Arroyo turns Elmwood Park into a winner

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Arroyo turns Elmwood Park into a winner

Elmwood Park coach Luis Arroyo said his team is writing a Cinderella story this season. But who would believe it?

This is a program that hadn't won a conference championship in 27 years, hadn't produced a winning team or qualified for the state playoff since 1991 and hadn't won more than six games in a season since 1985.

Until last Friday.

Elmwood Park wrote another chapter to its fairy tale by beating Ridgewood 34-14 to conclude a 7-2 regular season, claim the Metro Suburban championship and secure a spot opposite perennial state power Joliet Catholic in the first round of the Class 5A playoff. Elmwood Park will host the Hilltoppers on Saturday night in a Class 5A match-up.

"We were all talking about Joliet Catholic. Everybody on the team thought we'd get them. We all had a gut feeling," said 6-foot-2, 285-pound senior offensive tackle Connor Murphy, referring to last Saturday's pre-pairings speculation.

"When we saw we got them, we said: 'Let's do it.' We saw it right away, the seedings. Everybody got excited. We figured we'd meet them sometime in the playoff, so why not in the first round? We would rather want to play a big team. We have played good teams but we haven't played a team of their caliber and reputation. We want to show that we are in the playoff for a reason, not just another team."

Murphy is one of a core of 17 seniors who have gone through four years of football at Elmwood Park. This is Arroyo's fifth year. His first four teams were 0-9, 1-8, 2-7 and 4-5. It wasn't pretty. But there has been progress. Murphy and his teammates acknowledge that all of the off-season conditioning and hard work has paid off this season.

"We stuck it out. All of us have a feeling: 'We did it. We're conference champions.' Others gave up and said we couldn't do it. And we did it," Murphy said. "Elmwood Park has forever been called the loser team. But when we won conference, Ridgewood and others said: 'Way to win, way to take it away from everybody. You proved yourselves.'

"The school never was behind us before. They always say: 'Why do you play football? We don't want to play for a losing team.' Now they are all behind us and support us. We had to prove ourselves to everyone. We worked hard in the summer for four years to get better. Now it is paying off."

Nobody is happier than Arroyo. A Holy Cross graduate of 1993, he coached at Evergreen Park, Ridgewood and St. Joseph before arriving at Elmwood Park. Having coached against Elmwood Park on several occasions, he knew what he was getting into. He knew it wouldn't be easy. But he relished the challenge of trying to turn a perennial losing program into a winner.

"I inherited a small school (enrollment: 1,000) that played against big schools," Arroyo said. "I knew it would be a challenge. I try to coach them to play this game. They didn't know what winning was all about. Play hard and learn the fundamentals, we told them. The mentality was a lot of hungry kids who wanted to play. We try to teach dedication and work in the off-season and work on things that will make you successful.

"It was very difficult and humbling at first. I was thinking I would be able to make some sort of impact in my first year. They had won only three games the year before I became head coach. Then we went 0-9 and 1-8 and 2-7 and I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.

"But the opportunity to run a program is priceless. It's my second home. I learned the off-season is absolutely critical to gaining every possible advantage. It really is a 365-day-a-year commitment...into the weight room, into speed work and explosion drills, exercises that they hadn't been exposed to."

Even though his team was struggling on the field, Arroyo could see progress during practice time. In Year 3, he didn't have to explain right or left formations. The kids realized that all of their time in the weight room was time well spent. They were getting bigger and stronger and faster and better. They were buying into what Arroyo was selling.

Despite last year's 4-5 finish, Arroyo identified a lot of positives. Elmwood Park split with Ridgewood, knocking them out of the playoff. "We knew if we could played better, we could have qualified for state," the coach said.

His message to Murphy and the other seniors? "Don't have any regrets. Get into the weight room. Do one more day of repetitions. These kids bought into what we were selling. This is a Cinderella story. It's a great thing to be a part of," Arroyo said.

"With 12 starters returning, we had high expectations to win some games and compete for the conference title. The kids believed it. This group of seniors had success at the lower levels. They competed well. They had confidence that they could compete with anyone."

Elmwood Park is 7-2 going into its first-round game against Joliet Catholic. The Tigers are averaging 28.2 points per game, have rushed for 2,000 yards and have intercepted 22 passes.

The offensive line is anchored by Murphy, 6-foot-1, 290-pound senior tackle Ray Morales, 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior center Jonathan Batula and 5-foot-9, 180-pound tight end Mike Tinajero. They block for a committee of running backs--5-foot-5, 150-pound senior David Benavidez, 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior Jimmy Gonzalez, 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior Carlos Sandoval and 5-foot-11, 169-pound junior James Angelico. Quarterback Patrick McNulty, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior, directs traffic.

The ball-carriers stepped up when starter Rocco Fanella broke his spine in Week 4. Benavidez has emerged as the leading rusher with over 500 yards while Gonzalez has rushed for 450.

In last Friday's 34-14 victory at Ridgewood, Benavidez rushed 15 times for 147 yards and scored on runs of 63, 6, 26 and 14 yards. Gonzalez carried 13 times for 121 yards.

The 4-4 defense features Angelico, 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior Trent Woods and 5-foot-7, 165-pound senior Gene Cadetto at linebacker, Tinajero at tackle, Sandoval at free safety and 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior Mitch Cervantes at cornerback. Sandoval has six interceptions while Woods has four, three against Fenton. Tinajero has 20 tackles for loss.

When Fanella went down, the team lost its vocal leader on the field. But the players bonded together. And Fanella remains a key component, cheering and encouraging his teammates from the sideline.

"We're like brothers out there," Murphy said. "When Fanella went down, we said we would play like every play was our last. When someone struggles, we boost them up. Everyone's drive has changed. We had size and talent in the past but we block better and run better now.

"Now we walk through the halls and in the gym and see the banner for the 2012 Metro Suburban Conference champions and we say: 'Hey, we're enshrined.' It means every time someone who didn't want to go 100 percent in the summer, we told him to go 100 percent and now it is paying off."

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

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AP

Morning Update: Dwyane Wade comes up clutch in close win vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

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Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

Dwyane Wade gets a little help but saves the day defensively vs. Kings

It was a gift and the Bulls weren't going to look it in the mouth as Dwyane Wade was poised to finish off another one of his sterling defensive plays with a breakaway dunk with the game tied and Arron Afflalo and DeMarcus Cousins trailing.

Lightly touched by the small of his back by Cousins, Wade miscalculated his liftoff and missed the dunk but was bailed out by the refs for a foul with 14 seconds left.

Then, he bailed the Bulls out.

Wade had his fifth fourth-quarter defensive play, stripping Cousins on a steal on the ensuing possession with the Sacramento Kings having a chance to win, leading to a Michael Carter-Williams dunk and finishing a 102-99 win Saturday night at the United Center.

It was a clock-turning performance for Wade on both ends of the floor, even if his missed dunk is a reminder that he is 35 years old. 

"I took off too far as I look at the instant replay," Wade said. "I should've took maybe one more dribble. Can't say I felt 35, I just took off too far (laughs). But hey, sometimes you get calls, sometimes you don't. I'm a person who hasn't gotten a lot all year so I'm not gonna apologize for nothing."

Stripping Cousins on his spin move was the finale, but he swatted an Arron Afflalo corner triple in the fourth, smothered Ty Lawson at the rim twice for blocked shots to end the third and tortured Lawson again in the fourth for another steal that led to him following up a Jimmy Butler missed layup with a follow and foul.

"Just a read," said Wade on stripping Cousins. "We knew he was gonna go to DeMarcus at that point. Once we forced him left, I knew he had to come back to the right hand. And being in the right place at the right time, the ball was right there for me."

Wade played like a desperate and motivated man, putting up 30 with six rebounds and four assists on the second night of a back-to-back is proof positive he took Friday's loss to Atlanta personally and used his play to back up those feelings.

He took to twitter to apologize for the poor effort against the Hawks, producing his best all-around performance as a Bull.

"We've been good in desperate moments," Wade said. "We haven't been good in non-desperate moments, when we win three in a row or playing a team that we should beat. But (in) the desperate moments I like us."

He scored 13 in the fourth, along with the last of his four blocked shots and all three of his steals took place in the final 12.

"I thought he was terrific," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He was aggressive all game long, taking the ball to the basket, getting to the line 15 times. He came up with two big plays."

Hoiberg threw out different lineups and rotations, playing Paul Zipser as a sixth man and having the second-round draft pick close the game. Zipser took advantage, hitting three triples and scoring 13 points.

"I thought it was night and day from last night," Hoiberg said. "Our energy was really good all night long. We got just enough stops to find a way to win."

Cousins dominated the game with 42 and 14 rebounds in 35 minutes, the only Kings player in double figures all night.

"He was pretty much unguardable for the majority of the game, Taj did a solid job on him," Hoiberg said. "When Robin was on him, they put him on the perimeter and let him shoot threes. He's a monster."

Back-to-back triples from Cousins gave him 40 and tied the game at 97, as a third one rimmed out with a little under two minutes left.

Cousins dominated the start of the third quarter, hitting midrange jumpers over Lopez and taunting the Bulls bench after hitting a jumper to put the Kings ahead, 70-63 midway through the third.

But the Bulls stayed close, with Hoiberg choosing to sit Rajon Rondo for the second half after playing him six minutes in the second quarter, using Wade as a point guard and going with Carter-Williams for defense, along with Zipser, who didn't look scared of the moment.

"I like the wrinkle coach put in there, putting him in early," Wade said. "He gave him an opportunity and he helped us big time."

Butler scored 23 with seven assists and five rebounds in 39 minutes, didn't have to play the hero for once and made fun of Wade's apology tweet.

"He was due for a big night," Butler said. "He can tweet again if he can come out again and give us 30 and some big steals and big dunks."

"I think that's what called of him, to score baskets and guard. It's kinda sneaky. You never really expect it until it happens."

It looked like the worst was over when the Bulls made a short run to end the third, surviving the onslaught from Cousins — and surviving their own experimenting with Zipser instead of going with Denzel Valentine, switching things up altogether.

But the tone was set by the leaders, who can only manufacture but so much urgency on a nightly basis.

"I like this team when we're desperate," Wade said. "A desperate team, we're not bad."