Mount Carmel's Laurisch too good to be true

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Mount Carmel's Laurisch too good to be true

On the surface, Tyler (T.J.) Laurisch is simply too good to be true. But his academic test scores and his baseball statistics don't lie.

On the baseball field, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound senior is the leader of Mount Carmel's baseball team that was ranked No. 1 in the Chicago area prior to Saturday's 1-0 loss to St. Laurence. It snapped the Caravan's 23-game winning streak and spoiled its bid to become only the fourth unbeaten state champion in the 72-year history of the Illinois high school tournament.

Laurisch, a pitcher, third baseman and outfielder, bats third in the lineup and is hitting .375 with six doubles and 18 runs-batted-in. As his team's No. 1 starting pitcher, he is 8-1 with a 1.93 earned run average in 50 23 innings with 46 strikeouts and 12 walks.

In a year in which veteran observers claim there is no prohibitive favorite for Player of the Year recognition, as was the case in recent years, Laurisch has emerged as a worthy candidate. What other player has contributed so much to his team's success?

"He is a complete player," Mount Carmel coach Brian Hurry said. "He impacts our team more because of his role and the success he has in those roles. He is our No. 3 hitter, our No. 1 pitcher and plays three positions. Because of what he means to our team, he deserves to be considered for Player of the Year."

"Player of the Year? I don't think of myself as an individual, just part of the team, what the coach always preaches," Laurisch said. "But It would mean everything to me. To put up the numbers I have, it would mean that all the hard work we put in during the off-season is paying off."

In the classroom, Laurisch ranks No. 1 in the senior class. He scored 34 on the ACT, including a perfect score in math. On Tuesday, he will decide whether he will enroll at Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study mechanical engineering and play baseball.

"Harvard is Division I, MIT is Division III. Harvard has the edge there. But MIT is the top engineering school in the country," he said. "When it comes down to it, it will be about financial aid, who gives me the best deal. I would like to go to Harvard if they provide the money."

Laurisch has other things going for him. He is vice president of the student council and vice president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society. He also is a member of the mock trial team and the Scholastic Bowl team, all while finding time to study four hours after school and play soccer with his 13-year old sister Alexia.

"I've always been academically inclined. My parents stressed education first. Then I could go out and play sports," he said. "I was always encouraged to get straight A's. In high school, I've received nothing lower than an A-plus. My lowest grade was a B-plus in fifth grade social studies. I was disappointed. I knew the reason I got it was I didn't study enough and blew off a test. I told myself I wouldn't do it again.

"The trick is to stay focused. I set my sights on a goal and I won't let myself not achieve it. Since my freshman year, I wanted to be No. 1 in my class. Grades have always been important to me. As freshmen, everybody tried to get a feel for who was most competitive. I'm extremely competition in class and on the field."

He started playing baseball at age four. As a freshman, he played basketball and baseball, but he quickly realized that basketball conflicted with his work on the Scholastic Bowl team. So he pursued academics. He acknowledged that baseball was his best sport, something he couldn't give up.

"Baseball is different from other sports," he said. "I approach athletics like academics. You fail a lot in baseball, in hitting and pitching. You face a lot of adversity. You will go 0-for-5 or give up three runs in an inning. You have to be resilient. The big challenge is how you keep your composure when you strike out three times in a row."

According to Laurisch, losing last year to eventual state champion Lyons in the Class AA semifinals was a turning point. "We got hungrier. For the seniors, it was sad. As a junior, I knew I wouldn't do anything to prevent us from winning state this year. It's a result of all of us buying into what the coach preaches, ever since winter workouts. The only way we will win is if we work as a team," he said.

"Coming back from last year (he batted .390 and won seven of 10 decisions on the mound), I knew my pitching had to be more refined...more control and velocity, spotting my pitches, knowing when to throw my slider and fastball, knowing what to do in certain situations.

"As a hitter, I'm seeing the ball a lot better. Last year, I was leaning back too much. My weight transfer was off. This year I'm picking up pitches better out of the pitcher's hand."

Laurisch isn't the only one reason why Mount Carmel is 23-1 going into Monday's game at Loyola. He is one of seven very experienced players from last year's 34-9 squad. Others are first baseman Sam Kint, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound senior who is hitting .402 with 33 RBI; senior catcher Dan Pappas, who is hitting .349 with 14 RBI; and junior shortstop Jerry Houston, who is hitting .440 with 11 doubles, 22 RBI and 29 runs scored.

Kint set school records for homers and RBI's last year. Pappas, nephew of former Mount Carmel star and major leaguer Erik Pappas, is committed to West Virginia and described by Hurry as "the heart and soul of our team, our leader, the guy who controls the game."

Hurry, who has a record of 366-128 since becoming head coach in 2000, has developed the winningest program in the state over the last decade. This year's team is seeking a sixth sectional title since 2002. He qualified for the state quarterfinals in 2003 and lost to Lockport in the Class AA final in 2005.

He has produced six players who signed professional contracts and sent 60 players to college, over 20 to Division I programs. But he insists that Houston "can be the best player I have coached. He will be a pro prospect. Because of his overall talent and skills, he is our best player, our leadoff hitter, our catalyst on offense. He is a special talent," Hurry said.

Hurry, 38, a 1991 graduate of St. Francis de Sales, was a reserve middle infielder for legendary coach Gordie Gillespie's 1993 NAIA championship team at College of St. Francis.

While student teaching and coaching baseball at St. Francis de Sales in 1997, Hurry was looking for a social studies job and was told of an opening at Mount Carmel. He was offered a position there, as well as at Joliet Catholic. Living in Joliet at the time, he leaned to filling the vacancy at Joliet Catholic.

But he was told he would be head sophomore coach at Mount Carmel. "That was very important to me," he said. When Joliet Catholic didn't call back, he took the job at Mount Carmel. "The timing was right," he said.

Hurry inherited a very good program and a great athletic tradition to boot. In 13 seasons, his teams have averaged 29 victories per year. He also has a new field at 64th and Blackstone that he describes as "the best baseball facility in the state." And he has two able assistants who have been with him since the beginning, John Difilippo and Ish Jaquez.

"Potentially, this is the best team I have had," Hurry said. "We're off to the best start in school history. We have depth in talent and senior leadership, a lot of guys with a lot of experience. I haven't talked to our team about our record or the rankings. We just focus on the game that day.

"Sure, I want to win them all. It would have been very special to go down in history. But the most important thing is to win the last game of the season, even if we lost three or four games. Our goal always has been to win the last game, regardless of our record."

Mount Carmel hasn't dominated opponents. In fact, last week, the Caravan won four one-run decisions and they beat Brother Rice in extra innings. Then they lost 1-0 at St. Laurence on Saturday as Laurisch was outpitched by St. Laurence's Kevin Smith, who allowed only three hits.

"The nature of the sport of baseball is different than football or basketball," Hurry said.

"One pitcher can beat you. There are a lot of uncontrollables, unlike football and basketball. In baseball, you can do a lot of things right and still not have the results. I believe baseball is the hardest sport to win. You'll never see a baseball team win 10, 11 or 12 state championships like in football."

At the moment, he'll settle for one state title.

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

Swanigan's, Diallo's decisions and how it affects Bulls' NBA Draft

The deadline for underclassmen to pull their names out of the NBA Draft passed on Wednesday at midnight.

There were a few surprises, and a handful of decisions had an effect on how the Bulls will go about next month's draft.

Staying in the draft

Caleb Swangian, PF, Purdue: The sophomore All-American surprised many by keeping his name in the draft. Swanigan actually tested the waters after his freshman season but returned to the Boilermakers in 2016. He averaged 18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 35 games, earning Big Ten Player of the Year honors and was a National Player of the Year candidate. It's no secret the 6-foot-9 Swangian can score  - he had 15 games of 20 or more points - and showed some ability to shoot from deep, making nearly 45 percent of his 85 3-point attempts. Quickness and conditioning will be the real test for the 245-pound Swanigan, who has already lost significant weight since high school. Questions about his defense (he had just 27 steals and 36 blocks in two seasons) also stand out. With Nikola Mirotic's future in Chicago unknown, the Bulls could be in the market for depth at power forward. He wouldn't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14, but if he slides out of the first round he could be an option at No. 38.

D.J. Wilson, PF, Michigan: After averaging just 6.1 minutes as a sophomore, Wilson burst onto the scene as a junior, averaging 11.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30.4 minutes for the Wolverines. He did his best work during the postseason; during Michigan's Big Ten Championship run and Sweet 16 appearance, Wilson averaged 15.6 points on 54 percent shooting, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Standing 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wilson leaves some to be desired on the defensive end but has the ability to play as a combo forward - he had a 3-inch growth spurt after high school. Like Swanigan, Wilson won't be an option for the Bulls at No. 14 but could be a second-round option. He'd give the Bulls a similar look to what Bobby Portis does with a little more versatility on the wing.

Going back to college

Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky: The NBA Draft's biggest mystery could have been a home-run selection for the Bulls in the first round. Alas, Diallo has decided to play a year under John Calipari at Kentucky and likely boost his draft stock. Having not played since December, where he played at a prep academy in Connecticut, so there wasn't much film of the 6-foot-5 leaper. Still, after Thon Maker went No. 10 to the Bucks last year there was thought that a team would take a gamble on a high-upside mystery.

Andrew Jones, PG, Texas: There was little surprise that Jones, a five-star recruit who put together a solid freshman season, returned. He's still a bit raw as a prospect despite having elite size (6-foot-4) and solid athleticism, and another year running the point with incoming five-star recruit Mo Bomba could really improve his draft stock. The Bulls clearly have a need at the point (less if Rajon Rondo returns) and if Jones had made the leap he likely would have been around at No. 38. Even still, Jones is a player to keep an eye on during next year's draft, assuming Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant don't make significant improvements.

Moritz Wagner, PF, Michigan: There's a need on every NBA team for a stretch forward with 3-point potential. But those teams will have to wait at least another year after Wagner decided to return to Michigan for his junior season. Like Wilson, who kept his name in the draft, Wagner had an excellent postseason run for the Wolverines. That stretch included a 17-point effort against Minnesota and a career-high 26-point outing in a win over Louisville. He weighed in at just 231 pounds and only averaged 4.2 rebounds per game, so adding some strength to his game will help his draft prospect for next year. He could have been an option for the Bulls at No. 38.

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

White Sox: Jose Abreu's five-week tear filled with hard contact, fewer strikeouts

Jose Abreu has made quite a turnaround from being a guy who was admittedly lost to bashing the ball like Abreu of old.

From April 19th on, Abreu has hit at another level, reminiscent of the performances he put on throughout an eye-opening 2014 campaign in which he was the unanimous American League rookie of the year winner. Over that stretch, Abreu has slashed at an absurd .347/.404/.677 clip with nine doubles, one triple, 10 home runs and 22 RBIs in 136 plate appearances.

Earlier this week, Abreu said the run is the product of trusting his tireless preparation.

"I struggled in the first few weeks of the season but I kept working," Abreu said through an interpreter. "Now I'm at this point where I feel very good and confident with my offense and things are going well for me. That's part of what you work for and if you work hard, you know the results will be there at the end of the day."

Two numbers that have improved significantly during Abreu's five-week tear are his average exit velocity and strikeout rate.

Abreu entered Wednesday 39th in the the majors with an average exit velocity of 90.5 mph this season, according to Baseball Savant.

But Abreu wasn't hitting the ball nearly as hard early this season, which was littered with weak contact. Abreu stumbled out of the gate with a .157 average, one extra-base hit and only five RBIs in his first 54 plate appearances. Through the first two weeks, Abreu's average exit velocity was 89.0 mph on 31 batted-ball events, which was slightly down from last season's 89.6 mph average and significantly down from 2015, when he averaged 90.9 mph.

Since then, however, Abreu has seen a significant increase in hard contact. Over his last 92 batted-ball events, Abreu is averaging 92.6 mph, a total that would qualify for 15th in the majors this season. Included in that span is 35 balls hit 100 mph or more.

But Abreu's success isn't just related to how hard he has hit the ball. He's also made much better contact this season and is striking out less than ever. Abreu struck out 14 times in his first 54 plate appearances (25.9 percent). But since then, he has whiffed only 17 times in 136 plate appearances, good for a 12.5 percent strikeout rate.

His season K-rate of 16.3 percent, according to Fangraphs.com, is down from a career mark of 19.6 percent.

"You have started to see him heat up a little," manager Rick Renteria said earlier this week. "He's given us solid at-bats. He's in a good place right now."

Actually, it's a great place and one Abreu hasn't done with consistency since 2015. He once again looks like the hitting machine he was for most of his first two seasons and the final two months of 2016.

Abreu is on pace to hit 36 home runs this season, which would match his 2014 total. His current wRC+ of 138 is his highest since he finished 2014 at 167.

Last season, Abreu didn't hit his 10th home run until June 18. He hit his 11th homer on June 23 and then didn't hit another until August 4. That stretch raised myriad questions both inside the organization and externally about whether or not Abreu would return to prominence as a hitter. Perhaps inspired by the August arrival of his son, Dariel, Abreu finished 2016 with a flurry, hitting .340/.402/.572 with 14 home runs in his final 241 plate appearances.

General manager Rick Hahn said last September that the stretch was important for White Sox evaluators to see.

"It certainly makes you more confident as you see him over the last six weeks, projecting out that he's going to be that same player that he was for the first two years of his career," Hahn said. "Earlier, when he was scuffling, you looked at some of the things he was doing from his approach or some of the mechanical issues he might have been having and you felt confident he was going to be able to get back. But in all candor, you like seeing the performance match what you're projecting and we've certainly seen that over the last six weeks."

The White Sox offense has benefitted from Abreu's leap back into prominence. The team has averaged 4.53 runs per game this season and is 9th in the American League with 204 runs scored and 17th overall in the majors. But the increase in offense still hasn't helped the White Sox improve in the standings. While Abreu is glad to be on the roll he is, he'd prefer if his team is along for the ride.

"We're are passing through a tough moment, a rough stretch," Abreu said. "For me as I've always said the team is first. I want to thank God for how I've performed through this rough stretch. But it's not something makes me feel happy because we didn't win as many games as we wanted to win. It's tough."