Unranked Brother Rice racks up 105 points against quality programs

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photos by Jeff Vorva

Brother Rice quarterback Cam Miller has thrown for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns in the Crusaders’ first two victories over quality programs.

Brother Rice’s football team was shut out of state and Chicago area preseason polls.

And nationally, Athlon Sports’ Ryan Swartz called the Catholic League Blue conference one of the top 10 in the nation but predicted the Crusaders would be “down” this year. 

The Crusaders tried to make a statement on the field by going up 42-0 and hanging on for a 56-20 home victory over Brother Rice of Michigan, a program with an all-time winning percentage (.753) that is ranked in the top five in Michigan. And the Warriors brought 10 state championship trophies back to their school.

Still, there was no love from the polls.

The players and coaches claim not to pay attention to rankings but the Crusaders made another statement on Friday night with a 49-21 road victory over Crete-Monee, a team that was 77-27 in the past nine years with a Class 6A title in 2012.

These aren’t some sub-par Chicago Public League teams the Crusaders are kicking around, yet they are having trouble finding anyone from outside the South Suburbs to buy in just yet.

The team can change that when it visits Loyola at 1:30 p.m. to open Catholic League Blue play. Loyola was ranked second in the state in the Associated Press Class 8A poll last week. In 2014, Brother Rice beat Loyola, 16-13 during the regular season in Chicago and the Ramblers returned the favor with 31-14 triumph in the Catholic League championship in November.

The mantra around South Pulaski Road is that the polls are useless – especially this time of year.

“We don’t worry about that stuff -- we just move full steam ahead,” Rice coach Brian Badke said. “It doesn’t matter what’s at the beginning, it’s where you are at the end. The kids know that. We have our goals that we want to obtain and we’re always focusing on that.

“None of these guys read the newspapers anyway.’’

Assuming that some do, they will see that their new signal caller, senior Cam Miller of Evergreen Park is racking up some big numbers. Through his first two varsity starts, Miller has thrown for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Like his coach, Miller quickly dismissed talk about being ignored by the pollsters.

“Rankings don’t mean anything to us – we’ll just play our game and hopefully get the wins,’’ he said.

 Miller got two looks at Loyola last year from the sideline and is ready for the challenge.

“Loyola probably has the best defense we will play all season,” Miller said. “They are so fundamentally sound. We’ll have to work hard and hopefully they won’t be able to cover all of us.’’

One of his favorite targets for big plays is Ricky Smalling who has 16 catches for 293 yards and five touchdowns. Branden Houston and Julian Blain are also dangerous receivers and when the Crusaders get tired of throwing the ball, Clifton Taylor can chomp up a few yards.

“It’s unreal how we’re playing – not only just the offense but the defense is playing well, too. Everything is clicking,’’ Miller said. “It’s electric – it’s so much fun.”

 Badke wants his team to play four quarters of strong football and wants a tighter defense against Loyola.

“We just don’t want to take our foot off the accelerator,” Badke said. “I felt we came in focused and scored 21 points off the bat (against Crete). But we took our foot off the accelerator. We can’t do that.  The kids know that. We have a big test coming up on the road.’’


Brooke-ends: Marist senior makes history

  • Written by Jeff Vorva


The Illinois High School Association Class 4A state softball state championship between Marist and Lincoln-Way East was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

But at 5:30 p.m. the RedHawks players, coaches and fans were back in Chicago in the Marist cafeteria eating cake after listening to speeches about how great they were.

The weather forecast in East Peoria forced the IHSA officials to schedule the game before noon and the Redhawks found morning glory with a 1-0 victory over the Griffins at the EastSide Center to claim its second softball title in four years. Pitcher Zariya Gonzalez notched the shutout, tripled in the second inning and scored on Vanessa Villasenor’s groundout.

Senior outfielder Brooke Wilson had four catches on defense and played on both championship teams. She was a freshman on the 2012-winning team and became the first Marist female athlete to win two state titles.

“I still feel like I’m on a softball high,” she said at the celebration. “The entire experience has been surreal.’’

Wilson is an Orland Park resident who grew up in the Midway area and is headed to Loyola to play softball next season. She compared the two championships. In 2012, the team was 15-15 and ran the table. This year’s team finished 36-4-2 with a 28-game winning streak.

 “Our first year, it was definitely unexpected,” she said. “We got hot in the postseason, which really helped us. This year, we were driven to achieve that goal of winning state and winning conference. We did both of those.’’

 It was also a state title for former player Colleen Biebel, who is in her first year as the RedHawks coach.

“You brought glory and honor to us and glory and honor to God, who gave you that talent,” Marist president Brother Hank Hammer told the players at the celebration. “You should reflect on that – thanking God for your talent, sense of perseverance and sense of commitment.’’

He also said that either in August or September, the players will be honored with a banner unveiling and ring ceremony.

Principal Larry Tucker and athletic director Bob Lim also gave speeches praising the team. Lim was choked up and had to put the microphone down before talking about the first team to win a state title under his watch. The Redhawks have seven state titles in school history.

“It’s nice to win one of the trophies,’’ he said. “And I’m not going to say it’s not important to win first place, because it is. But just seeing the hard work and resiliency and love to make it down state was great.’’

For more details on the postseason, see the sports section.

Diamond gems

  • Written by Ken Karrson


2015 All-Area Baseball Team

Diamond gems

POY Schalasky was a double-edged weapon for Rice


                        FIRST TEAM

MIKE SCHALASKY, Brother Rice, C/P, Sr.

            * When the National Federation of State High School Associations removed aluminum bats from prep baseball a few years ago, there was a noticeable drop in power numbers. Suddenly far fewer balls were leaving the yard and teams were forced to improvise a bit more in order to score. And then along came Schalasky, who managed to turn back the clock by unloading a dozen homers this season and serving as the ringleader of a potent Crusaders lineup that cleared the fence more than two-dozen times in all. But unlike so many free swingers, Schalasky was definitely not just an all-or-nothing performer -- when he wasn’t going deep he was finding holes in opposing defenses often enough to compile a hefty .459 average and respective on-base and slugging percentages of .543 and .936. And there was more, such as the 51 RBI, 102 total bases, 12 doubles, 21 runs and 19 walks. Schalasky fanned just 17 times in 130 plate appearances, fielded his position at a .942 clip and, as a bonus, was Brother Rice’s winningest pitcher with a 7-1 record. He kept his earned-run average below three, held opponents to a .207 cumulative average, struck out 51 batters in 52 2/3 innings and tossed two complete games. The 2015 area Player of the Year was an Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association All-State selection and will attend the University of Indianapolis on a baseball scholarship.

CHRISTIAN BOLHUIS, Chicago Christian, P/OF, Sr.

            * While Bolhuis didn’t repeat as Player of the Year, he became the Knights’ career-wins leader during his senior season after claiming seven of eight decisions and is also No. 1 all-time in strikeouts with 298, a team-high 75 of which were registered in 2015 in only 49 1/3 innings. Headed to Wheaton College in the fall to play both football and baseball, Bolhuis struggled a bit more with his control this season than he had as a junior, which was reflected in his 39 bases-on-balls, but he still did well enough to post an impressive 1.99 ERA. At the plate Bolhuis stroked 33 hits -- 10 of which went for extra bases -- scored 30 runs and drove in the same number of them, the latter mark placing him in a four-way tie for team leadership in that department. For good measure he also drew 20 walks and stole 10 bases.

ANDREW DYKE, Brother Rice, OF, Jr.

            * Dyke skipped football last fall so he could concentrate on baseball and his extra work paid off in a season that, had Mike Schalasky not been on the scene, likely would have established Dyke as the Crusaders’ top gun. As it was, he still enjoyed an outstanding junior campaign with a .440 average, .680 slugging percentage and .537 on-base percentage. Augmenting those statistics were 44 hits, 37 runs, 35 RBI, eight doubles, four homers, 18 free passes and seven stolen bases. Dyke, a first-team all-area pick for the second consecutive year, whiffed only 13 times in 123 plate appearances and was guilty of just two errors, which helped him produce an excellent .965 fielding percentage. Dyke, Michael Massey, Ryan Kutt and Ryan King will form the nucleus of Rice’s 2016 club that should contend for a Chicago Catholic League Blue championship next spring.

TOMMY FARRELL, St. Laurence, 1B, So.

            * After displaying plenty of promise while participating in summer ball with the Vikings, Farrell showed those 2014 exploits were no fluke as he quickly became an integral part of a revamped St. Laurence lineup. He paced the Vikings with a .429 average and 51 hits while manning first base and demonstrated a keen batting eye for one so young -- opposing hurlers fanned Farrell just eight times in 132 plate appearances, which included 119 official at-bats. Twelve of his hits went for extra bases, but even when he only got to first Farrell was a threat because of his speed, as attested to by his team-high 13 steals. He scored 36 runs, drove in 26 more, drew 10 walks and generated respective slugging and on-base percentages of .546 and .485.

ANDY GAYTAN, Sandburg, OF, Jr.

            * A virtual unknown at the start of the 2015 season, Gaytan was a shining light for the Eagles in what turned out to be something of a rebuilding campaign. Sandburg failed to win 20 games for the first time in memory, but Gaytan certainly did his part to try to prevent any shortcomings as he batted .408 with a .504 on-base percentage and .495 slugging percentage. He included six doubles among his 42 hits, tallied 34 runs, knocked in 13 more and demonstrated a superb eye at the plate -- he struck out only four times in 124 plate appearances while coaxing 17 walks. Gaytan also was reliable on defense -- he made two catches Richards coach Brian Wujcik raved about in the Eagles’ 7-1 victory over the Bulldogs in the teams’ Class 4A regional opener.

ADAM GREGORY, Shepard, P, Sr.

            * An Illinois Baseball Coaches Association All-Northern Illinois selection and runner-up to Oak Lawn’s Boo Quillin in South Suburban Conference Red Player of the Year voting, Gregory anchored an Astros pitching staff that was missing one of its aces -- Brett Smith -- much of the year due to injury. He went 9-1 on the hill, the only loss being a 2-1 decision to Evergreen Park in a game where Mustangs hurler Brian Pall fanned 15, and Gregory complemented that record with a 1.02 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 55 innings while holding opposing batters to a meager .172 cumulative average. Gregory, who walked only 19 and threw seven complete games, did not give up any triples or home runs. As a hitter, he batted .391 with a .509 on-base percentage and .494 slugging percentage, 18 RBI, 18 runs and 15 walks. Gregory posted a solid .975 fielding percentage as well while helping the Astros tie the school record for single-season triumphs and capture their first league title in two decades.

RICH KAIRIS, Marist, OF/P, Sr.

            * Making his second straight appearance on the all-area first team and a three-time All-East Suburban Catholic Conference pick as well, Kairis was the RedHawks’ cornerstone both as an everyday player and on the hill. At the plate Kairis batted .427 with 53 hits, .556 slugging and .503 on-base percentages and 19 stolen bases; the average and hits total were dramatic increases over 2014. He tallied 33 runs, knocked in 16 more, smacked 10 doubles, coaxed 18 walks and was virtually impossible to strike out -- only four whiffs in 124 official at-bats. When he stood on the rubber, however, Kairis managed to find opponents’ weaknesses as evidenced by his 53 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings of work and foes’ cumulative .198 average. Kairis boasted a 1.35 ERA, logged six wins and didn’t hand out many gifts -- batters drew only 14 free passes from him. And just in case that wasn’t enough, Kairis, who’s headed to Augustana University, did not commit a defensive error in 85 fielding opportunities.

RYAN KING, Brother Rice, 2B, So.

            * Being surrounded by heavy hitters likely helped King see some good pitches, but he didn’t squander his opportunities as he quickly became a stalwart in his own right. King performed admirably on both sides of the ball for the Crusaders -- defensively he accumulated a .985 fielding percentage by committing just two errors in 136 total chances. He augmented that with offensive production that included a .369 average, 38 hits, 25 runs, 15 RBI and 17 stolen bases in 19 attempts. King’s respective slugging and on-base percentages were .456 and .444. While Brother Rice will obviously miss Player of the Year Mike Schalasky in 2016, King is one of several solid returnees who will give the Crusaders a running start into next season.


            * While no one was about to dislodge Mike Schalasky from his position as all-area first-team catcher, Peterka’s numbers were too good to drop him down into second-team territory. And although he was the Astros’ regular backstop, Peterka easily could have filled the designated-hitter role as he swung the bat to the tune of a hefty .422 average. Thirteen of his 38 hits were of the extra-base variety -- two of them left the ballpark -- and he posted a solid .622 slugging percentage to go along with an equally impressive .509 on-base percentage. Peterka drove in 34 runs, scored 20 of his own and reached base 17 times via walks. He struck out just seven times in 90 at-bats. Behind the dish Peterka was highly dependable -- he was guilty of only three errors while ringing up a .986 fielding percentage.

BOO QUILLIN, Oak Lawn, SS, Sr.

            * The 2015 South Suburban Conference Red Player of the Year put together a memorable senior campaign for the Spartans, who led the division for a while before giving way to eventual champion Shepard. Quillin batted a hefty .454 with 49 hits, 35 runs, 19 RBI and respective slugging and on-base percentages of .565 and .535. He reached base 16 times on free passes, went 12-of-14 in steals and rarely whiffed -- just six strikeouts in 128 plate appearances. What further enhanced Quillin’s value to Oak Lawn was his work on the mound. While his 4-2 ledger seems somewhat pedestrian, there was nothing ordinary about his other pitching stats, which included a microscopic 0.58 ERA and .192 opponents’ batting average. Quillin, who will play baseball at Elmhurst College next season, struck out 43 in 48 1/3 innings while walking only 12. He threw five complete games and two of his victories came via shutout.

JACK SNYDER, Marist, P, Jr.

            * Rich Kairis understandably attracted much of the attention directed toward the RedHawks, but Snyder was an important member of first-year coach Kevin Sefcik’s roster. His seven wins were tops among Marist pitchers and he also saved one game. Working 50 2/3 innings, Snyder issued just 13 walks while striking out 32 and opponents didn’t do much against him when they put the ball in play, as shown by their cumulative .173 batting average for the season. Snyder, who’ll unquestionably be considered the RedHawks’ mound ace in 2016, registered a minute 1.11 ERA.

DAN VOS, Chicago Christian, P, So.

            * Proving his notable seven-win freshman campaign was no accident Vos stepped forward as the Knights’ workhorse in 2015. His 63 2/3 innings pitched were 14 more than the next-busiest hurler and he compiled a 10-1 record, which put him more than halfway to Christian Bolhuis’ program-best career total for victories. Vos registered his second straight sub-2.00 ERA (1.98) and whiffed 68 batters while walking just 22. He was not necessarily counted on to be an offensive force, but Vos still contributed 24 hits, 26 RBI and 24 runs to an attack that played a key role in Christian reaching the 30-win plateau. Vos achieved all-area honorable-mention status as a freshman.

TREVOR WOLTERINK, Chicago Christian, 3B, Jr.

            * Chosen an all-area first-teamer for the second season in a row, Wolterink performed well enough to be named the Metro Suburban Conference Player of the Year in the Knights’ inaugural campaign there. His 2014 stats obviously warranted later recognition, but Wolterink still managed to improve on all of them this spring. As a junior he batted an even .400 with 40 hits, 38 runs and team-high 30 RBI. Eleven of his hits went for extra bases as he posted respective slugging and on-base percentages of .530 and .485. Wolterink drew 26 free passes, stole five bases and was unselfish -- he tied for the lead among Chicago Christian players with nine sacrifices. And although Dan Vos and Christian Bolhuis anchored the pitching staff, Wolterink certainly did his part in that area too as he went 7-3 with a 1.76 ERA and 61 strikeouts over 47 2/3 innings.



JOHN CARMODY, Marist, 1B, Jr.

            * Solid both offensively and in the field, Carmody’s RBI total was just one less than his number of base hits (35-36). A dozen of the latter went for extra bases, including four round-trippers, and he recorded a .479 slugging percentage to go along with a .391 on-base percentage, .308 average, 18 runs and 15 free passes. Carmody handled his defensive chances at a .960 clip and was a part of 16 double plays turned by the RedHawks’ infield. Last fall he gained all-area first-team recognition as a defensive lineman after making 56 tackles for Marist’s football squad.

JACK CAVANAUGH, St. Laurence, OF, Jr.

            * Along with Tommy Farrell, Cavanaugh was a newcomer of influence as the Vikings survived the graduation of some key individuals from the previous season to remain an area heavyweight. Cavanaugh was somewhat anonymous at the outset, but he quickly made himself known with a potent bat that generated an eye-opening .408 average by year’s end. He stroked 40 hits -- 10 of them going for extra bases -- scored 27 runs and drove in 21 while posting a .551 slugging percentage and .450 on-base percentage. Cavanaugh also swiped 8-of-10 bases.

MAX DOWNS, Stagg, OF, Jr.

            * The Chargers’ attack couldn’t be termed a juggernaut, but it was improved over the past couple seasons and a big reason for that was Downs’ presence in the lineup. He flirted with the .400 mark before finishing with a .392 average, one point less than Josh Nowak’s team-leading figure. Downs built his mark on 40 hits, which included a Stagg-best 11 doubles, and amassed respective slugging and on-base percentages of .529 and .451. He accounted for 40 runs (22 scored, 18 driven in) and augmented his efforts at the plate with a respectable .965 fielding percentage.

ZACH FRIELING, Chicago Christian, SS, So.

            * An all-area honorable-mention choice as a varsity freshman, Frieling continued his rapid development in 2015 and stands on the cusp of becoming one of the Knights’ all-time greats. In his second year he paced Chicago Christian in virtually every major offensive category, including average (.402), runs (47), hits (45), doubles (19), slugging (.607), on-base percentage (.531), steals (18 in 21 attempts) and even hit-by-pitches (eight). Frieling’s 30 RBI tied him with three teammates for the No. 1 slot in that department while his 24 bases-on-balls ranked third overall.

FRANK GRECO, St. Laurence, 3B, Sr.

            * Greco is back as a member of the all-area second team, but he accomplished the repeat in a rather unique manner as this time he was selected as an infielder. He got tabbed as a pitcher in 2014 and again performed admirably in that regard as he was 6-4 with a 2.71 ERA and nearly 4-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio (44-12) in 59 1/3 innings. One of his losses came in a 2-1 verdict against a California team that occupied the nation’s No. 1 position in USA Today for part of the season. However, Greco was perhaps even more valuable to the Vikings as a hitter as he batted .344 with 33 hits, 49 RBI and 20 runs. Included among his safeties were 10 doubles, five triples and three homers. Greco’s slugging stood at .646, his on-base percentage was .431, and he received 16 walks and stole 8-of-9 bases.

ERIC HORBACH, Shepard, P, Sr.

            * Adam Gregory understandably commanded the most attention among Astros pitchers, but Horbach also was a significant contributor to Shepard’s South Suburban Conference Red-winning fortunes in the absence of Brett Smith from the rotation. Horbach didn’t match Gregory’s glossy ledger, but his 5-3 record was certainly acceptable, particularly when complemented by 51 strikeouts -- versus 17 walks -- in 56 innings and a 1.50 ERA. Opposing batters managed just a .213 cumulative average against Horbach, who tossed four complete games. Offensively, he racked up a .327 average with 32 hits, 26 runs, 18 RBI and seven doubles. Horbach got hit by a pitch 11 times, making him the Astros’ leader in that painful category.

PAT MEEHAN, Marist, P/INF, Sr.

            * Along with Rich Kairis, Meehan served as a veteran ringleader for the RedHawks, who won 24 games and just missed reaching a sectional final. He saw action on the hill as both a starter and reliever and had a hand in one-third of Marist’s successes (five victories, three saves). He averaged nearly a strikeout per inning, finishing with 45 in 48 frames while surrendering only 11 free passes. Meehan’s ERA was 2.63 and opponents hit just .237 against him. He was also a defensive standout -- Meehan registered a .929 fielding percentage on 127 total chances and took part in 14 double plays. He will attend Dayton University but does not plan to continue his baseball career in college.

SEAN MILLER, Evergreen Park, 2B, Sr.

            * Alongside fourth-year shortstop Mark Martin, Miller provided the Mustangs with one of the south suburbs’ best double-play tandems. The latter was especially proficient with the glove during the South Suburban Conference Red portion of Evergreen Park’s schedule as he committed only one fielding error in 68 defensive plays. Miller was guilty of just two miscues on 94 chances overall for the season and had a hand in nine double plays. He was no slouch as a hitter either as he batted .358 with a .427 on-base percentage, .547 slugging percentage, 32 RBI, 25 runs and three homers. Miller will attend Loras College in Iowa along with Mustangs teammate Brian Pall.

BRIAN PALL, Evergreen Park, P, Sr.

            * The other half of Evergreen Park’s Loras College-bound duo, Pall pieced together the single most memorable pitching outing of the spring when he mowed down 15 Shepard batters on third strikes in a 2-1 win over the eventual South Suburban Conference Red champions. Pall, an honorable-mention linebacker on the 2014 all-area football team, ended the season with 77 strikeouts in 60 innings and mustered a 6-3 ledger. He also recorded a save in his lone opportunity to garner one.

JOHN ROBERTS, Oak Lawn, C, Jr.

            * In a year when quality catchers abounded, Roberts nosed out such strong competition as Evergreen Park’s Mike Rizzo, St. Laurence’s Anthony Rios and Stagg’s Mitchell Spencer for the second-team nod. The Spartan did so largely on the strength of a superb .448 average -- which was just four points below Boo Quillin’s squad-leading mark -- that was constructed on 47 hits, eight of which went for extra bases. He accrued 25 RBI, tallied 15 runs and fanned only nine times in 114 plate appearances. Roberts’ respective slugging, on-base and fielding percentages were .543, .478 and .973, the latter of those being fashioned on 222 chances.

JIM ROCHE, Sandburg, DH, Sr.

            * The Eagles shortstop didn’t get placed ahead of Chicago Christian’s Zach Frieling at that position on the all-area second team, but he was still good enough to warrant a spot after pacing Sandburg with an excellent .458 average. He also was No. 1 in hits (44), doubles (14) and triples (three) while being runner-up in runs (32) and RBI (23). Roche drew 12 walks and struck out just seven times in 111 plate appearances. He was named an all-area honorable mention as a junior.


            * Another important cog in the Spartans’ offensive machine was Slattery, one of four Oak Lawn players to bat at least .365 for the season. Slattery’s final mark was .385, which was generated on 40 hits, almost one-third of which were of the extra-base variety. Those included nine doubles and two homers, which helped him compile a .567 slugging percentage. Slattery also had a .453 on-base percentage, 27 runs scored, 17 RBI and nine steals. He reached base eight times after being plunked by a pitch and produced a fielding percentage of .915.

ANGELO SMITH, Richards, P, So.

            * After becoming just the second freshman to start his prep baseball career at Richards on the varsity level in 2014, the hard-throwing Smith returned to action this spring as one of the area’s top strikeout pitchers. While exhibiting just enough wildness to keep batters from getting comfortable in the box, Smith blew third strikes past 83 of them – the highest total among local hurlers – in just 53 2/3 innings of work. And despite his alleged control issues, the lefty boasted a fine 3-to-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Smith won six of nine decisions and amassed a nifty 1.57 ERA. In addition, he fielded at a .943 clip (six errors in 98 chances) and batted .327 with 27 hits and 16 RBI.


                        HONORABLE MENTION

RYAN KUTT, Brother Rice


TOM PRZEKWAS, Brother Rice

PAT MCCARTHY, Chicago Christian

MARK MARTIN, Evergreen Park

MIKE RIZZO, Evergreen Park



NICK MEJIA, Richards







ANTHONY RIOS, St. Laurence




            * The veteran skipper had several close calls over the years when it came to conference championships, but the Astros always had to settle for bridesmaid status -- until 2015, that is. Not only did Shepard erase a 2 ½-game deficit to overtake Oak Lawn and end a 20-year title drought by capturing the South Suburban Conference Red championship, but the Astros’ 24 victories tied a single-season school record and their winning percentage was the program’s best ever. What made DiFoggio’s coaching stand out was that he was able to keep his guys focused on the task at hand while dealing with injuries that sidelined two mainstays -- Brett Smith and Kevin Carmody -- for most of the year. Along the way DiFoggio also collected his 300th career triumph.



Un-4A-gettable RedHawks

  • Written by Ken Karrson


Un-4A-gettable RedHawks

Marist rules over Illinois softball for 2nd time since 2012.


By Anthony Nasella


Every sports program sets goals for itself at the start of a season.

Depending on the team, those may be modest in nature. Sure, everyone says winning a state title is the main objective, but the truth is only a handful of squads have a realistic chance to achieve such rarified status and therefore must adjust their sights downward a bit.

For Marist softball players, however, shooting for the top was not only a reasonable aspiration but an attainable one as well. The RedHawks made it so on Saturday in East Peoria, where they squeezed out a 1-0 victory over Lincoln-Way East at EastSide Centre that gave them the Class 4A championship for the second time in four seasons.

That win followed a pair of come-from-behind triumphs. Marist, which will carry a 28-game unbeaten streak into 2016, edged Oak Park-River Forest 2-1 in Friday’s semifinal and slipped past Downers Grove South 5-4 in last Tuesday’s Benedictine Supersectional.

What made this latest title particularly noteworthy is that it came under the leadership of a rookie coach. Colleen Biebel took over the reins of the RedHawks’ highly successful softball program from Denise Bromberek, who had guided Marist to its 2012 crown.

“No first-year coach at Marist has ever won a state championship,” school president Brother Hank Hammer said during a welcome-home celebration on Saturday. “And isn’t it wonderful that it happened with a woman’s sports team here in a formerly all-male high school? This is something we would have never dreamed about years ago.”

Current players definitely dreamt about it, though, prior to the start of the 2015 campaign.

“We talked about this in March and set goals at the beginning of the year,” Biebel said. “We said we wanted to win [the East Suburban Catholic] conference and win state, and each girl did not take one step back the whole year. We stayed focused and determined and I could not be prouder of them.

“They’re a mentally tough group of girls. They knew they had to get the job done, and if one didn’t do it then another would. We really took things an inning at a time this season.”

While each of its last three victories came by one run, Marist’s championship-game clash with the Griffins may have redefined the term “nail-biter.” The RedHawks (36-4-2) managed just two hits, but one of them was a triple by pitcher Zariya Gonzalez, who then tallied the contest’s lone run in the second inning by racing home on Vanessa Villasenor’s sacrifice fly.

From there Gonzalez maintained control as she stranded five runners and struck out four. Outfielder Brooke Wilson, who also played on Marist’s 2012 state-winning club, supported Gonzalez with four catches.

“My defense always backs me up,” Gonzalez said. “It feels good to have them behind me catching every ball and making every play. And when somebody didn’t do their job, another teammate picked them up.”

Gonzalez, who won 28 of 32 decisions this spring, said she relished the challenge of having to perform in a tense situation.

“I thought about the pressure the 2012 team had when they won state and I just wanted to be in that position,” Gonzalez said. “I was pretty much in a groove in those final two games and I knew I had to focus on every pitch and just get the job done. We all just wanted to win state and we knew we had to be laid back and positive about the game.”

Biebel wasn’t surprised by either Gonzalez’s handiwork or that of her team as a whole.

“She had her stuff -- [if] I asked for a pitch on the plate or outside, she would hit it,” Biebel said of Gonzalez. “[And if] I’d ask for a changeup, low and inside, she would hit it. She hit every one of her spots and was just stellar. Zariya was hungry for a state championship and she was not going to take anything less.

“Everyone was making the plays, especially in those last two games. It was not an easy ride to get down there and defense is what really pulled us through. We had to play tough defense.”

Wilson, the first female athlete in school history to be a two-time state champion, said the two triumphant clubs “were definitely two very different teams, but both teams put it together at the right time.”

Actually, the 2015 RedHawks rarely failed to be at their best as evidenced by their record. The 2012 contingent, however, sat at .500 well into the season before embarking on a late charge that resulted in 12 straight victories, the last, of course, being the championship-clinching encounter.

“Our first year it was definitely unexpected,” Wilson said of the title. “We got hot in the postseason, which really helped us. This year we were driven to achieve that [preseason] goal of winning state.”

Biebel was grateful for Wilson’s presence.

“Brooke was the No. 2 hitter on that [2012] team and she knew what the experience was like and was able to share [it with the other players],” Biebel said.


In order to punch their ticket to the finale, the RedHawks had to rally against Oak Park-River Forest on Friday. Paige Egan’s fifth-inning RBI single that knocked in Alexis Rogers proved to be the difference for Marist.

Egan had also stroked the game-winning hit versus Downers South three days earlier. That chopper past the infield was good for two RBI and handed the Mustangs only their second setback in 37 games.

“I wanted to put the ball in play,” Egan said, referring to her clutch hit in the supersectional. “I wanted to make sure I was able to do something. I didn't know it would go through when I hit it, but I did know the field had a lot of bounce to it.”

“Paige is our little slapper and she came through with three big RBIs for us in the playoffs,” Bielbel said.

Egan’s hit on Tuesday capped the RedHawks’ rebound from what had once been a 4-2 deficit against Downers South. Marist also trailed 1-0 on Friday before overtaking the Huskies.

“We’ve been strong in making comebacks this year,” Egan said. “We just want to try to win the inning [and] we were relentless in doing that. We picked each other up at the plate and we were sure something [good] was going to happen.

“We knew we had a good team and that Coach Biebel is a good coach. It was a matter of bringing it all together [this season] and becoming one.”

Gonzalez held Oak Park-River Forest in check after surrendering an early homer. She fanned three and stranded five baserunners. Earning the pitching win against the Mustangs was Emily Reilly, who relieved Gonzalez in the third and allowed just two hits the rest of the way.

“Emily Reilly helped us get to state,” Biebel said. “She didn’t get the chance to pitch in Peoria because Zariya was so stellar, but she saved the [playoff] games against Mother McAuley and Downers Grove South. That was huge for us.”

While Biebel admitted to some anxious moments along the way because “the teams that we played were amazing teams,” she said her athletes’ resolve provided comfort.

“The girls’ energy, focus, drive and determination definitely helped me to keep calm and know that we were going to be focused on our task at hand,” Biebel said. “The girls executed when it was needed.”


Hair today, fans gone tomorrow?

  • Written by Ken Karrson




HEADLINE: Hair today, fans gone tomorrow?


            People are fascinated by hair.

            Maybe it’s just an American thing, but there’s no denying the importance of it here in the U.S. The availability of hair-care products is seemingly infinite, gazillions of dollars are spent on them and countless folks devote far more time to working on their coifs than working at their jobs.

            Sometimes fame can be gained from going hairless simply because such a look runs counter to what most of us prefer and thus stands out. Would Michael Jordan have become a household name or Mr. Clean a notable household cleaner without his bald pate as a form of advertisement? Quite possibly not.

            Hair can be unwelcome too if it’s found anywhere but on one’s head, unless we're referring to a man’s chest. Over the years that’s often been thought as a sign of virility, although once those hairs turn gray all bets are off in that department.

            But a woman typically wants hair solely on her head and neither sex is keen about having any that turns two eyebrows into one. And who among us desires even a few strands of hair substituting for parsley as plate garnish at a fine-dining establishment?

            Apparently there’s also one guy who’d prefer to see it removed from the faces of NHL players in the spring. It’d be easy to dismiss this man’s dislike by labeling him some sort of weirdo except for one thing: He’s a very influential weirdo.

            Actually, Mark Lazarus’ feeling about bearded hockey players is quite easy to understand. As chairman of NBC Sports, he has a vested interest in players’ recognition level and, by extension, their potential marketability.

            Lazarus’ network dropped $2 billion -- that’s billion with a “b” -- on the NHL for the sport’s broadcasting rights over a 10-year span. Considering hockey is still seen as a regional sport in some ways, the Blackhawks’ hold over Chicagoans notwithstanding, it’s not at all surprising Lazarus and whoever else has a financial stake in the NHL would want to put the organization’s best face forward.

            But playoff beards have been a tradition for over three decades, dating back to the New York Islanders teams of the early 1980s that won four straight Stanley Cups. At least that’s where credit is given -- or the blame if you’re Mr. Lazarus.

            “Let’s get their faces out there,” Lazarus told one major news outlet. “Let’s talk about how young and attractive they are. I know it’s a tradition and superstition, but I think (the beards) hurt recognition.”

            Maybe, but try telling that to James Harden. The Houston Rockets player was runner-up for the NBA’s MVP award this season, but no one knows him solely because of that; in fact there are probably a number of people who had no idea of how the MVP voting unfolded until it was just mentioned here.

            No, what makes Harden eminently recognizable is a beard that would fit right in with those worn by colonialists. It’s become as much of a trademark for him as the chrome dome was for Jordan and Clean.

            There’s no case of mistaken identity whenever one sees a painting of Jesus, and that pudgy guy who spends his Decembers mingling with reindeer and elves has gotten pretty good mileage out of a face filled of whiskers. So too did our nation's 16th president.

            Some may say Jesus, Saint Nick and Abe Lincoln are exceptions, that beards are the domain of the unkempt and connote an overall unsavory quality. According to Lazarus, hockey players “have a great opportunity with more endorsements or simply more recognition with fans saying, ‘That guy looks like the kid next door,' which many of these guys do.”

            But what if the kid next door chooses to look the way former major-leaguer Johnny Damon did before joining the New York Yankees? With his long hair and shaggy beard, Damon resembled the kind of guy whose mug shot might have appeared on “America’s Most Wanted.”

            At least that’s what we’re told. Somehow I don’t think the Boston Red Sox cared much about Damon's grooming habits while he was helping them win the 2004 World Series. Neither did long-suffering Red Sox fans whose wait for a championship was almost as inexhaustible as that of Cubs fans.

            Although Mark Lazarus isn’t trying to be a stick in the mud, he’s falling into that same trap as so many before him: thinking clean-shaven equates to clean living. It sometimes does, but as many debutantes could verify the biggest wolves are often the ones with every hair in place and none of it on their faces.

            Now let me make clear that Lazarus is not suggesting hockey players are suddenly bad guys because they’re sporting facial foliage. His contention is that they’ll be more appealing to a greater number of fans minus the beards.

            But it really shouldn’t matter because the game ought to be enough of a draw on its own merits. Playoff hockey is, in this humble opinion, the most exciting happening in sports.

How can it not be? Heck, those of us watching are barely able to keep our balance while emptying the contents of an ice tray in our kitchen let alone while skating on a surface covered with ice. These guys are magicians who skate fast enough to get ticketed in a school zone and are also the toughest sons of guns around.

So if hockey somehow fails to connect with enough of an audience to satisfy NBC honchos, I highly doubt being able to see Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane in a less-hirsute state is going to make that much of a difference.

And let’s not forget that even with freshly shaved mugs, hockey players still won’t be all that visible thanks to the helmets and face shields they're required to wear. Lazarus isn’t suggesting that safety gets compromised in the name of promotion, so aren’t we really back at Square 1 regardless of how close athletes get to their razors?

Truth is, broaching a subject like beards and attaching any degree of importance to them seems rather silly. You obviously don’t see the NBA worrying about such trivial matters.

Why just the other day I noticed an important story about LeBron James, one that frankly I was surprised to see because I thought everything that could have possibly been written about him already had been. But I learned that James does not use dye on what little hair he has, a declaration that came straight from his barber’s mouth.

Boy, I can rest easy now knowing the truth about LeBron’s head. And now you can officially call me -- and everyone else who perused the article -- hair-brained.