Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY

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Whitney Young's Harper could be Prep POTY

How good is Whitney Young's Linnae Harper?

There are five female finalists for the Dr. James Naismith Prep Player of the Year Award for 2012. Four of them are seniors. Harper is the only junior.

Since the male and female awards were first presented in 1987, only one Chicago area player has been honored. Naperville Central's Candace Parker won in 2003 and 2004.

Now Harper, a 5-foot-7 guard, is being touted as the No. 1 player in the nation in the girls' class of 2013. Just as Simeon's Jabari Parker is being acclaimed as the nation's No. 1 player in the boys' class of 2013.

Would you believe they used to be teammates?

Linnae and Jabari were classmates from first through eighth grades. In eighth grade, they played together on a black elementary school team that almost won a city championship. But Linnae was forced to play in two tournaments in one day, one for girls and one for boys.

"I had a girls tournament at Montini in Lombard. Then I went to the boys tournament at Whitney Young," she recalled. "We were behind 28-9 when I got there. We were playing Beasley, the No. 1 team in the city, with Tommy Hamilton. I did whatever I could do to get us back in the game. We lost by three points."

Competing against boys is what toughened her resolve, sharpened her skills and gave her an edge. Her mother wanted her to be a dancer but it wasn't a fit for her. At 6, she decided she liked basketball. In those days, there was only one way to play the game.

"I used to watch the boys play at Avalon Park. I went there every day after school. When I was little, there were no girls teams around. I had to play with the boys or I couldn't play at all," she said.

"Playing with the boys taught me how to play the game, how to become a better player. Then when I played with the girls, it eased the pressure on me. At first, the boys didn't care if I was there and didn't guard me. But then they realized I had an impact on my team."

Harper has had an impact ever since. She had 14 points and 14 rebounds as Whitney Young defeated Edwardsville 63-51 for the Class 4A championship. The Dolphins (34-0) became the first large school to complete an unbeaten season since Peoria Richwoods in 2005.

"She does a lot of things. She isn't one-dimensional. She can score, rebound, defend, pass and steal. She fills an entire stat sheet. No guard in the country in her class can do that," said Whitney Young coach Corry Irvin.

"She is so physically strong. She can post and rebound. Her 15-foot range game is better than anyone else. She will figure out a way to get anything done the team needs to win, something that is very rare."

For the record, Harper averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals per game. With a year to play -- and to get even better -- she already has accumulated scholarship offers from many major Division I programs, including Notre Dame, Connecticut, DePaul, Kentucky, Ohio State, Miami, Louisville, UCLA and South Carolina.

Steve Tucker, the former high school sports editor of the Chicago Sun-Times who knows more about girls basketball than anyone you know, said Harper could be the No. 1 player in the nation in 2012-13 and could be better than Bolingbrook's Ariel Massengale, last year's Ms. Basketball in Illinois who currently is a starter at Tennessee.

"I never remember seeing a guard of her size as strong as she is and with the ability to rebound," Tucker said. "Is she better than Massengale? She does more things. She can run a team, play inside or outside, defend, handle the ball, rebound and pass. She knows the game better than any young kid I have seen. She has such a high basketball IQ for knowing what to do and when to do it. She is physically mature."

Harper is flattered by comparisons to Massengale but she is quick to remind everyone that their games are different. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can be. I'm not trying to compare myself to anyone else," she said.

Irvin knew of Harper early on because Linnae's mother attended Julian High School with Corry's husband. Irvin saw the youngster play for the first time as a sixth grader and was immediately impressed by her toughness on the court. "She played post on her grade school team. She was stronger than everyone else," the coach said.

It didn't take her long to realize she had a special talent. As a freshman, she had a career high of 25 points and 17 rebounds as Whitney Young ousted Marian Catholic in the supersectional.

"That's when the light went off. It didn't hit me until then," she said. "I realized I wasn't an ordinary freshman. I had something more. After that game, I came in with an entirely different attitude. It made me realize I could play at an elite level. But I had to play hard in every game. I had to think I had a junior or senior mentality to survive."

The last two years were especially frustrating, however. Whitney Young qualified for the Final Four but had to settle for second and fourth. The Dolphins lost to Bolingbrook in the 2010 state final, then lost to Bolingbrook in overtime in the semifinals in 2011. So it was particularly satisfying to beat Bolingbrook in four overtimes in this year's supersectional.

"It hurt a lot to lose as a freshman but I realized I had three more years to get better and get a ring. But it hurt really bad last year. It took a few days to get over the pain. But I knew it couldn't hold us back," Harper said.

"This year, a lot of people doubted us. We wanted to prove we could win. A majority of the players had played together in the summer for four or five years. But they had never played together as a team before. In the beginning, there were some differences but we sorted them out at the end. It feels good this year to know that we worked hard every day I practice and sacrificed so much to win state."

Harper isn't done yet. Her resume, which already includes a gold-medal winning performance on USA Basketball's Under-16 team last summer, will add more glowing evaluations. Her stock will continue to rise during AAU competition this summer and more major colleges will express interest.

"I still have to complete my game," she said. "I never would have thought I would get this far. It puts more pressure on me. When you get to the top, you have to keep working harder to keep your spot because other players are working as hard and trying to replace you or get to the top."

How much better can she get? She plans to work on her ball-handling to handle more point guard duties, extend her jump shot range, improve her three-point shooting and her mid-range jumper. Oh, and don't forget to work on her footwork and improve her defensive skills.

"I want to add something to my game so when scouts see me, they'll have something else to worry about," she said. "I am very competitive. I like to play when it is tough and be in different situations and pull through. I like to compete all the time. Every time I'm on the court I try to give my all.

It sure beats dancing.

Finally getting a little luck, Kevan Smith comes up huge in White Sox comeback win

Finally getting a little luck, Kevan Smith comes up huge in White Sox comeback win

Hit ‘em where they ain’t, right?

Kevan Smith hasn’t had an overabundance of luck following that old baseball maxim in his short time up with the White Sox this season. But Monday, Smith came up with one of the game’s biggest hits, tattooing a ball into the right-field corner for a game-tying double in the seventh inning of the White Sox 5-4 comeback win over the visiting Boston Red Sox.

Hitting the ball hard hasn’t been a problem for Smith, but he’s run into some bad luck, hitting balls hard but right at fielders. Move some of those batted balls a little bit in one direction or the other, and Smith’s numbers could be very, very good.

On balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, hitters across the league are hitting .539 (7,068-for-13,108), according to BaseballSavant.com. Entering Monday’s game, Smith was just 4-for-12 on such batted balls, making him significantly unluckier than the average hitter. That seventh-inning double had an exit velocity of 93 mph, coming close to the kind of hard contact Smith’s been making this season.

He’ll take coming through in the clutch Monday, though, contributing big time to the White Sox fourth win in their last five games.

Finally, Smith was able to hit it where they ain’t — or, if for nothing else but grammar's sake — where they weren’t.

“For once, right?” Smith said with a smile after the game. “Been working hard on my swing. It’s frustrating, obviously, whenever you hit it right at people, but that’s the way the game goes and that’s why you’ve got to realize it’s a ‘failing’ sport. You’ve got to get used to failing. But it fell for me today and in a big spot. So it felt good.”

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Smith’s numbers have been impressive of late. Including his 1-for-2 game Monday, he’s hitting .350 with three doubles in his last six games.

It’s nice for him to finally see some results from what’s been a good swing.

“That’s what’s tough because when you’re not getting hits, you think you have to do more, you think you have to get in the cage more. But you’re going to take hard hits all day long,” Smith said. “It’s just staying confident, trusting the work, just going out each day being consistent. And that’s what I’ve been doing, and hopefully they start falling a little more.”

Smith also made an impact on the base paths, coming around to score from second on Melky Cabrera’s infield single a few batters later. An aggressive two-out send from third-base coach Nick Capra set up the run, one that might not have scored if not for the throw bouncing away from Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez.

Instead, Smith slid in safely for the eventual game-winning run, delivering yet another win for the White Sox, who are feeling much better during a to-this-point 4-1 home stand since returning from a 3-7 road trip at the end of last week.

“I thought the ball got through,” Smith said of the play. “I knew he was playing up the middle a little bit because he was kind of stacked behind me at second. When he hit the ball, I was like I’m either going to hold up at third or he obviously got it. And then when he starts waving me, kind of caught me off guard. I thought it got through, but after I got in (to the dugout) I found out it didn’t. When he says go, I’m going. Fortunately it worked out in our favor.

“Obviously the rough road trip, but we had a lot of good games, we battled hard. And (manager Rick Renteria) got us together a little bit, kind of got us refocused and ready for this home stand. We have a good squad in here. We’re excited. We just have to trust that each of us are going to do our part, just come together and keep having big wins like this and getting this good energy in the clubhouse. Feels good.”

Benches clear as Bryce Harper charges mound in Nationals vs. Giants

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AP

Benches clear as Bryce Harper charges mound in Nationals vs. Giants

Fireworks came early when the Nationals-Giants ballgame turned into a wild boxing match on Monday. 

The gloves came off and benches cleared after San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland pegged 2015 N.L. MVP Bryce Harper with a fastball in the eighth inning.

To put it mildly, Harper did not take that too kindly as he charged the mound and launched his helmet in the direction of Strickland, missing wide. Punches for both parties, however, connected. Each side got in a nice right hook, leading to a massive scrum near the mound. 

It took about five Giants players and coaches to separate Strickland from the brawl, and even in the dugout he remained emotional. For Harper, it resulted in his ninth career ejection.   

The two competitors do have some history. Three years ago, Harper hit two home runs off of Strickland, admiring both for a long time. 

This is just Game 1 of the series, so the bad blood may be just beginning.