He owns two World Series rings and one has the Cubs logo and this inscription: “We Never Quit.”

“We keep it loose all the time,” Zobrist said. “We know what’s at stake. And we don’t shy away from it. We look forward to the challenge ahead. It would be a great story for us to be able to come back in this series and win this series.

“We make adjustments, we take advantage of mistakes and we come out with a victory tomorrow. That’s what we have to do.”