Morton faces early season test


Morton faces early season test

Rocco Balcaster, the leading scorer on Morton's unbeaten and unappreciated basketball team, was trying to be objective while sizing up his team's pluses as he prepared for Friday's West Suburban Gold showdown with highly rated Downers Grove South in Cicero.

"Our team is looking pretty good even though we haven't played much competition yet," the 6-7 senior said. "Our defense is strong. In four games, we have held all of our opponents under 40 points. That's our goal: to keep opponents under 40. And we want to keep doing our thing on offense--running motion sets and getting a lot of inside baskets."

Balcaster is used to winning at Morton, which isn't the way it used to be. Today's generation doesn't relate to former coaches Norm Ziebell, who produced two state championships in the 1930s and 1940s, or Jim Vopicka, who had winning teams in the 1950s. Morton was known as a baseball school with five state titles to show for it.

But current coach Tony Martinucci had only one losing season in his first 11 years. He is closing in on 200 victories in his career. His last four teams were 24-4, 23-6, 16-10 and 18-10.

"When I got here, basketball was serious. The varsity was 24-4 and we just tried to follow them, do what they did, fill their shoes," Balcaster said. "I was tempted to go to St. Patrick but I decided to stay at Morton. I wanted to get a good education and get out of the neighborhood but I stayed because of the basketball program and my older brother Joe was on the varsity and he encouraged me to stay. I'm glad I did."

That has been the key to Martinucci's success--keeping local kids at home. A Morton graduate of 1982, he learned his trade from coaches Tom Richardson at Nazareth and Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph. After serving as Morton's freshman coach for two years, he was promoted to the varsity.

"I always heard that you can't win at Morton. We were good in baseball and coming on in soccer but we could never win in basketball, I was told," Martinucci said. "No one remembered the good years with Ziebell and Vopicka, just the lean years in the 1980s and 1990s."

The problem was the most talented athletes went to St. Joseph in Westchester or Nazareth in La Grange Park or Fenwick in Oak Park, not Morton in Berwyn-Cicero.

"I had to change the attitude and stop losing kids," Martinucci said. "And I had to build some excitement in the program."

He did that. This year, for example, he promoted promising freshman Wiesner Perez to the varsity. The recipient of a national scholarship, he could have gone to any high school. But both of his brothers who are at Morton and Wiesner chose to stay at home.

"He will be very good, the best player we have had in a long time," the coach said.

Balcaster is the leader of the senior-dominated squad, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Other starters are 6-4 junior Walter Perez (17 ppg), 6-4 senior David Chatman (9 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-0 senior point guard Anthony Lewis (12 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-4 junior Rodrigo Nava (8 ppg).

Wiesner Perez, 5-10 sophomore Greg Carter and 5-10 senior Letech Lewis come off the bench.

"The bench is the key," Martinucci said. "How well will they play in big games? How well will the young kids handle the pressure in big games? Friday will be a measuring stick going into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"This could be another 20-plus victory season. This team could be in a class with our 24-4 team. But we've toughened up the schedule. This is the toughest our conference has ever been with Proviso East, Downers Grove South, Morton and Hinsdale South. It could be the strongest conference outside the Chicago Public League."

That's the kind of challenge Balcaster and his teammates are looking forward to. The conference may be tough but they know the route through the regional, sectional and supersectional is even tougher.

"Our goal is to get Downstate," Balcaster said. "The regional and sectional are always tough and we know we will have to get past Simeon (in the supersectional) to get to Peoria."

"We have to be prepared. That's why we play about 200 games with each other in the summer. We are a big team with four starters who are 6-4 or bigger. We feel we have a rebounding edge. My role? Score the most points. Eighteen points per game is all right now. That's all the matters as long as we are winning."

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

Jon Lester says Cubs haven’t done anything yet: ‘Nobody likes second place’

As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.

“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”

There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.

There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.

“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.

“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”

After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.

This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.

Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.

“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.

“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”

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As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.

The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.

“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Three quick fixes for some Bears woes while searching for a turnaround

Positives were difficult to find in last Thursday’s 26-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers. So maybe the place to look for improvement lies in just getting rid of a few negatives.

As far as positives, Leonard Floyd would be the obvious one, with two sacks, one a strip and fumble recovery for a TD. Ka’Deem Carey would be another, with 10 carries for 48 yards, his second straight game with high-impact running; Jordan Howard has been shackled for two weeks, so the Bears have needed another backfield-committee member contributing. Jeremy Langford may have trouble finding work when he comes back from his ankle injury.

But negatives have far outweighed positives, which is how you get to 1-6. Fixing three of those will go a long way toward improving their chances against a Minnesota Vikings team that appeared eminently beatable in losing at Philadelphia on Sunday:

Stop the penalty hemorrhaging

For the third straight game the Bears had 10 penalties walked off against them. This "streak" started after eight infractions in the win over Detroit. The 10 in Green Bay cost the Bears 108 yards in a game where their offense netted just 189. Seven of the penalties were charged to the defense, six of which gave the Packers first downs.

The three offensive penalties were mental. A wide receiver (Alshon Jeffery) lined up offsides. The quarterback (Matt Barkley) drew a delay flag. An offensive lineman (Ted Larsen) was illegally downfield.

All of which point to a discipline problem getting worse, not better. Whether the fault lies with players losing focus or coaches not instilling a mindset is a debate, but meaningless if the problem is not addressed. “There were a lot of penalties out there,” said cornerback De’Vante Bausby, who committed three of those penalties. “We had a good scheme and plan but we just didn’t finish in the second half as a group.”

Stop the dinking

While Brian Hoyer replacing Jay Cutler scaled back the downfield element of the offense, the loss of an emerging Kevin White should not be understated. The de facto rookie may not have gotten in the end zone but he was leading the team in receptions before he suffered a broken leg in the win over Detroit.

Since the loss of White, however, the offense has shrunk. The Bears averaged 7.5 yards per pass attempt through four games with White. Without White the average is 7.0, and that is including the blip in Indianapolis, which stands as a complete anomaly. The average was 5.9 in the Jacksonville loss and 5.0 in Green Bay.

Hoyer’s ball-security orientation has been a positive, but also a limiting factor. Cutler last year had one of the best ball-security seasons of his career, yet the offense was able to average 7.5 yards per attempt.

The Bears scored two of their three rushing touchdowns in games with White, who may not yet be the field-stretcher his 4.35 speed but the prospect of White arguably made for a more threatening offense than even with the contributions of Cam Meredith.

Stop the Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings have suffered injuries at a rate like the Bears’ but have overcome them. Until Sunday in Philadelphia, when the Eagles sacked Sam Bradford six times and hit him more than a dozen other times. The Vikings never sacked Carson Wentz, who wasn’t special but was good enough while Minnesota was self-destructing.

The Vikings have beaten the Bears the last three times they’ve met, the first time that’s happened since 1999 and 2000, which is also the last time the Bears started 1-6. And the Bears have lost three straight.

The Bears were able to end the first three-game skid by focusing on one game: the Lions. The result was shutting down a very good offense, the lowest yardage-allowed (263) of the season and the firmest commitment to the run game (29) attempts.

Morale inside the locker room can only be revived by a win. One game. This game.