Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

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Have you heard? Immaculate Conception is 16-2

John Cheng is an Asian-American who loves to compete in sports but has never forgotten that academics are most important.

"Sports are fun unless you are good enough to be a professional," he said. "But good grades will carry you into the future."

Cheng enrolled at Immaculate Conception in Elmhurst, located four blocks from his home, because it is a Catholic school and his parents wanted him to obtain a Catholic education and learn about the church.

Then came grades. He has a 3.83 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale in honors classes and wants to major in finance or business in college.

Then came sports. He wants to play basketball in college. It is his favorite sport and he has been playing the game since second grade. He played football in elementary school, golf as a freshman and sophomore and baseball for all four years.

But playing basketball at IC wasn't a priority. He was aware that the program wasn't very good. Last year's team was 12-16. The Knights' won regional championships in 2007 and 2008, their first in over 20 years, but have produced only two winning teams since 1985.

"I didn't think much about the basketball program when I was a
freshman," Cheng said. "I just wanted to play. Now I want to be the one (of a
team) to win a conference title for the first time and go as far in the
state tournament as we can go.

"Being on the varsity, it becomes more serious. You think more about what you want to do in the postseason, to be the first one to go far in the state playoff. As sophomores, we were 23-4 and were conference champions. We felt we could do it at the varsity level.

"But we took a step back last year. We underachieved. We had a tough schedule. We found out a lot about ourselves. Our team chemistry was weak. Some kids didn't get along with each other. But this year is different. The kids get along. We're good friends. Everybody shares the ball. We push each other.

"Some people are surprised by our record. But we expected it. We went into the season knowing we could have a pretty good record. We are quick and fast break a lot. We aren't tall or big but we're quick. We like to push the ball up the court and keep our opponents off balance."

IC won its first 12 games before losing to Nazareth. Last week, the Knights' trounced Lisle 66-48, Walther Lutheran 69-47 and Luther North 48-30. On Tuesday, however, they lost to Aurora Christian (13-4) by a 73-39 margin. They'll meet Elgin St. Edward on Thursday, then host Montini on Jan. 27.

Even coach Darren Howard is surprised by his team's success. "I thought we'd be good. I knew I had a solid group. They were 23-4 as sophomores. But they are playing better than I thought they would. They have great chemistry, no egos and they practice hard," he said.

"A huge part is they are basketball kids. At a small school, you get athletes who play multiple sports. Usually you have football players who also play basketball. But this year I have basketball players. Every year they program and the numbers have gotten better and the kids take basketball more seriously."

In his 12th year, Howard hasn't known much success. Despite two regional titles, his first 11 teams won only 38 percent (118-193) of their games. IC was 1-25 and 1-26 in the years prior to Howard's arrival.

"Basketball fell off the map. IC has been a football school with (former coach) Jack Lewis. I was the fourth basketball coach in four years when I got the job," Howard said. "Now we have consistency and stability. We finally are at the breaking-through point where we will be good for a few years."

Cheng also sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "We have a lot of basketball players. Most of us don't play fall sports. We have a lot of time to work on our game. Our team chemistry is strong. We get along very well," he said.

Cheng, a 6-foot-1 senior point guard, is the team leader. He averages 15 points, 4.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Brian Harvey, a 6-foot-2 senior (14.2 ppg, 8 rpg), had 20 points and 14 rebounds against Lisle. Demetrius Carr, a 6-foot-2 junior (15.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.5 assists), is a transfer from St. Joseph. Dan Ribando (8.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) is a 6-foot-4 senior. Jason Dunn (3 ppg, 2.5 rpg) is a 5-foot-10 senior.

They are supported by 6-foot-1 junior Adam Muellers (4 ppg, 3 rpg) and
6-foot-4 senior Mike Lestina (3.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg).

"We have nine seniors but only one returning starter (Harvey). We play good man-to-man defense. Our kids like to play defense. And it's hard to find kids who like to play defense. But our biggest strength is team chemistry. There is no in-fighting. Our kids get along. And that's very rare," the coach said.

A Weber graduate of 1983, Howard played for Jim Harrington. He coached all levels at Fenton for seven years before coming to Immaculate Conception in 2000. He also serves as the school's athletic director.

"We are much better in the open court than the half-court at the moment," Howard said. "If teams take away our fast break, we must do better in the half-court. Depth could be an issue if two of our top three players get into foul trouble. And lack of size (his tallest player is 6-4) can be a problem if we play somebody big. Nazareth has a seven-foot, 280-pound freshman who had 20 points and seven rebounds against us.

"But balance is our strength. We don't care who scores points. We haven't won a conference title since 1967 and we've never won a sectional. Those are huge goals for us."

In 2007, IC lost to North Lawndale in the sectional final, the farthest the school has ever been in the state tournament. North Lawndale went on to finish second in the state. In 2008, the Knights' lost to St. Anne in the sectional semifinal as St. Anne went on to win the Class 1A championship.

"We are taking baby steps to this point," Howard said. "It takes time to build a program and change an attitude. The administration has given me time to do it. On paper, last year's 12-16 record doesn't look like a good season but it was a significant building block.

"We usually had one or two good players each season but they were football kids who also played basketball. But each year we get more basketball-minded kids. Basketball kids play basketball twothirds of the year while football kids are in the weight room and playing 7-on-7. Football is their first priority.

"Now these kids are more basketball-minded. They go to shooting camps and point guard and big man camps and play AAU in the spring, summer and fall. At the end of the year, you look for what kind of experience the kids had. Every year it has grown more and more to the point where 60 kids came out for basketball this year. We had to make cuts for the first time. People see the improvement. It is more than just a win-loss record. These kids expect to win this year."

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

With less than 2 minutes to play in the first half the Bears had gained a total of 45 yards, and had zero pass completions (2 attempts) and zero points . By the end of the half they had 115 yards, Matt Barkley had completed 4 of his last 6 passes and the Bears adjourned for halftime with a 7-6 lead.

For the second straight week Barkley engineered a comeback, this time for a win, and running a two-minute offense that, curiously perhaps for an inexperienced quarterback, seems to suit Barkley even more than the offense run a normal speed. More than one player said that 70-yard drive to finish the first half was a tipping point, on all sides of the football.

The turning point “was that two-minute right before the half,” said right tackle Bobby Massie. “Everybody just executed, did what we needed to do and drove right down the field. Then we come out after the half and drove right down again. It was good.”

More than just good for the offense. “I think that really spurred both sides of the ball to be motivated to finish the game strong,” said Barkley, who got the Bears into the end zone twice in last Sunday’s Tennessee game, and nearly a third, within the final 10 minutes, running 35 plays over the span of those minutes.”

This time the result was the highest point total (26) this season and scores on four out of five possessions beginning with that hurry-up score to end the half.

Quarterback: A-

Once again Barkley was beset by dropped passes, although nowhere near the avalanche of them that defeated him against the Tennessee Titans. Barkley shook off the conditions and poor start to complete 4 of 6 passes on the final drive of the half, for 64 yards – the entire passing production for the half.

Barkley followed a shaky first half with a solid second, completing 7 of 10 passes for 128 yards and zero interceptions, a significant key with the 49ers unable to do much of anything against the Bears defense. Barkley effectively convinced coaches that he could operate in the adverse conditions with passing and not simply handing off to Jordan Howard.

“I thought [the way] he handled the two-minute drive before the half, we had to open it up some and throw the ball,” said coach John Fox. “I thought he executed outstanding.”

Barkley finished with 11-of-18 passing for 192 yards, no touchdowns but no interceptions and a passer rating of 97.5.

Running back: A+

In a game that demanded effective rushing, Jordan Howard delivered a statement game, his fifth in the last eight with 100 rushing yards and 115 total yards of offense.

Howard rushed for 3 touchdowns, giving him five on the year, and carried 32 times, an average of 3.7 that belies the overall, which involved the chemistry of the run game, now averaging 4.4 yards on the season . “He’s fun, man,” said guard Eric Kush. “We block our butts off to try to give him something. Even if it’s not the prettiest block, we try to finish our blocks and give him a chance.”

Howard displayed power inside as well as burst on the Bears’ outside-zone runs that exploited the San Francisco edges. He carried 10 times in the first half, then 22 in the second.

“I’m definitely ready to be that workhorse,” said Howard, who now has 883 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns despite not starting until game four. “Even though they might know the run is coming, they still have to stop it.”

Receivers: B+

Josh Bellamy, replaced in the starting lineup by Deonte Thompson after his drop-laced game against Tennessee, had perhaps one the streakiest game of the Bears year. Bellamy again suffered with drops that included lost TD catches, but Bellamy rebounded to match his career-best 4 catches against Tennessee but with 93 yards and a long of 31 and others of 24, 22 and 16 yards. Bellamy also was handed the ball on an end-around for 12 yards.

All of this despite two egregious drops, one of a potential TD ball with Bellamy two steps behind his defender. “He came up to me and said, ‘Keep feeding me,’” Barkley said. “I’m not going to stop giving those guys the ball… .I’m going to keep coming back to them for the rest of the year.”

Cam Meredith remained in the starting lineup and caught 3 of the 4 passes thrown to him, with Thompson and tight end Daniel Brown catching 2 each.

Offensive line: A

With the adverse weather conditions expected, coaches made a specific challenge to the offensive line to take over this game against a struggling San Francisco front. Guard Josh Sitton was active but still limited with an ankle injury, so coaches stayed with Eric Kush at left guard and were rewarded with some consistent blocking in the run game. Kush executed combination blocks and worked to the second level. Kush and Charles Leno repeatedly dominated the San Francisco left side as the Bears pounded with the run and never let up in the snowy conditions.

“With the conditions, you had to run the ball,” Leno said. “The O-line just tried to come together, not worry about the record and win one week at a time.”

The result was another 100-yard rushing day for Jordan Howard, with 3 touchdowns, and 142 rushing yards, high for the season. “Today the offensive line got great push like they always do,” Howard said.

Barkley was sacked once, in the fourth quarter, on a breakdown in one-on-one blocking by tight end Daniel Brown.

Cody Whitehair going down in the fourth quarter with a leg injury was a blow, but Whitehair was able to return later in the period. The Bears had Sitton dressed and part of field-goal unit, and Sitton came in at right guard and Ted Larsen moved over to center.

Coaching: A

The obvious overall effort and preparation of a 2-9 team for a game of virtually no import to the season was noteworthy, as the Bears again played with intensity and efficiency throughout, including recovering from first-half gaffes on special teams that put the Bears down 6-0.

The defense schemed for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by staying almost exclusively in a 3-4 front, utilizing three down-linemen and two outside linebackers to pressure Kaepernick and with the speed to thwart his runs. The result was the worst game of Kaepernick’s career, with 20 rushing yards and 4 passing, vs. 25 yards lost to sacks.

The offense held to a run-based mindset and plan, even when the 49ers turned two special-teams mistakes into field goals for the first two scores. The 49ers also relied primarily on man-to-man coverage, committing an extra defender to run defense, but the Bears were willing and able to challenge downfield knowing that the San Francisco pass rush was hampered by the field conditions.

“Props to Dowell[Loggains, offensive coordinator] and the whold coaching staff for getting us ready and making adjustments like that during the game,” Barkley said.

Special teams was again mistake-prone with mental breakdowns compounded by physical mistakes.

Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets

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USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bears beat 49ers; Blackhawks' offense struggles in loss to Jets

Here are some of the top stories from Sunday in Chicago sports:

Five Things to Watch: Bulls back in action against Trail Blazers

Tune in tonight for Chicago Bulls Charities Night

Blackhawks score late but can't get past Jets

Bears offense finds groove in win over 49ers

Winter meetings preview: Why teams will find trying to copy a ‘Cubs Way’ rebuild is easier said than done

White Sox revamp would mean fewer 'stopgaps' and 'half-measures'

Significance of Bears win over 49ers lies beyond records and score

Five Things from Blackhawks-Jets: Offense still anemic

Bears' Matt Barkley 'showing the world' he can be a starting QB in the NFL

Lars Johansson excited for Blackhawks call-up