Arroyo turns Elmwood Park into a winner

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Arroyo turns Elmwood Park into a winner

Elmwood Park coach Luis Arroyo said his team is writing a Cinderella story this season. But who would believe it?

This is a program that hadn't won a conference championship in 27 years, hadn't produced a winning team or qualified for the state playoff since 1991 and hadn't won more than six games in a season since 1985.

Until last Friday.

Elmwood Park wrote another chapter to its fairy tale by beating Ridgewood 34-14 to conclude a 7-2 regular season, claim the Metro Suburban championship and secure a spot opposite perennial state power Joliet Catholic in the first round of the Class 5A playoff. Elmwood Park will host the Hilltoppers on Saturday night in a Class 5A match-up.

"We were all talking about Joliet Catholic. Everybody on the team thought we'd get them. We all had a gut feeling," said 6-foot-2, 285-pound senior offensive tackle Connor Murphy, referring to last Saturday's pre-pairings speculation.

"When we saw we got them, we said: 'Let's do it.' We saw it right away, the seedings. Everybody got excited. We figured we'd meet them sometime in the playoff, so why not in the first round? We would rather want to play a big team. We have played good teams but we haven't played a team of their caliber and reputation. We want to show that we are in the playoff for a reason, not just another team."

Murphy is one of a core of 17 seniors who have gone through four years of football at Elmwood Park. This is Arroyo's fifth year. His first four teams were 0-9, 1-8, 2-7 and 4-5. It wasn't pretty. But there has been progress. Murphy and his teammates acknowledge that all of the off-season conditioning and hard work has paid off this season.

"We stuck it out. All of us have a feeling: 'We did it. We're conference champions.' Others gave up and said we couldn't do it. And we did it," Murphy said. "Elmwood Park has forever been called the loser team. But when we won conference, Ridgewood and others said: 'Way to win, way to take it away from everybody. You proved yourselves.'

"The school never was behind us before. They always say: 'Why do you play football? We don't want to play for a losing team.' Now they are all behind us and support us. We had to prove ourselves to everyone. We worked hard in the summer for four years to get better. Now it is paying off."

Nobody is happier than Arroyo. A Holy Cross graduate of 1993, he coached at Evergreen Park, Ridgewood and St. Joseph before arriving at Elmwood Park. Having coached against Elmwood Park on several occasions, he knew what he was getting into. He knew it wouldn't be easy. But he relished the challenge of trying to turn a perennial losing program into a winner.

"I inherited a small school (enrollment: 1,000) that played against big schools," Arroyo said. "I knew it would be a challenge. I try to coach them to play this game. They didn't know what winning was all about. Play hard and learn the fundamentals, we told them. The mentality was a lot of hungry kids who wanted to play. We try to teach dedication and work in the off-season and work on things that will make you successful.

"It was very difficult and humbling at first. I was thinking I would be able to make some sort of impact in my first year. They had won only three games the year before I became head coach. Then we went 0-9 and 1-8 and 2-7 and I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.

"But the opportunity to run a program is priceless. It's my second home. I learned the off-season is absolutely critical to gaining every possible advantage. It really is a 365-day-a-year commitment...into the weight room, into speed work and explosion drills, exercises that they hadn't been exposed to."

Even though his team was struggling on the field, Arroyo could see progress during practice time. In Year 3, he didn't have to explain right or left formations. The kids realized that all of their time in the weight room was time well spent. They were getting bigger and stronger and faster and better. They were buying into what Arroyo was selling.

Despite last year's 4-5 finish, Arroyo identified a lot of positives. Elmwood Park split with Ridgewood, knocking them out of the playoff. "We knew if we could played better, we could have qualified for state," the coach said.

His message to Murphy and the other seniors? "Don't have any regrets. Get into the weight room. Do one more day of repetitions. These kids bought into what we were selling. This is a Cinderella story. It's a great thing to be a part of," Arroyo said.

"With 12 starters returning, we had high expectations to win some games and compete for the conference title. The kids believed it. This group of seniors had success at the lower levels. They competed well. They had confidence that they could compete with anyone."

Elmwood Park is 7-2 going into its first-round game against Joliet Catholic. The Tigers are averaging 28.2 points per game, have rushed for 2,000 yards and have intercepted 22 passes.

The offensive line is anchored by Murphy, 6-foot-1, 290-pound senior tackle Ray Morales, 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior center Jonathan Batula and 5-foot-9, 180-pound tight end Mike Tinajero. They block for a committee of running backs--5-foot-5, 150-pound senior David Benavidez, 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior Jimmy Gonzalez, 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior Carlos Sandoval and 5-foot-11, 169-pound junior James Angelico. Quarterback Patrick McNulty, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior, directs traffic.

The ball-carriers stepped up when starter Rocco Fanella broke his spine in Week 4. Benavidez has emerged as the leading rusher with over 500 yards while Gonzalez has rushed for 450.

In last Friday's 34-14 victory at Ridgewood, Benavidez rushed 15 times for 147 yards and scored on runs of 63, 6, 26 and 14 yards. Gonzalez carried 13 times for 121 yards.

The 4-4 defense features Angelico, 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior Trent Woods and 5-foot-7, 165-pound senior Gene Cadetto at linebacker, Tinajero at tackle, Sandoval at free safety and 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior Mitch Cervantes at cornerback. Sandoval has six interceptions while Woods has four, three against Fenton. Tinajero has 20 tackles for loss.

When Fanella went down, the team lost its vocal leader on the field. But the players bonded together. And Fanella remains a key component, cheering and encouraging his teammates from the sideline.

"We're like brothers out there," Murphy said. "When Fanella went down, we said we would play like every play was our last. When someone struggles, we boost them up. Everyone's drive has changed. We had size and talent in the past but we block better and run better now.

"Now we walk through the halls and in the gym and see the banner for the 2012 Metro Suburban Conference champions and we say: 'Hey, we're enshrined.' It means every time someone who didn't want to go 100 percent in the summer, we told him to go 100 percent and now it is paying off."

As rumors pile up, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez says team has a "sense of urgency"

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USA TODAY

As rumors pile up, Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez says team has a "sense of urgency"

As the beginnings of a cold Chicago winter start to take hold of the city, the rumor mill has started to heat up for the Chicago Fire.

Major League Soccer’s clubs are not able to make official moves until after MLS Cup takes place on Dec. 10, which means rumors will remain just that for another week and a half. So when Fire general manager was asked about a potential Sean Johnson trade, as was reported yesterday, he wasn’t able to comment in a substantive way.

“Sean had a good season for us,” Rodriguez said Friday afternoon. “There’s a trade moratorium until after MLS Cup and like every player on the team we’re constantly evaluating opportunities and possibilities.”

Compare that to what Rodriguez said last December about transfer rumors involving David Accam and it’s not hard to notice the difference. Rodriguez vehemently denied anything regarding Accam then and the Ghanaian stayed. This time around regarding Johnson, Rodriguez said the team is “evaluating opportunities.” There is a three-hour trade window on Dec. 11 in advance of the expansion draft for Atlanta and Minnesota on Dec. 12.

Rodriguez said there have been discussions about trades before the expansion draft.

“We have been having several conversations with a few different teams,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve called and inquired about players and discussed possibilities about acquiring players and also have received calls from teams inquiring about our players. I think there’s a general mood around the league that people want to get those deals done in advance of the expansion draft so that they know who they’re protecting and otherwise.”

Teams will be able to protect 11 players and homegrown players will not be eligible for selection. As the roster currently stands, the Fire have 17 players under contract and four homegrown players so only two players would be left unprotected and that’s before a potential Johnson trade.

As far as acquiring players from outside the league, Rodriguez said the staff has been busy scouting both college games and foreign leagues. Coach Veljko Paunovic and assistant Marko Mitrovic “remain abroad” while scout Matt Pearson has returned after watching players live in October and November.

Nothing seems to have changed in regards to what Rodriguez said the team needs. He still spoke of “players who represent leadership, experience, poise on the ball, particularly in the central midfield slots,” and a “gamebreaker” who can create or score a goal.

Some of the rumored names this offseason are of a higher profile than last winter. While following through on such moves is all that matters, Rodriguez said things are different in the way the front office has approached this offseason.

“I think what we all feel is a sense of urgency that we need to win,” Rodriguez said. “We need to prove that we can win and we need to win consistently. That’s our mindset.”

Rodriguez, assistant Logan Pause and goalkeeper coach Aleksandar Saric have been scouting college games. Rodriguez said the decision to sign homegrown players from college has not yet been made. The plan is to wait until the end of the college season for all teams to talk with coaches and families of prospects. North Carolina freshmen Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda, Indiana junior Grand Lillard and Indiana sophomore Andrew Gutman are some of the Fire’s top prospects in college. Indiana was recently eliminated from the NCAA Tournament, but UNC’s Elite Eight game was tonight.

As for some of the players the Fire declined options on last week, there is a chance that some will return like the way Razvan Cocis did last season after the Fire didn’t pick up his option.

“We are still in discussions on a few of the players whose options we did not select, but we’re still talking to them to see if the possibility to bring them back still exists,” Rodriguez said.

Big Ten champ might miss College Football Playoff, but that's not bothering Penn State, Badgers

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USA TODAY

Big Ten champ might miss College Football Playoff, but that's not bothering Penn State, Badgers

INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten will get at least one team into the College Football Playoff. It might get two.

But it's very possible that whichever team wins Saturday night's Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis won't get a spot in the four-team field or an opportunity to compete for a national championship.

That's the debate raging across the college football world right now, as the conference's two best teams — Ohio State and Michigan — are both sitting at home while Wisconsin and Penn State duke it out for a conference title. How much should a conference championship matter when evaluating teams for a spot in the Playoff? Should a conference champion be automatically rated above a team without a league title to its name, even when tiebreakers and such make it impossible for the latter team to do anything about it?

In each of the past two seasons — the first two of the Playoff's existence — the Big Ten title game has turned out to be a de facto play-in game for the Playoff: Ohio State earned a spot after thumping Wisconsin back in 2014 and went on to the win the national championship, and Michigan State edged Iowa last year to punch its ticket to the final four.

But this season, the participants are ranked sixth and seventh, behind not just three teams from other Power Five conferences but behind two teams from their own conference who are guaranteed to not be hoisting a trophy Saturday night. There are tons of scenarios that could play out, but if the rankings stay the same, neither Wisconsin nor Penn State will be in the Playoff. And it's possible that the Nittany Lions could win their division and conference championships and see two teams who finished behind them in the Big Ten East go to the Playoff.

The coaches of the two teams competing this weekend in Indy aren't sweating those facts, of course. Paul Chryst and James Franklin want a conference championship and are ready to let the rest of it play out however it plays out. At least that's what they said Friday night.

"This is a big deal that we're here," Chryst said. "I think one quality of this team that I've appreciated a ton this year is their ability to make the most of the moment. They've done that. I don't spend any time trying to figure out or think about ... big picture. I know this is a big deal for us and our players. ... (The Playoff conversation is) not a big deal right now. It would be doing this game and our team a lot of disservice if we didn't put every bit of energy (into trying to win Saturday). And we needed to and we wanted to. And feel lucky to be able to do that."

"The only thing that exists for us is Wisconsin and the Big Ten Championship Game," Franklin said. "If we take care of our business and play the way we're capable of playing, we'll be happy with the result. After the game, whatever people tell us that we'll have an opportunity to do after that, we'll be excited about it, we'll be appreciative for that opportunity. Again, I'm not going to sit here and make a case for us. Our focus is going to be on Wisconsin and this tremendous opportunity, this tremendous opponent that we have in Wisconsin."

But even if the coaches won't make the case for their teams in regards to a spot in the Playoff, there are definitely cases to be made for both these squads.

Behind a transformed offense and the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in running back Saquon Barkley, Penn State has posted a 10-2 regular-season record with a landmark win over Ohio State, a team that appears to be a lock for a Playoff spot. The Lions' only losses have come against a top-five Michigan team and a freshly ranked Pittsburgh team that also has a win over third-ranked Clemson. If Penn State added another top-10 win Saturday night, its resume would be pretty darn impressive.

Wisconsin doesn't have a signature win yet, though it could get one Saturday. The Badgers have a win over a ranked LSU team, though it's what they did in their only two losses that might be the most impressive thing about them. Wisconsin boasts one of the country's finest defenses and proved it in narrow defeats to Ohio State and Michigan, a pair of top-five teams, taking the Buckeyes to overtime in a seven-point loss and holding a prolific Wolverines offense in check in a seven-point loss in Ann Arbor.

So are these two teams Playoff caliber? Heck yes, and they're showing it. Penn State enters on an eight-game win streak in which points have been plentiful. Wisconsin comes in on a six-game win streak in which the defense has shut down every team its gone up against. These two teams weren't expected to be here in the preseason and might be no better than the third- and fourth-best teams in their own conference. But they are two of the best teams in the country playing their best football at the exact right time.

"What I admire about their team this year is I think it's a team that's continually gotten better," Chryst said of Penn State. "I think as a coach, one of the things you strive for and hope for and want is that your team is playing its best football at the end of the year. ... I think it's a team that plays really hard. Looks like they're playing with confidence. Looks like they like playing. So those are things that I admire about their team. I think that's players and coaching."

"They do a great job. They do a really, really good job," Franklin said of Wisconsin. "They're sound, well coached. They've been that way for a long time. They kind of have a formula at Wisconsin. It never changes. I think that kind of started with (Barry) Alvarez. Coach Chyrst obviously growing up around this, then went on, had his own career, was able to come back home. He fits the model and does a great job."

Perhaps these guys see the writing on the wall, that even a win Saturday night could mean no Playoff berth unless several things break the right way, maybe third-ranked Clemson and fourth-ranked Washington both losing their respective championship games.

But more likely is the fact that this is a goal reached, an opportunity to play for a league title. And to do it in a year when neither was supposed to be here makes it that much more special. The Badgers were dismissed in the preseason because of a brutal schedule. The Lions were dismissed because they played in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan.

But here we are on the first weekend in December, and it's Wisconsin vs. Penn State for the Big Ten championship, a pretty big accomplishment, Playoff spot or no Playoff spot.

"It would mean that we're Big Ten champions," Chryst said, asked what the conference title would mean without an accompanying Playoff berth. "That's huge. It would mean that we were able to find a way to score one more point than Penn State, one or more points, right? It's about competition. The work and preparation is to play the game. When you play the game, you want to win. I think I've been very fortunate to be a part of the Big Ten in a number of different ways. When you can say that you've earned the right to be called Big Ten champions, that's a heck of a statement, heck of an accomplishment by a team. It stands on its own. It's pretty cool."

"I don't care what level, I don't care where you're at, I don't care what sport, championships are hard to get," Franklin said. "I would make the argument right now, you could make a really good argument that the Big Ten, specifically the Big Ten East, may be the best conference in all of college football right now. That's no disrespect to any of the other conferences all over the country. They're great. But I think we got a pretty good thing going right now in our conference. To have the chance to play for the Big Ten championship is a tremendous honor on its own. To find a way to win this game, to be able to take this bad boy (the championship trophy) back to State College, it would be awesome."