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Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Baker gets a jump (or several) on the weekend

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Last week, Jason Maholy wrote a front page story on Brother Rice’s Jimmy Baker in the Regional-Reporter on how the senior is trying to play both volleyball and participate on the track and field team.

Now for a quick update.

Between Baker, track coach Tom Wazio and volleyball coach Dan Dwyer, they have all worked out a schedule that everyone could live with. Wazio said that if there is a big volleyball tournament on a weekend the track team has a meet, he agreed to let Baker play volleyball.

On Friday, there was the first round of a big volleyball tournament – the Smack Attack. It’s one of the best in Illinois. And a portion of it was at Brother Rice. That night, the Crusaders track also hosted a pretty big track meet – the Rice Relays.

This time Dwyer agreed to allow Baker to miss the first match of the Smack Attack so that the kid could get some jumping in. Baker led his team with a 5-foot-8 high jump, was second with a 19-0.5 long jump and was second in the triple jump with a 39-4. The Crusaders’ three jumping teams scored 26 points to help Brother Rice win the 10-team event with 79.5 points. St. Laurence was second with 73 followed by Marist with 60 and Evergreen Park with 55.5.

After track, he made it back to the gym and helped his team win a pool match over Cathedral from Indiana.

The next day, the third-seeded Crusaders played three matches and finished second.

“I had a personal best in the high jump and my long jump…I really didn’t do that well,” Baker said. “In the triple jump, I jumped and headed right to the volleyball match with about five minutes to spare. It was a lot of fun.’’

His Friday fun sure beat last year at this time. In an opening-round Smack Attack battle with Payton High School at Brother Rice, he injured his left knee and ankle.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” he said.

Tweet of the week

Second guessing coaches and managers is common in the Twitter world but this rip job is unique.

Last week, a Tweeter wasn’t happy with a St. Xavier University baseball loss and wrote: “Poor coaching decision cost the cougs in a 5-4 loss game 1. Gotta go get em game 2 @gosxucougars.’’

The kicker? The man who wrote the tweet was SXU coach Rocco Mossuto.

He was ripping himself.

Ratings of the weak

The National Women’s Soccer League was thrilled with its TV deal with the Lifetime Network for a Game of the Week all season.

But the Awful Announcing website is reporting awful ratings for the first Game of the Week on April 15. 

The Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride played in the debut game and an estimated 82,000 watched the match.

Interestingly, the pregame show drew 131,000 viewers. What could be more captivating about a pregame show than the match itself?

Nothing.

The theory is that the showing of a dusty old movie, “Two Weeks Notice” starring Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock may have helped. This 2002 movie drew 237,000 and some continued to watch the pregame show for a while before they realized Grant and Bullock were not coming back on the screen.

Even worse news for the league – the Game of the Week picked up less viewers than the 118,000 folks who watched Skip Bayless on ‘The Undisputed” the day before on FS1, and he has been a laughingstock in the ratings game since bolting ESPN.

Might as well JUMP

  • Written by Jason Maholy

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Brother Rice’s Jimmy Baker practices a jump on Saturday. The senior is participating in both volleyball and track this season, a year after suffering serious leg injuries.

 

Brother Rice volleyball player Jimmy Baker entered the spring sports season with an eye on competing for a state title.

 In the long jump. Perhaps the triple jump, too.

And he might as well go for the gold in the 200-meter dash and four-by-200-meter relay.

 Baker, a senior from Oak Lawn, is gunning for a spot in the Illinois High School Association boys state finals while also being the best player on a volleyball team that has aspirations to make a deep post-season run. And all of this with a leg that was seriously injured a year ago next week.

 As a sophomore, Baker was named the 2015 Catholic League Player of the Year in volleyball, and he and the Crusaders were off to a good start last season when disaster struck. As the 6-foot-2 outside hitter came down after making a kill, he landed on a teammate's foot. He sustained a fractured fibula and a seriously sprained ankle

 Baker remembers the moment well.

 “I was watching the ball, and as I was coming down and landed I heard it crack; but it didn't hit me until I was on the ground that my ankle was cracking,” he said. “It was pretty awful.”

 The sprain was actually worse than the fracture, Baker said, but what was even more painful was being relegated to the role of an observer helpless to assist a deep, talented team that had lofty goals but ended at the sectional level.

 “The week prior we had been playing really well, so we were enjoying the success of the season and were looking forward to the playoffs,” he said. “Our team was really good. It was hard watching, knowing I couldn’t help at all, I could do is watch.’’

 After intensive physical therapy, Baker was back on the court playing club ball within eight weeks, and after the club season had about three months to rest before the start of training for his senior season at Rice.

 He came into his final high school campaign planning to leave it all on the court, but figured he may as well leave it all on the track too. He plays volleyball during the week, and on weekends he doesn't have tournaments, he competes for the Crusaders track team in the long jump, triple jump, 200-meter dash and 4x200 relay.

 “I always wanted to join track, but I just figured I never could because of volleyball,” he said. “But I worked it out. Senior year came around and I thought I might as well go for it. It's a lot of fun... I figure it out day to day, pretty much.”

 Baker's brother, Pat, was a standout jumper at Rice nearly a decade ago.

 “He was just a great athlete, and me being little, I would watch him and think, 'I want to do that,'” he recalled.

Baker competed in the indoor track season and at the Chicago Catholic League conference meet placed fourth in the long jump (20 feet, 9 inches) and sixth in the triple jump (40-4.75).

 “My vertical is pretty good, so I figured if I joined track I could do well,” he said. “I was kind of just hoping the coach would try to get me on the pole (vault).

 

“I'm trying to qualify for state, qualify for volleyball state, and win multiple state titles.”

 He enrolled at the University of Tennessee and is going to try to walk on the men’s track team although he could scotch those plans if he is accepted into the Coast Guard Academy.

 

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: A lot of guts, very little glory for liberos

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Evergreen Park native Zach Rothstein, left, and Fontbonne teammate Tony Pitaro hit the ground during a match against Marian University in Wisconsin recently. 

This might be the worst job in sports.

OK, maybe rodeo clown and the poor people who have to clean up the huge brown apples at the horse racing track might have it worse. But it certainly is one of the least appreciated jobs.

It is being a libero on a volleyball team. The job is to be a defensive specialist who can come and go into matches an unlimited amount of time but is not allowed in the front row. It’s a job that requires a lot of guts with little glory in return. It gets little respect.

Here are my 10 reasons, in no particular order, on why being a libero…well…sucks:

-- You have to wear a different uniform top. Already you are set apart from the other players.

-- Because you are wearing a different uniform top, it’s easier for fans to spot your screw-ups.

-- No one knows how to even pronounce the darn position. It’s supposed to be lee-bah-row, which kind of sounds like Figaro. (I never thought I would get an opera reference into a volleyball column, but I digress.) Most people – including myself – call it a lib-bear-oh.

-- And no matter how you pronounce it, it will never be as cool as “outside hitter” or “middle blocker.’’ In fact, I can’t think of a goofier name in a sport with a ball. Now, if we’re talking rowing…

-- It’s been decades since liberos were added to volleyball, but to this day, I hear some fans saying “Why is that girl (or guy) wearing a different color uniform?”

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-- You have to hit the ground hard – a lot. That causes plenty of injuries, especially the wrists and ribs.

-- When the ball gets by you, you look stupid.

-- When you make the greatest diving play in your life, it is almost forgotten quickly because play continues and one of two things will happen – your team will get the point or give up the point and that’s what the fans remember. 

-- There are no sexy statistics for a libero to get. No kills. No attacks. No blocks. Digs-per-set is about as good as it gets and even that can’t tell you the difference between a very good libero and an excellent libero. It might just mean the other team is getting the ball past the blockers too much.

-- Very few kids playing in the early stages of their career say “Yep, I’m going to be a libero in volleyball!”

So, somebody has to do it.

And those who do it, love it.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Evergreen Park’s Zach Rothstein, a former Brother Rice standout who plays libero for NCAA Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis and after the regular season was ranked fifth in the nation with 3.31 digs per set and was the No. 2 freshman in the country with that stat.

“When you play hard all year, it’s fun to get some credit,” he said. “But my main goal was 15-11 (the team’s won-loss mark – just the second winning season in program history).

“I love playing defense, so I love playing libero,’’ added Rothstein, who pronounces it lib-bear-oh. “But the only reason I am playing libero is because I am not tall enough (5-foot-11) to play front row. I feel like I’m the runt of the group.’’

When Rothstein arrived at Brother Rice, he was also playing for the Chi-Town Volleyball Club and that’s when the seeds were planted that he was heading to the back row. 

“At first I said ‘I don’t know—I kind of like hitting and blocking,’ ’’ he said. “Then I started seeing these kids with five or six inches on me jumping and I said ‘OK, I can take this back-row position.’ ’’

Even though he is digging being one of the top diggers in the country, he said it’s not the best way to judge a libero. 

“The stat I saw that shows a true libero is grading serve-receive,’’ he said. “You are graded on how well you pass. A three is perfect to the setter. I think the coaches had me a 2.3 or 2.4 average. Serve-receive is a huge part of a libero’s deal. One kid could be crazy on defense and you call him a good libero but if he can’t pass…I think serve-receive is one of the hardest things to do mentally.’’

Even though his body goes through nightly punishment in practice and in matches, he is looking forward to three more years of it at the St. Louis school.

“Over the years I’ve grown to know that you don’t get some of the respect that you deserve – but what it really comes down to is playing for your team,” Rothstein said. “Liberos are not going to get all the glory in the world, but you still have to play to put your team in a position to win, even if it means people are not talking about your great plays.’’

 

Fire analysis: Fire depth is fit for a King

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Fire star Nemanja Nikolic has four goals this year – including two in a 3-0 win over New England Saturday.

 CHICAGO FIRE AT TORONTO FC

WHEN: 6:30 p.m., Friday

WHERE: BMO Field, Toronto

FIRE’S RECORD: 3-1-2

TORONTO’S RECORD: 1-1-4

NOTEWORTHY: Toronto outshot the Columbus Crew 19-11 on Saturday night but that didn’t mean much as the Eastern Conference-leading Crew won 2-1.

 

This is how well things are going for the Chicago Fire…

David Accam, sometimes known as King David, has been the Fire’s leading scorer for the past two seasons – two seasons in which the team has finished with Major League Soccer’s worst record.

But the roster has turned over so much since the end of the 2016 campaign that when the speedy star from Ghana developed right hip pain days before Saturday’s match with the New England Revolution, he was removed from the starting lineup.

Although he came into the game in the 71st minute and quickly recorded an assist, the team has so much firepower and depth that he really wasn’t needed as newcomers Bastian Schweinsteiger (a goal in the 45th minute) and Nemanja Nikolic (two goals in the second half) took care of business in a 3-0 victory in front of an announced crowd of 16,914 at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

New England’s over-aggression also played a role in the victory as Je-Vaughn Watson received a yellow card in the 21st minute and a mere six minutes later, he picked up his second and the Revolution (2-3-1) played a man short for more than 60 minutes.

The Fire is off to a Chicago area code start with a 3-1-2 record and is 2-0-1 since signing Schweinsteiger, who has two goals and an assist in three matches.

 "It is very important for us that we won,’’ Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “This is the first (two-victory streak) we've had in two years since I've been here, I'm very happy for that. I'm also very happy we closed our home game streak with a win and three points. I think that everyone is doing their job. Everyone is starting to understand how important the teamwork is.’’

Nikolic and the team celebrated early in the first half what appeared to be the first goal of the game but it was disallowed because he was offside. He got his chance later in the game and scored in the 47th and 73rd minutes. Accam and Schweinsteiger assisted on his second score.

"The most important thing is that the team plays good,” said Nikolic, who leads the squad with four goals. “Game by game, we're getting better and better. We have an identity now and everybody so badly wants to play. The players behind me are in good form, so for me it's also easier. They gave me a great ball today and I scored two goals.’’

Goalie Jorge Bava and the defense racked up another shutout. All three victories this season against Real Salt Lake, the Eastern Conference-leading Columbus Crew and New England came via shutout.

"It's one of the most important things in football -- to keep a clean sheet,” Nikolic said.  “Our defensive line played good. Game by game, we are very strong and solid in the defensive line. We work a lot in training on these things. If we don't look at the Atlanta game (a 4-0 road loss March 18), when we played with 10 players and it was difficult to defend, all other games we have played we are organized very good in the defensive line.

“We need to keep doing this, because we can score every game, so if we make the clean sheet and we try to be better in this area, we can win a lot of games like this."

The Fire hits the road for games against Toronto (Friday), the New York Red Bulls (April 29) and the Los Angeles Galaxy (May 6) before returning home May 13 for a match against Seattle.

 

Other area stars made their mark in hoops and wrestling

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

The three athletes who were honored as the top area wrestler and basketball players – Sandburg’s Patrick Brucki, Brother Rice’s Josh Niego and Queen of Peace’s Kara Shimko -- enjoyed outstanding seasons in 2016-17.

But they were not alone.

Many other area players had strong seasons and the Regional/Reporter is listing those who made all-conference teams in basketball and qualified for the Illinois High School Association state wrestling tournament:

Boys basketball

In the South Suburban Red Conference, champion Evergreen Park had three players on the all-conference squad -- Mike Drynan, Kyree Hannah and Christian Cotton. Richards had Jaylan Catledge and Arrin Westbrook make the squad. Oak Lawn was represented by Rashad Johnson and Adem Osmani. Shepard’s Chris Harrison and Marquel Porter were also selected.

In the Chicago Catholic League, Josh Niego, Mike Shepski and Jack O’Connor of Brother Rice were named along with St. Laurence’s Zion Fortune and Justin Wierzgac.

In the SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue, Stagg’s John Contant and Tom Kazanecki were selected to the all-conference team along with Sandburg’s Jake Pygon.

In the East Suburban Catholic Conference, Maurice Commander, Morgan Taylor and Justin Brown were named to the team while Commander was named player of the year.

In the Metro Suburban, Malik Parker was named player of the year for the second straight season while Jack Ellison, Jeff Mayberry and Josh Decker also made the all-conference team. Frank Johnson was named honorable mention.

Girls Basketball

In the South Suburban Red, Evergreen Park’s Kacey Gardner, DeAnna Stewart and Samariah Jones-Tinsley made the all-conference squad along with Oak Lawn’s Danielle Quigley and Madelyn McGrath, Richards’ Hallie Idowu and Shepard’s Cassidy McCarthy.

In the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference, Mother McAuley’s Tara O’Malley, Grace Hynes and Vanessa Gavin were all conference along with Queen of Peace’s Kara Shimko, Jovanna Martinucci, Ashley Lynch and Shannon Wilbourne.

In the East Suburban Catholic Conference, Marist’s ESCC Claire Austin, Ally Corcoran and Julia Ruzevich made the team and Ruzevich was named conference MVP. In the Southwest Suburban Conference Blue, Sandburg’s Kennedy Sabutis and Stagg’s Nicole Vacha made the team.

In the Metro Suburban, Chicago Christian’s Janay Turner and Lexi VanRyn were honored.

Wrestling

Sandburg’s Pat Nolan (120 pounds), Patrick Brucki (195), Cole Bateman (220) and Malik Scates (285) qualified for state in Class 3A.

Also qualifying were Stagg’s Domenec Zaccone (113) and Noah Price (132) and Marist’s Jacob Dado (120) and Diata Drayton (220).

In Class 2A, Brother Rice’s Hassan Johnson (120), Angel Granado (126), Rahman Johnson (145), Dominick Murphy (152), Paul Gilva (160), Jake Hutchinson (170), Scott Sierzega (220) and Myles Ruffin (285) made it to state along with Richards’ Basil Muhammad (113) and Anthony Quinn (195).