Cubs

Starks plants his roots in West Aurora

618138.png

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.

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

nico-vs-pirates.jpg
USA Today

What will Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once Addison Russell returns?

What will the Cubs do with Nico Hoerner once - or if - Addison Russell is able to return to the field?

Russell is still in concussion protocol and it's unknown when he will resume baseball activities. There are no clear timelines for head injuries and every person responds differently.

He was still showing symptoms this weekend after taking a 94 mph fastball to the face in Milwaukee last Sunday. Russell meets with team doctors each day, but will be relegated to the bench until he is given medical clearance to return.

Even if Russell is able to play again over these next couple days, how could the Cubs possibly take Hoerner out of the lineup right now?

The rookie collected 3 more hits Saturday, including a 3-run homer in the sixth inning:

That now gives him 11 RBI in his first six MLB games.

"Nico's performance cannot be overlooked," Joe Maddon said Saturday morning. "That [homer] was the first pitch he saw yesterday? I mean, c'mon. And beyond that, the thing I'm really focused on is the defense. He's really done a nice job on defense, which we really need that moment out there. The offense has been a plus.

"I have not given that thought until I know that Addison is ready to rock and roll. And once he does, I know one thing for sure - even if Nico were to start the game, we could upgrade the defense later with Addison in the game, too. So it's one of those things - I don't even permit myself to go there. I don't even know if [Russell is] gonna play or not. I don't know that.

"So in the meantime, Nico: just keep doing what you're doing. He's impressed probably the industry, but more importantly - the clubhouse. The guys have really been impressed by him."

It’s been a nightmare season for Russell. He missed the first month serving out the rest of his suspension for violating MLB's domestic violence policy. He was optioned to Triple-A Iowa initially after the suspension and then came up to the big leagues, where he struggled and was unable to carve out consistent playing time despite the Cubs' need for production at second base.

Russell was then demoted to the minors again in late-July after persistent baserunning/mental mistakes. When Javy Baez went down with injury on the last homestand, Russell stepped in to play shortstop (his natural position), but committed a throwing error in three straight games last weekend in Milwaukee.

Saturday marked only the 95th professional game in Hoerner's career, but he has drawn rave reviews from every corner of the Cubs clubhouse, including seasoned veteran Jon Lester tabbing him as a sparkplug.

Less than a week ago, Hoerner was sitting at home in Oakland with his family, thinking his regular season was done and getting ready to play in the Arizona Fall League soon.

Now, he and his family are at Wrigley Field, soaking it all in:

"[My first game at Wrigley] was amazing. It felt like I had always hoped it would," Hoerner said. "Something you think about for a long time and it definitely lived up to the hype. I had hyped it up to my family a lot just from seeing one game here last year. I said it was unlike anything I had ever seen before and they agreed."

After his debut week, it's natural for fans to wonder if Hoerner should be the Cubs' starting shortstop on a playoff roster even if Russell is able to come back healthy. Baez's exact timeline looms as an x-factor here, too.

Who knows how this will all play out over the next two weeks, but the Cubs have to get to October first and right now, Hoerner is clearly the answer to help them do so.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream

Blackhawks using first training camp under Jeremy Colliton to nail down defensive zone coverage

colliton_pic.jpg
USA Today

Blackhawks using first training camp under Jeremy Colliton to nail down defensive zone coverage

Jeremy Colliton has been the Blackhawks' head coach for more than 10 months now, but this is his first training camp with the team and he's able to instill some concepts that he wasn't able to do on the fly last season. The biggest thing, however, is that he was afforded a full summer to prep and can help get everyone on the same page during training camp and in the seven preseason games before the games actually matter.

"It's important," Duncan Keith said. "Systems nowadays, with the way teams are, it's important that everyone's on the same page. Having a training camp with the coaches and being able to implement the system and try to get on the same page early on, the quicker we can iron out everything the better off we're going to be."

The one area the Blackhawks have focused on heavily over the first two days is the defensive zone coverage. They gave up the most scoring chances and high-danger chances at 5-on-5 last season, and the team got better at it in the final month or so but it's still a work in progress.

"It's going to be huge," Patrick Kane said. "Even [Friday], first day we're running through some defensive coverage trying to get everything done tactically. I'm sure we'll do a little bit more of that each day and some different things as well. It'll be real beneficial for us just to all get on the same page, set the standard around here and feel confident about our team, the way we play going into the season."

The onus isn't just on the defensemen, either. It's a five-man unit and training camp is just as much about building trust with your teammates and being in the right spot as it is nailing down the scheme and letting it become muscle memory.

"We've all got to be on the same page," Brent Seabrook said. "If my D partner's doing it perfectly and I'm not, then we're not going to be any good at it. We've all got to be on the same page, we've all got to be doing our job and doing the right thing and the faster we get to that point, then I think it's just going to help us out in the long run. We're just going to keep getting better at it and we'll go from there."

The Blackhawks are going to continue working on their defensive zone coverage as camp goes along because that’s priority No. 1. Scoring goals won’t be an issue. And after Sunday’s training camp festival at the United Center, the Blackhawks have three consecutive preseason contests to apply what they've learned in a game-type setting.

"I just think getting guys on the same page as quickly as we can, that's really important,” Colliton said. “You saw there was a lot of D-zone work today [Friday]. That'll continue and we'll just sort of roll out how we're going to play day-by-day so that we're ready. We got that festival game, that will kind of be a dress rehearsal and then right into it."

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Blackhawks easily on your device.