Howard, balance key to St. Ignatius' success

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Howard, balance key to St. Ignatius' success

Brian Howard, St. Ignatius' leading scorer, wears No. 5 on his jersey. Not 23 or 1 or 34 or 7 or other popular numbers worn by other athletes. But there was a sound rationale behind his decision to choose a single digit that isn't a number of choice.

Oh, Howard is aware that a baseball legend, Joe DiMaggio, wore No. 5. And his father's favorite NBA player, Jason Kidd, wore No. 5 when he played for the New Jersey Nets.

"My dad teaches me to try to be my own person," Howard said. "You don't see a lot of 5's on the court, especially in the NBA. I want to make my own identity. Maybe people will come along and follow my identity, like other players with other numbers."

Howard, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is making a reputation for himself this season as St. Ignatius has won 11 of its first 13 games and emerged as a leading contender for the Class 3A championship.

He has averaged 20 points per game against one of the state's most competitive schedules. In the last three games, the Wolves defeated highly rated Downers Grove South and De La Salle to win the Jack Tosh Holiday Classic at York but lost to St. Rita last Friday 50-42.

Against St. Rita, Howard was limited to 12 points while St. Rita star Tony Hicks scored 15 of his game high 22 points in the second half. St. Rita forced 18 turnovers, including 10 in the third period. The Mustangs closed out the third period on an 11-0 run and St. Ignatius never recovered.

The schedule doesn't get any easier. St. Ignatius will host St. Joseph Friday, then face Farragut Sunday in the Martin Luther King Classic at Whitney Young. They'll have a rematch with De La Salle on Jan. 20.

"We play one of the toughest schedules in the state," coach Rich Kehoe said. "It's a challenge to play in a high-quality league and play a top-rate schedule against good coaches and good teams. This isn't the best team I've coached. But, potentially, it is the best team that can go a long way in the state tournament."

In his 23rd year of coaching, the 66-year-old Kehoe believes he is getting better with each passing season. This is his second tour of duty at St. Ignatius. He was fired in 1986 but continued to teach at the school. Asked to assist former coach John Tracy from 1995 to 2002, he succeeded Tracy. In the last nine years, his teams were 141-54.

"I wasn't turned off (to coaching) after being fired in 1986. In fact, I got back into it the next year with a one-year stint at Maine East. And I interviewed at other schools," Kehoe said. "I wanted to get back into the arena as a head coach. What else can it do? I like coaching. I feel I'm getting better at it. And I have good talent to work with."

Kehoe has five senior starters, three of whom started on last year's 20-8 finisher that lost to Whitney Young in the regional final. Two are three-year starters, including both guards -- Howard and 5-foot-10 senior point guard Jack Crepeau (nine points per game, five assists).

Last year's squad was led by massive 6-foot-11, 245-pound Nnanna Egwu, now at Illinois. He was a huge presence in the post and an outstanding shot blocker. While this year's team has some size, its strengths are shooting (over 50 percent from three-point range), balance, defense and guard play.

With Howard and Crepeau in the backcourt, the front line is 6-foot-8 senior center Peter Ryckbosch (13 points, six rebounds per game), 6-foot-4 senior Marty McClure (10 points per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Abdoulie Conteh (nine points per game). Off-the-bench support is provided by 6-foot-8 senior Bill Lawrence, sophomore shooting guard Lester Larry, junior defensive stopper Billy Langhenry and 6-foot-1 senior Brandon Felton.

"We have six guys who have scored in double figures. Every starter is averaging in double figures. Opponents can't key on one player," Kehoe said. "And these kids have been playing a long time together, 37 games in the summer, two fall leagues. The more we play, the better we get. I hope we don't peak early.

"What York told me is we can come from behind to win against good competition and we can play solid defense for four quarters, something that was lacking earlier this year. This has to be the most cumulative team I have coached, the most interlocked team I have coached. Everybody has to pull together."

Kehoe said he discounts his team's 11-2 record. "January is an acid test when we play ranked teams," he said. St. Rita was a good start. "We have to make a concerted effort to improve. We can't sit on our laurels. We can't let Thanksgiving to Christmas be the highlight of our season. The easiest part of our schedule is over," he said.

If there is an indispensable player, it is Howard. Call him Mr. Clutch. He is a superb three-point shooter. Since his sophomore year, he has converted game-winning or tying shots or game-clinching free throws on 11 occasions. In the final at York, he hit the last-second shot against De La Salle that forced overtime.

"He is a big-time player," Kehoe said. "He has a lot of moxie and plays well under pressure. He came to us as a smallish kid and built himself up in the upper body. He isn't just an outside shooter but he can muscle to the basket. He is a role model of what hard work and weight lifting can do."

Last year, Howard played in Egwu's huge shadow and averaging about 12 points per game. "I saw myself more as a shooter," he said. This year, he believes he is a more complete player, more aggressive, more of a leader -- and a more dangerous scorer. It isn't his team, but...

"We are more balanced this year. More kids are contributing," Howard said. "In order to win, sometimes I need to score more points. Or other times they need me to be a passer or play harder on defense, whatever they need for me to do.

"We're not surprised to be 11-2. We are where we should be. During the summer and fall, we improved a lot and beat some very competitive teams. We have a certain confidence about us. We believe in each other and trust in each other to make the right plays at the right time."

Despite its success in recent years -- Kehoe has produced five 20-game winners and his 2008 and 2009 teams were 42-13 -- St. Ignatius struggles to gain its fair share of celebrity or respect in the Catholic League and beyond. It is often stereotyped as the academic school that also plays a good brand of basketball from time to time.

"Most of us feel like we didn't get as much recognition as we should have gotten," Howard said. "That was one of our motivations going into the York tournament. We still feel we are underdogs and have something to prove on the court. We play with a chip on our shoulders.

"At York, we learned we have a lot of heart to fight against teams that are perceived to be better than us, teams that are rated ahead of us. When the pressure is on, we have poise because of our senior leadership. That's the difference-maker, our senior leadership.

"Everybody's dream is to win a state championship and ours is no different. In any given game, somebody can step up, like in the York tournament. Someone can step up and make the winning shot. That's the luxury we have with this team this year."

The learning curve for Ian Happ and how long Cubs will stick with the rookie

The learning curve for Ian Happ and how long Cubs will stick with the rookie

LOS ANGELES – The Cubs tried to downplay expectations at first with a top prospect, framing Ian Happ’s promotion from Triple-A Iowa as a short-term solution for a roster facing multiple injury issues.  

And then Happ blasted a two-run homer off Carlos Martinez – an All-Star/Opening Day starter for the Cardinals – in his big-league debut on May 13 and kept hitting to the point where he made it an easy decision for the Cubs to keep him around.

After the initial burst – seven extra-base hits in his first eight games – the Cubs have watched Happ go 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts in his last five games against the pitching-rich Giants and Dodgers.

How much patience will the Cubs have with a rookie learning on the job? And what is manager Joe Maddon looking to see now?

“How he reacts to bad moments,” Maddon said before Sunday’s game at Dodger Stadium, where the Cubs had been held scoreless for 18 straight innings. “If a guy starts kind of losing his mind a little bit, then you might have to back off of him. But if he’s able to handle the adversity well, then you kind of stay with it.

“I expect them all to struggle at different times. He’s probably done as good of a job adjusting over the last couple days to the way we’ve been pitched at as well as anybody.

“I have no preconceived notions of how long to stick with somebody or not. I think it’s up to the player and how you react to the bad moments.

“Because everybody looks good when they’re going good. How do you look when you’re going badly? That’s what really sets a guy apart. So far, I think he’s handled it really well, and he looked good at second base, too. The arm strength really plays there.”

This hasn’t changed Happ’s stone-faced expression or stopped him from making an impression with his athleticism on the bases and that ability to move between the infield and multiple outfield spots.  

[MORE: With Ben Zobrist sidelined by sore wrist, Cubs move Ian Happ to second base]

Happ is also a good student who analyzes video and notices how teams have gone from challenging him with off-speed stuff during his first week in The Show to firing more elevated fastballs in the second week.  

“With all the information that’s disseminated these days, the league adjusts to you quickly, and it’s your job to adjust back,” Happ said. “It’s just always being on top of the way that you’re being pitched and constantly making adjustments to continue improving.”

As Maddon likes to say, all the shiny new toys and Big Data breakthroughs have favored pitching and defense, making it harder than ever for young hitters. 

“Obviously, the ability to scout the other team and break him down is much greater than it ever was,” Maddon said. “Back in the day, it was like a dude back there with a chew goes back to his room tonight and he recaps his notes that he took during the course of the day: ‘Down and away, up and in. Play him with a step to the pull side.’ That was the advance scouting reports. Now it’s broken down to the point where you actually have pertinent information.

“My point is Happ shows up on the scene. They start jumping in there and they probably could gather some intel from the past. And all of a sudden, they got a much better game plan. Now it’s up to him to adjust.”

Miguel Gonzalez throws six perfect innings as White Sox take series against Tigers

Miguel Gonzalez throws six perfect innings as White Sox take series against Tigers

For six innings Sunday, Miguel Gonzalez was perfect.

The White Sox right-hander put the baseball world on perfect-game alert and conjured memories of Mark Buehrle and Philip Humber with his dazzling work through six innings. Gonzalez lost his bids for a perfect game, no hitter and shutout in the span of three batters to lead off the seventh inning, but that didn’t take away much from how good he was in a 7-3 win for the South Siders at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“He was dominant,” shortstop Tim Anderson said, providing an accurate if brief summation of the day’s proceedings.

Gonzalez, who entered with a 3-5 record and a 4.55 ERA in nine previous starts this season, set down the first 18 hitters he faced in order, with the visiting Detroit Tigers rarely even coming close to reaching base. That streak of 18 straight hitters retired to start the game was the longest by a White Sox starter since Chris Sale sat down the first 19 he faced back in May 2013.

Of course, whenever a performance nears no-hitter territory, players know it and stay away from the pitcher in the dugout, afraid of jinxing things. And the White Sox weren’t immune to that baseball tradition on Sunday.

“It was getting quiet,” Gonzalez said. “I was just trying to do my thing. Just go out there and make pitches, let them make the plays and that’s how things went.”

The Tigers — who trailed big after the White Sox gave Gonzalez a 7-0 lead — finally broke through to start the seventh. Austin Romine reached on an infield single, Alex Avila singled through the right side of the infield, and Miguel Cabrera dumped an RBI base hit into right field.

Detroit added two more runs on three extra-base hits in the eighth, but Gonzalez still finished with a great line, yielding just three runs on six hits in 7.2 innings of work.

Gonzalez’s gem snapped a streak of rough outings that started, coincidentally enough, against this Tigers team, when he was crushed for seven runs on 14 hits in an April 30 loss in Detroit. Entering Sunday’s game, Gonzalez was a nasty 0-5 with a 6.99 ERA in his previous five starts. He hadn’t made it out of the sixth inning in any of his previous three starts.

“I started off really good. I was struggling for a couple outings, and all you can do is keep working hard and things are going to happen,” Gonzalez said. “I think if you work hard in between your starts you have a pretty good chance of getting back on track and that’s how I felt today.”

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

That seventh-inning blip by the Tigers ended the day’s only drama, as the White Sox offense put the result of the game out of question earlier, tagging opposing starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann for seven runs in his five innings of work.

Zimmermann entered the day struggling on the 2017 campaign, and that didn’t change Sunday. Willy Garcia tripled in Omar Narvaez for the game’s first run in the third and scored on the same play thanks to a throwing error. Two hitters later, Melky Cabrera hit a solo home run to make it 3-0.

Matt Davidson led off the bottom of the fourth with his 10th home run of the season, and Narvaez drove in Yolmer Sanchez to make it 5-0. Todd Frazier tacked on two more in the fifth with a two-run shot that also scored Jose Abreu.

“As an offense, we’re trying to give that (big cushion) every night. That’d be nice,” Davidson said. “And it really relaxes them. And you can see what happens when they’ve got a lead and you let them do their thing.”

The White Sox took three of four from the Tigers in this weekend series that featured a doubleheader split Saturday. It’s a positive start to this home stand — which continues with a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox — after going 3-7 on a recent 10-game road trip.

“I'm very happy with it, but again I'm not surprised by it, simply because I think they come out every single day to try to play good baseball and do what they need to help each other out and win ballgames,” manager Rick Renteria said. “It's just their character, the way they're put together. They keep battling.”