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Ellis reviving glory days at Evanston

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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.

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Rob Gronkowski 'highly unlikely' to play Sunday against the Bears

Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the Patriots will be a tough test for the Bears, but it looks like they're going to receive a big break.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski didn't travel with the Patriots to Chicago and is "highly unlikely" to play Sunday.

Avoiding Gronkowski, who is one of Brady's favorite targets, would be a huge break for the Bears' defense. In six games this season, the tight end has 26 receptions for 405 yards and a touchdown; in 14 games last season, Gronkowski had 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.

Gronkowski has not officially been ruled out yet, though time is running out for the Patriots to make a decision.

Meanwhile, Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday despite dealing with an ankle injury. Between having Mack on the field and Gronkowski off of it, good news keeps coming for the Bears' defense.

Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

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Final thoughts: Cody Parkey quickly moves on from missed game-winning kick

There’s, probably, only one position in sports that can match the you-had-one-job scrutiny of a placekicker attempting a critical field goal late in a football game. As in: If you make the kick, it was expected; if you miss it, well, you didn’t do the one thing you were brought on to do. 

The comparison here is a closer in baseball. The expectation is whoever is called upon with a one-to-three-run lead in the ninth inning will convert the save and win his team the game. 

But when a closer blows a save and is in the spotlight during baseball’s regular season, there’s always a game the next day or, at worst, in two days. The immediacy and pace of a Major League Baseball team’s schedule lends itself to closers having to “flush” a bad outing and move on to the next one, since it might be tomorrow. 

For Bears kicker Cody Parkey, though, he’s had to wait a week until he gets his next “meaningful” chance at making a field goal after missing a game-winning 53-yard attempt last weekend against the Miami Dolphins. But moving on from a critical missed kick has never, and is not, a problem for the fifth-year veteran. 

“(It takes) five minutes,” Parkey said. “You kick the ball, and if it doesn’t go in you’re not going to sit there and cry on the field, you’re going to continue to move on with your life. I don’t think there’s really much to it other than knowing you’re going to have to kick another one sometime throughout the season, next game, in the next week, you never know. You stay ready so you’ll be ready for the next week.”

Not allowing those missed kicks to fester is an important trait for a placekicker to possess. What helps Parkey quickly work through his misses is focusing on having a good week of kicking in practice, and also an even-keel mindset that’s been instilled in him since a young age. 

“I think I’ve always been pretty mellow,” Parkey said. “At a young age, my coaches told me never let the highs get to high, never let the lows get too low. And I’ve kind of taken that to heart. If I miss a game winner, make a game winner, I’m going to have the same demeanor. I’m just going to be super chill and knowing it’s a game, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to go out there and try our best. I put in a lot of work and I try my best on the field.”

That’s something, too, that special teams coach Chris Tabor sees in Parkey. 

“He's always been like that,” Tabor said. “He hit a good ball, his line was just off. In his career going in he was 7-of-8 over 50 yards. I'll be honest with you, I thought he was going to make it. And next time we have that situation, I know he will make it.” 

Age is just a number

Sunday will mark the 6th time in Tom Brady’s career that the 41-year-old has faced a head coach younger than him, but the first time it’ll be a coach other than Miami’s Adam Gase (who’s 40). Brady is 3-2 against Gase’s Dophins. 

Matt Nagy, meanwhile, is also 40. Brady just missed playing Kyle Shanahan (38) and Sean McVay (32), facing the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams in 2016, a year before both those youthful coaches were hired. 

Meanwhile, the youngest player on the Bears — 21-year-old Roquan Smith — was three years old when Brady made his unassuming NFL debut on Nov. 23, 2000. 

They said it

A couple of amusing one-liners out of Halas Hall this week…

Nagy, when it was brought to his attention that Mitch Trubisky (105.6) has a better passer rating than Brady (98.2), chuckled: “You want to say that one more time?” 

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, when asked if he’d ever heard of “Baby Gronk” Adam Shaheen: “(long pause)… Sometimes.”