Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

652102.png

Naperville North's goal: "Shock Everyone"

Kyle Lindberg was one of the leading soccer players in Illinois for the last two years. The midfielder led Naperville North to fourth place in the state tournament in 2010 and to the sectional final last fall. He landed a scholarship to Illinois-Chicago.

But Lindberg has been playing basketball as long as he has been playing soccer--and almost as well. The 6-foot-2 senior is the defensive stopper on a 13-4 team that has scrapped its way to the top of the DuPage Valley League standings. Who woulda thunk it?

"I like playing both sports but I consider myself better at soccer. I have been playing at a high level for years, traveling teams and AAU," Lindberg said. "Naperville North isn't known as a basketball school. Our motivation this season is to shock everyone."

That's what coach Jeff Powers' team is doing. The Huskies haven't won a conference championship in 14 years and never have advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. In 14 years, coach Dick Whitaker won only one regional title. Coach Mark Lindo won two sectional titles. He was 25-4 in 1994 and 26-3 in 1998. Last year's team was 16-12, losing to highly rated Benet in the regional final in double overtime.

Naperville North, which defeated Rich Central 64-59 on Tuesday night, is used to winning close games. But the Huskies aren't overpowering, have a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts, no one is averaging more than nine points per game and their leading rebounder is 6-foot-2.

"How good are we? Good enough to be 13-4," Powers said. "We're a bunch of guards, only two forwards. We play well and hard together. We have learned how to win close games. It is surprising to everyone that we are in first place in the conference--except to the 16 kids on the team and the four coaches.

"We found out in the summer that they can play well when they play together. They share the ball and play hard on defense. On any given day, any kid can get hot. We shoot well from the three-point line and from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.

"Our kids have an edge to them. They felt everyone overlooked them. They were picked to finish sixth in an eight-team race. But they worked hard in the weight room and shot a lot on their own. They wanted to prove to everyone that they were as good as the past two teams. No one believed in them but themselves and the coaches."

What convinced them? When did they begin to open some eyes?

On Dec. 6, when they defeated Benet by four points. "They learned they can win close games. They believed in the scouting report and executed the plan," Powers said.

Also when they demonstrated they could be competitive against the best teams at the York Holiday Tournament. And when they defeated Glenbard East and West Aurora back-to-back.

"That's what really convinced them," Powers said. "They stepped up a level. They knew they could do it. They knew something neat is happening here."

Lindberg and his teammates were excited and driven by the transformation. Naperville North is known as a football school. Coach Larry McKeon, who retired in 2010, won 231 games or 76 percent of his games in 27 years and won state championships in 1992 and 2007.

Now perhaps it is basketball's turn.

"We knew we were losing a lot of players from last year. We knew we had to step up our game to be anywhere near that level. And we don't have a star player like Matt LaCosse last year," Lindberg said.

"But this team has more balance. It is unselfish, works hard and plays together. There are no egos. Personally, in the summer, I was surprised how well we played and how fast we came together. But now I'm not surprised because we are used to it. People are getting behind us."

Lindberg averages only six points per game but Powers describes him as "one of our stars, the key to the defense, our stopper, the guy who plays against the best player on the other team, the one who runs the team on offense."

Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Matt Stacho (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 assists), another relentless defender who covers opposing point guards and scored 16 points in a four-point, triple overtime victory over Naperville Central; 6-foot-5 senior Mike Keane (7 ppg, 5 rpg); 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Derek Westman (6 ppg, 8 rpg), who grabbed 12 rebounds against Naperville Central and 11 in a two-point victory over Danville; and 6-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Rehayem (4 ppg).

Powers describes Westman as "200 pounds of I'll get the ball wherever it is at." He was a guard on the sophomore team last season and also plays tennis.

Surprisingly, the team's leading scorer comes off the bench. Davis Sinikas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, averages 9.7 points per game. An outstanding three-point shooter, he has started more than half the games but needs to improve his defense. Chris Mullin, a 5-foot-11 senior, averages seven points.

Powers, in his third season, is a 1976 graduate of Reavis. He attended George Williams College in Downers Grove but, as the oldest of six children, had to give up basketball after one year to go to work while going to class.

He coached baseball at Hinsdale Central for five years, basketball for one year at Reavis and York, then was hired as basketball coach at Timothy Christian in 1996. He resigned after 11 years and was going back to officiating, which was how he made ends meet since he was a sophomore in college, when he got a call from then York coach Al Biancalana.

He assisted Biancalana for one year, then applied for the Naperville North job when Mark Lindo retired. Was he surprised to get the job? No, because he felt he had built a good reputation at Timothy Christian. Yes, because he hadn't been a head coach for a year. In his first season, the Huskies were 20-7 and lost to West Aurora in the regional final.

"We talk about learning every day, what we have to do to get better," Powers said. "We turn the ball over too much. To win, we have to move the ball from side to side. We are notoriously slow starters. We have to get going at the start of games. I have done all kinds of pep talks. We fell behind Naperville Central 10-0 in the first four minutes and trailed Danville by seven in the first quarter. We have to work on that. We can't do that against good teams in the state tournament."

It is a tiresome clich but Lindberg reminds that the team has an attitude of taking each game as it comes and not looking too far ahead. "That's how we have succeeded so far, being humble," he said.

Lindberg points to the play of Keane, Westman and 6-foot-4 senior reserve Max Lewis under the boards. "We knew we had good shooters and ball-handlers but we are surprised that our post presence has helped us to win games," he said.

"Not many people have taken us seriously. Being picked to finish sixth in the conference motivated us. There is no pressure. We can play loose."

Cubs' bats go silent in shutout loss to Marlins

cubs.jpg
USA TODAY

Cubs' bats go silent in shutout loss to Marlins

MIAMI – This is a 37-36 team dealing with injuries near the front of the rotation (Kyle Hendricks), the middle of the lineup (Ben Zobrist) and the heart of the defense (Jason Heyward) while a World Series legend (Kyle Schwarber) gets a few days to clear his head before reporting to Triple-A Iowa.

The Cubs are the defending champs, but they really don’t have much of an identity beyond that, unsure what they’re going to get from one night to the next and still searching for that sense of rhythm 45 percent into the season.

Friday’s 2-0 loss to the Miami Marlins followed a familiar pattern for a team that’s been at the .500 mark at 15 different points this season and has been shut out six times already. 

Pitching and defense became the backbone for a World Series team, but the Marlins needed only three hits to score two runs (one earned). John Lackey gave up his 21st home run – he allowed 23 in almost 190 innings last year – in the third inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched an 83-mph pitch 458 feet beyond Marlins Park’s garish pink-flamingos-and-palm-trees sculpture.   

The night after blitzing Miami and scoring 11 runs, the Cubs managed only six hits against right-hander Jose Urena and three different relievers. 

Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

Joe Maddon on Ian Happ: ‘Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen’

MIAMI – The Cubs factored Ian Happ into their preseason plans, hoping he could give the team a shot of adrenaline at some point and play well enough to be marketed as a trade chip in a blockbuster deal for pitching.

But the Cubs couldn’t have projected this for late June: Happ batting third behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the switch-hitting presence and middle-of-the-order force needed with Ben Zobrist on the disabled list and Kyle Schwarber about to get a mental reset at Triple-A Iowa.

“Pound for pound, man, he’s got as good a power as I’ve seen, when you look at the size and how far the ball goes,” manager Joe Maddon said Friday at Marlins Park. “It’s a unique combination of size and strength. You normally see a bigger guy with that kind of juice."

Happ (6-foot, 205 pounds) also patrolled right field that night – one of four different positions the rookie has handled so far – with Gold Glove defender Jason Heyward also on the disabled list and the Cubs in scramble mode.

The Schwarber demotion is a reminder of how hard this game is, how quickly it can spin out of control and how small sample sizes can be misleading, even on the biggest stages against some of the best pitchers on the planet.

But check out Happ’s first six weeks in The Show projected as a 162-game average on Baseball-Reference.com: 46 homers, 97 RBI, .916 OPS and 199 strikeouts.

“He’s just really interesting,” Maddon said. “Now you’re seeing him hit better from the right side, too, which is really going to matter. That really makes him a threat. You put him in the lineup based on that.”

The shorthanded Cubs have needed Happ – at the age of 22 – to protect Bryzzo Souvenir Co., add another layer of Zobrist versatility and learn it all on the fly for a team with World Series expectations.

“He’s pretty self-confident,” Maddon said. “There’s times I can tell when it’s beating him up a little bit when he goes through some of those funks where maybe he’s chasing pitches out of the zone. But he seems to rebound very quickly. Strong-minded. Strong-willed. Very confident individual.”

[MORE CUBS: Cubs hopeful Kyle Hendricks returns before All-Star break]

Two weeks into Happ’s big-league career, Maddon got questions about how long the Cubs will be patient and what they would need to see out of him before thinking about a return trip to Des Moines.

Though Happ was hitting .207 as recently as last week, his average has jumped roughly 40 points. He’s homered eight times in his last 13 starts. Fifteen of his 21 RBI have come with two outs. His OPS hasn’t fallen below .741 at any point this season.

“That’s adjusting,” Maddon said. “You get here, nobody really knows you, they throw you pitches, you hit ‘em well. And all of a sudden, you stop seeing those pitches. You’re not going to see them again until you stop swinging at the stuff that they want you to swing at.

“He’s done a pretty good job of laying off the bad stuff. That’s why it’s coming back to him. He’s really reorganized the strike zone here.”

That whole process sped up on Schwarber, who lost the swagger and the ability to crush fastballs that made him such a dangerous hitter. Happ doesn’t have it all figured out, but by the look on his face and the sound of his voice, you would have no idea whether or not he’s hitting. 

“Unbelievable guy,” said Happ, who’s tight with Schwarber. “He’ll go down, rake, be back soon and do what he’s capable of doing, which is hitting the ball hard all over the ballpark. He’s done it his whole life. And he’ll continue to do it.”