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The Easy Writer: Gone to the underdogs

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

By Jason Maholy
Sports Editor

What the heck is a Rambler, anyway? Well, according to my research, the nickname of Loyola University's athletic teams are so-named because back in the 1920s, the school's football program – which was dropped in 1930 – traveled, or rambled, all over the country to play its games. That would match up with Webster's Dictionary, which defines a rambler as someone who travels and wanders aimlessly from place to place.

Loyola in 1982 adopted “Bo Rambler” – short for hobo – as its mascot. Today, the mascot anyone paying any attention to anything sports-related over the past week has become familiar with is LU Wolf, chosen because the coat-of-arms of St. Ignatius of Loyola depicts two wolves standing over a kettle.

So now that you have your history lesson for the day, how about those Ramblers? I wrote last week about underdogs and the NCAA tournament, and Loyola certainly qualifies as such. The Ramblers defeated favorites Miami and Tennessee to advance to the Sweet 16, where they will face Nevada tonight with a berth in the Elite 8 on the line.

If you follow college basketball, or more specifically the Missouri Valley Conference, you know Loyola is a talented team despite their underdog status and are not all that surprised by their success. This is a team that defeated Florida in Gainesville earlier this season, then steamrolled its way to a 15-3 conference mark, and regular season and conference tournament titles. Never sleep on a team, even a small school, that takes both those crowns. These guys can play, and they've become the darlings of this year's tourney. Expect to see a lot of maroon and gold, and shots of team chaplain Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt, if this team beats the Wolfpack and earns the chance to play for a spot in the Final Four.

And if you didn’t think you had any reason to root for the Ramblers, consider that they have a local connection. Loyola assistant coach Javon Marmon coached at Richards during the 2014-15 season; and Nick Dinardi, a seldom-used senior forward, hails from Palos Park and is a graduate of Providence High School.

 

Golden Coyne gets hero's homecoming

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

Olympic gold medalist Kendall Coyne celebrated at alma mater

 

By Jason Maholy
Sports Editor

When the gold medal was placed around Kendall Coyne's neck following Team USA's dramatic, 3-2 victory over Canada in the women's hockey championship game of the 2018 Winter Olympics, it marked the culmination of a dream the southwest suburban native has had since she was a little girl who had fallen in love with hockey.

“It was the moment I had been dreaming about since I was 6 years old, when I first found out that women's hockey was in the Olympics,” Coyne told students and staff.

The Olympic hero visited Sandburg High School on Friday, March 16 as part of its winter sports recognition ceremony. Coyne, a Palos Heights native and Sandburg alum, signed autographs, posed for photos with adoring fans and shared a few thoughts about representing the country on the grandest stage when she addressed the crowd of people gathered in the Eagle gym.

“Aside from winning the gold medal, one of the biggest and best moments was walking in the Opening Ceremony as a member of team USA,” Coyne said as she stood on a stage at midcourt. “There's no bigger honor than representing the USA at the Olympic Games for an Olympic athlete. To be able to walk into PyeongChang Stadium as a representative was amazing.”

Coyne was 15 years old when she started playing hockey with the U.S. national team, but not many people knew that at the time, she said. Not that her classmates would have necessarily reacted positively: Coyne said that during her middle school and high school years, other youths often called her names and picked on her because she played what was at the time considered a male's sport. The negativity her choice of sport elicited is one of the greatest challenges she has faced in her life, she added.

“But when I walked into a rink that was my sanctuary, it was what I loved the most,” she said. “I had the support of my family, I had a belief in myself and knowing hockey isn't just for boys, it's for everybody.”

Coyne obviously never allowed the naysayers to deter her from pursuing her dreams, and she has gone on to be one of the most decorated Olympians to hail from the Chicago area.

“If I could give you guys one piece of advice, it would just be to believe in yourself, stay true to yourself, always follow your dream,” she said. “You're at a big part of your life where you're making big decisions day-in-day-out, and the decisions you make today will have an impact on your life. So always believe in who you are and what you want to accomplish and your dreams can go a long way.”

Coyne said she has come to believe everything happens for a reason. Losing to Canada in the gold medal game in 2014 was heart wrenching, and she struggled understanding why that game ended as it did.

Coyne concluded: “But four years later, standing here with a gold medal around my neck, I now understand why.”

 

McCormick's Place

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Zach McCormick

 

Evergreen Park junior takes 17th at state

 

By Alison Moran
Correspondent

Evergreen Park High School junior Zach McCormick's passion for bowling comes, in part, from the hours he spent enjoying the sport with his beloved grandfather.

McCormick recalled how he and his grandfather would spend hours watching the Men's PBA Tour on television.

“My grandfather’s in his mid-70s and still bowls a 170-180 game,” said McCormick, who via his season-long excellence and 17th-place finish at the IHSA boys state bowling tournament earned the title of The Regional-Reporter's 2018 Boys Bowler of the Year.

In those hours spent with his grandpa, McCormick also found a role model for his unorthodox throwing style – Australian bowler Jason Belmonte, who popularized two-handed bowling.

“Instead of putting your fingers in the holes, you palm the ball and cradle it,” McCormick explained. “With it, I can play from any position on the lane.”

McCormick began rolling seriously in eighth grade after joining a local league. At Evergreen Park, he clicked with Mustangs coach Ron Pula, who mentored McCormick's two-handed style while improving his mental edge.

“Bowling is really the hardest sport because you cannot see the playing field,” said Pula. “The conditions change from day to day and at different levels of the game. The bowlers have to adjust their game, mentally and physically.”

Pula initiated Evergreen Park’s bowling program as McCormick entered high school, and Pula took notice of his talent and leadership abilities.

“When Zach came to Evergreen Park, he was a 190 bowler, and today, he averages 211,” Pula said. “His greatest qualities are his willingness to learn and set an example for the team.”

“Coach set the structure for my game,” added McCormick. “He encouraged me and told me what l needed to know to improve.”

McCormick was also a team captain from the earliest days, mentoring his teammates including Matthew Bila, Aidan Doogan, Patrick Doyle, Marty Elwood, Terrell Gavin, MIguel Madrigal, Colin McCarthy and Conner Suszynski.

“He sets a great example for the team,” said Pula. “He’s patient, he's constructive in his criticism. He can definitely go a long way in this sport.”

Evergreen Park had a stellar 2017-18 season, winning matches against Tinley Park, Rich Central, Reavis, and amassing a regular season record of 12-2. McCormick’s season highlights include placing fourth at the Oak Lawn Invitational in November; a fifth-place finish in regional competition (1,358 series over six games) and runner-up performance at sectionals. His 1,352 pins at sectionals were just 12 behind the champion and qualified him for the IHSA state tournament at St. Clair Bowl in O'Fallon.

The state tournament proved to be a mind game, as he struggled the second day.

“I had gone in with the idea that the surface was going to be a certain way, and it wasn’t,” McCormick said. “It took awhile to adjust.”

His two-day score of 2548 was, however, good enough for 17th place. He had been in 12th place after the tourney's first day, two places away from a medal.

“It was aggravating at first, being in the position to medal (but failing to do so), until l realized that l had exceeded my goal of qualifying for state,” he said.

The future for McCormick will definitely include bowling. He's looking into bowling scholarships as he plans for a career in medicine or business. But he still has another year of high school, and his goal for his senior season is to medal at state.

“And to beat my grandfather one-on-one,” he said.

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Sibling revelry with Palumbo family

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

Richards sophomore wrestler Rocco Palumbo admits that on occasion he shoves his younger sister, Mia, around.

But that’s a good thing.

“I shove her around to make her tougher,” he said. “But I help coach her because she knows I know a lot about the sport. She watches my matches. We’re a good duo, I guess.’’

A good duo, he guesses?

Actually, this duo is much better than that. This is a history-making duo. And there is no guesswork there.

The Palumbo siblings are just the second brother and sister combination to ever win Illinois High School Association regional wrestling titles on the same day and the first bro/sis combo to accomplish this has a Richards’ connection.

Mia, a freshman seeded second, won the 106-pound championship in the Class 2A Lemont Regional title on Saturday while Rocco, who was seeded first, took care of business at 145.

Mia also made history when she became the first freshman girl to win a wrestling regional title. She is believed to be the fourth female regional champ in state history joining Mohamet-Seymour’s Mary Kelly (2002), Glenbard North’s Caitlyn Chase (2005) and Carbondale’s Alli Ragan (2010).

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By the way, Mary Kelly, a senior at the time, won the 103-pound title the same day her brother, Chris won at 112. Mary and Chris Kelly’s names might not be widely recognizable around these parts, but their father is Jerry Kelly, who won Class AA titles for Richards in 1977 and 1978. Their uncle, Bill, won a couple of state titles as well and an NCAA championship while uncles Jim and Paul were also strong on the mat.

So, the Palumbos do not make up the first family of Richards wrestling, but they are still pretty darn good.

Jason Maholy, a longtime journalist who wrestled at Lockport High School and is not one who throws out hyperbole very much, said Mia winning the South Suburban Red conference championship as a freshman girl was “an amazing story.’’

“A freshman girl winning a conference championship is one of the greatest individual accomplishments I have ever heard of in any high school sport,” he said.  

Mia took it to another level on Saturday after beating Brother Rice’s Michael Loughney in the semifinals 8-4 and top-seeded St. Rita’s Noel Rosales, 3-1, in the finals to improve to 25-3.

“This is the best feeling,” she said. “My matches were close and I never worried about losing – I just kept going and going.’’

Rocco is a pretty cool name for a wrestler and in the semifinals, he pinned a kid with an even cooler name – Lemont’s Connor Stomp – in 2 minutes, 27 seconds. Rocco won the title with a 6-1 victory over St. Rita’s Nate Bennett to improve to 27-3.

He might be a little overshadowed by his sister’s success but the sophomore is poised for a huge career. Last year, Rocco won a regional title and qualified for state. A year later, he is now a target.

“It’s fun to have that target on your back to prove that you are worthy,’’ he said. “I lost the first round at state but it was a great experience. Richards did a great job buying us hotels and team apparel.’’

Rocco sported a United State Marines cap at the regional after he was done wrestling and said if he can’t find a collegiate fit, he’s going right into the Marines. 

“It tough and I love to push myself,” he said. “I would love a chance to defend my country.’’

Growing up, he said he played several sports but he is concentrating on wrestling now.

About the only thing that didn’t go Richards’ way was winning the team championship. The Bulldogs (158.5 points) finished behind champion St. Rita (191) and runnerup Lemont (181).

But they will still bring a solid number of individuals to at Hinsdale South on Friday and Saturday.

Aside from the champion Palumbos, Jason McIntyre (132), Marty Cosgrove (220) and Marquis Hall (285) finished second and Adam Alkilani (113), Basil Muhammad (126) and Andre Jefferson (195) finished third and all will be heading to Darien.

Bulldogs coach Nick Grabarek was hoping his team could win its first regional since the Kelly boys were dominating in 1979. But he was happy with the way his team competed. The Bulldogs won conference titles on all three levels so the future is bright.

“This is the toughest regional – St. Rita and Lemont have great programs,” he said. “Our program is getting better and better. Mia and Rocco met or exceeded their expectations. The kids are buying in and we hope to be strong for a while.’’

 

IHSA history is within Mia Palumbo's grasp

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

PAGE 1 PALUMBO SMILE 2 1

Photo by Jeff Vorva

 Mia Palumbo won a conference championship on Jan. 20 and her coach at Richards thinks she can be a state champion contender. 

 

The swim cap.

The pin.

Those are the two things that Mia Palumbo remembers about her first wrestling match.

That was 10 years ago. She was four.

“I’m not sure where it was at,’’ she said. “My mom (Jeannette) put me in a swim cap. I ended up winning my first match and pinned a kid in the first period.’’

Soon, the swim cap was gone.

“My dad (Rob) bought me an actual wrestling cap.’’ she said.

But the pins -- and the wins -- stayed around for 10 years.

Palumbo had a strong club career in grade school wrestling mostly boys for the Oak Lawn-based Mean Green Machine team and against girls, she earned a title at the USA Preseason Nationals at the 105-pound weight class in October.

Now she is in high school. She is taking on boys – some of whom are three or four years older than her.

And, she is still winning.

Palumbo won 21 of her first 24 matches during the regular season and won the South Suburban Red 106-pound championship on Jan. 20. The freshman beat Reavis’s Jack McDonald, one of the three opponents who had beaten her earlier.

High expectations

The Illinois High School Association regionals open on Saturday and her coach, Nick Grabarek, is not shy about setting high goals for his freshman as the Bulldogs head to Lemont for a Class 2A regional.

“She has the potential to do very well – not only in the regional and sectional, but during state,” he said. “We fully expect her take first in regionals and first in sectionals and be a state champion. That’s our mindset going into every practice.’’

Illinois high school wrestling historian Rob Sherrill said he can only recall two female regional champions and one state qualifier. He said Glenbard North’s Caitlyn Chase won a regional title in 2005 at 103 in Class AA, took second in the sectional and qualified for state but was pinned in her only match at that level.

Sherrill added that Alli Ragan of Carbondale claimed a regional title at 130 in 2010 but went 1-2 in sectional action and did not advance to state.

He also runs the rankings for the Illinois Coaches and Officials Association and although he doesn’t have Palumbo ranked in the top 10 in the state at 106 in Class 2A, she is one of six honorable mentions on the list. As a team, Richards is ranked ninth.

The odds are stacked against her for a state title, but she could be the first freshman female to win a regional.

“Winning regionals is a goal – I have to just keep wrestling hard every match,” she said. “It’s going to fun and I will be going up against some of my friends. We’ll still be friends off the mat, but on the mat, you have to keep wrestling hard.’’

 High-octane style

Wrestling hard is her style, according to her coach.

“Her offense is high octane,” he said. “It’s fun to watch. She loves to open up the offense and just go. It’s a style of constant movement. She just goes. Some people might see it as a risk but with how talented she is, it works.

“She doesn’t care who is in front of her. She just competes. Some people might worry about who they are wrestling but she just has so much confidence and that helps her excel.’’

Years ago, there was huge controversy and outcry when females wrestled males. Some schools would sooner forfeit than have their male athletes wrestle a female.

Now that there are more than 14,500 females wrestling in high school, according to Statis.com, there is more of an acceptance of girls competing on the mat against boys. But it’s not 100 percent.

“There have been a lot of conflicts where people were not OK with me wrestling guys,” Palumbo said. “But some people don’t care and treat me like everyone else. Since I’ve been in the sport so long, I’m used to all of the talk about how girls don’t wrestle. But I just keep going.’’

 Girls don’t wrestle

The first person who told Mia that ‘girls don’t wrestle’ was her mother. Mia was taken to tournaments to watch her older brother, Rocco, compete and she liked the sport at an early age. Mia said Jeannette told her that ‘girls don’t wrestle,’ but when they saw a girl at a tournament tearing up the competition, Jeannette changed her mind.

That girl that they saw wrestle was Haley Augello of Lockport who grew up and competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Over the years, Palumbo (who also has Olympic aspirations) continued to get stronger and better but the true test was going to be how she would fare against high school boys and thus far, she has been successful.

“We knew coming in how talented she was,” Grabarek said. “She has really developed during the season. She placed in every single tournament that we had. She’s very serious. We try to get her to smile a little more and open up and have fun. But that’s a good thing. She’s very intense.’’

 Bulldogs hope to break dry spell

The Bulldogs, which won conference titles on all three levels this season, have high hopes that this season is the start of something big.

Richards' wrestling team was the first Regional/Reporter team to win a state title in any sport when it won the Class AA crown in 1975. The Bulldogs also won a title in 1977, finished second in the state in 1976 and third in 1978.

Since winning a district title in 1979, the Bulldogs have not won any postseason team hardware, according to IHSA records.

The Bulldogs have a solid core of wrestlers who hope to break that 36-year drought Saturday in Lemont. 

Adam Alkilani (113), Basil Muhammad (120), Rocco Palumbo (145) and Marquis Hall (285) took second in the conference while Marty Cosgrove (220) claimed third and Jason McIntyre (132) placed fourth.

Brother Rice and Evergreen Park are other area teams in the eight-team regional.