Bears

Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

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Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

Juwan Starks is writing his own page in the history of West Aurora basketball. The 6-3 senior is averaging 22 points per game and is within 316 points of surpassing Billy Taylor as the school's all-time leading scorer.

Remember, this is West Aurora, not Rinky Dink High. Starks' coach is Gordon Kerkman, who has won 717 games in his 36-year career. Only 11 coaches in state history have won more.

Remember, this is West Aurora. Starks not only is on the brink of moving ahead of Billy Taylor on the all-time scoring list but he already has passed Kenny Battle, Bill Small, John Biever, Jim Krelle, Matt and Ron Hicks, Jay and John Bryant, Dameon Mason, Shaun Pruitt and Larry Hatchett.

The truth is Starks used to be an East Sider. His family has its roots in East Aurora. But his family moved to West Aurora so Juwan could attend kindergarten and his mother decided to stay. At 5, he became a West Sider.

At the time, he didn't know the difference. Now he does.

"Some family members say I should be a Tomcat instead of a Blackhawk," he said. "When I was a sixth grader, I watched the EastWest games. My uncle, Aaron McGhee, played for East Aurora and Oklahoma. When I was growing up, I didn't care. To me, it was just a different side of town. I was on the West Side and all the others were on the East Side."

But Starks is highly motivated this season. He is a rarity at West Aurora, a four-year starter. But he hasn't experienced as much success as former stars such as Taylor or Battle or Small. His last two teams were 13-16 and 14-12, hardly the kind of numbers that Kerkman is used to putting up. He won a state championship in 2000, finished second in 1997 and third in 1980, 1984 and 2004.

"Last year, we lost in the regional opener. It was very disappointing, a down year. I couldn't wait to come back this year," Starks said. "I felt I could do more to help my team win. I'm very motivated this year. I'm motivated by trying to win my first regional and by becoming the all-time leading scorer at West Aurora. We want to go Downstate this year."

He also is motivated to find a college. He said he is talking to Jacksonville, Liberty, Eastern Kentucky and Indiana State. But he has no scholarship offers. He hopes his performance this season will attract interest from more Division I schools.

The Blackhawks are 7-1 after sweeping Glenbard North 66-52 and East Aurora 73-42 last week. The Blackhawks will meet York Friday, then compete in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. To win the prestigious three-day event for the first time since 1990, they likely will have to beat Danville, Curie, Warren and Simeon in succession.

"We have been too up and down this year. We lack consistency," Kerkman said. "But Pontiac should be a barometer for us. If we get to the Final Four, that means we will play good teams. You hope to play four games and play good teams. It helps to make you a better team.

"I look for overall team play. Traditionally, we haven't been a team that focuses on one player. We look for balanced scoring. At Pontiac, we usually find out which kids we can depend on for scoring or if other kids will round into form and break into the starting lineup."

Kerkman counts on Starks, 6-foot sophomore Jontrel Walker (14 ppg), 6-foot junior Jayquan Lee (8 ppg), 6-1 junior twins Chandler (7.4 ppg) and Spencer (7.2 ppg) Thomas. But 6-6 junior Josh McAuley is making a good case for a starting spot and 6-foot senior Brandon Gossett also provides spark off the bench.

Last week, McAuley had 16 points and eight rebounds in a breakout game against Glenbard North, then came back the next night to get 11 points and 11 rebounds against East Aurora.

Starks had 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists against Glenbard North and Walker contributed 15 points. But Starks got into early foul trouble against East Aurora and finished with only six points. McAuley and Lee, who also scored 11 points, picked up the slack.

Kerkman recently celebrated his 75th birthday. But he hasn't lost a step. "I have no thoughts about retiring. I still enjoy coaching. When I don't enjoy it, I'm gone. I have fun working with kids. When you can't get them to do what you'd like them to do, it isn't fun," he said.

Practices and games are most fun of all. And he enjoys the challenge of teaching. "Right now, we're having a problem with decision-making. Unfortunately, I don't know how to correct it. I'm trying all kinds of passing drills to indoctrinate them into decision-making," he said.

He relishes the opportunity to match wits and X's and O's against good teams and good coaches. He acknowledges that the game has changed, that players have more athleticism and teams apply more ball pressure than in past years. But he doesn't agree with the common assessment that kids have changed. Not his kids, he insists.

"Most people say the kids have changed...more distractions, like video games...but they haven't changed in terms of attitude," Kerkman said. "We do things differently, new drills. Practices are better than 20 years ago, more organized. I'd like to think I'm doing a better job of coaching."

Starks has observed Kerkman up close and personal for four years. He admits it is easy to get "star-struck" over his winning record and stories about what a great coach he is. "But once you get to know him, he is so passionate about the game. He will do what it takes to win. He motivates us a lot, gets us hyped up for games," he said.

He reminds that former West Aurora star Dameon Mason once told him: 'Coach can be mean. But he's really trying to help you succeed and motivate you to be a better player.' Starks and his teammates often mimic Kerkman, the way he talks, the way he yells, how he sometimes forgets a name or a play, how he gets bright red in the face when he tries to drive his message across.

"We look at him as a father figure," Starks said. "He is always going to be there for us. He never puts anyone down. He always picks us up. He is always consistent. He never changes. He has a great basketball IQ. He does the same things, the same drills, but he doesn't do what others do."

He still conducts three-hour practices, something he adopted from his mentor, John McDougal. And he doesn't pressure the ball as much as he did when Kenny Battle was playing. This team isn't as quick as the teams of the 1980s so he has slowed down the game a bit and relies more on solid defense.

"I don't think I have changed much," Kerkman concluded. "I don't get on referees as much as before. I used to worry more about officials' calls. But the more I officiated, the less I coached. I'm not as concerned about their decisions as I used to be."

Oh, one last thing. Practices are more tiring. Just as long but more tiring because his knee might get sore or pain in his lower back might force him to sit down. "I don't like to do that," he said. He still is having too much fun.

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

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USA Today Sports Images

Matt Nagy is winning over his players by being himself

Despite losing 34 of his 48 games as the Bears’ head coach, John Fox’s players generally liked him and were disappointed to see him fired on New Year’s Day. That’s not to say they were blindsided by it — losing leads to people losing their jobs, even if the culture at Halas Hall had changed for the better following the disastrous end of the Marc Trestman-Phil Emery era. 

It was with that backdrop that Matt Nagy was offered and accepted the position of Bears head coach a week after Fox’s firing. Four and a half months later, Nagy has seemingly made a strong first impression on his new team, with one reason standing out among many: He’s genuine in who he is and what he does.

“I would say Nagy can be stern, and he can be playful also,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “I think when you’re a first-year coach, you want to win (over) your guys, and you want to be firm, and he’s doing that. You can’t really tell he’s a rookie coach or whatever. I feel like he was born for this, and he’s doing a great job.”

Granted, no player is going to publicly blast their new boss — especially not before he’s even coached a game yet. But veteran players also aren’t oblivious to who can and cannot work out as a head coach, and there haven’t been any “damning with faint praise” types of comments that were more common five years ago at the beginning of the Trestman era.

Will this win Nagy any games come September? No. But consider this sort of like team chemistry: It won't win a team anything, but if a team doesn't have it, it can be costly. 

“He’s a cool coach, man,” linebacker Danny Trevathan — who played for Fox in both Denver and Chicago — said. “He’s always giving us little details and smiling but we know he’s a hard worker just like we are. He’s up there working just like we are. He’s always putting us in the right position and he takes care of us. On the back end, where I come from, you take care of coaches like that. You go out and make plays for those coaches.”

From an observational standpoint, Nagy comes across as genuinely excited not just to be a head coach, but the head coach of the Bears. Players respect that approach — he's not coming in acting like a hired gun, and he's shown through these OTAs and practices that he cares about them, even if they haven't spent much time together yet. And he's also not strutting into Halas Hall every day with an over-inflated ego based on his promotion. That resonates, too. 

“I like the way he came in,” Trevathan said. “He came in humble but he was hungry. He came anxious, moving around in the meetings. I like that. That gets me fired up. I feel like we’ve got a good leader up here in the head coach.”

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

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USA TODAY

Reynaldo Lopez is changing his place in the White Sox rebuild: 'When I'm on the mound, I'm the best and I don't care about the rest'

Rebuilds are full of surprises.

Fans can pencil in any names they want into their 2020 lineups, but there’s almost no one who’s going to have a 100-percent success rate when it comes to predicting exactly what the next contending White Sox team will look like.

Reynaldo Lopez carried plenty of hype when he was acquired from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton deal prior following the 2016 season. He had a high prospect ranking before he was called up last summer. He hasn’t materialized out of nowhere.

But with names like Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, Alec Hansen, Carlos Rodon and others to compete with for one of those coveted rotation spots of the future, was anyone going to use the term “ace” to describe Lopez?

Well, in this rebuilding season’s most pleasant surprise for the White Sox and their fans, that’s exactly what Lopez has been. He’s been hands down the team’s best starting pitcher, and he’s making the case that he shouldn’t be considered an ancillary piece in this rebuilding process but a featured one.

He might not be getting the attention that others are. But he’s doing the most with his opportunity of being at the big league level right now. In the end, as long as you’re getting batters out, who cares how much attention you get?

“It’s not about what people say or what they are talking about,” Lopez said through a translator. “It’s about the confidence I have in myself, and I have plenty of confidence in myself. For me, I’m the best. I’m not saying the other guys are not. I’m just saying that’s the confidence I have. When I’m on the mound, I’m the best and I don’t care about the rest.”

Sunday marked the best start of Lopez’s young career, so said the pitcher himself. He was terrific in shutting down the visiting Texas Rangers, holding them to just two hits over eight scoreless innings.

It was one heck of a bounce-back performance considering what happened last time out, when he was roughed up for six runs in just two innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The difference? His attitude, his focus, his intensity, his conviction.

“I just changed my attitude in the game,” Lopez said. “I was more positive today than I was in my last outing and that was one of my biggest differences.”

“I do think he came out a little bit more focused, to be honest,” manager Rick Renteria said. “The intensity level was a little higher today. I think he threw the first couple pitches 97, 98 miles an hour, where his last outing they were at 93, 94. There wasn’t a whole lot of commitment or conviction to his pitches (against the Pirates). I think, as we talked after the last outing, (pitching coach Don Cooper) spoke to him a little about making sure he brought that intensity that he has the ability to do, to bring it from Pitch 1 and he did today.”

Renteria liked it all, and he saw something different in his pitcher when he went out to talk to him with two outs in the eighth. Lopez issued a two-out walk, and Renteria considered lifting Lopez from the game.

Lopez made sure his manager wouldn’t pull the plug on this outing.

“I hid the baseball in my glove because I didn’t want to leave the game,” Lopez said. “I asked me, ‘How are you? Are you good?’ And I told him, ‘Yes, I’m good.’ Then he asked me again, ‘Do you think you are able to get him out?’ And I said yes, ‘This is my game, and I’m going to finish it.’”

What did Lopez do with his extra life? He finished it all right, blowing Shin-Soo Choo away with a 96-mile-an-hour fastball. Then he showed as much emotion as he’s ever shown on a major league field. He earned that celebration.

“When you see your manager come out and you’ve already gone through most of your game in terms of what you might think you have in number of pitches available to you, and you reiterate that you want to finish a particular batter because you want to get out of that inning, and you do it, it's an accomplishment,” Renteria said. “It's a big accomplishment. For him, pretty good hitter. He battled him and he was able to get out of that inning and complete a very, very strong eight-inning outing.”

It’s the kind of exclamation point on a dominant afternoon that could stir some big plans in White Sox fans always dreaming of the future. What Lopez has done this season has been a strong case for a spot in that future rotation and a spot at the front of it, at that. Following Sunday’s gem, Lopez owns a 2.98 ERA with at least six strikeouts in four of his nine starts.

There’s a lot of development and a lot of time left before the White Sox contention window opens. But Lopez pitching like this offers a glimpse into the crystal ball, a look at what could be for an organization that’s acquired so much talent over the last two years.

You might not have seen it coming like this, but the future arriving in the form of Lopez is a sign that brighter days are ahead on the South Side.