White Sox

Have you ever heard of Universal?

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Have you ever heard of Universal?

Mahmood Ghouleh and Omar Mansour had important decisions to make. That both of them ended up at Universal School in Bridgeview, a small and private Islamic institution governed by Muslim professionals and designed to turn Muslim children into well-rounded individuals, wasn't surprising.

Ghouleh, a 2004 graduate of Reavis High School in Burbank, was playing basketball at Morraine Valley Community College when he received a telephone call "out of the blue" from athletic director Bill Finn.

"I could go to New York to play basketball for a Division II college or I could coach basketball at Universal School," Ghouleh said. "I had no idea how he knew about Universal. I had never heard about Universal. But I'm Muslim. I don't like to be very far from home. So I took the job."

At 26, Ghouleh is in his fifth year as Universal's head basketball coach. After beating College Preparatory School of America, another Islamic school in Lombard, 92-48 last Friday, the Stars are 10-0. They'll play at Reavis on Tuesday and at Bremen on Dec. 28.

"I promised them that we would do nothing but win," Ghouleh said. "Previously, the program was new. They won only two or three games a season. But they've never been under .500 since I came.

"When I came in, I promised we would win conference titles and be a very good team. They looked at me as if I was crazy. They were missing structure and organization and fundamentals. To them, basketball was recreation previously.

"It was funny because I had never run across people who knew nothing about basketball before. They only knew how to throw the ball at the hoop. They had no technique. My reaction was: 'What have I got myself into? Maybe I made a mistake here.' I didn't know if I had made the right decision.

"But I couldn't go wrong because I was still around basketball. It's my life. When they started to believe in themselves, that's when I knew this would be a good club. They are very smart kids. It was a matter of teaching. I saw progress in the first half of the first year."

Meanwhile, while Ghouleh was sorting things out and trying to stamp his fingerprints on the program, Mansour was trying to make decision of his own: Should he stay home and enroll at Carl Sandburg in Orland Park? Or should he go to Universal?

After graduating from eighth grade, Mansour trained with Sandburg's basketball team during the summer prior to his freshman year. But his parents wanted their son to attend a private school. He talked to Ghouleh, friends who were attending Universal and teammates on an Indiana AAU team that also attended Universal.

"They convinced me that it was a great school," said Mansour, who is an Egyptian. "A good percent of my decision was based on academics and religion. I have no regrets. I'm enjoying my experience. I enjoy our team. It's like a family. I'm happy I made the decision I did."

Mansour, a 6-foot sophomore point guard, is the epitome of a student-athlete. He is averaging 22 points per game and carries a 3.6 graduate point average on a 4.0 scale. He had 31 points and eight assists in Universal's victory over CPSA.

"I'm trying to get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school. That's my goal," Mansour said. "And we're trying to build a good team. Last year, we were pretty good (18-4, losing to St. Benedict in triple overtime for the regional title). But we have a really good team this year."

To date, Universal, a Class 1A school with an enrollment of 220 boys and girls, hasn't been tested. But upcoming games against larger Reavis and Bremen will give Ghouleh, Mansour and everyone else in the program a good idea of where they stand, if they are as good as they think they are.

Mansour is surrounded by 6-2 senior Hossan Sudek (20 ppg), 6-3 senior Ahmet Sakiri (10 ppg, 13 rpg), 5-11 senior Ahmad Ahmad (8 ppg) and 6-3 senior Suheib Boundai (12 ppg). Seniors Maher Hamadeh and Musa Musleh and junior Saphe Falaneh come off the bench. Against CPSA, Sakiri had 24 points and 16 rebounds.

"I love their dedication and hard work from the off-season," the coach said. "Their goal after last year was to hit the gym every day and add muscle and weight. They wanted to come back hard and try to make some noise. What I think this team will do if we stay focused is get to the sectional this year. I am there to push them. As far as I can push them is as far as we're going to go."

Mansour and his teammates love to be pushed. Last summer, he and his parents went overseas. Omar usually goes plays with an Egyptian team during the summer. But last summer, he chose to stay home.

"I had my own personal trainer and my coach worked with me all summer," Mansour said. "We went one-on-one. I worked on my dribble, my shot and my vertical leap. I took 1,000 shots a day.

"(Ghouleh) won't let anything get in our way. He will do anything to help you to get better. We're trying to build our program. We want to set a tone so everyone knows who Universal is. We want to build a tradition, an identity, a reputation."

Until then, Ghouleh will continue to raise eyebrows. "I get it all the time. 'You're head coach of where?' I love to see the surprise on people's faces when they see what this program is all about," he said.

It took awhile to put the pieces all together. He still has a way to go. Only 14 kids showed up for his first practice. Only seven were there at the end of his first season. He could get the gym for only three days a week for practice. So he took his team to the Bridgeview Park District gym and the Oak Lawn Pavilion or outside courts.

"It's a religious and academic school first. Sports was the last thing on their minds," Ghouleh summed up. "But we've come a long way. Come watch us play to see who we are and how dedicated these kids are."

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

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USA TODAY

Jace Fry, who still hasn't allowed a hit, is penciling his name into the White Sox bullpen of the future

The White Sox best reliever through the first 42 games of this rebuilding season? Undoubtedly, it’s been Jace Fry.

With Rick Renteria’s bullpen hardly the most reliable relief corps the game has ever seen, Fry has been a revelation, starting his 2018 campaign with 7.1 scoreless innings over six appearances.

And now things are getting a bit more dramatic for the 24-year-old lefty, a guy who’s been through a pair of Tommy John surgeries. He pitched some high-leverage ball in Saturday night’s 5-3 win, sitting down all four hitters he faced in the eighth and ninth innings while protecting a two-run lead.

“I was ready the whole game, just waiting for my name to be called,” Fry said. “But it was awesome getting in there in the eighth inning, even getting the first guy in the ninth inning. After I got him I was kind of hoping he’d let me keep going.”

Renteria uses his bullpen in a non-traditional manner, one that perhaps he thinks is a way of the future or one that’s a result of his lack of dominant options out there. Whichever it is, he doesn’t really have a closer but rather a host of guys he uses in those high-leverage situations, whenever they might come during the late stages of a game. Joakim Soria, Nate Jones and Bruce Rondon have all been used to get big outs late in games, and Rondon threw a scoreless seventh Saturday, with Jones getting the game’s final two outs for the save.

But it could be argued that most difficult outs were recorded by Fry, who put away the visiting Texas Rangers’ fourth, fifth and sixth hitters before getting the seventh hitter to strike out to start off the ninth.

Renteria steered away from dubbing Fry one of his new high-leverage guys after the game, but why wouldn’t Fry be in that mix? All he’s done since joining the big league squad earlier this month is get outs. He’s got 10 strikeouts, hasn’t allowed a hit and has just two walks as the lone blemishes on an otherwise perfect season line.

“It just happens to be that it was the eighth inning and the ninth that he pitched,” Renteria said. “I think he’s looking very comfortable in those. It happens to be the eighth and ninth we needed him. He’s been very, very effective. He’s been commanding the strike zone very well, confidently approaching his hitters. He’s got pretty good stuff.

“He’s able to command the zone. Along with that nice breaking ball he’s got to lefties and righties, it’s pretty effective. But he’s continuing to show you he’s capable of coming in and getting some pretty good hitters.”

Fry has been a rarity this season in that he’s appeared to be a candidate for a long-term spot in the White Sox bullpen. Jones would perhaps be the only other guy coming close to qualifying for that, mostly because of his team-friendly contract that keeps him under control a few more years, but he’s had some rough moments, even with his ERA dropping to 3.50 on Saturday.

Fry, though, is young and is dealing at the moment. He even got a shoutout as a potential long-term piece from general manager Rick Hahn earlier this week.

“Take Jace Fry, someone we haven’t mentioned when we’ve had this conversation the last couple of weeks,” Hahn said Thursday, discussing the positives he’s seen during this developmental season. “He’s shown up here and shown that he’s made some progress in his last stint in the minors and now, at age 24, seems like he’s ready to take that next step, and pencil his name in as part of what we’re building here going forward.”

There’s a lot of season left, and no one’s expecting Fry to keep batters hitless and opposing teams scoreless from now through the end of September. But this is a nice development for the rebuilding White Sox at the moment, a guy who’s giving them at least one name to put into that bullpen of the future.

How long can he keep this thing going? As long as he keeps getting ahead of hitters.

“Having the success is awesome, but I realize it’s the plan, the plan of attack,” Fry said. “I’m going out and throwing Strike 1 and getting ahead. Actually doing it, seeing it and having the process work definitely creates more confidence. Once you go back to the blueprint of baseball, Strike 1 is everything.”

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer's demotion and the current state of the White Sox rotation provide several rebuilding reminders

Carson Fulmer getting sent to Triple-A following Friday’s game might be, to this point, the biggest development this season on the South Side.

Fulmer doesn’t carry the same expectations as higher-rated prospects like Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen or Dane Dunning, but this is a top-10 draft pick who the White Sox still believe can play a significant role in their bright future. And he’s struggling. Badly. Once his ERA jumped up past 8.00 thanks to his third straight brief and run-filled outing, the White Sox made the decision to send him to Charlotte.

It leaves the White Sox rotation looking like this: James Shields, a struggling Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Hector Santiago and either Chris Volstad or the recently summoned Dylan Covey.

Four of those guys (Shields, Santiago, Volstad and Covey) don’t figure to play a role in the team’s long-term future, and Giolito is dealing with his own significant struggles, leading the American League in walks heading into his Saturday-night start. Lopez has been the rotation’s bright spot, but even he watched his ERA climb more than a full point after allowing six runs in two innings his last time out.

It’s not a great state for the rotation to be in if you, like the White Sox, have your sights set on the long-term future of this team, though it probably won’t look like that for too much longer. Still, it provides a few valuable reminders about not only this rebuilding effort but rebuilds in general.

This season is about development, and this is what development looks like

For better or worse, this is what development looks like. The White Sox own baseball’s worst record, and general manager Rick Hahn has been among the large number of White Sox fans to voice their disappointment over play that has been sloppy at times.

Fulmer’s struggles fall into the same category and serve as a reminder that growing pains like this are going to happen. We’ve seen it with Fulmer. We’ve seen it with Giolito. We’ve seen it with Lopez. Heck, we’ve seen it with Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson, too.

But more than wins and losses, this is what this season is about. Hahn calls it “the hardest part of the rebuild” because it features guys getting lit up and games being lost. The hope is that Fulmer can figure things out in the minors and that Giolito won’t require a similar demotion to right his ship. And if everything turns out all right, then this will be an easily forgotten chapter in both of those players’ development.

In the moment, though, it’s another reminder that rebuilds take time and that the waiting game provides minimal fun.

Each player’s development has a different trajectory

Just because Fulmer is getting bumped down to Triple-A doesn’t mean he can’t still turn into a successful major league pitcher. Player development and rebuilds aren’t linear, as rebuilders like to say. And to expect every prospect to travel in a straight line from potential to big league stardom doesn't make much sense.

“We reiterate, ‘It’s not the end of your career,’” Renteria said Saturday. “This is simply a reboot, a reset. Ultimately, I think after the initial shock for any player, they settle down and they understand exactly what’s going on when you look at it logically and look in the mirror. I think it’s easy to logically look at it and say, ‘I need to work on x, y and z.’

“This is a good kid with a really positive attitude and a lot of confidence. I think he’ll look in the mirror and go, ‘You know what, I got things I can work on, I’ll settle in and get over this initial bump and get to work.’ Those are the guys that end up giving themselves a chance to return sooner rather than later and have success.”

Not all prospects pan out

The other side of that coin is the reminder that not every single one of the White Sox wealth of prospects will pan out. Hahn & Co. have prepared for that and built up an incredible amount of prospect depth, but when someone doesn't live up to expectations, it will be painful.

This isn’t to suggest that Fulmer, specifically, won’t pan out, but it’s to point out that not everyone will. That’s a crowded-looking rotation of the future with Kopech, Hansen, Dunning, Fulmer, Giolito, Lopez, Carlos Rodon and Dylan Cease all competing for those eventual five spots. Rather than the White Sox having to make tough decisions about who will be left out, certainly a possibility, the developments of those pitchers might make those decisions for them.

Renteria is confident that Fulmer will be back in the big leagues, and there’s little reason to think that this is the end of Fulmer’s opportunity. But not every top-10 pick reaches All-Star status.

The future is on the way

The current starting rotation might have fans asking why the heck it looks like it does. But a month or two from now it will look drastically different.

Rodon makes his first rehab start Saturday at Class A Kannapolis as he battles back from shoulder surgery last fall, and he shouldn’t be too far away from providing a serious jolt to the starting staff. Not to mention, he’s a guy who as good a chance as anyone as grabbing one of those front-end spots, and with him in the rotation, things will look a tad more futuristic.

Same goes for Kopech, whose promotion figures to be coming at some point this summer. Given the hype and the expectations there, his arrival will obviously be a really big deal.

But regardless of the results either Rodon and Kopech put up in their first tastes of major league action in 2018, they’ll make the rotation into something that way more closely resembles the rotation of the future. There’ll be plenty of development left for the Hansens and the Ceases and the Dunnings in the minors. But a rotation featuring Rodon, Kopech, Giolito and Lopez looks a lot different than one featuring Shields, Santiago, Covey and Volstad.

Patience. It’s not much fun. But it’s necessary to build a contender.