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Walker is the next star at West Aurora

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Walker is the next star at West Aurora

West Aurora has produced many outstanding basketball players since the 1950s...from John Biever to Jim Krelle to Bill Small to Matt Hicks to John Bryant to Jay Bryant to Ron Hicks to Larry Hatchett to James Malone to Jeff Fichtel to Kenny Battle to Mike Simmons to Billy Taylor to Justin Cerasoli to Jason Thomas to Shaun Pruitt to Juwan Starks.

Add Jontrell Walker to that elite list.

Walker, a 6-foot junior point guard, is a three-year starter who is averaging 24 point per game for a 7-1 team that hopes to challenge top-seeded Simeon in the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. The Blackhawks meet Lockport on Thursday in the opening round.

"He is a big-time prospect who already is getting big-time interest from colleges," said West Aurora coach Gordon Kerkman.

In his 37th year, Kerkman has won 742 games, ninth among the winningest coaches in state history. He produced a state championship team in 2000, a state runner-up in 1997 and three third-place finishers in 1980, 1984 and 2004.

Walker remembers the 2004 team that included Pruitt, Cerasoli and Thomas and the 29-2 team of 2006 that lost to Peoria Richwoods in the state quarterfinals. His older brother Johnny played on both teams.

"I grew up in the program," Jontrell said. "The farthest back I remember is when my brother was on the varsity as a sophomore in 2004. I followed them Downstate. In 2006, when he was a senior, they lost only two games. They dominated every game. I admired their style of play, how key players stepped up and made big shots. Playing in Peoria, it was a great atmosphere."

Now Walker hopes to go back to Peoria. Last year's team was 25-6, losing to Proviso East in the supersectional. With Walker and three other starters returning, West Aurora is in position to make another run at the state finals. According to tradition, the Blackhawks know what it takes to get there.

"Last year, we were one game away from going to Peoria. That's been our goal since our freshman year," Walker said. "We had a drought for a few years after 2006. But we started to bring back the tradition last year. We have a winning program. We're supposed to be a Downstate contender every year.

"This should be our year. Four of us have been on the varsity for the last three years. We've been through struggles, up and down. We have matured. We almost made it last year. We know we can make it this year. We feel we can win any game. Pontiac will show us how tough we are. If we get down, will we fight to come back?"

Kerkman can't wait to find out.

"If we can get to the semifinals and hook up with Peoria Manual, then face Simeon in the championship, we'll find out how good we are. If this is going to be one of our best teams, we must start playing more consistently. Up to now, we haven't been that dominant," he said.

"This team has good balance, a number of kids who can score and do a lot of things. Three starters have been on the varsity for three years and we have some very good sophomores. This is a very good group to coach. They play hard most of the time."

Walker is the leader, the go-to player, the difference-maker. He has visited Iowa and has interest from Marquette, DePaul, Tulsa, Rice, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota, South Dakota and Lehigh. With another year to showcase his skills, more high Division I interest can be expected.

But Kerkman thinks 6-foot-7 senior center Josh McAuley, who is averaging 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks per game, deserves more attention than he is receiving. Very long and very intimidating inside, McAuley blocked eight shots in one game, five in another.

"A lot of people haven't heard about him," Kerkman said. "He has great potential. He plays bigger than he is."

Other starters are 6-foot senior guard Jayquan Lee (10 ppg) and the Thomas twins, 6-foot-2 seniors Spencer and Chandler, who average five points per game and are very aggressive on the boards and on defense.

Two sophomores come off the bench--6-foot-3 Roland Griffith and 5-foot-8 Matt Dunn.

In last Friday's 68-52 victory over Wheaton North, Walker scored 22 points and converted 10 of 13 free throws. The Blackhawks led by only four at halftime but broke away with a 10-0 burst in the third quarter that was keyed by McAuley's two three-point plays. McAuley finished with 13 points and four blocks. Spencer Thomas scored 14, Chandler Thomas 10.

This is Walker's team. Last year, he averaged 13.6 points per game. But he has a more aggressive approach this season.

"I am a point guard who looks to attack this year. I have to score more. But I also have to distribute the ball to my teammates to get them involved in the game," he said.

"I took it upon myself to be the leader this year and make an impact. I have to do what I have to do to help my team win. I'm a guard who likes to win. I can shoot but I can pass and get the big men involved. I just do what is needed to win the game. Did I expect to average 24 points per game? Not really. But I'm more aggressive this year. I'm not passing up open shots."

Last summer, Walker spent a lot of time improving his shooting touch.

"Every day, I took 500 shots from everywhere on the court. I knew I had to score more this year but I didn't have a particular number. Honestly, I'm surprised that I'm averaging 24 points per game but I knew I had to make more of an impact this year," he said.

"After watching Juwan Starks for the last two years, I felt this should be my year, to get in his shoes and carry the team. This team has a lot of chemistry from being together for so long. McAuley came right in and showed what he could do. He is another Starks."

Kerkman hasn't slacked off, not since the day he succeeded John McDougal in 1976. But he insists he has mellowed a bit.

"Old-timers and my former players would say I'm not as volatile as in the past. Every once in a while you have to cut loose. But I don't think I holler at kids as much as I used to. It's the aging process," he said.

"He pushes us every day. He never lets us slack off. He may be old but he still gets in your face and gets on you every time you don't do what you are expected to do. If he doesn't holler like he used to, I'd like to see what it was like back then," Walker said.

At 76, Kerkman still enjoys coaching. He retired from teaching 16 years ago. He still runs a mail courier business that he started 33 years ago. He has been slowed by two knee replacements and two herniated discs which have limited him to only a few rounds of golf in the last four years. "Some creaky moans," he said.

"Retirement can't be too far away. It's hard to tell. I'm just coaching now. I'll access my situation after the end of the year and see what the future holds," Kerkman said.

"We have some very nice kids. I have been blessed that has been the situation throughout my career. Very seldom have I had problem kids. It makes it a lot easier."

Kerkman still relishes the competition, matching up against good coaches and good teams. And he enjoys the teaching aspect, making his players better, and seeing them become successful on and off the court. "It's fun to work toward that," he said.

His philosophy hasn't changed. He learned from McDougal. He stresses defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball. He prefers an up-tempo style. His teams run more than McDougal's. But there are limits.

"I watched some tape recently," he said. "A lot of teams get away from structured offenses and allow more freedom. We do, too. I don't mind up-tempo. But sometimes when you get too up-tempo, you take bad shots. We don't want them to get out of control."

Since the early 1980s, Kerkman has done one thing that no one else does. He allows his two assistants--currently Dan Batka, a former coach at Lake Park, and Paul Kieffer--to make all substitutions.

"They can do a better job of it than I can," Kerkman said. "They can concentrate more while I'm thinking about other things. It takes pressure off me. I still enjoy coaching. I don't know what I would do if I wasn't coaching."

Bulls Talk Podcast: Injuries continue to plague the Bulls, should the team pursue a trade for John Wall?

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Bulls Talk Podcast: Injuries continue to plague the Bulls, should the team pursue a trade for John Wall?

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, the Athletic’s Bulls beat writer, Darnell Mayberry joins Mark Schanowski to discuss Denzel Valentine’s season-ending ankle injury (2:25) and what to watch for with Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all scheduled to return to the line-up in the coming weeks.

Should the Bulls pursue a trade for John Wall? (16:00) And, is Charlotte high-scoring point guard Kemba Walker a realistic target in free agency next summer? (13:30)

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Bulls Talk Podcast

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Takeaways from Bears win over Vikings: Camaraderie building, Mitch Trubisky progressing, the REAL defensive stopper

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Takeaways from Bears win over Vikings: Camaraderie building, Mitch Trubisky progressing, the REAL defensive stopper

A short week between games also means condensed timeframe for looking both back at what just transpired in the Bears 25-20 win over the Minnesota Vikings, and ahead to what those things might foreshadow in Thursday’s rematch in Detroit with the Lions.

The Bears are averaging 3.5 touchdowns per game this season, approaching double the 1.9 per game last year. So it figures that their celebrations of those scores should step up appropriately.

Team chemistry/unity/personality/whatever is always easier to detect when said team is winning. But the touchdown celebrations orchestrated (literally and figuratively) by wide receiver Anthony Miller and safety Eddie Jackson are worth a footnote.

Not so much for the amusing creativity of Miller’s “boys in the boat” rowing team, or Jackson’s musical-conductor performance with the assembled defense. More for, as more than a few folks noted on Monday, the fact that the whole team jumped into the skits. These were not look-at-me, solo-showboating exercises by the player scoring the touchdown; they were the kind of group endeavors that teams do.

The Bears can be excused for being a bit out of practice celebrating touchdowns after their miseries of the last five years. Now that it’s happening with increasing frequency, the performances figure to step up in style.

Matt Nagy has set the tone for more than just offensive schemes, remarking, “If you’re not enjoying the moment, then why are you playing?... I like our players to have fun when they play.”

Duly noted

Besides being his 22nd consecutive start and moving him ahead of Rex Grossman on the consecutive-start list, the win over the Minnesota Vikings got Mitchell Trubisky to .500 as a starting quarterback (11-11).

Much is usually made about an offense distributing the football among an array of receivers. Matt Nagy and the Bears offense went a different direction with six different ball carriers against the Vikings, and got those six the football in the first half alone.

The Bears may have opened as four-point favorites over the Lions for Thursday’s game, but the Lions have beaten the Bears four of the last five times the teams met on Thanksgiving Day.

How much more accurate has Mitchell Trubisky become from last year to this? He wasn’t happy with his performance against the Vikings (20-for-31 passing) but Trubisky had just four of his 12 starts in 2017 in which he posted a completion percentage higher than 60. Of his 10 starts in 2018 he has just two starts in which his success rate was BELOW 60 percent.

THE defensive stopper

Take a quick read of another outstanding piece by NFL.com reporter Jim Trotter if you want a glimpse at one of the stories behind the big story of the 2018 Bears defense.

JT, a longtime pal dating back to a chance meeting too many years ago while waiting together to chat with Terrell Davis after a Denver Super Bowl win, is simply one of the best covering this league and was in town for Bears-Vikings.

What he delivered out of Sunday night was a look at how important it was that the Bears retained Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator, which wasn’t a done deal after the shakeup that ended the tenure of John Fox. Fangio was interviewed but never a serious candidate for the head-coaching job, but his retention was pivotal to some of the linchpins of what has become a contender for title of the best defense in the NFL.

"When we didn't know if Vic was going to be back or not, and then we found out that he was going to be here, there was so much enthusiasm with all the guys," defensive lineman Akiem Hicks told JT. "We were texting each other and we were excited about having that opportunity to have that same defense again, because it makes it easier on you as a player. So it was big, huge, monumental. We would not be here without that. Not even possible."

 

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