Class 1A state title a wide open race

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Class 1A state title a wide open race

Everybody from here to Cairo wrote off Hope Academy's chances of winning the Class 1A championship when 6-foot-3 junior point guard Jalen James, who is committed to the University of Illinois, transferred to LaLumiere, a prep school in LaPorte, Indiana, in the first week of January.

But coach Mike Edwards didn't toss in the towel. Neither did 6-foot-5 seniors Alex Houston and Colin Blaydes or 6-foot-6, 255-pound senior Torrance Johnson or 6-foot-1 senior Tyrone Smith or 5-foot-11 sophomore Carson Hughes or any of the other players that James left behind.

Last year's team was 20-11 and lost to eventual state champion Newark in the sectional final. Despite James' absence, Edwards remains optimistic that this year's squad can be every bit as good if not better.

"What Class 1A school is quick enough to press us even without James? There isn't," Edwards said. "And we have a lot of balance. Seven kids have scored over 18 points at one point this year. And Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership. He has taken on James' role and knows what is at stake. Our kids have a chip on their shoulders."

Houston is averaging 14 points per game. He had 36 points and 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver in January. Blaydes is averaging 10 points and eight rebounds, Johnson 14 points and eight rebounds. Smith and Hughes each average eight points per game. Andre Thomas, a 5-foot-7 senior, has moved into James' backcourt spot.

"Against Class 1A competition, we still have a big lineup," Edwards said. "We still can win the state title if our kids do what they are supposed to do. Nobody is selfish with points. They are an athletic team but they play disciplined ball. We have athletes to play with Chicago public schools and discipline and teamwork to play with suburban and Downstate teams. We have blended them both together."

Another Chicago team that could make an impact in Class 1A is St. Benedict, which lost to Hope Academy 75-70 for the Chicago Prep Conference title in January. The Bengals are seeded No. 2 behind Hope Academy in the Hope sectional. They'll meet in the regional final at Hope on Friday night.

Coach Tom Horn is optimistic. His team had a 10-point lead in the third quarter against Hope Academy. The Bengals are averaging 80 points per game and even Hope Academy didn't slow them down. "We can score with anyone. We're not afraid to match basket for basket," Horn said.

St. Benedict's leading scorers are 6-foot-1 junior guard Lamon Dawkins, who is averaging 21.5 points and three steals per game, and 6-foot-3 senior Henry Mireku , who is averaging 16.5 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. Horn also relies on 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior Earl Briggs to clear the boards and defend under the basket.

Hope Academy ranks No. 3 in the state in Class 1A behind Mounds Meridian and Brimfield. Okawville and Madison, a pair of traditional state powers, rank 4-5 respectively.

Brimfield is 30-0 and led by three players who almost punched a ticket to Peoria in the past two years. Last year's 30-3 team lost to Orion in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the 29-3 team lost to Lewistown in the sectional semifinal.

Nick Unes, Dan Dwyer and Ryan Wilbur are three-year starters. The 6-foot-3 Unes averages 17 points per game, the 6-foot Dwyer averages 14 and the 6-foot-5 Wilbur averages 10.

"Potentially, this is the best team I've had," said coach Scott Carlson, who is in his 15th year at Brimfield. "Those three know what it takes and what our next step is. In each of the last two years, we graduated our best player but these three guys have progressed. We have experience, size and length for a Class 1A team."

Brimfield is averaging only 57 points per game but is allowing only 34 as opponents have trouble with Carlson's 1-3-1 zone defense. "Our defense is our edge. You don't see many 1-3-1 zone defenses. We are long and quick. And when teams get in the middle, they have a 6-foot-5 guy (Wilbur) to deal with," the coach said.

But can Brimfield get out of its own regional? Four of the top five Class 1A teams in the Peoria area are going to the Brimfield regional. One of them Elwood, a 26-4 team which has lost twice to Brimfield.

Brimfield almost didn't get out of the semifinal. The top-seeded Indians missed seven free throws in the fourth quarter but managed to oust Peoria Heights 43-42. They'll meet Elmwood in the regional final at Brimfield on Friday night.

Nick Unes converted two free throws with 3.6 seconds left to give Brimfield a 43-39 lead. Brimfield led 22-11 at halftime and 25-11 early in the third quarter.

"We have a new gymnasium and a home-court advantage. It's one of the toughest regionals in the state. If we can get out of our regional, we might have some breathing room," Carlson said. "Our kids are maturing. One thing we have more than ever before is physical strength as a team. I think that will take us a long way.

"We've taken little steps in the past. We can see where we have been. We hope to take bigger strides ahead. We just have to keep working hard at what we have been doing."

Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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Morning Update: Cubs pick up win No. 101, Sale leads White Sox past Rays

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John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

John Lackey sees Cubs lining up for World Series run: ‘It’s all here’

PITTSBURGH — The Cubs have so much going for them, all this blue-chip talent, a clubhouse mix of young players and grizzled veterans, arguably the best manager in the game, an impactful coaching staff and a front office that blends scouting and analytics as well as anyone.

So, no, John Lackey is not at all surprised by the way this clicked into place, 101 wins and counting for the machine built with October in mind.

“Not really,” Lackey said after Tuesday night’s 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. “I had some pretty good offers from other people, and I chose this one for a reason. It’s all here.”

But to win the World Series — and get the jewelry Lackey talks about — you still need some luck, good health and the guts to perform in those Big Boy Games. That reality of randomness and matchups made a pregame announcement some 250 miles away from PNC Park so telling.

Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his MVP-caliber season. The National League East champions will lose a .307 hitter with 22-homer power from the middle of their lineup and a veteran presence for a playoff rotation that will likely be without injured ace Stephen Strasburg (right elbow) in the first round.

“That’s a tough one when you lose your catcher, a guy who’s that significant for the pitching staff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “Think about the pitching staff — it’s so different when you know the guy back there is your guy and he knows what’s going on. The communication’s different. The trust factor, all that stuff is different.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get your NL Central champions gear right here]

Within that big-picture context, the Cubs survived as Lackey limited the checked-out Pirates (77-80) to one run across five innings in his fifth start since recovering from a strained right shoulder and coming off the disabled list. Maddon then used six different relievers — staying away from Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and Aroldis Chapman — during a three-hour, 49-minute game that felt more like the Cactus League.

After defecting from the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals team the Cubs bounced out of last year’s playoffs, Lackey finished the regular season at 11-8 with a 3.35 ERA and 188 1/3 innings.

“I’m going to get to 200,” Lackey said.

Beyond wins and losses, Lackey called this season his career best in terms of “those numbers that they’ve made up in the last few years” like WHIP (1.04) and opponents’ OPS (.646) and whatever. And, no, he doesn’t know his WAR, either: “Not even close.”

Yes, the Cubs got the old-school attitude they wanted when they signed Lackey to a two-year, $32 million deal before the winter meetings. For all the talk about the pitching deficit and the New York Mets after their young guns swept the Cubs out of last year’s NL Championship Series, the Cubs are getting their money’s worth with a guy who will turn 38 in October.

The amazing Mets have lost three of those frontline starters — Matt Harvey (thoracic outlet syndrome), Jacob deGrom (nerve damage in his right elbow) and Steven Matz (bone spur in his left elbow) — and are still holding onto the first wild-card spot, which says something about this playoff field.

This doesn’t guarantee anything in October, but the Cubs are just about as close to full strength as they could reasonably hope now. Instead of the silence that would have come with losing an irreplaceable player like Ramos, the sound system in the postgame clubhouse blasted Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Notorious B.I.G. after their 101st win.

“Yeah, we lost Dexter (Fowler) for a bit,” Maddon said. “We lost (Kyle) Schwarber all year. Otherwise, when a couple pitchers got banged up, whether you’re talking about Rondon or Strop, I don’t think that our injuries have been as magnified because we’ve covered them pretty well.

“We still had our moments, like everybody else has. But when you get to right now, we’re getting well, and hopefully that trend continues. But to lose somebody of that magnitude for them, that’s got to be difficult.”