Bears

Nelms 'snow job' defines career

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Nelms 'snow job' defines career

Brian Nelms is a 5-foot-9 senior point guard at Rolling Meadows who isn't ranked among the top 100 players in the nation and doesn't have scholarship offers to Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina.

But, take coach Kevin Katovich's word as gospel, Nelms is a "special type of kid." He is very intelligent and highly motivated and likely will make some Division III coach very happy.

As a freshman on the varsity, in a win or lose situation, Nelms commanded such confidence from his coach and teammates that he was allowed to take a three-point shot in the closing seconds of a game.

He missed. His team lost.

Afterward, he shoveled about three inches of snow off his driveway and shot hoops for an hour in the dark.

"The first thing I did was walk to the spot where I had missed the shot, the right corner," Nelms recalled. "I took about 30 or 40 shots from there. The worst part is I was making them. I asked myself: Why couldn't I do it two hours ago?

"It was senior night. Having a chance to win the game and not being able to convert, it hurt pretty bad. It was painful. It would have been a nice way to send the seniors out.

"It meant a lot to me, having the confidence to give me the ball in that situation. I have been fortunate enough to hit some big shots since then. But it took me awhile to figure out what good could come of it. Then I realized it happens to everybody. Even the pros miss game-winners."

Nelms has made more game-defining shots than he has missed. "I was able to deal with myself missing the shot. I still want the ball in my hands at the end of a game," he said.

Later in his sophomore year, with Rolling Meadows trailing Elk Grove by three points with four seconds to play and having to go the length of the court, Nelms couldn't deliver the ball to a teammate in the corner so he came off a ball screen and buried a fadeaway three-pointer to force double overtime.

Last year, he drained a game-winning shot from two steps inside half-court to beat Glenbrook South.

Nelms is averaging 15 points and eight assists for a 14-6 team that clinched a tie for its first division title in the Mid-Suburban League since 2005 by beating Buffalo Grove 60-51 last Friday. Now the Mustangs are eager to claim their first conference title since 1991 and first regional title since 2001.

Nelms, the school's all-time assist leader, had 19 points and 12 assists in the victory over Buffalo Grove. On Saturday, he had 15 points and 10 assists as Rolling Meadows beat Niles West 59-45. The Mustangs will meet Barrington on Tuesday, Wheeling on Friday and Leyden on Saturday.

Rolling Meadows isn't a mecca for high school basketball. Since 1971, only one of five coaches has posted a winning record. In five years, Hank Szymanski won three regional titles. But the school has qualified for the state quarterfinals only once, in 1990 when Dave Brown's team went 28-3.

"It's a matter of numbers. We are the smallest school in District 214 and we have trouble getting kids out for basketball," said Katovich, who is in his 10th year as head coach.

"Winning helps. We're drawing more kids. We were 15-13 last year and had four starters back. We're drawing more interest in the program. We try to keep our kids working on their skills. Losing isn't fun."

Katovich and his staff work with other coaches at the school to encourage athletes to participate in more than one sport. Only two of Katovich's 17 players compete in basketball only. Several of them play in three sports.

And they constantly remind their players of former Rolling Meadows star Aaron Williams, the only NBA player ever produced at the school. Williams, a 1989 graduate, played with 10 teams during a 15-year professional career. He currently is an assistant coach at his alma mater, Xavier University.

"We talk about him a lot, a successful alum. We work at it as a big picture thing," Katovich said. "Most of these kids have been on the varsity for three years. They want to do something the school hasn't done in a long time. They want to leave a mark for themselves and the basketball program."

Nelms and his teammates are reminded of the school's futility on the basketball court every time they walk past the trophy case. "Given our past, we usually surprise people. We don't get publicity or make opponents fear us because we aren't a known program. So we try to prove people wrong all the time," he said.

"We were picked to finish second or third in our division but no one picked us to win. We want to leave our own legacy for people who come in after us. There is a plaque in our team room that says: 'Play hard, play smart and play together.' That's what drives us."

Underneath the plaque are a set of numbers that are a source of motivation and inspiration, numbers that remind each player--as if they need to be reminded--of the last time the school won a division or regional title.

Katovich is familiar with the school's basketball history. A 1989 graduate of nearby Conant in Hoffman Estates, he played and later coached under Tom McCormack. He also worked for ATT. But he liked being around kids and obtained a masters degree in education.

"Coaching drove me into it," said Katovich, who coached at Prospect for four year before arriving at Rolling Meadows in 2001. "Other coaches convinced me that was what I wanted to do."

Nelms is more than a basketball player. He ranks in the top 23 percent of his class, has a 4.6 grade-point average on a 5.0 scale, scored 31 on his ACT and is looking to play basketball at Division III Augustana, Lake Forest, Illinois Wesleyan or DePaul or Division II Hillsdale.

Other starters are 6-foot-3 senior Tyler Gaedele (15 ppg), who is second in the area in three-pointers and whose brother Kyle plays for the San Diego Padres; 6-foot-3 senior Mike Rose (10 ppg, 10 rpg), who was a freshman B player at one time; 6-foot-3 junior Mike Dolan (8 ppg); and 5-foot-10 senior Eric Lowe (4 ppg), a defensive stopper who is committed to play baseball at Villanova, or 5-foot-9 senior Mike Olson (5 ppg). Rose scored 17 points in Rolling Meadows' victory over Niles West on Saturday.

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-6 senior Chuck Lynk, 5-foot-9 senior John Ott and 6-foot-3 junior Brian Sabal.

To advance in the Class 4A sectional at Barrington where Warren likely will be the top seed, Katovich said: "We need to get back to what makes us a good team--sharing the basketball, rebounding and playing good defense. This is an exciting time for the basketball program. There is a buzz around the school."

Nelms and his teammates hear the buzz. They are a close-knit group that spends a lot of time in the weight room, on the basketball court and around the dinner table. Each week, before a Friday game, they gather at the house of one of the players for a pasta party.

Mike Olson's mother is a favorite. "She is a great cook," Nelms said after feasting on lasagna, salad, chocolate chip cookies and "some of the best breadsticks I've ever had."

Nelms is as superstitious as he is a food critic. He wears No. 11 because Isiah Thomas, Dee Brown and Drew Neitzel once wore it. He asked for the jersey in sixth grade and has stuck with it.

"I have a long list of superstitions," he said. "I wear the same pair of compression shorts and the same socks for every game. I listen to the same song. I'm huge on static guard. I spray it on my clothes and uniform before games.

"And I eat the same meal lunch--chicken and cheese sandwich on white bread, yogurt, oat meal, pretzels and lots of water and Gatorade. I tried it once and scored 28 points. I said it must be the food. So I've had the same lunch ever since."

It beats shoveling snow off the driveway.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

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USA TODAY

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.