Strus carries Chargers to another tourney crown
It would seemingly be difficult for a 6-foot-6 individual to stay hidden.
In John Daniels’ opinion, however, Max Strus has somehow managed to do that.
Daniels, who is in his 11th coaching season at Stagg and 21st overall, unabashedly refers to Strus, a still-growing senior, as the best player he’s ever coached. And the veteran leader insists “it’s not even close.”
“You know you have a Division I athlete when you have one,” Daniels said. “He’s better than some of the guys who have committed to those schools.”
By “those schools,” Daniels was referring to the mid-sized NCAA Division I universities in Illinois, none of which has approached Strus with a scholarship offer. The latter’s decision to eschew AAU basketball for baseball at Stagg has likely kept Strus a relatively unknown commodity to the collegiate basketball world.
“He wants to play college basketball,” Daniels said, “but Max decided to play baseball [last spring]. He wanted to be out there with his friends and have a good time.
“These [scouts] need to come see how good he is. He can handle the ball and he’s got 25-foot range, but I can also post him up and he can go to the rim. Max makes me look really smart.”
Strus did a little bit of everything for the Chargers during last week’s season-opening John McBride Classic. He never scored fewer than 21 points in any of Stagg’s four encounters, and his 21-point, six-rebound, six-assist effort paved the way for the Chargers’ 66-51 victory over Nazareth Academy on Saturday night that locked up a third straight Thanksgiving tournament title for the hosts.
Strus earned tourney MVP honors for his weeklong performance, but he didn’t have to carry the Stagg load all by himself. In the finale, for instance, his heroics were supported by solid outings from Kevin White (17 points, six assists), Anthony Gardner (10 points, eight rebounds) and Jeff Goral (nine points, eight boards).
While White’s abilities became recognized a year ago, guys like Gardner, Goral, Sebastian Kolpak and Nick Sims still fall into the lesser-known category. Yet, like so many other athletes who’ve passed through Daniels’ programs over the years, they’re finding important niches to fill.
“Everybody sort of chipped in, and that’s the encouraging thing,” Daniels said. “You can’t [always] rely on one kid to pull you through.
“There are things we’ve got to get better at — we didn’t draw a charge all week, which is unheard of for our teams — but it’s nice when other guys do their part. That’s the biggest thing I liked. They got some confidence [from that].”
Against Nazareth, a 13-0 surge by the Chargers in the third quarter allowed them to break open a 29-28 game. Strus contributed four points to the cause, but just as important to the run were Sims’ 3-pointer, Goral’s bucket, and a steal and layup by Kolpak.
“A 13-0 run means you got stops,” Daniels said. “I thought our defense really stepped up. It could have gone either way [before that], but [Nazareth] tried to run with us and they took quick shots.”
And with White on the floor, Stagg’s lead was safe.
“Kevin White is like [former New York Yankees pitcher] Mariano Rivera — he’s a closer,” Daniels said. “It’s really hard to trap Kevin [and force mistakes] because he’s such a good ball handler and he knows his angles. He only had four turnovers, which is nothing considering that he handles the ball on every possession.”
St. Laurence 40
The Vikings hung with the Chargers for most of the first half last Wednesday, but Stagg created a bit of breathing room for itself before intermission, which it entered with a 29-21 lead in tow.
Thanks to the Strus-White duo, things never got any better for St. Laurence, which was outscored by five points in each of the last two periods. Between them, the Chargers’ big guns accounted for 41 points, although Vikings coach Mark Sevedge noted that six of Strus’ 21 markers came on transition baskets.
“We’ve got nobody near his size, [so] I think the guys that guarded him did a pretty good job,” Sevedge said.
“I thought his kids played really hard,” Daniels said, referring to Sevedge’s athletes. “They were scrappy and they battled us early. Mark’s a good guy and he’s coaching them up.”
One thing definitely not working in St. Laurence’s favor was its long-distance shooting. While the Vikings were an acceptable 9-of-20 from inside the arc, their accuracy rate dipped below 25 percent outside it as they canned just 4-of-17 3-point attempts.
“You live and die by the 3 [sometimes],” Sevedge said. “Unfortunately, we died by it three times [during the tournament].”
Quentin Forberg paced St. Laurence with 17 points, Matt Gurgone had 10, and guard Tim Delaney provided the Vikings with five points, five rebounds and three assists. More impressive to Sevedge was the latter’s work on the defensive end throughout the tournament — Delaney got charges called against foes seven times in four games.
Prior to tangling with St. Laurence, the Chargers bagged wins over Lindblom and Willowbrook. In both cases, Stagg distanced itself after engaging in a tight opening period — Lindblom, in fact, scored eight of the first 10 points last Monday.
Strus was the Chargers’ main man in both contests, as he roasted the Eagles with 28 points and then poured in 30 versus the Warriors.
Meanwhile, neither of the Chargers’ opponents was able to settle into a prolonged offensive groove. Their willingness to keep launching perimeter shots actually played into Stagg’s hands.
“Every team we played wanted to shoot the 3-pointer,” Daniels said. “They kept firing it, and long shot [means] long rebound. We got it and we were off.
“We were doing a real good job of getting the ball in transition and we just sort of put on the jets in the second half [of each game].”
Nazareth Academy 51
St. Laurence 37
Long-range inaccuracy was also the Vikings’ bane in their season-opener, as a 6-of-29 display of 3-point shooting undermined their bid to topple the Roadrunners last Monday. What was unusual about St. Laurence’s struggles was that, for the most part, they didn’t stem from a failure to properly execute.
“Twenty-five of those were outstanding looks — open shots we want our guys to take,” Sevedge said. “That was a game we could have had, but I think missing those open shots got inside our kids’ heads a little bit and kind of set the tone for the rest of the week. If we would have had more success there, I think things would have gone differently [from a win-loss standpoint].”
Forberg, Gurgone and Mike Witkowski all netted eight points to lead the Vikings, who were guilty of only 10 turnovers. Sevedge also felt his guys were respectable on the defensive end, even though Nazareth was awarded 35 free throws, 19 more than St. Laurence.
“[The Warriors] were much bigger than us, but I thought we guarded well,” he said. “We’re real young — every game we started four juniors and a senior, and for a lot of [our kids], this was their first time on a varsity floor. At times we played like it, [but] I thought we played very well [here], especially defensively.”
St. Laurence 49
The Vikings spotted the Eagles a first-period edge and spent the rest of last Tuesday in chase mode. They were as close as two points during the fourth stanza, and in the late going reduced a nine-point deficit to three behind a long ball from Forberg and Delaney’s three-point play.
With 20 seconds left, St. Laurence fouled Lindblom’s poorest free-throw shooter and saw that strategy rewarded with two misses. However, the Vikings were unable to corral a rebound and the Eagles got two more chances at the stripe, which they converted to hold St. Laurence at bay.
“I felt this game was decided on the boards,” Sevedge said. “The timely rebounds they got really hurt us. As small as we are defensively, it’s going to be big for us to play as well as we can on the boards.”
Dan Curley’s 19 points topped the Vikings in their losing cause. Delaney pitched in with 12 points, four assists and three rebounds, while Forberg tossed in nine points. St. Laurence connected on 13-of-35 shots, but was just 2-of-16 from 3-point territory.
The Vikings also misfired 10 times in 33 chances at the line.
St. Laurence 52
A 10-2 getaway for the Vikings on Saturday gave them the boost they needed to defeat the Warriors and salvage some tournament success. Willowbrook did climb to within a deuce in the fourth quarter, but 11 free throws helped St. Laurence survive.
Gurgone hit five of those foul shots, part of a 28-point outburst for him. His production included a perfect 6-of-6 effort from behind the arc. Delaney added 13 points, and both players, plus Forberg, dished out three assists.
“I was kind of hoping we could get out of there with a 2-2 start [to the season],” Sevedge said. “We could have, but I’m really happy with how hard we played. As young as we are and with our [lack of] size, I’m a little nervous, but I thought we went after it and executed well.”
For the first time in four games, the Vikings demonstrated a good shooting eye as they drilled over 50 percent of their field-goal tries, which included a 7-of-14 display on 3s.
St. Laurence 12 9 8 11 - 40
Stagg 12 17 13 16 - 58
St. Laurence Scoring: Forberg 17, Gurgone 10, Delaney 5, Dan Curley 4, Radford 4. Rebounds: Delaney 5. Assists: Delaney 3.
Stagg Scoring: Strus 21, White 20, Gardner 8, Goral 8, Kolpak 1. Rebounds: Strus 8. Assists: White 4.
Nazareth Acad. 12 11 10 18 - 51
Stagg 8 19 24 15 - 66
Stagg Scoring: Strus 21, White 17, Gardner 10, Goral 9, Sims 5, Kolpak 4. Rebounds: Gardner 8, Goral 8, Strus 6. Assists: White 6.
Willowbrook 11 9 18 12 - 50
Stagg 12 27 23 10 - 72
Stagg Scoring: Strus 30, Goral 16, White 7, Gardner 6, Kolpak 6, Sims 6, Jordan 1. Rebounds: Strus 6. Assists: White 5.
Nazareth Acad. 13 11 11 16 - 51
St. Laurence 10 14 5 12 - 37
St. Laurence Scoring: Forberg 8, Gurgone 8, Witkowski 8, Kelly 4, Delaney 3, Cummings 2, Dan Curley 2, Radford 2. Rebounds: Gurgone 5. Assists: Delaney 4.
Lindblom 16 10 12 16 - 54
St. Laurence 13 12 7 17 - 49
St. Laurence Scoring: Dan Curley 19, Delaney 12, Forberg 9, Gurgone 6, Radford 4, Witkowski 1. Rebounds: Delaney 3. Assists: Delaney 4.
Willowbrook 9 16 7 12 - 44
St. Laurence 17 13 9 13 - 52
St. Laurence Scoring: Gurgone 28, Delaney 13, Dan Curley 3, Forberg 3, Witkowski 3, Kelly 2. Rebounds: Witkowski 5. Assists: Delaney 3, Forberg 3, Gurgone 3.