Smith's goal: 4 titles in a row

742822.png

Smith's goal: 4 titles in a row

Simeon basketball coach Robert Smith is running out of goals to surpass and milestones to establish.

Last season, Smith became the first high school coach in Illinois history to win five state championships. East St. Louis Lincoln's Bennie Lewis and Lawrenceville's Ron Felling won four.

In 2012-13, he will seek to become the first coach in state history to win four titles in a row. Peoria Manual's Wayne McClain also won three.

"I'm definitely resigned to coming back next year and winning another state title at Simeon," Smith said. "My name might be out there (for a college coaching position) but I'm staying at Simeon. I made the decision after the Final Four. I feel comfortable here. It is the best thing for me, to come back and win a fourth title in a row. That is the challenge for me, especially with the talent we have."

Smith, 40, said he isn't bitter about not being seriously considered for the vacancy at Illinois or any other major college position. "I'm realistic. I know it is a longshot for me to jump from high school to a major Division I school without any head coaching experience at the college level. But I felt I should pursue it as long as the opportunity was there. I love what I do at Simeon and what we have going on," he said.

In all candor, Smith didn't think the hiring process at Illinois would go as far as it did. He never was interviewed by Illini athletic director Mike Thomas but he was interviewed by the search team. "I'm glad they considered me. I did what all other candidates did. Some got interviews, some didn't," Smith said.

He said he probably wasn't as qualified as most of the candidates, especially those with head coaching experience at the college level. "But if (Thomas) is a risk-taker, I'm the one to pick. But (Thomas) made the best choice for the university for going ahead," Smith said.

But Smith has some advice for new coach John Groce and his staff as they go about the difficult task of rebuilding Illinois' program and attracting the caliber of talent necessary to put a championship contender on the floor.

"You have to reach back into the communities, not just the kids and their parents. You have to talk Illinois basketball in restaurants and barber shops. You have to promote the program. It hasn't been promoted that well lately," Smith said.

"You have to get the kids to stay home and commit to going to school here. Kids watch and see where other kids are going across the country. Kids want to play with some people. That's huge right now. If you persuade a player like Jabari Parker to come to Illinois, as DePaul did with Mark Aguirre, they can bring other good players with them."

In reassessing his 2011-12 championship team, Smith said it probably ranked as the second or third best team he has produced but admitted it had more talent than any of the others.

"Last year, we had a lot of depth, two five-man lineups," he said. "The difference between this team and others was the schedule. Last year, they went out of town two or three times and won only once. This team went out of town five times and lost only one game. They played a national schedule and were able to win. Those are things I look at when comparing teams. They went into hostile environments and were successful."

Next year? Smith returns four starters -- Parker, Kendrick Nunn, Kendall Pollard and Jaylon Tate. His fifth starter likely will be 6-foot-8 senior Quon Davis, who didn't play much as a junior because of a broken ankle. Tyree Washington, Dennis Williams, Bobby Harris, Edward Morrow and Brandon Hutton will provide depth. He looks for Parker and Tate to provide leadership.

"I can see us being No. 1 in the state and among the top five in the nation," he said. "We can repeat in city and state. I don't think we'll be the best team ever. I don't think there will be a team that will go undefeated unless they play locally. To be ranked as the best in the country, you have to go out and play a national schedule. But a traditional school (not a prep school) won't go undefeated. If you want to surpass what Thornridge did in 1972, you'd have to reach deep for that goal."

As he looks ahead to his ninth season as head coach, Smith said he benefited from last year's experience. "It was more challenging because we were ranked No. 1 from the beginning of the season. There was more pressure on us," he said.

"I learned to be more patient. I expected more out of my players and they didn't sit back and realize they were only juniors, as talented as they were. They didn't have all that much floor time except for Parker, Nunn, Pollard, Tate and (Reggie) Norris. I rushed them. I didn't realize that they needed more floor time. Then we started to roll. I think they got better coaching than previous years."

Meanwhile, Smith doesn't agree with critics who charge that the perception of recruiting in Chicago is that college coaches must deal with street agents, AAU coaches, influence peddlers, shoe companies and a lot of people with the hands out in order to land a blue chip player.

He acknowledges there have been controversial issues in the past that tainted the city, involving former Public League stars Efrem Winters, Deon Thomas, Sherron Collins, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, but he insists the allegations of under-the-table payoffs are untrue.

"I don't know why Chicago has that perception. Guys have to come in here and work. Every college coach has come into Simeon to recruit. We don't ask for anything and we don't want anything," Smith said.

"We just want to be sure that if our kids attend their college, they should treat them as their own. We don't ask for a starting position or anything else. I can't talk about other (city) programs, only Simeon. No one can say I asked for anything. I opened up our doors and said: 'Here are our players. Watch them play.' But you have to build a relationship with a player and his parents if you're going to recruit him to your school."

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.

In the Gym at EFT: Wide receiver skill development

In the Gym at EFT: Wide receiver skill development

In the first edition of EFT Football Academy, TF North graduate Landon Cox, who was a star wide receiver at Northern Illinois and later in the NFL, shares some tips on how to become a better receiver and be more efficient on the field.

Cox is a Performance Specialist and wide receiver coach at EFT. In this segment Cox works on a few different techniques with Warren Township junior wide receiver Micah Jones.

EFT has evolved into the premier elite performance training facility in the Midwest, where every EFT football coach has NFL experience and the dedication to helping each player reach their potential. The EFT Football Academy is designed to assist in the development of grade school, high school, and collegiate football players.

Some of their off-season training experience includes 70+ active NFL athletes, six Super Bowl Champions, six Olympics, and more.

[MORE: High School Lites Football Roundup: Week 1]

In addition, performance includes explosive power development, positional movement pattern development, proper spring and change of direction mechanics, and more. Every EFT workout focuses on improving each athlete's overall abilities like speed development, agility and mobility, acceleration and deceleration, and strength and condition — just to name a few.

Former Bears wide receiver Devin Hester called it "the best workout in the world."

Watch Cox's tips in the video above, and be sure to look out for next week's edition on CSNChicago.com.

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

How Mike Montgomery fits into big-picture plans for Cubs

LOS ANGELES – In their never-ending search for young pitching, the Cubs discussed a Matt Moore deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, but wouldn’t consider trading Kyle Schwarber. To get Moore at the Aug. 1 deadline, the San Francisco Giants had to surrender the runner-up to Kris Bryant in last season’s National League Rookie of the Year race (Matt Duffy), plus two more prospects.

Moore finished one out short of a no-hitter on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, throwing 133 pitches against a deep Los Angeles lineup, two-plus years after having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow. Whether or not Moore helps shift the balance of power in the National League West, the Cubs should still have enough pitching.

To get through October. As long as John Lackey (shoulder) comes off the disabled list in early September and the rest of the rotation stays healthy. Surviving next season and beyond could be a different story, if Jake Arrieta becomes another team’s 2018 Opening Day starter, if Jon Lester breaks down in the middle of that $155 million megadeal and assuming Lackey finally retires around the 3,000-inning mark.

All that makes Mike Montgomery an interesting lefty swingman if the Cubs are going to maintain The Foundation for Sustained Success.

“I think he is a major-league starter, regardless of what happens tonight,” manager Joe Maddon said before Friday’s wild 6-4 comeback win that took 10 innings at Dodger Stadium. “This guy has the ability to be a solid major-league starter based on his strength level, his delivery, the variety of pitches that he throws. The strike-throwing ability is exceptional. He’s got all those different things going on.

“Just be a little bit patient with (him) and let him get his feet on the ground somewhere, because he’s the kind of guy that can take off if he gets comfortable in his environment.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

If Montgomery didn’t ace this audition, he also didn’t bomb against a first-place team in front of a big crowd (48,609), either, showing the potential the Cubs saw in making last month’s trade with the Seattle Mariners.

Montgomery kept the Cubs in the game before Bryant’s clutch performance, allowing three runs in five innings and minimizing the damage on a night where he didn’t have pinpoint control (four walks, hit batter, wild pitch, 49 strikes across 91 pitches).

The Cubs are in trouble if Montgomery somehow winds up in this year’s playoff rotation, but he checks a lot of boxes for the future as someone with youth (27), size (6-foot-5), first-round/top-prospect pedigree, a high groundball rate and a service-time clock that won’t make him a free agent until after the 2021 season.