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'Greedy' St. Laurence knocks off 6A's top seed to get to semifinals

  • Written by Phil Arvia

Page 1 ROmello 11 17

Photo by Jim Boyce

St. Laurence quarterback Romello Washington gets ready to fire a pass in an upset victory over Lemont Saturday in Burbank.

No offense to Rich Central, King and Tinley Park, the schools St. Laurence beat on the way to last year’s Class 5A state football semifinals, but Vikings coach Harold Blackmon was happy to see the murderer’s row of traditional powers in his team’s 6A path when the brackets were announced by the Illinois High School Association for this postseason.

“After the last game of the season, when we lost to (St.) Ignatius … the first thing I told our coaches was, ‘We need this bracket,’” Blackmon said. “Our kids need to be challenged.”

And the challenge presented by a potential path of fifth-seeded Richards, No. 4 Crete-Monee and No. 1 Lemont carried an added motivational bonus.

“Last year, with the road we took we didn’t get any respect from other teams,” Blackmon said. “So I said, ‘This year, let’s take the hardest road.’”

With Friday’s 27-20 ouster of previously unbeaten Lemont, the Vikings have now advanced as far as last year’s team. The No. 12 seed will travel to Springfield for a semifinal contest with second-ranked Sacred Heart-Griffin, a 56-13 quarterfinal winner over Rock Island Saturday at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Lemont (11-1) led the Vikings (9-3) only in the first quarter, after a 37-yard Steve Fleming field goal ended its first possession. But the Indians’ drive toward a potential tying touchdown died at the St. Laurence 12-yard line with 52.2 seconds to play, when a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.

“That’s a talented team,” St. Laurence running back Fayezon Smart said of Lemont. “But we’re talented, too.

“I feel like our defense doesn’t get the credit it deserves. But tonight, our big-time players showed their true colors… Last year we had great players. This year we have great athletes — and our great athletes made big-time plays when it counted.”

Lemont quarterback Spencer Nagel completed 21 of 35 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown. But Lemont added just 74 yards on the ground and, after averaging nearly 41 points per game over its previous five outings, was stymied in several key situations by the Vikings.

Willie Spears and Damon Stewart each had multiple passes defended from the cornerback spots. Adam Andrews had three solo tackles and seven assists, Eddie Pierson had a tackle for a loss and half a sack. But no defender had a bigger day than end Sean Lange, who was credited with three solo tackles, 13 assists and a strip-and-recovery on what may have been the game’s biggest play.

Leading 13-10 after giving up a touchdown with 18.7 seconds left in the half, the Vikings kicked off to start the third quarter. Lemont gained 17 yards on its first snap of the half, but two plays later Lange blindsided Nagel, who coughed up the ball as Lange pounced on it.

“I knew I had a linebacker coming from the outside, and he flushed (Nagel) out,” Lange said. “When I stripped it, I knew I had to dive on it. Going into the second half, we knew the momentum wasn’t really on our side, so we needed a big play.”

Four snaps later, Smart (37 carries, 165 yards) scored from 11 yards out to put St. Laurence up 20-10. 

The lead grew to 27-10 when Romello Washington (11-of-19, 174 yards, 2 touchdowns) found Levy Hamer for a 19-yard scoring pass. Hamer also had a 34-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter, after Mauricio Garibay staked the Vikings to a 6-3 lead with 21- and 24-yard field goals.

From there, it was on the defense, which in the fourth quarter limited Lemont to just a 34-yard field goal on three trips inside the Vikings’ 27.

Spears said it was a matter of focus.

“I told all my players, ‘Don’t play hungry, play greedy,’” he said. “When you play hungry, it’s easy to get fooled. When you play greedy, you never get fooled.”

The Vikings, it seems, are greedy still. With last year’s 10-3 squad, St. Laurence has now combined for more wins in back-to-back years than in any seasons since the ’70s, when the 1976-79 squads averaged 11 wins and went to the state title game twice.

“We’re striving for greatness,” Spears said.

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra point: The best story of the day was Coach Stu's surprise visit

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

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Photo courtesy of Cora Umecker

Richards girls swimming coach Joel Staszewski, who has been hospitalized since June, made a surprise appearance at the Downers Grove South sectional and poses with some of his swimmers on Saturday.

 

 

It was quite a day and night in sports on Saturday.

Around the country, college football’s second-, third- and fourth-ranked teams were picking up their jaws off the field after they were shocked.

Around Illinois, volleyball state championships were won and lost, football quarterfinals seemingly provided a million storylines and girls swimming sectionals were in full swing.

In our area, it’s tough to beat McAuley, ranked No. 1 in the nation, winning a three-set battle with Minooka to win the Illinois High School Association or 12th seeded St. Laurence knocking out No. 1 seed Lemont in football.

But my favorite story from Saturday didn’t come from any of that. It came in the swimming pool area at Downers Grove South involving a sixth-place team that didn’t even qualify a state swimmer.

Richards participated in the Downers Grove South Sectional and the Bulldogs swimmers received a huge surprise when their coach, Joel Staszewski, showed up.

I wrote about him at the beginning of the season. The man known to most as Coach Stu had gastric bypass surgery performed in June and complications from a bacterial infection gave him stroke-like symptoms, robbing him of his ability to eat and speak. He nearly died because of those complications.

During the season, many South Suburban Conference teams have raised money for the coach’s family – his wife Jill and children Emma (age 12), Timothy (4) and triplets Claire, Nora and Lillian (2).

The Richards community was jazzed up for a possible Stu sighting at the SSC meet a couple of weeks ago, but he was still at the hospital and it didn’t happen.

On Friday, interim coach Cora Umecker wanted the coach to see his troops perform in sectional play so bad, she set up a Facebook account so he could watch the event live from the comfort of his bed.

When he showed up in Downers Grove in his wheelchair, the Bulldogs were stunned and thrilled.

“No one told me they were coming, it was the best surprise ever,” Umecker said. “It was very emotional for everyone, and not just my team. So many swimmers and coaches came to say hello. It was heartwarming.’’

The only bad news to this story is that Coach Stu is not 100 percent. He still has a long way to go.

“He is improving but, as expected, it's a long process,” Umecker said. “He has still not been home since the initial procedure in June. He is currently rehabilitating at a center in Chicago.

“This swim season was really incredible. Watching all of the other teams join the ‘Stu Crew’ was so inspiring. Seeing them all come together like that was probably the biggest show of sportsmanship I've ever seen. We would gather to take a ‘Stu Crew’ photo at invites and meets, and I'd go back to look at the shot and see all these girls from different teams standing together, smiling, arms around each other. None of them look like they just had a heated competition ten minutes earlier. It was great.’’ 

The coach has not even seen his home yet in five months, but as Umecker said “This man showed up for his girls.’’

Umecker said all along that she is just keeping the seat warm for Coach Stu and had a few things to say to him before he returned to Chicago.

“At the end of the meet, I handed him my clip board, pencil and heat sheet and told him my work is done,’’ she said. “It's time for Coach Stu to get back to this team.’’

 


Tears of a crown -- Macs aim for 15th state title

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Mother McAuley players had a huge crying session after three days of intense volleyball action, which culminated with an emotional three-set victory over Geneva on Saturday at the Hinsdale South Sectional. 

 

The tears flowed freely on Saturday.

We’re not talking the usual couple of tears of joy of winning a big match that can be wiped away easily. We’re talking tears running down red faces that are usually reserved for those who lost a big match. And this was going on for more than 15 minutes, for crying out loud.

After the Mighty Macs won the Illinois High School Association Class 4A Hinsdale South Supersectional crown with a wild 22-25, 25-20, 25-21 win over Geneva in front of a packed house, this team let loose with the waterworks.

“We haven’t been down state (since 2013) and our whole goal all year was to make it down state,” said Charley Niego, who led the Mighty Macs (38-1) with 12 kills and 17 digs. “It’s a really big accomplishment and we’re really excited. This is a really big thing and it finally occurred this year.’’

Carrying the weight and pressure of being ranked No. 1 in the nation by prepvolleyball.com, beating heated rival Marist in the sectional final Thursday coming back twice in a 25-20, 25-22 victory and getting into holes of 21-12, 17-14 and 11-4 each game against national power Geneva (37-2) only to win took its toll emotionally on the Mighty Macs.

Next on the agenda is fighting a letdown as the Macs will be heavy favorites in the four-team field. They open with Niles West (28-8) at 8:30 p.m., Friday at Redbird Arena on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal. The winner takes on either Minooka (34-6) or Stevenson (32-7).

McAuley won 13 state titles from 1977-2004 including six from 1980-87. Its last title came in 2013 after a nine-year layoff. The 14 titles are the most in state history in the sport.  

Katie O’Connell added 11 kills, 15 digs and four blocks against Geneva while Emma Reilly racked up four aces and 11 digs and Nancy Kane had 31 assists and added three blocks.

In other Elite Eight action on Saturday, Queen of Peace’s reign came to an end at the Class 3A Rich East Supersectional 25-10, 25-6 at the hands of Marian Catholic. The Pride finished the season 15-22 and made it that far after a 25-14, 25-3 win over Cristo Rey to win the Cristo Rey Sectional on Thursday. Haley Doyle had 18 kills while Katie Cerven had 19 digs.

To get to the supersectional, McAuley needed 17 kills from Niego against Marist while Kane had 23 assists and O’Connell came up with six kills and Reilly had 10 digs.

For Marist (30-10), Savannah Thompson had nine kills and 12 digs and setter Molly Murrihy had 23 assists.

Marist may have played its best volleyball of the season in the sectional semifinal on Nov. 1 by opening play with an 18-4 lead and knocking off Benet, 25-13, 25-22. Megan Krasowski had eight kills and Maggie Meyer added seven.

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra point: They're singing 'Go Macs Go'

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Mother McAuley players pile on after Saturday's supersectional win over Geneva.

 

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

The hangover of the Cubs World Series title is gone.

The last clown to climb a light pole has come down. The players will go into hibernation at their homes across the country and most of us won’t see them again until the Cubs Convention in January.

Now it’s time to focus on something more important – getting this area another Illinois High School Association state championship.

 

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Since 1980, the 12 high schools in this area have produced at least one state championship each season except 1996-97 and 2003-04 (and you are not allowed to blame Steve Bartman for that). That’s an amazing standard of excellence. Sandburg and Mother McAuley have done the heavy lifting on this and McAuley’s volleyball team has a chance to keep the string going with an appearance in the final four of the Class 4A championship, which opens Friday in Normal. They are hoping to win their 15th title.

The Macs, considered the top team in the nation by prepvolleyball.com have not looked like the top team in the nation in a two-set sectional title win over Marist Thursday and a three-set supersectional title win over Geneva on Saturday.

When you think of a top team in the nation, you think of Godzilla-sized hitters who can dent the gym floor with their power. You think of a team that slams and opponent down right away and steps on its throat.

This year’s McAuley team is not like that. It’s a team that is made up of players with no one over 6-foot tall with pretty decent power. Lately, it seems to take a lot of punches and kicks until a talented team gets tired and then starts making mistakes and it’s the Macs who are lifting a trophy.

All they do it win.

Style points? That’s for others. The Macs have made it down state more on grit and determination.

And then there are their fans.

I covered the Cubs for 10 years and have found the “Go Cubs Go” song to be irritating. Now the spirited Mighty Macs fans are changing the lyrics to “Go Macs Go.” Some find it funny. Some find it annoying. But this is their thing and if it means the Reporter/Regional area will collect another state title – sing away.

Jinxing the no-hitter

On Oct. 20, I wrote about Tony “Taps” Cantafio, a stat keeper from Pennsylvania who died earlier this year after getting creamed by a player on the sideline of a high school football game.

I mentioned how in close to 40 years in this racket, I had never been hit.

That changed Saturday.

In the closing minutes of the first half of St. Laurence’s Class 6A second-round playoff win over Crete-Monee, Vikings quarterback Romello Washington was coming my way.

Phil Arvia, who wrote the outstanding front page story on the game, was next to me and as we were bailing, I thought he said “We’re gonna get killed!”

He was OK, but Washington plowed into me as I was scooting away and he undercut me and I fell on top of him.

I don’t care how much protection a player has there is not enough equipment in the world to save someone from having a Vorva fall on top of you. I asked him if he was OK, and he said he was.

Then he ran back on the field and at the time, things were not looking good for his squad. But then he did a classy thing. He jogged back over and asked if I was OK. And I said I was.

I am happy I did not suffer the same fate as Tony “Taps” Cantafio.

After the incident, Arvia insisted he said “We’re gonna die!” and not “We’re gonna get killed!”

I would hate that the final words I would hear on Earth would be a misquote.

Disappointment x 2

I thought when favored Marist and Brother Rice bowed out in the first round of the Class 8A football playoffs, their opponents would go on to do great things.

But they both lost in the second round.

New Trier, which knocked off Marist 31-24 in the opening round, went on to lose to St. Charles East, 17-10. Fremd, which shocked Brother Rice 45-42 in the first round, was topped by Huntley, 38-30.

Goofball scores

A year after Marist beat Barrington 59-56 in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs, some smaller schools put on a couple of shows that made that game look like a defensive battle.

On Friday night in Class 5A, Peoria beat Decatur Eisenhower, 96-40.

But on Saturday in Class 2A, Deer Creek Mackinaw beat Chicago’s Hope Academy, 91-70.

“I felt like we’d win the game, that we had the better team,” DCM coach Job Linboom told the Peoria Journal Star  minutes after the game. “But that they’d score 70, never in a million years would I have seen that. I’m totally shocked.’’

Deer Creek led 64-42 at halftime.

 

Smart and his 'little brother' help St. Laurence beat Crete

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 1 SMART RIGHT 11-10

 

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Fayezon Smart gives a nonchalant reaction after a first-half score. He later scored the winning TD in a 41-40 playoff stunner over Crete-Monee. 

 

When you grow up on the south edge of Bronzeville, near where the Dan Ryan clips the edge of Englewood, having just two catches in 10 games after transferring into St. Laurence from Leo does not constitute hard times.

Spending most of the first half watching while your teammates fall behind 27-14 to Crete-Monee in a Class 6A doesn’t quite reach that level, either.

But it does get your attention when your coach texts you in the middle of the week.

“He texted me out of the blue,” KeShawn Douglas said. “It was nighttime. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what could he possibly want?’”

Coach Harold Blackmon wanted Douglas to be ready, telling him, “You’re going to get an opportunity.”

The junior wide receiver got more than one, catching touchdown passes of 44, 28 and 32 yards in the second half as 12th-seeded St. Laurence stunned No. 4 Crete-Monee 41-40 Saturday in Burbank in a second-round Class 6A playoff contest. The Vikings (8-3 and the last area team still alive in the Illinois High School Association playoffs) will host top-seeded Lemont (11-0) a 42-10, second-round winner over Danville, in the quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Saturday.

“He’s fast and we saw on film they’d have a tough time with our outside receivers,” Blackmon said of Crete-Monee (8-3), which was the 6A runner-up a year ago. “Last week I told KeShawn, ‘Just keep working.’”

Douglas has known little else since transferring in January to St. Laurence.

“I had a rough start,” he said. “My grades, I come from a rough part of town … just a bunch of stuff. I made a whole (180-degree turn). I’m just glad I came to St. Laurence.”

Before he made the decision to transfer, Douglas called Fayezon Smart, a senior, the Vikings’ all-time leading rusher and, like Douglas, a graduate of the Hayes Park Blitz program.

“That’s my little brother,” Smart, who lives in Englewood not far from Douglas, said. “I told him it was going to be a big transition. He wasn’t going to be the only guy on the team. He wasn’t going to start.

“He got here and he changed around big time. We can’t let where we come from bring us down.”

Nor were the Vikings willing to let the Warriors do so. Though Crete-Monee dominated time of possession and outgained St. Laurence 513 yards to 387, the Vikings solved the Warriors when it mattered most.

Smart (21 carries, 159 yards) kept them in it early, dancing to a 63-yard score on the Vikings’ first offensive play after Crete-Monee drove 80 yards in 5:07 for a touchdown after the game’s opening kick. Smart evened things again with a one-yard score in the second quarter after Crete went ahead 14-7 on a 35-yard touchdown punt return by Kevin Pate, who also had 10 receptions for 184 yards and two scores — both of those coming in the second quarter as the Warriors took a 27-14 edge to intermission.

Over the next 17 minutes, Douglas and quarterback Romello Washington (14-of-23, 254 yards) traded touchdowns with the Warriors. But, with under three minutes left and nursing a 40-35 lead, Crete-Monee attempted just its second punt of the game.

The snap sailed over Pate’s head, and he was dropped for a 35-yard loss after tracking the ball down. Taking over at the 8-yard line and benefitting three snaps later from a pass interference call in the end zone, the Vikings took their first lead of the game when Smart bulled over from four yards out with 1:44 to play.

“We just don’t give up,” Smart said.

For the second week in a row, St. Laurence pulled out a win with a fourth-quarter comeback. Its first-round win came by a 31-28 count over Richards after trailing with less than five minutes to play.

“The Vikings don’t make it easy,” Blackmon said. “But we don’t quit. We don’t work like that, we don’t think like that.”

A win over Lemont would put the Vikings in the state semifinals for the second year in a row after they reached the 5A final four in 2015.

“That’s a great team, well-coached,” Blackmon said. “It’s not an easy road we’re on. But it’s not supposed to be.''