Bears

Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

600388.png

Breese Central's Brandon Book is a big-timer

Every once in a while, while observing the small-school basketball tournaments, you see a player who has what it takes to compete at the mid-major or even the major Division I level in college.

Breese Central's Brandon Book is one of those players.

Whether he is as good or better than some of the small-school standouts of the past -- Lawrenceville's Jay Shidler and Marty Simmons, Normal University's Jim Crews, Eldorado's Mike Duff, Cairo's Tyrone Nesby, McLeansboro's Brian Sloan, Providence-St. Mel's Lowell Hamilton, St. Anne's Jack Sikma, Leo's Andre Brown, St. Martin de Porres' Jerry Gee, Providence's Walter Downing, Springfield Calvary's Rennie Clemons -- remains to be seen.

But Book, a 6-foot-6 senior, clearly was the best player on the court last weekend in Peoria. If there was an MVP in the Class 2A tournament, it was Book.

Breese Central coach Stan Eagleson knew it, too.

"We always feel we have the best player on the floor," Eagleson said before the tournament began. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is a leading perimeter shooter."

The leading scorer in school history, Book (21 ppg, 9 rpg) is being recruited by Southern Indiana, Arkansas State, Millikin and Southwest Illinois College. The list of suitors should increase significantly in the wake of his sensational performance in the state finals.

Book had 24 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks as top-ranked Breese Central dispatched second-rated Seton Academy 57-47 in the semifinals.

He scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half and grabbed 11 rebounds as Breese Central won its 18th game in a row and completed a 34-1 season by edging Normal University High 53-47 for the Class 2A championship.

"I knew I had to come here and play as hard as I can," Book said. "Winning the state championship sends chills down my spine."

Playing against a Normal U-High team led by highly touted sophomore Keita Bates-Diop, Book converted two successive three-point shots and two free throws to give Breese Central a 34-28 lead after three quarters.

Normal U-High, which annually plays one of the toughest schedules of any small school in the state, fell behind by 10 but closed within two on two occasions in the last minute. But Book made a basket and Nick Grapperhaus made four free throws in the last eight seconds to seal the victory.

"He struggled early," Eagleson said about Book, who shot 3-of-12 in the first half. "Then he put us on his back."

Class 1A basketball to a large degree and Class 2A basketball to a lesser extent are acquired tastes, like girls basketball. The viewer must understand it is a different game, athletically and fundamentally. Limited athleticism, no slam dunks, no crossover dribbles, everyone playing below the rim, few if any major college recruits.

But once you accept the fact that this isn't Kentucky vs. Kansas or Michael Jordan vs. Magic Johnson or Simeon vs. Proviso East, you can be entertained by watching a game straight out of a coach's playbook, filled with X's and O's rather than dribble penetration and blocked shots and tomahawk dunks and up-tempo, up-and-down action that more resembles a Stanley Cup hockey game.

Book provided that type of entertainment and excitement last weekend. So did his team, which played in-your-face man-to-man defense against Seton and Normal U-High. Against a quicker Seton team, the Cougars disrupted Seton's offense and didn't allow a single fast-break basket. Against taller Normal U-High, they prevented the Pioneers and Bates-Diop from dominating on the boards.

Eagleson is one of the winningest coaches in state history. He has won 586 games in 30 years, including 30-3, 30-5, 30-3 and 34-1 in the last seasons. His team was fourth in 2010. Last year's team lost in the supersectional. The only blemish on this year's record was a loss to Kirkwood Vianney, a St. Louis suburban power.

"Since 1996, we have had a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," Eagleson said. "Going into this season, I felt this team was potentially the best I have had. It has a lot of kids with good basketball sense."

The Class 1A final was entertaining, too. Woodlawn, which had eliminated top-ranked Mounds Meridian for the second year in a row in the supersectional, trounced North Shore Country Day 62-44 in the semifinals, then rallied to edge Carrollton 48-45 for the title.

No, it wasn't like watching someone cut grass. A.J. Webb made a three-pointer with 16 seconds left to overcome a one-point deficit and Christian Hollenkamp made two free throws with two seconds left to clinch the victory as Woodlawn closed out with a 5-0 run.

Gabe Owens was an effective three-point shooting threat and Webb was a lockdown defender and clutch performer for Woodlawn. Carrollton's Joey Coonrod, a three-sport star who pitched his school to a state championship last year, also stood out. Coonrad had 16 points and 17 rebounds in the final.

Only one complaint: While television announcers Lee Hall and Dave Bernhard and color commentators Greg Starrick, Camron Smith and Matt Rodewald were informed and informative, Starrick closed with a tiresome comment stolen from Dick Vitale that always sends chills down my spine.

"Both teams were well-coached," said Starrick, a former Marion star who was one of the most prolific scorers in state history.

Have you ever heard a radio or TV analyst refer to a team -- high school, college or professional -- as poorly coached?

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

4-16mattnagy.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

0520-reynaldo-lopez.jpg
USA TODAY

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.