North Shore Country Day makes history

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North Shore Country Day makes history

It is a long trip from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Houston, Texas, to Winnetka, Ill. But Rashid Smith made it without a hitch. In his second year as head coach at North Shore Country Day, he still has some unfinished business.

Basketball never has been a major topic of discussion at the small and elite private school. Football records date to the school's founding in 1919 but the only basketball record of note is a regional championship in 2011.

Smith is anxious to re-write history. North Shore Country Day is 17-4 going into Tuesday's Class 1A supersectional against Sterling Newman, has won its first conference championship in 40 years and its first sectional in history. "There is a gap in the records," he said.

The Raiders, who were 17-7 last year but lost to Hope Academy in the sectional semifinal, avenged that loss on Friday night by overwhelming the team that was favored to win the Class 1A title this season, Hope Academy, 70-56. Jake Bruce scored 27 points and Austen Curren had 23.

"I'm 30 years old but I'm not surprised by anything at this point," Smith said. "They are playing unselfishly and hard and smart. If you do those three things, you give yourself a chance to win. I wasn't surprised about winning the regional and sectional.

"But what impressed me was after we won the regional they didn't celebrate. They shook the other team's hand and walked off the court. In the first game of the sectional, they did the same thing. One kid said: 'I don't want to lose without playing our best basketball.' They still feel we haven't played our best basketball. I was impressed that 16- and 17- and 18-year-old kids have that mindset."

Hey, the Raiders could be unbeaten. They lost to Christian Liberty by two, Chicago Latin by two, Chicago University High by two in overtime and Northridge Prep by two in overtime.

"But the losses helped us," Smith said. "They forced us to do some self-reflecting and make corrections and improvements. We are a smarter team, more patient on offense. We take better shots and we are more dynamic. In the beginning of the year, zone defense and pressure hurt us. But now our guards do a good job of handling pressure. And our ball movement is much crisper now."

Smith knows how to win. At Peabody Magnet High School in Alexandria, La., he led his team to a state championship. He was All-State and MVP in the state tournament. In three years, his teams lost only 10 games. He earned a scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas.

At Rice, a couple of his teammates were from Northbrook, Illinois. They started a basketball training company and Smith joined them. Along the way, he connected with coaches and athletes on the North Shore. One of his college teammates was Omar Mance, who preceded him as head coach at North Shore Country Day, When Mance left to become an assistant at Army, Smith succeeded him.

Smith inherited three returning starters from last year's squad. Curren, a 6-foot-3 junior, averages 17.5 points and six rebounds per game. He was an all-conference selection last year. Bruce, a 6'2" senior guard, averages 13.5 points and four steals.

Other starters are 6-foot-5 junior Ryan Hall (14 ppg, 11 rpg) and 5-foot-9 junior point guard Jamie Swimmer who contributes five assists per game and scored 15 points against Hope Academy. Both were all-conference selections a year ago.

The other starting spot is split between 6'2" junior Flores Hondmann and 6-foot junior Tim Morette. They combine for 11 points and five rebounds between them.

Smith thinks North Shore Country Day isn't given much respect because the Independent League, which also includes University High and Francis Parker and Chicago Latin, isn't considered a very competitive conference. But Smith believes his team's victory over highly rated Hope Academy should send a message to critics.

"I feel our conference is good," Smith said. "University High is a Class 3A school. We weren't intimidated by Hope Academy. We play quick, athletic teams in our conference, schools that are in Class 2A and 3A. We've seen everything.

"These kids are typical of North Shore kids. They are hard working, very competitive, good spirit, high energy.

"They haven't had a game where they have felt that everybody has played up to their potential. We can click better than we are doing. I could tell by the way they approached and prepared for the sectional that they still have a lot of basketball left to play.

"Some of the kids on this team I have known since fifth and sixth grade. I worked with them at our training center. I knew it wasn't like Peabody (North Shore's enrollment is only 220). But I knew the players. Give me a kid who goes to North Shore to play basketball, who is a decent player, not developed, but has potential, and he will develop. He might might be a super star as a ninth or 10th grader but he will grow and reach his potential."

Fire putting finishing touches on roster as season nears

Fire putting finishing touches on roster as season nears

The preseason has finished and it's officially a match week for the Chicago Fire.

The Fire, which travel to Columbus on Saturday for the season opener, returned from preseason training in Florida on Sunday and began the team's first full day back in Chicago with the team's annual kickoff luncheon on Monday. The team's players, coaches and staff interact with fans and the media ahead of the upcoming season.

Two players, UNC-Charlotte products Brandt Bronico and Matej Dekovic, were introduced to the audience a couple hours before the club announced the two 2017 draft picks had signed contracts. Bronico, a central midfielder drafted in the third round, and Dekovic, a center back/left back taken in the fourth round, both signed one-year deals with club options for the following three years.

Dekovic could add some much needed depth in central defense, but is a logical candidate to go out on loan to USL affiliate Tulsa. Dekovic, 23, is Croatian and counts as an international player even though he played three years collegiately with the 49ers. The Fire have nine international players on the roster with eight slots for them. The Fire could trade for an international slot, but if Dekovic goes out on loan he won't count against that number. Coach Veljko Paunovic was asked about potential outgoing loans, but didn't give specifics other than to say they have "made some decisions" and "are still working on that."

Bronico and Dekovic don't figure to play major roles this season, but there could still be more moves ahead. The lone trialist in the final week of the Fire's training camp, former Columbus Crew defender Chad Barson, was not retained. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said Ryan Taylor will be the latest right back to join the Fire on trial. Taylor, 32, made 55 English Premier League appearances with Wigan Athletic from 2005-2009 and 61 more with Newcastle United from 2009-2015. This season he has made 12 appearances for Port Vale in England's third tier, the most recent of which on Jan. 20 when he scored a penalty kick.

 

"Ryan Taylor will join us this week," Rodriguez said. "He's a very experienced player, he plays a lot of different positions, which we like. We like that versatility. We love the attitude that he's expressed towards coming on trial, which is not easy for an accomplished player. We'll look at him this week, maybe look at him for two weeks. I don't know how long it will take, but he is an option for us."

The Englishman would also take up an international slot.

A potentially bigger move is the one Rodriguez hinted at regarding a third designated player. Currently, David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic are the Fire's two DPs, meaning one more DP spot is available.

"We have the latitude, we have the cap space, the budget space and the resources within MLS and within our ownership to add another DP," Rodriguez said. "We've looked at a few players. Two of the players that we had on our list, we didn't make offers for so I want to be clear the two players we were tracking, one signed in Mexico with a big club in Mexico and one went to China for big money so they're off our list.

"There are still two players that we're tracking. I think as we get deeper into the start of the season, even though the first window is open, it's tougher. I would say we would likely look at the summer, or, as we did last year, forego the summer and concentrate on January. I still think it's hard to integrate players midseason."

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.

He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.

When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.

The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.

"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."

It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.

The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.

"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."

Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.

"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."

Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.

"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."

Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.

"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."