Rochester seeks 3rd title in a row


Rochester seeks 3rd title in a row

Rochester coach Derek Leonard had hoped that he and his father Ken, the longtime coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield, would qualify for the state finals. "It would have been a lot of fun but it didn't happen," Derek said.

Last Saturday, his father's team lost to Morris in the semifinals. Last year, the elder Leonard lost to Joliet Catholic in the semifinals. The year before, he lost in the quarterfinals. Derek won state championships in 2010 and 2011 and is seeking another against Rock Island Alleman in the Class 4A final on Friday in Champaign.

"We've been lucky and we've been blessed," Derek said. "It's all about hard work. The kids want to be like the kids ahead of them. The interesting thing is Rochester only has had football since 1998. A lot of these parents never played football. They never had a program."

Leonard, 31, in his eighth year as head coach at Rochester, is a graduate of Sacred Heart-Griffin. He played for his father. After attending Illinois College, he coached at Prairie Central in Fairbury for two years, then became head coach at Rochester.

"Being in a position to win three state titles in a row is pretty cool," he said. "I never would have dreamed of that when I became head coach eight years ago. This is awesome. It speaks about the coaching staff, the hard work of the players, the community and the youth football program.

"To make it to this level three times and the semifinals the year before that means you have to be clicking on all cylinders, not just one element. And being a small public school (enrollment: 670), it's something everybody can be proud of."

How good is this team? Leonard admits his 2010 squad, headed by quarterback Wes Lunt, wide receiver Zach Grant and running back Colton Glazebrook, was his dream team. "They were a once-in-a-lifetime team, so much talent. They went 14-0 and could have beaten any team in any class," he said.

"Last year caught me off guard. We won in a different way. We had an average defense but got hot offensively at the right time. This team reminds me of two years ago. It has a lot better defense than last year and more balance on offense."

Rochester, which is 51-3 in four years under Leonard, has won 11 games in a row since dropping a 29-26 to Sacred Heart-Griffin in Week 2. The Rockets, who are averaging 41.6 points per game, crushed Harrisburg last Saturday 49-22, scoring on seven of their first eight possessions to build a 49-0 lead at halftime.

Offensively, Rochester is led by quarterback Austin Green and running back Garrett Dooley. Green, who is committed to Eastern Illinois, has passed for 2,800 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. He also has rushed for 900 yards in a spread option offense.

Dooley, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who is committed to play linebacker at Wisconsin, has rushed for 1,400 yards and 30 touchdowns. And receiver Blake Pasley has caught 75 for 1,100 yards.

"Last year, Lunt (now at Oklahoma State) would kill you with the pass," Leonard said. "But Austin can beat you with his legs and arms. It makes it more difficult to defend our offense. We were more one-dimensional last year."

Defensively, Dooley and 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior linebacker Reed Watson anchor the 4-4 alignment. Drake Leeper, a 6-foot-1, 250-pounder, is Rochester's best lineman on both sides of the ball.

Leonard scouted Rock Island Allman on Saturday night in its 23-7 victory at Evergreen Park. Two years ago, Rochester defeated Alleman 24-7 for the Class 4A title. "We know what they do and they know what we do. We must stop their option, their run, and make them pass. If they just run on you, you're in big trouble," he said.

Rock Island Alleman (12-1), which lost only to Rock Island 10-7 on a last-second field goal, is a defense-minded team that has allowed only 116 points. The Pioneers, led by Chad Weatherell, John Tracey, Tom Noe, Ben West, Scott Schilb and Adam Hoogerwerf, have permitted no more than one touchdown in nine games.

"We have a good tackling team," said coach Dave DeJaegher, who is 34-4 in the last three years and produced state runner-ups in 2005 and 2010. "We run a 5-2 defense. That's what we've always done. We've stuck with it. It's what I know how to coach, what I am comfortable teaching.

"We won't blow anyone away with statistics but we like to mix it up. It's a fun group to coach. They came in determined after losing a heart-breaker (19-18 to Evergreen Park in the second round) last year. They came in with an attitude to have a good senior year. Everybody steps up at different times."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning


Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle


For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.