High School Lites Preview: Championship weekend

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High School Lites Preview: Championship weekend

739 Illinois high school boys basketball teams had dreams of playing in Peoria in March. Only four of them get the right to call themselves state champs. Two schools have already been crowned. Two more will take home first place trophies on Saturday night. Who will get the honor? Will Hillcrest win their second title in three years? Can Simeon win their third state championship in a row? Will Proviso East finish off an undefeated season?

High School Lites will air on Comcast SportsNet Chicago on Saturday at 10:30 p.m. this week and will feature highlights from the 3A & 4A championship and third place games.

The following capsules will be for Fridays semifinal games, which can be seen on NBC Chicago Nonstop (Digital Channel 5.2, Comcast 341, RCN 50, WOW 130 and AT&T U-Verse 1742). Rankings reflect the CSN Top 20, sponsored by the Marines:

No. 7 North Chicago (24-6) vs. Springfield-Lanphier (28-3), 3A State Semifinal, 12:00 p.m.

The North Chicago Warhawks, who are making their second consecutive trip to Peoria, are putting up point totals that would make some college programs blush. N-C is averaging close to 80 points per game in the postseason. They put 91 on the board versus Marshall on Tuesday, 32 of which came from Illinois-state bound Aaron Simpson. The 5-10 senior guard can score from anywhere on the floor and is especially deadly from behind the arc. The key for Lanphier will be containing Simpson. Everett Clemons, who is the son of former Illinois guard Rennie Clemons, is their go-to guy, racking up close to 20 points per game. Larry Austin Jr. is also a threat. He is coming off a 24-point performance which helped his Lions defeat East St. Louis in the supersectional.

No. 5 Hillcrest (26-5) vs. Peoria (26-3), 3A State Semifinal, 2:00 p.m.

If Hillcrest is to advance to the state championship this weekend, they will have to focus on closing out the opposition. The Hawks, who are looking for their second state title in three years, let a 21 point lead slip away against DuSable in Tuesday's supersectional. But the Hawks survived, winning 47-44. Hillcrest does have balance and a few scorers who can create instant offense, namely Jayone Troutman, Jovan Mooring and Jalen Loving. But they could face matchup problems with Peoria High School. Four of their regular contributors are monsters. Seniors Shamar Hill (6-6), Trey Kellum (6-7), Kevin Jordan (6-10) and 6-5 junior Josh Augusta can overwhelm opponents. Kellum had 14 points and eight rebounds in the Lions' 77-59 supersectional victory over Rockford East on Tuesday.

No. 2 Proviso East (31-0) vs. Rockford-Auburn (31-2), 4A State Semifinal, 6:30 p.m.

Aside from a slim three-point victory over Glenbard North in the regional final, all of Proviso East's playoff victories have been by double-digit margins, including Tuesday's 62-51 triumph over West Aurora. Is Proviso East just that good or have they not been thoroughly tested yet? Whatever the case, they're going to face a major challenge against Rockford-Auburn. The Knights feature one of the top point guards in the state, Wichita State-bound Fred Van Vleet. He scored a game-high 27 points in Auburn's 49-43 supersectional win over Warren. That said, Proviso East is one of the deepest teams in the state and already own a victory over Auburn at the Proviso West Holiday tournament. First-year head coach Donnie Boyce, St. Louis-bound Keith Carter, Sterling Brown, Paris Burns, Paris Lee and Trashaun Carroll have had a dream season thus far. Carroll, though, will miss Fridays semifinal due to an ejection during the supersectional.

No. 1 Simeon (31-1) vs. No. 4 Bloom (28-3), 4A State Semifinal, 8:15 p.m.

A lot has been said about Simeon's offensive weapons this season --namely phenom Jabari Parker, who had another double-double to help his team take down Evanston in Tuesday's supersectional-- but their defense has been the proverbial x-factor in the playoffs. They held an upstart Evanston team to only 34 points in that victory and have defeated their playoff opponents by an average of 23 points. Their semifinal opponent, Bloom, has a lot of similar characteristics. They have scoring power with Donald Moore, but they also can put the clamps on the opposition. Blazing Trojans head coach Jasper Williams has said that this year's team has the best defense he's seen in his two decades-plus of coaching. But will it be enough to take down nationally-ranked Simeon?

High School Lites will also feature highlights from Saturdays semifinals of The Illinois State High School Hockey Championship, presented by Hinckley Springs." The boys championship will air on Comcast SportsNet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday March 23rd.

This week, we head to Glen Ellyn to feature our Muscle Milk Team of the Week, Chicagos Wheelchair Warriors state champion basketball team. The Warriors just won their fourth consecutive state championshippart of seven overall. Plus, well take a drive down Memory Lane in our Flashback segment, and well have in-depth coverage of the Simeon Wolverines, who will be featured in our Drive segment, sponsored by Greater Than. This week's segment will feature behind-the-scenes footage of their sectional win against Marist, and their supersectional victory over Evanston.

High School Lites streams live on CSNhicago.com.

We invite you to share your story ideas as well. Check us out at: csnchicagowebsite@comcastsportsnet.com

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

Jon Lester fans 10, tosses complete game as Cubs beat Giants

As much as the Cubs dreaded the idea of facing Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game last October – and feeling all that anxiety rippling through the crowd at Wrigley Field – the San Francisco Giants still would have had to beat Jon Lester that night.

The Giants know how good Lester is, sending manager Bruce Bochy and catcher Buster Posey as part of the group recruiting visit to his Georgia home shortly after winning the 2014 World Series. There were even rumblings of a $168 million proposal from the Giants at the winter meetings where Lester took a six-year, $155 million megadeal and the chance to make history in Chicago.  

That Lester vs. Cueto matchup in Game 5 never happened, because the Cubs pulled off a Giant comeback in the divisional round. Lester went on to become the National League Championship Series co-MVP and win his third World Series ring. 

Lester (3-2, 3.19 ERA) looked to be in October form during Tuesday night’s 4-1 complete-game win over the Giants, while Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Cueto (4-4, 4.64 ERA).  

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Are Cubs in the middle of a Giant World Series hangover or about to turn the 2017 season around?

Joe Maddon is talking up moral victories in late May – the defending champs keep playing hard – while getting questions about how the 2017 team still needs to create its own identity. 

This is the symbiotic relationship between the Cubs manager and the Chicago media. There is a fine line between giving context and making excuses, overreacting to a small sample size and ignoring the breakdowns in every phase of the game so far.

The Cubs shouldn’t be covered like an NFL team, where every game leads to sweeping conclusions. But at some point this year, the old Bill Parcells line will come true: “You are what your record says you are.”

In many ways, the San Francisco Giants are the model for business/baseball synergy, but even they couldn’t make the playoffs the year after winning the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, each time finishing at least eight games out of first place and dealing with the kind of hangover the Cubs are experiencing now, making this four-game series at Wrigley Field a reality check.

“Our guys have a great mindset,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “They’re a little frustrated, as anyone would be with how we’re playing, but they have a lot of heart and they really care. I think they know how good they can be and they want to attain that level. There’s no lack of urgency. There’s no complacency because we won last year. 

“There’s also confidence in what we can and will do when guys hit their stride. There’s no panic, but there’s also a lot of guys in there who care about playing up to our capabilities. That’s one of the reasons I have so much trust in this group and a lot of confidence that we’re going to get it straightened out.

“You don’t know when it’s going to happen. You never quite know where the bottom is. You never quite know what catalytic event is going to turn things around.”

Maybe Tuesday night’s 4-1 win will be a springboard, the way the Cubs swept a four-game series against the Giants in August 2015 and kept rolling into the National League Championship Series.

Jon Lester handcuffed the Giants after a 65-minute rain delay, carrying a rotation that began the day with a 4.45 ERA that ranked 17th in the majors. Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo each homered off Johnny Cueto, showing signs of life for an offense that began the day with a .746 OPS that ranked 14th in the majors and a .229 batting average with runners in scoring position.
 
Everything’s relative in an NL Central where the Cubs (23-21) have the most talent, the most money and the clearest direction at the trade deadline. There will be no buy-or-sell debates within Epstein’s front office or too much worrying about the future.  

“You look at our division right now and you can talk about anybody’s record,” Heyward said. “Whoever’s in first right now, they’re not doing much better than we are. Whoever’s in last, they’re not doing much worse than we are. That’s just kind of how the division’s going right now. 

“We understand that it’s going to be whoever steps up and finishes the season strong (will) come out on top. You kind of get the drift that the wild-card team’s not going to come from this division at this point. There’s a lot of baseball left, obviously, and you can’t pencil anybody in or cancel anybody out. 

“We just got to go out here and keep trying to put it together. Keep being in every ballgame, keep making adjustments and see what it brings.” 

These last two nights at Clark and Addison, the Cubs have also flashed the athleticism, skills and instincts that transformed them into a historic defensive unit last season, which makes the 37 errors and 28 unearned runs through 44 games so puzzling.

“Last year, our starting pitching was excellent,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our offense, it had its ups and downs, but largely it was very good and it will be very good this year. But the defense hasn’t been as solid. And last year, it was borderline spectacular. 

“Not only was it clean, but it was also that we made big plays at big times. It just felt like something that happened a lot. This year, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and we haven’t really made those big defensive plays. I don’t have an explanation for that.

“You think of defense as sort of a constant. (But) clearly as a team it’s been like anything else – you go up and down. That was the backbone of our team last year and we need to get back to that point.”

Before getting carried away with a win over Cueto and the Giants, remember this is also a team that has allowed 46 runs in the first inning and needed 12 come-from-behind wins to stay two games above .500. The longest winning streak so far is four games and that happened a month ago. 

“I don’t think that our deficits are because guys don’t show up to play,” Hoyer said. “You give up a two-run homer in the first and now you’re scrambling from behind. The one thing about baseball is I feel like when you’re not hitting, when you’re making some errors, the first thing people point to is: ‘Oh, they look dead. They look tired.’”

The Cubs have been at the .500 mark at eight different points this season – without suffering a major injury and while getting contributions from Triple-A Iowa (Ian Happ, Eddie Butler) and nailing their biggest offseason move (Wade Davis). 

There are reasons why Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a team win back-to-back championships since the New York Yankees became a three-peat dynasty – 1998, 1999, 2000 – on top of their 1996 World Series title.

“I can’t imagine this group – given what they went through last year, given how much they care about each other – (would be) taking anything for granted,” Hoyer said. “I just don’t think we’ve played our best baseball yet. And I think we will.”