Simeons march towards history begins Saturday

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Simeons march towards history begins Saturday

By Bryan Crawford
CSNChicago.com
Simeon has had no problem reinforcing basketball history lessons in recent years. And school will be in session for their opponents from Saturday until possibly March.
The question is: can Simeon keep acing the tests themselves?
The Wolverines kick off their 2012-13 season Saturday night at the Chicago Elite Classic (8 p.m. vs. Milton GA) at the UIC Pavilion. It will be the team's first step in a march towards history. The South Side powerhouse has won the last three 4A state championships. Should they win it all this year, they would become the first Chicago Public League team to win four consecutive Illinois state titles.
To say that the Simeon basketball program has bulls-eye on their collective backs is an understatement. Like any elite squad with a strong tradition of winning, no matter who they play, theyll get every opponents best game. But given what theyre trying to achieve this season, opposing squads are going to come at them even harder and do whatever they can to keep the Wolverines from accomplishing their goals.
It will be an uphill climb and a tough road, for sure, but Simeon appears to be ready for the challenge. 
This years Wolverine squad is not just senior-heavy, theyre also deep. Led by All-American Jabari Parker and fellow senior standouts Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Kendall Pollard and Ricky Norris, all of these players have tasted the ultimate victory of being the last team standing in Peoria. Each player is not only hungry to get back there, but they want to achieve an even greater goal in the process.
We want to make history by winning a city championship, another state championship and also a national championship, said Ricky Norris after a recent practice. But at the end of the day we know that we have to go out there and play just like every other team. So were just going to play hard and try to get it done.
We know what were trying to do, but we dont really talk about it that much, point guard Jaylon Tate, a University of Illinois commit, said. We just want to go out there and play each game game by game and just win. Well let everything else just fall into place. But the main goal is to win state and it would be real good to make history, too.
Saturdays contest will be Simeons first game of the season while their opponent, Milton High School (GA), already has five games under its belt. But Wolverines head coach Robert Smith isnt too concerned about his squad not having played any official games yet, and has complete confidence in his groups ability to play hard and, most importantly, win.
With this being our first game of the season, its huge for us to get off to a good start, Smith said. Milton will probably be in a little bit better rhythm that well be in since theyve played a few more games than we have, but I have a lot of confidence in these guys. I know how badly they want to get to where they want to go, so I think well pull out the victory.
Kendrick Nunn, who will join Jaylon Tate at the University of Illinois next year, echoed his coachs sentiment. 
Its definitely going to take us a little while to get our rhythm because itll be our first game, opined Nunn. We just have to get all of the jitters out. But when we do, well be fine.
Unfortunately for Simeon and for those attending the Classic as well missing in action on Saturday night will be their superstar, Parker. The senior is still sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and has yet to be cleared by doctors to play. 
His teammates know what he brings to the team on the court, but being forced to play this weekend without him doesnt bother them one bit. Theyre a confident bunch and believe they can still win with Jabari cheering them on from the sideline.
Its not going to be tough playing without Jabari. Were used to it we played without him all summer, said senior Kendall Pollard whos committed to play his college ball at Dayton next season. But hell be on the bench to cheer us on, so itll be good to seem him there.
Said Tate, Jabari is a really good player and hes a really big help for our team. But we have other good guys on this team, too. Having Jabari is definitely a big plus, but without him, weve still got guys that can step up. Its going to show just how deep we are as a team.

Jose Abreu ready for 2017 after season full of 'different challenges'

Jose Abreu ready for 2017 after season full of 'different challenges'

GLENDALE, Ariz. — A torrid two months at the plate helped Jose Abreu end what he found to be an extremely trying 2016 season with numbers close to his career norms.

But even though he finished with an .820 OPS and 100 RBIs for a third straight season, Abreu admits that 2016 was a season unlike any other he'd faced.

While he didn't disclose any theories for the cause of his lengthy struggles, the White Sox first baseman said Sunday he's pleased to have finished on a positive note and thinks that rebounding from those difficulties will only make him stronger. Abreu — who hit .293/.353/.468 with 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in 695 plate appearances — is also a fan of new White Sox manager Rick Renteria and is equally impressed with the prospects the club acquired this winter.

"Yes, those were different challenges, especially in my mind," Abreu said through an interpreter. "I never in my life experienced some of the kind of struggles like I did last year. But that put me in a better position as a player, as a person too. I'm in a better position now for this season because I learned from the experience."

In spite of his struggles, Abreu was still a league average player through the first four months of the season. But the 2014 All-Star hardly resembled the player who produced a 153 OPS-plus over his first two seasons. His timing was off and Abreu — hitting .269/.325/.413 with 11 homers and 56 RBIs through July 30 — wasn't driving the ball as he typically had in his first two seasons, when he smacked 66 homers.

Abreu was lost at the plate and nobody could figure out why.

But after the arrival of his son, Dariel, who visited him for the first time since he moved to the United States, Abreu took off. He hit .338/.402/.568 the rest of the season with 14 homers and 44 RBIs in 249 trips to the plate.

"Right after last season ended, I had my meeting at my house with my family, just to explain to them how the season was because they know about baseball," Abreu said. "But sometimes they can't register how the process is in a season as long as the major league season is. We talked about it. I explained to them all of the challenges, the problems I had during that season. Once we ended with that meeting, last season was in the past. We moved on and we were trying just to figure out things and how can I do better for this season."

Now in his fourth season in the majors, Abreu has a firm grasp on how the White Sox operate and likes some of the team's modifications. He likes how Renteria thoroughly communicates what he has in mind for the club. Abreu also enjoys being seen as one of the team's leaders and wouldn't mind being a mentor to prized prospect Yoan Moncada.

Now he hopes to carry over his strong finish to the start of the 2017 campaign.

"I'm working on it," Abreu said. "That's one of my goals. Everybody knows that at the beginning of last season, I wasn't performing good. It was kind of a surprise for me, too. But I'm in good shape right now and I believe I will be able to succeed."

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

After playoff bullpen issues, Cubs again see Pedro Strop as a late-game force

MESA, Ariz. – Inside Wrigley Field’s state-of-the-art clubhouse, the Cubs posted a blown-up image of the 2015 Sports Illustrated cover where Pedro Strop is high-stepping next to Kris Bryant down the third-base line, the mosh pit awaiting at home plate.

Between his tilted-hat look, chest-pounding celebrations and overall joy for the game, Strop sets an example for the younger guys in the bullpen and the Latin players in the clubhouse. Strop has been so valuable that Jake Arrieta could have never thrown a pitch in a Cubs uniform and Theo Epstein’s front office still would have considered the Scott Feldman trade with the Baltimore Orioles an absolute success.  

Yet when the long rebuild reached its apex – and manager Joe Maddon searched for World Series answers – Strop had already been marginalized in the bullpen. A freak injury – Strop heard a pop and tore the meniscus in his left knee while trying to slide and field a groundball in August – bumped him from his role as the seventh- or eighth-inning stopper.  

“It was a little difficult,” Strop said. “After I came back from my surgery, it was a different situation. But it’s something that you got to get used to and understand the situation, understand how deep our bullpen is and just go and fight whenever they ask you to.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal.”  

During Sunday’s media session, Maddon dismissed any issues with Strop (2.85 ERA) or Hector Rondon, the former 30-save closer who strained his right triceps last summer and didn’t quite get his timing down for the playoffs. Down 3-1 in the World Series, Maddon summoned Aroldis Chapman to throw 97 pitches combined in Games 5, 6 and 7 against the Cleveland Indians.

“Listen, it’s not a lack of trust,” Maddon said. “(Strop) just got hurt. And when you get hurt like that at that time of the year, it’s hard to play catch-up. When guys get injured in-season and you get to the moment where you’re trying to win a championship, you got to put like personal feelings aside on both sides of it, whether you’re managing it or playing.

“I have nothing but trust. My God, the threat is when you have him, you want to use him too much, always. And the same thing with Ronnie. I talked to Ronnie about that – I don’t want to put him in a position. I think Rondon got hurt last year because part of it was my greediness on using him too much in the early part of the season.

“You really have to battle against that when you get guys that good. You want to use them all the time. (I have) a tremendous amount of trust in both of those guys. It’s just a matter of utilizing them properly and keeping them healthy.”

[MORE: What Joe Maddon wants to see next from Javier Baez]

Since the middle of the 2013 season, Strop has notched 84 holds for the Cubs, putting up a 2.68 ERA and a 0.984 WHIP to go with 254 strikeouts in 211-plus innings. At a time when a $10 billion industry is reassessing the value of high-leverage relievers, Strop will make $5.5 million this year before hitting the open market.

“You never know,” Strop said. “I would love to repeat the championship season and win another one here before I hit free agency. Hopefully, they want to bring me back. I really like the city of Chicago. I love the fans and I love my team and the coaches.

“After this season, it’s going to become business, so hopefully we can put something together.”