Moraine athletics wrap
A final look at a fine hoops season
By Maura Vizza
What a difference a year makes.
In 2014 Moraine Valley College’s men’s basketball team posted a losing record as it underwent a rebuilding phase after coming up one game short of a National Junior College Athletic Association Division II championship the previous spring. This past season saw another reversal of fortunes.
No, the Cyclones didn’t make it back to the NJCAA final; in fact they didn’t qualify for the national tournament. However, they very much got back on the right track as they captured an outright Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference title -- the first by any school since 2011 -- and reached the Region IV semifinals.
After going 8-22 overall and 4-10 in the ISCC in David Howard’s inaugural coaching campaign, Moraine compiled a 17-14 ledger that included a sparkling 11-3 mark in conference action. And Howard, the ISCC Coach of the Year, wants to continue the upward trajectory next season.
“This program is headed in the right direction,” Howard said. “The turnaround from last season to this one is amazing. It’s a testament to these guys -- they sacrificed for the betterment of the team. They jelled and believed in each other, picked each other up [and] never stopped believing.
“We could have had a 20-win season -- some of those early games we had a shot at winning -- but I can’t complain one bit. We had a lot of ups and downs, but the good outweighed the bad. Overall we had a really good season.
“It’s always nice to say you earned a conference championship outright. It’s a huge accomplishment for these guys.”
Howard’s postseason award, which he said should be shared with assistants James Daniels and Brandon Allen, was only one of a few earned by the program. Niko Cahue and Brian Townsend were both all-conference first-teamers while DJ Deere and Ermias Nega each got a second-team nod.
Cahue will not return to the Cyclones as he became Howard’s first freshman to receive a scholarship from a four-year school. He’ll attend St. Xavier University in the fall. Townsend has used up his eligibility and is looking to enroll at Oklahoma Panhandle State University.
Moraine will certainly miss their presence as they combined for 22 double-doubles this season, 13 of them being generated by Evergreen Park alumnus Townsend. Also moving on will be versatile Paulius Ostruskevicius and Richards product Randall Rushing.
Nega and Deere head up the list of returnees, but Howard also expects good things from Calviontae Washington and Jason Roland next season.
“It’s a good group returning,” Howard said. “They know my expectations.”
Even with a fair share of bumps encountered along the way, the Cyclones finished with an ISCC title share. It was Moraine’s first conference crown in five years.
Moraine was co-champion with Oakton College. Both teams went 11-3 in league play.
Individually, Nariman Jaber concluded a superb two-year career with the Cyclones by being named to the All-Region IV and All-ISCC first teams. She leaves Moraine as its all-time leader in blocked shots with 265, which smashed the previous school record by 84. Jaber averaged 4.5 blocks per game and ranked No. 1 in all of NJCAA Division II for most of the season.
Jaber was also ninth in the country in defensive rebounding (205) and 11th in total boards (316). Shavonne Lewis and Rachel Ruzevich (Sandburg) joined Jaber on the all-conference first team while Kailey Foster was pegged for the second team. Ruzevich was among the team’s top three in most statistical categories and a tough defender.
But while there was no denying the Cyclones’ talent level, veteran coach Delwyn Jones felt his club wasn’t “blue collar” enough. For evidence he cited eight games that were lost by eight points or less.
“We were skilled, but not blue collar,” Jones said. “Teams that aren’t tend to lose in the playoffs. It’s when you put your hard hat on, work hard and do your job [that you succeed].”
One player Jones felt filled the bill in that regard was guard Megan Beckow, who will be moving on to a four-year school.
“She’s one of the toughest pieces of dynamite [I’ve seen],” Jones said. “I’m definitely a Megan Beckow fan.”
Foster, the leading scorer in conference play, and Sharnita Breeze will spearhead Moraine’s 2015-16 unit. McKayla Smith saw time three positions this year and will be valuable because of her versatility. Good-shooting Duneya Shatat (Oak Lawn) and Carly Trinley should also contribute on a steady basis.
“I hope these young ladies learned from their experiences,” Jones said. “We got better throughout the season but not to the point where we needed to be, mentally more than anything.
“We did not reach our expectations by any means. However, we’re in a good position for next year.”
One baseball adage of recent vintage must be amended a bit.
Chicks aren’t the only ones who dig the long ball. So too does first-year Cyclones coach Mike Kane.
An assistant at Moraine in the 1980s, Kane returned to Palos Hills last fall after having assisted at both Lewis University and Prairie State College. Along with his assistant John Schenk, Kane wants Cyclones batters to embrace the power game, something they didn’t do last spring when Moraine slugged just one home run.
Kane, a former minor-league player, isn’t actually adopting a swing-for-the-fences mantra, but he does expect the Cyclones’ offense to hit the ball hard.
“I want the kids to drive the ball,” Kane said. “If you strike out, you strike out, but [try to] have a hit -- hit the line drive. I’ve always been a hitter, so I expect our guys to get hits off everyone they face. That’s why I’m confident.”
The Cyclones surprised some teams in a handful of games last fall and Kane expects that trend to continue. After fall ball ended, he talked to each player about what he could do to improve and the work that was necessary to win -- and retain -- starting jobs.
“We all have the same goal -- we want to get better,” Kane said “We want to play well and get better every game, hitting our peak in the playoffs. That’s where we’ll meet our big challenge when we face the other No. 1 pitchers. As long as we play smart baseball, we’ll do it.
“I’ve made the guys look at the [award] banners in the gym and see how few championships we have. That’s going to change. We’re going to go far -- I’m hoping for a sectional.”
The Cyclones went 9-17 last season, but Kane foresees nothing of the same given Moraine’s talent level and desire to rebound from 2014. Heading up the list of returnees are all-conference selections Bobby Neylon and Sheamus Brennan. Brennan will bat leadoff while Neylon will handle chores at third base and occasionally behind the plate.
Other positional players include outfielders Christian Araiza (Shepard), Mike Owens and Jackson Rocha, infielders Mike Rankin (Stagg) and Jason Hine and infielder/pitcher Ryan Kull. Along with Kull on the hill will be Ricky Rogers (Stagg), James Lulek, Matt Schmeski (Shepard), David Kutschke (Evergreen Park) and Jose Hernandez.
Schenk, a four-year starter at Robert Morris University, will work with the hurlers.
“He’s very knowledgeable and intense [and] he works our boys hard,” Kane said of Schenk. “I think our pitchers will do a good job.
“I tell them to pitch to contact, [but] just don’t put it down the middle. Let other teams hit the ball because we’ve got good defense. Our defense is solid.
“They have the motivation after last year’s results. If we work as a team, we’ll be good.”
While the Cyclones have yet to play a game in the area, they did get in some work in Arkansas earlier this month. Moraine crushed North Arkansas College 20-3 in its opener as Greg Wymer hit a grand slam, doubled and totaled six RBI. Kull drove in four runs and included a homer among his three hits while Rankin hit safely twice.
The Cyclones finished with 12 hits in the five-inning contest to make it an easy day for Rogers.
Kutschke threw five solid innings, but Moraine’s offense was limited to four hits by Mesabi Range (Minn.) College and suffered a 5-2 defeat. Araiza had two of those hits, including a double, and Ryan Trokey and Zach Moravec both singled.
Schmeski and Ryan Donnelly each pitched one stanza.
The Cyclones’ bats stayed relatively silent in a rematch versus North Arkansas College and the result was a 5-3 loss for the locals despite decent efforts from Lulek and Hernandez on the mound. Owens (homer, double) knocked in all three runs and Trokey accounted for Moraine’s other hit.
Wymer had both RBI for the Cyclones in an 11-2 setback against Olney Central College.
After a shortened 2014 season, the Cyclones are ready to get some games in and will do so with a freshman-heavy team.
Moraine lost several strong sophomores but has a few big guns back. Second baseman Carly Trinley was the ISCC Player of the Year in 2014 after batting .545 with an .841 slugging percentage. All-conference second-teamer Dana Cummings (Richards) is back to anchor the outfield and will have veterans Samantha Newhall and Kristie Bagus, a pair of Shepard alumni, patrolling the outer reaches with her.
Megan Beckow, who played basketball for Moraine along with Trinley, is another experienced performer. She’ll see time at third base and behind the dish. Throwing to her will be Hannah Theilmann, one of the best pitchers Cyclones coach Mike Veen has seen.
Also expected to play some kind of role for Moraine will be infielder/catcher Alyssa DeChene (Shepard), third baseman Molly Pohrebny (Richards), catcher/second baseman Brittany Dimas, outfielder Kortnie Hanold (Shepard), infielder/outfielder Katlin Krzos, pitcher/second baseman Mercedes Leon (Oak Lawn), pitcher/first baseman Emily Powers (Mother McAuley), outfielder/shortstop Nicole Roney and utility player Kayla Manthei. Manthei played volleyball in the fall while Hanold was on the soccer field for the Cyclones.
“There’s a lot of burden on the youngsters and they’ll have to step it up,” said Veen, a fifth-year coach who led Moraine to a 22-17 overall record last season and 8-4 mark in the ISCC. The Cyclones were second in the league standings and advanced to the Region IV semifinals during the postseason.
Moraine has already lost a few athletes to injury, which means Veen will do some early experimenting with his lineup.
“Things have started out a little chaotic, but I have a feeling it’ll turn out well,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate over the years. I just want us to get in there, give these other teams a good game, not have any injuries and play well together.”
Veen is joined again this year by assistant coach Natalie Wigginton.
Last year the Cyclones suffered only one regular-season loss and wound up second in the Region IV tournament, which landed them a spot in the national event. In 2015 Moraine hopes for even more.
New coach Robert Gates knows about the high level of success the Cyclones have had over the years -- including nine trips to nationals -- and isn’t daunted by it.
“I’m excited about building this program,” he said. “As a team, our goal is to be Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference and region champions. I’m confident in our players.”
Gates takes over at Moraine after 13 years of coaching individual and professional-level athletes. He played NCAA tennis at Alcorn State University, where he was ranked 116th in the nation and won the 2003 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) singles-player national championship. Gates also competed at some smaller professional tournaments.
He’s joined by another high-level tennis player, Robbye Poole, who was ranked in the top 400 worldwide by the Association of Tennis Professionals.
“I’m happy with this great opportunity to coach at the college level,” Gates said. “I’m excited to recruit and have this become a well-known program. And having Robbye here is great. I thought he’d be a perfect fit for the team.”
The two men have some talented players to use as a foundation. Kevin Karczynski is the Cyclones’ top singles performer and equally effective in doubles play, where in 2014 he teamed with Mike Broderick to go undefeated at No. 1. Broderick was 9-0 at third-singles during the regular season.
Bryan Jimenez (Shepard) and Alec Mikes are two other veterans on hand. Notable newcomers include Karim Awwad, Casey Case, Reigh Lamparas and Gregorio Illner.
“I’m excited to help the returners develop and see the first years grow into more leadership roles,” Gates said. “I’ll be supportive of who’s here and will build on that. I’m going to give everyone a chance to compete for spots and for doubles we’ll look for the best matchups.
“I’m looking forward to our match against rival Prairie State, the only team we lost to last year. It’s our first home match this season.”
The Cyclones signed their first recruit of the offseason, Stagg’s Alex Abed, who will attend Moraine in the fall. Abed played all four years with the Chargers and was a pivotal figure for the team.
“She has helped solidify a defense that has been one of the main reasons for our success at the varsity level the last four seasons,” Stagg coach Chris Campos said. “She is a tremendous competitor and is always ready for a challenge. She not only gives us a very athletic and reliable defender on the field, but [she] also is someone who has done well scoring goals on set pieces.
“Because of Alex’s knowledge of the game, she can play anywhere on the field. I wish her the very best as she continues her soccer career at Moraine Valley.”
Abed also played soccer last fall for local Inter FC and coach Al Palar, who is the Cyclones’ new boss.
“Alex is as versatile as they come,” he said. “Her athleticism, paired with her understanding of the game, allows her to be effective at every position on the field. She’s quick, strong and technical with the ball. It’s such a luxury for a coach to have a player like Alex on the squad who can be confidently put anywhere on the field and [you] know that the she will do the job well.
“I think my favorite part about Alex is her competitive attitude and how much she hates to lose. Whether it’s a game or a training session, you are only going to get better with maximum effort -- that’s what Alex brings every day. I’m very excited about her decision to sign with the Cyclones and continue her education here.”