Bears

5A: Can Morris stop Montini's bid for a 4-peat?

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5A: Can Morris stop Montini's bid for a 4-peat?

The Class 5A championship is all about teams that know how to win, and win and win some more. Montini has won four state titles since 2004, the last three in a row. Morris has won three state titles and finished second on six other occasions.
So how does Montini coach Chris Andriano define winning attitude? How does he explain coming back from a 31-14 deficit in the third quarter to beat Joliet Catholic in last Saturday's quarterfinals?
Or beating Palatine after being behind by eight with two minutes to play?
Or rallying from a four-point deficit with two minutes left to beat Aurora Christian?
Or falling behind Sycamore with 30 seconds to play, then driving the field to set up a game-winning 35-yard field goal?
"We've done some things that defy logic," Andriano admitted. "Our kids believe in the coaches, who do a good job of preparation through practice. When things don't go the way we want them to, we are willing to make changes and adjustments. In the back of their minds, the kids know there is an answer. They expect things to happen in their favor.
"They are positive. We always have one or two guys who are playmakers and spark us. Someone makes a play, a run or pass or reception or defensive play. When we're down 31-14 to Joliet Catholic, I'm thinking how are we going to do this? We have to get the next score and turn momentum. It's amazing when you get momentum on your side, good things happen. It's an incredible feeling."
Andriano shook his head in disbelief as he recited how Montini staged one miraculous comeback after another to turn defeat into victory.
"How do you explain us getting a fumble off Ty Isaac at midfield when we are behind 31-27 to Joliet Catholic?" he said. "Against Palatine, we scored with 50 seconds left and got a two-point conversion to tie. In the overtime, we got an interception that was deflected three times and won with a field goal.
"Against Aurora Christian, they have the ball and the lead with two minutes left and Joey Borsellino strips the ball from a Division I running back and recovers it. Three plays later, he catches a 20-yard touchdown pass with 20 seconds left to win the game.
"And against Sycamore, they score with 30 seconds left and make a two-point conversion to go ahead. We get a big return on the kickoff, get the ball to the 20 in three plays and kick a 35-yard field goal to win with one second left."
Andriano, 60, completing his 33rd season, said the trick is to find kids who believe, kids like Jordan Westerkamp and Joey Borsellino and Tate Briggs who come through the preparation and believe in the coaching staff and themselves.
"We are sparked by big plays that you can't imagine would happen," he said. "We have traveled a hard road. We have beaten some great teams in the last few weeks. Four-peat has been one of our sayings all year. Every time we break a huddle, that's our goal."
Briggs, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound guard, has a special reason for making the trip to Champaign this year. A year ago, he suffered a dislocated ankle and torn ligaments in the first quarter of the state final and couldn't finish. After being treated at a hospital, he returned to the stadium and watched the rest of the game from the bench.
"This is a big game for me," he said. "It was pretty disappointing not to be able to finish the game. A big goal this year was to get back to Champaign, to finish the game this time."
Montini's best lineman, Briggs has offers from Ball State, Western Michigan, Central Michigan, New Mexico and Coastal Carolina. But he is talking to schools in the Big Ten and SEC, including Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Vanderbilt. He hopes to get more offers and wants to play at the highest level he can.
"Every offensive lineman's dream is to get an offer from Wisconsin," he said. "I have talked to them. I went to their camp in the summer. I hope they'll offer me."
Meanwhile, Briggs is sold on Andriano's philosophy. Like his teammates, he has bought into the Montini tradition. "We believe in the coaches and do what they tell us to do. We know how to win. If you just believe in the program, we will get there. It will take us to the state title," he said.
"The challenge this week is the same as any other week. Every game is a big game. We come together in games and in practice. Every game we try to be the most physical team, to take it to them. We always try to be more physical and still be smarter than them."
Physical is the name of the game for Morris. Can Montini measure up? "We have to strap our helmets on. They will run the ball, pound it at you. We haven't played any team like them in terms of their here-we-come offense. They are very tough up front. They come after you on defense. They pose problems for our offensive line. We can't let them control the clock and put points on the board with long drives," Andriano said.
Montini (12-1) is averaging 34.5 points per game with Alex Wills or Mark Gorogianis at quarterback, Dimitri Taylor at tailback, Joey Borsellino at wide receiver and Briggs and 6-foot-3, 255-pound Fred Beaugard anchoring the offensive line. Andrew Harte is an outstanding kicker.
"I admire Montini's coaching staff more than any other I coach against," said Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe. "I have the highest respect for Andriano, a Hall of Fame coach. They are very sound on defense. They don't make mistakes. They make you beat them. You won't get big plays. You have to dink and dunk and move the chains, get a lot of first downs. That's the only way to beat them. They won't give up a home run.
"Why have they been so successful in the last four years? "Borsellino is a difference-maker at wide receiver. Gorogianis is so fast, so explosive. Andriano finds out how to exploit an opponent with a running quarterback (Gorogianis) or a passing quarterback (Wills). You must be as fast and as explosive and have an aura about you that you can beat them."
Morris coach Alan Thorson believes he has what it takes. So do several coaches who have observed the 12-1 Redskins this season. They have averaged 35.6 points per game behind a power running game led by quarterback Zach Cinnamon and running backs Reese Sobol and Jeff Perry.
Cinnamon, a transfer from Streator, has passed for 902 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 459 yards and nine touchdowns. Sobol, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior, has rushed 176 times for 1,450 yards and 18 touchdowns. He averages 8.24 yards per carry and 111.5 yards per game. Perry, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior, has rushed for 607 yards and six touchdowns. Collin Grogan, a 5-foot-9, 205-pounder, has rushed for 489 hards and 11 touchdowns.
Defensively, Morris is a smash-mouth unit led by Perry, Grogan, 6-foot-5, 255-pound Indiana-bound Danny Friend and 5-foot-11, 200-pound Nik Countryman.
"Morris has a senior class that has been very impressive all the way through," said Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly, whose team handed Morris its only loss 33-30 in Week 9. "With Friend and Perry, it has been a special group for four years.
"If you are looking for an edge for Morris, it is their size. They are typical Morris, smash-mouth football, tough, a big running team. They pound you and wear you down. If they can put pressure on Montini with their front four or five, the game will be won up front."
Morris is counting on its offensive line of 6-foot, 240-pound senior center Preston Miracle, 5-foot-11, 260-pound senior guard Craig Claire, 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore guard T.J. Layne, 6-foot-3, 250-pound senior tackle Drew Aldridge and 6-foot-4, 255-pound senior tackle Brian Henry.
Rich East coach Barry Reade, whose team lost to Morris 44-0 in the first round of the playoff, was very impressed to say the least. "They are big and physical at all positions. They run a power I right at you. On defense, they beat you upfront," he said.
"Montini has to throw the ball to win. They will have a hard time shutting down Morris' running game. But system and attitude at Montini gets it done. Morris knows how to win, too. Morris' special teams killed us. The return teams are as good a group as I've seen. In the four games we scouted, they averaged 40 yards on kick returns and returned two for touchdowns. It's a unique weapon."
After splitting two games with Montini, Marian Central coach Ed Brucker came away convinced that opponents must throw to beat them. "Morris is a running team and that plays into Montini's hands. Montini has a championship mentality. I have been bitten by it. They feel they can win some way or somehow. They are used to winning. They have confidence in their ability.
They always seem to find a way. They know something good is going to happen."
Chris Andriano couldn't have said it better.

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

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USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Cubs taking care to make sure Pedro Strop's hamstring issues are behind him

Pedro Strop said he feels "ready" in his return from a hamstring injury, but he and the Cubs aren't going to rush it.

The veteran reliever has missed most of May with the injury, but threw 25-pitch bullpens on both Monday and Wednesday and has reported zero issues. He said it's been more than a week since he last felt pain in the area.

But considering this is Strop's third hamstring injury in the last eight months, the Cubs want to be extra cautious to make sure this will not happen again.

Plus, there's no point in rushing him back right now, even with the bullpen struggling. The Cubs would certainly welcome Strop back to the active roster immediately, but he's going to be a huge key for them down the stretch and they need to ensure he's healthy for that.

"I think we're just being overly cautious because we don't want this to happen again," Joe Maddon said. 

But how can Cubs avoid another hamstring injury with the soon-to-be-34-year-old? 

"We're building strength, we're working hard to make it stronger instead of just, 'Oh, it's OK and pain-free, let's go out there and have the same thing happen again,'" Strop said. "We're just taking care."

He missed the final two weeks of the regular season last year and pitched through "severe pain" in the National League wild-card game after first hurting his hamstring in Washington D.C. He then missed time in spring training with an issue in the other leg.

The injuries are not all directly related, but hamstrings are tricky by nature.

"That's a hammy, man. When you mess up with those things, they keep reminding you that they're there," Maddon said. "He has to continue to be proactive with the work in between and our guys in the back there do a wonderful job rehabbing and strengthening. 

"I think some guys are just predetermined to do those kinds of things and it really stinks. But it happens. So our next best thing is to create that program that hopefully prevents it from happening again. 

"In the meantime, just really monitoring him and not pushing him too hard, etc. But hamstrings are hamstrings, man. They're just no fun. Once you pull them once, there's a chance to do it again."

Strop said he will throw another bullpen Saturday and doesn't believe he needs a rehab stint. Because this was a leg injury, he's been able to continue throwing throughout the recovery process and keep his arm strength up.

If Strop continues to report well and doesn't go on a rehab assignment, we could possibly see him back in the Cubs bullpen early next week, which would be a welcome sign for a unit that has suddenly run into some tough sledding of late.

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