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Season on the Brink(man) for Strus

  • Written by Jason Maholy

 

Forty years after his mother, then known as Debbie Brinkman, began what would be a Hall of Fame volleyball career at DePaul University, Max Strus is planning to take the court for the first time as a member of the Blue Demons men's basketball team later this year.

 

And he plans to do whatever is necessary to help bring winning basketball back to a program that during his mom's college years was the toast of the town. 

 

Strus, who grew up in Hickory Hills and was a standout player at Stagg High School – was the Regional-Reporters’ 2014 Boys Basketball Player of the Year and is finishing his first year at DePaul after transferring to the Chicago school from Division II Lewis University. After redshirting his junior season, per NCAA transfer rules, the 6-6, 217-pound guard is excited to get back on the hardwood.

 

“I can't wait,” Strus said. “I mean, it's going to be different than the opponents we had at Lewis, but I'm ready to go to that next level and play against those high-level teams.”

 

Those teams will include fellow Big East members Villanova, Xavier, Butler and Marquette, just to name four of the seven conference squads that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. DePaul finished the 2016-17 campaign 9-23, and 2-16 in conference play, but Strus sees brighter days ahead for the Blue Demons

 

“Obviously, we had a rough year last year,” he said. “Hopefully [those schools] can think about DePaul next year or the year after that. I want to leave a big mark at DePaul like I did at Lewis.”

 

Strus earned myriad accolades during his two years at Lewis, among them Great Lakes Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, and being named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-American Team as a sophomore. He averaged 20.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game as a sophomore, and that season set the Flyers' single-game (52 points) and season (666 points) scoring marks.

 

Strus' success gave him the confidence he could play at a higher level, and Lewis granted him his request to be released from his scholarship. Pac-12 power Oregon – which was coming off a run to the Elite Eight in the 2016 NCAA Tournament – and perennial Big East title contenders Xavier and Butler were among the schools that inquired about Strus' services, but he chose to say close to home.

 

The opportunity to be a big part of rebuilding a program was a major factor in Strus going to DePaul. He also built a strong relationship with Blue Demons assistant coach Fred Carter, who sold him on the program and head coach Dave Leitao. He also doesn't mind that DePaul will begin playing in the fall at the new Wintrust Arena, which is under construction near McCormick Place.

 

“We're trying to get back to where DePaul's been in the past,” he said. “I really believed in them and they believed in me, and we want to turn this program around.”

 

Strus' mom, Brinkman, was at DePaul from 1977-81, and Blue Demons men's basketball was in the late 1970s and early 1980s among the most popular and successful teams in Chicago.

 

Led by coach Ray Meyer and future NBA stars including Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, DePaul advanced to the Final Four in 1979 and earned Regional No. 1 seeds the following three seasons. Between 1976 and 1992, the Demons qualified for the NCAA Tournament 14 times; however, they have not had a winning season since 2007.

 

Strus admitted being relegated to the role of observer as his team struggled last season was challenging.

 

“It's hard to sit out when you want to get out there and help your teammates,” he said. “It's extremely difficult. After having a year like I had at Lewis and then coming here and having to sit out and watch games, and not being able to play…I had a hard time with it.”

 

But those days are over, Strus added, and he is now as focused as ever on improving every aspect of his game, and playing basketball again. While no one is looking for him to be any sort of savior, he doesn't mind the pressure of being counted on to lead and carry a team.

 

“If I have to be 'the guy,' you know, I'll be that guy, but everybody wants to be the guy, of course,” he said. “I just want to win, ultimately we all just want to win, so I'm going to do whatever it takes to help the team. Whether that's defense, rebounding, scoring; whatever they want me to do I'm going to do to the best of my ability. I'm just looking forward to actually playing in a game this year and getting back on the court.”

 

Can he replicate what he did his sophomore year at Lewis?

 

“If I could do that again I'd be very happy,” he said. “I'm hoping I can keep playing like I did at Lewis, keep doing what I was doing and be that guy again; so, we'll see what happens.”

 

 

 

EP and area track stars try to raise the bar at state

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Evergreen Park sophomore Briana Parker took second in the high jump and helped her team to the only girls track sectional championship by an area team this year.

 

 

After a three-year break, Evergreen Park’s girls track and field team brought home its third sectional championship and will send 13 athletes to the Illinois High School Association state meet Friday and Saturday at O’Brien Field at Eastern Illinois in Charleston.

EP easily won the University High Class 2A Sectional title with 158 points – 72 points ahead of runnerup University High Friday at Concordia University in River Forest.

Chicago Christian finished second in the Class 1A Seneca Sectional and qualified nine athletes to state. A handful of Class 3A athletes from the area will also head to Charleston.

Evergreen Park won Class 2A sectionals in 2012 and 2013 but in those two years did not score a point at the state meet. Since the state increased the state meet from two to three classes in 2009, the Mustangs have not put an athlete into the second day of competition.

They hope that can change this year with the army of athletes they will bring, including two-time sectional champion Lily Sader, a junior who won the 100 meter high hurdles (16.33 seconds) and 300 low hurdles (:48.34).

Other sectional champs were sophomore Kayley Burke in the 1600 (5:43.56), freshman Tiera Robinson-Jones in the 200 (:25.30), senior Deanna Stewart in the shot put (37-2 ½), the 4x800 relay team of sophomore Grace Huneck, Burke, junior Lilly Gozum and sophomore Taylor Jones in 10:26.58 and the 4x400 relay team of sophomore Tyra Pickett, junior Alexus Clark, Sader and Jones (4:19.71).

Senior Meleah Tines took second in the long jump with a 16-0, sophomore Briana Parker took second in the high jump (4-10), Lizzie O’Dwyer claimed second in the discus with an 84-0, Gozum was a runnerup in the 800 (2:39.24)

Freshman Tia Walker took third in the 100 (:12.72), and the 4x200 relay team of Walker, Robinson Jones, Tines and sophomore Kayla Carpenter and also qualified for state.

Chicago Christian claimed second in the Class 1A Seneca Sectional with 132 points – 44 points behind the hosts.

Knights’ champs were senior Jill VanDyk in the high jump (5-1), junior Rylei Jackson in the 100 (:12.57) and 200 (:26.94), and the 4x800 relay team of April VanRyn, Allie Boss, Rebecca Falb and VanDyk (9:57.72).

Taking second were the 4x100 relay team of Jackson, Carissa Simon, Sara Cahill and Emily Woods (:52.70), VanRyn in the 3200 (16:47), junior Brooklyn Seiber in the 100 high hurdles (:16.47) and 300 low hurdles (:49.92), VanDyk in the 800 (2:28.29), and the 4x400 relay team of Seiber, Boss, VanRyn, VanDyk

(4:18.51).

 VanRyn was third in the 1600 (5:29.86)

In the Class 3A Reavis Secttional, the senior Ashley Bryja took third in the 800 with a 2:18.21 and the 4x400 team of Bryja, Kelly Gallagher Ciara Nelligan and Colleen Flood took third with a 4:00.05 to qualify.

Stagg junior Allyson Mussallem took third in the 400 with a :58.81 to qualify.

At Downers Grove South, Shepard’s Hayley Goebel was a sectional champion in the discus with a 113-01 while teammate Kellie Callahan was second in the 1600 with a 5:07.88. 

Sandburg’s 4x200 team of Chibueze Obia, Hannah Sullivan, Tina Siebenaler and Julia Gary took fifth with a 1:45.32 and made it to state.

 

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Fire win was great, but confetti?

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Chicago Fire player Drew Connor jogs through the confetti after the Fire’s win over Seattle Saturday night. Sports editor/columnist Jeff Vorva questioned a confetti celebration for a regular-season match against a defending MLS champ with a losing record.

 

I penalize the Chicago Fire for excessive celebration.

The Fire played great on Saturday night with a 4-1 victory over defending Major League Soccer champion Seattle at Toyota Park.

Chicago looked like an elite team in front of a sold-out announced crowd of 20,153 as well as a large TV audience on ESPN2.

After the game, the Fire players, as they usually do, went to the stands to thank their adoring fans for the support. It was a fine, happy moment.

And then, on the east side of the stadium, confetti fell.

Confetti?

Really?

Did the Fire just win an MLS championship? Did I miss something?

Confetti?

Look, this was one of the biggest wins in the Veljko Paunovic era and general manager Nelson Rodriguez and the officials behind the scenes deserve a tip of the cap and pats on the back for turning a two-time last-place team into an exciting entity.

But let’s get real, here.

Confetti is for championships. Not for a team that won its fourth game out of 10. Not for a regular-season match in May. Not for a team that rolled over a team that came into the match with a 2-3-4 record.

Not for a team that earned three points to stay in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

If knocking off a defending champion deserves confetti, Major League Baseball teams would lose money with all the squads beating the Cubs.

You celebrate your baby’s first steps, not first burps.

You celebrate your kid’s graduation not for surviving the 153rd day of school.

Personally, I think Fire officials should bring a Mack truck full of confetti on the road and let it loose the next time the team wins a road game because that is much more of a rare accomplishment.

OK, enough about the mess they made on the field after the game – let’s talk about the mess the Fire players made of the Sounders on the field during the game.

After spending the first five minutes or so on the Fire’s side of the field, the boys decided that they could actually cross the line and kick the ball around on the north side of the field, too.

Nemanja Nikolic is building up a resume for being an MLS MVP candidate as he scored for the Fire on a penalty kick in the 25th minute but that was negated three minutes late when Seattle’s Clint Dempsey returned the favor.

In the second half, David Accam, Luis Solignac and Nikolic scored in a 16-minute span and Seattle had no answer while the Fire defense and goalie Matt Lampson (making his second straight start of the year) played a clean second half.

"The team is growing, the team is growing,’’ Paunovic said and repeated. “The smiles are back in Bridgeview finally and it’s not only one game, this is the general feeling our team has inside the locker room and outside the locker room, when we are downtown in the city, wherever we are, we can feel there is a passion about the team's expectations, positive expectations.

“The people can see good results, can see great games like today, can see the overall improvement of our team, depth and the mentality where the team now feels confident and are capable of managing difficult games against difficult opponents, champions like Seattle. So, I would say the mentality changed with the consistency in believing and working hard and addressing things, fixing things on a daily basis, and wins like today help our chance to build on top of the confidence and good things we did in the past."

It was a big win for a franchise hoping to turn things around and it was a magical night.

But it didn’t deserve confetti.

Emulating Coach K: Wujcik credits longtime football coach for his baseball longevity

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Richards coach Brian Wujcik won his 500th career baseball game on May 2.

Some coaches who are lucky enough to land a head coaching gig at a young age are hotshots who are ready to make that job a stepping stone for something bigger and better.

Brian Wujcik, however, was not like that.

He grew up playing baseball at Richards and was an offensive star at the University of Iowa and when he was named the school’s head baseball coach for the 1992-93 season he wasn’t looking to leave. There was a guy at the Oak Lawn school – football coach Gary Korhonen – that Wujcik looked up to.

“Twenty five years go by in a hurry,” Wujcik said. “One of the blessings that I’ve had is to have an opportunity to work in the same building as Gary Korhonen. He was a coach here for (35) years (and won 315 games – sixth highest in the state) so I got a chance to witness the longevity, the stability and the dedication to a program. That was a big inspiration. I tried to emulate his program and run the baseball program the same way.’’

Wujcik picked up his 500th career victory on May 2 in thrilling fashion as the Bulldogs beat Shepard 7-6 in a South Suburban Red contest in Oak Lawn. Down 6-5 in the bottom of the seventh, Nike Gall hit a two-run single to drive in the tying and winning runs.  

In 1986, Wujcik and Reavis star Mike Budds were named the first Regional-Reporter co-Players of the Year and when Wujcik went to Iowa, he set a school and Big Ten record when he drove in 10 runs in one game. He also set a school record with 12 doubles in a season and won a league batting title.

But playing the sport and coaching it are two different things, as he found out in his rookie season as the boss.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “My idea of practice was putting on a glove and showing the kids that I could still play. It took me a little while to realize that what I needed to do was teach them instead of going out to play with them.’’

The coach’s 500th win was memorable with the walk-off hit and celebration. Hie doesn’t remember much about the first win.

“It took five games and it was against Bloom,” he said. “I don’t know any of the details.’’

His players joked about his gunning for 1,000 victories but he is not sure that will be in the cards.

“I know Jack Kaiser at Oak Park River Forest coached for (more than) 45 years,” he said. “I don’t know if I have that in me.’’

 

Area Roundup: News on Oak Lawn's Hansen, new St. Laurence coach Nye and soccer seeds

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Hansen

Last year, Oak Lawn native Marc Hansen was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America first team as a junior.

This year, he made the second team.

To outsiders, that may sound like a downturn from 2016 but the former Oak Lawn Community High School star changed positions and spent a lot of time in the front row this year after three years of mostly back row work. He had just 31 kills and seven blocks in 75 career matches before moving to outside hitter this season.

Hansen had 257 kills and a .320 hitting percentage and added 32 blocks for Carthage this season. He still found his way to make big plays in the back row as he racked up 147 digs.

Carthage was one of the top teams in the country in NCAA Division III play but was shocked in the semifinals of the Midwest Collegiate Volleyball League tournament and did not receive a bid to the nationals, despite finishing 20-3.

 

Nye joins St. Laurence staff

Another coach with heavy Brother Rice ties was added to St. Laurence’s staff.

Former Brother Rice football coach Steve Nye will serve as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator and was hired as a dean of students. The move was announced shortly after former Brother Rice basketball star Jim Sexton was named as the Vikings’ basketball coach.

Nye brings more than a quarter century of high school teaching and administrative experience to the Burbank school. He comes to St. Laurence from Montini Catholic High School, where he helped revamp the school’s disciplinary systems and procedures as the school’s dean. He has previously served as assistant athletic director and assistant admissions director at York High School and Brother Rice.

“I’m thrilled about the opportunity to join the St. Laurence family,” Nye said. “It is a unique time to join a school with such a storied history and exciting vision for the future.”

A resident of the Beverly neighborhood and member of Christ the King parish, Nye also brings a strong coaching background to the Viking Football team.

He served as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator for Montini, who won the 2015 IHSA 6A Football Championship and were finalists in 2014. Nye was Brother Rice’s head football coach for 13 seasons until 2012. He led the team to a state semifinal appearance, three state quarterfinal appearances and ten state playoff appearances.

“Coach Nye’s history of winning football games complements our Viking tradition well,” said St. Laurence Football Coach Harold Blackmon. “As someone who knows the Chicago Catholic League, I am confident that he will help us build on our recent success.”

Nye replaces coach Bobbie Howard, who will coach at the sophomore level as he pursues his master’s degree.

St. Laurence made it to the state semifinals two years in a row. They made it that far in Class 5A in 2015 and Class 6A in 2017.

 Soccer seedings

The last time an area girls soccer team made it to the Illinois High School Association state tournament finals was 2010, when Sandburg finished second in Class 3A.

The coaches around the region are not confident anyone will get that far this year, if the seedings are any indication.

At the Sandburg sectional in Class 3A, the hosts drew the third seed behind Lincoln-Way East and Andrew. Stagg is sixth, Mother McAuley eighth, Shepard 10th and Oak Lawn 17th in the 17-team tournament.

In Class 2A, Marist is hosting a sectional and the hosts are also seeded third behind Lemont and Tinley Park. Evergreen Park is seventh and Richards is eighth.

In Class 1A, Chicago Christian is seeded third in the Manteno Sub-Sectional and Queen of Peace is fourth out of nine teams.