Bears

Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

645088.png

Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

There are a lot of strange things going on with Notre Dame's basketball team. But the Dons are 14-4 so coach Tom Les isn't complaining.

There isn't a single player on the team who is averaging in double digits in scoring.

A player has scored 20 or more points in only two of 18 games.

Les is a fifth-year coach who was hired on a volunteer, no-pay basis--at his own request.

One of the team captains is a junior who comes off the bench.

The starting lineup includes only one senior and three underclassmen with no previous varsity experience.

This is a team that was picked to finish sixth in the conference race.

"I lost five starters from a 23-7 team. So experience-wide, on the varsity level, it has come this season," Les said. "I was apprehensive early. When the lights go on and referees are wearing long pants and people are in the stands, it is different than spring, summer and fall leagues. But these kids have responded."

Last week, the Niles school defeated Brother Rice 63-44, Loyola 50-46 and Nazareth 65-54. The Dons will host St. Patrick on Friday, then meet Downstate Morton on Sunday in the Whitney Young Shootout.

Matt Mooney, a 6-foot-1 junior guard who averages seven points per game, scored 16 against Brother Rice, 9 against Loyola and 18 against Nazareth to lead Notre Dame. Donte Stephenson, a 5-foot-9 junior, scored 10 against Loyola.

"We don't have a dominant scorer," Les said. "Who do we go to? We change it up. We go to the hot hand depending on who it is. It gives us an advantage. The teams scouting us don't know who to defend. They don't get a true indicator of which player will turn it up.

"In the state tournament, history says you need someone to turn it up on a consistent basis, an All-Stater, a big-time scorer. But we rarely have a scorer with 20 or more points this season. Who would be our most valuable player? I have no idea who it would be. So far that has been an advantage."

The lone senior starter and leading scorer is 6-foot-4 Joe Ferrici (8.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Mooney and Stephenson (8 ppg, 5 assists) form the backcourt. Stephenson, the floor leader, is called "Scooter" to differentiate him from 6-foot-3 sophomore Duante Stephens (8 ppg).

"Why Scooter? That's the way he flies around the court," Les said.

The other starter is 6-foot-6 sophomore Jon Johnson (6 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 blocks).

Top reserves are 6-foot-3 junior Eddie Serrano, 5-foot-10 senior Greg Leifel and 6-foot-5 junior Justin Halloran.

"Experience is key. We're starting two sophomores and one junior with no varsity experience. None of them have had big roles in the state tournament, in one-and-done games, in pressure-packed situations," Les said.

"One concern I have is when we get behind, we turn up intensity and focus. We can't afford to get behind in the state tournament because good teams will put you away."

Notre Dame has lost to four quality teams--Simeon, Evanston, Libertyville and Stevenson. The Dons trailed Simeon by nine in the third quarter before losing by 20. They trailed Marist by 16 at halftime but rallied to win. They trailed Zion-Benton by 12 going into the fourth quarter but rallied to win. They were disappointed by their 2-2 showing at the
Wheeling Holiday Tournament. To a man, they believe they should be 16-2, not 14-4.

"It was a great learning experience by playing Simeon," said Eddie Serrano, who shares the team captaincy with Ferrici. "We learned we need to play hard from the get-go to win. We competed against the best team in the nation (Simeon). No one backed down. We weren't intimidated. We came out to play. We stuck with them and cut their lead to nine points in the third quarter before they pulled away. If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone.

"We can go far (in the state tournament) because not many people can understand what it is like unless they experience it themselves, to not have a go-to guy. It is a rare case but it can work out. It is pretty unique. But we find ways to win even without a dominant scorer. It starts off the court. We all get along very well. It's not easy to find with many teams."

Serrano said he and his teammates accepted a lot of advice from last year's team, which featured a pair of dominant scorers in Rodney Pryor and Clinton Chievous. They finished 23-7, losing to Niles North in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the Dons were 20-9, losing to Glenbrook North in the sectional final.

In fact, Notre Dame has advanced beyond the sectional round only once. In 1997, coach Denny Zelasko's 23-8 team lost in the Class AA quarterfinals to Rockford Boylan.

"To be successful, we knew we would have to have more guys who could score for us," Serrano said. "Last year's team wasn't as close as this year. The kids hung out with their own class. Our success starts with the fact that we have a lot of humble guys. We know we have to sacrifice for each other. No one player thinks he is the best guy out there. We need each other. We learned that even with two good players, you need to be a team to
be successful."

Les has been encouraged by how his team has bounced back from its disappointing fourth-place finish at Wheeling. "They are very coachable. They understand the importance of defense. We have found ways to win because our man-to-man defense has kept us in games," he said.

Les, 57, has a special attachment to Notre Dame. A graduate of 1971, he is 10 years older than his more celebrated brother, Jim, the former NBA player and former coach at Bradley University who currently is a head coach at California-Davis. Les has one significant distinction, however. He is Bradley's all-time assist leader.

After graduating from Bradley, Les wasn't able to follow Jim into the NBA. Instead, he began a career as part owner in a Crystal Lake-based Althoff Industries, an electricalmechanical contractor.

Ten years ago, he got the itch to get back into basketball. He served as head coach at Marian Central in Woodstock for five years. When Zelasko retired at Notre Dame five years ago, Les received a call from the school's new principal, the Rev. John Smyth, former executive director of Maryville Youth Center in Des Plaines and a former All-American basketball player at the University of Notre Dame.

"Would you be interested?" Fr. Smyth asked Les.

He didn't have to ask twice. Les met with Fr. Smyth and Notre Dame athletic director and football coach, Mike Hennessey. He accepted--on a volunteer, non-paying basis.

"I have a quality relationship with Fr. Smyth," Les said. "When I was in high school, many orphans from Maryville went to Notre Dame. I spent a lot of weekends there. My parents and I met Fr. Smyth. I was influenced by him. He's the No. 1 reason I'm here.

"Another reason is the foundation that Notre Dame had built for me in my personal life. This is a way of giving back. I'm fortunate enough that I work in a business where I can come and go as I like. I'm having the time of my life."

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

4-16mattnagy.jpg
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'

0520-reynaldo-lopez.jpg
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.