Cubs

Boehm is big man at New Trier

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Boehm is big man at New Trier

Connor Boehm, the 6-foot-7, 235-pound mover and shaker on New Trier's basketball team, played baseball until his freshman year. Then he realized that he had fun on a basketball court, that basketball was his future, that he wanted to mix basketball and academics in college.

"I didn't like baseball," Boehm said. "If you strike out, you don't get another at-bat for two or three innings. In basketball, if you miss a shot, you might get another one the next time down the floor. It was frustrating in baseball. Two strikeouts and your day is done. In basketball, there are a lot of other things you can do to redeem yourself."

New Trier coach Scott Fricke has the same philosophy as he prepares his team for the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. The Trevians are 10-1 after beating Fenwick 62-57 on Tuesday in the opening round. Boehm scored 17 points while point guard David Bragiel had 18 and Steven Cook 15.

"We take the Proviso West tournament as an early state tournament," Fricke said. "It is unforgiving. You make or miss one shot and it is the difference between winning one game or three games. You play a good team in every game. It is time to gauge ourselves at this point.

"Where are we at? Where do we need to get to in order to play well in the real state tournament? Proviso West is a state tournament in December. But if you lose, the season isn't over. Now you play against great players and great size. Can we match up to a great team?"

Boehm is looking to answer those questions, too. His role has changed every year at New Trier. As a sophomore on a 22-4 team, he was a grinder who scrapped for offensive rebounds and dived for loose balls on the floor. Last year, on a 15-11 team, he was asked to score a lot and averaged 20 points per game. This year? Whether he likes it or not, this is his team.

"He is banging down low and we also want him to get assists, to kick the ball back to the guards," Fricke said. "It doesn't bother him that his scoring average has dipped a bit (17 ppg). All he cares about is winning. He also has developed his perimeter game. He averages one three-pointer a game. We have plays for him to shoot from the outside."

Recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye like what they see in Boehm and the New Trier team.

"Connor Boehm personifies the blue-collar type of player who brings his lunch bucket to work every day and simply does his job," Harv Schmidt said. "He has a strong frame and good hands, both of which he utilizes well around the basket. As a result, he is a consistent scorer with his back to the basket and is strong on the glass.

"New Trier is yet another team that knows how to utilize its strengths and exploit its opponent's weaknesses. They have a little bit of everything -- strong post play with Connor Boehm, an athletic open-court player in Austin Angel and others who are good shooters from the perimeter and play hard-nosed defense. New Trier is right there with Warren as the premier team in Chicago's north suburbs."

The Trevians' only loss was to Warren 64-46 on Dec. 3. "Warren's size was too much for us. They killed us on the boards," Fricke said. Boehm was limited to 10 points and five rebounds. But, as is the case with the Proviso West tournament, one loss in December isn't a season-ender. "But it means there are things we can improve on," Boehm said.

"We can really be dangerous," Boehm said. "We have a combination of good guards and good shooters and I have to do what I need to do down low. We aren't the biggest team but I'm the biggest player on the team so the responsibility falls to me to do the dirty work, to hit the offensive boards and get defensive rebounds."

Coming off last season, he knew he had to put on weight and get a lot stronger if he was going to dominate under the boards or hold his own against more athletic opponents. It is his senior year and he desperately wants to win the sectional championship, New Trier's first since 2005.

Boehm is surrounded by 6-foot-4 senior Austin Angel (14 ppg), 5-foot-10 senior point guard David Bragiel (five points per game, four assists), 6-foot-4 junior Steven Cook (10
points per game) and 5-foot-10 junior Reid Berman (six points per game). The bench is headed by 5-foot-10 sophomore Jordan Thomas and 6-foot-8 junior Aaron Angel, Austin's brother.

Austin Angel missed most of last season after undergoing emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix after the third game. He came back for the state tournament but never got into playing shape. Now he is back and healthy. He scored 24 points against Niles West.

Bragiel has good bloodlines. His grandfather, Jim Bragiel, played at Morton and Northwestern. "He doesn't get mentioned very much. But he has the heart of a champion. We aren't the same team when he isn't on the floor. He holds our team together. We can't play without him," Fricke said.

Fricke, a 1989 graduate of Riverside-Brookfield, is in his fourth year as head coach at New Trier. He coached at Sycamore and Fenwick before landing at the Winnetka school, becoming Mel Sheets' freshman coach in 1995. It was Sheets' last year and Fricke joined new coach Rick Malnati's staff. When Malnati left, he was selected over a field that included some high-profile state championship coaches.

"I knew the New Trier system. I learned from Sheets and Malnati," he said. "It was a smooth transition. When Rick left, the program was in good shape. I'm continuing to do a lot of the same things. But you can't run the same system year after year."

Fricke changed the offense, preferring a Princeton-style approach to make better use of his players' talent. "We will run the system that gives our kids the best chance to succeed. This year, we have a lot of good guards so I changed the offense to four outside and one inside," he said.

He believes his current squad compares favorably to Malnati's 25-8 team that finished fourth in the 2002 state tournament and the 22-4 team of two years ago that featured Alex Rossi and Fred Helbring.

"We have a lot of poise. Nothing rattles them," Fricke said. "We have enough firepower to play different styles, fast-paced or slow down. We can execute in half-court or take advantage of Boehm's size and our outside shooting. We are well-rounded an versatile."

To prepare for this season, Boehm went into the weight room and added 20 pounds of muscle. He knew he couldn't be the fastest or most agile player on the floor but he could be the strongest. "There were times last year where an extra push would have been helpful," he said.

At the same time, he put his academic portfolio in order. Education is very important to him. One brother is at Bucknell, another at Harvard. He chose Dartmouth over Cal-Poly, Holy Cross and Lafayette.

"Dartmouth is the right fit for me. It has good academics and I will have a chance to get playing time as a freshman." Boehm said. "If I was 6-10 and could jump out of the gym, the NBA would be my ultimate goal. But I'm 6-foot-7 and can't jump out of the gym. Getting a good education is important to me."

So is closing his high school career on a high note, preferably a trip to Peoria in March with his teammates. To play, not to watch.

"The program has been successful in the past few years but we didn't go far in the playoff," Boehm said. "It is important to bring the team Downstate and farther. We have a lot of guards who can play and you need good guard play in the state tournament. They ignite everything. With good guard play comes good post play.

"I've been with these guys for two or three years. We carpool together. We have team dinners together. We all get along. I've heard the coach say: 'This is the hardest working team I've ever been around.' We have lots of guys who stay after practice to shoot. They care about the team."

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Cubs shrugging off the pressure as October baseball looms

Don't start making plans for Oct. 2, assuming the Cubs are a lock to avoid that NL Wild-Card game and have a trio of days off between the final regular season contest (next Sunday) and Game 1 of the NLDS on Oct. 4.

Baseball is a crazy sport and a lot can change in the next eight days, but FanGraphs lists the Cubs' chance of winning the NL Central at 91.3 percent.

Just, you know, don't tell them that.

"Whoa, let's not get that far ahead of ourselves," Jon Lester said Saturday night in the visiting dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field after picking up his 17th win of the season. "We got, what, [8] more games? We're 2.5 ahead. We got a long ways to go. I don't ever wanna jump too far ahead on that one.

"If we had a little bit of a different lead or whatnot, I could probably comment on that. But those are two good teams chasing us. We just gotta keep playing good baseball. We get to go home (even though really these last three days are kinda home), but we get to go home for the remaining week of the season and enjoy that. 

"I think once we start having some champagne and doing that, then you can ask me that question and we'll talk about it then."

Which means we need to wait a bit longer before we get to see Mr. Lester like this again:

But then again, Saturday's game was probably the most important of the season in terms of seeing how the Cubs responded to back-to-back toughlosses where they looked listless and punchless.

Javy Baez led the way, doing his MVP El Mago thing, but White Sox outfielder Ryan LaMarre misjudging Daniel Murphy's line drive in the fifth inning was the break the Cubs needed to wake up fully, eventually coasting to an 8-3 victory.

With the Brewers' loss in Pittsburgh, the Cubs' magic number is now 6 and they were feeling themselves after the game, looking like the team that is on their way to their third straight division title.

"Yeah, we know what we got," Baez said. "We just gotta stay away from every other team. They gotta pay attention to us, not us to them. If we do that, we should be good."

The Cubs have had to endure so much adversity this season to even get to the point Saturday where they were bumping their victory music and quite literally bouncing around a cramped clubhouse with a slew of Chicago media and almost an entire 40-man roster crammed into one small room.

Joe Maddon had to go back to his "A" bullpen for the first time in over a week, piecing it together with Carl Edwards Jr., Jesse Chavez, Justin Wilson and Steve Cishek after Lester. With over a week left, the Cubs' skipper still doesn't have Pedro Strop back and there is now no hope of Brandon Morrow making a miraculous comeback to provide assistance to this bullpen.

Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood were signed over the winter to supplement this Cubs rotation yet ineffectiveness and/or injury has made both right-handers a non-factor on this team for the last two months.

Kris Bryant still isn't back to his 2016 MVP form.

Kyle Schwarber just returned from a back injury and got his timing back Saturday with a pair of hits, as he promised after Friday's game.

Willson Contreras had thought he had made some offensive strides recently to rediscover his lost power stroke, yet wound up grounding out four times Saturday night.

Addison Russell is on administrative leave.

Ian Happ has started one game in the last week. 

Albert Almora Jr. is hitting .219 with a .528 OPS in the second half, enduring a slump that has lasted over two months and counting.

Jason Heyward was in the midst of a resurgent season at the plate, yet has played in only 118 games this season due to a concussion in May and then a hamstring issue three weeks ago that is still keeping him from playing at 100 percent.

Yet, here the Cubs are, ready to enter the final week of the season in the driver's seat of the entire National League.

"I mean, I don't care what place we're in. The most important thing is that you have a chance," Heyward said. "To not have a chance, it's kind of a shitty time to be playing baseball last week of the season if you don't have a chance. It's great to have a chance.

"I've been fortunate enough to not have too many games where I'm playing throughout my career that don't mean anything. We're playing meaningful baseball right now and everything else will speak for itself as far as what place we finish in, all that stuff. But we got an opportunity to get where we want to be. We gotta find different ways to do it and I feel like it's a testament to our team — we've found different ways to get it done."

Sure, the Cubs will take where they're at right now, even if it means they have to wait until the last possible moment to clinch the division.

But make no mistake, they have no thoughts of the wild card. They haven't gone through everything they've had to endure this season — and especially the last five weeks with the 30-day stretch — just to leave the entire season on the chance of a one-game crapshoot.

They know how important it is to clinch as early as they can and try to rest up and get ready for the rest of the postseason, treating the last few games of the season more like spring training where the starters only play half the time and Maddon doesn't have to press the pitchers.

The earliest the Cubs could clinch would be Tuesday night. Last year, they clinched on the Wednesday of the final week of the regular season.

"Of course you'd rather be clinched then just going through another spring training," Maddon said. "Of course you would. But who knows. Sometimes when you get pressed a little bit like this, it can make you even better. 

"The big thing when you get pressed sometimes, I just don't want us to get fatigued while you're going through this. I've been in that situation also. There's not a manager or a team alive that's gonna tell you that they would not prefer clinching well in advance to set it up. 

"That's what we did in '16 and when we did, I talked about running a spring training method for the rest of the season and I thought it played out pretty well. But in the mean time, we do show up, we've been on a tough stretch. I'm really proud of our players."

Tim Anderson's eventful day at the yard ends with shot at Joe West: 'Everybody knows he's terrible'

Tim Anderson's eventful day at the yard ends with shot at Joe West: 'Everybody knows he's terrible'

Talk about an eventful night at the ol' ballpark for Tim Anderson.

It looked like it was going to be a day worth celebrating for Anderson, whose developmental progress reached a milestone during the third inning of Saturday's Crosstown matchup with the Cubs. He hit his 20th home run of the season, becoming the first White Sox shortstop ever to have a season with at least 20 homers and at least 20 stolen bases.

A heck of a feat, one that should stand out when White Sox fans and observers spend the offseason discussing whether or not Anderson truly is this franchise's shortstop of the future.

But the ump show came and overshadowed all that.

The Cubs were in the process of extending their lead in the ninth inning, putting things out of reach, when the White Sox attempted a double play on an Anthony Rizzo groundball. Anderson got the force out at second base and attempted the turn in the presence of a sliding Javy Baez. His throw went nowhere near first base, going down as an error that allowed another run to score.

After the play was over, Rick Renteria challenged, spurring a review to see if Baez violated the rules by reaching his arm out in an attempt to impede Anderson from making the play. The review determined Baez did not do that. Anderson disagreed, and a conversation with famed umpire Joe West followed.

"I asked him a question, and he kind of got pissed at me," Anderson said of his interaction with West. "I asked him if he saw him reach for my leg in the replay. He asked me if I was going to argue that, and I said, ‘No, I was just asking a question.’ And after that I didn’t say anything else. He started barking at me. Kept staring me down. I gave him, 'Why you keep looking at me?' Did that twice and threw me out."

Anderson was ejected, and he was visibly livid on the field, screaming at West in the immediate aftermath of the ejection. Renteria came out after Anderson started making his way toward the dugout, still yelling, and was ejected, as well.

Now, White Sox fans are no stranger to West, who famously — or infamously, if you're a White Sox supporter — called a couple of balks on Mark Buehrle and ejected both Buehrle and Ozzie Guillen in a 2010 game against the Cleveland Indians, sending announcer Hawk Harrelson into an on-air rant against West: "He's becoming a joke to the umpiring profession."

But the White Sox are far from the only team to have their run-ins with West. Anderson was obviously familiar with West's reputation, taking a shot after the game.

"I don’t have much to say about him. Everybody knows he’s terrible," Anderson said. "But I didn’t say much and he threw me out. It’s OK."

Additionally, Anderson was adamant that Baez did indeed move his hand in violation of the sliding rules at second base — and added the review officials in New York to his criticism list.

"Yeah, definitely. You could see it in the replay," Anderson said. "That’s just one of the many that they missed in New York, I guess."

And so an eventful night for Anderson.

His criticisms of the officials will undoubtedly overshadow his joining the 20-homer club and standing alone in the White Sox 20-20 club. But those are just further examples on Anderson's growth as a player this season.

Yes, the error he made on that play was his 19th of the season, putting him among the league leaders in that category after he led baseball with 28 fielding errors last season. But he now has career highs in home runs, RBIs, stolen bases, doubles and walks. And his fielding has been noticeably improved over the last month or so, a result of the work he's put in with Joe McEwing.

This weekend, Anderson generated headlines with an argument with an umpire. This winter, he'll be generating discussion by what he's done on the field. And the latter has been impressive.

"I’ve been able to take my game to another level," he said. "I just have to continue to grow and just keep learning and keep working hard."