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Let's talk about playoffs with Fire, Red Stars and ThunderBolts

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 POLSTER 8 17

Photo by Jeff Vorva

The Chicago Fire and Matt Polster have been soaring this season and are in good position to make their first MLS postseason appearance since 2012.

 

It was about 16 years ago that former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora made his famous rant about how bad his team was playing.

When a reporter asked him about the Colts’ possibility of making the playoffs, he yelped/barked “Playoffs? Don’t talk about—playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?! I just hope we can win a game. Another game.’’

Well around here, three of the area professional teams in or bordering this newspaper’s coverage area are making a run at the postseason in their respective sports and leagues.

Playoffs? To heck with Mora -- let’s talk about playoffs.

The Chicago Fire, which had the worst record in Major League Soccer the past two seasons, is in prime position for the playoffs. The Chicago Red Stars have been trading first- and second-place positions with North Carolina in the National Women’s Soccer League and also are eying the postseason with a decent seed.  In baseball, the Windy City ThunderBolts have been on the cusp for a slot in the Frontier League playoffs.

So here is a look at the past, present and future of the three area teams regarding postseason bids in 2017:

Chicago Fire

Past:  The Fire’s first MLS season was successful in 1998 as it not only made the playoffs but it also won the MLS Cup with a 2-0 victory over D.C. United.

It never got that good again.

Still, the team made the playoffs with regularity early in franchise history, making the postseason from 1999 to 2003 before failing to qualify in 2004. It went on a five-year run making the playoffs from 2005 to 2009 before hitting a dry spell.

Since 2010, the Fire made the playoffs just once in 2012 and lost in the knockout round to Houston, 2-1.

With back-to-back seasons of 8-20-6 in 2015 and 7-17-10 in 2016, a playoff appearance this year would be a refreshing change for Fire fans.

Present: The Fire headed into this week with a 12-6-5 mark, good for 41 points. The team was third in the MLS East behind Toronto (47 points) and New York City FC (43). Toronto visits the Fire at 7 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, where the Fire owns a 10-0-1 record and a nine-game winning streak.

The past two seasons, the MLS expanded the playoffs the door for six teams in each conference to make the postseason. In 2015, it took 42 points to make it to the playoffs. In 2016, it took 49.

Future: The playoffs start in late October and extend all the way to early December.

If the Fire keeps up its current pace, making the playoffs won’t be a problem and it might get a high enough seed where postseason soccer will be back in Bridgeview.

Chicago Red Stars

Past: The Red Stars joined the NWSL in 2015 and made the four-team playoff round by finishing second out of nine teams but lost in the first round of the playoffs to defending-champion and third-seeded FC Kansas City, 3-0.

Last year, they finished third in the 10-team league and lost in the first round to second-seeded Washington, 2-1.

Present: The Red Stars enter this week with an 8-4-5 mark and had a match scheduled against Seattle Wednesday night at Toyota Park. They will host Kansas City at 7 p.m. Sunday.

They fell to third place after a 3-2 loss to Portland over the weekend. North Carolina entered the week with 36 points, Portland 31 and Chicago 29.

The Red Stars have one more game against NC – a home game on Sept. 3. Chicago beat NC 3-1 on the road May 21 and 3-2 in Bridgeview on May 27.

The team is hoping that Saturday’s debut of Japanese star Yuki Nagasato will help turn this team into a championship contender.

Future: The top four teams make it to the semifinals and will battle it out Oct. 7-8 and the top two seeds will serve as hosts.

The NWSC Championship match will be held Oct. 14 in Orlando.

The Red Stars have proven that they are one of the elite teams in the league and are gunning to get past that semifinal round and into the title game.

Windy City ThunderBolts

Past: Since being changed from the Cook County Cheetahs to the Windy City ThunderBolts in 2004, they have gone to the Frontier League playoffs four times.

In 2007, it won its first Frontier League title sweeping Rockford in three games in the division series and knocking off Washington in five games of the best-of-five championship series.

In 2008, the Bolts won its second title beating Southern Illinois, 3-1, in the division series and sweeping Kalamazoo in three games in the championship series.

The Bolts made it back to the playoffs in 2009 and 2010 but lost in the division series both times. Windy City has not been back to the playoffs since.

Present: The Thunderbolts entered this week with a 41-35 mark and are still in contention to snag one of the wild-card spots in the four-team Frontier League playoffs. They were one percentage point ahead of the River City Rascals for that slot. The league takes the top team in each division and the two wild-card teams with the best records.

Future: The Frontier League playoffs open Sept. 5 with the divisional round while the championship round is scheduled to open Sept. 12.

The T-Bolts chances of making it to the playoffs are on the iffy side because they lost four strong pitchers – Scott Kuzminsky, Kyle Von Ruden, Kevin Lenik and Brady Muller – who were selected by major league organizations.

 

 

ThunderBolts have good pair on the air

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 WC ANNOUNCERS 8 10

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Mike Rankin, left, and Terry Bonadonna have been calling the action for the Windy City ThunderBolts this year. 

 

Another year, another partner.

Windy City ThunderBolts radio announcer Terry Bonadonna is in his eighth season behind the microphone and has had seven interns working with him.

His seventh partner has given him a different dynamic this season.

Michael Rankin, a Palos Hills resident and Stagg graduate who is about to enter his final semester at St. Xavier University, played baseball in high school and Trinity Christian College and that is something that is uncommon on minor league and independent league broadcasts.

“He played baseball, which is rare,” Bonadonna said. “Usually what you get is somebody who is a nerd like I am who is trying to work on becoming a broadcaster. You usually have two guys who are trained in play-by-play and both have the same strengths and same weaknesses. You don’t usually complement each other that way.

“Mike actually played the game and studied play-by-play, too, so he can handle that aspect of it. When he is doing color, which is two-thirds of the game, he can break down the game in a way that another announcer can’t.  That allows us to complement each other.’’

Some broadcasts can be heard on the St. Xavier radio station WXAV (88.3 FM) while others are on the Internet.

Rankin realized that he probably wasn’t going to be talented enough to play at Wrigley Field so he started thinking of other options to stay around the game for as long as he can.

“Growing up, baseball was my life,” he said. “I played up until my junior year in college. But I knew I wanted to get into the journalism field my senior year in high school, so I started writing a blog and got into podcasting on my own. That evolved into the overall aspect of broadcasting at St. Xavier. It worked out perfectly.’’

Rankin was on the broadcast team that called a majority of SXU women’s basketball games as the Cougars finished second in the nation in NAIA Division II play.

“I loved every minute of it,” Rankin said of the postseason. “Even though they lost in the championship, it was a great experience.’’

He is working on his own broadcasting style for baseball, but he will pull a few elements from some of the established announcers.

 “I take notes on a lot of different styles,” he said. “I grew up watching a lot of baseball on television. It’s much different than on radio, so I’ve been listening to a lot of different guys. No one could be another (Cubs announcer) Pat Hughes, but I feel out the style that he is doing. I listen to (Ed) Farmer of the White Sox. I mix and match and add my own sort of style. I’m still my own person.’’

Rankin is scheduled to graduate in December and is getting his resume and tapes ready to send to potential bosses.

“At this point, this is where I want to be,” he said. “I’m going to continue working and getting better. I know it’s a tough field to break into. But I have confidence in myself and I’m going to put myself out there and hopefully someone will take a bite.’’

He said he likes learning from Bonadonna, who was named the Frontier League Broadcaster of the Year in 2016.

“I really appreciate the way he allows me to work,” Rankin said. “He has the confidence in me to let me take care of what I need to take care of. We talk about things I need to work on but he lets me go and I’m starting to learn a lot on my own.

“It’s great working with him because he knows the Frontier League like the back of his hand. He’s on top of a lot of things. He calls me out on trivia questions. He’s brilliant.’’

Bonadonna is from Berwyn and graduated from Fenwick High School and SXU. He said that working with a new partner each year has its challenges.

“I would like to say we’re best buddies and have great chemistry from the start and all the way throughout,” Bonadonna said. “But the fact is that sometimes we may not get to where you want to get to. It’s difficult trying to learn the broadcasting style of a different guy ever year. I try to stay as steady as possible. I try to work them in and tell them how I am going to say something so I can work them into the broadcast. It’s not always easy.’’

While Rankin primarily does home games, Bonadonna calls all the games at home and on the road. That day-by-day grind, coupled with bus travel across the Midwest, is something he actually enjoys.

“I don’t like off days,’’ he said. “We had a two-day stretch where we didn’t have games in July and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

“The bus rides can be a hassle but I love being in a new city every week. I like to walk around the towns and explore different areas. It’s fun to go to different ballparks and seeing the ins and outs of other operations. I love it all.’’

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Some thoughts from SoccerPalooza

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 DAX AND DWYER 8 11

Photo by Melissa Tamez

The Chicago Fire’s Dax McCarty (left) and Orlando City’s Dom Dwyer celebrate Dwyer’s late goal to knot up the MLS All-Star game Aug. 2 at Soldier Field. 

 

The last ball has been booted.

The Ronaldo-less Real Madrid has gone back home.

The last note from the X Ambassadors rang into the Chicago air a long time ago.

The Men in Blazers are gone.

The ponchos have dried out.

The laughter from some clown near the Soldier Field press box who sounded like the Joker, has finally died down.

The five-day soccer orgy surrounding the Major League Soccer All-Star festivities ended Aug. 2 and here are a few thoughts about SoccerPalooza in its wake…

Soggy start, exciting end

For a while, the All-Star game just didn’t seem fun.

Spending hundreds of dollars on tickets coupled with 49 bones for parking to watch an exhibition – or friendly -- between a team that practiced only three days (the MLS All-Stars) against a Real Madrid team that didn’t play many of its starters doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, to me – especially with a downpour for portions of the scoreless first half.

But soccer fans didn’t care about all of that. They are passionate and want to scream and have fun and they did that.

Then they had some real action to shred their lungs over in the second half when Madrid’s Borja Mayoral scored in the 59th minute and the MSL’s Dominic Dwyer knotted it up in the 87th minute.

That set up a shootout, which Madrid won, 4-2.

So many fans went home soggy, poorer and happy.

Ronaldo missing

Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the biggest sports star on the planet, was taking a vacation so he wasn’t in Chicago for this exhibition. Heck, even Liam Gallagher spent three songs in Chicago.  

Ronaldo is very rich but had allegedly committed tax fraud to the tune of $14.7 million. He is said to make $93 million a year.

But he can still take a vacation, God bless him.

The name game

The vacationing star, who is known simply as Ronaldo, was not in Chicago but the Real Madrid roster was filled with one-word-name footballers.

There was Nacho. There was Marcelo. There was Casemiro. Don’t forget Isco. Or Franchu. Or Luca. Or Oscar.

The lone one-word name MSL All-Star was Kaka.

Thoughts from Dax

Fire midfielder Dax McCarty played in the game and didn’t sugarcoat the quality of the MLS nor did he put it down.

“That’s a tricky question because we realize Real Madrid is in preseason and we realize a lot of their so-called first team didn’t play,” he said. “I think MLS clearly is getting better every single season, no question about it. I think the main point of the game was to try to have fun and to try to enjoy it.

“Real Madrid is probably one of the best teams in the world and the fact that it was 1-1 – I think that says a lot. It was an entertaining game back and forth but it was an exhibition game. It’s a friendly so I don’t think it’s really fair to judge how good or bad MLS is based on this game.’’

By Djordje

It’s been a good year for the Chicago Fire, so it seemed natural that the team’s Djordje Mihailovic would score the first goal in the opening minutes of the Homegrown Game as the MLS Homegrown players tied CD Guadalajara U-20 2-2 at Toyota Park on Aug. 1.

A pretty small bone

Because the All-Star game was played at Soldier Field instead of Bridgeview’s Toyota Park even though the Fire was the host team, MLS threw Toyota Park a bone by letting the local stadium host the Homegrown Game.

It was not a big bone.

Unfortunately, many soccer fans stayed home for the Homegrown. There was no announced crowd and we had to guess how many people were there. My guess was that it would have been great for a Red Stars game but lousy for a Fire game – somewhere between 6,000-7,000 fans.

The west parking lot wasn’t even opened

But those fans were entertained. After Mihailovic’s first-minute goal, the MLS scored in thrilling fashion as Colorado defender Kortne Ford scored in the closing minutes.

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Area has some heavy hardware

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

PAGE 1 TROPHY 8 3

Photo by Jeff Vorva

 

A look at how many Illinois High School Association state trophies each of the Regional/Reporter’s 11 area teams have won:

Sandburg             61

Mother McAuley             39

 Marist  23

Richards               14

Brother Rice       13

Chicago Christian              11

Oak Lawn            7

St. Laurence       6

Stagg     6

Evergreen Park 4

Shepard               4

Total      188

Source: IHSA season summaries


This spring, we had a three-week period in which five teams from the Regional/Reporter’s 11 area schools brought home Illinois High School Association state trophies.

None of them won state championships, but the Mother McAuley girls water polo team, the Brother Rice boys volleyball team, the Marist softball team and the Chicago Christian and St. Laurence baseball teams all hauled home hardware.

A few years ago, I researched and made a list of all of the area’s state championships. The IHSA purposefully made the championship trophies the same size no matter if a team finished first or fourth. So, this year, I went to the handy-dandy IHSA website and headed to the season summaries section and went to work.

The area is closing in on 200 trophies.

After the spring haul, the area has collected 188 team trophies from the IHSA.

It all started a few months before I was born, when coach Vern Whitney and Oak Lawn took second in state wrestling in 1959 as Ken Houston (175 pounds) earned an individual state title.

Columnsig924

From that triumph to June 10, when Marist’s softball team and St. Laurence’s baseball team each earned top-four finishes in Class 4A in their respective sports, there have been many dramatic moments, including 65 state championships.

Here is a breakdown and some interesting facts about these elite awards:

--Sandburg has the heaviest hardware total with 61 and teams in 15 different sports earned trophies.

--Mother McAuley is next on the list with 39. The girls volleyball team, which won a state-best 15 titles, collected 23 total trophies.

--McAuley also earned 12 trophies in water polo.

Given the unpredictable nature of high school sports , it’s rare that I will come out and predict top-four finishes for teams, but the 2017 version of the Macs (pictured above) finished fourth in the state without any seniors and with a transfer and talented freshman expected to be on the roster, so…

Oh, and many of those players just won the American Water Polo National Stage Challenge in July, so…

--From 2007-11, Chicago Christian’s girls volleyball team won four trophies including a championship in Class 2A. The Knights have some talent returning from a 27-win team and they are back in Class 2A after spending the last five trophy-less seasons in Class 3A, so…

--The three trophies that Chicago Christian’s girls track team won were all Class A state championships in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

--McAuley’s girls volleyball and water polo teams and  Sandburg’s boys volleyball team and girls softball teams are the only programs to win at least one first-, second-, third- and fourth-place trophy.

--Seven of Richards’ 14 trophies were state championships. Also, the Bulldogs won the inaugural state boys volleyball tournament in 1991 and when the boys state basketball format went from two classes to four in 2007-08, the Bulldogs won the first Class 4A title.

--Remember when some people were aghast the Marist let in female students in 2002-03? Well, it didn’t hurt the athletic program. The RedHawks’ girls team won seven of the school’s 23 trophies in 15 seasons.

--Five of Oak Lawn’s seven trophies are for second place.

The new high school season is not too far away. It will probably take a few years before we put No. 200 in the mythical trophy room, but it’s something that will be fun to watch.

Glad he is gone

One of our sports correspondents, Frank Gogola has left the area and is now working as a full-time sports writer for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana.

I am glad he is gone because he is a great young talent and deserves full-time work. I wish he was a little closer but you have to go where the jobs are. His main beat is covering the University of Montana but first, during the final few weeks before the campus sports get rolling, he has been covering ZooTown All-Star softball action for the paper.

There are so many jokes here, but I’ll leave it alone.

Anyway, he did great work for us and I think the Gogola-in-Missoula connection will work quite well.

Sad he is gone

In another departure, longtime St. Xavier University sports information director Rob Huizenga left last week and is working for Purdue University Northwest, which is becoming an NCAA Division II school this season.

For 14 years, Huizenga has served as a behind-the-scenes type of guy who has helped promote teams and athletes from the Chicago school with aplomb. I have dozens of stories in which he has helped this newspaper out but my favorite was last year when star pitcher Nicole Nonnemacher struck out 42 batters on the road in a doubleheader against a decent-hitting  St. Ambrose team.

The DH was on Saturday and I e-mailed him about the possibility of interviewing her on Sunday. A few minutes later, I get a call from Nonnemacher, who was travelling on the bus home from Davenport, Iowa. That’s the kind of service Rob was known for.

So, sports editors and writers from the Chicago area are going to miss this guy. The writers in Indiana are in for a treat.

 

Boehm to play in Blue-Grey Bowl; Chicago Christian names new AD

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

PAGE 3 BOEHM PHOTO 8 3

 

 

 

Evergreen Park resident Nick Boehm, a senior at De La Salle, has been chosen to participate in the 2018 Blue-Grey All-American Bowl on Jan. 22.

The offensive/defensive lineman is one of 90 players who made the final roster and survived a field of 6,800 nominated players from across the nation.

The bluegrayfootball.com website’s scouting report said he “has what it takes to make an immediate impact at the next level, perhaps the Pioneer Football League.’’

The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Boehm is a three-year starter for De La Salle and earned spots on the 2015 and 2016 All-Chicago Catholic League Green Teams.

His father, Mike, is the De La Salle coach and he is happy for his son.

“This is an outstanding honor for Nick,” Mike Boehm said. “This is a testament to all the hard work that Nick has put in during his four years at De La Salle. If you set goals and are more than willing to work for them, they can be achieved.

“Everyone at our school is justifiably very proud of Nick. This is a great honor for De La Salle, the Meteor football program and Nick. I’m very happy for him.”

Last year, the Meteors opened the season winning five straight games including a 57-0 victory over Robeson and a 53-12 triumph over Aurora Christian but lost their last four games against Montini, Mt. Carmel, Marmion and Fenwick and didn’t qualify for the Illinois High School Association playoffs.

The Meteors open the 2017 campaign Aug. 25 hosting Niles North at St. Rita.

(sCC hires Zylstra as AD

Mark Zylstra was planning on starting a new job as an assistant athletic director at Living Word Christian High School in the St. Louis suburbs.

But Chicago Christian came calling.

Zylstra started his new job as the Knights’ athletic director on July 24 and the 27-year-old has his work cut out for him.

There are two vacancies on the staff that needs immediate attention. Former athletic director/baseball coach Eric Brauer left the school after the spring season to become the baseball coach at Lincoln-Way East, so the baseball job is open. Brauer led the Knights to their best season in school history with 40 victories and a third-place finish in the Illinois High School Association Class 2A state tournament.

Also, longtime girls track coach Jim Kwasteniet, who guided the Knights to three Class A state championships in the 1990s retired.  

“We’re in the early stages of trying to figure out what’s going to happen with those two spots,” Zylstra said. “We’ll be working on the hiring process very soon. We’re going to take pride in hiring good people across the board whether they are high or low profile sports.’’

Now that it’s August, will there be quality candidates available?

“I don’t have a strong answer for that, but we’ll get the ball rolling and see who is out there,” he said.

Zylstra ran cross country and track at Timothy Christian and played Ultimate Frisbee at Calvin College. While he has no direct personal ties to Chicago Christian, he married Rebecca Kamp, a former CC volleyball star whom he met at Calvin.

The assistant AD job at Living Word Christian was going to be his first administrative job. Now he is bumped up.

 “It’s been a real whirlwind,” he said. “I’m learning the ropes and getting a feel for everything.’’