Cubs

Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

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Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

It figures that Juozas Balciunas, who has led Lemont's basketball team to its best start in more than 35 years, didn't speak English until seven years ago, after his family immigrated from Lithuania.

Until Balciunas arrived, basketball was virtually a foreign language in Lemont.

Lemont is a football school. In the last four years, coach Eric Michaelsen's Indians have won 45 of 52 games and finished second in the state playoff on two occasions.

Meanwhile, the basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001 and hasn't won a regional since 1991. How many people remember when coach John Jones' 1975 team was 26-4 and advanced to the supersectional? The Indians were 2-24 the year before coach Rick Runaas was hired. His first two teams were 8-17.

So folks in the southwest suburban community must have thought Runaas, only his third season, was balmy when he said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 2011-12 squad. He isn't surprised that the Indians are 14-2 going into Tuesday's game at Joliet Catholic.

"I knew the new point guard (Balciunas) was going to be good," Runaas said. "Our lower levels had experienced some success. I knew we would have more depth than in the past. We had success in the summer and fall. We went to Peoria for a weekend and played Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and realized what level they were at and where we want to be."

Peoria Manual and Peoria Central are elite programs in Illinois. Runaas, who rebuilt Thornton Fractional North's program and guided the Meteors to a regional championship in 2002, their first since 1946, believed he could do the same reconstruction job at Lemont.

Runaas had been out of coaching for seven years and was serving as athletic director at Thornton Fractional South when he learned that Lemont was looking for a basketball coach in the fall of 2009.

"I had an itch to get back into coaching," he said. "I didn't know much about Lemont. I knew it was a great community and growing and had great facilities. I knew they were a great football school, producing great athletes. I hoped they were also producing good basketball players."

How good is this team? Good enough to be competitive in the Class 3A playoff, Runaas predicts. He learned something about his players in a four-point loss to highly regarded Crane that he believes will be beneficial as the Indians negotiate the remainder of their season.

"Our strength is chemistry," he said. "Everyone has accepted their roles and realize what their weaknesses are. They play to their strengths. It is a match of 10 kids who complement each other and offset each other. It's just a bunch of good high school players. I don't know if we have any Division I players on the roster, no 7-footer, no (Crane star) Willie Conner. We're just playing well together.

"We have to remain true to who we are. We have to get used to being successful. Just because we are 14-2, we have to earn our wins. We are a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys who like each other. We can't lose sight of that. If we really want to make a run (in the Class 3A playoff) we have to shoot the ball well and get more production inside."

Lemont is 14-2 because of the stellar play of Balciunas, a 6-foot junior point guard who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He is averaging 17 points and six assists per game. He is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.

"He seems to play better when the game is more competitive," Runaas said. "He handles traps and pressure. He is a lefty, like (former NBA star) Tiny Archibald. People (college coaches) are starting to figure out who he is."

Balciunas is surrounded by 6-foot-3 senior Matt Lipowski (6 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-foot-10 senior guard Joe O'Brien (6 ppg), 6-foot-1 senior Paulius Otruskevicius (12 ppg) and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jake Terrazas (5 ppg, 7 rpg).

The bench is headed by two underclassmen who project to be future stars--6-foot junior Joe Hehir (10 ppg) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Mike Wisz (5 ppg), the team's best three-point shooter.

Last week, Lemont beat Stagg 56-46 as Balciunas had 17 points and eight assists and Lipowski grabbed 10 rebounds and Argo 62-28 as Balciunas accounted for 12 points.

Balciunas admits learning to play basketball at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont was easier than perfecting English and adapting to his new country.

"It was very difficult to learn English. It took a year to learn the language. And it was difficult to get used to a new country and new people.
Everything was so much bigger. But school was the most difficult thing. I had no friends. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

He started to play basketball for the first time when he moved from Franklin Park to Lemont five years ago. "I played soccer for fun. But basketball was more fun to me. It was in me. I wanted to play basketball and that was it. There was nothing more important," he said.

He enrolled at St. Joseph in Westchester "because it had a big basketball reputation." He spent two years in coach Gene Pingatore's program and is grateful for the experience. "I learned new things," he said.

After his sophomore year, however, he opted to transfer to Lemont. "A lot of my friends were at Lemont. I heard I could help Lemont to get better in basketball. Sure, I knew football was the main sport in Lemont. But times change. Maybe this could be year that basketball changes Lemont. It also could be a basketball town," he said.

From the first day that Balciunas began working out with his teammates, he felt they could be successful.

"I have great teammates, not just basketball players," he said. "We all get along. The strength of this team is we all play hard and all want to win. We're friends on and off the court, like brothers."

While Balciunas is a late bloomer and is only beginning to stir interest among college recruiters, Runaas believes he has what it takes to play at the next level. How high? He has the rest of this season, next summer and fall and all of the 2012-13 season to make an impression.

"Some people are starting to know who I am," Balciunas said. "I want to play college basketball. Ever since I started to play basketball, my father said I have to work harder than other guys. My job is to be the best point guard I can be, to lead team team by example on and off the court. I'm not surprised by what I am doing."

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

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USA Today

Pregame focus, according to Javy Baez, is where the Cubs need to get better

While the Cubs’ decline has been talked about over, and over, and over, again, it’s always remained framed in relatively vague terms. Something wasn’t right over the last two seasons, and – perhaps in the interest of protecting a former manager that’s still clearly liked within the Cubs’ clubhouse – specifics were avoided. It was just that a change was needed, and Rossy knows what, etc. 

That is, until Javy Baez spoke on Sunday morning. In no unclear terms, Baez took a stab at explaining why he feels such a talented team has fallen far short of expectations in back-to-back seasons. 

“It wasn’t something bad, but we had a lot of options – not mandatory,” the Cubs’ star shortstop said from his locker at Sloan Park. “Everybody kind of sat back, including me, because I wasn’t really going out there and preparing for the game. I was getting ready during the game, which is not good. But this year, I think before the games we’ve all got to be out there, everybody out there, as a team. Stretch as a team, be together as a team so we can play together.”

Baez’s comments certainly track. Maddon’s widely considered one of the better managers in baseball, but discipline and structure have never been key pillars of his leadership style. He intrinsically trusts players to get their own work done – something that’s clearly an appreciated aspect of his personality, until, as you saw, it isn’t. World Series hangovers don’t exist four years after the fact, but given Maddon’s immediate success in Chicago, it’s easy to understand how players, maybe even incidentally, let off the gas pedal. 

“I mean I would just get to the field and instead of going outside and hit BP, I would do everything inside, which is not the same,” he added. “Once I’d go out to the game, I’d feel like l wasn’t ready. I felt like I was getting loose during the first 4 innings, and I should be ready and excited to get out before the first pitch.” 

“You can lose the game in the first inning. Sometimes when you’re not ready, and the other team scores by something simple, I feel like it was because of that. It was because we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready to throw the first pitch because nobody was loose.” 

Baez also explicitly promised that this year would feature far more organization and rigidity. They’ll stretch as a team, warm up outside as a team (presumably even during the cold months!), and hopefully rediscover that early-game focus that maybe slipped away during the extended victory lap. That may mean less giant hacks, too. 

“Sometimes we’re up by a lot or down by a lot and we wanted to hit homers,” he said. “That’s really not going to work for the team. It’s about getting on base and giving the at-bat to the next guy, and sometimes we forget about that because of the situation of the game. I think that’s the way you get back to the game – going pitch by pitch and at-bat by at-bat.” 

Baez was less specific when it came to his contractual discussions with the team, only going so far to say that negotiations were “up-and-down.” He’d like to play his whole career here, and would be grateful if an extension was reached before Opening Day – he’s just not counting on it. The focus right now is just on recapturing some of that 2016 drive, and the rest, according to him, will take care of itself. 

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

Magic, buzz and something crazy: It's time for the White Sox to win

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox are rebuilt.

No, the rebuild isn’t officially over. You’ll have to wait for after the parade for that. And it’s true that there are plenty of question marks on this roster.

But for the first time in a long time, the White Sox are preparing for a season with expectations. Big ones. The manager set them early, saying he’d be disappointed if his squad didn’t reach the postseason. There hasn’t been October baseball on the South Side in more than a decade. But that’s not stopping anyone in silver and black from realizing that things are different now.

“It’s definitely a little different,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “It’s more relaxed and we know what we want. We know what we want this spring training versus last spring training. We kind of knew what we wanted, but now we know what we want and we see it. We just have to put the work in and go get it.

“I get a winning vibe, all positive and winning vibes. Everybody knows what we are here to do. We are here to win a championship, and we are here to take it all.”

Everyone at Camelback Ranch is talking about expectations. And whether they’ve voiced their intent to just play better baseball, make the playoffs or win the World Series, there’s one common conclusion: It’s time to win.

The losing has not been fun during the last three rebuilding seasons. The White Sox lost a combined 284 games in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with contending often taking a backseat to development in anticipation of the transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode.

But a host of breakout campaigns from young, core players in 2019 laid the groundwork for Rick Hahn’s front office to make a slew of veteran additions this winter, adding to that core All-Stars like Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel, Edwin Encarnacion and Gio Gonzalez.

It all adds up to realistic postseason expectations on the South Side. And a feeling that those losing days are firmly in the rearview mirror.

“I think it's just about time for us to start winning,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “It's just that time for us to start winning games and start to be relevant.

“The team that the front office put together, we're going to be able to do it. We have to be united. We need to be strong in good times and bad times if we want to be successful this season. With the guys that we have right now, that's something that's doable. That's our goal.

“I think expectations are high because we all know that this is the time for us to win.”

Certainly Abreu would love to experience that. He hasn’t been a part of a winning team in his major league career, part of six sub-.500 seasons on the South Side. But his love for the organization kept him in a White Sox uniform as he briefly hit free agency this winter. He’ll be wearing those colors for at least another three years thanks to a new deal. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if he never wears any others.

But you don’t have to have sweltered through the dog days of this rebuild to express your excitement for 2020. Something had to lure all those free agents this winter. Grandal, Keuchel, Encarnacion, Gonzalez, they all liked what they saw. Now they’re a big part of why there is such electricity running through White Sox camp.

“It seems like they want to do magic this year and for years to come now,” he said. “I look at it now as, let's keep competing as much as we can and see it from there. The buzz is in the locker room. We are excited. We do want to play, and I think this is the year we're going to push for it.

“They went out and got some guys that wanted to make something happen this year, and I think we have the team to do it. If you’re someone in Chicago watching the White Sox, this is a team to watch, and we’re excited to see that we can put it together.”

It truly does seem that Hahn’s front office did go out and get everything that was missing from this roster, which featured as impressive a collection of young talent as you’ll find but lacked experience, especially winning experience. Even 33-year-old team leader Abreu has never played in the postseason.

Enter the newcomers. Grandal and Encarnacion have appeared in each of the last five postseasons. Keuchel’s been to the playoffs in four of the last five years. Gonzalez played in three of the last four postseasons. New reliever Steve Cishek went to the NL wild card game with the Cubs in 2018.

They have no plans of stopping those streaks.

“Once you get a little taste of the playoffs, that's why you play, is to get that feeling,” Keuchel said. “As much as you want to replicate it in the regular season, for guys who have no playoff experience, I think the regular season is that feeling. But there's another feeling to it that pushes you and wants you to be a better player.

“I told Rick Hahn this, I said four out of the last five years I've made the playoffs, and I don't expect any of these three years (during his contract with the White Sox) to be any different.”

A lot of things will have to go right for the White Sox to make a rapid ascent to the top of the baseball mountain. As mentioned, there are question marks. What will the team get from Dylan Cease and Reynaldo Lopez a year after some ugly results? Will Michael Kopech be the pitcher who was promised prior to his Tommy John surgery? What will Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal do in their first tastes of the major leagues? Will Anderson and Yoan Moncada stay productive if their good luck diminishes? Will Nomar Mazara unlock the potential the White Sox see in their new right fielder?

It all has to work out for the White Sox to compete for the division title and a World Series championship. But isn’t that the case with every team?

This is the time of year when hope springs eternal. Viewing the upcoming season through rose-colored glasses is a February tradition on par with Presidents Day mattress sales.

But the White Sox have good reason to be excited, good reason to be talking playoffs for the first time in so long. That light at the end of the tunnel that Hahn has been talking about for a while now isn’t just visible. It’s bathing these young White Sox.

Of course, they have to prove they can do it. But all this talk? Don’t roll your eyes. It’s not at all crazy.

The White Sox are saving the crazy for the field.

“We have a chance to do something crazy,” Anderson said. “That’s what everybody is talking about, right? So why not own up to it and set the bar high, go to the playoffs and win the championship. That’s the goal, right?

“We didn’t come here to work for nothing. We come here to win championships and make it to the playoffs. That’s no secret. Everybody knows we are here to win championships.”

It’s time to get nuts.

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