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Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

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Bennett carries weight for Plainfield East

Brian Bennett doesn't subscribe to Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem or Slim-Fast. But his diet -- he lost 54 pounds in eight months and improved his 40-yard dash time by nine-tenths of a second and his vertical leap high enough to dunk with two hands -- ought to be endorsed by every calorie-counter who ever was tempted by a pepperoni pizza.

At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Bennett has emerged as a difference-maker in Plainfield East's surprising but impressive run for recognition as one of the leading teams in the Chicago area. The Bengals are 6-0 after Friday's 58-39 victory over Plainfield Central. They will meet Minooka Friday before competing in the Pekin Holiday Tournament.

That's a pretty good start for a three-year-old school with an enrollment of 1,900 students that still is trying to fit the right keys in the right doors. It is the fourth high school in the fast-growing Plainfield school district that once projected five by 2012.

"Knowing how young and inexperienced we were in the last two years, when we were 9-16 and 15-13, we have made a complete 180-degree change," Bennett said. "We have nine guys from last year's team. All of us have matured and gotten serious about what we want to do, how bad we want it, how much we love the game. It's an incredible thing to see."

Bennett is an incredible thing to see. Last year, he couldn't jump over a gum wrapper. He lacked agility. He had no lateral movement. He couldn't run up and down the court for more than three minutes at a time. He was timed with a sun dial, not a stopwatch. He weighed 294 pounds.

After the season, coach Joe Callero of California Polytechnic Institute (Cal-Poly), who was recruiting Bennett, told him: "If you want to be a Division I athlete, you have to do this -- change your diet, change your game, think about your quickness at the next level, think about your mindset and think about how other bodies look at the next level."

Plainfield East coach Branden Adkins and assistant Greg Bayer also chimed in with the same message. Everybody agreed that Bennett had big-time potential -- how many teams have a 6-foot-9 player under the basket? -- but he wasn't going to show it in a 300-pound body.

"I knew I didn't have the year I wanted," Bennett said. "If I wanted it enough, I wasn't a Division I athlete at the weight I was at, maybe Division III. I had to change everything. So two weeks after the season, I put it in gear. If I took everything seriously, if I went from a big kid to a big athletic kid, I would be much better and the team would be much better."

His diet plan called for cutting out all soda pop, pie, chips, extra sweets and snacks and consuming much less ice cream. He concentrates on juice, water, more fruits and vegetables, lean meat, fish and celery. He sets one day or meal a week to "cheat" by enjoying pizza. He wasn't big on oranges at one time. Now he endorses them.

Away from the dinner table, Bennett is a workout freak. Last summer, he was in the weight room once a day for three hours. During the school day, he lifts weights two or three times a day. He began running more, sometimes three miles at a time, then working out on a treadmill and exercise bike and engaging in agility exercises.

The result is Bennett can do things he couldn't do before. His old jersey is three sizes too big. For the first time, he can dunk with both hands. He can run up and down the court without getting tired. When he lowered his 40-yard dash time from 5.8 seconds to 4.9, he began to think about being a tight end or offensive lineman on the football team.

Then he came to his senses. "It wasn't for me. Basketball is my love and my calling," he said.

"It's crazy to see how far I have come," he said. "I compare my 40-yard dash times and weight lifting and agility tests from last year. Before, I didn't have leaping ability. The biggest difference from the end of AAU to the beginning of the high school season is I noticed I didn't get tired running up and down the court. My cardio was so much better. I had better endurance. Last year, I would have been gassed."

With a new body and a new commitment and excellent academic credentials (4.75 grade-point average on 5.0 scale, 25 ACT), he accepted a scholarship offer by Cal-Poly. And he is averaging 13 points and eight rebounds for a Plainfield East team that began to turn heads when it won the St. Charles East Thanksgiving Tournament and beat highly rated Downers Grove South.

"It is a great feeling to know that all my hard work is showing," Bennett said. "It gives me more self-motivation to keep working as hard as I have been working."

Adkins likes what he sees. "He always had size and potential. But he worked hard. You can see his improvement. Now he looks like an athlete. He was slow before. But he committed himself to the weight room and diet. He set a goal to be a Division I athlete and that is what he has become," the coach said.

Adkins, 38, is a Pekin graduate of 1991. He got hooked on high school basketball when his father took him to watch Pekin games when he was seven -years-old. He saw Pekin beat Peoria Manual in four overtimes and couldn't get over how exciting the whole experience was.

"My skills didn't let me be a very good basketball player," he recalled. "I was a cerebral guy. I understood the game. I listened. I led the team in floor burns. But I couldn't shoot or pass or dribble. I was only 5-foot-6. But I wanted to stay in it. So I wanted to get into coaching."

He learned as an assistant to highly respected coach Cal Hubbard at Normal University High, who won 363 games and one state championship in 18 years. He was at Plainfield South from 2002 to 2007, then was athletic director and dean of students at Glenbard North in 2007-08 before launching the boys basketball program at Plainfield East.

"We knew this senior group was deep and special. It has size, good guards, quickness and strength. They jelled well," Adkins said. "They didn't have chemistry last year. But they set goals for themselves. They set aside individual goals for team goals. I knew these kids were different from the second day of practice. I knew they could compete."

Bennett may be the biggest but he isn't the only contributor. Dee Brown (14 points per game), a 6-foot senior guard, was the MVP of the St. Charles East tournament. Other reliable scorers are 6-foot-3 seniors Austin Robinson (13 ppg), Myles Walters (7 ppg) and Desnique Harris (4 ppg), 6-foot senior Mack Brown (8 ppg) and 6-foot-1 senior point guard Jawan Straughter.

Against Plainfield Central, Bennett had 18 points and six rebounds while Mack Brown scored 19. Dee Brown's three-point play with 23 seconds left in the third quarter gave the Bengals a 39-33 lead and sparked a 14-0 run that turned the contest into a rout.

"Different kids step up in every game," Adkins said. "Our notoriety is surprising. We like to stay under the radar. We don't talk about ratings now. It is nice because it puts Plainfield East on the map. But the ultimate goal is where we are at the end of the season."

For the time being, Adkins is eager to make his players understand the challenge that is ahead of them and what it means to be the first senior class at a school that is just beginning to make a name for itself.

"We talk about them leaving their stamp as seniors," Adkins said. "There has been a lot of talk about them since they were freshmen. They have a lot of potential. They will set the tradition for Plainfield East. Our motto is: 'Becoming a champion.' There are things you have to have in place to be a champion. Now they are listening."

Adkins cites five characteristics necessary to be a champion -- a positive attitude about anything you are trying to achieve, effort, commitment, discipline and making sacrifices along the way. And athletes must put in a lot of time to master and achieve those characteristics.

He implements his philosophy as Hubbard taught him, by building relationships with his players and knowing how to treat them, individually and as a group.

"You can't treat them all the same. You can't be a dictator," Adkins said. "You must build around the group of kids you have. Sit down and talk to them a lot...about basketball, life, family, their future. You can't coach them the same way."

Bennett and his teammates have bought into it. Although Adkins has preached a team concept, he knows there are higher expectations for him. In the end, if Plainfield East is to advance to Peoria, he knows he will punch the ticket, whether he likes it or not.

"Our first goal is to win conference. Our eyes were on it since day one but we didn't know what it would take. Now we know. And we know how hard we have to work to leave a lasting mark on the conference," he said.

"Knowing I will be the biggest guy on the court in most games means I know I have to be there on offense and defense and on the boards. I am a big part of our team's game. When the expectations I have for myself and the coach has for me are met, our team is flat out good. I can be a difference-maker."

Ever wonder what a Portillo's soccer jersey would look like?

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@JTHAZZARD

Ever wonder what a Portillo's soccer jersey would look like?

Portillo's has become a staple in the Chicagoland area due to its popular hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches and now, its soccer jerseys.

OK, maybe one of these does not belong with the others. Regardless, Twitter user @JTHazzard created mock-up soccer jerseys mashing MLS teams and restaurants based in that team's city, and the Portillo's jersey is sweet. 

From the Portillo's logo taking center-stage to the picnic blanket pattern to the discrete Chicago Fire logo, this jersey is absolutely brilliant. The only change this writer would make is including the logo below instead.

Valspar is the current sponsor featured on the Fire's uniforms. If the team ever needs a new sponsor, though, Portillo's would be an excellent replacement.

The White Sox sent down Carson Fulmer, so why isn't Lucas Giolito receiving the same treatment?

The White Sox sent down Carson Fulmer, so why isn't Lucas Giolito receiving the same treatment?

Lucas Giolito is having a rough go of things in his second year with the White Sox.

He came into the season with some pretty high expectations after posting a 2.38 ERA in seven starts at the end of the 2017 campaign and then dominating during spring training. But he’s done anything but dominate since this season started, and after one of his worst outings in Thursday’s 9-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, he’s got a 7.53 ERA in 10 starts in 2018.

Giolito stuck around for only four outs Thursday, but he allowed the Orioles to do plenty of damage, giving up seven runs on six hits — two of which were back-to-back home runs to start the second inning — and three walks. He leads the American League with his 37 walks.

“I take what I do very seriously. I work as hard as I can at it,” Giolito said. “So when I experience failure like this, it’s kind of hard to deal with. All I can do is come back tomorrow, keep working on things and hopefully have a better one.”

All of Giolito’s struggles have fans wondering why the White Sox haven’t sent him down to Triple-A to work on his craft.

“I don’t foresee that at this particular time,” Rick Renteria said when asked if Giolito could be sent to Triple-A. “I think he’s just a young man who’s got to continue to minimize the emotional aspect of crossing from preparation into the game and staying focused, relaxed and hammer the zone with strikes. And truthfully it’s just first-pitch strike and get after the next one.”

The White Sox have already sent one young pitcher down in Carson Fulmer, who was having a nightmarish time at the big league level. Fulmer’s results were worse than Giolito’s on a regular basis. He got sent down after posting an 8.07 ERA in nine outings.

But hasn’t Giolito suffered through command issues enough to warrant some time away from the major league limelight? According to his manager, Giolito’s situation is vastly different than Fulmer’s.

“I don’t see them anywhere near each other,” Renteria said. “They’re two different competitors in terms of the outcomes that they’ve had. Lucas has at least had situations in which he might have struggled early and been able to gain some confidence through the middle rounds of his start and continue to propel himself to finish some ballgames, give us six or seven innings at times. So it’s two different guys.

“With Gio, I expect that we would have a nice clean start from the beginning, but when he doesn’t I still feel like if he gets through it he’ll settle down and continue to hammer away at what he needs to do in order to get deeper into a ballgame, and that was a little different with Carson. With Carson it was right from the get-go he was struggling, and he had a difficult time extending his outings after the third or fourth because it just kept getting too deep into his pitch count and not really hammering the strike zone as much.”

Renteria is not wrong. Giolito has had a knack to take a rough beginning to a start and turn it into five or six innings. Notably, he gave up a couple first-inning runs and walked seven hitters and still got the win against the Cubs a week and a half ago. And while his first-inning ERA is 10.80 and his second-inning ERA is 12.54, he’s pitched into at least the sixth inning in seven of his 10 starts.

Renteria’s point is that Giolito is learning how to shake off early damage and achieving the goal, most times out, of eating up innings and keeping his team in the game. Those are a couple valuable qualities to develop for a young pitcher. But are those the lone qualities that determine that Giolito is suited to continue his learning process at the major league level? His command remains a glaring problem, and both he and Renteria admitted that his problems are more mental than physical.

“The one thing everyone has to understand is we have to go beyond the physical and attack a little bit more of the mental and emotional and try to connect and slow that down,” Renteria said. “Those aspects are the ones that ultimately, at times, deal in the derailment of the physical action. So if we can kind of calm that down a little bit.

“He’s very focused. Giolito is high intensity. Nice kid but high-intensity young man when he gets on the mound. You might not believe it. He’s going 100 mph. So I think it goes to more just trusting himself, trusting the process, taking it truthfully one pitch at a time.”

Well, if a demotion to the minors isn’t likely, what about moving Giolito to the bullpen? Carlos Rodon and Chris Sale dipped their toes in bullpen waters before moving to the rotation. Could a reversal of that strategy help Giolito?

Well, the current state of the White Sox starting rotation — Fulmer in the minors, Miguel Gonzalez on the 60-day DL and pitchers like James Shields, Hector Santiago and Dylan Covey, who aren’t exactly long-term pieces, getting a lot of starts — doesn’t really allow for another piece to be removed.

“I know they have done it with Rodon and Sale,” Renteria said. “The difference is we don’t have the makeup of the starting rotation that those clubs had in order to put those guys in the ‘pen. We are in a different situation right now. Moving forward, is that something we can possibly do? Absolutely. It has been done with very good success.

“Right now we are in truly discovery mode and adjustment mode and adapting and trying to do everything we can to get these guys to develop their skill sets to be very usable and effective at the major league level and we are doing it to the best of our ability.”

There could be promise in the fact that Giolito has turned a season around as recently as last year. Before he was impressing on the South Side in August and September, he was struggling at Triple-A Charlotte. Even after he ironed things out, things had gotten off to a rocky enough start that he owned a 4.48 ERA and 10 losses when he was called up to the bigs.

It doesn’t seem Giolito will be going back to Charlotte, unless things continue to go in a dramatically poor direction. Right now, these are just more of the growing pains during this rebuilding process. “The hardest part of the rebuild” doesn’t just means wins and losses. It means watching some players struggle through speed bumps as they continue to develop into what the White Sox hope they’ll be when this team is ready to compete.