BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Josh Niego, Brother Rice
Photo by Jeff Vorva
Brother Rice's Josh Niego embraces the role of the underdog.
The Crusaders' senior forward took it as a challenge when his squad was absent from Chicago-area news outlets' preseason boy's rankings.
“I always read what the so-called 'expert' reporters say, and this year there were a lot of them doubting us, saying we were too small, whatever,” he said. “I used those as a reminder just to prove people wrong.”
Niego and his teammates did just that, as Rice went 25-6 while winning the Catholic League Blue crown and the program's first regional title since 2008. Oh, and the three-year starter averaged 18 points and six rebounds while earning Catholic League Player of the Year honors.
For his personal accomplishments and helping lead the Crusaders to its finest season in nearly a decade, Niego has been named The Regional/Reporter's Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
He was also miffed to be left off a preseason list of elite CCL players, not because he seeks personal accolades, but because he knew the impact he could have on his team.
“They named like 12 guys (on the list) and I wasn't on there,” he recalled. “I had that hanging up in my locker the whole year. And it turned out I was Catholic League Player of the Year, so it was really satisfying to get that.”
More satisfying was being part of the team that brought the Crusaders back to prominence. The season's pinnacle was beating Homewood-Flossmoor in the Class 4A Regional title game, a contest in which Niego scored 27 points, including 15 in the decisive fourth quarter of a 57-50 victory.
Throughout his years at Rice, Niego said he never cared about personal glory – only that the Crusaders were on top when the final horn sounded.
“I just wanted to give everything I have; all I wanted was wins,” he said. “I didn't care if I scored 30 points, I didn't care if I scored two points, as long as Brother Rice won at the end of the day. I just wanted to go out and be remembered as the team that brought Brother Rice back.”
Niego will continue his basketball career at Lewis University and will play on the same court on which his father (Charlie Niego) three uncles (Tom, Joe and Mark Niego) and three aunts (Mary McNamara, Terry Pozdel and the late Nancy Collins) played.
GIRLS BASKETBALL PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kara Shimko, Queen of Peace
Photo by Jeff Vorva
Kara Shimko, Queen of Peace senior basketball player, sensed something was up when she stopped by her dad’s office on Jan. 24.
Based on the demeanor within the office, she guessed the news out of the recent coaches’ meeting was that Peace would be closing at the end of the year. George Shimko, the athletic director and girls basketball coach, told her to focus her energy on that night’s game against Joliet Catholic Academy.
Shortly after she helped lead Peace to a 58-22 victory, a mass e-mail confirmed the school’s impending closure.
The Pride went 5-3 after the announcement, but they still set multiple records to close the school’s history book. Shimko set numerous individual school records with her strong, balanced play, which helped her earn the Reporter/Regional Girls Basketball Player of the Year award for the second straight season.
“Playing the last few weeks was emotional, especially since it’s senior year and you’re not going to be able to come back and walk through the gym and remember all those good memories,” she said. “It’s hard, but it’s something we had to go through. It was definitely an unforgettable season and unforgettable memories that we’ve created together.”
Shimko, who had her number 14 retired during an emotional senior night, paced the team with 16.6 points per game and was second in total assists (120) and steals (107). She was third on the team with 4.9 rebounds per game despite standing at just 5-foot-4.
She helped lead Peace to its best record (28-4) in the school’s 55-year history. With all five starters returning, the Pride won its second consecutive regional title, marking the program’s first back-to-back regional titles since 1994.
“Once they announced (the closure), I saw in Kara even more passion to finish as strong as we possibly could to leave a mark at Queen of Peace,” George said.
Shimko broke the Queen of Peace career scoring record of 1,214 points set by Shelby Elstner in 1994. She scored 1,407 points in just three seasons at Peace after playing her freshman year at Plainfield North.
She broke her own school record for 3-pointers made (92) and free-throw shooting (91 percent), both of which she originally set in 2016.
Shimko will continue playing basketball at Cardinal Stritch, a NAIA school in Milwaukee so she will still play close on occasion when her team visits St. Xavier University and Trinity Christian College.
WRESTLER OF THE YEAR: Patrick Brucki, Sandburg
Photo by Jeff Vorva
Patrick Brucki remembers it vividly – can see it, smell it, feel the sense of panic.
The Sandburg grappler is in the state wrestling tournament for the fourth consecutive season, vying for the state title that had narrowly eluded him the previous two seasons. Then, in an instant, he's in the worst place a wrestler can be – on his back. With his season on the brink of being over and his dream of a championship moments from being quashed, he desperately kicks his legs in an attempt to right himself...
Then he's wide awake.
Brucki experienced that nightmare more than once during his senior season – which did, in fact, end with him standing atop the podium as the Class 3A champion at 195 pounds. He was the lone area champion and earned the Regional/Reporter Wrestler of the Year honor.
“I truly did become obsessed about winning a state title,” Brucki said roughly one month after his title run in Champaign. “I was so close multiple times, and that eats at you, it takes sleep away. You wake up in the middle of the night because you had a dream.”
Brucki finished third in state in 2015 and second in 2016, both times at 182 pounds, and entered his senior season with the mentality that there was only one satisfactory outcome.
“You eat, sleep and breathe it – I've witnessed the truth in those three areas,” he said. “My brain is so in tune, even when I'm sleeping I start panicking. I'm dreaming of being in the state tournament, actually experiencing it in my dream. I get caught on my back or something.”
The Princeton-bound wrestler dominated the competition during a season in which he finished 44-1.
“I enjoyed the season,” he said. “I was much more relaxed, even at the end. As much as I was wound up about it I was truly excited about getting that title, and I really wanted to take in as much as I could, enjoy who I was there with and the people following me throughout that journey, and I think I did that.
“It feels so good. I'm pretty hard to satisfy... and I just feel good about the season. I prepared my body, my mind. There is no one more deserving of that title than me, and I am just proud of myself for going out there and getting it, finally.”