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Seton favored, but not easy path to 2A title

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Seton favored, but not easy path to 2A title

Seton Academy of South Holland won the Class 2A championship in 2009 and coach Brandon Thomas' Sting is favored again in 2012. But once-beaten Breese Central and unbeaten Byron look to be formidable threats.

Seton could be tested in the Herscher sectional by the host school. Another Chicago area school that could contend is Immaculate Conception. Other contenders are Normal University High, Teutopolis, Pinckneyville, Alton Marquette and Flora.

With four starters and 13 of 15 players returning from last year's 21-8 sectional finalist, Thomas believes his 2012 team is deeper than the state championship team. The Sting average more than 80 points per game.

Thomas concedes he doesn't have a player of superstar credentials like 2009 star D.J. Cooper but has more quickness and overall talent with junior Mark Weems (15 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior J.R. Tolliver (12 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Russell Robinson (11 ppg, 8 rpg), junior guard Kamal Shasi (12 ppg) and senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 6 assists).

"The fact that we don't have a superstar player makes them believe more in the system rather than relying on one guy when we are in trouble," Thomas said. "Our kids are more mature this year. They believe they can win. I'm looking forward to seeing how we handle success."

Seton is battle-tested. The Sting has beaten Marist and Hope Academy but lost to Chicago Public League powers Orr and Farragut. Thomas, who once assisted Gary London at Hales Franciscan, is well aware of what can happen in a state tournament that often is unpredictable.

"I was at Hales Franciscan when we were the favorites to win it all one year," Thomas recalled. "We had JaVale McGee and Jerome Randle, two future pros, and we wound up losing to Herscher in the sectional. So it can happen."

Thomas must have a premonition of things to come. In Wednesday night's Class 2A regional semifinal, Seton barely got past Chicago University High 72-64 in double overtime. Russell Robinson had 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks while Mark Weems scored 16 points.

Seton (24-4) will meet tradition power Hales Franciscan in the regional final at University of Chicago's Ratner Center Gymnasium on Friday night.

Once again, Herscher awaits in the sectional. Coach Todd Schwarzkopf's 2010 team won 24 in a row before losing to Hales Franciscan in the sectional. Last year's team was 20-7 and lost to Paxton-Loda-Buckley in the regional final. But the 2012 team could be best of all.

Herscher has great size with the Ruckman twins, 6-foot-5 Jordan and Justin, and 6-foot-5 Ben Wenzelman, who averages 17 points per game. They make Herscher's 1-3-1 half-court trap defense very effective by playing on tap and on the wings. Spike Engelman is the floor leader.

Immaculate Conception, favored at the Lisle sectional, is enjoying its best season in school history. IC has never won a sectional and just won its first conference title since 1967. So coach Darren Howard has every reason to believe that this squad is capable of accomplishing even more.

The Elmhurst school is led by point guard John Cheng (15 ppg, 5 assists, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 Brian Harvey (14 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-2 junior Demetrius Carr (16 ppg, 5 rpg), a transfer from St. Joseph. Lack of size--IC's tallest player is 6-foot-4--hasn't been a serious issue to date.

Breese Central, which is 27-1 and ranked No. 2 in the state, is in the lower bracket and could meet Seton in the semifinals in Peoria. Coach Stan Eagleson is in his 26th year. His 2010 team was 30-5 and finished fourth in the state after losing to Peoria Manual and Hales Franciscan. Last year's team was 30-3 and lost to Murphysboro in the supersectional.

Since 1996, Eagleson has been enormously successful. He has produced four teams that have won 30 or more games and eight that have won 20 or more games. How good is this year's team? "Potentially, this is the best team I have had," he said.

"We play good man-to-man defense and we feel we have the best player on the floor in 6-foot-6 senior Brandon Book," Eagleson said. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is our leading perimeter shooter."

Book, who averages 21 points and nine rebounds per game, is the leading scorer in school history. Other contributors are 6-foot sophomore point guard Jacob Timmermann (9 ppg, 4 assists), 5-foot-10 senior guard Nick Grapperhaus (9 ppg), 5-foot-10 junior guard Justin Becker and 6-foot-7 junior Kyler Scheer.

Becker is the team leader in steals and Sheer, who missed most of the season with a stress injury in his leg, has returned to give Breese Central two intimidating big men under the boards.

Breese Central's only loss was to Vianney of Kirkwood, Missouri, in January. Eagleson's team has beaten some of the best teams in his area, including Breese Mater Dei three times, Harrisburg and Flora. The Cougars likely will meet Breese Mater Dei in the regional final on Friday night.

How does Eagleson explain his success since 1996? "We've had a lot of great players since 1996, a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," he said.

Eagleson also credits a feeder system developed in a consolidated school district and the stability of his coaching staff. Assistant Dave Thomas has been with him for 26 years. Junior varsity coach Jeremy Shubert for over 10 years and freshman coach Kurt Peters for over 15 years.

"The competition with Breese Mater Dei also makes us better, also with Carlyle, Trenton-Wesclin and Nashville," Eagleson said. "This is a strong area for high school basketball."

Byron, which competes in the South Beloit sectional in the upper bracket of the Class 2A playoff, is 27-0 and likely will have to get past Rockford Lutheran for a fourth time if it hopes to advance beyond the sectional for the first time in school history.

Byron has beaten Rockford Lutheran three times this season, the only losses the Rockford school has suffered in a 24-3 season. Byron beat Lutheran by one point on Feb. 4 on a buzzer-beating shot by Hunter Hill. Earlier, the Tigers beat Lutheran by four and 12.

In his fourth season, Byron coach Tom Schmidt has taken his program from 16-12 to 20-8 to 23-6 to 27-0. Last year's team lost to Rockford Christian in the sectional. This year's squad averages 66.4 points per game while allowing only 39.5.

Despite its success, Schmidt is looking for more. "Offensively, we still haven't played a complete game yet. We haven't put it together where everybody is making a shot," he said.

Schmidt returned six of his top eight players from last year's squad. There were high expectations and the Tigers have delivered. There is plenty of balance with five players averaging between nine and 12 points per game. They are unselfish, handle the ball well, shoot well, pass well and aren't afraid to share the ball.

"We have a few kids who can score 20 points per game but we don't have to," Schmidt said, dispelling the notion that a team must have at least one player of All-State stature to win a state championship.

Hunter Hill, a 5-foot-9 senior point guard and a three-year starter, makes the offense go. He averages 10.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. Others to watch are 6-foot-6 senior Collin Russell (12 ppg, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 senior Ryan Hopkins (10 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Gavyn Nelson (10.5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Logan Crull (9 ppg).

"Hill has been the consistent guy for us. He gets the ball where it has to be. Then one or two different guys step up," Schmidt said. "To continue to be successful, we need to continue to play the same type of defense (man-to-man and zone) we have been playing and execute on offense."

Another team to watch is Pinckneyville, which is 24-4 and has won 13 in a row but is unranked among the state's leading Class 2A teams. The Panthers are comparable to the 2006 and 2008 teams that finished fourth in the state tournament.

Coach Bob Waggoner's team, led by guards Hunter Queen and Brian Shute, will meet Trico (25-5) in the regional final at Pinckneyville on Friday night. Ironically, Trico is coached by Shane Hawkins, the greatest player in the long and distinguished history of Pinckneyville basketball.

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avi Garcia's played in fewer than 20 games since April, but could he still attract trade-deadline suitors?

Avisail Garcia returned from his latest disabled-list stint with a bang, smacking a three-run home run in the fourth inning Saturday in Seattle.

The White Sox right fielder hasn't even played in 20 games since late April, when he went on his first DL trip, which lasted two months. A second, also featuring an injury to his hamstring, made it two weeks between games.

But when he has been able to step to the plate this summer, Garcia has been tremendously productive. He came into Saturday night with a .333/.347/.783 slash line and a whopping eight home runs in the 17 games he played in between his two DL stays. Then he added that homer Saturday night off longtime Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, giving him nine homers in his last 14 games.

Keeping this up could do an awful lot of things for Garcia: It could make his ice-cold start a distant memory, it could prove that last year's All-Star season might not have been a fluke, and it could keep him entrenched in the conversation about the White Sox outfield of the future, giving the team one of those good problems to have when deciding how he would fit into the puzzle alongside top prospects like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.

But here's another possibility: Has Garcia swung a hot enough bat in his limited action that he could be a trade candidate before this month runs out?

The White Sox don't figure to have too many players who are going to get contending teams worked up into a lather. James Shields, Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Xavier Cedeno. Those guys could classify as additions that would bolster teams' depth, but they might not be the attractive upgrades the White Sox were able to trade away last summer.

Garcia, though, could be. He might not slide into the middle of the order for too many contenders, but someone looking for a starting corner outfielder might be enticed by the kind of numbers Garcia has put up in June and July, albeit in a small sample size. Teams would also have to consider his health. He's already been to the disabled list twice this season. Teams would certainly have to be confident he wouldn't return in order to make a deal.

On the White Sox end, Garcia would figure to fetch a far more intriguing return package than the aforementioned pitchers, given that he's still pretty young (27) with one more season of team control after this one.

The White Sox have plenty of options when it comes to Garcia. They could deal him now, deal him later or keep as a part of the rebuild, extending him and making him a featured player on the next contending team on the South Side. But with a lot of significant injuries this year perhaps having an effect on when all those highly rated prospects will finally arrive in the majors — not to mention the disappointing win-loss numbers the big league team has put up this season — perhaps it would make more sense to acquire some rebuild-bolstering pieces.

Of course, it all depends on if there are any deals to be made. Do other teams' front offices like what they've seen from Garcia in this short stretch as much as White Sox fans have? We'll know by the time August rolls around.

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

Cubs fight back after Javy Baez ejection: 'We're not animals'

If baseball wants stars that transcend the game, they need guys like Javy Baez on the field MORE, not less.

That whole debate and baseball's marketing campaign isn't the issue the Cubs took exception with, but it's still a fair point on a nationally-televised Saturday night game between the Cubs and Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

Baez was ejected from the game in the bottom of the fifth inning when he threw his bat and helmet in frustration at home plate umpire Will Little's call that the Cubs second baseman did NOT check his swing and, in fact, went around. 

Baez was initially upset that Little made the call himself instead of deferring to first base umpire Ted Barrett for a better view. But as things escalated, Baez threw his bat and helmet and was promptly thrown out of the game by Little.

"I don't think I said anything to disrespect anything or anyone," Baez said after the Cubs' 6-3 loss. "It was a pretty close call. I only asked for him to check the umpire at first and he didn't say anything.

"I threw my helmet and he just threw me out from there. I mean, no reason. I guess for my helmet, but that doesn't have anything to do with him."

Baez and the Cubs would've rather Little check with the umpire who had a better view down the line, but that wasn't even the main point of contention. It was how quickly Little escalated to ejection.

"We're all human," Baez said. "One way or the other, it was gonna be the wrong [call] for one of the teams.

"My message? We're not animals. Sometimes we ask where was a pitch or if it was a strike and it's not always offending them. I think we can talk things out. But I don't think there was anything there to be ejected."

Upon seeing his second baseman and cleanup hitter ejected in the middle of a 1-0 game against a division rival, Joe Maddon immediately got fired up and in Little's face in a hurry.

Maddon was later ejected, as well, and admitted after the game he was never going to leave the field unless he was tossed for protecting his guy.

"He had no reason to kick him out," Maddon said. "He didn't say anything to him. I mean, I watched the video. If you throw stuff, that's a fine. That's fineable. Fine him. That's what I said — fine him — but you cannot kick him out right there.

"He did nothing to be kicked out of that game. He did throw his stuff, whatever, but he did not say anything derogatory towards the umpire.

"...You don't kick Javy out. If he gets in your face and is obnoxious or belligerent or whatever, but he did not. He turned his back to him. That needs to be addressed, on both ends."

Maddon and the Cubs really want Major League Baseball to get involved in this situation. 

There are many other layers to the issue, including veteran Ben Zobrist having to come into the game as Baez's replacement. Maddon was not keen on using the 37-year-old Zobrist for 1.5 games during Saturday's doubleheader and now feels like he has to rest the veteran Sunday to lessen the wear and tear of a difficult stretch for the team.

There's also the matter of the groundball basehit in the eighth inning that tied the game — a seeing-eye single that just got past Zobrist as he dove to his left. It tied the game at 3 and the Cardinals took the lead for good the following inning.

Does Baez make that same play if he were out there instead of Zobrist? It's certainly possible.

"The dynamic of our defense was lessened by [the ejection]," Maddon said. "Again, listen, if it's deserved, I'm good. It was not. They don't need me out there, we need Javy out there.

"And it surprised me. I stand by what I'm saying. It was inappropriate. MLB needs to say something to us that it was inappropriate because it was and it could've led to the loss of that game."