White Sox

Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

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Benet's O'Mara is a 'special player'

There is no telling how good or even how big Sean O'Mara could be. The 6-9, 235-pound sophomore from Benet Academy in Lisle is only 16 years old and has started only 11 varsity games but he already is being touted as the No. 40 player in the nation in the class of 2014 by longtime recruiting analyst Van Coleman of Hot100Hoops.com.

"He has a chance to be a special player," Benet coach Gene Heidkamp said. "He is coming into his own. He hasn't finished growing yet."

"He has the makings of being a star," said recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye, "even if he is still a bit unproven."

Unproven and virtually unknown until recently. As a freshman, he sat behind Wisconsin recruit Frank Kaminsky on a 29-1 team that was ranked No. 1 in the state before losing to East Aurora and Ryan Boatright in the sectional. He experienced his combat duty working against Kaminsky in practice. He suffered bumps and bruises but learned his lessons well.

Now O'Mara is making a name for himself. He is averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game and dishing out his own brand of punishment. He was named most valuable player of the Plainfield North tournament. A local newspaper selected him as player of the week. Every school in the Big Ten is making inquiries.

"It's his first time in the spotlight and he's just getting used to it," Heidkamp said. "He is handling it very well. He understands the team comes first. We knew he would be a major factor this year."

O'Mara has been playing basketball since he could walk. He played one-on-one with his mother in the driveway. He always has been taller than his classmates and his doctors tell him that he has "a bunch of room left in my growth plates."

"I am hoping for seven feet," he said. "I'd be happy with that."

Here is another piece of first-hand information about O'Mara that basketball fans who already are wondering which college he will attend would like to know: North Carolina is his dream school.

"I have family members who live there and a cousin will go there next year," he said. "I have roots there. I liked watching Tyler Hansbrough play in every game while he was there. I want to have a chance to consider them."

That said, he hasn't made any commitments. He isn't even thinking about the recruiting process. Not yet. After all, he has more than two years of high school competition remaining. He has only begun to feel what it is like to face the basket or take a shot from 15 feet.

"How do I evaluate myself?" he said. "I need to be more consistent. If I was watching myself, I don't know if I would offer me. But I have played against Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young's 6-10 star who is rated No. 2 in the class of 2014 by Coleman) in AAU and I know I can play against him.

"My coach has given me a heads-up, preparing me for college recruiting. I don't know if I'm ready for it. As a sophomore, I'm just doing the best I can do. But I want to make sure the college coaches come to see me. Hopefully, when the time comes for them to see me, I'll be ready."

O'Mara learned to play the game the hard way. "Every day in practice I got to go up against a Division I center (Kaminsky). He beat me up a lot. But I learned how to defend and cover the entire lane and how to defend the three-point shot," he said.

"I came into this season with a lot of confidence. Working against (Kaminsky) made me realize a lot of guys I will face won't be as good as Frank and it will be easier for me to work down low. I have two more years of this. I have plenty of time to get better with it (dealing with playing in the spotlight) and learning how to deal with it."

He began to realize he might have a bright future in basketball when he played with Benet's varsity during the summer before his freshman year. He got more playing time as the summer went on and found himself playing high-low with Kaminsky on occasion. "The coach thinks I can do something with this team," he said to himself.

How does O'Mara compare to Kaminsky?

"Frank played inside and could face the basket. That's why he is a good fit at Wisconsin," Heidkamp said. "O'Mara is a low post player."

"Kaminsky is more perimeter oriented. He excels at facing up and being able to knock down shots from three-point range. That is why he is ideal for (Wisconsin coach) Bo Ryan's system," the Schmidt brothers said. "O'Mara is much more of a back-to-the-basket player and more physical. They have contrasting styles but both have the ability to be very good college players.

"There are striking similarities at the same stage of their careers...stamina issues, toughness issues, incredible touch, good hands, good passing skills. O'Mara is stronger but does not run as well. His defensive mobility isn't as good as Kaminsky. But he is more developed as a post player."

One of the first colleges to recognize O'Mara's potential was Illinois. Going into his freshman year, he participated at a summer shootout in Champaign and attracted the attention of Illini assistant coach Jay Price.

"I realized they are interested in me for basketball. It was a shocker. After all, I was only a freshman in high school," O'Mara said. "But I started to hear about other AAU kids who were getting offers. It was motivation for me. I was motivated to do the same thing."

O'Mara also is motivated to lead his team to the state finals in Peoria, something that last year's powerhouse team failed to do. The Redwings are 10-1 going into Tuesday's game against St. Joseph in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

Outsiders might be surprised by Benet's early-season performance. After all, the only returning starter from a year ago, 6-5 junior Pat McInerney, broke his wrist in the opening game and won't return until January. A role player last season with Kaminsky and Dave Sobolewski taking most of the bows, McInerney is expected to be a double digit scorer this season.

"We're not surprised by being 10-1. A lot of us feel we should be 11-0. We lost to Naperville North by four points and we didn't play very well," O'Mara said. "We're waiting for McInerney to come back. We could compete with last year's team. We are able to do as much damage as they did."

In McInerney's absence, everybody has picked up the slack. Other starters are 6-foot senior point guard John Enochs (10 ppg, four assists), 6-3 senior guard Griff Hanekamp (9 ppg), 6-2 senior Joe Schuessler (6 ppg) and 6-6 senior Bobby Wehrli (8 ppg). Other contributors off the bench are 5-11 senior Nick Mankowski, 6-2 junior Jack Toner and 6-6 senior Matt Clements.

"People don't realize that these kids played against Kaminsky, Sobolewski and last year's starters every day in practice," Heidkamp said. "They played 90 practices against two kids who are in the Big Ten. It helps to elevate your game. They are better than people realize."

Heidkamp, 41, in his fourth year as head coach at Benet, already is recognized as one of the best coaches in the state. A 1988 graduate of St. Patrick, he played for the legendary Max Kurland and also coached one year with Kurland before he retired. He served as assistant to St. Patrick coach Mike Bailey for eight years, was head coach at Nazareth for three years, then returned to St. Patrick to assist Bailey for three years before landing the head coaching job at Benet.

"I knew the history," he said. "I knew it was a great school and a great opportunity. I knew the basketball tradition was very strong. I couldn't wait to accept the challenge."

He is looking forward to the challenge awaiting at Proviso West. He is eager to find out some things about his team as they prepare for the conference season and state tournament beyond.

"Last year, we went to Proviso West looking to win the tournament, which we did. This year, we're playing against a lot of athleticism and we'll find out a lot of things about our team," Heidkamp said.

"We'll find out about our ability to handle pressure, to play transition defense, to play in front of a big crowd. Will we have poise or will we get caught up in the excitement? The experience will be positive with the conference and state tournament in front of us and McInerney coming back in January. He will make us better in every facet of the game."

White Sox in the thick of it as AL Central race with Indians, Twins heats up

White Sox in the thick of it as AL Central race with Indians, Twins heats up

This AL Central race is going to be fun.

It looked like the Minnesota Twins might have blitzed right past the White Sox in the season’s first weekend, issuing a 14-2 clubbing on their way out of Chicago in the decisive third game of that series. The White Sox went on to Northeast Ohio and dropped the first two of that three-game set against the Cleveland Indians, and a 1-4 start threw some chilly Great Lakes water on the preseason thought of the South Siders running with the class of the division in this season’s 60-game sprint to October.

But the White Sox turned their 1-4 start around with a six-game win streak. And after a 2-0 nail-biter of a win over the Indians on Friday night that reshuffled the standings, the Pale Hose have now won their last five games against division foes, including a pair against these Clevelanders.

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The intensity’s been there all week. After a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, the first three of the White Sox four games against the Milwaukee Brewers had a distinct playoff-style feel to them, well pitched, closely decided contests that struck as the most intense games the White Sox have played in years.

Be it the compressed nature of this season’s schedule or the fact that these White Sox are finally equipped to compete for a division title, this is unlike anything that’s graced the South Side in some time.

“We're treating every game like a must-win,” White Sox starting pitcher Dylan Cease said Friday night. “These games definitely don't have the same feeling as Game 15 of a 162-game season. We're coming to the ballpark to win every day."

When it comes to the Twins, atop the Central standings with 10 wins — one of only two major league squads to hit double digits to this point, even with back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Royals — it seems the White Sox will have to win a few more home run derbies the likes of which we saw in that opening weekend.

But runs have been somewhat scarce for the White Sox after they scored a combined 20 runs and banged out a total of 35 hits in winning the final two games of that series last weekend in Kansas City. They’ve scored just eight times in their last four games combined. There’s more than one way to win a game, of course, and as injuries continue to make the White Sox dugout look like the Tune Squad bench late in that game against the Monstars, the South Siders have figured out a few others besides blowing up the scoreboard.

Friday night’s playoff feel brought the Indians’ sensational pitching staff to Guaranteed Rate Field, and Aaron Civale was just about as good as he was against the White Sox last week in Cleveland. He didn’t pile up the strikeouts this time, but he still pitched seven innings of one-run ball, the lone run he gave up coming home on a first-inning double-play grounder.

Cease, somewhat miraculously, countered with five shutout innings of his own despite putting nearly the entire city of Cleveland on base. He walked five guys, including issuing four leadoff walks, hit another and allowed a couple of hits. Thankfully for Cease and the White Sox, though, he also came up with multiple clutch, inning-ending double-play balls, and the defense was excellent behind him and a trio of relievers, the first two of which had as much trouble keeping the bases clear as Cease did.

You want playoff-style drama? Scatter the bases with potential runs every inning and watch the pitchers dance their way out of one jam after another.

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That’s not going to fly on a regular basis, obviously, but it sure made for some heart-pounding baseball, which is — as anyone who was pulling double duty with playoff hockey Friday night knows — fun.

“I can't expect those kinds of results if I'm going to have that many base runners all the time,” Cease said. “Fortunately, we were able to get out of here with a 'W,' but it's not something that's going to be sustainable. So I have to do a better job of getting ahead and not doing that.”

The onslaught of high-caliber Cleveland pitching continues the rest of the weekend, and who knows if the White Sox will be able to solve it as they barely did Friday. Zach Plesac, who stymied the White Sox with 11 strikeouts in eight shutout innings last week, is up Saturday. Then it’s a heck of a pitching matchup Sunday, with Lucas Giolito facing off against current AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber, who’s struck out 35 hitters in his first three starts of the season.

That game ought to be another dandy, and with a frequently showcased rivalry between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals waved off this weekend, the White Sox will step into the nationally televised spotlight Sunday night, the perfect spot for such a pitching matchup and a division race that’s heating up like this one is. The White Sox swapped spots with the Indians on Friday, into second place and two games back of the Twins. The Indians are just two and a half games behind the division leaders.

“Both of those teams are very good clubs,” White Sox outfielder Adam Engel said of the Twins and Indians. “Two totally different makeups, they win games differently. We have a pretty balanced attack ourselves. It’s fun playing good baseball against good teams.

“The Indians, it seems like every time they come to town or we go to Cleveland, we are facing some pretty good arms. Makes it fun. You just have to stay disciplined, stay really focused in your work. It always feels like you’re going to be part of a good baseball game.

“Those are two tough teams, and hopefully we can keep playing them well.”

RELATED: Rick Renteria: Tim Anderson, not Luis Robert, will be White Sox leadoff man

Obviously, everything’s felt different this season. There are no fans in the stands, COVID-19 is constantly threatening the completion of the campaign, and a brief ramp up to Opening Day has made for a high number of injuries across the league.

But there’s a different feeling on the South Side, too, for much more positive reasons. This team has been talking about its high expectations for months, and they’ve got a roster that looks capable of living up to them. While an expanded playoff field gives the White Sox a pretty good chance of reaching the postseason, they’ve still got their eyes on the biggest prizes, and the first one of those is the Central crown.

They’ve played just 14 games. But it sure feels like a pennant race.

“I don’t remember ever really watching scoreboards so closely as a team through the first couple of weeks in the season,” Engel said. “We come in off the field and we want to see what’s going on around the league, or we’re announcing what scores are postgame for different teams. You control what you can control, and you want to win as many games as you can. But we’re all keeping our eyes on the scoreboard, and I’m sure it’s like that league-wide.

“Everybody kind of feels like they’re in it right now, and 60 games, this is going to be a heck of a season. I’m excited that we’re playing good baseball right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”


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Blackhawks' Corey Crawford heating up just in time for Stanley Cup Playoffs

Blackhawks' Corey Crawford heating up just in time for Stanley Cup Playoffs

The biggest storyline of Blackhawks training camp 2.0 was Corey Crawford missing the first 12 days because he had tested positive for COVID-19. He showed up on the final practice day in Chicago, which was exactly one week from the start of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Edmonton Oilers.

The Blackhawks did everything they could to get him ready for Game 1, but you knew it would take him a while to get back into top form. And it has.

In the first three games against the Oilers, Crawford allowed 13 goals on 92 shots for a save percentage of .859 and had a minus-5.68 goals saved above average, according to Natural Stat Trick, which ranked dead last among all goaltenders. 

But when the Blackhawks needed him most in Game 4, Crawford delivered. 

The two-time Stanley Cup champion turned aside 41 of 43 shots for a save percentage of .953 in Friday’s 3-2 series-clinching win against the Oilers, including all 18 in the third period, a handful of which came from high-danger areas.

"He's a huge part of our team and he played real well today," Dominik Kubalik said. "I thought he was our best player."

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To take it a step further: Crawford stopped 16 of 18 shots from the slot and had nine saves from the inner slot, which is the third-most in a game by any goaltender this postseason, according to Sportlogiq. The Oilers had an expected goals for rate of 4.33 but scored only twice, which means Crawford saved the Blackhawks 2.33 goals.

It was a vintage performance between the pipes for No. 50.

"Obviously it wasn't the best scenario," Crawford said of having just one week to get ramped up for the qualifying round. "I would have liked to have had a few more weeks of practice and see more pucks coming into the series. But it is what it is. I think I felt way better each game, playing each game and just seeing different scenarios and situations. Once you get more of that, just the better you feel. Tonight was obviously better."

Despite turning in a terrific outing on Friday, Crawford admitted “there’s still some work to do” before he feels like in peak form. But if he gets there in time for the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Blackhawks could be a dangerous underdog team.

"I was able to kind of hide back there until I started feeling comfortable," Crawford said. "Still don't think I'm at the top of my game, but it was definitely better today."