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Playoffs, pairings & pizza: Schools gear up for Selection Saturday

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Playoffs, pairings & pizza: Schools gear up for Selection Saturday

It's probably a good thing Le Roy head football coach BJ Zeleznik coaches a team in class 1A and not 8A. His pizza party bills would be astronomical.

"No kidding," Zeleznik chuckled. "Well, we used to co-op with Downs Tri-Valley and we would have close to 90 kids join us on Selection Saturday. But we still have 45 kids in the program this year, freshmen through upperclassmen. They'll all joins us. It's a nice tradition."

And it's a ritual that dates back to 1986. BJ's father, Jim, who coached Le Roy from 1979-2000, came up with the idea of having a pizza party on the Saturday after the prep football regular season was complete. The gathering was centered on watching the high school pairings show. Coaches and players would eagerly anticipate hearing their school's name called on the broadcast.

"It's just one part the whole excitement around having a good year," Zeleznik said. And it's a great time of year; the harvest comes in, leaves are falling, it's good to get everyone together. It's a lot of fun."

Le Roy is a town of roughly 3,500 people, just north of Interstate 74 in McLean County. And the bond between the football program and the people of Le Roy goes back generations.

"With some of the kids on our team ... their fathers played for my father. So they know the party is all about. The pizza party can be a motivational tool -- maybe even more so for the coaches."

It's part of the charm about this part of the high school football season. Many teams from around the state will gather together to watch the IHSA Football Playoff Pairings Show, this Saturday at 8 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet and CSNChicago.com. Some schools will have pizza parties. And others will celebrate with a setting that only Norman Rockwell would dream of capturing. Just west of Le Roy, the Downs Tri-Valley football team will gather to watch the show in the town's fire station.

For other schools, Saturday night represents a zenith of excitement in overcoming challenging times. Take Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, for example. The Warriors didn't win a single game last season. This year, they're going to the playoffs. Or how about Aurora Central Catholic, which hasnt been to the playoffs, period, since 1997? And if Bloom High School in Chicago Heights beats Rich Central on Friday, it will clinch a spot in the playoffs for the first time since ALF was dominating the NBC Monday night lineup (1989).

Those schools represent just a small portion of the 256 playoff qualifiers across eight classes who will be anxiously waiting Saturday night. Five weeks later, high school football fans will be able to check out Comcast SportsNet's coverage of the state championships from Memorial Stadium in Champaign-Urbana. The 1A-4A title games will take center stage on Friday, Nov. 23. The 5A-8A games will be on the marquee the next day, Saturday, Nov. 24.

The pairings show and championship games can be seen in Comcast SportsNet's entire viewing territory. Viewers are encouraged to check out csnchicago.com for channel locations or the IHSA's channel finder by market.

Better yet, regardless if you (or your team) made the postseason, you can join in on the fun this Saturday. Fans can interact via live chat on CSNChicago.com and fans are also encouraged to interact via Twitter using the hashtag IHSA.

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.

Mitch Musings: Trubisky progressing as he preps to face the gold standard of QBs

Mitch Musings: Trubisky progressing as he preps to face the gold standard of QBs

 Tom Brady has been credited with 54 game-winning drives in his Hall of Fame career, five of which have come in Super Bowls — all five Super Bowls he and Bill Belichick have won. 
 
To put it another way: Brady has engineered a game-winning drive in 18 percent of his regular season and playoff starts, while he’s only lost 22 percent of his career starts. 
 
“He just has this mentality that at the end of the game, they’re going to win because of him,” coach Matt Nagy said. “He’s going to make a special throw.”
 
The expectation for Brady is that he’s going to put together a fourth quarter comeback or a game-winning drive if given the chance. It’s not like he’s a markedly better quarterback in those close-and-late situations — in fact, his lowest passer rating by quarter comes in the fourth. But that rating is 94.2; his career rating is 97.4. Effectively, he’s the same quarterback. 
 
That baseline level of success is, undoubtedly, something for which Mitch Trubisky is striving. But the Bears’ rookie isn’t there yet, as evidenced by his career splits:
 
Fourth quarter: 86/151 (57 percent), 6 TDs, 6 INTs, 71.2 passer rating, 6.0 yards/attempt
Overall: 309/491 (63 percent), 18 TDs, 11 INTs, 86.7 passer rating, 7.0 yards/attempt
 
That factors in 2017, of course, and Trubisky’s numbers from that season aren’t as relevant as the overall experience he gained. There’s a much smaller sample size in 2018, but the fourth quarter downturn is still present:
 
2018 fourth quarter: 22/34 (65 percent), 2 TD, 1 INT, 94.1 passer rating, 7.4 yards/attempt
2018 overall: 113/161 (70 percent), 11 TDs, 4 INTs, 105.6 passer rating, 8.1 yards/attempt
 
The good news, perhaps, is that the gap is closing. That’s an area of progress the Bears needed, and still need, to see in 2018. Trubisky completed eight of 11 passes for 141 yards with a touchdown — and an interception in the end zone — on Sunday in Miami, and very well could’ve been credited with a game-winning drive had Tarik Cohen not fumbled near midfield with under three minutes remaining.
 
But the touchdown he threw to Anthony Miller, too, could’ve been a game-winner had the Bears’ defense not immediately given up a 75-yard touchdown on Miami’s ensuing drive.
 
“We’re continuing to grow and that’s one of those clutch plays that you have to make as an offense to help out the defense and put the team in a good position to win games and it was a big moment and I think a big area of growth for our offense and myself as a quarterback,” Trubisky said. “We’re just gonna have to continue to grow and make those types of plays to be able to give ourselves a chance to win every week.” 
 
Reid It and Weep?
 
The last three times Andy Reid, or an Andy Reid disciple, has faced the Patriots, their team has scored 40 or more points. Reid and Nagy teamed up to drop 42 on New England in 2017’s season opener, and Doug Pederson — Reid’s offensive coordinator prior to Nagy — put up 41 to win Super Bowl LII. On Sunday, Reid’s Chiefs scored 40 in a three-point loss in Foxboro. 
 
Maybe that matters on Sunday at Soldier Field, maybe it doesn’t. But for Trubisky, that Nagy had that success a year ago against New England “for sure” gives him a confidence boost. 
 
“I think coach Nagy knows this opponent very well,” Trubisky said. “I mean, he studies as much tape as anyone throughout the week and he’s had success against this team, so that definitely gives me confidence, and it’s just me and him continuing to communicate and being on the same page. He’s given me a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to move the ball and put up points against these guys this weekend. 
 
“So we just got to continue to take care of the football, be smart, while staying aggressive, but it definitely gives confidence knowing that coach Nags, that he knows these guys pretty well and has had success in the past, but we still got to go out there and do our jobs because the past success doesn’t determine future success. You still got to go out there and execute on the field and we know that.”
 
Belichick is a master of taking away what an opponent does best. But a common thread between those Chiefs and Eagles teams is having multiple weapons, to the point where taking the best one away isn’t a deterrent to scoring. The Bears may not have the same pick-your-poison roster as the Chiefs, who still put up 40 points despite New England muting Travis Kelce’s production on Sunday. 
 
But Trubisky and this offense might be trending that way, if Sunday’s 28-point second half against a good Miami defense is any indication. 
 
One Last Time To Not Count Out Touchdown Tom
 
Back to Brady for one final thought here: Trubisky was seven years old when Brady won his first Super Bowl back in 2002. The Bears’ quarterback probably doesn’t have much memory of an NFL in which Brady hasn’t been regarded as the most successful quarterback in the league.
 
Sunday will mark Brady’s final trip to Chicago in his career, unless he winds up quarterbacking another team (highly unlikely) or playing until he’s 49 (extremely unlikely). While he and Drew Brees and Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger still may have a few good years left in them, and Aaron Rodgers certainly has more than a few good years left, it feels like the quarterbacking torch is finally being passed from those veterans to a young, exciting group of passers like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes. Trubisky could be part of that not-quite-established-but-close group, too, if what he’s done in the last two games turns out to be sustainable. 
 
So for Trubisky, getting to compete against Brady on Sunday comes as a special opportunity. 
 
“I admire his competitiveness and just following his journey and what he’s had to overcome to be able to get where he’s at,” Trubisky said. “It’s very admirable and doing it this long, this well over a long period of time is pretty incredible. So you always look at that. And what they’ve been able to do. As a quarterback you’re judged by how many games you win and he’s been successful at that as well, so obviously he’s one of the best to do it. And it’s cool to watch his film as well as many other guys over the years, pick up anything you possibly can. Yeah, he’s had a lot of success so you definitely look at what kind of traits he has to be able to lead his teams to that many wins over a long period of time. 
 
“Is it cool? Yeah, for sure. But I think it’s just a testament to him of how he’s been able to do it for this long and still be that successful. And he’s just really been able to push the limits at what can be accomplished at this position and how everybody looks at it. He’s really taken this thing to new levels and it’ll be cool to compete against him on Sunday.”