White Sox

Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

682520.png

Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

Who woulda thunk it?

Wheeling's girls basketball team was 1-14 and seeded 14th in a 19-team regional. Season over, right? Wrong. Coach Julissa Hernandez' Wildcats have advanced to Monday's Class 4A supersectional round and have become the first team in state history to qualify for the Elite Eight with a losing record.

In fact, the Wildcats need three victories to finish 18-18--and win the state championship.

Who woulda thunk it?

"Everybody asks how we turned it around but we didn't change anything," Hernandez said. "We've been doing the same things from day one. I just think the girls got tired of losing. They said to themselves: 'We can be in control.' We weren't in control in the first part of the season.

"The biggest difference from the first half was we had to get past turnovers. We had to realize that we would make mistakes on defense. But don't harp on it. As coaches and players, we didn't dwell on mistakes. We looked at positives. Now they are having fun. It is hard to have fun when you are losing. But there is nothing but smiles on their faces now."

As the 14th seed, Wheeling had to play into the regional. After losing their last regular-season game to Palatine 36-23, the Wildcats have gone on a tear, eliminating Round Lake 50-14, Libertyville 56-51, Prospect 58-32, Warren 41-26 and Zion-Benton 50-45 in Thursday's sectional final. They will carry a 15-18 record into Monday's supersectional against Loyola (25-7) at Stevenson.

"Honestly, I'm not surprised," Hernandez said. "We played well in the summer. It gave us some confidence. Our goals were to win conference, regional and sectional. We fell short in conference (third). But those were our goals in the preseason. We felt they were possible. We always knew it doesn't matter how we started, just how we finished.

"These kids didn't quit. When we were 1-14, they stuck with it. It was rough, not easy. But everybody still came to practice ready to work hard. We lost two games in overtime and 10 by 10 points or less. We felt we were better than our record."

They experienced losing last year, too. In Hernandez' first season, Wheeling was 4-26. "We fell short in a lot of games but it wasn't frustrating or disappointing. It was just a learning experience for all of us, coaches and girls," Hernandez said.

Now they are putting it all together. The senior leaders are Kellie Kuzmanic (12 ppg) and Leah Malsom (8.2 ppg). The other starters are Kellie's sister, freshman point guard Deanna Kuzmanic (10 ppg, 4 assists), junior Jessi Zuba (4 ppg) and freshman Hailey Dammeier (4.5 ppg). Freshman Hannah Dobrowski (3.5 ppg) comes off the bench.

Kellie Kuzmanic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday's victory over Zion-Benton. Deanna Kuzmanic scored 20 points and Malsom had seven points and four rebounds. Afterward, Zion-Benton coach Tanya Johnson, who produced state championship teams at Loyola Academy in 1997 and 1998, described Wheeling as a team of destiny.

Winning may be new to some of these girls but it isn't new to Hernandez or the Wheeling program. A graduate of Lake Park in 2003, Hernandez played on a team that lost to Candace Parker and Naperville Central in the supersectional. After graduating from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Hernandez joined Wheeling coach Shelly Weigel's staff.

From 2003 to 2010, Weigel was one of the most successful coaches in the state. After starting 11-16, she lost only 28 games in the next six years and won 25, 28, 23, 28, 33 and 26 games. Her 2009 team finished third in the state tournament. She won 80 percent (174-44) of her games in seven years.

While Weigel was more offense-minded, the 26-year-old Hernandez emphasizes defense. But one drill she picked up from her mentor, called the seven passes drill, proved to be a difference-maker in last Thursday's victory. Desperately trying to protect a slim lead in the last two minutes, Hernandez called for the strategy when Zion-Benton switched to a 1-2-1-1 trapping half-court defense.

"You have to pass the ball seven times before you try to score," Hernandez said. "You pass to a teammate and she must pass to another teammate. You can't pass it back to the person who threw the ball to you. And you are allowed only one dribble.

"We needed to keep the ball in our possession. We needed to find other people to pass, to avoid double-teamming. It involves a lot of teamwork and communication to make it work. Our girls stayed calm and handled the pressure and got open for passes."

So Wheeling is on its way to the Elite Eight. "Our fans have been with us all year. The parents didn't give up. It's nice to see the great support we have at Wheeling," Hernandez said.

Now everybody has smiles on their faces.

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

0521-welington-castillo.jpg
USA TODAY

White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will reportedly be suspended 80 games for use of PED

For the first time since new rules came into effect in 2005, the White Sox will reportedly see a major league player suspended for violating baseball’s ban on performance-enhancing drugs.

Welington Castillo, the team’s biggest offseason addition, will be suspended for 80 games, according to a pair of reports.

The veteran catcher was brought in over the winter to help the rebuilding White Sox in the short and long term. He had a career year offensively and defensively in 2017, and he was acquired to help develop a young pitching staff featuring big pieces of the future like Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, and also to swing a solid bat and help this young team learn how to win.

If Castillo proves productive over the course of his two-year deal, the White Sox have a team option that could keep Castillo on the South Side for the 2020 season. That could make him a piece of the puzzle for when the rebuild reaches its apex and the team is ready to start contending for championships. But this news has the potential to change that dramatically.

Zack Collins and Seby Zavala are both having strong offensive seasons at Double-A Birmingham and figure to be the long-term answers behind the plate. But Castillo’s absence from any long-term picture could leave the White Sox without a veteran safety net in the years ahead, depending on how the team decides to react to this news in the coming seasons.

Castillo’s absence for the next 80 games could also have an impact on the development of aforementioned pitchers like Giolito and Lopez. Lopez, in particular, has been throwing really well this season, and Giolito has control issues to work through, as he leads the American League in walks. Without the veteran catcher brought in to help those guys transition to the major league level, how will the transition continue for those two pitchers?

As for who could take Castillo's place on the major league roster, the options are limited. Kevan Smith, who was edged out by Omar Narvaez for the backup-catching job in spring training, is on the disabled list at Triple-A Charlotte, placed there Tuesday. The aforementioned Zavala is also injured at Double-A Birmingham, and it seems far too early to rush Collins to the big leagues. Alfredo Gonzalez is a catcher on the roster at Charlotte. A spot on the 40-man roster would need to be freed up to bring him to Chicago.

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

How Ian Happ got his groove back at the plate

There's a legit case to be made that Ian Happ has been the Cubs' second-best hitter in 2018.

Yes, really.

Happ ranks second on the Cubs in OPS (.895), behind only Kris Bryant (.995) among regulars, though a recent hot streak has buoyed that overall bottom line for Happ.

Still, it's been a pretty incredible hot streak and it's propelled Happ back to where he began the season — at the top of the Cubs order. 

Happ has walked 10 times in the last 6 games and hammered out 3 homers in that span, including one on top of the Schwarboard in right field as a pinch-hitter Tuesday night.

Even more jaw-dropping: He's only struck out 5 times in the last 9 games after a dreadful start to the season in that regard.

"It was just a matter of time until things clicked a little bit," Happ said. "That's why we play 162 games and it's a game of adjustments. At the end of the day, it all evens out.

"Look at the back of Tony [Rizzo's] baseball card — it's the same thing every single year. That's how this thing goes. You're gonna have your ups and your downs and I'm just trying to be as consistent as I can. If I can level it out a little bit and be more consistent over a period of time, that'll be better for our team."

So yes, Happ is on the upswing right now and he'll inevitably have more slumps where he strikes out too much and looks lost at the plate.

Such is life for a 23-year-old who is still a week away from his 162nd career MLB game.

The league had adjusted to Happ and he had to adjust back, which he'd been working hard doing behind the scenes.

"I just try to get him to primarily slow things down," Joe Maddon said. "Try to get him back into left-center. And I did not want to heap a whole lot of at-bats on him. When you're not going good, if you heap too many at-bats on somebody, all of a sudden, that's really hard to dig out of that hole.

"So a lot of conversations — a lot of conversations — but nothing complicated. I like to go the simple side of things. I wanted him to try not to lift the ball intentionally, really organize his strike zone."

Maddon believes Happ had lost sight of his strike zone organization, chasing too many pitches out of the zone — particularly the high fastball.

Now, the Cubs manager sees Happ using his hands more and less of his arms in his swing, working a more precise, compact path to the ball.

The Happ experiment at leadoff was a disaster to begin the year — .186 AVG, .573 OPS and 22 strikeouts in 10 starts there — but all the same tools and rationale exist for why Maddon likes the switch-hitting utiliy player in that spot.

And that's why Happ was leading off Wednesday with both Ben Zobrist and Albert Almora Jr. getting the night off.

"We're gonna find out [if he can stick at leadoff]," Maddon said. "I just thought he's looked better. He's coming off a nice streak on the road trip. [Tuesday night], pinch-hitting. I know the home run's great and of course that's nice.

"But how he got to the pitch that he hit out, to me, was the important thing. Got the two strikes, took the two borderline pitches and then all of a sudden, [the pitcher] came in with a little bit more and he didn't miss it.

"That's the big thing about hitting well, too — when you see your pitch, you don't either take it or foul it off. You don't miss it. He didn't miss it."