Ernst sees light at Lincoln-Way West

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Ernst sees light at Lincoln-Way West

Trying to establish himself as a first-year head coach and striving to build a program at a school that is only four years old, Dave Ernst said he could see "the light at the end of the tunnel" in the last five weeks, since the second half of a 15-7 loss to Thornton.

"We lost but I saw things were coming together," Ernst said. "Our kids fought to the end. We reached their one-yard-line with 18 seconds left but a holding call brought the ball back. It was such a disappointment after fighting to get back into the game. We didn't want to feel that way again."

The setback left Lincoln-Way West at 3-3. But the Warriors have won four games in a row since then, including last Friday's 35-0 rout of Rochelle in the first round of the Class 5A playoff. They'll face their biggest test of the season against top-seeded and unbeaten Kaneland on Saturday in New Lenox.

Ernst, 47, isn't surprised by Lincoln-Way West's early success, which is rare for a start-up school. A 1983 graduate of Lincoln-Way (Central), he coached under Matt Senffner at Providence for 12 years, then coached with current Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar under Rob Glielmi at Lincoln-Way Central for eight years before joining Mark Vander Kooi's staff at Lincoln-Way West. When Vander Kooi became athletic director at Lincoln-Way East, Ernst got his chance.

"A lot of the stuff that Glielmi was teaching at Lincoln-Way Central rubbed off on Zvonar and me. In the 1990s, his program dominated the south suburbs among the public schools," Ernst said. "We have a lot of tough kids who want to win and are willing to do what they have to do to win.

"We have some talented kids--like tackle Colin McGovern, who is committed to Notre Dame, the best player I've been around in 24 years of coaching--but the biggest thing is their willingness to fight and claw and scratch and do everything they have to do to win."

Adam Slattery, a 6-foot-2, 167-pound senior who is a three-year starter at wide receiver, may not be headed to major Division I school but he is typical of the "fight, claw and scratch" type of player that has turned Lincoln-Way West into a winning program.

"It's cool to be part of a program that is so young, only four years old," Slattery said. "When we came in, we knew we were the ones who would start a tradition. We took it upon ourselves to make it the best we could. Winning makes everything right.

"We turned it around right away. We were overmatched without seniors. We were thrown into the fire right away. We found out how hard it is to win and how hard you have to work. The standard now is to win, make the playoff and establish ourselves as a state championship contending team.

"We want to set an example for others to follow. We want to show what it takes to win. We work hard in practice and in the summer and in the off-season. We are committed. Eighty percent of the team had 100 percent attendance for off-season lifting."

Slattery and the first class of graduates know it isn't easy to start a tradition. But he pointed out that Joliet Catholic and Lincoln-Way East had to start sometime. So he argues that there is no better time for Lincoln-Way West to start its tradition.

"That is the attitude of the first class to graduate," Slattery said. "How bad do you want to win? Like Joliet Catholic and Lincoln-Way East, we don't accept losing. Coach Ernst has done a great job. He knows how to win. He is the real deal. I wouldn't want any other coach."

Slattery is Lincoln-Way West's all-time leading receiver with more receptions for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in school history. But he acknowledges that four years is hardly a record book, especially in a program that prefers running to passing.

"I wouldn't be opposed to seeing us throw 30 passes a game. But whatever we're doing, we're winning. I'd rather block or do whatever it takes to win," he said. "Until my freshman year, I thought of myself as a baseball player. But I like the atmosphere of football in high school, the team concept. How could you not want to be a part of that?"

Slattery, who grew up in Lansing, was a quarterback while playing for the New Lenox Mustangs and New Lenox Junior Knights from second through eighth grade. As a freshman at newly opened Lincoln-Way West, he was shifted to wide receiver. He was moved up to the sophomore team, then to the varsity.

Last year's team finished 7-3, losing to Joliet Catholic in the first round of the playoff. With five returning starters on offense and five on defense, Ernst was optimistic about 2012. As a Class 5A school in a Class 7A league, however, he understands the odds aren't in his favor.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Ernst believes in luck. "From all my years with Senffner at Providence and Glielmi at Lincoln-Way Central, one of things you see is luck. You have to stay healthy. At Lincoln-Way Central, we lost 11 starters one year after thinking we'd make a run (at the state title)," he said.

"I believe in luck. Sure, you make your own luck most of the time. But luck is involved in winning a state title and making a long run in the playoff. The football bounces in weird ways sometimes. The whole idea is not to get distracted."

Ernst believes he has what it takes to contend with a Kaneland team that has lost only twice in the last three years. A key factor is 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior running back Javier Montalvo, who has rushed for 600 yards in the last three games. He ran for 203 yards and two touchdowns against Rochelle.

"We had three tailbacks playing and Montalvo started to get more carries beginning with the Thornton game," Ernst said. "He has made a big impact. He is a wrestler and he doesn't like to get tackled. He has emerged as our go-to running back."

Montalvo runs behind McGovern, a 6-foot-7, 297-pound senior, 6-foot-2, 250-pound junior tackle Brennan Mulroe and 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior guard Derrek Gurnea. Quarterback Justin Keuch, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior, has passed for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.

Ernst said McGovern is "as good an offensive tackle as I've seen. He is fast, quick and intelligent. You see a lot of big kids but he is an athlete." Mulroe is back after missing two weeks with a torn ACL.

The defense features 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior tackle Matt Sorganan, 6-foot, 190-pound senior linebacker McKenna Wychocky, 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior tackle Josh Hilt, 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior linebacker Jake Bohne, 5-foot-7, 150-pound senior cornerback Andy Hensel and Alex and Andrew Gray, a pair of junior safeties who are 6-foot-3, 180-pound identical twins.

Sorganan was on the prep team last year. He saw only five snaps during the entire season. He was only 6-foot-1 as a junior. "But he had a great off-season. Now he is one of the best players on the team. His father played in the NFL. He is a late developer. His best days are in front of him," Ernst said.

The same can be said for Lincoln-Way West.

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

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USA TODAY

Northwestern holds off Ohio State for fifth Big Ten win, first win in Columbus in 40 years

It's not something that's been said often over the decades, but Northwestern is one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

That's the story the standings tell, and with another week of the 2016-17 season in the books, the Wildcats sit at 5-2 in conference play, good for the second-best mark in the league.

That fifth conference win came Sunday afternoon with a 74-72 defeat of Ohio State. It was the first time Northwestern won in Columbus since 1977.

This is the first 5-2 start to Big Ten play for the Cats since 1968. So is this the first time ever the Cats get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Of course that remains to be seen, but Chris Collins' squad sure seems to be setting itself up for inclusion in the field of 68. Sunday's win was just the latest to come away from Evanston, and in seven conference games, four of the team's five wins have come in road games, including three straight at Nebraska, Rutgers and Ohio State.

Northwestern had to find a way to win Sunday. A couple surges in the first half took the Cats from modest deficits to a lead that grew as big as eight. The halftime advantage was five, but that slipped away quickly as Northwestern shot poorly after halftime. Ice cold is a better descriptor, the Cats struggling to get their field-goal percentage above 30 percent over the final 20 minutes. It got there eventually, the team finishing shooting 32.3 percent in the second half, but it was the work from the free-throw line that made the win possible. Over the final 20 minutes, Northwestern was 14-for-16 from the charity stripe, including going 11-for-12 over the final minute and a half.

The key stretch came when a Scottie Lindsey 3-ball broke a 56-all tie with four and a half minutes to play. Ohio State countered with a bucket, but freshman point guard Isiah Brown turned in back-to-back scores of his own, the second a breakaway layup off a steal. That made it a five-point lead, and though the gap shrunk over the game's final three minutes, Northwestern's free-throw shooting allowed the Cats to hold that lead the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes shot themselves in the foot at the free-throw line. They were 12-for-23 on the game, and all but one of the attempts came in the second half, making for 10 missed free throws over the game's final 20 minutes. Northwestern committed a lot of fouls, but Ohio State couldn't capitalize, something that has to be quite painful for the Buckeyes, considering they had edges in other statistical categories. They shot 45.6 percent from the field compared to the Cats shooting 37.5 percent. Ohio State also had 16 second-chance points and 28 points in the paint. But Northwestern had 17 points off 13 Ohio State turnovers.

Lindsey finished with a game-high 21 points and has scored in double figures in every game this season. Bryant McIntosh had 17 points, and Vic Law had 10. Jae'Sean Tate scored 14 points for Ohio State, with JaQuan Lyle adding 13, Trevor Thompson scoring 11 and Cam Williams putting in 10.

The win was Northwestern's fourth straight and boosted its overall record to 16-4 to go along with the 5-2 mark in the conference. The Cats next play Nebraska on Thursday.

The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for Ohio State and dropped the Buckeyes' record to 12-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten. They next play Minnesota on Wednesday.

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger 'pretty close' to returning for Blackhawks

Marcus Kruger has been sidelined a little longer than the originally expected three weeks with his right hand injury. Not that any missed time is enjoyable.

"I wanted to get back there probably a few weeks ago but unfortunately I couldn't," said Kruger, who suffered his injury on Dec. 30 against the Carolina Hurricanes. "I tried to listen to the doctors and do everything I can instead to be ready when I get cleared. That's my mindset."

Kruger is close, but not quite there, as the Blackhawks prepared for Sunday night's game against the Vancouver Canucks. Kruger skated with his teammates for the first time since being injured but wasn't among the line rushes. The center took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice. Kruger pronounced himself, "pretty close," to returning. Coach Joel Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is over the next few days. The Blackhawks play again Tuesday and Thursday before heading into the All-Star break this weekend.

The Blackhawks have missed Kruger's versatility and especially his play on the penalty kill. The Blackhawks' kill has been fine through Kruger's absence but he nevertheless is a big part of it when he's healthy.

"We have a lot of options and when he's out everyone gets a more important role, whether starting or faceoffs. And we have a rotation of five guys who are in there most of the time. But he definitely absorbs the most responsibility when he's playing in that area," Quenneville said of Kruger. "So it's nice you get to try some other guys and you get deeper as you go along."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

One of the players who's emerged in Kruger's absence is Tanner Kero, who filled his third-line center void. Kero and linemates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa clicked on the dads trip, coming up with big plays and points in the Blackhawks' victories over Colorado and Boston. As of now, Kero appears to have the hold on third-line center.

"I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

Kruger said he's fine if that means returning to fourth-line center duties. Regardless, he'll help bolster the Blackhawks' forward lines. The last step is likely contact, which Kruger got a little of – outside of faceoffs – in Sunday's skate. Kruger's had to wait a little longer than expected on his injury but he's getting there.

“Obviously [I want to] get back and playing the same way,” Kruger said. “First I want to get healthy and then get back playing my best and do everything I can for the team.”