Larkin challenges the Elgin mystique


Larkin challenges the Elgin mystique

Ever since Larkin High School was founded in 1962, its basketball teams have played in the shadow of bigger and tradition-rich district rival Elgin. It is like comparing Moraine Valley to Notre Dame.

Larkin hasn't won a regional championship since 2005 or a conference title since 2006. The Royals have never qualified for the state finals. Their only sectional triumphs were in 1971, 1991, 1992 and 2005.

By comparison, Elgin, which graduated its first class in 1872, has won two state titles, two seconds, a third and a fourth and made 18 trips to the state finals. Former Maroon coach Bill Chesbrough is a legendary figure in the community.

So much for the past. Larkin's time is now. Coach Deryn Carter, a Larkin graduate of 1998, has put together a team that is making history. The Royals are 14-2 and will carry a nine-game winning streak into Thursday night's game against St. Charles East.

Larkin defeated Elgin 76-73 in double overtime on its floor on Dec. 11 as Quantice Hunter scored 32 points. And the Royals won the Elgin Holiday Tournament for the first time.

"Beating Elgin means so much to anyone who went to Larkin," Hunter said. "It is more than bragging rights. People know we are the team that beat Elgin. It feels good to beat them.

"Winning the Elgin tournament said a lot to us. When we heard that Larkin had never won it, we wanted to make history. We have never beaten Elgin on their floor since I've been on the varsity. So we're looking forward to playing them at Elgin in February."

In his fourth year at his alma mater, Carter has come a long way from 1-26, 4-23 and last year's 16-12. His team could be 17-0. Its only losses were to Streamwood by three and Morton by one.

"Sure, we've been overshadowed by Elgin over the years. But I always thought Larkin was a sleeping giant," Carter said. "Knowing the history of the town and Larkin, the talent has never been a problem. This area has always produced talent. I wanted to get back here and show the area what Larkin really is.

"We are going on that path. We still aren't there yet. But I'm excited about where we are at. Historically, Elgin has been known as the basketball program in this town. People still don't have much respect for us. They think we aren't as good as our record."

Carter was a three-year starter at Larkin. He attended St. Louis University and Missouri-St. Louis, coached at Division II Missouri-St. Louis for six years, took a year off, then jumped at the opportunity to return to Larkin when the job opened up. "Not a lot of people were beating down the door," he said.

"Why Larkin? I lived on the West Side. Both of my older sisters went to Larkin and had good athletic careers. It was my turn to go to Larkin and put my stamp on the school. I'm big on trying to beat the best and become the best as opposed to joining them."

It has taken a while. Carter knew it would. He preached commitment and discipline, what it means to be a Larkin basketball player. He didn't cut any corners. He didn't take any shortcuts. He made sure his players knew it was a privilege to be a Larkin basketball player.

With four of the top six players returning from last year's 16-12 squad, Carter knew his program was on the brink of turning another corner. In the preseason, Larkin was picked to challenge St. Charles East for the title in the Upstate Eight's River Division.

"Last year, we maximized what we could get out of our players. You have to deal with the talent you have," he said. "I felt this would be a good season. I thought we had talent. I felt we could compete for the conference title. Our goal is to make history, to do what the school has never done. I think we are as good as any team in our sectional. Five or six teams could win it, including us. There is no dominant team."

If Larkin prevails, it will be because of depth, balance and defense. Some teams have one or two Division I players. No one on Larkin's roster is being recruited by a Division I program. But, as Carter points out, he has five or six players who can score 15 points on any given night.

The lineup features Hunter (17 ppg), a 6-foot-1 senior guard; Quentin Ruff (15 ppg), a 6-foot- senior guard; Kendale McCullum (8 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 assists, 5 steals), a 6-foot-1 junior point guard; Andrew Jones (7 ppg, 9 rpg), a 6-foot-4 junior; and Brayden Royse (4 ppg, 6 rpg), a 6-foot-5 junior. Derrick Streety (8 ppg, 5 assists), a 5-foot-10 junior guard, comes off the bench.

"We must stay hungry," Carter said. "We play better when we all are trying to send a message instead of thinking we have arrived and accomplished something. We are trying to bring the program to places we never have been.

"But nobody sitting in January is ready to play in March. We all have to get better. Rebounding is an issue with our lack of size. Every game in our conference is a test for us. Other teams have Division I players and superior talent. We don't have that. People still don't have much respect for us. They don't think we're as good as our record."

That's why Hunter chose to enroll at Larkin. "When I was little, I knew Larkin was the school I wanted to go to. I knew the program wasn't as good as it is this year. I wanted to change it. I heard about the success at Elgin. I wanted to play for Larkin and beat them," he said.

"It always made me mad that people didn't give us respect and always hyped up Elgin. I wanted to change the attitude and bring respect back to Larkin. Last year, we had all the pieces. And I was a piece of it. Now I have to be a leader on and off the court. I felt this would the year for Larkin."

According to Hunter, the key to this team's success is its togetherness and unselfishness. The players hang out together, either at somebody's house playing videos or at Woodfield Mall. "Everyone wants to be part of the program and no one is selfish or mad about playing time," he said.

"We come ready to practice every day. We don't have bad practices. We focus on what we need to work on. We buy into what the coach is telling us. We get better at whatever we need to work on, what we have to do to be a better team.

"Last year, even our friends didn't think we were very good. But this year the students and community believe in us. They know there is something special about this team. Everyone has high expectations. We like the support but we try to do what we have to do to win games."

Like beating Elgin.

Wake-up call? Brandon Saad 'surprised' about possibility of being a healthy scratch


Wake-up call? Brandon Saad 'surprised' about possibility of being a healthy scratch

Brandon Saad played a majority of last season on the first line, started this season on the second to change things up, got demoted to the fourth by the fifth game, and could find himself out of the lineup in the sixth.

Before the Blackhawks hit the ice for practice on Monday, the 25-year-old winger found a white jersey hanging in his stall. That's usually reserved for players who are injured — Andreas Martinsen (back) was the only other player wearing one — or players who are on the outside looking in, which appears to be Saad right now considering he was not part of the four-line rotation.

"I don't think anyone wants to be wearing white around here," he said. "But it is what it is and there's nothing you can do but keep trying to improve. It's their job to make the call to put the best team out there to win hockey games."

Known for being even-keeled through the ups and downs, Saad expressed disappointment about the possibility of being a healthy scratch on Thursday against the Arizona Coyotes. He didn't exactly show that emotion following his demotion to the fourth line, perhaps out of respect to the players he was playing with by noting how it brings balance.

But he did on Monday, and it was the first time we've really seen some sort of emotion out of him.

"Everyone makes mistakes and things aren't always going to go your way but to be out of the lineup, a little surprised today," Saad said. "But it is what it is. ... No one wants to be out of the lineup. That's never fun regardless of who you are."

When asked to pinpoint what's gone wrong, Saad said he wasn't the right person to ask.

"I think you got to ask him that," he said, referring to Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff. "It's his calls. For me, you can talk pros and cons as much as you want but just trying to go out there and compete and win hockey games. We've won a few here, I know every game has gone to overtime so they've been close. Nothing was said to me about lineup change or anything like that. You just come in and you see your jersey and you go out there and you play."

So Quenneville was asked.

"Just expect more," he said. "That's the situation."

Is his mindset in the right place?

"I think he's fine," Quenneville said. "His mindset is what it is. Whether it's urgency or passion, coming up with loose pucks in those areas is going to be the difference."

The Blackhawks sending a message shouldn't only be directed at Saad. It also serves as a reminder to his teammates and is important to note for the younger guys about earning your ice time.

"I don't really know where the coaches are coming from so I'm not going to comment on that," Jonathan Toews said respectfully. "But [Saad] has been doing some good things and I think it's good for all of us to know what's going on there because if [Saad] can get his ice time taken away, then so can a lot of guys, myself included. So we all want to play well and have team success."

The Blackhawks need Saad to return to form quickly because he's crucial to their overall success. There's no debate about that. It's why the thought of Saad, who played in all 82 games last season, serving as the 13th forward is frustrating for everyone involved.

It hasn't been a problem in the past, but now it's becoming one because of the Blackhawks' aspirations of getting back to the playoffs and their dependence on their top players.

"I don’t think it’s an issue," Quenneville said. "We just expect more out of him."

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.