Fire makes a point before Toyota Park opener

  • Written by Jeff Vorva





Sure, the Fire wheeled and dealed during the offseason to bring some offensive firepower to a team that has struggled in recent years to score goals.

Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho and Dax McCarty are expected to bring some scoring savvy to a team that averaged 1.1 goals per game in Major League Soccer matches the past two years.

But on Saturday, it was good ol’ David Accam who was the lone Fire player to score and to avoid bringing the team home pointless. Instead, his goal at the 73-minute mark gave Chicago a 1-1 tie against Columbus in the season opener at MAPFRE Stadium.

The Fire picked up a point with the tie and its aggressive play in the second half give the team some steam as it hosts Real Salt Lake at 1 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Park.

Accam led the Fire with 10 goals in 2015 and nine in 2016, which isn’t a lot in the MSL for a team leader. The top five goal scorers had 16 or more in 2016 with Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls leading the league with 24.

Accam, who has had injury problems the past two seasons, could become a huge scorer if he stays healthy and Saturday’s game was a good start.

"It feels great,” Accam said of his goal. “For me, my confidence is going higher and higher. I am happy to get on the score sheet in the first match of the season."

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic didn’t see a lot of spark from his team early as the Fire was down 1-0 after Ethan Finlay’s goal at the 17-minute mark, so the second-year coach called an audible from the sideline.

"Thirty minutes into the first half, we switched to 4-3-3 and that helped us to spread a little bit more in the midfield line, so David Accam could be closer to Brandon Vincent and help him to cover Harrison Afful, because he was obviously very dangerous in the first half,’’ the coach said. “And then, we also dropped Dax McCarty to help out in the defense and cover Federico Higuain better. And then (we received) a huge, huge commitment from the guys, it's all up to them.

“Whatever we, the coaches imagined or whatever we want to do, whatever is the plan, it's about the player so I think (it was a) fantastic reaction, I'm proud of our players and our comeback was great."

The home crowd could see a new goalie in the net as 35-year-old Jorge Bova will likely get the nod over Matt Lampson. Sean Johnson and Lampson were the goalies last year and Johnson was traded during the offseason in a three-team deal after spending seven years with the Fire.

Bova made three saves in the Columbus game.

McCarty and Nikolic didn’t score and Juninho was suspended for a game for receiving a red card on Nov 26 with Club Tijuana.

“We only learned of this situation midweek,” said Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez. “We petitioned the Mexican Federation through U.S. Soccer, but we were denied. While disappointing, we remain confident in our roster and look forward to Juninho’s debut at Toyota Park.”

McCarty is happy with his team’s ability to score a point on the road before heading home.

“There is a lot of potential on this team,’’ he said. “I still think we have a long way to go, for sure. We're a project. Obviously we were missing a very important player in Juninho. I thought John Goossens stepped in the middle of the field and played really well, had a couple of good chances, probably could've scored a goal. I thought for the most part we grew into the game. It was a tough first half but the second half we showed more of our potential. We were dangerous.

“We have to get Toyota Park back to being a fortress. We have to make sure teams are scared to come play us there.’’



SSC Red goes down to the last 1.6 seconds

  • Written by Aaron FitzPatrick and Tim Cronin

PAGE 1 DRYNAN 2  3 2

Photos by Aaron FitzPatrick

Inside, 6-foot-10 Michael Drynan of Evergreen Park made life miserable for Argo in a 27-point performance to help the Mustangs clinch its first conference title since 1994

The first part was done.

Evergreen Park disposed of the host Argo Argonauts, 75-49, Friday night in Summit and the win assured the Mustangs of at least a share of their first conference title since 1994 and only third in school history. Michael Drynan, a 6-foot-10 senior, came up big with 27 points.

The second park came when Mustangs coach Pat Flannigan took out his phone and scrolled through his texts.

“Oak Lawn beat Richards,” he said after looking at his phone with a satisfied smile on his face after finding out the Bulldogs were upset 66-64.

Now there was no sharing anything.

The Mustangs were sole possessors of the South Suburban Red conference championship with an 8-5 mark. It was their third boys basketball title in school history. Richards, which won 10 of the last 11 SSC Red titles was second at 7-6.

 “It’s been a special season.” Flannigan said.

Friday night’s game followed the pattern of the 2016-17 season for the Mustangs to this point; getting off to a slow start before putting everything together.

Despite a 1-24 record coming into the game, the Argonauts gave the Mustangs everything they had in front of a lively Senior Night crowd at Swanson Gymnasium. Argo led Evergreen Park in the first period and trailed by less than double digits at halftime before the Mustangs caught fire and pulled away in the second half.

The Mustangs connected on eight three-pointers, including four from senior swingman Kyree Hannah (16 points). Hannah helped the Mustangs pull away from the pesky Argonauts with three bombs in third period.

“I’m happy that we can put something on a banner now,” said Hannah. “We knew at the beginning of the season that the chemistry was clicking. We just knew we were going to have a good season.”

While Hannah was dazzling outside, Drynan was damaging inside.

 “We told him ‘You’re special,’ ’’ Flannigan said. “We said ‘Start believing and start being special.’ And tonight he was special.”

Drynan wasn’t just special, he was almost perfect. He made his first eight shots en route to a 27-point performance on 12 of 14 shooting.

“It feels pretty good,” said Drynan after the game about winning a conference title in his senior year.

As for the rest of the season, the Mustangs still feel that there’s more to accomplish. The Mustangs 17-9 overall) opened play Monday in their own Class 3A Regional and picked up the 13th seed. Seeding-wise, they were in line to play No. 1 Morgan Park on Wednesday.

“It’s been a great group of kids to work with and we don’t think we’re done,” said Flannigan. “We’ve got a tough seed. We’re in an all-city sectional and we don’t get a lot of respect so we’ve got to earn it. If we can knock out Morgan Park it gets easier.”



PAGE 1 Osmani

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Adem Osmani came up with a game-winning tip-in for Oak Lawn in a stunning win over Richards.


    The winning play didn't go as planned. Turnovers almost took them out of the game. The opponent's parade to the free-throw line was perfect.
    Yet, Oak Lawn still beat Richards on the Bulldogs' home court on Friday night, depriving the hosts of an 11th South Suburban Red title in the last dozen years.
    The Spartans' 66-64 victory came about through the offensive tandem of seniors Rashad Johnson and Adem Osmani – and Adem's younger brother, freshman Sami – plus a defensive effort that held Richards to one field goal in the final quarter.
    To spring the surprise was not only immensely satisfying for Oak Lawn (10-17, 6-8), it squelched the chance for a share of the conference crown Richards (12-14, 7-6) had coming in. That went to Evergreen Park (17-9, 8-5) via its 74-49 thrashing of Argo, the first gonfalon for the Mustangs since 1994.
    "It's a dream come true since my freshman year," said Johnson, who led all hands with 30 points and added six rebounds and a trio of steals. "It feels good. Me and my teammates, we kept our heads in the game the whole day.
    "I've been working on my attitude. I knew it was going to be a close game. I knew what I've done with my records and stuff. I wasn't going to let my team down. I promised them we weren't coming out with a loss."
    That bold pronouncement was both dramatic and accurate.
    "It's always special to beat Richards, and really special to beat them on their home floor," Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes said. "I kind of feel like we stole it a little bit. But we made plays."
    The Bulldogs were quick-handed, forcing 15 turnovers, and were perfect from the line, making all 18 free-throws, with 10 from Jaylan Catledge (28 points, six rebounds). But on this night, perfection would not be enough.
    "We knew what they had," Richards coach Chris Passafiume said. "We came back pretty tough. A couple plays didn't bounce our way, just basketball plays. We tried to contain Johnson as best we could but couldn't give him an inch.
    "No title, but hopefully we can learn from that."
    The game was won on Adem Osmani's tip rebound of Johnson's missed shot on a drive to the basket with 1.6 seconds remaining. It wasn't supposed to happen that way.
    "For him to get that last tip was huge," Rhodes said. "They took away both the first and second options. Off the inbounds, Adam Stallworth was intelligent to get it back to our best player (Johnson). That's the thing with Rashad. When he attacks, there's so much attention paid to him, we get a lot of second-chance opportunities."
    Oak Lawn had made up a four-point deficit with 1:18 to play, first on Johnson's conventional three-point play and a three-pointer by Sami Osmani that created a 64-62 lead. A pair of Catledge free-throws with 12.4 seconds left created the game's fourth tie.
    Oak Lawn had controlled the first 14 minutes, building a 31-21 lead, but Richards' 11-0 run brought the hosts a 32-31 lead at the intermission. That momentum continued into the third quarter. Richards built an eight-point lead on Nate Stewart jumper with 1:32 left in the third, but Oak Lawn came back, tying the game at 54 via Johnson's second straight three-pointer early in the fourth.




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).