Three-peat for Montini girls

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Three-peat for Montini girls

By Phil Brozynski
YourSeason.com
NORMAL, Ill. Teutopolis. Bolingbrook. And now, Montini.The girls basketball powerhouse from the western suburbs joined some elite company in the IHSA Class 3A championship game Saturday at Redbird Arena. By defeating Vernon Hills 56-38, Montini became just the third school in history to win three consecutive state titles.And like Teutopolis (1988-90) and Bolingbrook (Class 4A, 2009-11) before it, Montinis third straight title was never in doubt.The Broncos held Vernon Hills scoreless from the field in the first half, building a 22-3 lead three minutes into the second quarter. Kateri Stones jumper at the buzzer her third field goal of the first half gave the Broncos a 31-10 lead at the half.It was nice to make a couple of shots early, especially since I started 0 for 12 yesterday, said Stone, one of four Broncos in double figures with 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field.Montini then withstood the Cougars 14-7 run to open the second half, and extended the lead to as many as 26 points early in the fourth quarter. Stones three-pointer with 1:40 left in the third quarter put the brakes on Vernon Hills run and gave Montini an insurmountable 41-24 advantage.Montini coach Jason Nichols was flabbergasted by his teams performance this weekend, and to a large extent, this season. Im kind of speechless about it, Nichols said. To sit here and actually think were a state champwow, and thats a credit to these girls. Last nights win was so big, and then coming back and just come out with that start and that energy, it was huge.This ones pretty special because nobody really thought wed be back here, and at times I was one of them. I would never tell them that, but as a coaching staff a couple times we said. Lets get down there, see what happens, get some experience and blah, blah, blah. Stone, on the other hand, was one of those who never doubted Montini would hoist its third straight championship trophy.We worked so hard as a team and weve grown over the whole season, she said. We did have some shaky moments this season, but I think we grew together from the losses and from the struggles. We grew together so by now we could help each other and come out with a big win.Sophomore Jasmine Lumpkin led Montini with 14 points Saturday. Senior Tianna Brown had 13 points and junior Nikia Edom added 10 points and four assists.This means a lot because a lot of people didnt think wed make it down here or win, Brown said. So to come down here and win, its big. Its a great feeling.Vernon Hills coach Paul Brettner was feeling better after his team came out in the second half and played like the team that defeated top-ranked Springfield in Fridays semifinal.I wasnt anticipating shooting 0-for-15 in the first half, he said. Their defense is good, but we missed some shots we typically hit, and if that was the case I would think wed be more confident and play a little better in the first half. Then our work in the second half might not have been for naught.Sophomore Sydney Smith led Vernon Hills with 17 points, including two long three-pointers to ignite the early second-half rally. Sophomore Lauren Webb added 13 points, all from the free-throw line on 14 attempts, and 6-2 junior Meri Bennett-Swanson added five points and three rebounds.With only three starters and four players overall from both sides graduating this spring, nobody would be surprised to see the same two teams in Normal in 2013.Some of our bigger scorers were young, Brettner said. It will be difficult to replace seniors Abby Springer and Julie Pecht. They brought a lot of intangibles and things on the court. But when this is all said and done, Ill start looking forward to next year.

Evaluations will come, but Bears got players, traits, intangibles they wanted

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Evaluations will come, but Bears got players, traits, intangibles they wanted

And the grade for the Bears’ 2016 draft is… let’s wait at least until, as coach John Fox consistently says, the players get “on the grass.”

Collective bargaining rules prohibit real competition between offense, defense and special teams units. Five of the Bears’ top six picks were on defense, which aren’t allowed to hit the offensive guys until camp (and vice versa), and the sixth – second-rounder Cody Whitehair – is a guard, and linemen evaluations are really only worthwhile when pads come on.

But poor drafts undid two Bears general managers in the span of four years (Jerry Angelo after 2011, Phil Emery after 2014) and the evaluation process now moves from college campuses, bowl games and scouting events to NFL venues.

The Bears are in major need of GM Ryan Pace equalling or exceeding his first (2015) draft. His head coach thinks that’s happened.

“Obviously experience helps,” Fox said. “The more you do it, the better you get. Ryan’s got a great skill set and we’ve got a great relationship between the coaches and personnel. I think he does a tremendous job. I thought we had a tremendous draft a year ago and I anticipate this year being even better.”

Pace came to the Bears from a New Orleans Saints background heavy on the pro-personnel side. But one school of NFL thinking is that personnel evaluators with roots on the pro side are better suited to oversee drafts simply because their expertise is in seeing what NFL players look like.

Pace’s first draft netted starters at nose tackle (Eddie Goldman), center (Hroniss Grasu), running back (Jeremy Langford) and safety (Adrian Amos), plus theoretically wide receiver (Kevin White) but for a season-ending stress fracture to his left leg. Not all of those are guaranteed starting jobs this season because of the organization’s commitment to competition, but it was a better start than most recent Bears drafts.

Several key directions were evident within the nine picks made by Pace, coach John Fox and their staffs this extended weekend.

Defense, teams priorities

While the prime draft directive was best player available, the Bears moved around in the various rounds to suggest that they were targeting players, and most of them were on defense.

Of the Bears’ eventual nine picks, six were on defense. Of those, four were defensive backs. Among those are expected to be impact players on special teams, and if one wins a starting job the way Adrian Amos (fifth rounder) did last year, the 2016 draft stands to be special.

“You saw us struggle [on special teams] early in the season a year ago,” Fox said. “Getting to know your team, understanding how they react, the speed – trying to increase our team speed even to the deadline to start the season. We got better as the year went on and I think we’ll get better this year.”

QB-lite

Despite indications that the Bears liked some of the quarterbacks down in the mid-round range, they did not select a quarterback for the third time in the last four years. One scenario is that they would add a veteran backup, which they did with the signing of Brian Hoyer, who worked with offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains as a Cleveland Brown, to a one-year deal.

“I like the idea of having an experienced backup there,” Pace said. “It’s important for that position and it just gives us security going forward. I think it’s key, like we’ve talked about in free agency, I love it when we have familiarity with these guys from coaches. I feel like it reduces some of the risk and some of the questions we may have. Dowell was passionate about this player and then watching the tape, I was to. I’m glad we got him in the mix.”

The Bears did trade two first-round picks to the Denver Broncos for Jay Cutler in 2009. But they have actually not drafted a quarterback higher than the fourth round (Kyle Orton, 2005) since 2003 when they took Rex Grossman in the first round.

With all of the draft choices (9) at their disposal going into this draft, the Bears made trades to move up or back for targeted players. None of them were quarterbacks.

Old guys

Not every pick will work out, but the Bears minimized risk in one area, taking college players with extensive resumes on tape, Pace’s stated standard of evaluation. Of Pace’s first eight picks, six of them were four-year college players, with only first rounder Leonard Floyd and fifth rounder Jordan Howard passing up their senior seasons for the NFL. Seventh-rounder Daniel Braverman missed his sophomore season due to injury but played the following two years and will turn 23 in September.

“Some of these guys are three or four year starters,” Pace said. “I think it talks about the caliber of players they are. A lot of these guys are team captains. We talk about that. But really it’s just individual tape and who are the best guys when looking at the talent. But the fact these guys are multi-year starters, and team captains, that is significant.”

Competition stoked

Pace and the entire coaching staff has wanted intense competition, not simply for starting jobs, but also for roster spots. And that was created with more than just numbers of picks, but the quality.

No. 1 pick Floyd projects to take a job from season-end regulars and sack leaders Lamarr Houston or Willie Young, both of whom reportedly were shopped during the early rounds of the draft.

Despite signing interior linemen Ted Lawson and Manny Ramirez this offseason, and drafting center Hroniss Grasu in the 2015 third round, the Bears used a second-round pick on Whitehair. It will be an impossibility for Grasu, Lawson, Ramirez and Whitehair to all start. And that does not factor in Matt Slauson, one of the Bears’ best linemen as recently as 2014 but now clearly on the outside looking in.

“I’m not getting into that,” Fox said. “It’s a fluid process. But right now we’ve helped build competition on our football team.”

The use of a third-round pick on defensive end Jonathan Bullard improves the pass rush of the down-linemen portion of the 3-4. But that likely comes at the expense of Ego Ferguson, returning from knee surgery, and Will Sutton, a seven-game starter and all-purpose defensive lineman but who had zero sacks for his two Bears seasons.

Just as with the interior offensive line, linebacker signings (Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan) did no signal any end to serious competition. The Bears used the first of their three fourth-round selections on West Virginia linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, whose abilities in coverage make him a threat to starters.

Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford impressed coaches enough that Matt Forte was not brought back. But the fifth-round pick spent on power running back Jordan Howard was not done for special teams.

‘Teams competition was addressed in part with the picks of two safeties and a cornerback in rounds 4-6. How much those additions challenge for starter jobs is one thing, but they were not picked up just to fill out a training-camp roster.

“The common trait with all these guys,” said Pace, “I would say is toughness and instincts, something we've emphasized and something we've drafted today for sure.”

Promotion affords White Sox Tommy Kahnle refresher course

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Promotion affords White Sox Tommy Kahnle refresher course

BALTIMORE -- It may only be a brief stopover, but Tommy Kahnle hopes to get the most out of his current tour with the White Sox.

Called up Thursday, the White Sox reliever could be sent back to Triple-A Charlotte as early as Sunday morning as closer David Robertson is expected to come off the bereavement list.

But Kahnle -- acquired from the Colorado Rockies in November -- not only has had a chance to show the White Sox what he has, he also is getting a quick refresher course from pitching coach Don Cooper. Cooper has worked with Kahnle to stand more upright in his delivery in hopes it will help him throw more strikes.

“It’s just stay tall on my backside because I tend to collapse a little bit and get a little erratic,” Kahnle said. “But overall, make a few adjustments and should be back on track.

“I had a few hiccups in spring and early in the season down in Triple-A. But overall I’ve been throwing well and just got to work on a few things and get better.

“Just get better and try to throw strikes. That’s always been my downfall.”

Kahnle made his 91st career appearance on Friday night. He walked two in a scoreless inning in a 6-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Kahnle has always had a big arm, striking out 102 in 103 innings. But he also has walked 61 batters.

Cooper likes the chance to get some in-season maintenance with any of his pitchers.

“Sure it is because you get a look at what’s going on up here,” Cooper said. “We’re trying to get him to stay tall … that’s a work in progress. It looks like he’s a little better with the slide step.”

Kahnle would like to help out a deep bullpen again before the season is out.

Robertson left the team after he pitched a scoreless inning to close out Wednesday’s victory in Toronto to attend his father-in-law’s funeral. Daniel Webb joined the team on Wednesday and struck out three in a scoreless inning on Thursday. But Webb went on the 15-day disabled list with right elbow flexor inflammation and Kahnle got the call.

“Even if it’s just a few days, it’s good to be back up here and show them what I’ve got and if they need me again I’ll be ready,” Kahnle said.

After another draw, Fire head into difficult road trip

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After another draw, Fire head into difficult road trip

Saturday's 1-1 draw against D.C. United marked the end of the first part of the Chicago Fire's schedule.

The Fire had five of the first seven matches of the season at home. They went 1-2-2 in those matches. Throw in two draws in two road matches and the Fire have seven points through seven matches.

That start for a new coach and a rebuilding team isn't damning without full context. The Fire are only two points behind the playoff line in the Eastern Conference and entered the weekend having played fewer matches than every other team in the league. However, failing to win matches at home is a concern for the team's prospects ahead.

"We’ll take the point, but at the same time we’re at home," midfielder Arturo Alvarez said after the match. "We want to start winning games at home. We need to.”

Things will get much more difficult ahead. The next match at home will be on May 21 and the number of road games will soon even out.

After yet another off weekend upcoming, the Fire will play at Vancouver (May 11), at New England (May 14) and at the New York Red Bulls (May 18). Three straight road games in eight days and including cross country travel will be a stiff test for the team.

“Now that we’re going on the road and we haven’t gotten points at home, we have to win on the road or else we’re going to be (in trouble) here so we need to get the wins and we need to win a game on the road now,” midfielder Michael Stephens said.

Coach Veljko Paunovic called the draw a fair result. Campbell's goal was the only shot on target for the Fire. D.C. had only three shots on goal.

Paunovic preached patience while still wanting more from the team's results.

“No doubt that we wanted to win this game more than anything," Paunovic said. "We had the opportunity. It was there, but still we have to understand that we are a young team, a team in the process, which requires a lot of effort to win games. I’m happy with one point. Of course they also had good opportunities to win the game and I think that’s where we are at this point."

There's nothing wrong with a team with so many new parts taking time to develop and MLS playoff spots are not lost in May. However, the upcoming road trip could put the Fire in an early hole unless things get better quickly.