White Sox

Benet's O'Mara loves football, but basketball is No. 1

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Benet's O'Mara loves football, but basketball is No. 1

Benet basketball coach Gene Heidkamp insists he "never got caught up worrying about him getting injured" when his star player, 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior Sean O'Mara, lined up at left offensive tackle for the Redwings' football team last fall.

But you have to believe he had his fingers crossed. In fact, four of Heidkamp's top basketball players played football for the Lisle school's 11-2 team that advanced to the Class 7A semifinals.

"I knew Sean wanted to play football," Heidkamp said. "It was good for our school for what the football team. And Sean was a big part of it. But he isn't going to college to play football. He is going to college to play basketball. But he enjoyed being a part of the football team's success."

O'Mara enjoyed it so much, in fact, that if he had the opportunity, he would like to play football and basketball in college. Realistically, however, he knows that isn't in the cards.

"I love to play football," O'Mara said. "It isn't my No. 1 sport but I won't give it up as long as I don't have to. I would like to play football in college if I could but I don't think it will work out."

O'Mara has played in the offensive and defensive lines and also defensive end. The only positions he hasn't played are cornerback, safety and running back. At 6-foot-6, he played quarterback in eighth grade.

As a freshman at Benet, he played left offensive tackle and defensive end and also was a kicker. As a sophomore, he started at left tackle, defensive end and tight end. After four games, he was moved up to the varsity and started at left tackle.

"It's fun to play left tackle," said O'Mara, who doesn't have to be reminded that it is one of the highest priority of all positions in college and professional football. "It is fun to be physical. You are in the trenches with four other guys. And I'm defending my four-man in basketball, (widely recruited quarterback) Jack Beneventi.

"I enjoy both sports. You can't foul out in football. You can be as aggressive as you want. I realize my future is in basketball. I enjoy it more. It is one of those things that every day you love going to practice and the games. Football can be a grind at times with the long off-season and one game a week. Basketball is a long season, lots of games and practice every day. I don't get sick of basketball."

O'Mara wore jersey No. 75 last fall. He will wear No. 54 next season because it was his mother's basketball number growing up. In basketball, he wears No. 45 only because the team doesn't have No. 54. For the time being, that is.

"If we win the state championship, the coach said he'll get me a No. 54 jersey for next year," O'Mara said.

Benet is off to a good start in that direction. After overwhelming previously unbeaten St. Ignatius 44-31 and crushing Urban Prep West 64-44 in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament, the Redwings will carry an 11-2 record into their second-round match-up against Morton on Thursday.

The leaders are O'Mara (18 ppg, 6 rpg) and 6-foot-5 senior Pat McInerney (11 ppg, 9 rpg). McInerney missed half of last season with a broken wrist but started as a sophomore on a 29-1 team that lost to East Aurora and Ryan Boatright in the sectional. He will play baseball at Illinois.

O'Mara has other plans. He already has accumulated scholarship offers to play basketball at more than 20 schools, including Illinois, DePaul, Loyola, Illinois-Chicago, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Iowa State, Marquette, Xavier, Boston College and St. Louis. The list will only get longer.

"He will only get better," Heidkamp said. "He has a good low post game. He is physical on the block and he is a good passer out of the post. He is unselfish. He will be a more dominant scorer this year. The offense goes through him. He creates shots for other players."

O'Mara is comfortable with his role. He knows what he has to do to improve his skills and he knows what college coaches are looking for. He describes himself as a "throwback back-to-the-basket center" who is able to bang down low and use his body as an offensive weapon, like a left offensive tackle in basketball. "I can push guys around. Football has helped me to be more physical," he said.

"I'm comfortable at averaging 15 points per game. But I'm working on expanding my range as a big man. I'm also working on seeing the game before it happens, reacting to what is happening next. I want to be able to play the game at higher speed, like I will have to do in college."

O'Mara and McInerney are two of four returnees back from last year's 21-7 team that lost to Metea Valley by one point in the regional final. In his fifth year, Heidkamp has guided Benet to a 83-13 record in the last three-plus years. It reminds old-timers of the great success of Bill Geist's teams in the 1970s and 1980s.

Under Geist, Benet won 20 or more games for 12 seasons in a row. But the Redwings enjoyed their most celebrity in 1976-79 when Kevin Conrad, Mike Lang & Co. went 27-4, 27-1 and 30-3. They lost in the supersectional in 1977 and 1978 and finished third in Class AA in 1979.

For all of their accomplishments, however, they never won at Proviso West, settling for the consolation prize in 1978. Heidkamp's 2010 squad, led by Mike Kaminsky and Dave Sobolewski, won the big trophy at Proviso West.

O'Mara thinks the 2012-13 squad can do as well or better. "We have the most depth that I have seen since I've been at Benet. Guys who don't get in the games could come in and do great things for our team," he said.

Other valuable contributors are 6-foot-4 senior Jack Euritt (7 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Jack Toner, another football player who is the team's defensive specialist, and 5-foot-11 junior point guard Colin Pelletieri (5 ppg), who runs the show and handles pressure, and 5-foot-11 senior Eddie Eshoo (8 ppg), an excellent perimeter shooter.

In a 47-42 victory over Lockport, Benet rallied from a 39-32 deficit as Eshoo scored a career-high 16 points, including four three-pointers. He made the go-ahead shot with 2:30 to play.

Eshoo scored 14 in the 44-31 victory over St. Ignatius, including four three-pointers. O'Mara had 17 points and eight rebounds. He scored his team's first 10 points of the second half as Benet snapped St. Ignatius' seven-game winning streak.

At Proviso West last Saturday, Benet sprinted to a 15-0 lead against Urban Prep West, built a 31-point advantage and coasted into the second round of the 32-team event. O'Mara shot 5-of-5 in the first half and finished with a team-high of 11 points. McInerney had 10 points and nine rebounds. Eshoo scored eight.

"We have two excellent post players," Heidkamp said. "I want to see our perimeter players get better and see them jell more as ateam at both ends of the floor. We can get better defensively, too."

In Benet's recent five-games-in-five days meat-grinder of a schedule, O'Mara noticed how the bench got deeper, how inexperienced players stepped up and handled pressure and made shots and did good things. It was an unprecedented stretch but it turned out to be more positive than negative.

"It exposed our weaknesses," O'Mara said. "That wasn't a bad thing. We know what we need to work on, handling pressure and being able to finish and crash the offensive glass. It also showed we should have been 5-0 in that stretch instead of 4-1 and showed we haven't reached our full potential yet."

Interestingly, Kevin Conrad is one of Heidkamp's varsity assistants. He and O'Mara have frequent conversations about what it takes to get to the state finals. Heidkamp, who played and coached under legendary coach Max Kurland at St. Patrick and also assisted current St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey for 12 years before being hired at Benet, also knows what it takes.

"Conrad has the state tournament hardware to prove it," Heidkamp said. "We have been close but it doesn't get you very far."

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields is having a stellar May and making comeback wins possible for the White Sox

If you haven’t checked in with what James Shields is doing in a while, your opinion of the veteran pitcher’s performance might need some updating.

Shields didn’t exactly win the confidence of White Sox fans during his first two seasons on the South Side. After arriving in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres in 2016, he posted a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts, during which he allowed 31 home runs. He followed that up with a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs allowed in 2017.

And the 2018 season didn’t start out great, either, with a 6.17 ERA over his first five outings.

But the month of May has brought a dramatic turn in the vet’s production. In five May starts, he’s got a 3.27 ERA in five starts, all of which have seen him go at least six innings (he’s got six straight outings of at least six innings, dating back to his last start in April).

And his two most recent starts have probably been his two best ones of the season. After allowing just one run on three hits in 7.1 innings last Thursday against the Texas Rangers, he gave up just two runs on five hits Tuesday night against the Baltimore Orioles.

The White Sox, by the way, won both of those games in comeback fashion. They scored four runs in the eighth against Texas and three in the eighth against Baltimore for a pair of “Ricky’s boys don’t quit” victories made possible by Shields’ great work on the mound.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s our job as starters to keep us in the game as long as we possibly can, no matter how we are hitting in a game. At the end of the game, you can always score one or two runs and possibly win a ballgame like we did tonight.”

The White Sox offense was indeed having trouble much of Tuesday’s game, kept off the scoreboard by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman. Particularly upsetting for White Sox Twitter was the sixth inning, when the South Siders put two runners in scoring position with nobody out and then struck out three straight times to end the inning.

But Shields went out and pitched a shut-down seventh, keeping the score at 2-0. Bruce Rondon did much the same thing in the eighth, and the offense finally sparked to life in the bottom of the inning when coincidentally presented with a similar situation to the one in the sixth. This time, though, the inning stayed alive and resulted in scoring, with Welington Castillo, Yoan Moncada and Yolmer Sanchez driving in the three runs.

“I’m out there doing my job,” Shields said. “My job is to try to keep us in the game. And we had some good starters against us that have been throwing well. If I can keep them close, we are going to get some wins and get some wins throughout the rest of the year like that. That’s the name of the game.”

Shields’ value in this rebuilding effort has been discussed often. His veteran presence is of great value in the clubhouse, particularly when it comes to mentoring young pitchers like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, among others. Shields can act as an example of how to go about one’s business regardless of the outcomes of his starts. But when he can lead by example with strong outings, that’s even more valuable.

“I’m trying to eat as many innings as possible,” he said. “We kind of gave our bullpen — we taxed them a little bit the first month of the season. We are kind of getting back on track. Our goal as a starting staff is to go as deep as possible, and in order to do that, you’ve got to throw strikes and get ahead of hitters.

“Not too many playoff teams, a starting staff goes five and dive every single game. My whole career I’ve always wanted to go as deep as possible. I wanted to take the ball all the way to the end of the game. And we’ve done a pretty good job of it of late.”

It’s a long time between now and the trade deadline, and consistency has at times escaped even the brightest spots on this rebuilding White Sox roster. But Shields has strung together a nice bunch of starts here of late, and if that kind of performance can continue, the White Sox front office might find that it has a potential trade piece on its hands. That, too, is of value to this rebuild.

Until that possibility occurs, though, the team will take more solid outings that give these young players an opportunity to learn how to come back and learn how to win.

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Cubs still searching for answers for Tyler Chatwood's puzzling control issues

Tyler Chatwood looked to be turning the corner with his control issues, but alas, he and the Cubs aren't so lucky.

After walking only two batters in a solid start in Atlanta last week, Chatwood had taken a big step in the right direction. It was, after all, only the third time he'd walked fewer than 5 batters in an outing this season.

Those control woes reared their ugly heads once again Tuesday night at Wrigley Field in a 10-1 loss to the Indians. Chatwood walked 6 batters and managed to net only 8 outs, getting hammered for 4 runs in the third inning.

"Ugh, it was tough," Maddon said. "The stuff was so good, we just couldn't get a strike."

"It's definitely frustrating," Chatwood said, "because one at-bat, I'll feel really good and the next one, I feel like I'm fighting myself.

"Last time [out], I was able to stay in the rhythm. Tonight, I was kinda battling, rushing rather than staying back, so it's just keeping that feeling and maintaining that."

His season ERA is only 3.74, which looks good until you consider his WHIP is 1.62 and he's walked 40 batters in 45.2 innings with only 41 strikeouts in the process. He now leads baseball in walks per 9 innings.

Chatwood said earlier this month in St. Louis that he's figured out what has led to the startling lack of control and while he didn't elaborate on the mechanical issue, he was working hard at correcting the problem in bullpens.

He's also used the term "fighting myself" at least a dozen times this month alone and it's become a common refrain for his explanation of what's going on. 

"He's got a busy delivery when he throws the baseball," Maddon said. "He's kinda busy what he does with his hands. It's not like he can just change it easily because that's how his arm works, how his body works.

"Sometimes, like you see him the other day, everything's on time and how good it can be and when it's out of sorts a bit, then all of the sudden it becomes shotgun. Ah man, you can see the movement [on his pitches] from the side, how good it is. 

"We gotta harness it somehow. I spoke to him briefly on the bench; I reassured him it's gonna be fine, it's gonna be really good by the end of the year. We gotta figure it out and he knows that. But man, that's good stuff. We just gotta get it in the zone."

Chatwood also admitted part of the problem is mental in that he's trying to force pitches rather than trusting his stuff. He's also gotten into the bad habit of drifting down the mound, though he's not sure when or where he picked up that hitch in his delivery.

Chatwood and Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey are working on slowing his delivery down to get his arm in the same spot on a more consistent basis.

When the Cubs signed Chatwood over the winter, it was easy to see why.

He just turned 28 in December, his peripherals and a move from hitter-friendly Coors Field foretold a potential leap in performance and his stuff is nasty. Plus, he signed a three-year deal at a relative bargain of $38 million.

Once the Cubs signed Yu Darvish in spring training, you could make the case that Chatwood could be among the best No. 5 starters in baseball.

Nine starts later, the honeymoon period is well over with Chatwood, as he threw only 30 of his 74 pitches for strikes Tuesday night and sent catcher Willson Contreras sailing all around home plate for pitches way out of the zone.

Still, it's clear to see there is some intriguing talent there and the season there is roughly 70 percent of the season remaining before the Cubs make what they hope is another run at the World Series.

"I have a lot of faith," Maddon said. "I know we're gonna reap the rewards, the benefits as he figures this thing out."