Bears

Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

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Illinois top five in high school baseball prospects

You might have a prior commitment on Super Bowl Sunday but Sean Duncan, executive director and publisher of Lake Forest-based Prep Baseball Report magazine and PrepBaseballReport.com, has invited 60 of the best high school baseball prospects in the Midwest to attend a Super 60 Pro Showcase at the Max in suburban McCook.

This is the 10th year for the event. A year ago, 70 major league scouts showed up for the pre-draft combine that attracted invitation-only players from Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Illinois is acknowledged as a basketball state--it has sent more players to the NBA than any region outside southern California--and it also is the leading producer of football talent outside of Texas, Florida, California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But Illinois youngsters play baseball, too.

"Look at the statistics," Duncan said. "Aside from the baseball hotbeds of Georgia, Texas, California and Florida, Illinois has the highest number of players drafted and is one of the leading producers of players in the major leagues.

"It is one of the most heavily recruited areas in the country. The state's top players always go to powerhouse college programs or they are drafted. The perception is that Illinois is a cold-weather state and doesn't produce baseball talent. But that isn't true."

Duncan said that people in the baseball business recognize that Chicago players rank in the upper echelon of all players in the country despite their limitation of not being able to play on a year-round basis. In fact, Duncan pointed out, Chicago is over-recruited. Over 100 Illinois products annually enroll at Division I schools.

The class of 2012, for example, is deep but not extraordinarily top-heavy with big-time talent. "There are a lot of good but not great players. But some have the ability to be great. No one is slotted as a high draft choice," Duncan said.

He rates left-handed pitcher Brett Lilek of Marian Catholic at the top of the class. Lilek, who is committed to Arizona State, has a high ceiling, according to Duncan. He is 6-foot-3 and has a 92 mph fastball. "He can be electric and could go in the first five rounds of the draft," Duncan said.

Duncan also is high on catcher Jason Goldstein of Highland Park, who is committed to Illinois, and right-handed pitcher Kyle Funkhouser of Oak Forest, who is committed to Louisville.

The class of 2012 doesn't compare to the classes of 2005 and 2007, which Duncan rates as the best he has seen since he began evaluating players in 2005. The class of 2005 featured Michael Bowden of Waubonsie Valley, one of the leading pitching prospects in major league baseball who still is trying to earn a spot on the Boston Red Sox' starting rotation.

Bowden is "the best player I ever covered," Duncan said. He was on the cover of the first issue of Prep Baseball Report.

His top 16 list includes Bowden, pitchershortstop Jake Odorizzi (2009) of Highland, outfielder Joe Benson (2006) of Joliet Catholic, pitcher John Ely (2005) of Homewood-Flossmoor, pitcher Ian Krol (2009) of Neuqua Valley, pitcher Mike Foltynewicz (2010) of Minooka, pitcher Zach McAllister (2006) of Illinois Valley Central, first baseballthird baseball Connor Powers (2006) of Benet, pitcher Jake Smolinski (2007) of Rockford Boylan, pitcher Derek Thompson (2011) of Teutopolis, pitcher Casey Crosby (2007) of Kaneland, catcher Jake DePew (2010) of Granite City, pitcheroutfielder Kenny Smalley (2005) of St. Charles North, designated hitter Tim Barry (2011) of Oak Forest, outfielder Casey McMurray (2007) of Lyons and shortstop Dan Brewer (2005) of Lyons.

What about the future? Who is the next Michael Bowden? Or who could be the next Illinois product to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Lou Boudreau, Freddie Lindstrom, Kirby Puckett, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Ray Schalk, Jim Bottomley and Red Schoendienst?

"Simeon has a string of players who are highly touted, the best group since the 1990s with Wes Chamberlain, Jeff Jackson and Shawn Livesay," Duncan said.

The blue chippers are senior catcher Blake Hickman, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder who is committed to Iowa; left-handed hitting junior outfielder Corey Ray, who is committed to Louisville; and the top-rated prospect in the class of 2014, left-handed hitting outfielder Darius Day.

Duncan, 37, a Deerfield graduate of 1992, played basketball and baseball in high school, majored in English at Pittsburgh, then obtained a masters degree in creative writing at Northwestern. "I wanted to write the great American novel," he said.

He covered high school sports for newspapers in Florida and California, then returned to Chicago in 2001 and covered high school sports for the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

From 2001 to 2005, Duncan and his best friend Todd Fine got together to organize Full Package Athletics, a basketball and baseball training company based in Lake Forest. Duncan started Prep Baseball Report in 2005 under the same umbrella. In 2008, baseball went its way and basketball went its way.

Duncan started in basketball in 2001. He thought he was a basketball guy who wanted a basketball scouting service. He started with the late Mac Irvin and had 150 schools subscribing in the first six months to "The Truth: The Complete Recruiters' Guide To Illinois Basketball."

"I became disenchanted with basketball," he said. "As I went to events, I became acquainted with shoe wards, summer camps, posses of great players, street agents, the scummy world of recruiting. I wondered if all of this wouldn't work in baseball. No one else was doing it at our level. There was such a need for publicity for high school baseball players. There was so little coverage in newspapers but so many kids who want to play at the next level."

So he founded Prep Baseball Report in 2005, then founded the website in 2009. Its mission is to promote high school players to play at the next level and give them a platform through its multimedia avenues. From November to November, 1.4 million viewers visit the website. Over 400 colleges subscribe to the service, online or print. At its major events, 100 or more colleges will attend.

"Baseball is my passion, the sport I love," Duncan said. "I find it cerebral. There is a lot of stuff that more than meets the eye. I am fascinated by the game. Some people think it is slow. But I think there is a lot of stuff that is involved, like a giant chess game from pitch to pitch and batter to batter. I appreciate it.

"You think you know a lot about the game but there is more and more to it, from draft to farm system, like the whole infrastructure of baseball. At Prep Baseball Report, we try to be the authoritative voice at the state level.

"There are other companies out there that are national who cater to the top 4 percent, the high draft choices, but they are few and far between. Look at Illinois. There are 400 to 500 kids who will go on to play at the next level. There are so many Division II and III schools and junior colleges that don't have recruiting budgets of Division I schools and are looking for players.

"If you have a modicum of skill and a desire to play, you can find a place to play at the next level. They should use their athletic gifts to get into a school that they might not normally be able to afford to get into.

"We try to link players to schools, give them a platform to be seen and publicize them. We create a carrot. Even during a recruiting dead period, a college can go online and see a kid at any time."

Duncan recalled in 2010, at a Prep Baseball Report-sponsored indoor junior event during a recruiting dead period in December, an unknown player whom nobody had ever heard of walked in and threw a fastball at 88-90 mph. Within a month, he committed to Kentucky. Amazingly, Kentucky wasn't even at the event. They had seen the youngster on the website.

What about the future?

"We want to have someone in every state representing our brand and serving as an expert at that state level," Duncan said. "Our goal is to have someone in every relevant state--Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Wisconsin.

"The hardest part of growth is finding the right people to grow with you. We want to continue to provide a service for kids and help them to achieve their dreams of playing baseball at the next level."

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”