Bears

Can Grayslake Central beat North Chicago jinx?

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Can Grayslake Central beat North Chicago jinx?

Can "Casey and the Midgets" snap the North Chicago jinx and win a sectional championship for the first time in school history?

That's the question that Grayslake Central coach Brian Moe is asking as he prepares his 20-8 team for Friday night's Class 3A regional championship game against Grayslake North. If the Rams win, they'll likely meet old nemesis North Chicago in a sectional semifinal next Tuesday.

"How do we get by North Chicago? Can we ever beat them?" Moe said. "That's been our trend--to lose to North Chicago in the sectional. They are a big challenge for us. They've been there. They've won a sectional. They have a great coach in Gerald Coleman and a great player in Aaron Simpson. They put up a lot of points. We have to try to figure out a way to slow them down."

Grayslake Central's history against North Chicago is full of woulda, shoulda, coulda, close but no cigar. Last year, the Rams lost to North Chicago by four. Three years ago, they were tied with three minutes to play. In the State Farm Classic in Bloomington last December, they led by five at halftime. It all adds up to a lot of frustration.

"We have to make them work for baskets and be patient on offense," Moe said. "They do a great job of making you take shots that you aren't used to taking."

Moe, a 1989 graduate of Glenbrook South, is in his fourth year at Grayslake Central. He played basketball at Augustana on a team that reached the Final Four in Division III. After teaching and coaching at Glenbrook North, Mundelein and Wauconda, he was hired at Grayslake Central.

He has won 20 or more games in three of his four years. He lost to North Chicago in the sectional final in 2008. His 21-10 team lost to Vernon Hills at the buzzer in the sectional. He was 21-7 in 2010. Last year's 17-13 squad lost to North Chicago in the sectional semifinal.

But this year's 20-8 squad might be different. The Rams beat highly rated Huntley in the Fox Valley Conference cross-over game last Friday, sending a message to future opponents--and maybe North Chicago--that they have to be taken for real.

"Potentially, this is the best team I have had," Moe said. "We have a 6-foot-9 center, a shooter, a scorer and we play good team defense. We play man-to-man full-court and pressure the ball. We share the ball and play together. We play six seniors and a junior. We have a lot of experience."

Grayslake Central is led by 5-foot-7 senior guard Jordan Taylor (19 ppg), a three-year starter who is the team leader and has scored more than 1,000 points in his career. But Taylor is closer to 5-foot-5 than 5-foot-7.

Other starters are 6-foot-9 senior Casey Boyle (13.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg), who has some Division II offers, 6-foot senior point guard Sayvonte McWilliams (7.6 ppg, 3 assists, 4 rpg), 5-foot-10 junior Danny Reed (7.5 ppg, 3 rpg), and 6-foot-2 senior Tyler Smith (6.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg).

"Smith is our wild card," Moe said. "When he plays well, we look good. He is athletic and long and attacks the basket. But when he struggles, we struggle, too.

"The big thing we have to do is rebound. We are 'Casey and the Midgets.'Rebounding has been an issue for us. When Casey was out for four games with an ankle sprain in the last few weeks, we went 1-3. Now he's back and we hope he gives us an edge."

The four-class system may have a lot of critics but Moe isn't one of them. He has won the conference or regional in each of his four years and hopes to sweep both of them--and the sectional--for the first time this season.

"We have benefited from the four-class system," he said. "We are able to dodge Warren, Mundelein, Libertyville and Zion-Benton in the regional, the big Class 4A schools. Playing in Class 3A has been helpful to us. That's where we belong, With an enrollment of 1,300, it is perfect for us. We can't compete against schools with enrollments of 4,000 on a consistent basis."

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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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'

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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.