Another winner in the Lenti family

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Another winner in the Lenti family

Gena Lenti considers herself to be a perfectionist. Nothing less than an A-plus is acceptable, whether the subject is AP biology or pre-calculus or Spanish or basketball or softball. Her worst grade in four years of high school? An A-minus in choir as a freshman.

"I am a perfectionist. I always have been more competitive with myself than others," said Lenti, a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep. "I strive for A-plus, not just A on a test. If you look at my grades, you might consider me a nerd. But I can't let myself slack off. I tried this year but I can't do it. I just think of what I can do to make myself better."

She comes from a very competitive family. Her father Eugene coaches a nationally ranked softball team at DePaul. Her mother Candace played on a state championship basketball team at York and played softball at DePaul.

Aunt Jeanne Lenti Ponsetto is athletic director at DePaul. Uncle Frank, the head football coach at Mount Carmel, has won more games and state championships than any coach in state history. Uncle David is Frank's longtime defensive coordinator.

When the big Italian family gathers on Thanksgiving Day at the Ponsetto house near the DePaul campus, there are 27 in all...at least two turkeys, casseroles, stuffing, appetizers, desserts. Before sitting down to dinner, however, they adjourn for a family basketball game. To Gena's regret, the table conversation isn't reserved for sports only.

"The big question after 'How is the season going?' is 'How are the boyfriends going these days?' I try to avoid the question at all costs. I try to keep my family out of my social business as much as possible," she said.

But Gena, who has committed to play softball for her father at DePaul, has added another paragraph to her impressive resume that surely will be a topic of discussion at the next family gathering.

The 17-year-old senior has been named to the Illinois High School Association's 2011-12 All-State Academic Team. She is one of 26 student-athletes selected from among 450 nominees who will be honored at the annual banquet in Bloomington on April 16.

She carries a 4.32 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 30 on her ACT. She was the leading scorer on her basketball team this season and plays shortstop on the softball team. She hopes to improve on last year's .450 batting average, then will take her skills to DePaul.

"She always had a competitive nature in anything she did, sports or academics," her father recalled. "When she was 4 or 5, we'd play any game and I'd have to find a way to cheat so we could go to bed. She wanted to play until she won. I knew when she was 12 or 13 that she had the skill and drive to be successful in college."

When she was 10, her father converted her from a right-handed to a left-handed hitter to use her speed as a slapper, an Ichiro Suzuki-type hitter. She would show up at her father's games to take extra swings. Always fearless, she once broke an arm when diving for a ball in the outfield.

"I never thought I wouldn't play sports in college," she said. "I love basketball. If you gave me a choice, I would play basketball in college. But I'm better at softball.

"Softball can become boring at times. There is a lot of standing. Basketball is full of action. I can see where my work pays off more in basketball. Softball isn't as fast-paced, not as much action. I put more heart into basketball. It's a longer season and there is more time to bond with my team."

But her mother and two sisters played softball. And her father has coached the game for 32 years. She knew she wasn't tall enough to play basketball--and probably wouldn't get any taller. Her father is 5-foot-8 and her mother is 5-foot-5.

"There were times when I was young that I said I would go to DePaul to play softball for my dad. I thought it was guaranteed when I was younger but I knew it wasn't guaranteed," Gena said.

She recalls the day when her father asked her: "Would you want to play for me? We're starting to recruit your class." They were driving home after a game in a travel league tournament and Gena was mad at herself. She had played badly, struck out a few times and couldn't even put the ball in play with runners on base.

"I went off to the car and sat alone. On the way home, it was quiet. I didn't want to talk. My dad brought it up," she said. "After that game, I didn't think he'd be thinking of me. For sure, I'd be interested in going to DePaul. But I didn't think I was good enough.

"I saw there were other girls in my class who were very good, other kids my age, kids who only played softball while I was playing two sports, girls who were faster and stronger and had better arms.

"But my dad treated me like other recruits. I got letters in the mail signed 'Coach Lenti.' I was invited to visit the campus. I made unofficial and official visits. I toured the campus, saw the dorms for the first time, the science building, the quadrangle.

"He knew I was coming. I wasn't thinking of anywhere else. I chose DePaul because it is the best softball school I could go to. I didn't seek out anyone else. I looked at myself and felt I was going to the best school I could go to. And I wanted to stay close to my family."

Gena loves Chicago, especially the Downtown area. She rides her bicycle to North Avenue beach two or three times a week during the summer. She also prefers the Flat Top Grill at Southport and Belmont.

"I am the kind of person who doesn't like free time," she said. "I don't want a lot of TV and I don't go to movies. I have to balance school and sports and my social life."

Gena's day begins at 6 a.m. on school days. Breakfast is eggs or cereal. She car pools with two friends and arrives at St. Ignatius at 7:30a.m. Classes begin at 8 a.m. AP Biology, her favorite. Dance, pre-calculus, film, journalism, religion, Spanish. Then basketball or softball practice for two hours after school. Afterward, during the basketball season, she went to DePaul for a shootaround. During the softball season, she takes extra swings at a homemade hitting station in her basement. Then homework for at least two hours.

"I push myself too hard in sports and academics," she said. "Going into my senior year, knowing I was going to DePaul, my parents suggested that I should ease off. They gave me permission not to take a lot of AP classes, to enjoy myself more. But I am a perfectionist. I can't let myself slack off. I tried but I can't do it."

But she concedes that it is more difficult to be a perfectionist in softball. Her father reminds her that hitting is a losing battle, that you're always below .500, that the majority of the time you won't hit the ball safety, that major league baseball players with .300 batting averages are in the Hall of Fame.

"It is a mental game," she said. "You have to come back the next game if you strike out five times in the past game. You have to be mentally tougher. My dad said I have to have a swagger. My goal this spring is to hit higher than .450 and focus on fewer errors and more stolen bases."

So she'll have something to talk about next Thanksgiving.

Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

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Preview: Cubs-Giants Thursday on CSN+

The Cubs take on the San Francisco Giants on Thursday, and you can catch all the action on CSN+. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Then catch first pitch with Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on Cubs Postgame Live.

Thursday’s starting pitching matchup: Mike Montgomery vs. Jeff Samardzija

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Channel finder: Make sure you know where to watch.

— Latest on the Cubs: All of the most recent news and notes.

— See what fans are talking about before, during and after the game with Cubs Pulse.

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ headline Cubs prospects ticketed for Arizona Fall League

Eloy Jimenez and Ian Happ will headline the group of seven Cubs prospects ticketed for the Arizona Fall League.

As the Cubs project their next wave of talent, Jimenez is thought to be close to untouchable after a breakout performance at the All-Star Futures Game and a Midwest League MVP season at Class-A South Bend.

Jimenez – who originally signed out of the Dominican Republic and got a $2.8 million bonus in the summer of 2013 – is hitting .331 with 14 homers and 81 RBI through 111 games with the South Bend Cubs. At the age of 19, the dynamic outfielder reminds the Cubs a little bit of Kris Bryant during his freshman year at the University of San Diego with that 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame and powerful right-handed swing.

Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati – is a switch-hitter (.717 OPS at Double-A Tennessee) who has tried to increase his versatility by moving between second base and the outfield and become a Joe Maddon-type player.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

The Mesa Solar Sox roster unveiled Wednesday also includes Victor Caratini, an advanced defensive catcher who drew interest around the trade deadline and could be packaged in a bigger deal for pitching if Willson Contreras continues to develop behind the plate and Kyle Schwarber comes back healthy next season.

Cubs officials trying to build a pitching pipeline for Wrigley Field will also get a look at right-handers James Farris, Ryan McNeil, Stephen Perakslis and Duane Underwood Jr. in the showcase league.

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Jason Hammel helps Cubs sweep Pirates and surge into September

Another quick hook left Jason Hammel seething over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, bringing back uncomfortable questions about how much manager Joe Maddon trusts him, and whether or not the Cubs would find a spot for him on a playoff roster.

Four days later, Pearl Jam’s “Alive” blasted from the Wrigley Field sound system as Hammel warmed up before facing the Pittsburgh Pirates, with no guarantees about October or next season.

Hammel responded with another strong start during Wednesday’s 6-5 victory, completing a three-game sweep that left the Pirates staggering in the wild-card race and helped the Cubs cut their magic number to win the division down to 16.

Outside of a few extreme lows that distorted the perception of his superb overall season – 10-run outings against the New York Mets and at Coors Field and the 39 pitches he dismissively called a side day in Los Angeles – Hammel has been an integral part of the elite rotation that pushed the Cubs to such a huge lead in the National League Central.

Now up 15 games on the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs surged into September with an 85-47 record, an expectation their pitching staff will get healthy and become whole again and a sense of harmony within their clubhouse.

“That’s rearview mirror now,” Hammel said, wearing a Pearl Jam shirt during his postgame press conference. “Joe and I talked it out. There’s no room for off-the-field BS or disagreements or to hold a grudge. 

“I told him how I felt. He told me how he felt and the reasoning for everything. We’re grown men. We solved it and have to respect each other’s views and opinions. To carry something like that would really mess up something special we got going on right now.”

Hammel (14-7, 3.14 ERA) shut down the Pirates for six innings, allowing only one run, scattering three hits and showing the confidence that made him an All-Star-level performer in the first half. 

Hammel regained control of his fastball, spun some curveballs and incorporated a changeup to create doubt in hitters’ minds and add a different wrinkle to opposing scouting reports. He limited the damage to one run in the fifth inning, working around three walks and screaming and flexing his muscles after striking out Andrew McCutchen swinging at a 93-mph fastball to end the threat.

“Yeah, I wanted to get back out there,” Hammel said. “The last one just didn’t sit well with me. So far, so good.”

On a night when the crowd chanted “MVP,” Kris Bryant backed Hammel by launching his 36th homer and playing Gold Glove-level defense at third base. Bryant saved a run by diving to his left to catch a Sean Rodriguez line drive and end the second inning. Bryant began the fourth inning with his answer to Anthony Rizzo’s tarp catch, leaning over the wall and into the stands to catch a Josh Bell pop-up.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

But the defensive play of the night belonged to Addison Russell, who with the bases loaded and the Cubs trying to protect a 5-2 lead, raced over from shortstop and made a sliding catch near the left-field line to end the seventh inning.

“This team’s going to be really good for a long time,” said Hammel, who had been packaged with Jeff Samardzija – Thursday’s starter for the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field – in the Russell trade with the Oakland A’s in 2014. “These kids – I say kids now, because I can, because I’m old – they’re impressive and they continue to dazzle.

“You can’t really say surprised, because we’ve come to expect all these great plays and the big knocks that they’re driving in. We’re witnessing greatness.”

After getting 22 wins in a month for the first time since September 1945, this could become the next awkward conversation: If John Lackey (shoulder) returns to full strength – and the rest of the rotation doesn’t experience any setbacks down the stretch – what are the chances of Hammel making a playoff start?

“Stay healthy and we’ll see what happens,” Maddon said. “I don’t bet on the come. Let’s get to the playoffs first, make sure everybody’s well, and at that point then you look at the group you have. And then maybe at that point you look at the group you may be playing. And then you try to formulate the best plan of attack from your personnel versus their personnel. 

“I’ve not even thought about a playoff moment once.”

The Cubs will now have all of September to think about October.