Auburn seeks second trip to state finals


Auburn seeks second trip to state finals

It took more than a year for high school basketball fans and the media to finally figure out how to spell Fred Van Vleet's last name. Van Vleet, not Van Fleet. In fact, some people still get it wrong. It must be a typo, right? It can't be Van Vleet. It must be Van Fleet, right?

Maybe if Rockford Auburn advances to the finals of the Class 4A tournament in Peoria -- for the second time in school history--everybody will get it right. Once and for all. Fred Van Vleet.

The 6-foot point guard, who is committed to Wichita State, scored 26 points to lead Rockford Auburn to a 66-46 rout of Machesney Park Harlem on Tuesday night in the regional semifinal.

To win the Dundee-Crown sectional and advance to the supersectional at DeKalb, coach Bryan Ott's team likely will have to eliminate Huntley and Elgin, then could face highly rated Warren to earn a spot in the Elite Eight, a daunting task indeed.

It hasn't been easy for Rockford Auburn to get out of its own regional in the past. Legendary coach Dolph Stanley produced the only state qualifier in 1963. His 28-3 team, which was ranked No. 2 in the state, lost in the state quarterfinals. And the school always had to contend with West Rockford and East Rockford and Rockford Boylan and Rockton Hononegah.

In his 13th year at Auburn, Ott has been building for this moment. Last year, his 26-5 team lost to Glenbard East in the supersectional. Three years ago, his 21-5 squad lost to St. Charles North in the sectional semifinal.

This year's team is 27-2 and has won 18 in a row. Its only losses were to Rockton Hononegah by three points in December and to unbeaten and second-ranked Proviso East 75-56 in the semifinals of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"We're better than last year," Ott said. "We have one more year of experience with Van Vleet, who is a great player. We start five seniors, three of whom started last year. We pressure full-court and we get out I transition and finish."

Van Vleet is averaging 21 points, seven assists and seven rebounds per game. He is one of the most underrated players in the state and the undisputed leader of a team that most observers overlook in the rush to heap praise on Class 4A powers Simeon and Proviso East.

"He is a coach on the floor, a dynamic ball-handler," Ott said. "His floor vision is second to none. He is a great passer and he does a great job of quarterbacking our man-to-man full-court and half-court defense, which requires a lot of talk."

Van Vleet is backed up by 6-foot senior LaMark Foote (14 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Jaylin Marshall (10 ppg, 8 rpg) and 5-foot-10 senior Elijah Smith (12 ppg).

Smith, who didn't play much as a junior, has come on strong to become another offensive threat in Auburn's four-guard offense. Marshall is the team's tallest starter and very athletic.

"Lack of size hasn't been a problem for us," Ott said. "We haven't faced any opponents with great size, teams with players who are 6-foot-6 or taller. If we face Warren (in the supersectional), they would be the tallest team we've faced."

Auburn averages 75 points per game but Ott is more concerned with his team's consistency on defense. "For us, we need to be consistent on defense. There are times when we are a shutdown team, then disappear for a quarter and give up silly shots. We aren't as consistent on defense as we were last year," the coach said.

As Auburn attempts to go deeper into the tournament, Ott also is calling upon Marshall and Smith to take more pressure off Van Vleet on offense.

"Marshall has to produce inside. He has to be a threat inside no matter who we are facing," Ott said. "And Smith has to average in double figures so opponents can't double up on Van Vleet and not respect anyone else."

Why Cleveland's Mike Napoli was rooting to face the Cubs in the World Series

Why Cleveland's Mike Napoli was rooting to face the Cubs in the World Series

CLEVELAND — Buoyed by a sense of the history that will be made sometime next week, Cleveland Indians first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli was rooting for the Cubs to win the National League Championship Series and be his team’s opponent in the World Series. 

Napoli, who was on the losing side of the 2011 World Series with the Texas Rangers and won the 2013 World Series with the Boston Red Sox, said he’s well aware of the stigmas attached to the Cubs’ 108-year championship drought and the Indians’ 68-year stretch without a title. Having these two teams meet to have one of those streaks end should provide a breathtaking backdrop to the Fall Classic. 

“That’s the reason why I wanted the Cubs to win, to play against them,” Napoli said. “What they’ve gone through —  I thought it would be an amazing scenery to be able to play in both of these stadiums at this time. I thought it would be something cool.”

Napoli added that he has plenty of friends on the Cubs stemming from his three seasons in Boston. He was teammates with Cubs starters Jon Lester and John Lackey and catcher David Ross in that championship-winning year of 2013. 

But the magnitude of what’s on the line for not only the Indians’ fanbase, but the Cubs’, is why Napoli wanted this to be the matchup in the World Series. 

“They’ve gone through a long wait,” Napoli said, “so it’s pretty cool for them to make it.”

Local product and former fan Jason Kipnis has 'zero conflict' extending Cubs' World Series title drought

Local product and former fan Jason Kipnis has 'zero conflict' extending Cubs' World Series title drought

CLEVELAND — His first loves were Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace and Sammy Sosa. He believes Steve Bartman is totally innocent. And he’s ecstatic to see the Cubs in the World Series because of what it means to his family and friends.

But don’t mistake any of the Cubs nostalgia that Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis is feeling for weakness. When the 112th World Series kicks off between the Cubs and Indians on Tuesday night, the Northbrook native has no issue extending the North Siders’ misery one more year.

“Let me reiterate — there’s zero conflict at all,” Kipnis said at media day on Monday at Progressive Field. “It was like, ‘Why do I have to beat the Cubs?’ Not ‘Why does this have to be versus the Cubs?’ There’s not one part of me that (wants the curse to end). Let’s be clear on that.”

What isn’t quite as certain is Kipnis’ status for Game 1, which starts at 7:08 p.m. CST. The veteran sustained a freak ankle injury — “it wasn’t exactly a mild sprain,” he said — during a victory celebration on Wednesday after the Indians wrapped up their first American League pennant since 1997. Kipnis said the swelling in his ankle has reduced and he’s hopeful to be ready to play “on the biggest stage in front of everyone I know.”

Already pleased with his own accomplishments, Kipnis, 29, said he was overcome with emotion on Saturday night as he read the social media posts of friends and family after the Cubs wrapped up their first trip to the Fall Classic since 1945. Kipnis’ love for the Cubs started early with Sandberg and Grace and flourished with the epic 1998 home run chase between Sosa and Mark McGwire.

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A neighbor of Bartman’s, Kipnis hopes the Cubs reunite with one of the most infamous fans in baseball history now that the club has returned to the World Series after a 71-year absence. Kipnis recalls how the incident made Bartman the talk of the town and how it also required a police presence outside his home in case an overzealous fan took things a little too far.

“He never asked for all the stuff that probably happened to him afterwards,” Kipnis said. “I don’t think he deserved any of that. He’s actually probably a very loyal fan and wanted a foul ball and it was just the way the events turned that turned him into a scapegoat.

“I would love it to see if he threw out a first pitch. Probably everyone would go nuts.”

Despite their love of the Cubs, Kipnis said loved ones refuse to put him in awkward spot. He knows how deep their attachments are and yet Kipnis has never felt any animosity — even if he wants to extend the drought one more year.

“It’s just what I grew up around and it’s just going to be fun,” Kipnis said. “It shouldn’t be a conflict, shouldn’t be nerve-wracking at all. It’s really just one of those professional perfect storms that kind of comes to a player’s opportunity where you get to play in front of everyone you know.

“They’re like, ‘There’s no question who we’re rooting for.’ That means a lot to me.”