Morton faces early season test

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Morton faces early season test

Rocco Balcaster, the leading scorer on Morton's unbeaten and unappreciated basketball team, was trying to be objective while sizing up his team's pluses as he prepared for Friday's West Suburban Gold showdown with highly rated Downers Grove South in Cicero.

"Our team is looking pretty good even though we haven't played much competition yet," the 6-7 senior said. "Our defense is strong. In four games, we have held all of our opponents under 40 points. That's our goal: to keep opponents under 40. And we want to keep doing our thing on offense--running motion sets and getting a lot of inside baskets."

Balcaster is used to winning at Morton, which isn't the way it used to be. Today's generation doesn't relate to former coaches Norm Ziebell, who produced two state championships in the 1930s and 1940s, or Jim Vopicka, who had winning teams in the 1950s. Morton was known as a baseball school with five state titles to show for it.

But current coach Tony Martinucci had only one losing season in his first 11 years. He is closing in on 200 victories in his career. His last four teams were 24-4, 23-6, 16-10 and 18-10.

"When I got here, basketball was serious. The varsity was 24-4 and we just tried to follow them, do what they did, fill their shoes," Balcaster said. "I was tempted to go to St. Patrick but I decided to stay at Morton. I wanted to get a good education and get out of the neighborhood but I stayed because of the basketball program and my older brother Joe was on the varsity and he encouraged me to stay. I'm glad I did."

That has been the key to Martinucci's success--keeping local kids at home. A Morton graduate of 1982, he learned his trade from coaches Tom Richardson at Nazareth and Gene Pingatore at St. Joseph. After serving as Morton's freshman coach for two years, he was promoted to the varsity.

"I always heard that you can't win at Morton. We were good in baseball and coming on in soccer but we could never win in basketball, I was told," Martinucci said. "No one remembered the good years with Ziebell and Vopicka, just the lean years in the 1980s and 1990s."

The problem was the most talented athletes went to St. Joseph in Westchester or Nazareth in La Grange Park or Fenwick in Oak Park, not Morton in Berwyn-Cicero.

"I had to change the attitude and stop losing kids," Martinucci said. "And I had to build some excitement in the program."

He did that. This year, for example, he promoted promising freshman Wiesner Perez to the varsity. The recipient of a national scholarship, he could have gone to any high school. But both of his brothers who are at Morton and Wiesner chose to stay at home.

"He will be very good, the best player we have had in a long time," the coach said.

Balcaster is the leader of the senior-dominated squad, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds per game. Other starters are 6-4 junior Walter Perez (17 ppg), 6-4 senior David Chatman (9 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-0 senior point guard Anthony Lewis (12 ppg, 4 assists) and 6-4 junior Rodrigo Nava (8 ppg).

Wiesner Perez, 5-10 sophomore Greg Carter and 5-10 senior Letech Lewis come off the bench.

"The bench is the key," Martinucci said. "How well will they play in big games? How well will the young kids handle the pressure in big games? Friday will be a measuring stick going into the Proviso West Holiday Tournament.

"This could be another 20-plus victory season. This team could be in a class with our 24-4 team. But we've toughened up the schedule. This is the toughest our conference has ever been with Proviso East, Downers Grove South, Morton and Hinsdale South. It could be the strongest conference outside the Chicago Public League."

That's the kind of challenge Balcaster and his teammates are looking forward to. The conference may be tough but they know the route through the regional, sectional and supersectional is even tougher.

"Our goal is to get Downstate," Balcaster said. "The regional and sectional are always tough and we know we will have to get past Simeon (in the supersectional) to get to Peoria."

"We have to be prepared. That's why we play about 200 games with each other in the summer. We are a big team with four starters who are 6-4 or bigger. We feel we have a rebounding edge. My role? Score the most points. Eighteen points per game is all right now. That's all the matters as long as we are winning."

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AP

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White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

White Sox willing to overlook 'rough' patches as healthy Carlos Rodon returns

The two fastballs that soared to the backstop on Wednesday night should give you a strong indication that Carlos Rodon was far from perfect.

But in making his first start of the 2017 season, the White Sox pitcher also offered his team plenty of signals that his health isn’t going to be an issue.

Rodon returned to the mound for the first time since last September and brought the goods that made him one of baseball’s top pitching prospects several years ago. Given he’d missed three months with bursitis in the left shoulder and the potential value he offers to a franchise only half a season into its first rebuild in 20 years, that was plenty for the White Sox to overlook the rust Rodon showed in a 12-3 White Sox loss to the New York Yankees at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“He started a little rough early obviously, got some high pitch counts,” manager Rick Renteria said. “And then he kind of settled down.

“Having him back in the rotation and getting him back out there on the big league field, coming out of there feeling good, healthy. I'm sure he will continue to get better as he continues to get out there and move forward.”

Renteria said he wasn’t surprised that Rodon struggled with his command as much as he did against the Yankees. The issues the pitcher displayed in uncorking a pair of wild pitches, walking six batters and throwing strikes on only 41 of 94 pitches were also present during Rodon’s four rehab starts in the minors.

But as long as the stuff was there, the White Sox would be OK with any issues that accompanied the performance. Rodon began to alleviate those concerns immediately when he earned a called strike on the game’s first pitch with a 93-mph fastball to Brett Gardner. Featuring a four-seamer with an absurd amount of movement and a nasty slider he struggled to control, Rodon checked all the boxes the White Sox hoped for from a pitcher they believe will be a frontline starter for years to come. Rodon also was pleased by how he felt before, during and after the contest.

“I was pretty excited,” Rodon said. “I was going a little fast in the first. But it was good to be out there. Next time out, it’ll hopefully be a little better. Arm feels good, body feels good, all you can ask for.”

Well, it’s not ALL you can ask for, but it’s pretty damn good out of the gate given how slow Rodon’s return took. His four-seam fastball averaged 94.9 mph according to BrooksBaseball.Net and touched 97 mph. His two-seamer averaged 94.4 mph and touched 95. And his slider, though he couldn’t control it, nor locate it for a strike, averaged 86 mph.

“You could see (Omar Narvaez) going over to try to catch some balls that were having tremendous run,” Renteria said. “That's (Rodon). He's got some tremendous life, he's just trying to harness it the best that he can and being able to execute where he wants to get as many strikes as possible.”

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The strikes were about the only thing Rodon didn’t bring with him. He walked Gardner to start the game and issued two more free passes after a Tim Anderson error allowed a run to score and extended the first inning. Rodon threw 37 pitches in the first, only 15 for strikes.

He also reached a full count to each of the batters he faced in the second inning. Rodon walked two more with two outs in the third inning after he’d retired six batters in a row.

And there were those pesky first-inning wild pitches that resembled something out of ‘Bull Durham.’

But all in all, Rodon and the White Sox ultimately saw enough in the first outing to be pleased.

“Great stuff, great life, but the goal is to put it in the zone and let them swing it to get guys out early,” Rodon said. “That’s not what happened. I’ll get back to that.”

“It’s a tough loss, but it’s better to be with the guys out on the field grinding than sitting on the couch and watching, for sure.”