Crane, Conner buy into Head's philosophy

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Crane, Conner buy into Head's philosophy

When Willie Conner learned that Chris Head was going to be the next basketball coach at Crane, the 6-foot-4 senior acknowledged that he and his teammates would either buy into Head's program unconditionally or live to regret it.

"I knew about Head," Conner said. "Everybody was telling us over the summer that he would be our new coach. He is tough. He has a tough attitude about the game. He won a state championship at Westinghouse. He knows the game back and forth. What is his program? Defense and playing as a team.

"I was playing defense before but not like now. He is teaching me. I have to play it. I have to buy into it more than I had been doing. Now my demeanor is I have to get after it on every play. I can't take any plays off. How far can we go? We can win state."

Conner is Head's type of player...hard-nosed, chip on his shoulder, hungry, coachable, unselfish and a hard worker. He averages 18 points per game and has a dozen scholarship offers, including Northern Illinois, Illinois State, Rhode Island, Texas-Pan American, La Salle and Tennessee-Martin.

"He is one of the best players in the city," Head said. "He has a very high ceiling. He has just started scraping how good he can be. He is a late bloomer. He can play at a very high level. He reminds me of (former Westinghouse and Illinois-Chicago star) Cedrick Banks."

Head describes Conner as "a project, a rare kind of kid, not many like him. He makes kids around him better. Kids want to be like him or as good. He makes other kids want to play with him. In all my years of coaching, I haven't seen too many kids like that."

Conner is a unique story. His father recently was released from jail after serving 17 years. He credits his two uncles for helping his mother take care of him and keeping him off the streets and out of trouble. Now his father is back in his life.

"I wouldn't be here without my mother, who raised me," Conner said. "My uncles knew the neighborhood real well and know how the streets can get you and kept me away from the drugs and violence."

He enrolled at Hope Academy on the West Side, then transferred to Crane after his sophomore year. "People thought I couldn't do as much as I did at a private school. So I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove people wrong. They don't think I'm as good as some people say. I want to prove I can play at a high Division I level. If I had a dream school, I'd be playing at Georgetown. I hope they'll look at me and I get a chance to consider them," he said.

Conner still has some proving to do. Longtime recruiting analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye don't rate Conner among the top five players in the Public League. But they are convinced he is "certainly one of the most unheralded players in the city and a definite Division I prospect."

"He has tremendous scoring ability and can score points in bunches," the Schmidt brothers said. "we really like his skill set offensively. It includes a quick shooting stroke, solid range and good upper body strength that allows him to consistently get to the basket.

"He must now work on toning down his wildness and maintaining intensity at all times, as these are the things that will ultimately determine what college level he ends up at."

Getting more exposure in the state tournament would help. Crane carried a 10-4 record into Wednesday's game against Collins. The Cougars' will play at Orr on Friday and have a date with Kenosha Tremper on Sunday in the "Battle of the Borders Shootout" at College of Lake County in Grayslake.

"What I like about what we are doing is everybody is buying into the program and trying to get better every day," Conner said. "We just want to win and play together."

Conner is surrounded by 5-foot-9 sophomore point guard Timothy Triplett (8 ppg, 11 assists), 6-foot-3 junior Courtney Thomas (10 ppg, 10 rpg), 6-foot-4 senior Christopher Daily (7 ppg) and 6-foot sophomore Issaiah Hayes (14 ppg), perhaps the next great player in Crane's storied program.

"By the summer of his junior year, he will have 15 to 20 offers," Head predicted of Hayes.

Coming off the bench are 5-foot-8 senior point guard Khailfani Nichols, 6-foot junior Jalen Austin, 6-foot-5 junior Kendall Sidney and 6-foot-4 junior Richard Carter.

"Our two young kids at guard (Triplett, Hayes) have to get better," Head said. "What they have been doing is getting better in games and practices, something they do that makes us better as a basketball team, what a coach looks for. There are things that we are doing that make ourselves better.

"This team can be a good team. We can compete with anybody in the city as long as it is the right team that shows up. But I'm concerned about letdowns. Remember, you're dealing with teenagers and some days the teen kicks in and nobody is there. Nobody's head is in the game. I just hope we mature enough that we know we are getting into the second phase of the season. I think these kids are ready for the challenge."

Head has walked this path before. He began coaching at Farragut in 1983 and admits he stopped counting the number of years he has experienced in the coaching profession after 25.

He has been a winner wherever he has been. In four years at Westinghouse from 1998 to 2002, he won 84 percent (107-20) of his games, finished second in the 2000 state tournament and won the title in 2002. In one year at Proviso West, he was 19-9. In three years at Brooks, he was 21-9, 21-9 and 27-7. Now he is trying to weave his magic at Crane.

"Fifteen years ago, I was younger. In 15 years, you learn a lot of what to do and what not to do. I've grown a lot," he said. "One of the things I have learned as a basketball coach is more things have nothing to do with basketball, about people who have nothing to do with our program or our kids.

"Times have changed. High school basketball has gotten bad because of bad people. One of our fears is our kids are listening to people who have selfish motives. It's all about themselves and nobody else. At Westinghouse, we kept kids together in the spring and summer. Then the rules were changed.

"Today, more than ever, we need to have more contact with our kids or we will lose one or two in the summer to violent crime or some person who persuades them to transfer to another school. Too much is going on that has nothing to do with kids.

"I like to watch our boys go from boys to men. The charge of us as coaches is to make them responsible young men. As long as kids listen to me, I am satisfied. What is outside the program distracts us from working with our program.

"Gym shoe companies have put their stamp on things and have influenced what goes on in high school basketball in a negative way. They are part of the demise of high school basketball. Also local street agents and AAU and parents and local talent scouts on the Internet and local drug dealers.

"It is harder now to coach kids in high school because coaching has been taken out of the equation. You can't coach them anymore. You can't discipline them or holler at a kid anymore. I can be sued for what I say to a kid. I fear for my job.

"You no longer have role players, kids who are here because they work hard. No, he is an All-American but he can't make a left or right-handed layup. It is fair to say I have mellowed, but I can't say I'm having more fun. Sometimes it takes me out of character for fear of being called to the principal's office. All coaches in this country have that fear. It doesn't allow us to be the best we can be as coaches. The game has changed and we have allowed it to change not for the good but for the bad."

Head has been as controversial as he has been successful. He has been disciplined several times by the Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois High School Association, once serving an 11-game suspension. At Proviso West, he was accused of hitting a player but was acquitted by a jury in 2004.

Now he is at Crane. As Conner said, the players received a crash course on what they were getting before he arrived. The message was delivered by Tony Bennett, who played on Head's state championship team. Bennett was Conner's hero growing up. He said he molded his game after Bennett.

"It's great for me to be part of the kids on the West Side again," Head said. "At the end of the day, we can be a very good team. The first half of the season is feeling out each other, going through the remodeling phase."

Head said former coach Tim Anderson, who left to become an assistant at Texas-Pan American, did a good job of putting the house in order.

"What we are doing now is putting together something where the kids can understand they can be part of a program and a team," Head said. "My philosophy? The key is family. I try to make them understand they are here 80 percent of the day and need to get along.

"To be successful, they have to like each other and respect each other and their coaches. We grow as a team and family. It turns to love and brotherhood. On the floor, it starts at the defensive end. The offense will win some games but you have to play defense. Offense is our defense. We love to make our opponents uncomfortable. If that means pressure for 84 feet for four quarters, that's what it means.

"The first thing I told the kids when I took this job was: 'I'm not coming in to change anything. We want to get better at the things we are doing.' The kids knew me or knew of me. I wasn't a big surprise. The younger kids were excited for the opportunity to play for me."

Or scared to death. Whichever works.

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 fashion on Tuesday night.

The White Sox pitcher endured the longest inning of his career and then some as the Cleveland Indians gave him an early exit and the White Sox never recovered, losing 6-2 at U.S. Cellular Field in front of 21,550. Cruising through two-plus innings, Sale needed 43 pitches to escape the third inning and allowed six earned runs in 3.1 frame. 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. His earned-run average rose from 1.58 to 2.26 in the process.

The White Sox have lost 10 of their last 14 games.

With two outs in the third inning, Sale’s pitch count stood at 32, including only five in the frame, and 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 even after he got ahead of him 1-2 in the count and Francisco Lindor singled. Mike Napoli’s drive to left-center field then fell in between Austin Jackson and Melky Cabrera for a two-run triple to 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. Though Sale struck out Marlon Byrd to end the inning, he never recovered.

Chris Gimenez started the fourth inning with a solo homer off Sale — only the sixth he has allowed in 71.2 innings this season. The left-hander would issue two more walks and an RBI single to Lindor to fall behind 5-1 before he exited the game.

Sale’s attempt to become only the first starting pitcher to win 10 straight since San Diego’s Andy Hawkins in 1985 ended with his shortest start since he lasted only three innings on Sept. 13, 2015.

Sale allowed six earned runs and seven hits with four walks. He struck out seven.

The White Sox offense looked as if it may put up a fight against Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin, who improved to 7-0 with eight sharp innings.

Adam Eaton opened the game with a solo home run to right field, his third, to give the White Sox a 1-0 advantage.

But White Sox bats again fell silent and Tomlin settled in and largely avoided trouble from there.

He retired Tyler Saladino with two on to end a potential second-inning rally and used a base-running mistake by the White Sox to build late momentum.

Down 6-1 in the fourth, the White Sox scored a run on consecutive one-out doubles by Jose Abreu, who had three hits, and Brett Lawrie. But Lawrie was caught off second base on Avisail Garcia’s grounder to shortstop and was thrown out after a brief rundown. On the play, Garcia overran first base and was doubled off to end the inning.

Beginning with the Garcia groundout, Tomlin retired 12 straight until Adam Eaton’s two-out single in the eighth inning.

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.

They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

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They're back: Cubs lineup bludgeons Cardinals

ST. LOUIS — The Cubs didn’t need any mimes, magicians or mariachi bands in the clubhouse. Joe Maddon didn’t have to reach into his bag of tricks to deflect attention away from his team’s offensive struggles or deflate whatever pressure his young hitters might have been feeling.

The Cubs showed why they have the best record in baseball and status as World Series favorites, jumping Michael Wacha for six runs in the first inning of a 12-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday night at Busch Stadium.

If Maddon didn’t call this shot, the manager certainly alluded to it during his pregame media session when asked which hitter he thinks opponents focus on or worry about the most.

"It’s hard to name one guy," Maddon said. "I’m sure they’re concerned about (Jorge) Soler hitting .190-something, just knowing that at any moment he could just break out. If I were to look at our lineup, I’d be uncomfortable all the way down (with) the way David Ross is hitting right now. There’s no comfortable break in our lineup.

"It’s a definite American League East lineup from back in the day."

That’s the entire point for this franchise, how Theo Epstein’s front office kept betting on hitters in the draft, trades and free agency, trying to build a bigger, better version of those Boston Red Sox teams that bludgeoned opponents.

Within that first-inning ambush, Soler drew a bases-loaded walk that forced in a run, Ross drove a ball that soared over Randal Grichuk’s head and deflected off the center fielder’s outstretched glove for a two-out, two-run double. Pitcher Jason Hammel followed that up by drilling another two-run double to center.

Soler knocked out Wacha — a pitcher the Cubs beat in the playoffs last year — in the fifth inning with a two-run homer that had 100-mph exit velocity and sailed over the center-field fence.

Handed a six-run lead within 15 minutes of first pitch, before he ever stepped onto the mound, Hammel pitched into the eighth inning and allowed only one run, continuing another All-Star level first half (6-1, 2.17 ERA).

The Cubs (30-14) ended a three-game losing streak — the first one this season — and changed the subject with fans on Twitter and for the media wondering what happened to this team.

Up next for the Cardinals (24-22) on Wednesday afternoon is Jake Arrieta, a reigning Cy Young Award winner who’s 24-1 with a 0.99 ERA in his last 29 regular-season starts. No one needs to tell the Cubs to R-E-L-A-X.

"We’ve gone through a tough time recently," Maddon said. "Believe me, man, it happens to everybody. It doesn’t concern me. I’m not distraught over it. It’s just a part of our game. But I like our names. I like our lineup a lot. Our boys will put up some huge numbers by the end of the season."