Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

952959.png

Sandifer has the right number for Neuqua Valley

At Neuqua Valley, it's all about the numbers. Jersey numbers, that is. Jabari Sandifer, the Wildcats' 6-foot senior point guard, has been wearing No. 24 since he was a freshman. That's because all Neuqua Valley point guards wear the same jersey.

But that isn't all. According to tradition, each position player wears the same number, year after year after year. The big man (6-foot-4 senior Pat Kenny) wears No. 55. The shooter (6-foot-5 sophomore Connor Raridon) wears No. 32. And the hustle player (6-foot-2 senior Trevor Davis) wears No. 44.

"Nobody ever asked why," Sandifer said. "It's just the way it is."

There is, however, a logical reason why Neuqua Valley is 10-0 and leading the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division with a 6-0 record after sweeping Bartlett and South Elgin last week.

"Our man-to-man defense helps us win games," Sandifer said. "We are aggressive, we pick up point guards full-court and press them, we shut down the opponent's best player and take away their shooters."

In last Thursday's 63-44 victory over Bartlett, Sandifer scored 18 points and 6-foot-5 junior Elijah Robertson contributed a career-high 13 points off the bench. Sandifer converted three three-point shots in the last three minutes to break it open.

In last Saturday's 74-32 rout of South Elgin, Sandifer scored 13 points, Kenny 10.

Still, the Wildcats have to get better to satisfy coach Todd Sutton, who is in his 15th season at the Naperville school. His teams won 22 or more games 10 times in a span of 12 years. "We aren't that good. We are above average. I just looked at our schedule and there is a stretch where we could go 1-7. I'm surprised to be 10-0," he said.

"We have played a decent schedule but we have had a lot of injuries and suspensions and things off the court. We have been a good defensive team so far. We have shut people down. Everyone has stepped up when called upon. But our wings need to shoot better. We need to get points in the paint. Some nights we do and some nights we don't."

But Neuqua Valley is off to its best start since 2009, when Sutton's best team was 31-2 and lost to Dundee-Crown in the supersectional. They returned three starters from last year's 18-12 squad that lost to Plainfield East by two in the sectional.

As they prepare for their Dec. 26 assignment against Geneva in the opening round of the East Aurora Holiday Tournament, Sandifer is averaging 13 points and four assists, Kenny is averaging 13 points and five rebounds, Raridon is averaging six points, Davis three.

"The coach knows we are a pretty good team. We wouldn't be 10-0 if we weren't pretty good," Sandifer said. "But that is the way the coach motivates us. He knows we are a good team but we still have a lot to improve on. We aren't where we need to be.

"Bartlett is a good team and we shut them down defensively. We shut down Lance Whitaker, their best player. So how good are we? We need to get better in small areas, mainly on offense. If Pat (Kenny) and I are off, we have to have other people contribute. We need more consistency on offense."

The offensive struggles and defensive tenacity were never more evident than in an earlier victory over Matea Valley. Neuqua Valley was limited to 38 points but won 38-36.

"This is my team," said Sandifer, who signed with Western Illinois last month. "I was an eighth grader when they were 31-2. That team had a lot more size than we do. But we have potential to be a pretty good team. We can go Downstate if we continue to improve taking care of the ball on offense, cut down on our turnovers and get better on free throws.

"I'm definitely a coach on the floor. I get on my teammates a lot if they aren't doing something right. I talk a lot on the floor, especially when they don't execute right. I want them to do well and win the game. It's nothing personal."

Western Illinois coach Jim Molinari, a former guard himself, liked what he saw when he scouted Sandifer. He made Sandifer a priority in the recruiting process, a pass-first point guard with a knack for getting the ball in position for his teammates to score.

"I was their first offer, a priority for them. It felt good to be a priority," Sandifer said. "I loved the campus and the coaching staff and the players. They offered me in July after seeing him at the Riverside-Brookfield tournament. I knew from the start that I wanted to go there."

But first there is somewhere else that Sandifer wants to go--Peoria.

"It's important to get Downstate. That's our No. 1 goal. We have never been close to going Downstate," he said. "If we keep playing hard, we can get there. I hope my teammates want it just as badly as I do."

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

Bears great Jay Hilgenberg to new C Cornelius Edison: “You deserve to be there”

The storyline has already been formed: If the Bears are forced to go with undrafted Cornelius Edison as their center, the 2016 season is lost.

“I mean, how ridiculous to think that an undrafted free agent could be the starting center for the Chicago Bears, and they win,” deadpanned Jay Hilgenberg, making less than no attempt to mask the irony in his voice.

With very good reason.

Because Hilgenberg himself came into the NFL as an afterthought, undrafted out of Iowa in 1981 and then going on to an 11-year career with the Bears, capped by a Super Bowl ring in 1985. Seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro selections.

Ridiculous.

Edison may come nowhere near the heights reached by Hall of Fame nominee Hilgenberg. Or of Hall of Fame Miami center Jim Langer, also undrafted. But Hilgenberg has a strong bit of advice for Edison, who started Saturday in the Bears preseason game vs. Kansas City and could be their starter on Opening Day, depending on health elsewhere on the interior of the Bears offensive line.

“I would say to him, ‘You’re in an NFL camp because you can play football,’” Hilgenberg told CSNChicago.com. “Don’t let how you entered that camp take anything away from you. You deserve to be there. You just need to prove it a little bit more than the first-rounders.’”

[SHOP: Get your Bears gear right here]

It may not always be easy, of course.

Hilgenberg, who fought his way onto the final roster in 1981, once famously turned to then-teammate Revie Sorey on the bench during a blowout of the Bears in Hilgenberg’s first season, and said, “Revie, we’re the worst team in the NFL.”

Sorey, never one to duck the truth, nodded.

Hilgenberg added, “And I’m the worst player on this team.”

Again, no disagreement from Sorey.

“So that makes me the worst player in the NFL, doesn’t it?” Hilgenberg concluded.

Silence from Sorey.

Hilgenberg turned out to not be the worst player in the NFL, but not without epic struggles, and he knows what Edison will be going through. And how the young center can make it.

[MORE BEARS: Rookie class making much-needed impact]

“To be honest there is always a little insecurity in you,” Hilgenberg recalled. “I had confidence that I belonged but I had to fight every day. And the truth is, I wanted it more than anything else in the world. I was going to make it.

“I didn’t have Plan B. I didn’t want to go back to Iowa then, so I didn’t have Plan B.

Hilgenberg used teams’ not drafting him as motivation, and Bears teammates recalled him savoring facing supposed elite defensive linemen, No. 1 picks, and handling them. Beyond his attitude, however, was a method.

“I played against a lot of big, strong guys in the NFL, and I wasn’t going to back down from anybody,” Hilgenberg said. “As soon as you learn how to play with the right fundamentals, you learn that there’s no Supermen out there. If you can play fundamentally and with good technique, you can block anybody… .

“Offensive line play is honestly all about how bad you want it. How much are you willing to do? How important is it to you? What does it mean to you?”

Edison is in the process of answering those exact questions.

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

Dwyane Wade's cousin shot and killed in Chicago

On Thursday, Dwyane Wade appeared on an ESPN special for The Undefeated to talk about gun violence. The next day, Wade's cousin was shot and killed in Chicago.

Nykea Aldridge was pushing a baby stroller in the Chicago neighborhood of Parkway Gardens when she was shot and killed. Aldridge was 32 and a mother of four.

Police said she was not the intended target and one person was taken into custody as a result of the incident.

Wade's words during his appearance on the ESPN panel took on extra meaning after Friday's shooting.

"It's important for all of us to help each other, to go back and say 'You know what, where did this start, how did this start? Let's see how we can change there,'" Wade said on ESPN. "It's deep-rooted and this is something that didn't start today. This is something that's not going to end tomorrow. But this is something that we can start a conversation, we can start the work today and hopefully eventually we can stop it."

Wade tweeted after the shooting.

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

Kris Bryant’s MVP performance leads Cubs to comeback win at Dodger Stadium

LOS ANGELES – The “MVP! MVP! MVP!” chants started at Dodger Stadium late Friday night, Cubs fans celebrating Kris Bryant’s two-run homer in the 10th inning and cheering on this entertaining comeback win.

Until Clayton Kershaw returns to full strength, stares down hitters from 60 feet, six inches and unleashes his entire arsenal, it’s impossible to know how the Cubs would stack up against Los Angeles in October. But it’s still safe to say this would be an epic playoff matchup between two big-market, star-studded franchises, with two iconic ballparks becoming the backdrop, celebrity row after celebrity row.

As a quiet homebody who happens to have his own billboards and marketing deals – but doesn’t do bulletin-board quotes or brag about his game – Bryant is not exactly a Hollywood personality. But this is also a goal-oriented individual who doesn’t shy away from the pressure and the expectations and absolutely wants to be the best at his craft.

The Cubs won this round with Bryant, who launched his 34th and 35th home runs in a 6-4 victory, an MVP-worthy season becoming the sequel to his Rookie of the Year campaign.

“It’s humbling,” Bryant said. “You grow up hearing that kind of stuff on TV. To experience it in real life is pretty cool.”

It became hard to hear Bryant inside the visiting clubhouse, because teammates chanted “MVP!” and sung along with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre as “Nuthin But a G Thang” played on the sound system. But for most of the night, it looked like it would be a silent room postgame as the resilient Dodgers took 3-1 and 4-2 leads.

Until the eighth inning, when Bryant launched a home run off Joe Blanton that landed in the center-field seats blocked off for the batter’s eye. And then the ninth inning showed why manager Joe Maddon will want Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward in a playoff lineup.

In the middle of a frustrating offensive season where he’s felt the weight of a $184 million contract, Heyward led off by ripping a double into the right-field corner off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Heyward hustled to third base when new Dodgers catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn’t handle strike three against Jorge Soler. Heyward ran home to score the game-tying run when a Jansen wild pitch sailed toward the backstop.

That set the stage for Bryant, who brought up the fielding error he made in the fifth inning during his postgame interview on Channel 7 after hitting the game-winning homer off lefty Adam Liberatore. All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo may set the tone in the clubhouse, but Bryant already brings tunnel vision and a high degree of professionalism to an 82-45 team, even at the age of 24. 

“He just doesn’t quit,” Heyward said. “He wants to be in every spot. He goes up there and has his at-bat – and that’s it.

“You can talk about why he’s been hitting the ball well, this and that, but he has a good approach. It’s that simple. Other than that, he works his tail off every day to try and go out there and help us win.

“When you have that gift – and you have that work ethic – the bottom line is a lot of good things can happen.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

A resourceful $250 million team won’t fade away, even with Kershaw (back) not pitching for two months, one of 27 players the Dodgers have stashed on the disabled list, tying a major-league record. Los Angeles has cycled through 14 different starting pitchers, relying on depth, a powerful lineup and a strong bullpen to surge into first place and hold onto a one-game lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

“How about last year?” Maddon said. “We beat up on the Mets during the season, we go (into the playoffs) and we can’t even touch them. It’s such a different animal. People get hot or people get cold.

“I’m not going to diminish the fact I’m going to be paying attention. But things change. Trends can be so trendy, to quote Yogi. So I don’t get too far ahead, because things can change very quickly.”

Like Bryant going from a promising player with a few holes in his swing who looked worn down at times last season – to an MVP frontrunner with a .303 average, 89 RBI, 107 runs scored, a .982 OPS and the versatility to play third base, defensively shift across the infield and move to the outfield.

Kershaw vs. Bryant would be must-see TV in October.