White Sox

Herscher (16-0) seeks recognition, respect

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Herscher (16-0) seeks recognition, respect

Herscher coach Todd Schwarzkopf looked at a copy of the Associated Press' state rankings for Class 2A and noticed that eight-time loser Hales Franciscan is rated No. 7 while unbeaten Herscher is ranked No. 13. Where is the justice in all of that? It is all about perception.

Schwarzkopf grew up in basketball-crazy Indiana, a few miles down the road from New Castle's 9,600-seat gym. The son of a coach, he was familiar with the great high school programs in the Hoosier state, from Carmel to Marion to Anderson to Muncie to Martinsville to East Chicago.

So it is in Illinois. Every year, you can bet that the perennial or traditional powers will be listed in the early rankings...Collinsville, Quincy, Proviso East, Peoria Manual, Rock Island, Rockford Boylan, Thornton, Pinckneyville, Simeon and Hales Franciscan, a two-time state champion.

"We feel we are a top 10 team," Schwarzkopf said. "The kids are upset (about the AP poll). It is a motivator. They know they have to prove how good they are. I tell them that we are 16-0 and somebody will want to take that. It is a challenge every time they go on the floor to be sure that no one takes it away from us."

Herscher extended its winning streak to 16-0 last week by sweeping Watseka 56-34, Wilmington 66-46 and St. Anne 59-57. The Tigers will meet Westmont on Tuesday, then begin competition as the top-seeded team in the Interstate Eight Conference tournament on Saturday.

"We'll get a better feel for how good we are when we compete against Williamsville or Pleasant Plains in the Riverton Shootout on Feb. 13," Schwarzkopf said. "We have good height, good athleticism and play good defense. We get a lot of points off of our defense. We like to run, too. Every guy on the floor can get the ball and run."

The point and the two wings of Herscher's 1-3-1 halfcourt trap are manned by three 6-foot-5 seniors -- identical twins Jordan and Justin Ruckman and Ben Wenzelman. The other starters are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Spike Engelman and 6-foot-3 senior Matt Webber.

Against Watseka, Wenzelman and Jordan Ruckman each scored 15 points and Herscher built a 31-10 halftime lead. Against Wilmington, the Tigers broke to a 14-0 lead and Engleman led the assault with 18 points.

Against St. Anne, which they had beaten 57-43 on Dec. 28, they rallied from a five-point deficit with 1:10 to play. Jordan and Justin Ruckman each made a steal and a three-point play in the last minute to spark the comeback. Wenzelman led the Tigers with 27 points.

"It was good for our kids because we hadn't had a game like that in a while," Schwarzkopf said. "Our kids didn't panic. They came back. St. Anne has to be the best 6-10 team in the state."

Jordan (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and Justin (8 ppg, 6 rpg, 4 assists) Ruckman are committed to Northern Illinois to play baseball. Jordan is a left-handed pitcher while Jordan plays several positions, including pitcher and catcher. They are ranked among the top 54 baseball players in the state by Prep Baseball Report. Jordan, a four-year starter, defends the opponent's best post player. Justin, a three-year starter, often plays point guard.

Wenzelman (16.6 ppg, 6 rpg) is the team's best player, its best shooter and its go-to player. He is being recruited by Olivet Nazarene, Illinois Wesleyan, Lake Forest and Aurora University.

Engelman, the floor leader, averages 6.5 points and five assists. Webber contributes three points and two rebounds. They are supported off the bench by 6-foot-2 junior Logan Carr and 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior Dan Sullivan, an offensive lineman from the football team who lives up to his nickname "Thunder Dan" during skirmishes under the boards.

"Our kids are hungry," Schwarzkopf said. "As seventh and eighth graders, this group of seniors place second and third in the IESA tournament. They're used to winning. They also were one game away from qualifying for the Little League World Series as seventh graders."

Herscher, a farming and residential community located 15 miles west of Kankakee, is the second largest square-mile district in Illinois. But what are the odds of a school with 635 students having three 6-foot-5 kids on the basketball team at one time?

"This is a magical ride. There is no indication that it isn't," Schwarzkopf said. "We talk about how the target gets bigger on our backs every day, that opponents play harder against us. I scout every team we play and the difference in their level of play is evident when we come in. Who doesn't want to knock us off? We talk about it before every game. If you want your goals to be fulfilled, every team has to be seen as the top team I Class 2A, we tell them. They want to take something from you. Our kids have responded real well."

Winning isn't new to Herscher. Schwarzkopf's predecessor, Ron Oloffson, won 358 games or 68 percent of his games from 1986 to 2009. But he never took a team beyond the sectional. In 1982, coach Ed Sennett took a 30-3 team led by 6-foot-9 Scott Meents to third place in the Class A tournament.

Schwarzkopf was 26-2 and 20-7 in his first two years. His 2010 team won 24 games in a row before losing to Hales Franciscan in the sectional. Last year's team lost to an unbeaten Paxton-Loda-Buckley team in double overtime in the regional final.

Interestingly, Schwarzkopf was hired to be the boys soccer coach at Herscher. He had coached soccer for 18 years and also was an assistant basketball coach for 13 years at Freeport. When he failed to get the head basketball coaching job at Freeport, he looked around for another opportunity and landed at Herscher in 2002. When Oloffson stepped down to become principal in 2009, Schwarzkopf finally got the job he coveted.

"When we play well, we play great defense," Schwarzkopf said. "Our size helps but we are athletic, too. Our point guard isn't asked to do everything. The twins also bring the ball up. Teams don't try to press us anymore. And we rebound well. We have an edge of 15 rebounds per game over our opponents.

"Being 16-0 is a lot of fun. Hopefully, pressure won't get to us. There is a buzz in the school and in the community. Football has come back. The baseball teams are outstanding every year. They won a state title in 1999 and have qualified for the supersectional four of the last five years. And basketball has been successful since Oloffson has been here. We attract great crowds. Curious people show up. They want to know how good these guys are."

Nobody is more pleased about all of this than Wenzelman. A year ago, he averaged 7.6 points and five rebounds per game. He was a role player. He distributed the ball. He didn't worry about carrying the team on his back. Over the summer, he worked tirelessly to improve every aspect of his game.

"I've dreamed of playing college basketball. I felt I had to step it up. Every day in the summer I took 500 to 600 shots in my drive-way. I felt I had to average more than seven points per game," he said. "I felt I had to improve my all-around game. I had to get physical under the boards. I feel really proud of myself for what I had to do to get here. All the hard work has paid off."

Wenzelman did more than wear out his drive-way. He lifted weights and trained with the Kankakee Soldiers, a semipro team. He also worked with a personal trainer. And when Schwarzkopf told him that he had to step up and become a leader this season, he accepted the responsibility without blinking.

Until recently, he wanted to go to a trade school and become an electrical lineman. Now he wants to go to college and play basketball.

"A couple games into the season, I realized it. I didn't realize how good I could be until then. I wasn't sure until then," said Wenzelman, recalling when he scored 22 points against Bradley in the second game of the season. "It made me decide to play college basketball.

"I like the way things are looking for our team. In fact, I think we should be beating teams by bigger margins that we are. I feel we have a deep bench and everyone on the team contributes and distributes.

"We're not surprised to be 16-0. We knew when we came into the season that we would have a great year...five strong seniors, a lot of experience, size, athletic ability. We just have to keep our heads and keep focused. We are one of the best teams in Class 2A. We take every game seriously. We want to finish unbeaten. It is our senior season. We don't want to hold anything back."

Less heralded than prospects White Sox acquired with them, it's Dylan Cease and Luis Basabe starring in Futures Game

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USA TODAY

Less heralded than prospects White Sox acquired with them, it's Dylan Cease and Luis Basabe starring in Futures Game

WASHINGTON, D.C. — You don’t need to be a headliner of one of the White Sox major trades to make an impact on the ongoing rebuilding effort.

The White Sox two representatives at Sunday’s Futures Game had one very big thing in common: Neither was the most talked-about player in the trades that brought them into the organization.

Luis Alexander Basabe was the No. 3 piece in the Chris Sale deal, overshadowed by Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. Dylan Cease was the No. 2 player in the Jose Quintana trade, overshadowed by Eloy Jimenez.

But as their selections to the Futures Game show, these guys weren’t just throw-ins. Cease is having a sensational season, the best campaign of any of the White Sox highest-rated pitching prospects. Basabe had a hot start to the season and showed his potential with a two-run homer on a 102 mph pitch in the third inning Sunday.

Rick Hahn’s talked all during this rebuild about his desire to make the White Sox farm system as deep as possible. Moncada, Kopech and Jimenez brought star power to the rebuild. Cease and Basabe have helped bring the depth.

“I love the fact that Dylan and Basabe are the two down there at the Futures Game, in part because — through no fault of their own — in their own transactions, publicly, they got a little bit overshadowed by the headliners, so to speak, in those deals,” Hahn said last week. “But the Quintana trade doesn’t happen without Dylan Cease being part of it. He was a very important part of that for us, and we’re thrilled to see him getting some recognition for his ability and his accomplishments, and the Futures Game honor is very fitting.

“Basabe, obviously, was overshadowed in the Sale trade by Moncada and Kopech, and they’re bigger names, but our scouts felt very strongly about his upside and what his tool set presented. And you saw it at Winston-Salem, the way he was able to perform at an All-Star level there.

“It’s nice to see guys who might not be at the top of mind for people when they think of our system being recognized in that way and certainly for those two guys, who were important parts of big trades for us but perhaps not perceived previously to the recognition they deserve.”

Until recently, Cease has been the fourth name mentioned when discussing the White Sox fleet of starting-pitching prospects, behind Kopech, Alec Hansen and Dane Dunning. And that’s typically after mentioning guys already in the majors like Carlos Rodon, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez. But Cease has certainly moved to the front of that conversation with his big 2018.

Basabe is still buried, in conversation, behind Jimenez, Luis Robert and Micker Adolfo. Blake Rutherford is ranked ahead of him, too. But he’s shown himself worthy of consideration for a spot in the White Sox future plans. His performance at the Futures Game will keep him in that discussion.

Down in the minors, these guys are going about their business. And as headlining names like Jimenez and Kopech have either dealt with injuries or gone through struggles, “under the radar” guys like Cease and Basabe have produced.

Of course, the descriptors of “headliner” and “under the radar” don’t mean much to them.

“Eloy Jimenez is such a good player. That’s nothing, necessarily, against me, it just happens to be the way it is,” Cease said Sunday. “With Basabe, Kopech and Moncada are really studs, too. You’ve just got to be grateful for the opportunity you have. That doesn’t upset me by any means.”

Projecting lineups and depth charts of the future has become one of the favorite pastimes on the South Side during this rebuilding period. And while it’s easy to pick the highest-rated guys for the starting spots, rebuilds have a way of surprising. And maybe the emergence of guys like Cease and Basabe count as the surprises that awaited the White Sox effort.

Getting to the big leagues is obviously the end goal, and starring in the big leagues would mean usurping the projected place of one of the more-heralded prospects ahead of them. That’s not how Cease is looking at it, though, just sticking to that old baseball axiom of controlling what he can control.

Which is really the only way to get to where he and all these prospects want to be.

“It’s easy to dream on it,” Cease said of getting to the major league level. “It’s just that baseball’s such a difficult game that if you take your focus away from what you’re doing right now, it’s very easy to snowball away. So you can sit and dream about it, but you’ve got to do it and let it happen.”

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

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USA Today

Is Jordan Howard underrated in fantasy football?

Jordan Howard has accomplished some pretty amazing things to start his career. Most notably, he's the only running back in Chicago Bears franchise history to finish his first two seasons with more than 1,000 rushing yards, including 1,313 yards as a rookie, good for a team rookie record.

Still, Howard has been the target of criticism this offseason because of his questionable set of hands. He was plagued by a case of the drops last season and he's been labeled as a guy who can't catch the ball heading into 2018. Combine that with the player nipping at his heels -- Tarik Cohen -- and the overwhelming theory advanced by analysts is that he'll give way to Cohen on passing downs.

This presumption has made its way into the world of fantasy football, too. Howard is rarely if ever mentioned as one of the first running backs that should be drafted this summer and in a recent player vs. player showdown on Pro Football Focus, 49ers starter Jerick McKinnon was selected as a more appealing fantasy starter in 2018.

It’s close, but I give the nod to Jerick McKinnon. Howard’s troubles in the passing game are very real and it’s clear the Bears want to focus on that more this year. Meanwhile, McKinnon was handed a fat contract and has little competition when it comes to carries.

McKinnon, a career backup, was signed by San Franciso to be Kyle Shanahan's feature running back. He has a real chance to be a stud in fantasy circles, but should he be valued over a guy like Howard who's proven to be a contender for the NFL's rushing crown?

All of this offseason chatter will serve as great motivation for Howard who has to prove, first and foremost, that he can be a three-down back for coach Matt Nagy in the Bears' new offense. If he has a consistent training camp as a receiver and carries that momentum into the preseason and regular season, those fantasy players who draft McKinnon or another less-proven player over Howard will long for a redo.