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Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

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Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

Since I retired as a sportswriter and high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001, I have written four books, two of them on high school basketball in Illinois.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn't write at least three others--on Hebron's 1952 team, the smallest school ever to win a state championship, Thornridge's 1972 team, the best in state history, and the 1964 Cobden Appleknockers, perhaps the best Cinderella story of all.

Fortunately, someone else was enterprising enough to do it. Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, and his wife Julie Kistler co-authored "Once There Were Giants." Scott Lynn, a former basketball player at Lincoln, authored and self-published "Thornridge." And Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman co-authored "The Amazing Appleknockers" for Lusk Creek Publishing.

In my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, I wrote chapters on all three subjects.

During one of my research trips to southern Illinois, I visited Cobden High School and interviewed Cobden star Chuck Neal at his home in nearby Anna. I also interviewed several other players by telephone and visited coach Dick Ruggles at his home in Nashville.

It was a magical story. Aside from Hebron in 1952, the state tournament hasn't seen anything like it. Cobden was the school of 147 students that could and almost did. The Appleknockers lost to Pekin 50-45 in the state championship game, but they captured the hearts of everyone outside of Pekin.

Campbell and Ryman never saw the 1964 Cobden team play--they are 1986 graduates of the school. But they heard all the of stories and decided they should put them into print. They spent four years researching the subject and two years trying to find someone to publish their manuscript.

"Being from Cobden, you always hear the story of the amazing Appleknockers. We wanted to preserve it. It if wasn't written down, we thought it wouldn't be remembered accurately or perhaps not at all," said Campbell, now a basic skills specialist and assistant coordinator for public and sport information at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

"That's Cobden's claim to fame. The 1964 team's picture is in the gym. They are our local heroes. I didn't know the details of the story. I just knew they went to state and lost to Pekin. A lot of people think they won. When I was a student, marching in a high school parade in West Frankfort and in the State Fair parade in Springfield, people said we won state in 1964. We wouldn't correct them."

But Campbell and Ryman, very close friends who have known each other since third grade, decided to set the record straight. Their first interview was star player Kenny Flick, who still lives in Cobden. Flick's decision to quit the team during his junior season because his girlfriend got pregnant, and his return to the team as a senior is only one of the most interesting stories in the book.

"He had a reputation of not being real talkative but he talked to us for three hours," Campbell said. "He told us a lot of stories that weren't basketball-related. We knew it would be a book. We were committed. It wasn't all that hard to get interviews. Bob Smith (who died in 2008) is the only one who isn't alive. But we had interviewed him. Our only regret is he didn't see the finished product."

Ryman, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a reporter for the Arizona Republic, said she was impressed with how the coaches and players were able to recollect things. Ruggles, for example, had total recall of his two-year hiatus in Cobden, a word-for-word account, a virtual play-by-play.

"We were fascinated by the level of detail," Ryman said. "We never went away from an interview without learning something. It was so rewarding to talk to them about what they went through. They weren't out for personal glory. There was no star. It was just a case of who was hot that night. There were so many good stories, like a soap opera."

Theirs is a fascinating tale. It's all there...how 27-year-old Dick Ruggles was recruited from Hurst-Bush High School to become the coach at Cobden, the tragic death of starting guard Tom Crowell, star player Kenny Flick's decision to quit the team after his girlfriend got pregnant, the school board's decision to change a rule prohibiting married students from competing in sports, thus allowing Flick to return to school and play on the team as a senior, the one-point victory over Egyptian in the regional, the triple overtime victory over Pinckneyville in the supersectional, almost play-by-play accounts of the important games, mascot Roger Burnett placing five apples on the floor of Assembly Hall while 16,000 fans cheered, the fanatical support by students, parents and fans.

Perhaps most intriguing is Ruggles total recall of the events, from his decision to take the job before the 1962-63 season to leaving Cobden after the 1963-64 season to become coach at Nashville. The book is laced with his recollections of plays and games, pregame speeches, halftime speeches, postgame speeches, quote by quote. It is as if it all happened last week, not nearly 50 years ago.

When I interviewed Chuck Neal at his home in Anna in 2002, nearly 40 years after teammate Tom Crowell had drowned in a swimming accident a few months before the 1963-64 season, he still had to wipe away tears when recalling the tragedy.

"What always has stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it may not have happened," he said. Neal, Ken Smith and Crowell planned to go swimming on a warm day in May. Chuck knew his father, a member of the school board who largely had been responsible for hiring Ruggles, didn't want him to go to Little Grassy Lake because it was known to have a big dropoff. So Chuck told him they would go to Lamer's Pond. Instead, they went to Little Grassy.

Crowell wasn't a very good swimmer. Smith and Neal decided to swim across the cove but told Crowell to stay behind in a shallow area. When they got halfway across, they turned around to see Crowell struggling in deep water. He apparently had tried to follow them. Neal went ahead to get help and Smith swam back and desperately tried to save Crowell's life.

"It was the most horrible experience I even had, even worse than Vietnam," Smith said. "He kept fighting me and he kept going under and he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I think about what Tom could have been."

The class of 1964 still gets together every five years and the graduates who still live in the Cobden area get together every month. The basketball team celebrated a 40th anniversary by serving as grand marshals of the Peach Festival parade. A 50th reunion is planned in 2014.

A story like this had to be told. So it's a good thing that Campbell and Ryman, after looking for a publisher for two years, finally ran into the owner of Lusk Creek Publishing of Makanda, Illinois, at a winery in southern Illinois.

"We had a lot of rejections," Campbell said. "University of Illinois Press and Southern Illinois Press turned it down. Some publishers wouldn't even accept a proposal. SIU thought it was too small of an audience."

It's a story that anyone would love to read.

Facing the Blackhawks in Round One is 'going to be fun' for Robin Lehner

Facing the Blackhawks in Round One is 'going to be fun' for Robin Lehner

Saturday afternoon, after eliminating the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in Game 4 on Friday night, the Blackhawks learned they'll be facing the Vegas Golden Knights and very likely a certain former Hawks goalie in Round One.

Robin Lehner was in net for the Knights in their overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche to help Vegas grab the No. 1 seed in the West for Round One, pitting them against the Blackhawks, who were the No. 12 seed in the qualifying round.

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner unveils new pads

Lehner has seen the majority of the starts in net for the Knights at the beginning of the postseason tournament over three-time Stanley Cup champ Marc-Andre Fleury.

The 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist was traded from Chicago to Vegas ahead of Feb. 24's trade deadline. He was 16-10-5 as a Hawk during the 2019-20 regular season with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage prior to the move.

Related: Former Blackhawks goalie Robin Lehner's birthday cake is unreal

Following Saturday's game, Lehner was asked about facing the Blackhawks and his former goalie partner Corey Crawford in Round One and if playing with them earlier this season carries an advantage.

"I don't know. All I know is it's going to be fun playing them," Lehner said. "They're a very good hockey team and I have a lot of respect for them, the whole organization... but I think I really like it here (with Vegas), we're a great hockey team."

The 29-year-old netminder got off to a hot start with Vegas ahead of the NHL pause on March 12 going 3-0-0 with 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage. 

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AL Central race: For White Sox, solving Indians pitching a tall task but a must

AL Central race: For White Sox, solving Indians pitching a tall task but a must

The Cleveland Indians have the best starting rotation in baseball.

And while that might have been an opinion back before the abbreviated 2020 campaign got underway, it’s a fact at the moment. The Indians’ starting staff leads baseball with a 2.09 ERA and 124 strikeouts. Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale — not to mention Adam Plutko, who’s also made one nice start — have dominated opposing lineups.


Click to download the MyTeams App for the latest White Sox news and analysis.

Often, they’ve dominated the White Sox lineup.

The South Siders have seen Cleveland’s starting pitchers five times in their first 15 games of the season, and an offense that was talked up as so capable before and since Opening Day has done very little against this superb collection of hurlers. A 2-3 record against the Indians following Saturday’s 7-1 defeat could certainly be much worse. But in five games against them, the White Sox have scored a total of 13 runs. And only five of those came against the starting pitchers.

The first two games of this weekend series at Guaranteed Rate Field have featured more exemplary starting-pitching performances by the Indians. Civale threw seven one-run innings Friday night, and Plesac was again excellent with six shutout innings Saturday afternoon. Neither performance matched what they did against this same White Sox team a little more than a week ago in Cleveland. But it certainly was enough to keep the White Sox bats quiet.

And Bieber, currently running away with the AL Cy Young Award — he’s got an 0.83 ERA and 35 strikeouts in three starts — awaits in Sunday night's nationally televised showdown.

If the White Sox are going to keep pace in the race for the AL Central crown, they’ll need to figure out a way to solve these Indians pitchers.

“These are the types of guys we have to get after,” manager Rick Renteria said after Saturday’s game. “To win, you have to put together the focus, the concentration. It’s not easy, trust me, when you’re facing guys like this. But you have to put things together enough to start a line and keep it moving and scratch away and claw and score a run or two here and there.”

RELATED: White Sox in the thick of it as AL Central race with Indians, Twins heats up

The much discussed White Sox lineup, remade during the offseason with the additions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and Nomar Mazara and the promotion of Luis Robert, has certainly showed what it’s capable of this season. In the second game of the year, it hung 10 runs on the Minnesota Twins. In back-to-back wins over the Kansas City Royals last weekend, the White Sox exploded for a combined 20 runs on 35 hits.

And granted, this lineup has not been at full strength for even one game this season. The injury bug has chomped down on the White Sox and not let go. Mazara, the team's starting right fielder, started the season on the injured list. Currently, starting shortstop Tim Anderson and starting second baseman Nick Madrigal are on the IL. Encarnación is sidelined, too.

But the White Sox bats have been cool for a bit now, with just nine runs scored in the last five games against the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. That hasn’t always equaled losses, and they’re 2-3 in those five games, with the pitching coming through to carry the day in certain spots.

Unfortunately for the White Sox, though, a cold snap, a growing list of injuries, three games against Cleveland’s elite pitching and, as Renteria pointed out Saturday, a little fatigue in this most unusual of seasons makes for an unproductive recipe.

“We are facing a club that has solid pitching, really good pitching. And we have to bring our game up,” Renteria said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a little fatigued or tired. Nobody cares about that. The reality is you have to be able to put together and string together really good at-bats, which is not easy to do, but it’s what we have to do.

“I think that maybe today’s game will be a great learning tool for us to understand. No one is going to give us anything. You don’t just turn on and turn off offenses. They are grown through a process, focus, concentration and a prepared attack. When we do that, we are really good.

“For me it’s just a blip. We have to keep playing and keep fighting. There’s not a whole lot of time left, and we are going to try to do the best we possibly can and keep moving forward in a positive direction.”

RELATED: Aaron Bummer latest to join big White Sox contingent on injured list

Since they reported to the South Side in early July for “Summer Camp,” the players have talked about this odd season, how in a 60-game sprint to October every game matters and means a lot. Modest winning streaks and losing streaks can tug an entire season in any direction. Games against division foes mean even more, with each set of 10 games against division rivals representing a full sixth of the schedule.

The White Sox seemed capable of going toe to toe with the Twins and Indians when the season began, though the task was always going to be a tall one. The Twins have one of baseball’s most dangerous lineups, and the White Sox can attest after a pair of opening-weekend thumpings those bats delivered. The Indians have the game’s finest rotation, and the White Sox know that well, too, after five games against their top-flight chuckers.

Despite the dominance of the Cleveland rotation, the two teams have taken turns in second place in the division standings over the first two games of this series. It's not like the AL Central has slipped away from the White Sox just yet.

Indeed, they have the potential to be the most balanced among the group of division contenders, with a potentially potent lineup and a potentially fearsome pitching staff. Injuries are no excuse, especially when the whole league’s going through the same thing, but it’s difficult to live up to that full potential when so many key cogs are on the injured list.

The White Sox won’t use that to wriggle free of any responsibility, of course, and they’ll keep on trying to solve the Twins’ lineup and the Indians’ rotation. If they want to live up to the high expectations they set for themselves before the season started, they’ll have to. There's no other option.

“We’ll have to regroup and go back after them,” Renteria said. “These are the type teams we’ll have to beat. We have to string things together and pull out some victories.”


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