Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise


Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

It figures that Juozas Balciunas, who has led Lemont's basketball team to its best start in more than 35 years, didn't speak English until seven years ago, after his family immigrated from Lithuania.

Until Balciunas arrived, basketball was virtually a foreign language in Lemont.

Lemont is a football school. In the last four years, coach Eric Michaelsen's Indians have won 45 of 52 games and finished second in the state playoff on two occasions.

Meanwhile, the basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001 and hasn't won a regional since 1991. How many people remember when coach John Jones' 1975 team was 26-4 and advanced to the supersectional? The Indians were 2-24 the year before coach Rick Runaas was hired. His first two teams were 8-17.

So folks in the southwest suburban community must have thought Runaas, only his third season, was balmy when he said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 2011-12 squad. He isn't surprised that the Indians are 14-2 going into Tuesday's game at Joliet Catholic.

"I knew the new point guard (Balciunas) was going to be good," Runaas said. "Our lower levels had experienced some success. I knew we would have more depth than in the past. We had success in the summer and fall. We went to Peoria for a weekend and played Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and realized what level they were at and where we want to be."

Peoria Manual and Peoria Central are elite programs in Illinois. Runaas, who rebuilt Thornton Fractional North's program and guided the Meteors to a regional championship in 2002, their first since 1946, believed he could do the same reconstruction job at Lemont.

Runaas had been out of coaching for seven years and was serving as athletic director at Thornton Fractional South when he learned that Lemont was looking for a basketball coach in the fall of 2009.

"I had an itch to get back into coaching," he said. "I didn't know much about Lemont. I knew it was a great community and growing and had great facilities. I knew they were a great football school, producing great athletes. I hoped they were also producing good basketball players."

How good is this team? Good enough to be competitive in the Class 3A playoff, Runaas predicts. He learned something about his players in a four-point loss to highly regarded Crane that he believes will be beneficial as the Indians negotiate the remainder of their season.

"Our strength is chemistry," he said. "Everyone has accepted their roles and realize what their weaknesses are. They play to their strengths. It is a match of 10 kids who complement each other and offset each other. It's just a bunch of good high school players. I don't know if we have any Division I players on the roster, no 7-footer, no (Crane star) Willie Conner. We're just playing well together.

"We have to remain true to who we are. We have to get used to being successful. Just because we are 14-2, we have to earn our wins. We are a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys who like each other. We can't lose sight of that. If we really want to make a run (in the Class 3A playoff) we have to shoot the ball well and get more production inside."

Lemont is 14-2 because of the stellar play of Balciunas, a 6-foot junior point guard who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He is averaging 17 points and six assists per game. He is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.

"He seems to play better when the game is more competitive," Runaas said. "He handles traps and pressure. He is a lefty, like (former NBA star) Tiny Archibald. People (college coaches) are starting to figure out who he is."

Balciunas is surrounded by 6-foot-3 senior Matt Lipowski (6 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-foot-10 senior guard Joe O'Brien (6 ppg), 6-foot-1 senior Paulius Otruskevicius (12 ppg) and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jake Terrazas (5 ppg, 7 rpg).

The bench is headed by two underclassmen who project to be future stars--6-foot junior Joe Hehir (10 ppg) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Mike Wisz (5 ppg), the team's best three-point shooter.

Last week, Lemont beat Stagg 56-46 as Balciunas had 17 points and eight assists and Lipowski grabbed 10 rebounds and Argo 62-28 as Balciunas accounted for 12 points.

Balciunas admits learning to play basketball at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont was easier than perfecting English and adapting to his new country.

"It was very difficult to learn English. It took a year to learn the language. And it was difficult to get used to a new country and new people.
Everything was so much bigger. But school was the most difficult thing. I had no friends. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

He started to play basketball for the first time when he moved from Franklin Park to Lemont five years ago. "I played soccer for fun. But basketball was more fun to me. It was in me. I wanted to play basketball and that was it. There was nothing more important," he said.

He enrolled at St. Joseph in Westchester "because it had a big basketball reputation." He spent two years in coach Gene Pingatore's program and is grateful for the experience. "I learned new things," he said.

After his sophomore year, however, he opted to transfer to Lemont. "A lot of my friends were at Lemont. I heard I could help Lemont to get better in basketball. Sure, I knew football was the main sport in Lemont. But times change. Maybe this could be year that basketball changes Lemont. It also could be a basketball town," he said.

From the first day that Balciunas began working out with his teammates, he felt they could be successful.

"I have great teammates, not just basketball players," he said. "We all get along. The strength of this team is we all play hard and all want to win. We're friends on and off the court, like brothers."

While Balciunas is a late bloomer and is only beginning to stir interest among college recruiters, Runaas believes he has what it takes to play at the next level. How high? He has the rest of this season, next summer and fall and all of the 2012-13 season to make an impression.

"Some people are starting to know who I am," Balciunas said. "I want to play college basketball. Ever since I started to play basketball, my father said I have to work harder than other guys. My job is to be the best point guard I can be, to lead team team by example on and off the court. I'm not surprised by what I am doing."

Toppling mighty Buckeyes, James Franklin finally gets his big win at Penn State


Toppling mighty Buckeyes, James Franklin finally gets his big win at Penn State

James Franklin finally has himself a win over a ranked opponent.

And what a win it was.

Franklin hadn’t taken down any team with a No. 1 through 25 in front of its name since he arrived at Penn State ahead of the 2014 season. But wins don’t get much bigger — and opponents don’t get much better — than the Nittany Lions’ stunning upset of the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday night in Happy Valley.

Franklin was hired to take Penn State back to the top of the college football mountain, and because college football fans and observers are impatient, he hasn’t appeared to make much progress toward that goal in his two and a half seasons at the helm. The first two campaigns finished in 7-6 records, and that kind of mediocrity doesn’t really fly at Penn State, even if Franklin is still doing the work of dragging the program out of the shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

In the preseason, Franklin looked at this season as one where the effects of that scandal start to get shed a little bit. He boasted about decisions made to redshirt players over the past two seasons, despite the Lions needing the depth, beginning to pay off.

When Penn State lost to Pitt in a game that was very entertaining but saw the Lions’ defense absolutely gashed and then to Michigan by a 39-point margin, it looked like the middle level was all Franklin would be able to deliver for yet another season. Those losses even spurred hot-seat talk. Remember the point about college football fans and observers being impatient?

But Saturday, questions about Franklin’s job status were deemed null and void.

You can look at the way the Lions won the game: returning a blocked field goal attempt 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final five minutes and wonder if this wasn’t more a product of college football magic than it was a product of Penn State turning some kind of corner. But the Lions did play very well, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, on Saturday night. Despite some good yardage totals for Ohio State, Penn State’s defense persistently flustered Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett and sacked him six times, including on the Buckeyes’ final two offensive plays.

Ohio State had huge advantages in most offensive categories. A small sample: Barrett completed 20 more passes than Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, and the Buckeyes were 10-for-24 on third and fourth down while the Lions were just 2-for-14.

But special teams are special for a reason, right? Even before the wild play that ended in the game-winning touchdown, Penn State blocked an Ohio State punt that turned into three points. Ten points off blocked kicks? That’ll do.

Again, does all this mean that the Lions are finding their footing under Franklin and resuming their ascent back to the top of the Big Ten?

The fairer question might be: Was that even possible in the first place?

Taking nothing away from Franklin, he was handed the mighty difficult task of getting back to competing for conference and national championships while playing in a division loaded with some of the best programs in college football. When he arrived ahead of the 2014 season, it was Ohio State and Michigan State slugging it out for those titles on an annual basis. Then Jim Harbaugh showed up in Ann Arbor and flipped the Wolverines back into title contenders overnight.

Whether the Sandusky scandal had a crippling effect on this program or not, the sheer quality of those three annual opponents made Franklin’s task look almost impossible.

But now one of those Goliaths has been slain. Cry not for the Buckeyes, their title hopes are still very much alive after suffering just their first defeat of the season. Instead, look at this as the next step for Franklin, the next step toward where he wants Penn State to be. Look at this as him getting the monkey of not beating a ranked team off his back. You want a win over a ranked team? How’s the No. 2 team in the country sound?

And while the Lions aren't suddenly anyone's trendy pick to make a surprise run to the national championship, take a look at the Big Ten standings. Penn State's 3-1 conference record places it second in the East Division, behind only undefeated Michigan. Of the five teams with 3-1 or better marks in the league, three were ranked in the top 10 coming into this past weekend. Penn State has the same overall record as the Wisconsin Badgers, a top-10 team which still has hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. So pretty good company to be in for the Lions.

Penn State might not be challenging for the conference championship this season or in the next one, but this is one big thing checked off Franklin’s to-do list.

Buckeyes stunned in Happy Valley, but myriad title hopes still alive


Buckeyes stunned in Happy Valley, but myriad title hopes still alive

Ohio State is no longer undefeated, and that’s a real bummer for the Buckeyes.

But the thing is, it’s true what Urban Meyer says: His team’s goals are all still in front of it.

“Every goal is still alive,” Meyer said after Saturday's game. “We’re just not a great team right now. We’ve got to regroup and get guys healthy and get back and keep swinging.

“I talked to the team, and then Raekwon McMillan and some of the other leaders talked to the team. Let’s go, time to get to work.”

The Buckeyes lost in shocking fashion Saturday night, upended by Penn State when the Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal try 60 yards for a touchdown.

At first glance, you’d think this flips the Big Ten on its head, and it is true that Ohio State can no longer be considered the favorite for the crowns it chases: the Big Ten East Division title, the Big Ten title and the national title. The favorite for those first two championships, at least, is now Michigan, which sits at 7-0, having dominated all but one opponent this season, while Ohio State dropped to 6-1 on Saturday night.

But until the Buckeyes suffer defeat No. 2, there’s really nothing stopping them from competing for and winning all those titles.

There are currently seven undefeated teams hailing from Power Five conferences: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Baylor and West Virginia. That’s Ohio State’s competition for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Plenty will happen between now and when the selection committee picks the sport’s final four, meaning that list will be trimmed, if not completely emptied.

But the main point here is that as long as the Buckeyes take care of the rest of their business prior to the regular season’s final week — easier said than done, of course, with Nebraska still remaining on the schedule — things will come down to The Game, just as it they were going to before Saturday’s loss in Pennsylvania. If Ohio State enters its end-of-season date with rival Michigan with one loss and the Wolverines boast a spotless record, a win in The Game will still send the Buckeyes to Indy and could make all the difference in sending them to the Playoff.

Now, of course there’s no more room for error. Be it Nebraska or some other upset-minded opponent, Ohio State cannot trip up one more time, or its destiny will be out of its control.

And no longer do the Buckeyes look like the favorite for The Game. They might've prior to Saturday, and certainly last season's result is still in our minds. But the Wolverines are now not just equals with the Buckeyes, they're the favorites.

But as things stand, a one-loss group of Buckeyes with wins over Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and whichever team comes out of the West Division in the Big Ten title game will most definitely warrant a spot in the Playoff field.

As for Saturday? A heck of a college football game and a heck of a moment for Penn State. But Ohio State is still on pretty much the same path it was on before.