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."

Preview: Lackey, Cubs face Scherzer, Nationals today on CSN

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Preview: Lackey, Cubs face Scherzer, Nationals today on CSN

The Cubs take on the Washington Nationals today, and you can catch all the action on Comcast SportsNet. Coverage begins with Cubs Pregame Live at 12:30 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.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: John Lackey vs. Max Scherzer

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

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

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Ben Zobrist, Daniel Murphy and a new Mr. October for Cubs?

Ben Zobrist never made it to the sit-down his camp had scheduled with the Washington Nationals at the winter meetings, which took place at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, not far from his offseason home. 

The Cubs were quietly hitting their multiple bank shot, trading Starlin Castro to the New York Yankees for Adam Warren and getting Zobrist to Chicago for the physical to finalize a four-year, $56 million contract.   

The Nationals found their Plan B for second base by Christmas Eve, agreeing to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Daniel Murphy, the new Mr. October who crushed the Cubs during the National League Championship Series.

Murphy and Zobrist intersected again on Thursday night at Wrigley Field, the Cubs winning Round 1 of this four-game series between National League heavyweights by a 5-2 score. 

The fans booed Murphy for last year’s NLCS MVP performance with the New York Mets, while Zobrist drew first blood with a two-run single in the fourth inning and a going-for-the-jugular two-run homer in the eighth. At 21-6, the Cubs are dominating every phase of the game after winning the offseason.   

“We knew that we were going to be good,” Zobrist said, “but sometimes you start slow. We got off well the first week and we kept it going. There’s something to be said for getting the ball rolling in the right direction early. And that makes a huge difference.”   

The Cubs wanted Zobrist’s steady presence on defense, his leadership in the clubhouse and a different dimension for their lineup. Zobrist earned his championship ring with the Kansas City Royals, handling New York’s power pitching in the World Series.  

Murphy cooled off by that point after a ridiculous four-homer power surge during the NLCS sweep, which included his memorable momentum-shifting swing against Jake Arrieta in Game 2. Murphy reached so far down for that Arrieta curveball that his left knee almost scraped the dirt, lifting it out toward Citi Field’s right-field seats for a two-run homer and a 3-0 first-inning lead.   

“There’s not enough adjectives to explain how good Jake has been over the last year-and-a-half,” Murphy said. “I think he just put together – I was reading – (something) like the best 25-game stretch of anybody ever. So I was able to get a pitch that he probably felt like he executed pretty well. 

“I didn’t hit it great. I just happened to wrap it around the pole. With Curtis Granderson and David (Wright) in front of me, they had really good at-bats, and our pitching was throwing the ball really well. Fortunately, that kind of ended up being enough for us.”

Something clicked for Murphy, who after an 0-for-4 night is still hitting .382 with four homers and 17 RBI for a first-place Washington team (19-9) the Cubs might face in the playoffs. 

But the Cubs now believe they might have their own Mr. October, who didn’t go that far down the road negotiating with the Nationals. Zobrist turned down four-year, $60 million offers from the Mets and San Francisco Giants for the chance to make history in Chicago. 

“There’s a great mix of the way guys are playing,” Zobrist said, “the way they’re feeling, the way they’re having conversations with each other. It’s the way that they’re just out there having a good time. We celebrate well together. We battle well together.

“That’s great on May 5th to get that feeling already. Sometimes you won’t get that feeling of a good team until later in the season. We’re going to have to weather some storms. We know that. But right now, we’re just trying to play great baseball.”

Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

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Cubs' Dexter Fowler still steaming after first-ever ejection

Three hours after being ejected, Dexter Fowler was still fuming.

Fowler - who leads Major League Baseball in on-base percentage - only got two at-bats Thursday night against the Washington Nationals before he was directed to hit the showers by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Fowler struck out looking in his first two times to the plate and expressed his frustration with Carapazza on the field after his third-inning at-bat.

It didn't take long for Carapazza to give Fowler the boot.

Here's the rundown of the conversation, according to the Cubs's leadoff hitter:

Fowler: Was that pitch at the top of the zone?
Carapazza: Yes.
Fowler: Are you going to call them away, too, and down? What are we doing? I wanna know the strike zone.
Carapazza: That's enough.
Fowler: Enough of what? I'm asking you a question.

"And he threw me out," Fowler said. "I was surprised he didn't answer the question. He just walked away and said, 'That's enough.' I said, 'You're not gonna answer my question?' And he threw me out.

"I figure I got two more at-bats; I wanted to know the strike zone. Are you gonna call them up? Are you gonna call them away? Whatever. Just let me know. That's all."

Fowler said he has never been ejected from a game in his life at any level.

He admits he's said more than that before and hasn't gotten tossed. And he's also occasionally asked umpires where their strike zone is.

"People have answered my questions and I walked off," Fowler said. "That's all you want is an answer. ... Everybody knows I'm respectful. I wasn't being disrespectful at all. I just asked a question. It sucks I got thrown out of the game."

Fowler has been the Cubs' most productive offensive player this season, but his teammates still found a way to earn a 5-2 victory over the Nationals in his absence.

Joe Maddon was on his way out to argue when Fowler was tossed, but the Cubs manager wasn't as interested in getting into the whole ordeal after the game like his centerfielder was.

"I was arguing that we are a team that does not expand our strike zone," Maddon said. "That was my argument."