Fire wants to change image -- and record

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 FIRE 12 3 2

Photo by Jeff Vorva

The Fire and Arturo Alvarez (left) hope to be shoving teams around a little more after last year’s team had the worst record in the MSL and forward Michael de Leeuw said the team was “too nice.’’


The nice guys finished last.

The Fire had a Major League Soccer-worst 7-17-10 season in 2016 and Michael de Leeuw, who joined the team in the middle of the season, said he noticed the team was “too nice” both on and off the field.

“Sometime you need some guys to say something,” de Leeuw said. “With what you saw last year…something needed to be said. And when we play away, don’t be so nice against teams who are higher than us. Be aggressive. Get what you can get.’’

There is nowhere to go but up and officials scrambled to mix in what they hope are quality impact players on the roster for 2017. The season opens at 1 p.m. on Saturday with the Fire facing Columbus on the road.

The home opener is at 1 p.m. March 11 against Real Salt Lake at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

At this point, it’s hard to tell if the team will be less nice but on paper, it looks like it has the talent for a drastic improvement.

Some of the new faces to look out for are Nenanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty, Juninho, and goalie Jorge Rodrigo Bava

“We have more guys who are champions,” second-year coach Veljko Paunovic said. “They have more experience. We have guys who know how to deal with difficult situations. Every team goes through the long season facing different situations and challenges.

“You have to have guys on your team who know how to deal with those types of situations.’’

And there are still some quality players returning, including David Accam, who led the Fire in scoring the past two seasons in MLS game with 10 and nine goals respectively.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the old faces and the new faces playing together,” Paunovic said. “We’re very happy to start the season with the players we have. I believe we are in a very good spot right now. We’ll have a lot of challenges – every team in the world has challenges. The preparation that we have made will be very important.

“We obviously have high expectations. We believe we did a great job in the offseason with the acquisitions we have. It’s going to be a better team. It will be more competitive. It will be a team that will bring us a much better season and enjoyment.’’

The preseason ended Saturday with an impressive 4-1 victory over defending Eastern Conference champion Toronto and the Fire finished with a perfect 6-0-0 mark. DeLeeuw had two goals in Saturday’s game.

But that’s the preseason.

“Now the real stuff is coming.” Paunovic said.

“I think everyone did very well. What we have to do now as a club once we come back is do everything to keep that mood that we are in, the positivity that we have, the expectation and hard work. We have to support the players and give them everything they need to recover and start well this season.”

DeLeeuw, who said a playoff bid is a realistic goal for the team, enjoyed the winning in February and hopes it continues.

“It’s good for our confidence, but at the end, every team is starting at zero,” he said.


Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: It's a waiting game for Moraine stars

  • Written by Jeff Vorva



Food for thought for those who aren’t very hungry:

I figured that when I was going to talk to Moraine Valley Community College sophomore star players Erin Drynan and Michelle Borgen, they would tell me all about the colleges around the country that want to gobble them up.

I figured they would tell me they are receiving mountains of mail and recruiters from colleges across the country are kicking holes in their front doors to get a few minutes of face time.

I figured wrong.

Despite the fact that these two have been putting up monster numbers in scoring, rebounding and shot blocking for two year, they are not in high demand.

Or maybe they are.

But they are going to have to wait.

It’s getting close to March and the Cyclones’ Dynamic Duo are more concerned about getting their team to the nationals rather than dwell on colleges.

But, since I was nosy and pressed them on the college issue last Thursday, they both sounded a little frustrated about the present and optimistic about the coming months.

Borgen, who played hoops at Andrew High School, is crossing her fingers a spot in the NJCAA nationals will generate more interest.

“If we go to nationals, it will help us a lot,” Borgen said a few minutes after scoring 30 points against Waubonsee. “There are a handful of NAIA schools in the area I like. (Moraine) Coach (Delwyn) Jones said that if we go to nationals, since I’m 6-foot tall, that will help a lot.’’

Drynan, a Mother McAuley graduate from Evergreen Park, is philosophical. When asked if she was disappointed she hasn’t heard from many schools, she said: “No…yeah. I mean they will come when they come and whatever happens, happens. I’m putting myself out there.’’

Drynan, who hauled down a school-record 25 rebounds in a game at Elgin Community College on Valentine’s Day, said she sent film of herself to dozens of schools across the nation.

Jones has seen this before. He is not worried about his stars landing somewhere to play basketball.

“It’s actually not late at all,” Jones said. “In my 17 years, I only had one player sign before June 1. For high school, that’s very late. But the junior colleges are coming a little later.’’

While the players say they haven’t received much interest, Jones said some schools have sent out feelers to him about the pair.

“They are still getting some interest – Georgia Southern is interested in both of them but I’m not sure if they want to go to the same school,’’ the coach said. “Western Illinois still has some interest. UIC showed some lukewarm interest. Chicago State is real high on them. There are a number of NAIA schools showing interest – St. Francis, Indiana University Northwest, St. Xavier and there is some Division II interest, too.’’

So it’s a case of hurry up and wait.

The name game

I actually thought writer Jason Maholy was pulling a gag on me when, in his state wrestling story, he mentions a kid from Washington named Dack Punke.

I thought Maholy was full of baloney and was making a Daft Punk reference or was honoring C.M. Punk, whom Maholy worked with for a day or two before C.M. became a famous pro wrestler.

Being the good editor that I am, I looked it up and there is actually a Dack Punke and he’s pretty good. He’s heading to Missouri for his college career.

In girls gymnastics this weekend, a girl from Prairie Ridge named Nicki Baars was the all-around state champion but I was disappointed that she only took third in the uneven bars event. Shouldn’t someone named Baars own the bars?

Finally, I was at the Lockport swimming sectional, where the hosts have a diver named Wrigley Fields.

When the Cubs found out about his name in 2008, they let him throw out the first pitch before a game. His father, Jerry Fields, is obviously a Cubs fan.


Several area wrestlers battling in state tournament

  • Written by Jason Maholy


Photo by Jason Maholy

Marist's Diata Drayton has the upper hand against Nick Sondag of Waubonsie Valley in the Downers Grove North Class 3A Sectional title match at 220 pounds.



Diata Drayton believes no wrestler in his weight class can beat him when he is at his best.

“That's my mentality – the winner's mentality,” the Marist senior said after winning the 220-pound title last Saturday at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A Downers Grove North Sectional.

And Drayton must be at his best every time he steps on the mat. He will enter the state tournament 40-0, and as the wins piled up this season while the losses remained at zero, he became a marked man. He understands that for a while now he has had to be prepared to thwart every opponent's greatest effort as they've tried to drop him from the ranks of the unbeaten.

“It only makes me work harder because everyone's gunning to beat me, so I've got to do my best out there,” he said.

Drayton cruised to the sectional title, pinning Adnane Lanaati of Oak Lawn in 2:21 and Jesus Lopez of Glenbard East in 44 seconds before handling Nick Sondag of Waubonsie Valley, 11-3, in the championship bout. Sondag entered the final 36-1.

Drayton will be making his third appearance at the state tournament, which begins today at the University of Illinois' State Farm Center in Champaign. He placed fourth last season at 220 pounds.

“It feels good, I worked hard for it,” he said of earning one last opportunity to win a state title. “I wrestled a lot over the summer, different guys, to help me get better. I said that I wouldn't let [losing his final match of the season] happen again, so I've worked to get better and better every time out.”

The biggest difference for Drayton this season is that he's able to push himself late in matches when both he and his opponents are tiring.

“Even though I'm up, I try to get more take-downs,” he said.

Domenic Zaccone of Stagg will also enter the state tournament unbeaten after taking the Downers Grove North Sectional crown at 113 pounds. The sophomore pinned two opponents and beat another by technical fall before earning a hard-fought, 6-4 decision over Tommy Russell of St. Rita in the title match.

Zaccone took fourth last season at 106 pounds, and has ambitions to be a three-time state champion. That, of course, means he must win that first title this weekend; and despite his unblemished record he acknowledged he has some work to do if he hopes to be atop the podium Saturday evening.

“I just didn't like the second and third periods [in the title match], how they went,” he said. “There's a lot to improve on based on today. The semifinal match felt great, got two take-downs and back points right away, but then started getting slow.”

Zaccone doesn't think much about being undefeated – his focus is on dominating his opponent every time he steps on the mat, he said. After falling short of a state championship last season, he doesn't take g for granted.

“Coming into this year it was like, 'Okay, you need to step up your game. If you want to be a three-time state champ you've got to get this first one. I've been working on everything to be the best. [Being undefeated]'s fine, but I don't really pay attention to it. I just try to pay attention to what's in front of me. Numbers are numbers; when you're wrestling there's no numbers out there.”

Pat Brucki of Sandburg is the other area wrestler who won a title in Downers Grove. The two-time state medalist will head to Champaign 40-1, and unbeaten against Illinois wrestlers. He easily defeated Mason Kroening of Waubonsie Valley, 17-5, in the semifinals at 195 pounds, then beat Illinois Matmen's No. 2-ranked wrestler, Downers Grove South’s Sergio Villalobos, 20-5, in the final.

Other state qualifiers via the Downers Grove North Sectional are a pair of 120-pounders, Jacob Dado of Marist (second place) and Patrick Nolan of Sandburg (fourth place); and Noah Price of Stagg, who finished fourth at 132; Cole Bateman of Sandburg, third at 220; and Malik Scates of Sandburg, third at 285.

Class 2A

Brother Rice is sending eight wrestlers to state including Thornridge Sectional champs Hassan Johnson (120 pounds) and Jake Hutchinson (170).

Other Crusaders who qualified were Angel Granado (126), Rahman Johnson (145), Dominick Murphy (152), Paul Gilva (160), Scott Sierzega (220) and Myles Ruffin (285).

Richards will bring two wrestlers to Champaign -- Basil Muhammad (113) and Anthony Quinn (195).


A perfect scene -- area bowlers heading to state

  • Written by Aaron FitzPatrick



Photo by Aaron FitzPatrick

Richards qualified for state for a second straight year. From left to right: Phoenix Lopez, Katie Strache, Gina Bartkus, Caitlyn Solomon, Alexandra Wozniak, Peyton Attig, Sarah Coffman and Mia Jones.


You can’t beat perfection.

For 12 frames, Richards High School senior bowler, Alexandra Wozniak, was as good as a bowler can get at last week’s Oak Lawn Sectional Saturday at Palos Lanes in Palos Hills. In the sixth and final game of the tournament, Wozniak rolled a perfect 300 and helped lift the Lady Bulldogs to the state tournament, which starts Friday at Cherry Bowl in Rockford.

Richards head coach, Emily Gesell, said Wozniak is “the calm through the storm,” for the Bulldogs.

That description was tested in the sectional Wozniak continued to post one “X” after another on the scoreboard.  As the strikes piled up, so did the crowd around her lanes to witness a rarity in the sport. Wozniak, whose previous best was a 279, appeared to be calm and just having fun after each frame. However, inside, she said it was just the opposite, especially in the later frames.

“I’ve been shaking since the ninth frame,” Wozniak said. “I had a rhythm going but I pulled that last ball. You need a little luck in bowling sometimes.”

Wozniak said the thought of a perfect game never enters her mind during a match.

“Of course it would be awesome if I did but I didn’t think it was going to happen today,” she said. “Well, maybe after seven strikes I thought maybe I could do this.”

Gesell said Wozniak has always had the potential for a 300 game.

 “I knew she had it in her. She’s one of our most consistent and level headed bowlers,” said Gesell. “I knew she had the potential to do that this year but over those last couple of balls is was, ‘Alright, Alex. Stay calm. Just stay calm.’”

How does a coach deal with the situation as she watches one of her own try to achieve perfection?

“I may appear calm, but inside I’m a little bit jittery,” Gesell. “It happened. So I guess I was calm enough.”

Wozniak’s score solidified a spot for Richards in the state tournament for the second year in a row and propelled her to a second place individual finish with a 222.7 average. She finished just six pins behind sectional champion Serenity Quintero of Waubonsie Valley. Waubonsie Valley also brought home the sectional title with a 6,212 followed by Richards (5,949), York (5,428) and host Oak Lawn (5,407).

It is Richards’ ninth appearance in the state tournament and the Bulldogs finished fourth in 1977 and 1986. Last year, the team took 13th and Wozniak finished 36th.

This is Oak Lawn’s state debut as a team.

Oak Lawn high scorer, Allison Hebel, said the team is looking forward to the challenge.

“It’s crazy,” said Hebel. “We’ve been looking forward to it this whole season. We thought we had a really strong team coming this year and we have a lot of great freshman and sophomores who are helping us. It’s great to finally make it.”

Andrew sectional

Sandburg junior Emily Schrader, who finished 10th in the state last year, took fourth place in the Andrew Sectional Saturday at Orland Bowl and earned a return trip to Rockford. She opened with a 169 and needed a big finish in her last five games to qualify.

She followed with a 257-227 to finish the morning session with a 653. She rolled a 204-228-266 for a 698 to vault up the standings.

“I was thinking too much the first game,” she said. “I was overhooking and changed my ball. It seems like lately my first game of each set has been lower. But I can’t get down on myself.’’

Eagles junior Sophia Jablonski became one of the first two bowlers in Illinois to compete in the wheelchair division and she rolled a 459 in four games to qualify for state.

--Sports Editor Jeff Vorva contributed to this report


Changes are coming to CCL, including vanquishing hoops tourney

  • Written by Frank Gogola


Photo by Jeff Vorva

Brother Rice’s Mike Shepski dribbles by St. Laurence’s Isiah Harvey in a game on Jan. 31. The two could face each other Sunday in the second round of the last Chicago Catholic League Tournament. 

Major changes are coming to the Chicago Catholic League, especially in boys basketball.

After a four-year run, this season’s ongoing CCL basketball tournament will be the last one. CCL basketball teams and other team sports will be realigned from a geographical model to a parity model in hopes of balancing competition and marketing the league.

Both changes were voted on and approved by the 18 CCL athletic directors by a majority vote. Specifics of the realignment are still being discussed.

Southwest Regional Publishing area schools that will be affected are Brother Rice, St. Laurence, St. Rita and Mt. Carmel.

Here are some of the more pressing issues:

End of the conference tournament

Area coaches and athletics directors spoke strongly in favor of wanting to keep the CCL tournament.

St. Rita athletic director Mike Zunica, St. Laurence AD Tim Chandler and Mt. Carmel AD Dan LaCount said they voted in favor of keeping the tournament.

While teams from most other conferences are playing through their conference a second time, CCL teams did so in a bracket format.

“The finality of the state tournament is like boom, you lose and your season is over, so you have to make every possession matter,” Brother Rice coach Bobby Frasor said. The CCL tournament “gets you in that mindset before the state tournament.”

When Gary DeCesare started coaching at St. Rita in 2009-10, he was looking for a way to prepare for the state tournament other than just practices. League coaches bought in on the tournament idea, and he and Loyola Academy coach Tom Livatino ran the first tournament following the 2013-14 season before the CCL took it over.

“The level of competition absolutely prepares them for the state tournament,” DeCesare said. “Everybody’s goal is to win a state title. This gives a Chicago Catholic League teams a chance to win a tournament, a championship.”

In the tournament’s first three years, Fenwick in 2016 was the only regular-season champion from the CCL North or South to win the tournament.

“Teams that weren’t in the running for a conference championship at the end of the season still had something to work toward at that point,” Chandler said. “It was awesome for the kids and the program to have a couple upsets and create that buzz. It almost had that March Madness feeling.”

The main opposition to the CCL tournament came from smaller schools. CCL teams in 1A or 2A start regionals one week before 3A and 4A, so they have almost no time off between the CCL tournament, which has a consolation bracket, and regionals.

Other issues were logistics and travel. Some games sites were set while others were determined by wins and losses, which could be an issue at co-ed schools if girls basketball was hosting a regional. There was a noticed a lack of interest in weeknight and neutral-site games, especially in the consolation bracket, with schools spread out in the northern, western and southern suburbs.

Zunica said there won’t be any CCL tournaments “in the near future.”

Conference realignment

CCL basketball realignment is part of an ongoing process to make the conference more appealing through a parity model that groups teams based on success.

The main factors in the parity model are conference records from the last two years, enrollment of male students instead of total enrollment since some schools are co-ed, and participation numbers in that sport to account for roster depth of larger schools, according to Providence Catholic athletic director Doug Ternik, who is on the CCL Parity Committee.

“Teams want to join a league where they know they can have a chance to compete,” Zunica said. “If you have different conferences with parity where that team could envision themselves in one of those divisions and have the ability to compete, then that would be attractive. That is the entire goal: to always be attractive to somebody if we wanted to expand.”

The realignment also evens out conferences. After Hales and Seton closed, the CCL South was left with eight teams and seven conference games, and the CCL North had 10 teams and nine conference games.

The proposed basketball model will be two nine-team conferences. They’re expected to play eight division games and three crossovers since there won’t be a tournament.

In the fall, soccer was the first to use a parity model, and boys volleyball will have a parity model this spring, although those were based more on an eye test than a scientific model. Baseball is expected to make the switch in spring 2018 and football in fall 2018. Other team sports will go to a parity model in the future.

It’s a great way to keep things fresh in the league, interest outside schools and make sure we remain the best conference in the state,” LaCount said.

Teams good at basketball but bad at soccer may be in the top basketball conference and a lower soccer conference. Not all sports using the parity model will be limited to two conferences. Football is expected to be four.

Parity model data will be rerun every two years to promote or relegate teams based on success. There’ll be an appeal process for school to appeal up or down a division, LaCount said.

Basketball realignment changes will continue to be discussed. They need to be approved by the school presidents and are expected to become official in May.