Can Rich South get over the hump?


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."

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.