Bears

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."

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

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NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?