Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

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Napleton, St. Rita capture hockey championship over St. Viator

By Pat Disabato
YourSeason.com

St. Rita goalie Marty Napleton has been marvelous all season a 31-8-2 mark, including 13 shutouts, and 1.45 goals-against average is testament to that.

Napleton, however, saved arguably his finest performance of the campaign for Friday night.

The junior netminder turned aside 28 shots, many in spectacular fashion, to carry St. Rita to a dominant 5-0 victory over St. Viator in the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois state championship at the United Center. Napleton earned Most Valuable Player honors for his performance.

Stan Sojka (assist) and Ricky Faron paced the offense, scoring two goals each. Jack Warren added a solo tally for the Mustangs.

Marty has been unbelievable all year, Faron said. He stood on his head tonight.

The state title was St. Ritas second in three seasons and the third overall for the storied program. The Mustangs (40-13-4), who won their fifth straight Kennedy Cup championship earlier this season, knocked off defending champion New Trier, the No. 1 seed, Saturday in the semifinals and then No. 2 St. Viator (50-17-5) in a matter of six days.

All the kids played well, said St. Rita coach Craig Ferguson, who just completed his eighth season. We outplayed them. We were the better team tonight.

Trailing 2-0 entering the third period, St. Viator had a chance to mount a comeback with a power play just 47 seconds in. The Lions had two wonderful chances to dent the net, but Napleton denied Jackson Owens on a breakaway and Michael Decker, after being stopped on his first attempt, fired wide on a rebound chance.

The failure to convert appeared to sap life from St. Viator.

That was big to kill that penalty, Faron said. It took away all their momentum.

The Mustangs then put the game away. Warren hammered home a one-timer off a pretty pass from Sojka at 13:33 to make it 3-0. It was Warrens 23rd goal of the season. Just 1:22 later, Sojka went to his backhand to beat goalie Robert Schmidt for a 4-0 advantage. It was the St. Rita captains second goal of the game and 10th of the season.

Then Faron, camped out just right of the crease, made it 5-0 at 9:46. It was Farons second goal of the game and 63rd of the season. Chris Foley and Luke Botica picked up assists.

I think it was our composure, said Foley, who was injured most of the season and was limited to 29 games. Weve played in enough big games where we werent really nervous. Its a bigger stage, but just another game.

It was non-stop action for the first seven minutes of the opening period, void of a single whistle that would have caused play to halt.

Play was finally stopped at 10:07 and would be halted again just four seconds later, when Sojka batted home his own rebound at 10:03 for a 1-0 lead.

The early deficit seemed to wake-up St. Viator, which picked up the pace considerably the rest of the period. The Lions were awarded two power plays one at 9:35 and another at 3:38, but failed to capitalize. A lack of effort wasnt the problem; The Lions had scoring chances, but Napleton was a brick wall.

The junior absolutely stoned St. Viators David Kellner, whose rebound from just outside the crease was miraculously stopped by a sprawling Napleton. Moments later, Owens one-timer from the slot was kicked aside by Napleton.

Just 22 seconds after the Lions second power play elapsed and with 1:16 remaining in the opening period, Faron scored to extend the lead to 2-0. Faron made a nifty move around the Lions Ryan Santorsola just inside the blue line, before completing a give-and-go with Foley.

The score may as well been 10-0 with the way Napleton was playing. Slap shots, snap shots, wrist shots, breakaways, rebounds, you name it, St. Viator tried it. Nothing, however, could make its way past Napleton. The Lions Sean Thornton will have nightmares thinking about Napletons sliding blocker save that preserved the shutout late in the third.

After the New Trier game, I had a lot of confidence, Napleton said. It carried over to this game. I was just seeing the puck well. This is an unbelievable feeling. To win the Kennedy Cup and state, fortunately we had the guys and coaches to do it.

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

The Harbaugh Show rules Big Ten Media Days — and could rule the Big Ten

Michigan tight end Jake Butt hit the nail right on the head when asked about his head coach, Jim Harbaugh.

“He’s one of a kind.”

Yes, Harbaugh is certainly unlike any other football coach. He spent the offseason firing off Twitter attacks at opposing head coaches, posting pictures taken with celebrities and starring in a rap video, shouting from behind the wheel of a bright yellow convertible parked on the 50-yard line at the Big House.

He’s demanded all the attention in the college football world since he took the job at his alma mater, and Day 1 of Big Ten Media Days was no different. It was the Jim Harbaugh Show, complete with the star wearing a block-M baseball cap to complement his suit and a sea of reporters engulfing him at a designated podium.

But with all the attention that comes from the off-the-field antics, Harbaugh has worked stunning magic in Ann Arbor. He’s been the program’s head man for a year and a half, already taking the Wolverines from a five-win group that missed out on a bowl game to a 10-win squad that was a win away from playing for a conference title.

“It’s definitely a culture shift, you can feel it through coach Harbaugh,” cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “You feel what he’s bringing to the program. If you want to say that’s swagger, then yeah, that’s what he’s bringing back.”

And for Harbaugh’s next trick? He’s made Michigan one of the favorites to win this year’s conference championship and a team with legitimate national championship aspirations.

“We have big hopes. We've got big dreams. We've got lofty goals. And all those are achievable. And they have to be worked for,” Harbaugh said Monday. “You can accomplish anything if the work is realized. And those things have to be earned. So we are in the position right now to work to get the things we want. That's the fact. That's the mentality. That's the attitude.”

Harbaugh does plenty of stuff off the field that separates him from the run-of-the-mill college football coach — who else has a picture with Kenny G? — but it’s his uniqueness on the field that had players buying into what he was trying to accomplish.

Harbaugh, the man with “enthusiasm unknown to mankind,” runs four-hour practices. No joke. And they sound horrible.

“Being out there for four hours? That’s like a ‘Titanic’ movie, man, being out there for four hours,” Lewis said.

But the players saw what four-hour practices led to, and it had them coming back for more. Both Lewis and Butt could’ve turned pro this offseason. But they’re back. Why?

“To win,” Lewis said. “Those four-hour practices, I know he wasn’t doing it for no reason. I knew there was a method to his madness. I saw those 10 wins. We knew that we could be something special, and once we knew that, we bought in. These four-hour practices aren’t so bad when you tally up wins. Trying to be something special, and that’s what he’s bringing back. He’s bringing something magical to Ann Arbor.”

“He doesn’t take any days off,” Butt said. “He doesn’t ask any of us to do anything he’s not willing to do himself. He kind of just forces us to be tough. When you’re out there practicing for four hours, smashing into each other, you don’t really have a choice but to be tough.”

Laugh away at Harbaugh’s zaniness and his over-the-top actions: climbing trees, recruiting at sleepovers and donning a different NFL or NBA jersey at every stop on his cross-country satellite-camp tour. But know that it’s working. Aside from the winning and the impressive turnaround he pulled in just one year at the helm, his recruiting successes have been spectacular. This season, he signed the nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class — including No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary — and he currently has the fifth-ranked class for 2017.

Stuff like “Signing of the Stars” and “Who’s Got It Better Than Us?” They’re extra efforts to make the program one percent better every day.

“I think a lot of that’s big on recruiting,” Butt said. “He thinks outside of the box, and I think that’s big. A lot of us probably don’t understand the reason behind a lot of the things that he does, but I can assure you there’s a reason behind everything he does. He has a plan for everything, but he’s doing most of those things for the betterment of our team and our program.”

Off the field, Harbaugh creates one social-media-friendly headline after another. On it he’s rapidly moved Michigan from cringe-worthy underachiever to conference-title favorite.

The man with the block-M sweatshirt and the khaki pants has the Wolverines heading in a direction that could end with a shower of confetti.

Then, truly nobody will have it better than Michigan.

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

Cheering section of one: Melky Cabrera adds three highlight plays to the reel

The human GIF made quite an impact on the White Sox on Monday night.

A staple of The Melky Cabrera experience the past year and a half has been the outfielder’s personal celebrations that come with every big play. Monday night’s edition included three rounds of festivities critical to the White Sox pulling out a 5-4 victory over the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field.

Cabrera got the party started almost instantly, robbing Kris Bryant of a first-inning solo home run before he patted himself on the back in only the way he does.

“I think every celebration is a motivation to try to give us a boost to our confidence and for the fans, too,” Cabrera said through an interpreter. “Every time you can make a good play, it’s good for your team and for your fans to try to invigorate the confidence.”

Cabrera not only leads the team with a .303 batting average -- he’s the biggest self-congratulator of the bunch. It’s as if the GIF function was created for the sole purpose of recording Cabrera’s awkward claps or fist pumps after every big play.

On Monday, he opted to clap for himself after he robbed Bryant of what would have been his 26th homer. Cabrera said he watched the ball the entire way off Bryant’s bat and drifted back to the warning track before leaping and snagging the ball just above the yellow line on the left-field fence.

[MORE: White Sox win in walk-off fashion over Cubs]

On his way down, Cabrera landed hard on the warning track before righting himself against the wall, where he sat with each appendage sprawled in a different direction. At that point, Cabrera held up the ball to show the world he had it in his possession before he stood up and clapped for himself with both hands over his head.

“I thought after that play, things were going to be pretty good today,” said pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, the recipient of the play.

It was only the beginning.

Cabrera’s relay throw home in the third inning led to a rundown that netted an out at the plate when Javy Baez made an ill-advised decision to go home. Then in the ninth, Cabrera recorded the first out, which slowed a game-tying rally, when he fired a perfect strike to second base to throw out Bryant stretching a single into a double.

Each time, Cabrera cheered for himself without shame.

“He’s probably his own best (cheering section), but we try to keep up with him,” said reliever Zach Duke, who often views Cabrera’s celebrations from the bullpen. “It’s great. His celebrations, they’re just truly heartfelt, truly spontaneous and he has such a good time playing the game we can’t help but join in and enjoy the moment.”

Pat Fitzgerald no fan of Big Ten's new nine-game schedule

Pat Fitzgerald no fan of Big Ten's new nine-game schedule

Big Ten teams will play nine conference games for the first team this season.

Pat Fitzgerald is not a fan.

“No. Not at all,” the Northwestern head football coach responded when asked Monday during Big Ten Media Days if he liked the move to the nine-game league slate. “It’s like being at home. I say ‘yes, ma’am’ at home. At work, whatever the schedule is, we’re going to go do.”

Fitzgerald revealed that Big Ten coaches had no say in the matter, the league switching from an eight-game schedule to a nine-game one, presumably with the intent of improving its teams’ chances at reaching the College Football Playoff.

Strength of schedule has been the name of the game during the Playoff’s first two seasons. The Big 12 was famously boxed out of the first final four two years back, with strength of schedule issues — including the lack of a conference championship game and Baylor’s laughable non-conference scheduling — being the main reason.

The Big Ten wanted to make sure one of its league champions isn’t punished for strength-of-schedule reasons, so forcing them to play another game against a Power Five opponent — in this case, an in-conference one — was the result.

Fitzgerald understands that, and he likes the fact that there will be more games between conference opponents. But he also sees a downside, a big one in his opinion.

“I’m a Big Ten football fan first. I’d rather see Big Ten teams play each other. I’m a fan of that. Any increase in Big Ten against Big Ten I think is positive,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously the opportunity from the network and national exposure and quality opponents, things of that nature, any time you’re in league is improved.

“But just by pure numbers, half of our league is going to have one more loss. So my concern is: That six-win team, does that become a five-win team and they get left out of a bowl game? Now I’m thinking about our (coaches’) livelihood professionally: No postseason play enough equals no more job.

“I get it. I get the big picture. I understand it. I liked eight a lot. We’ll go play nine, and we’ve got to find a way to win one more game.”

Fitzgerald even said that he would prefer a 10-game conference schedule to a nine-game one, given the imbalance in home and away games with an odd number of in-conference games.

“I may get yelled at for it, but I’d rather have it at 10, five (home games) and five (road games),” Fitzgerald said. “I think four and five, the side with five has a game advantage that not only has to do with wins total but then has to do potentially with bowl pecking order.”

But he also addressed the fact that a 10-game conference schedule would mean no more big non-conference showdowns. Games that has Northwestern has benefitted from in recent seasons — wins over Stanford and Duke in 2015, a win at Notre Dame in 2014 — would disappear off his team’s schedule and likely the schedules of other Big Ten teams, Fitzgerald argued.

“I would change my philosophy of what we’re doing (if we moved to 10 conference games),” Fitzgerald said. “The byproduct of that is your two non-league games are not going to be — for Northwestern — are probably not going to be Notre Dame and Stanford and Duke and Boston College and Syracuse. They wouldn’t be, quite frankly, if I got a vote on that. Because you’re already playing plus two (extra) Power Five games in league.”