Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

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Alston sparks Thornwood's late-season surge

Thornwood's Khapri Alston received same sage advice from his father, his uncle and his assistant coach. The 6-foot-3 senior absorbed all of it, like taking a big spoon of Castor Oil. All of a sudden, the "man in the mirror" began to resemble Superman on the basketball court.

According to coach Paul Slavich, Alston is "an unheralded, overlooked and undersized big man" who is "the glue that holds us together. If he was three or four inches taller, every Division I school would be after him. He is only 6-foot-3 but he plays like he is 6-foot-7."

Alston has been on fire in recent games. He had 26 points and 13 rebounds against Bradley, 23 points and 15 rebounds against Rich South and 17 points against Stagg. In Tuesday's 57-55 upset victory over Andrew, he scored 13 as Thornwood clinched at least a share of the SouthWest Suburban Red championship.

After being held scoreless in the first three quarters, Johnte Shannon popped in a three-point shot with 11.5 seconds to play as Thornwood claimed its first conference title since 2002. Darrell Combs led the Thunderbirds with 24 points. It was Andrew's second loss in 23 games and spoiled a bid for its first conference title.

Thornwood (19-6) can earn an undisputed crown by beating district rival Thornton on Friday night. After an 0-2 start, the Thunderbirds have come on strong against a very competitive schedule and are seeded No. 6 in the Lockport sectional with Bloom, Andrew, Homewood-Flossmoor and Crete-Monee.

"I like that we are jelling together and coming together as a team,"
said Alston, who likely will attend Northeast Community College in North Fork, Nebraska, to get his academics in order and prepare for a Division I college.

"I'm just playing my best for the team, just doing whatever I have to do for us to win. They are going to me more. If I don't have a shot, I kick it out. I get in position for rebounds. I know I have to play at a higher level because we are going into the playoff."

Alston, who is averaging 15 points and eight rebounds per game, traces his increased late-season production to "just being more aggressive."

"I knew I was playing lower, worse than I can," he said. "I know I can play better. I wasn't playing to the best of my ability. I wasn't doing everything I could. I wasn't being a leader. I had to step up for the team."

A few weeks ago, Alston's father told him that he should grab every rebound that comes off the rim. "I can do that," Khapri said.

His uncle said he was playing down to the competition, that he wasn't playing up to his potential.

And assistant coach Shawn Finnan told him to look in a mirror. "Ask yourself: Are you playing to the best of your ability? Are you looking at the man you want to be? Are you doing everything right?"

"I had a reality check," Alston said. "I started to play at a higher level. Even though most defenders are taller than me, I know I can play with anyone. I don't look at myself as being less than anyone else."

Alston is complemented by 6-foot-1 senior guard Darrell Combs (14 ppg), who has signed with Loyola, 5-foot-10 senior guard Johnte Shannon (12 ppg),
5-foot-8 senior point guard David Fuller (3 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-foot-7 senior center Ahmad Baine (4 ppg).

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-10 senior point guard Marcus Agee and 6-foot senior Justin Kennedy.

Slavich is in his second season at the South Holland school. Last year's team was 16-12 and lost to Plainfield Central by one point on a last-second shot in the regional semifinal.

But Slavich isn't a rookie. A 1986 graduate of Thornwood, he played for coach Al Holverson. He has taught and coached in the school system for 17 years. He assisted former Thornwood coaches Kevin Hayhurst and Bob Curran.
When people talk about Thornwood's tradition, he knows what they are talking about.

In 2001, Thornwood and Eddy Curry were favored to win the Class AA championship but lost to Schaumburg in the state final and finished 32-2. In 2003, Eric Gray and Maurice Montgomery led the Thunderbirds to a 27-6 record and second place. In 2006, Tre Blue and Reggie Hamilton led a 25-8 team to fourth place in the state tournament. In a period of four years, Thornwood won 25, 32, 27 and 27 games.

"We want to do what those teams did. We have the same type of team that they had. We can make a run like they did," Alston said. "What impressed me about those teams is they played together like a family. It wasn't just one player. Everybody on our team wants to accomplish what those teams did."

Slavich believes his team is good enough to win the sectional. "We have played tough competition. We had the lead at some point in every game we have lost. But it didn't work out for us. We're getting better. Our kids are coming around. They want to make a run like the old Thornwood teams. They have the tools to do it," he said.

"I've talked to them about the past, about the experience of going Downstate, what those teams did well, how they played with the lead, how they played smart, how they didn't go up and down the court like a gym class. We stress how important each possession is in playoff time. They can make a difference in winning a game. It is important to understand what the other team is trying to do."

Cubs: The Aroldis Chapman Show begins at Wrigley Field

Cubs: The Aroldis Chapman Show begins at Wrigley Field

Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system at 9:51 p.m. on Wednesday as Aroldis Chapman trotted toward the mound. Nothing would get lost in translation as the Cubs unleashed their new closer on the White Sox.

Chapman didn’t feel the full rush of adrenaline, because a revived offense scored five runs in the eighth inning, ending the save situation and any real suspense for the crowd of 41,166. The game within the game became looking up at the 3,990-square-foot LED video board in left field for the velocity reading after each pitch and listening to the oohs and aahs.

Chapman made it look easy against the middle of the White Sox lineup, with 13 of his 15 pitches clocked between 100 and 103 mph in the ninth inning of an 8-1 victory. That triple-digit default setting, fluid left-handed delivery and intimidating presence showed why the Cubs made a game-changing trade with the New York Yankees.

The first impressions from Tuesday’s press conference apparently bothered Chapman enough that he initially refused to speak to the reporters waiting around his locker after his debut. There had been questions about his 30-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy, the off-the-field expectations from chairman Tom Ricketts and where the wires got crossed with coach/translator Henry Blanco.

After taking a shower – and listening to a few associates inside the clubhouse – Chapman agreed to two minutes of questions with catcher Miguel Montero acting as his translator.

“It happened,” Chapman said when asked about his portrayal in the Chicago media. “Don’t want to go further with it.”

The controversy will begin to fade after Chapman struck out Jose Abreu swinging at a 91-mph slider that almost scraped the dirt, forced Todd Frazier into a routine groundball and struck out pinch-hitter Avisail Garcia looking at a 103-mph fastball.

“It’s just entertaining to watch the gun, beyond everything else,” manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s a different kind of a pitcher. You don’t see that every 100 years or so. He’s just that good. Everybody talks about the fastball. How good is the slider? The slider is devastating.

“He was very calm in the moment. He was able to get through the last couple days to go out there. It was almost good it wasn’t a save situation just to get his feet on the ground.”

Picture the drama and the excitement when Chapman isn’t throwing with a seven-run lead and has to get the final three outs in a playoff game at Wrigley Field.

“I’m not impressed – I thought we were getting a guy that threw 105,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel joked. “I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’s jaw-dropping. To see that type of velocity and command, it’s almost unfair to have a slider and offspeed pitches after that, too.”

This is what the Cubs envisioned when they decided to weather the media storms and absorb the PR hits, how Maddon could reimagine the entire bullpen and the whole team would sense the game-over feeling when the ball is in Chapman’s left hand.

“That’s a confidence-booster for us and it’s a morale kick for anybody out there,” Hammel said. “For the other side, it’s got to be black clouds: ‘Oh man, we can’t let the bullpen get in there.’”

Cubs felt the inevitable sense of trading a big-time prospect like Gleyber Torres

Cubs felt the inevitable sense of trading a big-time prospect like Gleyber Torres

The New York Yankees directed blanket coverage of the Cubs in the weeks leading up to the Aroldis Chapman deal, looking closely at prospects throughout their farm system. Three names figured to be prominent if the Yankees decided to sell and the Cubs wanted to make a blockbuster trade: Gleyber Torres, Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ.

The Yankees made Torres their headliner in that four-player return from the Cubs, getting the organization’s top prospect and a supremely talented defensive shortstop out of Venezuela. The Cubs invested $1.7 million in Torres during the summer of 2013, the signing formalized the same day as the Jake Arrieta trade with the Baltimore Orioles.

This has been years in the making for Theo Epstein’s front office, building the first-place team that drew 41,116 to Wrigley Field for Wednesday night’s 8-1 crosstown victory over the White Sox, watching Chapman throw 13 pitches in the ninth inning that hit triple digits on the huge video board, understanding that the Cubs had to sacrifice parts of their future for the now.

“That’s the right word – inevitable – just because of the timing of when we thought we were going to be good,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president of scouting and player development. “We all knew as we were doing this that there was going to come that time when you trade the player that you not only feel is an impact-type prospect, but the organization just loves the person.

“Gleyber certainly fits that. That was one of the tougher calls I’ve ever had where we’re trading a guy, just because of how much the kid meant to us personally, and just hearing him, too.

“He was – as you would expect (with) a 19-year-old – shaken up and saddened by it, just because in three short years he had dreamt of nothing but being a Cub and playing here at Wrigley. I just told him: ‘You’ll still be wearing pinstripes. They’ll just be a different (color).’”

The Cubs didn’t want to trade core guys off their major-league roster and have a middle-infield foundation with Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist. So they gave up a high-floor player from Class-A Myrtle Beach while holding onto Jimenez and Happ and seeking out more possible deals before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

“All of them would have been hard to swallow,” McLeod said. “But we know that’s part of why we try to stockpile as much talent as we can.”

The Cubs can market Happ as another polished college switch-hitter with first-round pedigree, second baseman/outfielder versatility and an early ETA (already at Double-A Tennessee during his first full season of professional baseball).

Jimenez – who got a $2.8 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic during the same signing class as Torres – enjoyed a breakout performance during the All-Star Futures Game in San Diego and almost has a .900 OPS at Class-A South Bend.

At the age of 19, with a 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and a smooth right-handed swing, Jimenez reminds the Cubs a little bit of Kris Bryant during his freshman season at the University of San Diego, meaning the sky is the limit.

Tonight on CSN: Cubs-White Sox finale from Wrigley

Tonight on CSN: Cubs-White Sox finale from Wrigley

The Crosstown Classic concludes on Thursday at Wrigley Field as the White Sox square off against the Cubs on CSN Chicago. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 6 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Chris Sale (14-3, 3.18 ERA) vs. John Lackey (7-7, 3.79 ERA)

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