Bears

Pleasant Plains is on top again

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Pleasant Plains is on top again

Dusty Bensko and Jordan Roth will be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in April. In case those names don't resonate like Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker, they put Pleasant Plains on the map over a decade ago.
Pleasant Plains?
Located 15 miles west of Springfield on Route 125, Pleasant Plains is a farming and fertilizer-producing community of 800. There is a Casey's General Store and the Grainery, a popular barrestaurant. The bowling alley closed years ago. Nearly 70 percent of the school's enrollment of 480 students have Springfield addresses.
Bensko and Roth are folk heroes. Bensko led Pleasant Plains to the Class A basketball championship in 2000 and the Class A baseball championship in 2001. Roth starred on the 2002 Class A basketball championship team.
In a three-year period, coach Cliff Cameron's teams went 34-2, 28-4 and 32-3. He almost won three state titles in a row but his 2001 team, which was ranked No. 1 throughout the season, lost to Macomb in the supersectional. Last year's 25-7 squad lost to Normal University High in the sectional final.
With five of his top seven players returning, including three starters, Cameron had high expectations for the 2012-13 season. And he hasn't been disappointed. After beating Sangamon Valley 76-38 last Friday, Pleasant Plains is 20-0 going into Tuesday night's game against North Mac.
The Cardinals have a signature game on Feb. 2. They will host Sangamo Conference rival Illini Central, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 1A. Pleasant Plains, which is ranked No. 2 in Class 2A behind Harrisburg, and Winnebago are the only undefeated teams in Illinois.
"I can't say this team is better that those (state championship) teams," Cameron said. "They have to prove it. But it is one of the top four teams I have had. Potentially, it could be close to the caliber of 2000 and 2002. I can't say we are as good but we are close. We have all the pieces."
He doesn't have to look any farther than across the kitchen table to see the key to this team's success -- his son, Michael, a 5-foot-10 senior point guard who is averaging 13.6 points and four assists per game.
"My son makes us go," the coach said. "He is an excellent floor leader. He handles the ball better than anyone I have seen. He also is a good passer and gets all the players involved. It starts with him on offense.
"It is a pleasure to coach my son. The toughest part is at home with his mother. If there is a conflict, it's my fault. I started him early, when he was 4 years old, dribbling the ball. He knows the game. He has been playing on traveling teams since fourth grade."
Michael also knows the history and the tradition of his father's program. He was ballboy for the 2000 and 2002 teams. "He's in the picture," his father said.
Other starters are 6-foot-6 senior Alex Gustafson (14.3 ppg, 7 rpg), 6-foot-3 senior Taylor Staff (12.4 ppg, 4 rpg), 6-foot senior guard Anthony Venturini (5 ppg, 4 rpg) and 6-foot-8 junior Devon Sabo (6 ppg, 6 rpg, 2.6 blocks). Justin Yakel (5 ppg, 3 rpg), a 6-foot-6 senior, comes off the bench.
In last Friday's romp over Sangamon Valley, Michael Cameron scored 15 points, Venturini had 12, Yakel 10. The Cardinals built a 36-14 halftime lead and coasted.
Gustafson has come a long way. In middle school, he didn't play much on a team that won a state title in seventh grade. But he has improved by leaps and bounds with his inside post game, strength, knowledge of the game and his competitiveness.
"I had high expectations for this team after last year," Cameron said. "We had a good summer. We played in a shootout in Jacksonville and won against Class 3A and 4A teams. We beat Quincy, Washington, Jacksonville and Chatham Glenwood. In 1A2A, we lost to Illini Central in the final."
So he looks ahead. He is optimistic because this team has balance, chemistry, defense and the most size of his team he has coached. "I have known them better than any team I've had because of my son," he said.
"I never have worried about our offense. The key is to defend and rebound. We don't have anyone as dominant as Bensko. But the other pieces are very similar (to the 2000 and 2002 teams). Michael is similar to Tyler Kastner, the point guard on the 2000 team...very smart, good floor leader. But Michael can do more things with the ball."
Cameron also believes this team is mature enough to overcome any concerns over complacency and overconfidence.
"You worry about complacency and overconfidence with any team," the coach said. "Maybe they get too relaxed and they aren't ready to play. You look for it in practice. You try to keep them focused. You push them in practice. At times, I shut down practice when the kids aren't playing hard. I remind them that they haven't proven anything yet. I think this team can handle it. But I must keep reminding them."

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

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USA Today

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

The Bears will try to address one of their more glaring weaknesses — tight end depth — by giving longtime offensive tackle Bradley Sowell some work at tight end in the coming weeks of practice at Halas Hall. 

Sowell, a reliable backup swing tackle the last two seasons with the Bears, was targeted twice as a receiver in 2018 — first, on a nearly-intercepted Mitch Trubisky pass against the New England Patriots, and second on the famous “Santa’s Sleigh” touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams. He also got some work as a fullback in the Bears’ Week 17 thumping of the Minnesota Vikings. 

“We felt like at the ‘Y’ position we could use some more depth,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s something we talked about at the end of the season. We discussed it and now we’re giving him a chance.”

Nagy’s assessment of the Bears’ “Y” (in-line) depth is accurate, if not even undersold. The athletic 6-foot-7, 312 pound Sowell will have a chance to be a backup to Adam Shaheen, who has missed 13 games in his first two years due to a string of injuries. Reserve tight end Ben Braunecker can play both the “Y” and “U” positions, and the Bears have a handful of undrafted free agents (led by Utah State's Dax Raymond) competing to catch the eye of the coaching staff in the coming weeks. 

The Bears’ offense struggled with two tight ends on the field last year, especially in Shaheen’s absence as Dion Sims played himself out of the league. It’s far too early to tell if adding Sowell to the tight end mix will help, but at this point, the Bears think it’s worth a shot. 

“He’s shown it repetitively in practice that he has the athletic ability, the hands, he’s very smart, he knows how to block and all that stuff,” Nagy said. “So let’s test it out and see. When I tell you he’s all-in, he’s all-in.”

Center of Attention

As expected, the Bears indeed will flip James Daniels and Cody Whitehair on the offensive line, with Daniels sliding to center and Whitehair to left guard. 

“We feel comfortable with it, so again, this is the time to test it out and see,” Nagy said. “It’s hard right now because we don’t have pads. So, we’ll get into training camp and see how that goes. But I feel pretty good about it.”

Daniels exclusively played left guard during last year’s regular season, with the Bears opting to hold steady with Whitehair at center for the third consecutive season. Whitehair, though, was drafted as a guard back in 2016 and only moved to center after the last-minute signing of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Daniels, too, starred as a center at Iowa and did get a smattering of preseason snaps there before fully committing to playing guard his rookie year. 

The change is the only planned one on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, which returns every primary starter from 2018 (Daniels, Whitehair, Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Kyle Long). Perhaps the most significant change for this group, then, will be losing Sowell as its backup tackle. 

Windy City: Smoke Out?

Taquan Mizzell will work as a wide receiver during OTAs, with the now-former running back trading in No. 33 for No. 11 but facing an uphill battle to make the Bears’ roster. 

Mizzell does have a decent track record as a pass-catcher dating back to his college days at Virginia, but it’ll take a massive effort for the third-year player to crack into a crowded receiver room that already has a competitive battle brewing between Javon Wims, Marvin Hall and a group of undrafted free agents. 

While it’s too early to grant rookie running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. a roster spot, shifting Mizzell out of the picture does appear to create a clearer path for the seventh-round pick to stick with the Bears this fall. 

Countdown to the NBA Draft: The best all-time selection at picks 1-30

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USA TODAY

Countdown to the NBA Draft: The best all-time selection at picks 1-30

We're counting down the days until the NBA Draft by looking at the best players selected at No. 30, 29, 28 all the way down to No. 1. Check back every day leading up to June 20th for a new player and a new all-time best pick.

No. 30: Jimmy Butler

No. 29: 5/23
No. 28: 5/24
No. 27: 5/25
No. 26: 5/26
No. 25: 5/27
No. 24: 5/28
No. 23: 5/29
No. 22: 5/30
No. 21: 5/31
No. 20: 6/1
No. 19: 6/2
No. 18: 6/3
No. 17: 6/4
No. 16: 6/5
No. 15: 6/6
No. 14: 6/7
No. 13: 6/8
No. 12: 6/9
No. 11: 6/10
No. 10: 6/11
No. 9: 6/12
No. 8: 6/13
No. 7: 6/14
No. 6: 6/15
No. 5: 6/16
No. 4: 6/17
No. 3: 6/18
No. 2: 6/19
No. 1: 6/20