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Lincoln-Way East's Langenderfer is 150 pounds of dynamite

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Lincoln-Way East's Langenderfer is 150 pounds of dynamite

Kyle Langenderfer describes himself as a wrestler who plays football. But this is a very emotional week for the defending state 138-pound wrestling champion who does a very good job of masquerading as a 5-foot-8, 150-pound linebacker for Lincoln-Way East's unbeaten football team.

On Saturday, win or lose, he will put on his football uniform, shoulder pads and helmet for the last time and play the last game of his life against Glenbard West for the Class 7A championship in Champaign.

For a kid who recalls playing flag football in first grade and tackle football with the Mokena Burros in third grade, being coached by his father, playing with his friends, it is a very emotional experience.

"It hits you. This is my last football game," Langenderfer said. "In truth, I was thinking about it the other day with my dad. We are a football family. My dad played football at a small military school on the East Coast. If you are a Lincoln-Way East football player, the community knows you. It is sad for it all to come to an end.

"But this is the best way, in the final. I'd rather go out on top than in the second round, like the last two years. Oh, I do think about if I had more size, what my life would be. But you play the cards you are dealt. On Saturday afternoon, I'll put on my football uniform for the last time."

His athletic career won't end on Saturday, however. He has accepted a scholarship to wrestle at the University of Illinois. In college, he'll compete against other 149-pounders. He won't have to face 300-pound offensive linemen any longer. He'll miss the challenge.

"How many people have told me that I'm too small to play football? Too many to count on first impression," he said. "Usually before they see me play they say I'm too small to play. But after they see me in practice or a game, they lean to thinking I'm not too small."

Langenderfer admits he probably is 5-foot-7 rather than the listed 5-foot-8 on the roster. But that doesn't take away from his tenacity and nasty demeanor on the turf. Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar refers to him as "our mini-Clay Matthews," comparing him to the Green Bay Packers' mercurial linebacker.

"He is an All-State football player, just a shorter body," Zvonar said. "He is as physical and aggressive and quick and ferocious as any football player we have had. His wrestling skills carry over to the football field. He sets the tone for our physicality on defense. He is our team leader on defense. He can come off the edge and rush the passer or he can drop into coverage. He is hard to block."

But there came a time last spring when Langenderfer had to make a difficult decision. Wrestling or football? He had won a state title in wrestling and had a scholarship offer from Illinois. Did he want to skip his senior year of football to concentrate on wrestling? Or would he try to win a state title in football with his friends?

"He was being pulled in a lot of directions in recruiting," Zvonar said. "It is tough for a multi-sport athlete when he is elite in one sport. He had to sort out his future after the state wrestling meet. In the spring, he wasn't sure what to do. But he signed for Illinois in wrestling and decided to complete his senior year in football. It was a happy ending to the story when he decided to finish out his football career with his friends and teammates."

Langenderfer started wrestling when he was 4 years old with the Orland Park Pioneers. His older brother was too big to play football at his age so he began wrestling and Kyle followed him around the mat.

"I loved wrestling, the one-on-one aspect," Kyle said. "It's just you on the mat. Sure, it's embarrassing if you get pinned. You win or lose by yourself. But there is no better feeling than pinning an opponent. You get out of it whatever you put in it. What you do is what you will get on the mat."

He placed sixth in the state at 125 as a freshman, second at 135 as a sophomore and won at 138 as a junior. As a senior, he likely will compete at 145. At Illinois, he could be a 149-pounder.

He started to play flag football in first grade, then tackle football in third grade with the Mokena Burros. He also played baseball and hockey. Why football?

"I was into contact sports in general. I liked the contact and the team aspect. And my dad coached me in fourth and fifth grade," he said.

"I liked the team aspect of football, more than wrestling. I was playing with my best friends. It was fun to play, flying around. I got better when I was in high school. I had more time with my friends. My friends and family went to Burros games. But in high school we had a chance to play in front of the school and the community and the state."

The challenge of competing against 300-pound offensive lineman was appealing to him. As a sophomore, he weighed 135 pounds at most. He "got landed on" by a big lineman. But he insists he never, ever has been "washed out, blown away or pushed around." And he hasn't been "landed on" since. He learned to play smart, utilize his speed and explosiveness, use his feet and hit and shed blocks.

"I learned from that experience. As a junior and senior, I didn't back down from anyone," he said.

Lincoln-Way East's 4-4 defense is testament to Langerderfer's resolve.

"We are aggressive and scrappy. Any position you put us in, we'll battle you, whatever you are trying to do. From defensive line to linebacker to defensive back, we have no weak link, no area to pick on," he said.

When the season began, he set some goals for himself and his team. "I wanted to be the best player I could. Being an All-Stater was a goal. I wanted to break the 100-tackle mark (he has 112). And I wanted a pick-six (return an interception for a touchdown). I haven't got one yet. I'll see if I can get one this week. But the biggest thing was the team championship," he said.

As he prepares for the trip to Champaign, he is trying to keep everything in perspective.

"It will be the last time I put on my football uniform. But I still have a job to do. I don't want to let my emotions take over. One thing is for sure: I'll keep a film of the game," he said.

"I've been on the varsity since I was a sophomore. In the last two years, we lost in the second round of the playoff. Last year was very disappointing. We thought we had a state championship team. So this season we wanted to have a rebirth of Lincoln-Way East football on offense and defense. We have sold out to do it. And here we are."

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With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”