Bears

Norberg adds punch to Cary-Grove's flex-bone

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Norberg adds punch to Cary-Grove's flex-bone

After last year's 8-3 finish, Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg began a search for a fullback to fill a void in his flex-bone triple option offense.

"Someone who adds another dimension that makes us potentially very dangerous and explosive," he said, scanning the roster.

Seaburg settled on Kyle Norberg. It was a smart decision. But would the 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior, who was a starter at linebacker as a sophomore and junior, accept the transition to fullback? Could he do the job? And what about his goal of being a linebacker in college?

"We don't have a lot of Division I players, just tough Division III type of players," Seaburg said. "We looked at Norberg. He is so physical, big and strong. And he has 4.6 speed. We felt he could be a difference-maker on offense. He hits the hole faster than any fullback we have had."

Norberg has made a difference. He has rushed 186 times for 1,933 yards and 23 touchdowns. He has averaged 10.4 yards per carry. He has fumbled only twice. In limited duty on defense, he has two sacks and two interceptions. In last Saturday's 7-0 victory over Crystal Lake Central, Norberg rushed 10 times for 133 yards.

Cary-Grove (12-0) will play at Lake Forest (9-3) on Saturday in a Class 6A semifinal. It marks the first time the Trojans have reached the semifinal round since winning the state title in 2009.

"Norberg is having a great year," Seaburg said. "He turned himself into a workhorse kind of fullback who gets tough four or five yards but also has had several touchdown runs over 70 yards. I'm surprised at the number of explosive plays he has had over 50-60 yards."

Norberg is surprised, too. "I never saw myself in a position where I'd be running the ball," he said. It finally dawned on him in Week 8, when he rushed for 342 yards and three touchdowns against Dundee-Crown to set school and Fox Valley Conference records for yards in a single game.

Growing up, he was a three-sport athlete who thoroughly enjoyed football, basketball and baseball. Later, he competed in track. As a sophomore, however, he dropped everything else to harness his energy for football. "It's my favorite thing to do. I strive to be good at it," he said.

His hero is his grandfather, who was a 6-foot-3, 290-pound noseman at Iowa State. "I'm not as big as him but I wanted to be like him. He has been my hero. I compare myself to him. He made it to Division I and that has been a goal of mine," Norberg said.

He was a lineman in eighth grade, then was shifted to linebacker as a freshman and promoted to the sophomore team. He played linebacker on the varsity as a sophomore and junior.

He figured to play linebacker as a senior so he attended the Elite 7 camp in Barrington, a training facility for athletes which is run by former Cary-Grove star Alex Kube, who played at Northern Illinois and once had a tryout with the Minnesota Vikings.

Then Norberg began to sense that his life was about to change.

"We had meetings. The coaches came to every senior's house to tell us what would be in store for the season," he said. "At first, the coach talked about a few plays at fullback. But when summer camp started, I was taking more reps at fullback than linebacker. He wanted me to learn the position."

At an out-of-town camp in early August in Whitewater, Wisconsin, Seaburg and his coaching staff began to cement the starting lineup during three-a-day practice sessions and scrimmages. During every scrimmage, Norberg was playing fullback.

"I figured that's where they wanted me to be, where I could help the team the most," he said. "At first, I was scared and worried. I had been training to be a linebacker. I texted some teammates. They said: 'They put you there (at fullback) for a reason. You have to make it happen.'

"After the camp, I had a week off to think about it. It finally sunk in. I said to myself: 'Let's make it work and be the best I can be at this spot.' It was cool to try something new.

"At first, it was confusing, remembering plays, who to block, reading the blocks. As a freshman, I also was a backup wingback on the sophomore team. From a fullback's standpoint, the offense isn't difficult to understand. I'm lined up directly behind the quarterback and running downhill all the time.

"How will this affect my college recruiting? Are they looking at me as a fullback or linebacker? I still look at myself as a linebacker. Fullback gives me more athleticism. But I still want to be a linebacker in college. I want to hit people rather than be hit. I like the instinctive part of the game. I like to make plays."

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.