Bears

Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

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Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

John Cheng is an Asian-American who loves to compete in sports but has never forgotten that academics are most important.

"Sports are fun unless you are good enough to be a professional," he said. "But good grades will carry you into the future."

Cheng enrolled at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, located four blocks from his home, because it is a Catholic school and his parents wanted him to obtain a Catholic education and learn about the church.

Then came grades. He has a 3.83 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in honors classes and wants to major in finance or business in college.

Then came sports. He wants to play basketball in college. It is his favorite sport and he has been playing the game since second grade. He played football in elementary school, golf as a freshman and sophomore and baseball for all four years.

But playing basketball at IC wasn't a priority. He was aware that the program wasn't very good. Last year's team was 12-16. The Knights' won regional championships in 2007 and 2008, their first in over 20 years, but have produced only two winning teams since 1985.

"I didn't think much about the basketball program when I was a
freshman," Cheng said. "I just wanted to play. Now I want to be the one (of a
team) to win a conference title for the first time and go as far in the
state tournament as we can go.

"Being on the varsity, it becomes more serious. You think more about what you want to do in the postseason, to be the first one to go far in the state playoff. As sophomores, we were 23-4 and were conference champions. We felt we could do it at the varsity level.

"But we took a step back last year. We underachieved. We had a tough schedule. We found out a lot about ourselves. Our team chemistry was weak. Some kids didn't get along with each other. But this year is different. The kids get along. We're good friends. Everybody shares the ball. We push each other.

"Some people are surprised by our record. But we expected it. We went into the season knowing we could have a pretty good record. We are quick and fast break a lot. We aren't tall or big but we're quick. We like to push the ball up the court and keep our opponents off balance."

IC won its first 12 games before losing to Nazareth. Last week, the Knights' trounced Lisle 66-48, Walther Lutheran 69-47 and Luther North 48-30. On Tuesday, however, they lost to Aurora Christian (13-4) by a 73-39 margin. They'll meet Elgin St. Edward on Thursday, then host Montini on Jan. 27.

Even coach Darren Howard is surprised by his team's success. "I thought we'd be good. I knew I had a solid group. They were 23-4 as sophomores. But they are playing better than I thought they would. They have great chemistry, no egos and they practice hard," he said.

"A huge part is they are basketball kids. At a small school, you get athletes who play multiple sports. Usually you have football players who also play basketball. But this year I have basketball players. Every year they program and the numbers have gotten better and the kids take basketball more seriously."

In his 12th year, Howard hasn't known much success. Despite two regional titles, his first 11 teams won only 38 percent (118-193) of their games. IC was 1-25 and 1-26 in the years prior to Howard's arrival.

"Basketball fell off the map. IC has been a football school with (former coach) Jack Lewis. I was the fourth basketball coach in four years when I got the job," Howard said. "Now we have consistency and stability. We finally are at the breaking-through point where we will be good for a few years."

Cheng also sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "We have a lot of basketball players. Most of us don't play fall sports. We have a lot of time to work on our game. Our team chemistry is strong. We get along very well," he said.

Cheng, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, is the team leader. He averages 15 points, 4.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Brian Harvey, a 6-foot-2 senior (14.2 ppg, 8 rpg), had 20 points and 14 rebounds against Lisle. Demetrius Carr, a 6-foot-2 junior (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.5 assists), is a transfer from St. Joseph. Dan Ribando (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a 6-foot-4 senior. Jason Dunn (3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is a 5-foot-10 senior.

They are supported by 6-foot-1 junior Adam Muellers (4 ppg, 3 rpg) and
6-foot-4 senior Mike Lestina (3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg).

"We have nine seniors but only one returning starter (Harvey). We play good man-to-man defense. Our kids like to play defense. And it's hard to find kids who like to play defense. But our biggest strength is team chemistry. There is no in-fighting. Our kids get along. And that's very rare," the coach said.

A Weber graduate of 1983, Howard played for Jim Harrington. He coached all levels at Fenton for seven years before coming to Immaculate Conception in 2000. He also serves as the school's athletic director.

"We are much better in the open court than the half-court at the moment," Howard said. "If teams take away our fast break, we must do better in the half-court. Depth could be an issue if two of our top three players get into foul trouble. And lack of size (his tallest player is 6-4) can be a problem if we play somebody big. Nazareth has a seven-foot, 280-pound freshman who had 20 points and seven rebounds against us.

"But balance is our strength. We don't care who scores points. We haven't won a conference title since 1967 and we've never won a sectional. Those are huge goals for us."

In 2007, IC lost to North Lawndale in the sectional final, the farthest the school has ever been in the state tournament. North Lawndale went on to finish second in the state. In 2008, the Knights' lost to St. Anne in the sectional semifinal as St. Anne went on to win the Class 1A championship.

"We are taking baby steps to this point," Howard said. "It takes time to build a program and change an attitude. The administration has given me time to do it. On paper, last year's 12-16 record doesn't look like a good season but it was a significant building block.

"We usually had one or two good players each season but they were football kids who also played basketball. But each year we get more basketball-minded kids. Basketball kids play basketball twothirds of the year while football kids are in the weight room and playing 7-on-7. Football is their first priority.

"Now these kids are more basketball-minded. They go to shooting camps and point guard and big man camps and play AAU in the spring, summer and fall. At the end of the year, you look for what kind of experience the kids had. Every year it has grown more and more to the point where 60 kids came out for basketball this year. We had to make cuts for the first time. People see the improvement. It is more than just a win-loss record. These kids expect to win this year."

Kicker Eddy Piñeiro named NFC special teams player of the week after Denver win

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USA Today

Kicker Eddy Piñeiro named NFC special teams player of the week after Denver win

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Bears' kicker Eddy Piñeiro was named NFC special teams player of the week today. 

This probably had something to do with it: 

Piñeiro's Sunday in Denver also included makes from 40 and 52. He's now 4-4 on FG attempts on the year, and is the only kicker in the NFL who has a 100% completion rate from 50+ yards (2/2). 

Per a Bears press released, Sunday was marked the first time a Bears kicker made two 50+ yard field goals in the same game since Week 12 of the 2011 season at the Raiders.

White Sox can aid crusade to contend by adding some pop this winter

White Sox can aid crusade to contend by adding some pop this winter

The White Sox hit four home runs Tuesday night, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But the guys who hit those round trippers have combined for just 31 of them this season.

Meanwhile, when Miguel Sano obliterated a baseball 482 feet in the third inning, he became the Minnesota Twins’ fifth player to reach 30 bombs this season. That’s the first time that’s happened in a single season in baseball history.

While you were sleeping, the high-powered Twins defeated the White Sox on a walk-off hit by pitch, one of the least powerful ways you can win a ballgame. But the team from the Land of 10,000 Lakes has won far more games this season by smashing baseballs into the stratosphere.

They’ll likely win an AL Central title on that premise, and while it’s not the only way to set yourself up as a World Series contender, in 2019 it’s one of the better ways. The top eight teams in the game in home runs are either going to the postseason or remain in a pennant race: the Twins, the New York Yankees, the Houston Astros, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Oakland Athletics, the Cubs, the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers.

So let’s bring this around to the White Sox, whose winter shopping list is beginning to take shape as they prepare to set their sights on the offseason.

We all know Rick Hahn and his front office will be targeting starting pitching, the general manager has said as much after the organization’s major league ready depth in that area was worn bare in 2019. We’ll have to wait to find out whether Hahn inks a top-of-the-rotation star or provides depth behind All-Star hurler Lucas Giolito. But that shouldn’t — nay, can’t — be the only area that gets a facelift.

The White Sox also need an everyday right fielder, the internal options whittled from bountiful to non-existent thanks to injuries and under-performance in the minor leagues this season. The White Sox could probably also use a designated hitter. While Zack Collins — one of the home-run hitters Tuesday night — is getting a lot of reps there right now, if this team has eyes on contending next season, they might not have the luxury of playing “let’s see what he can do” with Collins.

Those two positions would figure to provide opportunities for Hahn’s front office to add some desperately needed pop to this lineup.

The White Sox are in the middle of their final up-close-and-personal demonstration of what an influx of offseason power can do, playing against baseball’s home-run leaders in the Twins. No team in baseball has launched more homers than the Twins this season, which is by design after they spent last offseason adding Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez, a quartet that combined for 104 home runs in 2018. This year, they’ve blasted a combined 95 with a week and a half worth of games left.

The power numbers are remarkable in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and in an era where the home-run ball is dominating, they’re doing it better than anyone. White Sox fans surely don’t need to be reminded of that fact. The Twins have hit 39 home runs against the South Siders this season, including 27 of them at Guaranteed Rate Field. Cruz, who is the only player in the bigs to hit at least 35 homers in each of the last six seasons, has hit eight of his 37 dingers off White Sox pitching.

While the White Sox likely won’t deviate from their rebuilding efforts just to copy the Twins, there’s no doubt they could use some additional power. They came into Tuesday night with the sixth fewest home runs in baseball, some of the game’s worst teams the only ones behind them. With the Twins using the longball to win a division crown and make themselves one of the best teams in the game, surely the White Sox could benefit from mixing some outside pop in with their cavalcade of young players.

They’ll likely get some help from Luis Robert, who belted 32 home runs in the minors this season a year after hitting none while battling thumb injuries in 2018. Nick Madrigal probably won’t do much for the White Sox home-run total, but a full, healthy season of Eloy Jimenez should. He’s en route to a 30-homer rookie season despite missing nearly 40 games. Jose Abreu certainly hasn’t been the problem, flirting with a career high in homers while blasting past his career high in RBIs. James McCann, Yoan Moncada and Tim Anderson all had terrific seasons, but is a significant jump in home runs expected for 2020? Probably not.

So added power will have to come from the two holes that need plugging in the everyday lineup.

Who’s out there? Fans will jump right to J.D. Martinez, who’s expected to opt out of his deal with the Boston Red Sox and become a highly pursued free agent. Martinez would fit the bill, all right, with 35 more homers this season to bring his total since the start of the 2015 season to a whopping 183.

Martinez will have his fair share of pursuers, and it’ll cost some big bucks to make his opt-out worth it (even though the Red Sox would probably be happy to see his salary come off the books given their supposed financial pickle). But the White Sox have that much-discussed money to spend, and Martinez would solve their power deficiency as their everyday DH.

Corner outfield free agents to-be include Nicholas Castellanos, Yasiel Puig and Marcell Ozuna. If the disastrous Pittsburgh Pirates decide to let Starling Marte walk, he could add a career-high 23 homers to the lineup. Kole Calhoun could hit the market, and he’s past the 30-homer mark this season. He’s also the only lefty in that group, something that could matter considering the White Sox projected lineup for 2020 and beyond is heavily right handed.

And then there’s the trade market. But remember that the depth of the White Sox farm system doesn’t look much like it did a year ago, and it could be rather difficult for Hahn to create an appealing package of prospects that could fetch the kind of impact bat (or arm, for that matter) the team would like to add to the roster.

The opportunities are there for the White Sox to make some Twins-esque additions and ratchet up the power numbers in 2020. It won’t mean they’ll be mashing at a Twins-esque level — considering that no team in baseball has, even the ones also hitting homers in bunches — but it’s a trait that’s helping teams across the game win on a nightly basis.

The White Sox could help their crusade to contend in 2020 — to join that group of baseball’s best teams — by improving themselves in that area this winter.

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