White Sox

Ellis reviving glory days at Evanston


Ellis reviving glory days at Evanston

Some kids don't take the time to learn about the tradition and history of their high schools. Does the school even have a tradition? If so, who were the coaches and teams and athletes that established a winning reputation, pride in the program and spirit in the school?

Brian Bertsche grew up in Chicago and moved to Evanston when he was 12. He didn't wait until he became a starter on the basketball team as a senior to learn about Evanston's tradition...Bob Lackey, Jack Burmaster, Everette Stephens, the 1968 state champion, the 1984 state runner-up, the Final Four teams of 2003 and 2008.

"I'm familiar with Bob Lackey and the players who went Downstate," Bertsche said. "I went to school with Bob Lackey's nephew and heard stories about the 1968 team. (Assistant coach) Steve Wool told us about the 1984 team and Everette Stephens."

But those were the good times. Bertsche notices there aren't too many trophies or plaques from the last 10 years. Sure, there is a lot of hardware from the 1980s and 1990s in the trophy case. But what have the football and basketball programs done for us lately? Remember when Evanston had the most dominant football program in Illinois?

"In the last decade, the athletic program hasn't been where it was -- but it is getting back," Bertsche said. "I feel Evanston is headed in the right direction. It is fun to see the program going back to the way it was in the glory days."

To restore the football and basketball programs to the levels they achieved in the 1960s and 1970s, Evanston hired two coaches with winning resumes -- football coach Mike Burzawa from Driscoll and basketball coach Mike Ellis from Peoria Richwoods.

Ellis built a powerhouse at Peoria Richwoods. His teams were 159-55 in seven years and finished second in the state in 2006 and 2010. In his first season at Evanston, he finished 18-10 after a 12-2 start. This year's squad is 7-0 going into this weekend's games against Waukegan and Loyola.

By Ellis' own admission, there aren't any Division I players on the roster, no one who resembles Bob Lackey or Everette Stephens. But Bertsche, a keen observer, feels the pulse of the student body and the community. Everybody likes what they are seeing. The present and the future are bright.

"It is fun for kids to be a part of a program where athletes are put first and coaches give us 100 percent of their effort," Bertsche said. "The community is involved. Everybody feels good to be a part of the program. Everybody is excited about the coach. He has re-engaged the community the way it has been in a long time."

Like most, however, Bertsche was surprised when Ellis was hired. "I had never heard of him. We didn't know who he was. But once we heard about his resume, we were excited to play under a proven winner. It became a very positive environment," he said.

Ellis wasn't a country hick from Peoria. He knew the ropes. He had a plan. He had won at a so-called "rich kids" school in Peoria and he was confident he could win at Evanston, no matter what hand he was dealt. He just needed some time to implement his system.

"I knew people were looking to see if I could prove what I could do," Ellis said. "I believe in myself. Peoria is a tough town. I experienced success there. I never doubted we could do it at Evanston. It is a basketball town now. The community embraces basketball."

He said last year's team didn't seem like it was completely focused. At times, he felt it was turning the corner. But he finally realized that it takes time to build relationships and trust and culture, that it can't be done overnight, or in one season, especially when he didn't have the luxury of working with his players in the off-season.

Ellis was hired on Oct. 5, 2010. He barely had enough time to learn how to pronounce his players' names. His main points of emphasis was putting the foundation of his program in place--playing hard, playing smart and playing together. He admits it took longer to implement than he desired. But a lot of coaches would kill to have an 18-10 record in their rookie season.

This year is a whole different story. "This year's team has a persona of 'Let's see what we can do.' The growth of the kids has exceeded my expectations. They are mastering my three-point plan at a quicker pace than I thought it would take," he said.

Part of his three-point plan is an extensive summer program. He arrived too late to implement it in 2010. But his players got a good dose of it during the past summer...open gym four times a week, trips to camps at Northern Iowa and Purdue, shootouts at Rock Island and Wisconsin Dells.

"Those are things they didn't do before. The purpose was to get experience playing together and bonding off the court, playing other teams and other styles," Ellis said.

"Last summer was awesome," Bertsche said. "It was a great time to bond and play together. We spent a lot of time together in the preseason. The attitude changed. We became a program of hard work and positive reinforcement and commitment. Everyone is really excited about where we are headed."

Ellis said he doesn't have any Division I players on his roster, only gutsy high school basketball players. Josh Irving, a 5-11 senior guard, is the leading scorer with 19 points per game. Senior point guard Jordan Perrin provides leadership and gives the Wildkits a pair of defense-minded players who apply pressure in the backcourt.

The front line is 6'9 senior Randy Ollie, 6'3 senior Leonard Garron and Bertsche, a 6'1 senior who was the sixth man last season. Ollie, who is recovering from an injury, once was a goalie on the soccer team. Garron is being touted as a Division I football prospect. Matt Munro, a talented baseball player, also sees playing time.

"There is a different attitude," Bertsche said. "Everybody feels as if they are involved, even in the feeder program. What I like is instead of looking elsewhere to play, all the kids are excited to play at Evanston. We lost some players to Loyola and Notre Dame. But now all the young kids want to be a part of the Evanston program."

Ellis isn't promising a rose garden. He insists he didn't come to Evanston to win a state championship. "I came to coach kids who enjoy playing basketball. If that leads to a state title, that's OK. But so many great coaches didn't win a state title. You can't use that as a defining reason to coach at a school," he said.

"I'm trying to rebuild the program. The success is graduating student-athletes who go on to be career leaders. The reality is they want to win in basketball. I understand the community and outsiders want to celebrate a state title. But I have never said: 'Let's get to Peoria.' I just look to the next day's practice or the next game."

Discipline is the hallmark of Ellis' program. While researching the Evanston program, it was one of the words that frequently came up in conversation. In the past, discipline was lacking. There were good athletes and an abundance of talent. But the players lacked discipline on the court.

"That is one thing that allowed us to be successful at Richwoods," he said. "If we are going to be successful at Evanston, we have to be disciplined."

And motivated. After last week's one-point victory over Maine South, Ellis told his players: "I hope you feel like we lost. We're going to get after it in practice as if we did lose. We're going to focus on getting better." Bob Lackey and Everette Stephens could relate to that message.

Carlos Rodon's first win in 10 months showed he could still be the ace of the future for White Sox


Carlos Rodon's first win in 10 months showed he could still be the ace of the future for White Sox

As encouraging as the reports are on many of the White Sox’s minor-league pitching prospects, Carlos Rodon’s effort against the Athletics on Sunday at Guaranteed Rate Field could prove just as significant to the rebuild on the South Side.

Looking much like the ace the Sox envisioned prior to Rodon’s rough 2017 season that ended with shoulder surgery, the left-hander put together his most successful effort of ’18 during a 10-3 drubbing of the Athletics before a sun-drenched crowd of 21,908.

Making his fourth start of the season, Rodon matched a career-high by going eight innings. He yielded two runs on seven hits with no walks and three strikeouts. Rodon earned his first win of the season to help the Sox salvage a split of the four-game series.

“I felt good today—a lot of strikes,” Rodon said. “It was good to go eight and just be ahead of guys.”

Helping matters for Rodon was an offensive explosion by the Sox, led by Yoan Moncada’s career-high six RBIs. After falling behind 2-0, the Sox plated five runs in each of the fifth and sixth innings as Moncada cleared the bases with a double off the base of the wall in the fifth and launched his 10th home run of the season to drive in three more an inning later.

“Today was a great day,” Moncada said via a team interpreter. “I just went out to play the game the way that I play. Just to have fun. It was a very good game for me.”

Daniel Palka and Yolmer Sanchez also homered as the Sox won for just the second time in their last 11 games.

Rodon was the happy recipient of the run support to win his first game since Aug. 21, 2017, against the Twins. On Sunday, he threw 99 pitches, 69 for strikes and was consistently in the mid-90s with his fastball.

“I’m looking to do that every time out,” Rodon said. “Just show up and establish the strike zone with the fastball and be aggressive.”

The 25-year-old’s second-inning strikeout of Khris Davis was the 400th of Rodon’s career. It is a career that is continuing after a surgery that was a setback, but one that did not derail Rodon’s confidence that he would again pitch effectively.

“There are up-and-down days when you go through shoulder surgery or any surgery for any player,” Rodon said. “You've just got to work through it and try to make your way back. I'm here now and it’s looking up and I’m trying to get better.”

So is it reasonable to view Rodon as the future ace after all?

“You certainly can’t discount that,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He has to go out there and continue to get his feet underneath him and get through the rest of the season healthy and climbing.”

In other Sox pitching news, Renteria said starter Dylan Covey, who was removed in the fifth inning of Saturday’s game due to a hip flexor injury, “felt better” Sunday and the team will continue to monitor the right-hander’s progress.

Meanwhile, veteran Miguel Gonzalez made a rehab start for Triple-A Charlotte as he continues to recover from inflammation in his right rotator cuff. Gonzalez went three innings and allowed one hit with a walk and a strikeout. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez belted his first homer for the Knights in the game.

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

A series to forget: Facts and figures from Cubs' rough weekend in Cincinnati

The Cubs and their fans may want to invent and use one of those Men In Black neuralyzers because the four-game series in Cincinnati was one to forget.

The Reds finished off a four-game sweep of the Cubs on Sunday with an 8-6 win. The way the Reds won the finale will be especially painful for the Cubs considering they led 6-1 after six innings. Mike Montgomery appeared to tire in the seventh inning and Pedro Strop got rocked out of the bullpen to lead to a seven-run seventh for the hosts.

The Reds have now won seven in a row and 10 of 12, but still sit 13 games under .500. Bizarrely, the Reds also swept the Dodgers, the Cubs’ next opponent, in a four-game series in May. Duane Underwood will start for the Cubs Monday against the Dodgers and make his major league debut.

Here are some other wild facts and figures from the series:

  • The last time the Reds swept the Cubs in a four-game series was back in 1983. That was the first week of the season and three weeks before the infamous Lee Elia rant.
  • One positive for the Cubs from the game was Montgomery’s start. Through six innings he allowed one run on three hits and two walks. However, he gave up a single, a double and a single in the seventh before Strop relieved him. Montgomery had gone six innings and allowed one run in each of his last four outings.
  • Strop was definitely a negative. On his first pitch, Strop gave up a home run to pinch-hitter Jesse Winker, the second home run for a Reds pinch-hitter in the game. Then Strop allowed a single, a walk, a single and a double before getting an out. Strop’s final line: 2/3 inning pitched, four runs, one strikeout, three walks, four hits.
  • The Cubs led in three of the four games this series, including two leads after five innings.
  • The Cubs were 5-for-23 (.217) with runners in scoring position in the series. On the season the Cubs are hitting .233 with RISP, which is 22nd in the majors and fourth-worst in the National League (but ahead of the division-rival Brewers and Cardinals).
  • The Reds outscored the Cubs 31-13 and scored at least six runs in every game. The Reds are now 6-3 against the Cubs this year after going a combined 17-40 against the Cubs from 2015-2017.