Can Rich South get over the hump?

638622.png

Can Rich South get over the hump?

The south suburbs used to be a dominant factor in the state tournament.
Remember Thornridge, Thornton, Bloom, Lockport and Providence? No longer.
Since 1979, the south suburbs have produced only two state champions--Richards in 2008 and Seton in 2009.

Rich South is anxious to toss its hat into the ring this season. The Stars have qualified for the supersectional round only once. Fred Jacobeit's 25-5 team reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1997. Two years ago, Scot Ritter's 25-5 team lost to eventual state champion Hillcrest in the sectional final.

Those pleasant memories are few and far between. This year, Rich South is 13-4 with losses to unbeaten Metea Valley, Marist, Hope Academy and Bloom. But recent victories over Seton and Bloom have sparked enthusiasm and bolstered confidence in what lies ahead. The Stars meet district rival Rich East on Friday.

"We still are inconsistent on offense. We make bad decisions at bad times. Our guard play has been inconsistent," Ritter said. "But we have the ability to rebound well. Our strengths are rebounding, our ability to share the ball and balance. We have no one player to key on."

That has been Rich South's fatal flaw. "We never had a lot of individual talent all at once. We have had good kids here and there. But we usually have a lot of balance. Our identity is to be patient on offense, get good shots, play defense and win the rebounding battle," Ritter said.

"The question in the south suburbs is always that we have had to go through some elite teams...Thornton or Hillcrest or Bloom or Homewood-Flossmoor. Two years ago, it was my most talented team but we lost to Hillcrest in the sectional final and they went on to win state."

But this year the playing surface appears to be level. A dominant team hasn't emerged in the south suburbs. Maybe it won't. Ritter believes Rich South can go to the head of the class--if his guards become more consistent, limit their mistakes and mesh with what appears to be one of the best front lines in the area.

"Two years ago, we had a lot of good guards. Guard play dominates the game. Guards are the key to winning state championships," Ritter said. "But this year our strength is forwards. I don't know how far we can go with our inconsistency at guard."

Ritter, 40, in his 10th season as Rich South's head coach, relies on four guards in the backcourt. He starts 5-6 senior point guard Marvin Williams (six points per game, five assists) and 6-foot-2 senior Ralph Abraham (10 points per game), his best perimeter shooter. But Williams commits four or five turnovers per game.

Williams and Abraham rotate with 6-foot junior Jalen Zachary and 6-foot-2 senior Jalen McKaskel.

"Who will take charge? I'm looking for two of them to be more consistent. It is a good rotation but they need to limit their mistakes for us to be effective on offense," the coach said.

"We need to stay focused and not be satisfied with a couple of victories (over Seton and Bloom). We beat two highly rated teams and are ranked in the top 25 in the Chicago area. Newspapers are calling us. But we can't be satisfied because we can get a lot better, especially on offense."

Up front, the Stars are solid with 6-5, 208-pound senior John Ruffin (13 points, 13 rebounds per game), one of the leading rebounders in the south suburbs, 6-foot-2 senior Cedric Russell (seven points, eight rebounds per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Marquel Small (13 points, nine rebounds per game).

They get help off the bench from 6-foot-1 junior Demetri Strickland, 6-foot-1 senior Antoine Lira and 6-foot-4 senior Vernon Young, a starter a year ago who became eligible for the second semester.

Ruffin is the designated leader. As a sophomore, he came off the bench for the 25-5 sectional finalist. He recalls how that team practiced hard and wanted to be great, how it set goals, how it wanted to win more than 20 games, win the holiday tournament and win the sectional.

"This year we are doing the same thing," Ruffin said. "We are getting better and playing harder in practice. We don't have one player. Each night another player steps up. Opponents can't key on one player. They have to look out for all five. If we play hard on defense and control rebounding, we can still be in the game."

Ruffin's forte is rebounding. As a sophomore, after he transferred from Thornton Fractional South in Lansing, he learned that he could command more playing time if he demonstrated he could be productive on the boards.

"Some guys are taller than me but I'm stronger and quicker than most. And I use my heart, too. I have will and heart and just do it," he said. "Sometimes I muscle people and when they try to box me out I use a swimming technique with my arms and legs to get around the defender and get in front of him."

His personal best is 21 rebounds in a single game. The school record is 24. That is another of his goals. But the most fun he has in basketball is winning.

"We're trying to make history this year," Ruffin said. "It is my last year. It is my team. I have to be the leader. "Size hasn't been an issue with us," Ritter summed up. "What we need is consistent guard play. We need to make passes to guys to make plays. We need to make good decisions, to get us into our offense, to be patient. We stay in games because we rebound the ball and get extra possessions. We need to be smart and not turn the ball over. We don't want to get satisfied. We're decent, not great. But we can get better. We can be a tough out in the state tournament."

Road Ahead: White Sox return home after seven-game road trip

sox_road_ahead_05-01_640x360_677830723855.jpg

Road Ahead: White Sox return home after seven-game road trip

CSN's Chuck Garfien and Bill Melton talk about what's next for the White Sox, which host the Red Sox and Twins, in this week's Honda Road Ahead, presented by Chicagoland & Northwest Indiana Honda dealers.

After playing 19 games in 19 days the White Sox finally had an off day on Monday. The busy stretch ended in a seven-game road trip, which the Sox went 5-2 in.

Garfien and Melton talked about the success the White Sox have had on the road as the team returns home to face the Red Sox and Twins in a pair of three-game series this week. The Red Sox lead the AL East with a 15-10 record while the Twins have the worst record in the American League.

The White Sox entered Monday with more wins than any other team in the majors.

Releasing Antrel Rolle, Matt Slauson 'improves” Bears' 2016 draft

dc_bears_release_slauson_and_rolle_05-01_640x360_677557315809.jpg

Releasing Antrel Rolle, Matt Slauson 'improves” Bears' 2016 draft

No one involved with the Chicago Bears – no one, not players, coaches, media members, front office – had a good feeling on Sunday when the Bears followed through on a couple of anticipated roster moves with the releases of Antrel Rolle and Matt Slauson.

In a quarter-century around this team, both men are on a list of the classiest and most likeable individuals I have had the pleasure to meet and cover, along with Jermon Bushrod, Philip Daniels, Dick Jauron, Jim Miller, Lovie Smith, Chris Villarrial, Big Cat Williams and many, many others too numerous to chronicle here.

But the NFL is about nothing if not what-have-you-done-for-me-lately (which is why signing bonuses and guaranteed money are EVERYTHING in player contracts). So it was apparent as 2015 wound down that seeing Rolle and Slauson in Bears uniforms for 2016 was an extreme longshot.

Ironically, what the releases do, however, is put a brighter shine on the Bears’ 2016 draft. Because GM Ryan Pace now appears to have done a remarkably deft job of drafting simultaneously for both “best-available” and “need.” And that ain’t easy.

(This is not to be confused with a draft “grade” – players who’ve never played an NFL down even in a rookie minicamp do not deserve early “grades” on an NFL scale yet. Check back after weeks 1-3 of training camp.)

What Pace, John Fox and their staffs did in general was draft their preferred “best player available” – to a point. What Pace really did was slide the fluid definitions of “best” and “available” both up (from No. 11 to No. 9 for Leonard Floyd) and back (trading back twice from No. 41 to take Cody Whitehair).

The Bears did not just take the best player available when their turn came; they also moved to a spot where that player made draft-slot sense as well. Was Whitehair the best-available at No. 41? Maybe. Maybe not. But at No. 56, definitely.

Why that matters is because the Bears knew well in advance of this draft that they wanted upgrades at both guard and safety. So at guard, Pace got the best available one (the 49ers already had traded up into the late first round to grab Stanford’s Joshua Garnett at No. 28). And he filled a franchise need for the present and the future, even with Ted Larsen, Kyle Long, Manny Ramirez and Slauson in place. Guard is suddenly a strength on the roster, with upside in Whitehair.

Back in round four, after addressing pass-rush power with D-end Jonathan Bullard in round three, Pace did the same thing – the enviable combo of best-available and need-fill.

A number of safeties had gone already, and the Bears wanted West Virginia inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski with their first fourth-round pick (No. 113). Pace stayed with his board and still addressed the safety need, with Miami’s Deon Bush, using a pick acquired from Seattle with one of those round-two trades, and also with Deiondre’ Hall, who projects as a challenger at cornerback but who split time in the Northern Iowa defense at safety and even played linebacker at one point. Again, best-available at a need position.

Net result: The ultimate “grade” of a draft is how good the drafted players turn out to be. But a preliminary grade lies in whether or not a team was able to fill needs that hadn’t been addressed in free agency, which was very much the case at safety before this weekend.

One question that can be asked is whether Slauson at 30, proven at two positions, and knowing the Bears’ system, wasn’t in fact a better interior player than Ramirez, who is three years older and was benched last season by a less-than-distinguished Detroit Lions offense.

And being released May 1 isn’t as advantageous for a player as going on the open market at the outset of free agency, or sooner as in the Matt Forte case. The bigger the window of opportunity for catching on elsewhere, the better.

But both Rolle and Slauson are 30-plus, with some injury history within the last two years. And the reality is that both players would very possibly still be on the market leading into the draft timeframe. Teams look first to see what they can do in the draft before signing aged veterans, which would’ve involved guaranteeing some money. The Bears had both under contract and paid, so they weren’t in the same situation as other teams.

The play of Bush and Whitehair will ultimately vindicate the unpleasant roster moves Pace and the Bears made. But in terms of filling perceived needs and doing it in synch with best-available evaluations, the Bears’ 2016 draft just improved its preliminary “grade.”

Tested White Sox get some well-earned rest

lawrie_no_doubt_man_05-01_640x360_677419075848.jpg

Tested White Sox get some well-earned rest

They’re pretty darn accomplished and they’re finally off.

As they relax and unwind Monday, their first day off since April 12 and only second scheduled one since the season began, the White Sox have to feel a sense of satisfaction.

Not only do they boast a major-league best 18 wins and they’ve already spent spent 22 days in first place in the American League Central, but the team also conducted itself extremely well during one of its most grueling stretches of the season. 

Courtesy of a 7-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, the White Sox finished off a run of 19 games in 19 days, including a dozen on the road, with a 13-6 mark. Given the rash of injuries suffered late in the span, manager Robin Ventura might describe Monday’s brief respite as well earned.

“Everybody’s ready for the off day,” Ventura said. “We knew it was there all along, and I thought the guys have handled it great, just taking care of each day as it comes, and we’ve got some guys who are banged up a little bit, some guys who are going on the (disabled list), and it’s been a pretty active stretch as far as playing games, winning games, losing guys to the DL, guys stepping it up for those guys, and so far it’s been pretty good.”

The schedule has been unrelenting for the White Sox (but more on that in a bit). 

What has raised the degree of difficulty is the way players began to drop like flies toward the end of April. 

It began April 24 with the hamstring strain that landed catcher Alex Avila on the 15-day DL.

His replacement, Kevan Smith, joined the team and suffered back spasms in pregame stretch on April 26, which not only removed him from making his major league debut, it also put him on the DL. 

Closer David Robertson returned to the club Sunday after he missed three of four games in Baltimore to attend the funeral of his father-in-law. The White Sox promoted Daniel Webb to pick up the slack in Robertson’s absence and the right-hander struck out the side in a scoreless inning on Thursday before he went on the DL with right elbow flexor inflammation.

Then on Friday, designated hitter Avisail Garcia tweaked his hamstring running to first on the final play of the game. As of Sunday morning, Ventura said Garcia’s availability for Tuesday might still be in question as Garcia wasn’t going to test the hamstring on Sunday. Garcia briefly tested it Saturday afternoon and said it’s not a serious enough injury to go on the DL, but also ruled himself out of action until at least Tuesday.

And on Sunday, Todd Frazier appeared to be in pain for several minutes after an Ubaldo Jimenez pitch hit him on his hand, though the third baseman wound up staying in the game.

Yet the White Sox endured through all of these speed bumps and closed out a seven-game road trip through Toronto and Baltimore with a win and a 5-2 record.

“We come here (Sunday), we do a job and we’re able to go back home with a lot of positivity and have a nice off day and relax,” second baseman Brett Lawrie said. 

The schedule has been anything but kind to the White Sox.

Had it not been for an April 10 rainout, the White Sox would be tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the most games played in the majors. To boot, 17 of their first 26 games have taken place on the road, where the White Sox are off to a 12-5 start, having won three of five series and splitting another.

Their strength of schedule also increased as the month wore on. So far, the White Sox played six teams that finished the 2015 season with a winning record, including two division-winners. 

Over their last 10 games, the White Sox played 2015 AL West champs Texas and AL East champs Toronto. They finished off the run with four in Baltimore, a place that has never been friendly, and went 8-2 in the process. 

So perhaps the White Sox will give themselves a pat on the back on Monday, or order a hot fudge sundae, or maybe even upgrade from a compact to a mid-size rental. 

They’ve handled themselves well through their first real test. And starting pitcher Chris Sale, baseball’s first six-game winner, said Sunday they’ll be ready for the next one, too.

“We’re playing great baseball against good teams,” Sale said. “We had some tough teams to face early on and the way we’ve handled it and the way we’ve played has been great. We go back to Chicago, enjoy the off day and keep it rolling.”