White Sox

Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

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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."

Will the White Sox make a big splash at the Winter Meetings?

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AP

Will the White Sox make a big splash at the Winter Meetings?

SAN DIEGO — At the GM meetings last month in Arizona, White Sox vice president Kenny Williams teased that the team was going to do more business than usual.

We found out later that the White Sox met with Yasmani Grandal while out in the desert. And when the free-agent catcher got the richest deal in club history the following week, it was a sign the White Sox were serious about their intent to be aggressive and make some big splashes this winter ahead of a possible transition from rebuilding to contending in 2020.

The Grandal signing earned nothing short of rave reviews, but there’s still an awful lot on the to-do list for general manager Rick Hahn and his front office as the Winter Meetings get going here in Southern California. The White Sox have designs on adding a pair of starting pitchers to their rotation and landing an everyday right fielder. An everyday-type DH could also be in the cards, though Grandal’s arrival has at least provided a more realistic internal option in the form of a multi-player rotation. Bullpen help is never turned away.

Much of that could be addressed this week, with ample opportunities to cross those items off the list, even if in less headline-grabbing style. You’ll remember back to last year’s Winter Meetings, when the White Sox filled a hole in their rotation by trading for Ivan Nova.

But with no disrespect to Mr. Nova, most fans are waiting for a much bigger splash.

It’s what the White Sox tried to get done before they flew out to the West Coast. Just last week they reportedly made the highest bid in the Zack Wheeler sweepstakes, only for the 29-year-old free agent to take less money to play for the Philadelphia Phillies. Cries of “here we go again” from the fan base — still stinging from the way things played out with Manny Machado a winter ago — were quickly quelled by the financial details, and it sure seems there aren’t any more excuses for anyone to stick to the old talking point that the White Sox are unwilling or unable to spend. Wheeler’s deal, had he accepted it, would have broken Grandal’s weeks-old record for the most expensive contract in club history.

So will someone else actually take the White Sox money this week?

Certainly the possibilities are out there. Still searching for starting pitching, the White Sox could turn to Madison Bumgarner, who they’ve been connected to since Wheeler’s decision. The 30-year-old three-time World Series champ could play a Jon Lester type role in a different Chicago rebuild. Though plenty have expressed concerns over what effect his 1,948.1 combined regular-season and postseason innings will have moving forward. There are reasons to be skeptical, just as there are reasons to be optimistic.

If the White Sox don’t want to play at the tippy top of the starting-pitching market — they haven’t been heavily linked to either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg — then Bumgarner is the biggest free-agent pitching splash out there. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel are in a similar strata of this free-agent market, but perhaps neither would generate quite as much buzz as arguably the greatest pitcher in World Series history.

The White Sox could also get splashy in their quest to fill the vacancy in right field. Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna are the two biggest names on the free-agent outfield market, and either would slot into the middle of the White Sox order. Neither would make for an ideal defensive selection, considering Castellanos’ ugly defensive stats in right field (which might exaggerate that reputation) and the fact that Ozuna is a left fielder who didn’t play a lick of right during his two years with the St. Louis Cardinals. Both, however, could make a big offensive impact. Ozuna had a ludicrously good season playing for the Miami Marlins in 2017, while the White Sox are plenty familiar with what Castellanos can do after he bludgeoned them in recent seasons with the division-rival Detroit Tigers.

The White Sox could potentially go off the board and chase someone outside of their stated positional needs, Hahn leaving everything on the table when he discussed his offseason approach at length last month. But neither paying a huge sum for Anthony Rendon nor coughing up prospects for Mookie Betts seems too likely at the moment. The fun thing about the Winter Meetings, though, is what seems likely or unlikely can change in an instant.

Speaking of trades, while Hahn signaled the White Sox have little interest in dealing their prized prospects for short-term gain, that market could provide opportunities for heretofore unmentioned splashes. Who knows if the White Sox have any interest in the biggest names being speculated about — Betts, Francisco Lindor, Kris Bryant, etc. — but they’ve reportedly been chatting with the Los Angeles Dodgers about Joc Pederson. After supposedly trying and failing to get him in a trade last winter, his arrival on the South Side would probably be splashy enough, considering he had a career year at the dish in 2019 that included 36 home runs.

After last year’s Machado and Bryce Harper bonanzas, expectations have been raised. After the collective breakout of so many of the White Sox core players in 2019, expectations have been raised. The White Sox seem to have the ingredients to make their long-awaited transition from rebuilding to contending in 2020. Money allocated for free agents is one of those ingredients. While there’s more than one way to build a championship roster, including leaning heavily on the wealth of young talent already in the White Sox possession, those raised expectations have fans craving a splash.

So will the White Sox cannonball into the Pacific Ocean this week? Stay tuned.

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Bears' wild-card chances eroding after Week 14's results

Bears' wild-card chances eroding after Week 14's results

The Bears did their part to keep hope alive for a playoff berth in Week 14, defeating the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night and moving to 7-6 on the season. Unfortunately, they didn't get the help they needed around the league to enter Week 15's game against the Green Bay Packers with legitimate post-season juice.

The Minnesota Vikings, who currently hold the final NFC wild card that the Bears are chasing, handled their business against the Detroit Lions with their 20-7 victory in a game that was never close. Now 9-4, the Vikings' have a two-game lead over the Bears with one head-to-head matchup remaining in Week 17. Chicago needs to defeat Minnesota in the season finale and hope the Vikings lose one of their other two remaining games against the Chargers and Packers. Otherwise, it's on to 2020.

The bigger blow to the Bears' playoff hopes came in Los Angeles, where the Rams moved to 8-5 with their 28-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. This was a game Chicago needed the Rams to lose, considering they hold the head-to-head tie-breaker and play only one more game on their schedule that seems like a likely loss (49ers in Week 16). Los Angeles' other two games are against the struggling Cowboys and lowly Cardinals, and if they win both and end the year with the same record as the Bears, they'll have the advantage because of Chicago's loss in Week 11.

So what does all this mean? Week 14's results have the Bears' chances to make the playoffs at just 2%, according to FiveThirtyEight.  Essentially, nothing's changed, even after a win. Football Insiders is a little more optimistic; they have Chicago's chances at 4.4%.

Sunday's game against the Packers has meaning. The Bears are still alive, and a victory in Green Bay coupled with some upset losses by the Vikings and Rams could change the playoff picture quite a bit. If both Minnesota and Los Angeles lose, Chicago's playoff chances jump to 14%, per the New York Times' playoff predictor.

One game at a time. It's a mantra that's worked for the Bears over the last month of the season, and one they'll continue to preach until there's nothing left to play for.

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