Becker has good DNA for coaching

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Becker has good DNA for coaching

Kurt Becker acquired his coaching mantra from two of the icons of college and professional football, Bo Schembechler and Mike Ditka. After being hired at East Aurora, his alma mater, he couldn't wait to expose his young athletes to a philosophy that they have never experienced before.

Winning.

East Aurora is to winning what the Chicago Cubs are to pennants. In the last 11 years, the football program has won six games. The Tomcats have lost their last 30 games. Oh-and-nine is as common as mustard on a hot dog. They haven't had a winning season since 2000. In fact, Becker played on one of the school's last winning teams in 1976.

Becker, 53, has a game plan to change the storyline. He outlined everything in detail last Monday when he met with all 75 returning players from all levels of the program. "They look hungry and they want to be coached," he said.

"My first message was that when the door closed, all that happened before was over and done and gone. I don't want to hear about it. The social problems that existed before don't exist in my world. Monday started a new day, a new program. Everybody started from the beginning. I have a vision and I shared it with my players. I'm holding it close to my vest. I'll let others figure out what we are doing."

But Becker promised one thing: "You won't see the ball being thrown all over the house." Becker was a two-time All-Big 10 and an All-America first-team offensive guard for Schembechler at Michigan. He played for Ditka's Bears for eight years, including the 1986 Super Bowl champion.

Becker's program will be based on tradition, not a shotgun offense or a cover-two defense. "My platform and what I will build my program on will be based on the fact that East Aurora was the first sanctioned school district in Illinois (1847) and our rivalry game with West Aurora is one of the oldest in the state (114 years)," he said.

"To me, those two elements add up to one thing--tradition. I came from tradition. I came from Michigan. I played for a school with tradition. I was captain there. And I was drafted by the Chicago Bears. (Ownercoach) George Halas was the founder of the NFL. That's tradition. I understand what tradition is."

Why did Becker decide to get back into football? When his son Garret was in sixth grade, he told his father that he wanted to try out for youth football. He made the squad. His father found himself walking on the sideline, watching his son play.

"I asked some of the other fathers: 'Have any of you coached football before?' I volunteered to help. They didn't know who I was. I wanted to be sure my son had a positive experience. As he progressed, I followed along coaching his teams in grade school and high school."

Garret, a senior at Marmion Academy in Aurora, will attend Miami (Ohio) as a preferred walk-on. He is a running back and linebacker. He isn't a blue chipper, like his father was, but Kurt is pleased his son had a good experience, played on successful teams, including a state runner-up, and has an opportunity to go to college to get a good education and play football.

"Sometimes it is difficult being a coach's son but he did a great job with it," Kurt said. "That's why I got into it, to be able to be a part of his career and enjoy it. It was special to me."

Becker enjoyed working on coach Dan Thorpe's staff at Marmion. When the job opened up at East Aurora, he hesitated. He liked what he was doing. He wasn't sure he wanted to assume the pressure of being the head coach at his alma mater. But people from the school district insisted. "You need to be the coach at East Aurora," they said.

"Everywhere we went, the subject came up," Kurt said. "Finally, my wife Gloria suggested that I start listening to them. I thought my direction was I wanted to coach in college. I wanted to be an offensive line coach in the Big 10. I pursued it a bit. I went to some campuses. But college football is a totally different world from the time I played."

In the end, Becker listened to his wife and longtime friend Steve Kenyon, an East Aurora graduate who had coached at East Aurora in the 1970s when Becker was a studentathlete and in the 1990s when school officials threatened to terminate the entire interscholastic sports program.

"He worked at Naperville Central for 19 years and just retired," Becker said. "He called and said I should apply for the head coaching job at East Aurora and he would be my assistant. He was the final piece to put it all together. Steve convinced me and I applied for the job."

Becker needed to be assured that he had more support than one dedicated assistant. And he was. School board president Annette Johnson, an East Aurora graduate, said: "We're tired of losing. The sports program has been neglected." She told Becker the the school district is committed to building a successful sports program.

"The district has given me oversight over the district's entire football player--11 grade schools, three junior high schools and the high school," Becker said. "All of them will be on the same page. We will create a feeder program that we never had before."

Becker pointed out that East Aurora has lost more than a few athletes to its eastern neighbors--Waubonsie Valley, Neuqua Valley and Matea Valley--over the years. But he insists he will create success and a winning attitude that will keep East Aurora kids at home.

His long-term vision includes the construction of a new multi-purpose stadium for football, soccer, track and field, lacrosse and youth football that will be for the use of the entire community. The goal is for the facility to be ready in two to three years.

"Usually I'd jump into things and wonder what I did to myself," Becker said. "But I took time with this. This is a serious matter. We are in Class 8A in football. If we want to operate at the Class 8A level, we must work 12 months a year. We'll have our own weight training room, meeting room and locker room in that facility.

"When success comes, bricks and mortar will follow. Part of putting together a successful program is bricks and mortar. The (current) stadium was build before the high school. We will build a new stadium that will be a landmark for the district, on the site of the old stadium. That is my ultimate goal, a facility that will attract kids who want to play on the field."

But Becker knows there are critics and skeptics and pessimists who haven't seen a winner at East Aurora since Ernie Kivisto's basketball teams of the 1970s and Scott Martens' basketball teams of the 1980s. They respect Becker's enthusiasm and they admire his pedigree. But that are keenly aware that a half-dozen previous football coaches haven't been able to finish above .500--or even above .000.

He has learned his coaching DNA from Schembechler and Ditka. He describes his coaching persona as "a no-nonsense guy, a disciplinarian, a teacher with high expectations." Just as Schembechler always referred to Ohio State as "those guys from the South," Becker always refers to West Aurora as "that school on the other side of the river."

From Schembechler, he learned organizational and motivational skills.

"Bo controlled everything. He ran practice with a finely tuned watch. We didn't do a lot but what we did we were good at. Perfection was the key. At the end of the day, we'd line up and people knew what we would run. Bo didn't care if they knew. 'My players are better than your players and my play will work,' he said. We outworked the competition," Becker said.

From Ditka, he learned how to be a fierce competitor, a level of toughness. His players may not be as skilled or as fast or as big or as strong as others in the conference, but they won't lack for toughness and competitive spirit. Old number 79 will see to that.

"People ask me: 'What has happened to the Tomcats?' Nothing has happened to them. Tradition never dies. But we have ignored it," Becker said. "My job is to re-ignite it with the kids, grab the Tomcat and shake him up and wake up the tradition. You can't buy it. You can't feel it or smell it. It isn't an entitlement. You have to earn it."

Cubs: Can Jason Hammel sustain All-Star-level performance this time?

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Cubs: Can Jason Hammel sustain All-Star-level performance this time?

ST. LOUIS — Jason Hammel is pitching like an All-Star again — the way he did as a sign-and-flip guy in 2014 and a rotation anchor for last year’s playoff team — so the question for the Cubs now becomes: Is this sustainable?

Hammel doesn’t look at it that way, not after clearing his head during the offseason, altering his training program and refocusing for a World Series contender. He wants more.

Hammel 2.0 handled the St. Louis Cardinals during Tuesday night’s 12-3 victory at Busch Stadium, working into the eighth inning for the first time this year, allowing only one run and tying his season-high pitch count (103).

“I do feel different,” said Hammel (6-1, 2.17 ERA). “I’m definitely not happy with the walks. I know I can do better, as long as I clean that up. I still think the timing’s off with the delivery that I’ve adapted to now.

“But I’m not thinking that far down the road right now. I’m just going game by game, pitch by pitch. I think that’s going to be the right mentality for me. Instead of: ‘Don’t falter.’

“I’m not a negative thinker anymore. I’m just going to stay positive. We’re going to stay here and now and be present.”

Hammel described his outing as “effectively wild” and joked about his second three-game hitting streak: “Who’s counting?” It also helped that the Cubs built a six-run lead before he threw his first pitch, so manager Joe Maddon wouldn’t be so quick to turn the game over to the bullpen.

Hammel excelled for the Cubs in 2014, going 8-5 with a 2.98 ERA in his first 17 starts before getting packaged with Jeff Samardzija in the Addison Russell blockbuster trade with the Oakland A’s. But Hammel found it difficult to uproot his family midseason and struggled to make a quick adjustment to Oakland, finishing at 2-6 with a 4.26 ERA in the American League.

Hammel got off to another hot start last season (2.86 ERA in 103-plus innings) before a leg injury messed with his mechanics and led to a breakdown after the All-Star break (5.10 ERA in 67 innings).

“I believe it’s sustainable, absolutely,” Maddon said. “The biggest thing, again, is if he knows where his fastball is going, he will pitch deeply into a lot of games, because his ball’s got great movement on it. So there’s a lot of mishits, and also his breaking ball is really good.”

Hammel understands his importance to this team, how carrying this momentum all the way through to the finish line would be huge for the 2016 Cubs.

“I don’t see why not,” catcher David Ross said. “He was our best starter last year in the first half. That says a lot with the group that’s in this room.

“He does a good job of keeping those guys off-balance and making the pitches when he needs to. He just looks a lot more sound mechanically. Even when he gets out of whack, he finds his way back into the count.”

Sky drop third straight game with loss to Sparks

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Sky drop third straight game with loss to Sparks

ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) - Candace Parker scored 17 of her 26 points in the first half and the Los Angeles Sparks used a decisive second quarter to cruise to a 93-80 win over the Chicago Sky on Tuesday night.

Chicago was within two with 3:55 left before halftime, but Los Angeles closed the opening 20 minutes with an 18-2 run for a 53-35 lead. Kristi Toliver started the spurt with a 3-pointer and Parker scored the final six points.

Parker scored the first five Los Angeles points of the third quarter, including a coast-to-coast layup and a 3-pointer, and the Sparks led by double figures for the entire second half.

Nneka Ogwumike had 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists and Jantel Lavender scored 16 on 7-of-9 shooting for Los Angeles (4-0), which was ranked No. 2 in the AP WNBA power poll. Kristi Toliver had 11 points and 10 assists and the Sparks finished with 27 assists on 30 field goals. Parker was just 6 of 15 from the field but hit 12 of 14 free throws and grabbed nine rebounds.

Jamierra Faulkner scored 17 points with a career-high 10 assists for No. 7 Chicago (1-3), which was without point guard Courtney Vandersloot for a second straight game. The Sky turned it over 15 times and Elena Delle Donne was held to eight points.

Chris Sale's win streak snapped at nine as White Sox fall to Tribe

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Chris Sale's win streak snapped at nine as White Sox fall to Tribe

Chris Sale’s bid to win his first 10 starts of the season ended in spectacular enough fashion on Tuesday night for him to look at video.

The White Sox pitcher isn’t a big fan of reviewing footage of his starts.

But that’s exactly what Sale did after he endured the longest inning of his career and then some in a 6-2 White Sox loss to the Cleveland Indians at U.S. Cellular Field in front of 21,550.

Cruising through two-plus innings, Sale needed 43 pitches to escape the third inning. He only recorded one more out and allowed six earned runs. Vying to become only the eighth pitcher in baseball history to win his first 10 starts, and just the second since 1920, Sale was tagged with his first loss for the White Sox, who have lost 10 of 14.

“I had to see what’s going on,” Sale said. “Just trying to get a feel for where I was at in my mechanics and all that, seeing what was going on. I saw some stuff and (I’ll) build on that and learn and move forward.

“I don’t know if it was more (command issues) or just being bad.

“I couldn’t really pinpoint anything. I couldn’t tell you this or that. I stunk. I was bad. It was embarrassing.”

Sale said he didn’t review footage because he thought he might have tipped his pitches against the Indians, against whom he’s now 5-7 with a 4.07 ERA.

Instead, he wanted to see why he “ran into a buzzsaw.”

With two outs in the third inning, Sale’s pitch count stood at 32, including only five in the frame. He had retired eight of the first 10 batters faced.

But what appeared to be another chapter in a spectacular start to Sale’s season quickly unraveled. He walked Jose Ramirez on 10 pitches and Francisco Lindor singled him to third. Mike Napoli followed with a two-run triple that fell in between Austin Jackson and Melky Cabrera and put the Indians ahead for good.

But the inning wasn’t yet over.

Sale walked Carlos Santana on seven pitches and Juan Uribe won a nine-pitch battle when he dumped a 2-2 changeup into right for an RBI single.

Chris Gimenez started the fourth inning with a solo homer off Sale — only the sixth he has allowed in 71.2 innings this season. Sale issued two more walks and an RBI single by Lindor knocked him out of the game.

“Any time you see that, you are surprised,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “This is an off night for him. The best part is it’s not anything physical as far as he was hurting. He had velocity. He probably had too much of it.”

Sale’s attempt to become the first starting pitcher to win 10 straight since San Diego’s Andy Hawkins in 1985 ended with his shortest start since Sept. 13, 2015. He allowed seven hits, walked four and struck out seven.

The biggest disappointment for Sale isn’t the loss of the streak but that he followed a doubleheader with his shortest outing of the season. Zach Putnam, Tommy Kahnle, Matt Purke and Dan Jennings combined for 5.2 scoreless innings in relief of Sale.

“That’s what gets me the most,” Sale said. “We played two yesterday — I had to be big for the guys tonight and was the exact opposite.”

“I stunk. I was bad. I was terrible.”

Sale’s offense had to reverse its latest trend to save him from a loss.

Despite a nice showing from Jose Abreu, it didn’t.

Adam Eaton jumpstarted the White Sox with a leadoff solo homer against Josh Tomlin.

But Tomlin retired 23 of the next 28 batters he faced, including 12 in a row, to improve to 7-0.

The White Sox finished with six hits and scored three or fewer runs for the eighth time in 11 contests. They’ve produced three or fewer runs in 23 of 47 games this season and dropped to 7-16 in those contests.

“Right now it seems that way that we are streaky,” Ventura said. “Nice night by Jose, that’s a good sign to see him swinging it the way he did. You definitely want to see some more runs and things like that.

“But seeing him get going would be a nice shot inn the arm for us.”