Who's best in 3A? Peoria or Lanphier?

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Who's best in 3A? Peoria or Lanphier?

While Chicagoans are anxious to see a SimeonProviso East match-up for the Class 4A championship, downstaters are eager to see a Peoria CentralSpringfield Lanphier duel for the Class 3A title.

The two teams have history. Lanphier defeated Peoria Central 59-45 on Nov. 25 in the semifinals of the Decatur Turkey Tournament. On Feb. 17, Peoria Central defeated Lanphier 70-59.

Of course, they have to survive Friday's semifinals. Springfield Lanphier (28-3) meets North Chicago (24-6) and high scoring Aaron Simpson while Peoria Central (26-3) faces Hillcrest (26-5).

Lincoln coach Neil Alexander, who lost to Lanphier twice, said he doesn't think Lanphier can win the state title because it doesn't shoot well and lacks size. "But they are as quick as any team I've seen in a long time," he said.

Peoria Central has plenty of size and experience. In his eighth year, coach Dan Ruffin has five seniors who are seeking the fifth state title in school history, the first since Chuck Buescher's Shaun Livingston-led teams won in 2003 and 2004.

"We have a great combination of size and quickness," said Ruffin, whose team dispatched Rockford East 77-59 in Tuesday's supersectional. "Being a guy who went to school here (Peoria Central graduate of 1976) and played here and coached my whole career here, this is a continuation of what I did as a player--play hard, play fair and represent the school in the best fashion. We don't change things that work."

Ruffin has more size than Peoria Central has ever had with 6-foot-10 senior Kevin Jordan (13 ppg, 7 rpg), 6-foot-7 senior Trey Kellum (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-5 senior Aldonis Foote (10 ppg). But the Lions' floor leader is 5-foot-6 senior point guard Jerrell White (5 ppg, 6 assists). And they get outside shooting from 6-foot-4 senior Shamar Hill (12 ppg).

If that isn't enough muscle, Ruffin also can call on 6-foot-5, 275-pound football star Josh Augusta.

"With its size and athleticism, this team has the potential to be the best team we've ever had," Ruffin said. "But its basketball know-how and IQ isn't has high as some of our other teams. We've been playing pretty good.
What I need to see is a continuation of execution. Then we'll have a great chance of success."

Peoria Central has managed to negotiate a very difficult path to the state finals. After losing to archrival Peoria Manual in the final game of the regular season, Peoria Central defeated Peoria Richwoods 75-62 for the regional title, then edged highly rated Washington 56-53 in overtime for the sectional crown. Earlier, Washington had eliminated Peoria Manual in a four-overtime thriller.

Springfield Lanphier, which won its only state title in 1983 but has been forced to settle for second-place finishes in 1977, 1985 and 2002, has come a long way since coach Chuck Shanklin's first team went 11-13 four years ago. A Springfield Southeast graduate of 1986, Shanklin has proven to skeptics and critics that the Lanphier administration made the right choice.

"I was the heir apparent at Southeast but Tim Goers, Steve Goers' son, got the job. I was taken aback by the chance to get the job at Lanphier,"said Shanklin, who a year ago was fighting for his job. "How was it going to go over with the Lanphier community? I wasn't sure they would accept me, even though I was from Springfield. I thought there would be a backlash coming from Southeast.

"Sure, there has been some backlash but winning cures a lot of ills. Outside of Chicago, Lanphier is a mecca of basketball. You won't go to many gyms that have as much tradition. There is a certain brand of success that we have to uphold. We've talked about it since day one. We've been able to bring back some lustre.

"I knew I had to have one group of kids who believed in me and my mission. If I had a group like that, we could do something special. This is that group. This group understands. It has a high basketball IQ. We have played a lot of good teams that were bigger than us and we have been able to hold our own."

What is Lanphier's edge? Quickness. "Everybody talks about how quick and fast we are. And they talk about our defense and athleticism. I'm not concerned with our lack of size. Our quickness has overcome our lack of size. We also make up for it with heart and our relentless play on defense and on the glass. I'm not surprised we are having a good season. The surprise is how good of a season we are having."

Last year's 17-11 team that lost to Morton by two in the regional final suffered from personal problems and lack of cohesion. The Lions played in four championship games and won only one. By contrast, this year's team has learned to play against good teams in tough environments.

Lanphier is led by 6-foot-1 sophomore Larry Austin Jr. (11 ppg, 4 assists), a promising point guard prospect who already has scholarship offers from Illinois, DePaul, Bradley and Memphis; 6-foot-1 senior Everett Clemons (21 ppg, 6 rpg), an All-State selection who is the son of former Springfield Calvary star Rennie Clemons; 5-foot-8 senior guard T.J. Davis (11 ppg); 6-foot-7 sophomore Chris Wallace; and 6-foot-3 senior A.J. Powers. Top reserves are 5-foot-8 senior guard Jaylen Briggity (10 ppg) and 6-foot-4 senior Lance Boozer (6 rpg).

"People keep comparing us to the old Peoria Manual state championship teams of the late 1990s with their defense and quickness and relentlessness," Shanklin said. "Are we that good? We'll see."

As White Sox bats heat up, Todd Frazier feeling like himself after bumpy start to 2017

As White Sox bats heat up, Todd Frazier feeling like himself after bumpy start to 2017

Three games do not a comeback make, but Todd Frazier is feeling like his normal self again.

Frazier’s been battling a host of health-related issues since the start of 2017, including injuries to his finger and oblique that hampered him in the spring and most recently a bout with the flu that cost him six of eight games and saw him lose 10 pounds.

But the last three games have been more like it for Frazier, as the White Sox third baseman has gone 4-for-12 with five RBIs, four runs scored, three doubles and a pair of walks. In Tuesday’s win over the visiting Kansas City Royals, Frazier had a pair of doubles, matching his total from his previous 12 games.

“It was weird to start off with the finger on something weird that happened last year and that turned into a cast. And then the oblique. It has been a crazy ride,” Frazier said after Tuesday’s game. “That’s why this game you’ve got to work your butt off in the offseason and be ready now, and I feel like I’m getting back to where I need to be.

“I feel fine. I’m good. I’m trying to lift as much as I can. Maybe a little soreness from lifting trying to gain some muscle and some weight back. Trying to eat as much as I can too as well.”

The time off would be enough to knock someone off their game, but Frazier — who posted career lows with a .225 batting average and .302 on-base percentage last season — was still looking to heat up after struggling to produce through the season’s first few weeks. In his first 10 games, the veteran third baseman slashed just .091/.189/.212 with just three hits and one RBI.

So Frazier has been studying up. The entire White Sox lineup has feasted in the first two games of the current series against the Royals, combining for 22 runs on 29 hits. But Frazier credited his personal success to some of the work he’s been doing.

“Just doing my homework,” he said Wednesday. “I’m just trying to go back and understand what I did in the other years  that made me hit the ball better. Talk to the coaches. At the end of the day, it’s mental, that’s all it is. You’ve been hitting for all these years now, just got to understand to focus.

“We see these pitchers a lot. People always told me, ‘You’ve got the upper hand, you see these guys all the time.’ So let’s start figuring out what they’re throwing.”

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Tuesday night, Frazier served as the White Sox designated hitter, the second time he’s been in the lineup but not in the field this season, matching the number of times he played DH in 2016, his first year with an American League team.

While it presented a change of pace, Frazier had a positive review of something he hasn’t done very often.

“I liked it. Every once and a while I think you need a day like that,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can do it. It was good to get Matt (Davidson) in there at third base, get his body going a little bit out in the field a little bit more. It’s like, ‘You got a day off, you’re DH’ing.’ Not really. You’ve got to keep the body moving, keep staying loose. It worked out well for everybody.

“I did a little heavy lifting in the legs the day before, and Rick (Renteria) didn’t even know about that. I was a little sore, and I was like, ‘Good, I got a little DH spot today,’ which was great for me, and now I can focus on defense, as well.”

In baseball, fortunes can change on a daily basis, so who knows if this will be the start of a surge for Frazier or just a brief spike in a long season. But if the White Sox can get Frazier and the rest of the lineup to keep hitting like they have the past few games, it could mean big things.

“Everybody focused and prepared,” Frazier explained when asked about the big run totals in the last few games. “I think the little things, guys getting here earlier, guys wanting to get out there and take extra work, and the focus and determination that we’ve got going right now is pretty nice. Nobody’s trying to do too much.

“You see our plate approach, you see guys hustling out balls. You watch guys like Avi Garcia, he’s got two big infield singles for him. At the end of the year, you look back at some things like that, a guy hits a one-hopper to second base and beats out a ball. That takes your average from .250 to .260 if you get three or four of those. Examples: Leury Garcia beating out a ground ball, getting a play overturned because of hustle. We don’t lack that this year, and I think that’s something big that we’re working on.

“Win, lose or draw, we’re going to give 100 percent. We know we’ve got Rick Renteria coming in here telling us ‘Nobody’s feeling sorry for you. So pick yourself up. We’re professionals. We’re White Sox.’ I think that’s what we’re going by right now.”

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Ryan Pace focusing on 'best player available,' at No. 3: Could that be Deshaun Watson?

Last month, Ryan Pace described his day-before-the-draft press conference as being one of the “hardest” he does all year.

With only a little over 24 hours until the Bears go on the clock with the third overall pick in the NFL Draft, the third-year Bears general manager wasn’t tipping his hand while answering the media’s questions on Wednesday.

One of Pace’s overarching points, though, was that the Bears have to focus on taking the best player available at No. 3 Thursday night. Pace said the Bears have three players targeted for that spot, and what the Cleveland Browns or San Francisco 49ers do ahead of them won’t impact their decision.

What also won’t impact the Bears’ decision is the need to draft a quarterback.

“I think you get yourself into trouble if you’re not sticking with our philosophy of best player available,” Pace said. “When you start trying to manufacture things or create things, that’s when teams get into dangerous water. I think if we just stay with guys we have a consensus on and best player available we’ll be in good shape.”

Plenty of draft observers — ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Rotoworld’s Josh Norris, NFL Network’s Mike Manock, CBS Sports’ Rob Rang — don’t have a quarterback in the top three of their respective “big boards,” which are headlined by the likes of Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas and/or Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, among a few others.

But what if the Bears’ consensus is that a quarterback is a top-three player?

Over the last few months, Pace has consistently touted intangibles as being of prominent importance when evaluating a quarterback. At the combine in Indianapolis, he pointed to Drew Brees taking Purdue — a perennial Big Ten bottom-feeder — to a Rose Bowl. Pace, of course, knows Brees’ NFL success well having watched him in New Orleans before becoming the Bears’ general manager. 

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There’s one quarterback in this year’s draft class that could have those intangibles to be considered at No. 3: Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. 

Before Watson took over as a full-time starter in 2015, Clemson established itself as a perennial Orange Bowl contender that’d win 10 or 11 games a year. But Watson took Clemson to a different level, going 28-2 and reaching the College Football Playoff title game in 2015 (a loss to Alabama) and 2016 (a win over Alabama). 

“It's big with every position, the intangibles,” Pace said. ‘That's what I continue to stress to our guys right now, because you can get enamored with these physical qualities or these traits. There's enough good players where we don't need to change our standards.

“I really like our locker room right now. I really like the vibe right now in that locker room with the guys that we have here, it feels good, and I want to continue to add to that vibe and add to that excitement. It's up to me to impress that to our scouts and to our coaches that, hey, we've got to make sure we're adding the right kinds of guys, the right kinds of intangibles to our room.”

If Watson isn’t among the team’s consensus top three, he could fit into one of the “clouds” Pace talked about if the Bears trade down into the middle or later part of the first round. But trading down (or back into the first round) carries risk if the Bears believe Watson could be a franchise-changing quarterback. The No. 3 pick is the highest the Bears have had since the early 1970s, and it’s a position the team hardly wants to be in again.

Pace, of course, wasn’t going to reveal much the day before he and the Bears make a critically-important selection. The Bears know who they want, and Thursday night, so will everyone else.

“There’s been so much that’s come into this since August, so you’ve just trust what your eyes see and don’t over-think it,” Pace said. “Trust your conviction and trust your instincts and trust your gut.

“You can get into trouble right now if you’re up there watching additional tape and doing all that; I think you can over-scout players. By now we’ve got enough opinions. We’ve met with enough players. We’ve been through the Combine and been through the Pro Days and seen players play live. At this point we feel good. I don’t think we’re in a situation where we’re overthinking anything.”