Basketball creating a buzz at TF South

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Basketball creating a buzz at TF South

Before every practice and every home game, Paul Pierce walks into the gym at Thornton Fractional South in Lansing and gazes at the plaque hanging on the wall, the one that celebrates the basketball team's victory in the 1963 regional championship, the only title in school history.

"Our goal is to accomplish what the 1963 team did," Pierce said. "Coach reminds us of that every day. We came close to Thornton two years ago, then lost to Plainfield South by one point in the first game of the regional last year. It is important for us to do something that hasn't been done before."

In his third season, TF South coach John O'Rourke is trying to turn hamburger into filet mignon. A TF South graduate of 1995, he played basketball for four years and served as former coach Marc Brewe's assistant for three years. When Brewe became athletic director, O'Rourke moved up.

He knows the drill. TF South has never won a conference title in basketball. It is a football and basketball school. Pierre Thomas and Curtis Granderson went there. Brewe had only one winning team in seven years. He went from 1-24 in 2007 to 22-5 in 2008. Last year, the Rebels were 11-16.

"It was a challenge that I wanted to take on," O'Rourke said. "I wanted to build off what coach Brewe had started in his later years. Now we have started to get more kids in the building who are dedicated to basketball.

"This year we have a good group of kids who work hard, listen and want to improve every day. To be successful, you need kids who are committed. I believe is what we are doing and the kids have bought in. We're seeing more success. The community and staff and parents are more excited about the product on the floor. There is a buzz in the school."

TF South is 6-3 after losing to Joliet West 62-59 and Argo 63-60 last week. But two fender-benders don't make a train wreck. And they certainly don't force a sudden closing to an otherwise promising season. The Rebels hope to regroup as they prepare to meet Lincoln-Way Central in the opening round of the Lincoln-Way East Holiday Tournament on Dec. 26.

Their shortcoming is a lack of size. They were burned by Joliet West's 6-foot-9 Marlon Johnson, who had 22 points and 13 rebounds.

"Our biggest fear is if we face a big team that can handle the ball and can make plays. That would be a problem for us," O'Rourke said. "The strength of our team is good shooting. We play very hard for four quarters. We pressure the ball and harass the ball-handlers. That's why we press and play full-court man-to-man and trap all over the floor. We have to create steals and get scoring opportunities."

Pierce, a 6-foot senior, is one of the best players ever produced at TF South. He averages 15 points and six rebounds per game. He is attracting interest from North Park, Roosevelt and Northern Kentucky. A good student (he has a 3.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale), he wants to play basketball in college.

O'Rourke ranks Pierce in a class with former TF South stars Brian Flaherty, son of Mount Carmel coach Mike Flaherty who played at St. Xavier, and Paris Carter, now at Illinois-Chicago, who is described as "our best player ever."

"Paul is coming off a down junior year. He averaged only five points per game and struggled a lot. He lost his confidence," O'Rourke said. "But he improved a lot over the summer. He got his shot and his skills back. He is the leader of our team on the floor."

Pierce starts along with 6-3 senior Ira Crawford (13 PPG, 7 RPG), 5-foot-9 junior Donald Hardaway (7 PPG), 5-foot-8 sophomore point guard Robert Ryan (11 PPG, 5 assistsgame) and 6-foot-2 senior Kaleb Garrett (6 RPG). Kenny Doss (10 PPG), a 6-foot-1 junior, and Mychelle Bullock (7 PPG), a 6-foot-2 senior, come off the bench.

Pierce admits he lost confidence last year and credits his brother for reminding him that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." He never stopped working hard even though his shot wasn't falling and his scoring average dropped.

"Last year, I took a backseat because we had a lot of seniors on the team. It was their team, not my team," he said. "I was over-thinking, not just playing basketball. My shot was flat, not smooth. I was determined to turn things around."

Usually, Pierce goes to Starkville, Mississippi, in the summer to work out with his cousin, NBA player Travis Outlaw. Not last summer. Instead, he chose to stay in Lansing to play with the Illinois Wolverines, an AAU team featuring several players that Pierce had played with since sixth grade.

"I slept in the gym. I took 100 shots in the morning, then 300 the rest of the day. I got my confidence and my shot back," he said. "But the last two games told me that I have to take more control of the game, step up and take charge. I learned that when we face a big man that all of us have to crash the boards and play defense. We have to play as a team if we're going to accomplish our goal."

Five more years: Theo Epstein signs massive contract extension with Cubs

Five more years: Theo Epstein signs massive contract extension with Cubs

PITTSBURGH — Theo Epstein understood the optics of how he once escaped Fenway Park in a gorilla suit, walking away from his dream job with the Boston Red Sox. Winning two World Series titles couldn’t stop the personality conflicts or the competing agendas or an epic collapse at the end of the 2011 season.

But Epstein never wanted to make that kind of power play here, not with the Cubs on the verge of what could be a historic run through October and a potential dynasty, not after leaving the Boston bubble and feeling a sense of renewal in Chicago, where his young family lives a few blocks from Wrigley Field.

Epstein signing a massive five-year contract extension seemed inevitable, no matter that it took until Sept. 28 for the Cubs to finally make the announcement.

While $50 million guaranteed is said to be an overestimate, it’s believed to be in the team president’s range, given the bonus potential — presumably through metrics like attendance and playoff appearances — and the sense that Andrew Friedman’s deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers could be worth $45 million.

“There was never any real drama,” chairman Tom Ricketts said Wednesday, sitting in PNC Park’s visiting dugout before a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Honestly, we sat down in spring training, had a nice dinner and talked about it. I basically told him I thought he was the best in the game at what he did. And he told me that no matter what I paid him, he wasn’t going to leave Chicago, so we were off to a good start.”

After a series of meetings through the summer, Epstein and Ricketts hammered out the final details over the weekend inside the team’s Wrigleyville headquarters and initially planned to hold the press conference on Sunday, but that felt wrong once they found out Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boat crash, leaving the industry in mourning.

Epstein’s contract does not include an equity stake in a franchise now valued at more than $2 billion. Two of his closest advisors — general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player-development chief Jason McLeod — will also get extensions through the 2021 season.

“When we had dinner in spring training, (Tom) started it off by saying some really nice things about me that might have hurt his leverage a little bit,” Epstein said. “And then I returned the favor by telling him that even if we couldn’t work out a contract, it would get awkward because I would still just keep showing up to work as an employee at will, ruining my leverage, so that was a nice way to start the negotiation. Really, the entire process reflected that spirit.”

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It hasn’t been an uninterrupted honeymoon period since Epstein bolted from Boston and signed a five-year, $18.5 million contract in October 2011. The Epstein regime fired three managers before hiring Joe Maddon, who used an out-clause that triggered when Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays for Los Angeles after the 2014 season. The Cubs continually faced questions about spending like a big-market team — signing Jon Lester to a $155 million megadeal that winter required financial gymnastics and using money left over from losing the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes.

But from the ashes of a 101-loss season in 2012, the Cubs methodically built a 101-win team this year through: executing shrewd trades for an All-Star first baseman (Anthony Rizzo), All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell), last year’s Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) and an emerging ace (Kyle Hendricks); drafting a leading MVP candidate (Kris Bryant); and going on a free-agent spending spree that approached $290 million (John Lackey, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler).

“They’ve given me great freedom to operate within baseball operations,” Epstein said of the Ricketts family. “They’ve given me the resources that we’ve needed to make this baseball operation healthier and thrive. It’s everything I could have ever asked for. So there’s no place I’d rather be. I think I said five years ago it’s a great day to be a Cub. I still feel that way. I still envision feeling that way for the foreseeable future.”

In leaving the Red Sox, Epstein quoted football legend Bill Walsh, referencing his belief that coaches and executives shouldn’t spend more than a decade in one job, or else risk burnout or becoming stale.

“I don’t know” if this will be the last contract in Chicago, Epstein said. “It was 10 years in Boston, and that certainly seemed like the right amount of time there. I do really believe in a lot of what Walsh was writing about.

“But it’s too early to judge. We’ll see how I feel at that point. Certainly, there’s some symmetry to 10 years. But it’s just too early. So many things can happen between now and then. I’m really not thinking beyond trying to win a World Series for this organization.”

When Epstein first met Ricketts in New York at the family’s spectacular residence overlooking Central Park, the Cubs had just lost 91 games, the second of five straight fifth-place finishes — and the beginning of what could be a golden age of baseball on the North Side.

“A lot of people have this perception — I know I was sort of in that camp — that he was more of a deeply quantitative number-cruncher kind of guy,” Ricketts said. “And that’s true. Obviously, Theo understands numbers. He understands how to apply them to make good decisions.

“But I think the thing that I’ve seen the last five years — which is even more remarkable — is how well he handles people. How well he chooses players for his team — and his ability to judge character and put together the right human resources together on the same team — has been truly remarkable.”

Larkin senior Christian Negron out for season with torn ACL

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Larkin senior Christian Negron out for season with torn ACL

Larkin forward Christian Negron, a major contender for the All-Area team this season, will miss his senior season with a torn ACL.

The bouncy 6-foot-6 forward has been a major force in the area since his varsity debut as a freshman for the Royals as he averaged 16.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.2 blocks, 3 assists and 2.2 steals per game last season.

Negron is coming off of a strong summer in which he played with the Puerto Rican national team during the U18 FIBA Americas. Leading in the team in scoring and rebounding, Negron averaged 13.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game including 23 points and 13 rebounds against the gold-medal winning United States.

While Negron's local high school career is likely over, he had a great three seasons at Larkin and he still has a bright basketball future if he is able to recover. Considered a three-star recruit by Rivals.com, Negron recently cut his list to five schools as he is looking at Bradley, DePaul, Loyola, Oregon State and UAB.