Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

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Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

Everybody talks about team chemistry. Yes, talent is important. But even the most talented team can fumble the ball if it lacks team chemistry, if egos are perceived to be more important than teammates.

Ask Nat Zunkel.

The fourth-year coach at Mercer County in Aledo expected to field a strong and talented team this season. The Golden Eagles were 11-1 last year, losing to Stark County in the state quarterfinals, and returned 17 starters this season. So Zunkel isn't surprised to be 13-0 going into Friday's Class 2A championship game against Belleville Althoff.

"I like what we do. We have bunch of kids who work hard. It's a good feeling to be in charge of a group of great athletes," he said. "We anticipated that we would have a great team, that they could be something special. They have come together in the last few weeks and have played well in the playoffs."

But it hasn't always been that way. "These kids have played together for several years. Their egos have been parked on the side. But we had to deal with it earlier in the year," Zunkel said.

"I was having some parents and kids who were annoyed on the sideline. I could see it. We were ahead by a lot in some games and some kids didn't get many carries and got snotty about it. 'Hey, I need more carries. Hey, I need more playing time.' I sensed trouble and I wanted to end it right away."

At a film session, Zunkel stepped up and said: "If anyone thinks he should be more carries or catches or playing time, stand up in front of your teammates and say so."

"That was the end of it," he said. "I dealt with it and we haven't had to worry about it since then."

Mercer County has gone about its business in surgical fashion. The Golden Eagles have scored 540 points while allowing 93. No opponent has come within 11 points. They ousted Clifton Central 26-7 in last Saturday's semifinals as quarterback Taylor Matlick completed 14 of 23 passes for 211 yards and Zach Nelson scored two touchdowns.

Mercer County (enrollment: 384) is a consolidation of several small towns that merged with Aledo in 2009. They include Joy, Seaton, New Boston, Keithsburg, Burgess, Mannon, Eliza and Millersburg, all in Mercer County.

Zunkel, a 1955 graduate of York in Elmhurst, played football under Gary Grouwinkel. He competed in football and track at Illinois Wesleyan, then coached at Kankakee, Homewood-Flossmoor and Mattoon before becoming head coach at Mercer County in 2009.

"I knew of Aledo. I couldn't find it on a map but I followed high school sports when I was at York and I knew they had a great football program," said Zunkel, who is 41-6 in four years.

Aledo had one of the most successful programs in the state under Cullen Welter, who was 113-22 in 11 years. He won state titles in 1998, 2001 and 2002 and was second in 2005 and 2006.

Zunkel is following in his footsteps. He is running what he calls a "pro-style spread," akin to what the New England Patriots do with four or five receivers and one or two tight ends and one or three or no running backs.

Matlick, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior, is the triggerman. He has passed for 1.900 yards and rushed for 220. Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound senior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. Payton Holmes, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior wide receiver, has accounted for 600 yards via pass receiving and averages 15 yards per catch. The offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior tackle Matt Zimmerman.

"Matlick is our leader. He gets us organized. He is tough. He drives us. He is a special kid," Zunkel said.

The defense, which could be 3-4 or 4-3 or 5-2, features 5-foot-8, 200-pound senior linebacker Caleb King, 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior linebacker Chris Neeld and 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior cornerback Bryce Skiles, who hasn't given up a touchdown pass in two years.

What is the scouting report on Belleville Althoff? "They are good and fast and big. The key is we have got to do what we have done all year--put points on the board and hold them to very few. We have to score and stop them. We haven't had trouble doing that most of the year," Zunkel said.

He cites one statistic above all others that he believes is the difference between victory and defeat, between being a state champion or a runner-up.

"We are plus 35 in the turnover ratio this year. We have 17 interceptions," he said. "That shows how efficient we are on defense. Our kids fly to the ball and make plays."

He hopes they will do more of the same on Friday.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred open to idea of Cubs hosting All-Star Game at renovated Wrigley Field

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred open to idea of Cubs hosting All-Star Game at renovated Wrigley Field

PHOENIX – Rob Manfred is open to the idea of an All-Star Game at a fully renovated Wrigley Field, but the Major League Baseball commissioner won't make any guarantees about the 2020 target date the Cubs have proposed in a joint lobbying effort with Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office.

"I'm not going to get into specific years," Manfred said Tuesday during a Cactus League media event at the Arizona Biltmore. "Because there's a number of clubs – we're fortunate – that have interest in particular years. And I don't want to say anything that would suggest that I'm anywhere near making a decision."

During last month's Cubs Convention, president of business operations Crane Kenney expressed optimism in a Super Bowl-style bidding process, and not the old way of simply alternating the showcase event between the American and National leagues each year.

The Cubs will point to their starring role in a World Series that beat the NFL's "Sunday Night Football" in head-to-head TV ratings and saw more than 40 million people tune in for Game 7. By 2020, the $600 million Wrigleyville development is supposed to be finished, and Emanuel helped broker the deals that moved the NFL draft to Chicago the last two years after a long run at New York's Radio City Music Hall.

"I will say this: A renovated Wrigley Field would be a great location for an All-Star Game," Manfred said. "Chicago is a great city. And over time, we have tried to go to cities that would be great locations for the game – and to reward cities that had made substantial investments in either new or renovated facilities."

The Cubs still see potential roadblocks, needing City Hall's help with an increased security presence around an urban neighborhood ballpark that hasn't hosted the Midsummer Classic since 1990.

Kenney also acknowledged that All-Star Games have been used as bargaining chips in public negotiations in cities like Miami and Washington – Marlins Park (2017) and Nationals Park (2018) will make it four straight All-Star Games for NL stadiums – while the Ricketts family used private mechanisms to fund the project after striking out on other proposals. 

Nemanja Nikolic channels his inner MJ in jersey number

Nemanja Nikolic channels his inner MJ in jersey number

Jersey numbers can be a big deal in soccer. Who is the team's No. 10? Who is the No. 9?

Nemanja Nikolic, a forward who joined the Chicago Fire this offseason as a Designated Player, didn't have the choice of either number that is famously associated with marquee attacking players because both were taken by returning players on the Fire. Instead, he landed on a number more famous in Chicago sports than in soccer.

Nikolic will be wearing 23.

The Fire announced the jersey numbers for the 2017 season with Nikolic's 23 a part of the list. Every returning player kept the same number as last season.

It goes without saying that wearing the No. 23 in Chicago comes with an extra bit of notoriety. Ever since Michael Jordan donned the No. 23 for the Chicago Bulls, it has been a common sight to find the best player on a Chicagoland high school basketball team wearing No. 23. That doesn't translate to the world of soccer, but in Chicago fans will notice.

A spokesman for the club said the number was more coincidence than intentional MJ reference, but if Nikolic has a good season don't be surprised to see signs at Toyota Park referencing Nikolic's jersey number.

In the preseason some of the players have been wearing different jersey numbers from what they will in the regular season. Nikolic has been wearing No. 9 in preseason matches.

Here is a list of the other newcomers and the numbers they will be wearing:

Jorge Bava: 1

Dax McCarty: 6

Djordje Mihailovic: 14

Juninho: 19

Daniel Johnson: 20

Stefan Cleveland: 30