White Sox

Maine South has high expectations...in basketball

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Maine South has high expectations...in basketball

In the 1950s, when Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams won a record 47 games in a row and dominated college football, the university president used to joke that his goal was to "build a university that the football team can be proud of."

Maybe he wasn't joking.

Fast forward to 2012. At Maine South, basketball coach Tony Lavorato Jr.is building a program that the Park Ridge community, the high school and its football team can be proud of. Maine South has won five state football championships since 1995, three in a row in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and Lavorato has a plan to be every bit as competitive on a state level.

It won't be easy. Maine South hasn't won a conference title since 1999. Even old-timers are hard-pressed to remember the 1979 state championship team. But seeds have been planted. The Hawks were 28-6 in 2010 and lost to Whitney Young in the supersectional. They won 21 and 19 games in the last two seasons. They currently are 7-0 going into Thursday night's game at Glenbrook South.

"We are proud of where we are at," Lavorato said. "But it's early in the season. There is a lot of basketball to play. What is exciting is the kids are dedicating themselves to basketball. We have structured the program where we put kids in a position to be successful.

"Can we play basketball at a football school? We have a winning tradition in many sports at Maine South, not just football. We have a winning culture. Is this the best team we have had? Our 2010 team has been our standard-bearer. We'll compare other teams to that one until we have a team that surpasses it."

In his 10th season as head coach, Lavorato has taken a while to fuel his engine and put it on the right track. For example, he had to figure out a way to tread water while waiting for the football season to end so the football players, like 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior John Solari, would have time to get into basketball shape.

He installed a unique matchup defense that is difficult for opponents to prepare for and to execute against, then organized a feeder system in which lower level coaches lay a solid foundation by teaching youngsters to play the defense from the first time they lace up their Michael Jordans.

"What is the key to our success?" Lavorato said. "I have never had a Division I player in my 10 years. We need to keep playing as a team, control the tempo and keep the points down. Our opponents are only averaging 34.7 points per game. If we keep people under 50 points per game and keep getting better as a team offensively, we can compete with the top teams in the state."

Which is exactly why, after participating in the York Holiday Tournament for the last nine years, Lavorato decided to switch to Proviso West this year. After Thursday's game against Glenbrook South and games against Lane Tech at the Benedictine Shootout on Sunday and at Waukegan on Dec. 21, Maine South will meet Hillcrest in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament on Dec. 26 in Hillside.

"We are going there to play teams like Hillcrest and test ourselves," he said. "I am looking at the big picture. We're trying to get over the hump. We're looking to play teams that are ore athletic and will make us better in January and February.

"Every since we lost to Whitney Young in 2010--we were trailing by two points at halftime, then lost by 18--I thought if we could put our program in a position to where we could see that type of team and athlete before the state tournament, we could finish that game and be competitive with any program in that state.

"That's why we decided to go to Proviso West--to test teams with great athletes and Division I players. That is the next step for our program to take."

Danny Quinn has watched Lavorato's program develop since he was playing quarterback and wide receiver for the Park Ridge Falcons youth football program from second to eighth grade. And he recalls when his father took him to Proviso West to watch Marcus Jordan, Wayne Blackshear, Dave Sobolewski, Frank Kaminsky and other Division I players.

But Quinn never had the passion for football that he had for basketball. In fact, he dropped football and baseball to concentrate on basketball. In sixth grade, he played on a Junior Hawks team was 80-13. And he played with future Maine South teammates Frank Dounis and Andrew Palucki on the Chi-Town Diablos.

"I wanted to become better at basketball," said Quinn, a 6-foot-6 senior forward. "You have to sacrifice to be good at it. I wanted to dedicate myself to basketball. I had a passion for it. I liked the fast tempo. It isn't always about who is biggest and strongest. You can be a good shooter or ball-handler or be versatile and contribute in a lot of ways."

Quinn never had a doubt that Lavorato would develop a winning basketball program at Maine South. "We always had good talent. It was never a question of if but a matter of when. We have plenty of athletes. We are proud of the football team. We aren't trying to take anything away from them. But we know we can be successful, too," he said.

Quinn (9.4 ppg, 4 rpg), Solari (9.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Dounis, a 6-foot-3 senior (10.9 ppg, 3 rpg, 3.4 assists) are the most experienced players in the program. Solaris, a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, was a tight end on Maine South's 11-1 football team and likely will play football in college. "Everything starts with them," Lavorato said.

They are returning starters from last year's 19-13 regional champion. With five of his top eight players returning, Lavorato had several reasons to be optimistic about 2012-13.

The other two starters are Palucki (5.7 ppg), a 6-foot-2 guard, and 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Caleb de Marigny (5.7 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 6-foot-7 sophomore George Sargeant (3.9 ppg).

Lavorato split the season into six parts--Thanksgiving tournament, six games between now and Christmas, Proviso West tournament, four games in five days before the King tournament, the home stretch, then the postseason. "We break it up so we don't get ahead of ourselves," he said.

A 1991 graduate of Hinsdale South, Lavorato played for his father, then played for four years at Augustana. He coached at Homestead in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for one year, then coached at Stagg in Palos Park for four years before being hired at Maine South.

"It was a great opportunity," he said. "I wanted to get into a conference that was successful in getting to the sectional. Seven of 12 Central Suburban League teams went to the supersectional in a seven-year period. Maine South was very competitive on a north suburban scale. It was a great route to get to Peoria. But I knew we had a lot of work to do."

Five years ago, Lavorato implemented a defensive system he refers to as "the Maine South defense," a matchup man-to-man that is similar to the famed ball-press defense that legendary coach Vergil Fletcher developed at Collinsville in the 1950s and was copied by Jerry Leggett at Quincy and Neil Alexander at Lincoln.

Lavorato picked it up from Frank Palmisani, who ran it at Providence with Walter Downing, and Frank Nardi, who ran it at Bloom with Brandon Cole.
Bill Geist ran it at Benet with Kevin Conrad and Mike Lang. At one time, Lavorato rank it at Stagg.

"I wanted to make sure it is difficult to play us," he said. "We want to keep the ball out of the lane, rebound every shot and contest all shots. I wanted to do something that other coaches had to prepare for. No one else runs it in our conference.

"I have run it with middle size post players and an immobile post player and I have run it with guards who were immature and physically not gifted.
Communication is the most important thing. It is a five-man defense. Everyone needs to communicate and be on the same page. Our kids believe in it."

Quinn said the defense is tough for other teams to figure out. "Now many teams run it. It is hard to scout and to adjust and to teach. It's tough enough for us to run. It's all about communication and chemistry. If one guy is out of synch, the whole thing is messed up. You have to know it. You can't run it half-heartedly. You must be committed to it. Teams have to play well to beat it," he said.

So Lavorato is eager to test his team and his defense against the field at Proviso West. The players are excited, too.

"This is what I have been waiting for for four years," Quinn said. "We have no fear. We feel we can play with those teams. We have been building for this. This will show we aren't just a football school but we can play basketball against anyone. If we stick with our system and play our game, I don't think anyone can top us."

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.