Gasser puts the zip in Mount Carmel

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Gasser puts the zip in Mount Carmel

The numbers are impressive -- the offense is averaging 40 points per game and the defense has allowed only 79 points in 11 games, only 15 in the last five -- but Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti, in his 29th season, is wise enough not to make any proclamations before the final whistle.

"Is this the best team I've coached since our last state championship team in 2002? It has a chance to be one of the best since we won in 2002 but I can't decide until the season is over, to see what they ultimately accomplish," said Lenti, doing his best to straddle a fence without falling off. "Remember, we didn't win the (Catholic League's) Blue Division. Loyola won the title and won all the awards -- Coach of the Year (John Holecek), Offensive Player of the Year (Peter Pujals), Defensive Player of the Year (John Rushin) and Player of the Year (Luke Ford). They got all the honors, all the bells and whistles."

But Mount Carmel, which lost to Loyola 30-27 in overtime in Week 6, still is very much in contention for the Class 8A championship. The Caravan (10-1) will meet Lyons (7-4) on Saturday night in a quarterfinal match-up in Western Springs.

"The nice thing these kids have is great chemistry," Lenti said. "They really like being around one another. They have bought into the 'we' thing, not the 'me' thing. Last year, we had some seniors who were in it for themselves, about scholarships and one-day camps. But these kids are more focused on the team. They see the other way doesn't work."

Lenti has won nine state championships but none since 2002. He won four in a row from 1988-91 and five in seven years from 1996-2002. And he finished second in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Last year's 10-4 team lost to Class 8A champion Bolingbrook in the second round, then settled for the Prep Bowl title.

This year's squad lacks star quality -- no one compares to last year's standout, Brandon Carr, or such blue chippers of the past such as Simeon Rice, Donovan McNabb, Tony Furjanic and Nate Turner -- but Lenti is impressed with its leadership, chemistry, balance, attitude and drive.

He cites kicker Ivan Strimic and punter Joe Pavlik, junior defensive lineman Steven Richardson, running backs Matt Domer and Draco Smith, defensive backs Justin Sanchez and Vincent Speller, tackle Brian Parker and the four captains -- quarterback Don Butkus, wide receiver Jason Gasser and linebackers Connor Griffin and D.J. Romero.

"We have a complete team," Lenti said. "Strimic and Pavlik are by far the best kicker and punter in the league. When the offense is on a roll, it has done a great job of keeping the defense off the field. The captains have done an exceptional job. They have led the team in a great direction. The kids won't accept mediocrity. I felt all along if they followed the process, if they did what we asked them to do, they could be very successful."

If his three years as a starter, if Gasser has heard Lenti's "follow the process" speech once, he has heard it a hundred times. After a while, it starts to make sense.

"I feel we do a great job of following the process, as the coach says. If we listen to the coaches and do what we are taught, we will be fine," Gasser said. "This year we are more of a team. We work hard in practice. There is a lot of chemistry, no lazy guys. We don't want anyone bringing us down. Last year, too many were in it for the ride and didn't contribute. They were just posers, the coach said, they just wore the costume.

"But this team is different. We have no standouts, just a lot of good high school players, hard workers. All of us want to accomplish the same goal--win the state title. We don't think about scholarships or individual glory. We have pride in the school and the program."

Lenti has made one subtle change in his teaching process and Gasser thinks it has been a significant addition.

"In practice, we still do 60 minutes on offense and 60 minutes on defense and 15 minutes on kicking. But this year he has added a 15-minute combo period during the offensivedefensive time to work on situational plays like third-and-long and third-and-short and first-and-10," Gasser said. "It gets us more prepared. Our goal on first down is to average five or more yards. If we keep working on first down, it helps us to attain our goals and converting long third-and-10 plays and working on pass plays and draws and screens."

Gasser, a 6-foot, 190-pounder with 4.54 speed, has caught 20 passes for 203 yards, averaging 20.1 yards per reception, and has scored five touchdowns. He and Speller are Butkus' big-play and go-to receivers. And it doesn't bother Gasser one bit that he hasn't caught more passes.

He lives in Dyer, Indiana, and he would have enrolled at Andrean in Merrillville but his father, who played football at St. Francis de Sales, wanted to send him to Mount Carmel because of the academics and football tradition.

"I wanted to be part of a winning program," Gasser said. "As a freshman, my father wanted me to be a quarterback. I tried it, then was switched to defensive back. Then I started the first game at wide receiver, which I had played in middle school, and I've played that position ever since."

Gasser recalls losing to Maine South in the 2010 state championship game. As a senior, he hopes to write a different scenario.

"As a senior, I know I have to take a leadership role and I want all of us to have the experience of going Downstate and winning," he said.

He loves football and would like to play in college. He is hearing from several small schools. But he might end up playing baseball at Ball State. That's all in the future, something to consider in December, after the season is over. At the moment, football is the only thing on his mind.

"It would frustrate me if I didn't win one state title in high school," Gasser said.

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Lauri Markkanenn will be a Chicago Bull once the trade between the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves is finalized sometime Friday when the trade call is sent to the NBA, as he’s the first domino to fall in what could be an interesting offseason to come.

A stretch-shooting big man from Arizona who shot 42 percent from 3 last season, Markkanenn is a native of Finland who’s more of an offensive threat rather than a defender and rebounder at seven-feet tall. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for Arizona and has been regarded by many scouts as the best shooter in the draft.

With the Bulls bringing up the rear in that category, one assumes he’ll add a level of versatility if he can see the floor—which brings the Bulls to some offseason decisions they’ll have to make once free agency begins and even before. Markkanenn conceivably brings Nikola Mirotic’s future into question, as Mirotic is a restricted free agent this summer and Mirotic was on the trade block by the Bulls for the better part of last season as he had an underwhelming year trying to fill the role of a stretch-shooting big man.

But officials with the Bulls say Mirotic is still a priority for the Bulls and because he’s restricted, they control the process of his free agency. Mirotic shot 41.3 percent and averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, as the Bulls still consider him an asset for the present and future as they’ll play a new style of basketball next season.

One would think Mirotic will command a salary at least around $10 million as the NBA’s salary cap will balloon to $99 million with a luxury tax line of around $119 million.

Rajon Rondo’s future has yet to be decided, as the Bulls acquired a point guard in Kris Dunn they’ve long eyed and presumably one they feel will be their future at the position.

Bulls officials stated they’ll wait until next week before making a decision on Rondo, but one wonders if they’ll go full youth movement, especially with wanting Dunn to succeed after a rocky rookie year in Minnesota and already having Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.

Rondo has a $3 million buyout the Bulls can exercise that will make Rondo a free agent or they’ll pay Rondo $13.3 million next season.

[MORE: After trading Jimmy Butler, Bulls select Lauri Markkanen] 

And then there’s Dwyane Wade, who opted in to his deal of $23.8 million for next season. Wade came to Chicago for a number of reasons, notably the salary and chance to play with Butler. With Butler gone and the Bulls changing their direction of the franchise, one wonders how Wade sees himself next season and how the Bulls see Wade with their young players.

Unless Wade wants out, the Bulls are headed into the free agency period thinking he’ll be back next season, and considering the Bulls have to spend up to 90 percent of their salary cap, his money helps them keep their books afloat, even as Butler’s affordable max salary exits and the controlled rookie-scale salaries of LaVine, Dunn and Merkkanenn enter Chicago for a future unknown