Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY


Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY

How good is Whitney Young's Linnae Harper?

There are five female finalists for the Dr. James Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award for 2012. Four of them are seniors. Harper is the only junior.

Since the male and female awards were first presented in 1987, only one Chicago area player has been honored. Naperville Central's Candace Parker won in 2003 and 2004.

Now Harper, a 5-foot-7 guard, is being touted as the No. 1 player in the nation in the girls' class of 2013. Just as Simeon's Jabari Parker is being acclaimed as the nation's No. 1 player in the boys' class of 2013.

Would you believe they used to be teammates?

Linnae and Jabari were classmates from first through eighth grades. In eighth grade, they played together on a black elementary school team that almost won a city championship. But Linnae was forced to play in two tournaments in one day, one for girls and one for boys.

"I had a girls tournament at Montini in Lombard. Then I went to the boys tournament at Whitney Young," she recalled. "We were behind 28-9 when I got there. We were playing Beasley, the No. 1 team in the city, with Tommy Hamilton. I did whatever I could do to get us back in the game. We lost by three points."

Competing against boys is what toughened her resolve, sharpened her skills and gave her an edge. Her mother wanted her to be a dancer but it wasn't a fit for her. At 6, she decided she liked basketball. In those days, there was only one way to play the game.

"I used to watch the boys play at Avalon Park. I went there every day after school. When I was little, there were no girls teams around. I had to play with the boys or I couldn't play at all," she said.

"Playing with the boys taught me how to play the game, how to become a better player. Then when I played with the girls, it eased the pressure on me. At first, the boys didn't care if I was there and didn't guard me. But then they realized I had an impact on my team."

Harper has had an impact ever since. She had 14 points and 14 rebounds as Whitney Young defeated Edwardsville 63-51 for the Class 4A championship. The Dolphins (34-0) became the first large school to complete an unbeaten season since Peoria Richwoods in 2005.

"She does a lot of things. She isn't one-dimensional. She can score, rebound, defend, pass and steal. She fills an entire stat sheet. No guard in the country in her class can do that," said Whitney Young coach Corry Irvin.

"She is so physically strong. She can post and rebound. Her 15-foot range game is better than anyone else. She will figure out a way to get anything done the team needs to win, something that is very rare."

For the record, Harper averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. With a year to play -- and to get even better -- she already has accumulated scholarship offers from many major Division I programs, including Notre Dame, Connecticut, DePaul, Kentucky, Ohio State, Miami, Louisville, UCLA and South Carolina.

Steve Tucker, the former high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who knows more about girls basketball than anyone you know, said Harper could be the No. 1 player in the nation in 2012-13 and could be better than Bolingbrook's Ariel Massengale, last year's Ms. Basketball in Illinois who currently is a starter at Tennessee.

"I never remember seeing a guard of her size as strong as she is and with the ability to rebound," Tucker said. "Is she better than Massengale? She does more things. She can run a team, play inside or outside, defend, handle the ball, rebound and pass. She knows the game better than any young kid I have seen. She has such a high basketball IQ for knowing what to do and when to do it. She is physically mature."

Harper is flattered by comparisons to Massengale but she is quick to remind everyone that their games are different. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can be. I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else," she said.

Irvin knew of Harper early on because Linnae's mother attended Julian High School with Corry's husband. Irvin saw the youngster play for the first time as a sixth grader and was immediately impressed by her toughness on the court. "She played post on her grade school team. She was stronger than everyone else," the coach said.

It didn't take her long to realize she had a special talent. As a freshman, she had a career high of 25 points and 17 rebounds as Whitney Young ousted Marian Catholic in the supersectional.

"That's when the light went off. It didn't hit me until then," she said. "I realized I wasn't an ordinary freshman. I had something more. After that game, I came in with an entirely different attitude. It made me realize I could play at an elite level. But I had to play hard in every game. I had to think I had a junior or senior mentality to survive."

The last two years were especially frustrating, however. Whitney Young qualified for the Final Four but had to settle for second and fourth. The Dolphins lost to Bolingbrook in the 2010 state final, then lost to Bolingbrook in overtime in the semifinals in 2011. So it was particularly satisfying to beat Bolingbrook in four overtimes in this year's supersectional.

"It hurt a lot to lose as a freshman but I realized I had three more years to get better and get a ring. But it hurt really bad last year. It took a few days to get over the pain. But I knew it couldn't hold us back," Harper said.

"This year, a lot of people doubted us. We wanted to prove we could win. A majority of the players had played together in the summer for four or five years. But they had never played together as a team before. In the beginning, there were some differences but we sorted them out at the end. It feels good this year to know that we worked hard every day I practice and sacrificed so much to win state."

Harper isn't done yet. Her resume, which already includes a gold-medal winning performance on USA Basketball's Under-16 team last summer, will add more glowing evaluations. Her stock will continue to rise during AAU competition this summer and more major colleges will express interest.

"I still have to complete my game," she said. "I never would have thought I would get this far. It puts more pressure on me. When you get to the top, you have to keep working harder to keep your spot because other players are working as hard and trying to replace you or get to the top."

How much better can she get? She plans to work on her ball-handling to handle more point guard duties, extend her jump shot range, improve her three-point shooting and her mid-range jumper. Oh, and don't forget to work on her footwork and improve her defensive skills.

"I want to add something to my game so when scouts see me, they'll have something else to worry about," she said. "I am very competitive. I like to play when it is tough and be in different situations and pull through. I like to compete all the time. Every time I'm on the court I try to give my all.

It sure beats dancing.

How Cubs offense plans to approach Indians pitching in World Series

How Cubs offense plans to approach Indians pitching in World Series

CLEVELAND - The Cubs obviously aren't going to share specifics on their gameplan against the Cleveland Indians pitching staff, but the overall approach remains the same.

The Indians are blowing away the competition with a 1.77 ERA in the postseason, striking out 81 batters in 71 innings and tossing three shutouts in eight games.

The Cubs offense sent a new franchise record for postseason futility by going 21 straight innings without scoring a run during the middle of a tense National League Championship Series only to break out and plate 23 runs in three games since to send the Dodgers back to Los Angeles and an early winter.

Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell were struggling in particular, combining for only three hits in the first seven postseason games before exploding for 13 hits in the final three games.

"It really wasn't physical at all," Cubs hitting coach John Mallee said. "When you struggle a little bit, usually it's because the pitcher's making pitches that are just executing very well and then you try to change things or try to do too much and then you start chasing out of the strike zone and those types of things.

"Like anybody, they want to do well for their team and then they start to press and that's what slumps are - just pressing. And then with them getting a couple hits and squaring some balls up, all of a sudden the confidence comes back and they feel better again."

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Mallee believes Rizzo and Russell getting hot created a trickle-down effect on the rest of the lineup and the Cubs suddenly got back to their "pass the baton" ways that helped net 103 wins and the No. 3-ranked offense in the majors.

As veteran catcher Miguel Montero said after the Cubs' second straight shutout loss in Game 3 of the NLCS, everybody needs to just focus on doing one good thing and then passing it on to the next guy.

"It's nine on one," Mallee said. "As an individual, you feel like you're letting your team down if you don't get a hit. Pass the baton. You can have a good at-bat even if you make an out if you saw seven pitches on the guy. 

"It's the nine-on-one mentality. Just pass the baton to the next guy. Not trying to think you have to do it all yourself."

Mallee also pointed out how much different everything is in the postseason. There are no fifth starters and in some cases, there aren't even any fourth starters.

Teams are throwing their top starters and relievers as much as possible, bringing typical late-inning guys like Indians star Andrew Miller in during the fifth inning and utilizing them for more than three outs.

"You're facing their best guys all the time," Mallee said. "You're facing better pitching: These are the better teams and you're facing the best of the better pitching."

The Cubs also aim to come out firing against the Indians with an eye on getting on the board first.

The team that scored first won eight of the Cubs' 10 postseason games, including all six in the NLCS.

"Overall, it's just to win this series - like every other - score first and win innings," manager Joe Maddon said. "You need to get on top and not have to face their better [relievers] at the end of the ballgame, otherwise you're going to be in trouble."

Cubs see Kyle Schwarber looming as potential World Series hero

Cubs see Kyle Schwarber looming as potential World Series hero

CLEVELAND — Even as the Cubs went through their World Series workout and media-day responsibilities here, team officials kept their eyes on Kyle Schwarber in the Arizona Fall League, watching his at-bats on a live video feed from their spring-training complex.

The Cubs clearly didn’t use Schwarber as a distraction for their anxious fan base or a misdirection play against the Cleveland Indians. This is all about maximizing the chance to win the franchise’s first world championship since 1908 — and the Cubs believe Schwarber’s thunderous left-handed swing could be the X-factor.

Schwarber planned to fly to Cleveland on Monday after going 1-for-3 with a double, a walk and a run scored for the Mesa Solar Sox, another giant step in his recovery from what was supposed to be season-ending surgery on his left knee.

“He looked really good,” said team president Theo Epstein, mentioning that Schwarber did the necessary running/sliding/diving drills pregame — and then hit a ball with 110-mph exit velocity.

The rotating images on the big video board at Progressive Field even showed a dummy Game 1 lineup with Schwarber batting ninth as the designated hitter against Corey Kluber. It’s a long way from the Arizona Fall League to facing a Cy Young Award winner, especially after going more than six months without seeing live pitching. But if anyone can do it, well, the Cubs would never bet against Schwarber.

“He’s a pretty special person and a special hitter,” Epstein said.

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One week ago, Dr. Daniel Cooper, the head team physician for the Dallas Cowboys who reconstructed Schwarber’s ACL and repaired his LCL, surprisingly green-lighted a return to baseball activities. The Cubs had been focused on getting Schwarber ready for winter ball and Opening Day 2017, a more realistic timeline after that brutal outfield collision with Dexter Fowler on April 7.

The Cubs still won 103 games — even with Schwarber making only five plate appearances during the regular season and spending his time working on scouting reports, analyzing video and observing in the draft room.

“We’ve seen first-hand the work that he’s putting in and how hard he’s been going,” MVP candidate Kris Bryant said. “Honestly, I saw him out — maybe a couple weeks after his surgery — and he’s moving around, walking. And I’m like: ‘Dang, this guy’s not human. How? I saw your leg bend in half, and you’re walking around. This is unbelievable.’

“(It’s) watching him dripping with sweat every single day. Every single day, this guy is drenched. I feel like he’s in the best shape of his life (now). There was no doubt in my mind that he could do it. It was just a matter of if they let him.”

Schwarber is such a presence that Cubs executives left their seats and moved to the back of their Wrigley Field suite on Saturday night to watch his at-bats on the Sloan Park SpyCam — even as the best team in baseball eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers from the National League Championship Series and won the franchise’s first pennant in 71 years.

Everyone around the Cubs remembers how Schwarber starred during that wild-card showdown against the Pittsburgh Pirates and the ball he smashed off the St. Louis Cardinals onto the top of a Wrigley Field video board, putting up five homers and a 1.308 OPS during last year’s playoffs, which happened to be the end of his first full season in professional baseball.

“You see when he gets introduced how much everybody loves him,” Game 2 starter Jake Arrieta said. “He’s a legend already at such a young age. That’s awesome. It just speaks to the importance of what he was able to do last year for us.

“I think he’s going to be here. He wouldn’t have been playing in the Fall League if they weren’t seriously considering him being here. And not having to put him in the field is huge. If he hits a ball over the fence, he can trot around the bases. If he happens to line out or ground out, then he can just kind of jog to first.

“That just speaks to how special of a bat he is — and how hard he worked these past six months to put himself in the position to be ready to play in the World Series.”

At the age of 23, Schwarber is positioned to become yet another young Cub who wants to own this October. Jason McLeod — the senior vice president of scouting and player development heavily involved in the decision to draft Schwarber with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2014 draft — joked about how Fowler’s one-year, $13 million deal came together during this unreal year.

“We have to one-up Dexter’s entrance into spring training,” McLeod said.