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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.

Report: Bulls bring back Shaq Harrison on a one-year deal

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USA TODAY

Report: Bulls bring back Shaq Harrison on a one-year deal

The Bulls' defense just got a whole lot better.

Just a few hours after reportedly agreeing to a deal with free agent center Luke Kornet, the Bulls have reportedly agreed to bring back guard Shaq Harrison on a one-year deal.

Harrison's non-guaranteed deal had been waived earlier in the month to make room for Thaddeus Young's three-year, $41 million deal.

It's not an Earth-shattering move that will shift any championship odds in Vegas, but Harrison's return gives the Bulls an outstanding defender and a 25-year-old who spread his wings offensively toward the end of last season.

Harrison's defensive worth really can't be understated. He was statistically one of the best defensive guards in the NBA last season.

His offense is another story. He doesn't exactly have ball-handling capability and his shooting splits - .432/.270/.667 - were nothing to write home about. He averaged 6.5 points in 19.6 minutes.

But he also took on an increased role late in the season with the Bulls "resting" their top-tier players. Over the final 10 games of the season, averaging 30.8 minutes a night, Harrison averaged 12.8 points on 45.8% shooting, 35.3% from deep and even managed 2.2 assists.

He'll slot in somewhere behind Zach LaVine on the second unit, with he, Denzel Valentine, Coby White and Kris Dunn (for now) battling for minutes in the backcourt.

Additional moves could be coming for the Bulls, who could still easily waive Antonio Blakeney's contract or deal Dunn to get the Bulls to 15 contracts. Kornet and Harrison would give the Bulls 16 contracts.

Ryan Goins, AJ Reed-fueled White Sox rally falls short as losing streak rolls on

Ryan Goins, AJ Reed-fueled White Sox rally falls short as losing streak rolls on

The White Sox came into Wednesday’s matchup with the Kansas City Royals looking to grab that oh so elusive first win in the second half of the season. After yet another disheartening loss, it is safe the team needs a spark to get them back on track. Ozzie Guillen shared a similar concern on White Sox Postgame Live, suggesting that something needs to be done to get the White Sox back on track. 

Kansas City struck first on Wednesday--as they did in the two previous games this series--scoring 2 runs in the 1st.

White Sox starter Ivan Nova struggled mightily with his control in this one. Nova’s final line was: 6 H, 5 BB, 6 ER in 4.2 innings pitched. The White Sox bullpen put out a decent effort--a combination of Jace Fry, Alex Colome, and Kelvin Herrera--pitched 3.1 innings, giving up 6 hits and one run. But by the time Fry entered in relief of Nova in the bottom of the 5th, the Sox were down 5-0 and Fry himself gave up the lone relief run on a Nicky Lopez single to make the score 6-0 Royals heading into the sixth.

The White Sox mounted an impressive last-ditch comeback effort led by pinch-hitter AJ Reed and new Sox shortstop Ryan Goins but alas it was too little, too late. Goins led off the scoring for the White Sox with a two-run homer in the top of the 6th for his first hit as a member of the White Sox. 

It was a heck of a first game for Goins, who joined the White Sox from the Triple-A Charlotte 

(Knights) on Wednesday. He went 2-for-3 at the plate, helping contribute to Chicago’s 10 hits on the evening. After Goins' two-run blast, the Chicago offense went quiet until the very end. 

In the 9th inning, Welington Castillo struck out swinging with Jon Jay and Jose Abreu already on-base. With Ryan Cordell up to bat next, White Sox manager Rick Renteria chose to pinch-hit for Cordell with another new member of the Sox, 26-year old AJ Reed.

The hope is that Reed will bring some solid production to the DH spot for the struggling Sox and he took a big step in the right direction on Wednesday night.

Reed’s massive 436-foot homer was a three-run blast that cut the deficit down to two runs and also created a neat piece of history in the process.

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Despite the fact that Goins and Reed both hit their first home runs as members of the White Sox, Chicago came up short as the rally stopped at Reed’s three-run homer. Following Reed’s at-bat, the Royals brought in Ian Kennedy to face Yolmer Sánchez. Kennedy notched the save for the Royals after getting Sánchez to line out on six pitches, sealing the White Sox season-high six-straight loss. 

Fortunately for the White Sox, they will have the chance to get some payback right away, with their series with Kansas City coming to a close on Thursday at 12:15 p.m. CST. 

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