Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

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Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

Everybody talks about team chemistry. Yes, talent is important. But even the most talented team can fumble the ball if it lacks team chemistry, if egos are perceived to be more important than teammates.

Ask Nat Zunkel.

The fourth-year coach at Mercer County in Aledo expected to field a strong and talented team this season. The Golden Eagles were 11-1 last year, losing to Stark County in the state quarterfinals, and returned 17 starters this season. So Zunkel isn't surprised to be 13-0 going into Friday's Class 2A championship game against Belleville Althoff.

"I like what we do. We have bunch of kids who work hard. It's a good feeling to be in charge of a group of great athletes," he said. "We anticipated that we would have a great team, that they could be something special. They have come together in the last few weeks and have played well in the playoffs."

But it hasn't always been that way. "These kids have played together for several years. Their egos have been parked on the side. But we had to deal with it earlier in the year," Zunkel said.

"I was having some parents and kids who were annoyed on the sideline. I could see it. We were ahead by a lot in some games and some kids didn't get many carries and got snotty about it. 'Hey, I need more carries. Hey, I need more playing time.' I sensed trouble and I wanted to end it right away."

At a film session, Zunkel stepped up and said: "If anyone thinks he should be more carries or catches or playing time, stand up in front of your teammates and say so."

"That was the end of it," he said. "I dealt with it and we haven't had to worry about it since then."

Mercer County has gone about its business in surgical fashion. The Golden Eagles have scored 540 points while allowing 93. No opponent has come within 11 points. They ousted Clifton Central 26-7 in last Saturday's semifinals as quarterback Taylor Matlick completed 14 of 23 passes for 211 yards and Zach Nelson scored two touchdowns.

Mercer County (enrollment: 384) is a consolidation of several small towns that merged with Aledo in 2009. They include Joy, Seaton, New Boston, Keithsburg, Burgess, Mannon, Eliza and Millersburg, all in Mercer County.

Zunkel, a 1955 graduate of York in Elmhurst, played football under Gary Grouwinkel. He competed in football and track at Illinois Wesleyan, then coached at Kankakee, Homewood-Flossmoor and Mattoon before becoming head coach at Mercer County in 2009.

"I knew of Aledo. I couldn't find it on a map but I followed high school sports when I was at York and I knew they had a great football program," said Zunkel, who is 41-6 in four years.

Aledo had one of the most successful programs in the state under Cullen Welter, who was 113-22 in 11 years. He won state titles in 1998, 2001 and 2002 and was second in 2005 and 2006.

Zunkel is following in his footsteps. He is running what he calls a "pro-style spread," akin to what the New England Patriots do with four or five receivers and one or two tight ends and one or three or no running backs.

Matlick, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior, is the triggerman. He has passed for 1.900 yards and rushed for 220. Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound senior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. Payton Holmes, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior wide receiver, has accounted for 600 yards via pass receiving and averages 15 yards per catch. The offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior tackle Matt Zimmerman.

"Matlick is our leader. He gets us organized. He is tough. He drives us. He is a special kid," Zunkel said.

The defense, which could be 3-4 or 4-3 or 5-2, features 5-foot-8, 200-pound senior linebacker Caleb King, 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior linebacker Chris Neeld and 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior cornerback Bryce Skiles, who hasn't given up a touchdown pass in two years.

What is the scouting report on Belleville Althoff? "They are good and fast and big. The key is we have got to do what we have done all year--put points on the board and hold them to very few. We have to score and stop them. We haven't had trouble doing that most of the year," Zunkel said.

He cites one statistic above all others that he believes is the difference between victory and defeat, between being a state champion or a runner-up.

"We are plus 35 in the turnover ratio this year. We have 17 interceptions," he said. "That shows how efficient we are on defense. Our kids fly to the ball and make plays."

He hopes they will do more of the same on Friday.

Brewers jump on John Lackey early as Cubs fall in Milwaukee

Brewers jump on John Lackey early as Cubs fall in Milwaukee

MILWAUKEE – Cubs fans took over Miller Park again on Saturday night, booing Ryan Braun when he stepped into the batter’s box, wearing Jake Arrieta, Kris Bryant and Darwin Barney jerseys and chanting “Let’s go, Cubbies!” over and over again.

Big Boy Game? Eh, not so much for John Lackey, the two-time World Series champion the Cubs imported to anchor their playoff rotation and give the clubhouse some much-needed edge. Not when it’s late July and the Milwaukee Brewers are near the ground floor of a full-scale rebuild.

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But the Brewers haven’t sold off All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy yet, the rush from Dexter Fowler’s return to the top of the lineup wore off and Lackey made enough mistakes during a 6-1 loss in front of another sellout crowd (44,643) this weekend.

Lucroy hammered Lackey’s 93-mph fastball off a second-deck advertisement in left-center field for a two-out, two-run homer in the first inning. Kirk Nieuwenhuis homered leading off the fourth inning and the Cubs didn’t put any real pressure on the Brewers, even with Lackey’s first quality start since June 30.

[RELATED: Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?]  

Cubs fans started heading toward the exits in the eighth inning after Mike Montgomery – the high-upside lefty Theo Epstein’s front office acquired in advance of the Aug. 1 trade deadline – gave up a three-run homer to Nieuwenhuis that made it a 6-1 beat-the-traffic game.

The Cubs will try to win their third consecutive series coming out of the All-Star break on Sunday afternoon, when Jon Lester (10-4, 2.89 ERA) will start opposite Junior Guerra (6-2, 3.06 ERA).

Late goal dooms Fire to another road loss

Late goal dooms Fire to another road loss

Sean Johnson had made a number of big saves late in Saturday’s match at New England, but one mistake was costly.

Johnson had three saves on well-struck shots in a span of less than two minutes. On a third corner kick during that period of sustained pressure, New England finally got one past the Chicago Fire goalkeeper.

Je-Vaughn Watson headed in a Chris Tierney corner kick in the 85th minute after Johnson came out to punch away the corner and failed to reach it. Johnson totaled 10 saves, but ultimately played a role in New England’s lone goal.

The 1-0 win for New England (6-7-8, 26 points) is a blow to the Fire’s already dwindling playoff hopes. The Revolution, which currently sit in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, are now nine points ahead of the Fire (4-10-5, 17 points), which remain in last place in the league.

The Fire’s league-record road winless streak trudges on, now at 35, and the team has now lost eight straight away from Toyota Park.

While Johnson was busy making 10 saves, the Fire didn’t register a shot on target. For periods of the second half the Fire had the better of the play and created some chances, but the Revolution’s finishing kick ended up being the difference.

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The Fire’s best chance came in the 57th minute when David Accam’s low cross from the left almost resulted in an own goal. Bobby Shuttleworth was able to save the deflection, his only notable action of the night, and then John Goossens missed the bouncing ball on the rebound.

On the CSN+ broadcast, coach Veljko Paunovic was asked early in the second half about any possible tactical changes he might make and Paunovic said he liked how things were going. He backed that up by not making any subs until the 76th minute and only used two in the match.

Paunovic gave a slightly different look defensively with Johan Kappelhof, who has been a staple at centerback, starting at right back. Joao Meira took his place in central defense. Offensively, Michael de Leeuw, David Accam, Kennedy Igboananike and John Goossens started together for the first time.

The Fire return home for a Sunday match against the New York Red Bulls.

Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?

Cubs ready to activate Joe Nathan, but is that enough for this bullpen?

MILWAUKEE – It takes some imagination to picture the Cubs surviving three playoff rounds and winning a World Series Game 7 with this bullpen.  

Starting pitcher Jason Hammel looks at rookie right-hander Carl Edwards Jr. and says: “He’s definitely not afraid. He weighs probably 140 pounds and he can attack a ton worth of weight.”

President of baseball operations Theo Epstein trades for lefty Mike Montgomery and looks back on how Andrew Miller reinvented himself with the Boston Red Sox, transforming into an All-Star reliever for the New York Yankees.  

Now the Cubs are banking on a 41-year-old dude who hasn’t pitched in The Show in almost 16 months, trying to make a comeback from a second Tommy John procedure on his right elbow.  

The Cubs will activate Joe Nathan off the 60-day disabled list before Sunday’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park, adding a six-time All-Star closer who ranks eighth all-time with 377 career saves.

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“I do like the names,” manager Joe Maddon said. “Is it enough? I think it is. But you have to consider that with both Edwards and Joe, you would not really push, push, push, either. 

“So you talk about consecutive appearances – or three-out-of-fours – that would be kind of tough to do with these guys. There are different little caveats attached that I have to be careful with (and) not push them too hard.  

“I don’t know if there is enough yet – just based on the ability to use guys based on where they’re coming from physically.”

Epstein made it clear that the Cubs didn’t cut themselves off from bigger deals leading up to the Aug. 1 deadline by packaging two lower-profile minor-league prospects (first baseman Dan Vogelbach and pitcher Paul Blackburn) in the Montgomery deal with the Seattle Mariners.

Epstein has also pointed out that the Cubs won 97 games and two playoff rounds last year while rebuilding their bullpen on the fly, relying on guys like Clayton Richard and Trevor Cahill (who’s rehabbing a knee injury at Triple-A Iowa).

And that you don’t really need an eight-man bullpen for October, because Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester should be pitching deep into games, leaving the high-leverage situations for Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon and whoever else emerges across the next two-plus months.

[RELATED: The next Andrew Miller? Mike Montgomery wants to show what he can do for Cubs bullpen]

Maddon sees the potential for Edwards – who has a 1.93 ERA and 16 strikeouts against four walks through 14 innings – to grow into an even bigger role out of the bullpen. Maybe the Cubs find another grab-bag surprise or two (Brian Matusz, Jack Leathersich) from a minor-league system that lacks premium pitching talent.

“You just don’t know,” Maddon said. “It looks good on paper, but you got to get them out there and play it. From my perspective, for them to be good, I think you can’t push their button too often. You got to hold back.”

Whether or not the Cubs have the trade chips and the appetite to deal with the Yankees or trade for another high-octane reliever, they need to find out what they have in Nathan, who made 11 appearances combined with Iowa and Double-A Tennessee. 

“It sounds like he’s ready to rock and roll,” Maddon said. “We have to see what he looks like, first of all. You hear different things. But I would bet that whatever he’s been throwing, it’s going to be even a little bit more once he gets here with the adrenaline pumping back in the big leagues.”