McGuire makes a difference for Marist

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McGuire makes a difference for Marist

Morris McGuire is a 5-foot-10 senior guard on Marist's basketball team. He sits on the end of the bench. He doesn't play at all during the games. But he could be the RedHawks' most valuable player.

"We couldn't win without him," said 6-foot-5 sophomore Nic Weishar, perhaps the best athlete in school history. "In practice, he is one of the scout team guys. At times, he plays the best player on the other team. He is tough-minded, a scrapper. He gets into your face."

McGuire and two senior starters, 5-foot-7 guard Tyler Oden and 6-foot-3 forward Matt O'Reilly, provide the leadership that has turned Marist into a 25-5 team that stunned top-seeded Curie 63-62 in last Friday's regional final and will meet highly rated Bogan in a Class 4A sectional semifinal on Wednesday night at Argo in Summit.

"Our seniors are great leaders. They won't let us do anything less than 100 percent. Our goal is to outwork teams," Weishar said. "In practice, the seniors make us work hard all the time and won't allow us to let up."

But did the RedHawks really think they could beat Curie, a 25-game winner whose only other losses were to top-ranked and two-time defending state champion Simeon, the No. 1 seed in the Argo sectional?

Trailing 62-57 with 50 seconds to play, Marist rallied behind Oden (20 points, five three-pointer), 6-foot-1 junior L.J. McIntosh (15), Weishar (11) and 6-foot junior Lexus Williams (10). Weishar took a pass from McIntosh, drove from the top of the key and passed to Williams on the wing. His three-pointer with two seconds left spelled the difference as Marist won its first regional since 2007.

"My friends wanted us to win but I got a vibe that some of them didn't think we'd win. To be honest, I think they thought Curie was unbeatable," Weishar said.

"But our scouting report said they liked to dribble drive and were good three-point shooters. We had to stop their dribble drive and make them shoot 15 to 17-footers. We executed our game plan well. Once we stopped their dribble drive and made them shoot from 15 to 17 feet, we thought we could win."

If coach Gene Nolan has experienced a more memorable victory in his 12-year career, he can't remember. Marist has won nine in a row and 12 of its last 13 games. So why doesn't Nolan's team get more respect? "That's a great question. But we're not too worried about it. We'd rather be under the radar. We don't mind being an underdog. We have nothing to lose," Weishar said.

After going 25-4, 25-5, 20-7 and 23-8 from 2003 to 2007, Marist slipped to 15-15 and 12-17. Last year's team was 19-11 but lost to Hinsdale South in the regional. This year's team is seeking the school's second sectional title and first since 1981.

Nolan has gone with the same starting lineup throughout the season--Weishar (13 points, 9 rebounds per game), who is better known as one of the leading football prospects in the class of 2014 who already has scholarship offers from Illinois and Northwestern, McIntosh (17 ppg), Williams (13 points, five assists per game), Oden (9 ppg) and O'Reilly (8 ppg). Juniors Jack Barry and Will Brennan come off the bench.

"It is a great group to coach," Nolan said. "We aren't real big but the kids are committed. We came through a tough stretch in January and we found out a lot about our team. We have some kids who believe in each other. They have come together. We have good chemistry."

Weishar likes what he sees and he knows what it will take to get through what is arguably the toughest sectional in the state. "This team is hungry. To keep winning, we have to continue to sustain our effort on defense. We haven't had trouble scoring all year but we must rebound and sustain our defense," he said.

And keep listening to Morris McGuire.

How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

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How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

ST. LOUIS – The San Francisco Giants used a pitching-and-defense formula to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The St. Louis Cardinals have their own Way to reinforce fundamentals and teach generations of prospects how to play the game. It’s been a good seven weeks, but the Cubs want to be known as that type of franchise on an annual basis. 

While looking at the metrics – and using the eye test more than 25 percent through the schedule – it becomes clear that the 2016 Cubs are built on a much stronger defensive foundation than last season’s 97-win team.

“Rock solid,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Here’s how the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and have the best record in baseball (31-14): Just look back at a pivot point during Wednesday’s 9-8 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Third baseman Tommy La Stella bailed out Jake Arrieta with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, making a diving stop to his right and the throw to second base.

Another lasting image from this road trip will be ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward crashing into AT&T Park’s right-center field wall to make a highlight-reel catch, walking off the field with a bruised right side and returning to the lineup four nights later in St. Louis. 

The Cubs gave Heyward the biggest contact in franchise history, investing eight years and $184 million in a three-time Gold Glove winner who’s not a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Instead of Starlin Castro pressing to prove he could still play shortstop and taking some of his offensive frustrations onto the field, the Cubs are now getting a full season of Addison Russell.

Instead of Russell making his big-league debut and trying to learn a new position on the fly, the Cubs have second baseman Ben Zobrist, who will turn 35 on Thursday and is still playing at an All-Star level.

There’s so much talent that Maddon can call Javier Baez one of the National League’s best defensive infielders and still not find an everyday spot in the lineup for him.

“This guy’s literally been a human highlight reel in single games, making four or five plays,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “But that’s the kind of ability that these guys have as young players. That’s the exciting (part). And it’s kind of the dangerous thing for the rest of the league: ‘Goddamn, these guys are so young.’”

When Baez (age 23) bumps All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant (age 24) to left field, the Cubs can align three defenders with the athleticism to play center, including Dexter Fowler and Heyward, who got paid because of his youth (26) and the data crunch that has rated him as one of the most valuable players in the game.

“Whether it’s WAR or runs saved or whatever the other stats are, I have no idea what they are,” Heyward said. “(It’s) paying attention to who’s hitting and where they hit the ball, who’s pitching and how they’re attacking guys. Play the count. Play the scoreboard. Play the game.

“That stuff does matter. It does win games. It does cut down innings. It does set up your pitchers.”

That’s the cascading effect for a rotation trying to stay fresh for a deep playoff run and a bullpen in danger of getting overexposed. There’s the emotional lift when double-play balls aren’t wasted and the momentum shift when Heyward makes a diving catch or throws out a runner at home plate.

What looks like an extra-base hit suddenly disappears, a high-anxiety moment becoming a low-stress situation. It helps explain why the Cubs began Wednesday with the lowest rotation ERA (2.51) in the majors and 31 quality starts through 44 games.

“Strikeouts are cool and everything,” said Arrieta, who threw almost 250 innings last year, combining his Cy Young Award season with three playoff starts. “But when you got guys like we have in the field, use ‘em. If I can get one- and two-pitch outs, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I want to put up as many zeroes as possible.

“Get the strikeouts when you need ‘em. Guys in scoring position with less than two outs – I’ll get ‘em then. But if I got guys like that behind me, I’m going to use ‘em. Let them put it in play.”

Signing Fowler in late February created insurance against injuries (Kyle Schwarber) and allowed Heyward to move back to his more natural position in right field. Playing next to Heyward has also helped Fowler put up a 4.6 Ultimate Zone Rating, a major improvement from last year (-1.7) and his 2014 season with the Houston Astros (-21.8).

“Defensively, I think it’s just an adjustment of depth,” Maddon said. “He’s getting rave reviews, not because he’s any different. Not because his routes are different. Not because his angles are better. Nothing (like that). It’s just because he’s deeper. That’s it. That’s what it really comes down to.

“A lot of the metrics that are involved in defense and zone ratings and things (like that) would be the ball that gets over his head and turns into an extra-base hit. So he was considered not as good basically because he played so shallow. So just by playing deeper – without changing any part of your skill set – you’re considered better. It’s pretty incredible.”

Fowler waited out the free-agent market so long primarily because of the draft-pick compensation attached to the qualifying offer he declined. But he also didn’t have a great defensive reputation after spending years roaming Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies. The geeks should also get credit for that subtle positioning shift.

“It’s something that came to light when I was in Tampa Bay,” Maddon said. “I was always of the opinion I liked a shallow outfielder in center just to take away a lot of cheap stuff. And I thought if a guy made a bad pitch, it’s almost like he’s earned the right for the ball to be hit over the outfielder’s head.

“But as it turned out, just going through the numbers, apparently you save more runs by being a little bit softer on defense in center field by getting deeper.”

The Cubs now have strength up the middle and so many options for a manager who loves versatile players and believes in run prevention.

“‘Zo’ and ‘KB’ and Javy permit us to do so many different things right now,” Maddon said, “because wherever you put them, I don’t feel like we’re losing anything at all.

“I really don’t like to start a game with a team on the field where I thought the defense was substandard. That really bothers me a lot. And we don’t do that. We start a game with people’s names in different positions. But you still feel like you have an above-average defense.” 

Cubs narrowly hang on for win over Cardinals

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Cubs narrowly hang on for win over Cardinals

ST. LOUIS (AP) Jake Arrieta remained unbeaten on the season despite allowing as many as four runs for the first time in nearly a year and the Chicago Cubs beat the St. Louis Cardinals 9-8 on Wednesday.

Arrieta (9-0) joined the White Sox's Chris Sale as the only nine-game winners in the majors.

Arrieta allowed four runs in a regular-season game for the first time since June 16, 2015.

Arrieta became the first Cub to win his first nine decisions since Kenny Holtzman in 1967 and it is the best start to a season for the franchise since Jim McCormick went 16-0 in 1886.

Kris Bryant hit a three-run homer and Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist each drove in two for the Cubs.

Rutgers looking at bringing football game to Yankee Stadium

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Rutgers looking at bringing football game to Yankee Stadium

Northwestern isn't the only Big Ten team looking to bring football to an iconic baseball stadium.

Last week, it was Northwestern athletics director Jim Phillips talking about his desire to get the Wildcats back on the gridiron at Wrigley Field, and now Rutgers athletics director Pat Hobbs is talking about getting the Scarlet Knights football squad back in action at Yankee Stadium.

Hobbs and new head football coach Chris Ash threw out the ceremonial first pitch ahead of Tuesday's Yankees game, and Hobbs talked about bringing Rutgers football back to the Bronx.

"(The Yankees) want to work more closely with us," Hobbs said, his quotes published by NJ.com. "We want to look at maybe bringing a game here and announcing that sometime down the road. I guess the Yankees see Rutgers is starting to move forward and is a good story, so they want to be part of it, too."

Rutgers has played thrice previously at Yankee Stadium: one regular-season game against Army (which was a home game for the Black Knights) and two appearances in the Pinstripe Bowl.

Should Rutgers play a game there in the future, it would likely mean losing a home game in New Jersey.

Hobbs said he hopes to announce something soon, but we'll see if the Knights play a home game in the Bronx sometime in the next couple of seasons.

Until then, enjoy Hobbs and Ash throwing out that first pitch.