Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

753634.png

Remember those amazing Appleknockers?

Since I retired as a sportswriter and high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2001, I have written four books, two of them on high school basketball in Illinois.

In retrospect, I regret that I didn't write at least three others--on Hebron's 1952 team, the smallest school ever to win a state championship, Thornridge's 1972 team, the best in state history, and the 1964 Cobden Appleknockers, perhaps the best Cinderella story of all.

Fortunately, someone else was enterprising enough to do it. Scott Johnson, an assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association, and his wife Julie Kistler co-authored "Once There Were Giants." Scott Lynn, a former basketball player at Lincoln, authored and self-published "Thornridge." And Teri Campbell and Anne Ryman co-authored "The Amazing Appleknockers" for Lusk Creek Publishing.

In my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press in 2004, I wrote chapters on all three subjects.

During one of my research trips to southern Illinois, I visited Cobden High School and interviewed Cobden star Chuck Neal at his home in nearby Anna. I also interviewed several other players by telephone and visited coach Dick Ruggles at his home in Nashville.

It was a magical story. Aside from Hebron in 1952, the state tournament hasn't seen anything like it. Cobden was the school of 147 students that could and almost did. The Appleknockers lost to Pekin 50-45 in the state championship game, but they captured the hearts of everyone outside of Pekin.

Campbell and Ryman never saw the 1964 Cobden team play--they are 1986 graduates of the school. But they heard all the of stories and decided they should put them into print. They spent four years researching the subject and two years trying to find someone to publish their manuscript.

"Being from Cobden, you always hear the story of the amazing Appleknockers. We wanted to preserve it. It if wasn't written down, we thought it wouldn't be remembered accurately or perhaps not at all," said Campbell, now a basic skills specialist and assistant coordinator for public and sport information at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.

"That's Cobden's claim to fame. The 1964 team's picture is in the gym. They are our local heroes. I didn't know the details of the story. I just knew they went to state and lost to Pekin. A lot of people think they won. When I was a student, marching in a high school parade in West Frankfort and in the State Fair parade in Springfield, people said we won state in 1964. We wouldn't correct them."

But Campbell and Ryman, very close friends who have known each other since third grade, decided to set the record straight. Their first interview was star player Kenny Flick, who still lives in Cobden. Flick's decision to quit the team during his junior season because his girlfriend got pregnant, and his return to the team as a senior is only one of the most interesting stories in the book.

"He had a reputation of not being real talkative but he talked to us for three hours," Campbell said. "He told us a lot of stories that weren't basketball-related. We knew it would be a book. We were committed. It wasn't all that hard to get interviews. Bob Smith (who died in 2008) is the only one who isn't alive. But we had interviewed him. Our only regret is he didn't see the finished product."

Ryman, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is a reporter for the Arizona Republic, said she was impressed with how the coaches and players were able to recollect things. Ruggles, for example, had total recall of his two-year hiatus in Cobden, a word-for-word account, a virtual play-by-play.

"We were fascinated by the level of detail," Ryman said. "We never went away from an interview without learning something. It was so rewarding to talk to them about what they went through. They weren't out for personal glory. There was no star. It was just a case of who was hot that night. There were so many good stories, like a soap opera."

Theirs is a fascinating tale. It's all there...how 27-year-old Dick Ruggles was recruited from Hurst-Bush High School to become the coach at Cobden, the tragic death of starting guard Tom Crowell, star player Kenny Flick's decision to quit the team after his girlfriend got pregnant, the school board's decision to change a rule prohibiting married students from competing in sports, thus allowing Flick to return to school and play on the team as a senior, the one-point victory over Egyptian in the regional, the triple overtime victory over Pinckneyville in the supersectional, almost play-by-play accounts of the important games, mascot Roger Burnett placing five apples on the floor of Assembly Hall while 16,000 fans cheered, the fanatical support by students, parents and fans.

Perhaps most intriguing is Ruggles total recall of the events, from his decision to take the job before the 1962-63 season to leaving Cobden after the 1963-64 season to become coach at Nashville. The book is laced with his recollections of plays and games, pregame speeches, halftime speeches, postgame speeches, quote by quote. It is as if it all happened last week, not nearly 50 years ago.

When I interviewed Chuck Neal at his home in Anna in 2002, nearly 40 years after teammate Tom Crowell had drowned in a swimming accident a few months before the 1963-64 season, he still had to wipe away tears when recalling the tragedy.

"What always has stuck with me is had I not lied to my father and gone where we were supposed to go, it may not have happened," he said. Neal, Ken Smith and Crowell planned to go swimming on a warm day in May. Chuck knew his father, a member of the school board who largely had been responsible for hiring Ruggles, didn't want him to go to Little Grassy Lake because it was known to have a big dropoff. So Chuck told him they would go to Lamer's Pond. Instead, they went to Little Grassy.

Crowell wasn't a very good swimmer. Smith and Neal decided to swim across the cove but told Crowell to stay behind in a shallow area. When they got halfway across, they turned around to see Crowell struggling in deep water. He apparently had tried to follow them. Neal went ahead to get help and Smith swam back and desperately tried to save Crowell's life.

"It was the most horrible experience I even had, even worse than Vietnam," Smith said. "He kept fighting me and he kept going under and he was gone. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think about it. I think about what Tom could have been."

The class of 1964 still gets together every five years and the graduates who still live in the Cobden area get together every month. The basketball team celebrated a 40th anniversary by serving as grand marshals of the Peach Festival parade. A 50th reunion is planned in 2014.

A story like this had to be told. So it's a good thing that Campbell and Ryman, after looking for a publisher for two years, finally ran into the owner of Lusk Creek Publishing of Makanda, Illinois, at a winery in southern Illinois.

"We had a lot of rejections," Campbell said. "University of Illinois Press and Southern Illinois Press turned it down. Some publishers wouldn't even accept a proposal. SIU thought it was too small of an audience."

It's a story that anyone would love to read.

Report: Cubs preparing to roll the dice with Brett Anderson

Report: Cubs preparing to roll the dice with Brett Anderson

The Cubs are preparing to roll the dice with Brett Anderson, hoping the talented, frequently injured pitcher can stay healthy and provide insurance for their rotation.

Anderson posted a telling message on his Twitter account on Monday night, hinting at what would be another offseason check mark for the defending World Series champs.

The physical for the agreement — first reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and MLB Network — won't just be a formality as Anderson underwent back surgery last March and appeared in only four games for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.

But Anderson fits on paper as a left-hander who will turn only 29 on Feb. 1 and won't have to carry front-of-the-rotation responsibilities or feel Opening Day urgency on a team with five projected starters.

The Cubs had been willing to gamble around $6 million on Tyson Ross, who recently signed a similarly structured one-year deal with the Texas Rangers as he recovers from surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome.

The calculus would essentially be the same with Anderson. The Cubs have to factor in last year's grueling playoff run into early November, this season's sky-high expectations, the organization's lack of high-end, upper-level pitching prospects and the uncertainty surrounding the 2018 rotation.

[SHOP CUBS: Get your Cubs gear right here]

Anderson finished sixth in the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year voting with the Oakland A's, but he's reached the 30-start mark only one other time and never accounted for 200 innings in a single season.

Anderson underwent Tommy John surgery in the middle of the 2011 season, and the injuries piled up from there, dealing with a strained right oblique, a stress fracture in his right foot and a broken left index finger.

Anderson had such a fragile reputation that he accepted the one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer from the Dodgers after a strong platform year in 2015 (10-9, 3.69 ERA). The Dodgers only got 11 1/3 innings out of Anderson, who didn't pitch during a playoff run that ended at Wrigley Field in the National League Championship Series.

The Cubs stayed exceptionally healthy while winning 200 games across the last two seasons and need to be prepared in case John Lackey sharply declines at the age of 38 or Mike Montgomery experiences growing pains while transitioning from the bullpen.

Whether or not Anderson is ultimately the answer, the Cubs will be looking to place a sixth starter into their plans.

"I don't know if a six-man rotation on a permanent basis is the wave of the future," team president Theo Epstein said earlier this winter. "But we certainly endorse it on a temporary basis as a nice way to pace guys for the whole season.

"We can get them some rest, whether you do it in April to preserve depth and ease guys into the season, especially after a deep October and November run. Or after the All-Star break in the summer to kind of get through the dog days and give guys a little bit of a breather as you ramp up for the stretch run.

"I think it would be tough to pull off all season long. But it's something that (could certainly work) in the right spot."

The start of preseason brings the return of hope for the Fire

The start of preseason brings the return of hope for the Fire

A year ago there was hope surrounding the Fire. Hope that general manager Nelson Rodriguez, entering his first offseason with the club, and new coach Veljko Paunovic could spark a turnaround at the club. Those new faces, coupled with an overhauled roster, meant there was hope that things could be better.

Rodriguez and Paunovic had not yet failed with the Fire so there was still that hope that they had a magic touch.

That eroded as the season unfolded and the team’s shortcomings were quickly apparent. The reworked defense seemed to be improved, but the midfield was typically overwhelmed.

Now, after the Fire finished last in Major League Soccer for the second consecutive year, that innocent hope that a new coach and general manager bring is gone. Fans have seen Rodriguez and Paunovic fail and, even though they inherited a team that was not an easy one to turn around, there will be more skepticism.

This year there is hope again, but instead of coming in the form of new management, it comes in the form of accomplished players. Juninho (a three-time MLS All-Star and three-time MLS Cup winner), Dax McCarty (an MLS Best XI selection in 2015) and Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goalscorer in the Polish Ekstraklasa in 2015-16) on paper make the Fire a better team. Can they mesh into a cohesive team that will actually perform better in matches?

“You’d like to think so,” Rodriguez said on Monday at the team’s media day at the PrivateBank Fire Pitch on the North Side. “It’s an inexact science, or at least for me it is. I know others will be more brash and saying it’s all there and all the pieces are together. Until they’re on the field, until they’re in the hotel rooms, until they’re off the field at team meals you never really know.”

[RELATED: Dax McCarty tweets thank you to Red Bull fans]

Rodriguez did say that this group is “very different” than last year’s.

“You can talk about all these clever ways to change culture, but the best way to have a winning team is to have winners as part of your team,” he said. “With those four guys (including goalkeeper Jorge Bava) at least we’ve added certified winners.”

So with two former MLS All-Stars arriving in central midfield, arguably the team’s biggest weakness last season, and a proven goalscorer, the pieces are there for the Fire to be better. Now it’s up to Paunovic to put the pieces together in a winning way.

“Obviously we have high expectations because we believe we did this job so far in offseason by the acquisitions that we had and the guys that are still to come,” Paunovic said. “It’s going to be a better team, more competitive.”

Even with the additions, the roster isn’t finished yet. Two trialists are in camp with the Fire, right backs Drew Beckie and Boyd Okwuonu. Beckie is a 26-year-old Canadian who played the 2016 season with the Carolina Railhawks in the North American Soccer League. Importantly, Beckie has a green card and would not count against the Fire’s international roster spots.

Okwuonu, 23, was drafted by Real Salt Lake in the second round of last year’s draft but was not retained. He has represented the U.S. at youth levels, including as a part of the Olympic qualifying team last year.

Right back has been an opening on the roster since Rodrigo Ramos’ loan was not renewed and no player has been added to fill that spot yet so those two could be fighting for a contract. Rodriguez said further additions to defense and midfield are still possible.

“Preseason is going to tell us where we have to improve,” Paunovic said. “Of course, theoretically we all know that there are a couple of spots still to reinforce and a couple of spots that we have to improve. For us now during all this time we are open to all the possibilities.”

The roster appears to be better, but even Rodriguez admitted he had hope last year.

“I was confident last year and the results of last year were bitterly disappointing and utterly unexpected by me," he said. "I have to believe our roster is better, whether that roster comes together the way we imagine, time will tell.”