Rochester seeks 3rd title in a row

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Rochester seeks 3rd title in a row

Rochester coach Derek Leonard had hoped that he and his father Ken, the longtime coach at Sacred Heart-Griffin in Springfield, would qualify for the state finals. "It would have been a lot of fun but it didn't happen," Derek said.

Last Saturday, his father's team lost to Morris in the semifinals. Last year, the elder Leonard lost to Joliet Catholic in the semifinals. The year before, he lost in the quarterfinals. Derek won state championships in 2010 and 2011 and is seeking another against Rock Island Alleman in the Class 4A final on Friday in Champaign.

"We've been lucky and we've been blessed," Derek said. "It's all about hard work. The kids want to be like the kids ahead of them. The interesting thing is Rochester only has had football since 1998. A lot of these parents never played football. They never had a program."

Leonard, 31, in his eighth year as head coach at Rochester, is a graduate of Sacred Heart-Griffin. He played for his father. After attending Illinois College, he coached at Prairie Central in Fairbury for two years, then became head coach at Rochester.

"Being in a position to win three state titles in a row is pretty cool," he said. "I never would have dreamed of that when I became head coach eight years ago. This is awesome. It speaks about the coaching staff, the hard work of the players, the community and the youth football program.

"To make it to this level three times and the semifinals the year before that means you have to be clicking on all cylinders, not just one element. And being a small public school (enrollment: 670), it's something everybody can be proud of."

How good is this team? Leonard admits his 2010 squad, headed by quarterback Wes Lunt, wide receiver Zach Grant and running back Colton Glazebrook, was his dream team. "They were a once-in-a-lifetime team, so much talent. They went 14-0 and could have beaten any team in any class," he said.

"Last year caught me off guard. We won in a different way. We had an average defense but got hot offensively at the right time. This team reminds me of two years ago. It has a lot better defense than last year and more balance on offense."

Rochester, which is 51-3 in four years under Leonard, has won 11 games in a row since dropping a 29-26 to Sacred Heart-Griffin in Week 2. The Rockets, who are averaging 41.6 points per game, crushed Harrisburg last Saturday 49-22, scoring on seven of their first eight possessions to build a 49-0 lead at halftime.

Offensively, Rochester is led by quarterback Austin Green and running back Garrett Dooley. Green, who is committed to Eastern Illinois, has passed for 2,800 yards and 25 touchdowns while completing 70 percent of his passes. He also has rushed for 900 yards in a spread option offense.

Dooley, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder who is committed to play linebacker at Wisconsin, has rushed for 1,400 yards and 30 touchdowns. And receiver Blake Pasley has caught 75 for 1,100 yards.

"Last year, Lunt (now at Oklahoma State) would kill you with the pass," Leonard said. "But Austin can beat you with his legs and arms. It makes it more difficult to defend our offense. We were more one-dimensional last year."

Defensively, Dooley and 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior linebacker Reed Watson anchor the 4-4 alignment. Drake Leeper, a 6-foot-1, 250-pounder, is Rochester's best lineman on both sides of the ball.

Leonard scouted Rock Island Allman on Saturday night in its 23-7 victory at Evergreen Park. Two years ago, Rochester defeated Alleman 24-7 for the Class 4A title. "We know what they do and they know what we do. We must stop their option, their run, and make them pass. If they just run on you, you're in big trouble," he said.

Rock Island Alleman (12-1), which lost only to Rock Island 10-7 on a last-second field goal, is a defense-minded team that has allowed only 116 points. The Pioneers, led by Chad Weatherell, John Tracey, Tom Noe, Ben West, Scott Schilb and Adam Hoogerwerf, have permitted no more than one touchdown in nine games.

"We have a good tackling team," said coach Dave DeJaegher, who is 34-4 in the last three years and produced state runner-ups in 2005 and 2010. "We run a 5-2 defense. That's what we've always done. We've stuck with it. It's what I know how to coach, what I am comfortable teaching.

"We won't blow anyone away with statistics but we like to mix it up. It's a fun group to coach. They came in determined after losing a heart-breaker (19-18 to Evergreen Park in the second round) last year. They came in with an attitude to have a good senior year. Everybody steps up at different times."

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Jimmy Butler trade presents more questions for futures of Nikola Mirotic, Dwyane Wade, Rajon Rondo

Lauri Markkanenn will be a Chicago Bull once the trade between the Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves is finalized sometime Friday when the trade call is sent to the NBA, as he’s the first domino to fall in what could be an interesting offseason to come.

A stretch-shooting big man from Arizona who shot 42 percent from 3 last season, Markkanenn is a native of Finland who’s more of an offensive threat rather than a defender and rebounder at seven-feet tall. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds for Arizona and has been regarded by many scouts as the best shooter in the draft.

With the Bulls bringing up the rear in that category, one assumes he’ll add a level of versatility if he can see the floor—which brings the Bulls to some offseason decisions they’ll have to make once free agency begins and even before. Markkanenn conceivably brings Nikola Mirotic’s future into question, as Mirotic is a restricted free agent this summer and Mirotic was on the trade block by the Bulls for the better part of last season as he had an underwhelming year trying to fill the role of a stretch-shooting big man.

But officials with the Bulls say Mirotic is still a priority for the Bulls and because he’s restricted, they control the process of his free agency. Mirotic shot 41.3 percent and averaged 10.6 points and 5.5 rebounds, as the Bulls still consider him an asset for the present and future as they’ll play a new style of basketball next season.

One would think Mirotic will command a salary at least around $10 million as the NBA’s salary cap will balloon to $99 million with a luxury tax line of around $119 million.

Rajon Rondo’s future has yet to be decided, as the Bulls acquired a point guard in Kris Dunn they’ve long eyed and presumably one they feel will be their future at the position.

Bulls officials stated they’ll wait until next week before making a decision on Rondo, but one wonders if they’ll go full youth movement, especially with wanting Dunn to succeed after a rocky rookie year in Minnesota and already having Jerian Grant and Cameron Payne under contract for next season.

Rondo has a $3 million buyout the Bulls can exercise that will make Rondo a free agent or they’ll pay Rondo $13.3 million next season.

[MORE: After trading Jimmy Butler, Bulls select Lauri Markkanen] 

And then there’s Dwyane Wade, who opted in to his deal of $23.8 million for next season. Wade came to Chicago for a number of reasons, notably the salary and chance to play with Butler. With Butler gone and the Bulls changing their direction of the franchise, one wonders how Wade sees himself next season and how the Bulls see Wade with their young players.

Unless Wade wants out, the Bulls are headed into the free agency period thinking he’ll be back next season, and considering the Bulls have to spend up to 90 percent of their salary cap, his money helps them keep their books afloat, even as Butler’s affordable max salary exits and the controlled rookie-scale salaries of LaVine, Dunn and Merkkanenn enter Chicago for a future unknown