Fire

Thornton's Banks dreams of Oregon

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Thornton's Banks dreams of Oregon

Thornton's Jalen Banks is a unique personality. He is a genuine student-athlete. He competes in two sports. He ranks No. 3 in a class of 432. And he wants to study civil engineering in college.Talk about juggling your busy schedule to accommodate classes, homework, practice, games and the recruiting process. Well, Banks has been running ahead of the curve since he received a C in reading as a fourth grader."I went to a private school early and they instilled academics in me," Banks said. "They talked about the challenges of high school. Grades are important but I don't look at it as work. I'm capable of doing it so why not? If I get a B, I get mad at myself. Why can't I do better? Competing in the classroom is like competing in football or track."Banks has worked hard to achieve success at all levels. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound safety has accumulated 10 scholarship offers and the list, which includes schools from the Big Ten, SEC and ACC, is a testimony to his ability to combine academics and football skills.He has offers from Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Western Michigan. He made unofficial visits to Iowa and Wisconsin last week during spring break. Earlier, he visited Illinois, Northwestern and Michigan State. Since he doesn't plan to commit until after the 2012 season, he can be expected to receive more offers.He hopes one of them will come from Oregon."Oregon is my dream school," he said. "Since I was 7 or 8-years-old, since I began following football and watching games on TV, I have loved Oregon. It's more than the (green and yellow) uniforms. I like the offense, the great players, the playmakers. I enjoy watching them play. I get more involved when I'm watching them. I was excited when they got to the national championship game."No, I'm not disappointed that they haven't offered yet. I have talked to them. They will see me in May. And I'm going to one of their camps in June. Theyll get a chance to evaluate me. I hope they like what they see. If I get a chance, I'd like to go there. But there are other great schools that have opened my eyes. It would be exciting to play in the SEC."But he isn't in a hurry. Coach Bill Mosel, preparing for his 27th season as head coach at the Harvey school, reminds that the recruiting process has accelerated in recent years. Offers are made sooner and sooner, sometimes when athletes are sophomores."I'll sit down with Jalen and his parents after the May evaluation period and see where they are at," Mosel said. "He needs to take visits. I don't want him to have any regrets by committing too early. Kids often renege on their early commitment because they don't take official visits and then find out a school is stockpiling talent at his position. Jalen won't commit before the season. He'll make visits in the fall."

In the meantime, Banks is eager to improve his speed (from 4.5 to 4.4) and demonstrate his leadership skills as one of four captains on a team that hopes to improve on last year's disappointing 6-4 finish. And he wants to win another state championship in track.Last year, Banks ran a leg on the winning 800-meter relay. He hopes to repeat this spring. He also competes in the 100, 200 and another relay. He enjoys track because it helps him to get in shape for football, improves his quickness and squeezes his competitive juices."The great ones are very focused. They know what they want," Mosel said. "When Jalen was a freshman, we talked about how he would like to see himself and he hasn't wavered. His career path hasn't changed."Mosel said Banks "has the opportunity to be the best defensive back we have produced, in a class with Jermaine Hampton," who played at Northern Illinois and with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL.That's quite an accolade. Traditionally, Thornton is one of the most successful football programs in the state. A few years ago, eight of Mosel's products were competing in the NFL.Banks has played on the varsity since he was a freshman, a rarity in high school and especially at a high-profile school like Thornton. He started as a wide receiver. Midway through his sophomore year, he was moved to safety to fill a void in the defensive secondary. He likely will play safety in college. But if he gets a step faster, he could be moved to cornerback, the toughest position to fill at the college level."He has great feet. He is very fluid. He has good hips, good ball skills and reacts to the ball in the air. He also is very physical and comes up and makes tackles," Mosel said."From day one, I always liked football. It's a fun sport, a contact sport," Banks said. "There is something about hitting somebody or scoring touchdowns that makes it more exciting."Banks grew up in south suburban Hazel Crest and wasn't familiar with Thornton. But he played for the Harvey Colts youth team and attended a state playoff game and was bit by the bug. "From then on, I decided not to go to St. Rita or Marian Catholic," he said."Before I even walked into the school, I became aware of the tradition. Old-timers, the coaches for the Harvey Colts and other people were always talking about the Thornton tradition and the Lou Boudreau Room, where all the trophies and pictures of All-Staters and All-Americans are. Nothing else has to be said. You just look around and you see it and you feel it."His father always told him that, because of his size and footwork, he would be a defensive back. Jalen never objected. He relished the challenge. While others opted for the more glamorous positions such as quarterback, running back or wide receiver, he preferred defense."You get to make plays. You don't have to wait for the ball," he said. "On defense, it's up for grabs, for everybody who is hungry, 11 men flying to the ball. On defense, you can free-wheel to make plays."Banks, who was injured most of his freshman year, realized he had big-time potential early in his sophomore year. He had two interceptions in his first game. But that was only one game, he reasoned. But he stood out in a losing effort against Lincoln-Way East in the state playoff and the proverbial light bulb when on."I made a lot of plays, tackles for loss. I was matched up against (Illinois recruit) Jason Robertson. I didn't give up any big plays. It really made me feel confident, that I can play defensive back at the Division I level. I know I can hit and make tackles," he said.So Banks looks ahead to the 2012 season and the completion of the recruiting process. "I had a dream to be in this position," he said."I like being able to go out and get a feel for things, to meet players and coaches. I appreciate the personal letters. I'm looking for a balance between academics and athletics. I'm looking for a school that will help me excel as a student and as a player. I want a degree to get a guaranteed job."Every school has nice facilities. In the Big Ten, everybody has a big stadium. But do they have people within the program, people to help you get better, strength coaches and position coaches, people to look after you?"Jalen Banks is still looking.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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USA TODAY

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

Put it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.