Cubs

Pinckneyville seeks state-wide recognition

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Pinckneyville seeks state-wide recognition

Pinckneyville is 26-4 and isn't ranked among the top 25 teams in Class 2A in Illinois. Pinckneyville unranked? You're kidding, right? Quick, name the five high schools in the state with the most tradition. Centralia, Thornton, Quincy, Mount Vernon and... Pinckneyville.

Duster Thomas coached Pinckneyville to the 1948 state championship and four thirds, including three 33-3 seasons in a row from 1953 to 1955. In 19 years, his teams were 460-128. The gym, built in the 1950s and named after Thomas, remains a classic design.

Don Stanton was 116-31 in five years at the school. Dick Corn was 682-225 in 31 years, winning state titles in 1994 and 2001, finishing second in 1988 and fourth in 2006. Current coach Bob Waggoner produced a fourth-place finisher in the 2008 state tournament.

"This team deserves to be ranked among the top 10 in the state," Waggoner said. "People have asked me why we aren't ranked. How do you respond? It's out of our hands. Personally, I don't worry about rankings. The most important thing is to win. If you win, accolades will come."

Maybe it's because Pinckneyville doesn't have an outstanding player, a Division I recruit or an All-State candidate. Maybe it's because Harrisburg and Breese Central received so much preseason hoopla. Breese Central currently is ranked No. 1 in the state in one poll. Maybe it's because Herrin would have received more attention if it hadn't moved to Class 3A.

Or maybe it's because Pinckneyville hasn't been able to get past neighboring Du Quoin to earn another trip to Peoria. Two years ago, Pinckneyville was 24-6 but lost to Du Quoin in the sectional semifinal. Last year, the Panthers were 20-8 and lost to Du Quoin in the regional final.

In his fifth season, Waggoner isn't concerned with the past or this year's rankings. His Panthers tuned up for the Eldorado sectional by beating 25-game winner Trico 50-45 in the regional final last Friday night, then dispatched Olney 38-30 on Tuesday night in their sectional semifinal to extend their winning streak to 15 games.

"We do all the little things. Defensively, we're very good. Our offense is catching up to our defense," Waggoner said. "We're playing our best basketball right now and we're healthy. We aren't the most athletic team. We aren't as athletic as the two fourth-place teams but we are every bit as gritty and more physical and have more ability to defend.

"We don't have an outstanding player, a first-team All-State player. We are just a solid basketball team, not flashy. We just play solid defense. Seven seniors give us a lot of experience. But I am pleasantly surprised at how we have jelled and come together. I knew we had that ability but they never showed it as a group before."

Waggoner said his team gained confidence when it went 5-0 and won its eighth straight championship at Benton's Mid-Winter Invitational Tournament in mid-January.

Pinckneyville is led by 5-foot-11 senior guard Hunter Queen (13 ppg), 5-foot-9 senior point guard Bryant Shute (8 ppg, 3 assists), 6-foot junior Dylan Hardin (11 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Peyton Nippe (10 ppg, 5 rpg) and 6-foot-4 junior Chris Priebe (6 ppg, 4 rpg). Keegan Kellerman, a 6-foot, 250-pound senior (4 ppg, 4 rpg) who will play football at McKendree College, comes off the bench.

Against Trico, coached by former Pinckneyville star Shane Hawkins, Hardin scored 25 points on 11-of-13 shooting and Priebe added 10 points.

"If we are going to advance in the state tournament, our inside play must be good," Waggoner said. "Our guard play has been consistent. But Priebe, Hardin and Nippe must produce inside for us."

The guards, Queen and Shute, have stood out, averaging fewer than nine turnovers per game. And the defense has allowed only 40 points per game and permitted opponents to convert only 22 percent of their three-point shots.

Waggoner, who also serves as the school's athletic director, is a 1989 graduate of Lawrenceville. He and former Lawrenceville basketball coach Ron Felling's son Shane went to high school together. He was head coach at Columbia, joined Corn's staff at Pinckneyville in 2006 and became head coach when Corn retired in 2008.

"I think people have lost touch with the rankings with the four-class system," Waggoner said, still trying to explain why Pinckneyville isn't ranked at all. "Schools move up and down. It's hard to keep track of them.

Our enrollment is 390. We've lost 140 students since I have been here in the last five years. The Illinois High School Association changed the number this year. If it had stayed the same, we could have been in Class 1A next
year."

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.