Can Mather repeat in soccer?

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Can Mather repeat in soccer?

Mather soccer coach Branko Cvijovic is still reveling in the aftermath of his team's monumental victory in the Class 2A championship in November. And he can't help but think about what the only Chicago Public League winner since 1973 can do for an encore in 2012.

"I love the feeling at the end of the season to see everybody is still there," Cvijovic said. "You start in the heat in August and end in the cold and wind in October. You look around and see they still are around and it's a good feeling. They are healthy and have fun and if they accomplish something, that's a bonus."

Cvijovic, 50, grew up playing soccer in his native Montenegro. He played for an organized club, a second-tier team, and always felt he could coach the game he loved better than he could play it. After he came to the United States in 1989, he got an opportunity to prove he was right.

He arrived at Mather on Chicago's North Side 10 years ago. He coached the frosh-soph team to the city title in 2002 and guided the junior varsity to the city final in 2004. This year, he was named head coach of the varsity. From the first day of practice, he had a different approach.

"Everywhere else but here, in this country, the core of the game is to have fun, to let everyone have an individual style but to not hurt the team concept, especially at the amateur level. In high school, you aren't paid to play. You should do it for fun," Cvijovic said.

"I don't know if it is fun here but the approach in different sports is to play to win as opposed to having fun. There is too much pressure from coaches and parents. You even see it at the national level.

"My philosophy? I love to see the technical ability of the player. Let him do what he might not have an opportunity to do. Dedicate some time during practice for free time, fun time. Let them play and enjoy the game. That's my style -- let them play and have fun, even if it isn't practical. Let them enjoy the game."

Mather's drive to the school's first state championship in any sport is a feel-good story, a first-year coach molding the attitudes and styles and personalities of teenagers from five continents and nine nationalities into a cohesive unit that came together in a relative short period of time.

The 21-member squad, which included players from Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bosnia and Mexico, started on Aug. 10 and only missed two practices in three months. A dozen played on last year's team that lost to Maine West in a Class 3A sectional final.

"From day one I believed there was great potential," Cvijovic said. "That's why I took the job. They need to work hard and come to practice and enjoy the game. But we are here to achieve great things.

"I saw them play last year when I wasn't coaching. I saw they had great talent. I saw a blend of styles and talent and stuff I enjoyed watching. I inherited a great team but I had to work hard to get them to believe in themselves and to develop team spirit and team cohesiveness. That's what they lacked last year. They didn't play together. They didn't know each other, being from five continents. They didn't know how to blend their styles and strengths. There was too much individualism.

"I wanted all of them to know that we shouldn't be happy with small things, that we are capable of doing great things. I didn't mention state but, deep down, I felt we could win state."

Mission accomplished. The Rangers, led by senior Qudus Lawal, crushed Chatham Glenwood 6-0 to win the state title and complete a 21-3-1 season. Lawal, the lone Public League selection on the Chicago Sun-Times All-Area team and one of five Nigerians on the team, scored a record four goals in the final, including three in the second half (two within a span of 17 seconds) as Mather broke away from a 1-0 halftime lead. He finished with 41 goals for the season.

"Skill-wise, I wouldn't be surprised if Lawal plays professionally," Cvijovic told veteran Chicago newspaper reporter John Montgomery. "I've never seen anybody use his body on a soccer field as well as he does to make the plays (to score goals). He is a skilled player. It's hard to guard him on the field. You have to have more than just skill."

In a recent EastWest all-star game in Birmingham, Alabama, Lawal scored two goals and assisted on a third as his West team won 3-2.

"He is one of the five best players in the country. And nobody knew about him until this year. In three months, he achieved it all. He became the best player in the state, the player of the year," Cvijovic said. "He wants to go to college. He has so many offers. He is a very good and very unorthodox player. You can't tell until you see him play the game and what he produces."

So what about next year? Lawal and seven other starters will graduate. Only three starters will return.

Cvijovic said junior Kenan Alihodzic, a Bosnian, will be next year's leader. An outstanding defender and very mature, he played centerforward as a freshman. "He has great potential," the coach said.

The other returning starters are junior Godman Eseh, a centermidfielder from Nigeria, and sophomore goalie Edwin Vazquez, a Mexican who had a hand in the team's nine shutouts in 2011.

Much is expected from Mahdi Mahdi, a centermidfielder who was the only freshman on the varsity last season, and sophomore Andres Torrez. "Both have potential to be very good players," Cvijovic said.

"We will be competitive but we won't be as good (as this year)," Cvijovic said. "It will be more of a challenge next year. Everyone wants to play us. We have a target on our backs. There will be more pressure on our team.

"But not much was expected of us last season, especially from a city team in the state tournament. We made a name for ourselves. Now suburban teams will have more respect for us. In the past, suburban and Downstate teams wanted to play city teams because they didn't think we were good enough. And we lost 10-0 and 11-0. It was a great lesson for our kids to see what organized soccer is."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls build around All-Star Jimmy Butler?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Should the Bulls build around All-Star Jimmy Butler?

David Haugh (Chicago Tribune) and Ben Finfer (ESPN 1000) join Kap on the panel. Jimmy Butler is an All-Star starter. Is he a superstar now meaning the Bulls have to build around him? The guys pose that question to Bulls great Horace Grant.

The Raiders want to move to Las Vegas. If your NFL team moved, should you keep rooting for them? Plus should the Cubs help Sammy Sosa out as his Hall of Fame chances get smaller?

Check out the SportsTalk Live Podcast below.

NBA Buzz: Chris Paul hurt, the Bad Boy Warriors and some bummer draft news for the Bulls

NBA Buzz: Chris Paul hurt, the Bad Boy Warriors and some bummer draft news for the Bulls

It's become the newest trend in the NBA. Players 6-foot-10 and taller wandering out to the 3-point line to launch jump shots (or set shots), hoping to draw their defenders out of the paint.

Yes, we know the NBA has become a 3-point shooting league thanks to the long-range talents of players like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, James Harden, J.J. Redick and Damian Lillard. Advanced analytics have shown coaches and front-office executives the value of that extra point from beyond the arc, and every team is working to develop 3-point shooting range with just about all the players on their rosters, including 7-foot centers.

Robin Lopez has been watching his twin brother Brook join the 3-point craze. Brook had only launched 31 shots from 3-point range in his previous eight NBA seasons, but this season he's put up 191 3s heading into play on Thursday and made 66 for a more than respectable 34.6-percent success rate.

Naturally, Robin says he can do anything his twin brother can do and told reporters it's only a matter of time before he gets the green light to shoot the 3 ball.

"It's something I've been working on this season. I don't know if it's game-ready yet, maybe that's a little more of a confidence issue. Coach Pete (Myers) has me shooting corner 3s before games. The way the NBA is going, I don't see why not. If Brook can do it, I can definitely do it."

Taj Gibson knocked down a corner 3 against the Wizards last week and said the coaching staff is encouraging him to shoot more of them in games. Gibson spent time after practice on Thursday working on his long-range shooting with assistant coach Mike Wilhelm, then told reporters, "I try to take two a game, but when you get out there, you don't really realize how far it is until you're lined up and the crowd is yelling 'shoot it, shoot it.' Your teammates are behind you. It's fun. I hopefully look forward to finally make some in the future."

Gibson added his 3-point shooting has already become a big topic of conversation around the team.

"My teammates are making little jokes about what I'm going to do when I make it. You gotta make some kind of signal or something. But one day at a time."

In case you haven't noticed, some of the best young big men in the game like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins have made the 3-point shot a staple in their offensive arsenals. And Robin Lopez says there's no reason why centers shouldn't expand their games behind traditional low post battles.

"I think it's wonderful for the game. I think there's a real premium on skill at all positions on the court. I think that's really going to continue. You're going to have more versatile big men."

Fred Hoiberg joked with reporters he might have to call a play to get Robin a 3-point try down the line, but he understands the value of having power forwards and centers who can shoot from long range.

"It's obviously a huge part of today's game. The 3-point shot, having multiple player that can stretch the floor. Those teams are really hard to guard."

So, with the Bulls currently ranking dead last in the NBA in 3-point shooting at just under 32 percent, Hoiberg is searching for more options, even among the tallest players on his roster.

Here are a few stories from around the Association that have caught my attention.

Paul's injury big trouble for Clippers

Bad news for the L.A. Clippers, who will have to get along for the next six to eight weeks without floor leader Chris Paul, who tore a ligament in his left thumb defending Russell Westbrook on Monday. Just the latest in a series of untimely injuries for Doc Rivers' team.

The good news? Paul will be healed in time for the playoffs, and the Clippers do have a deep group of veteran guards, including the aforementioned Redick, Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers. But with Blake Griffin already on the sidelines recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Clippers could have a tough time holding off Utah, Memphis and Oklahoma City in the race for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.

The larger question involves the direction of the franchise going forward. Under terms of the new CBA, Paul is eligible to sign a five-year contract this summer in excess of $200 million, while Griffin is also set to sign a new max deal. Will the Clippers tie up their payroll for years to come around the talented but oft-injured duo? Or are they better off cutting ties with at least one of their All Stars to keep some degree of cap flexibility going forward?

Since Rivers is the coach and president of basketball operations, that decision will largely be his to make in consultation with deep-pocketed owner Steve Ballmer.

Melo wants to stay in New York?

Speaking of franchise direction, what's next for the floundering Knicks, who've sunk to 11th place in a weak Eastern Conference?

Carmelo Anthony met with team president Phil Jackson earlier this week to clear the air about an article written by Jackson confidante Charley Rosen that suggested Anthony has perhaps outlived his usefulness in New York and that the Knicks should consider trading him. Anthony reaffirmed to Jackson he wants to stay and win in New York and that he has no intention to waive his no-trade clause.

So for now the uneasy alliance between Anthony and Jackson will continue, but the Knicks will be hamstrung by the Melo and Joakim Noah contracts for the next few years, likely preventing them from making any major moves to improve the roster.

Sixers reaping rewards of The Process

At the other end of the spectrum is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are finally starting to reap the benefits of acquiring so many high draft picks in recent years. Joel Embiid is already a star in his first NBA season, looking like he could be the league's best center in very short order. Embiid's sensational rookie campaign means the Sixers will be able to trade either Nerlens Noel or Chicago native Jahlil Okafor for a veteran backcourt player to balance out the roster.

And we still haven't seen 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, who's being brought back slowly from a broken foot suffered in a preseason game. Former general manager Sam Hinkie might not have been allowed to stay on to see "The Process" completed, but he deserves a lot of the credit for staying the course when other front-office execs would have bailed.

The Bad Boy Warriors

Who could have imagined the Golden State Warriors being mentioned in the same breath as the Bad Boy Pistons? Facing statement games this week against the Cavs and Thunder, Golden State took a page out of Bill Laimbeer's book, flattening LeBron James and Russell Westbrook with flagrant fouls. Now, James certainly embellished the hit he took from Draymond Green with one of the all-time soccer-style flops, but there's no arguing Green plays with an edge and physicality that borders on dirty.

Watching Zaza Pachulia stand over Westbrook after a deliberate smack down indicates Pachulia is more than ready to take on the enforcer role in what could be a much-anticipated third straight Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavs. After watching tape of Wednesday night's incident, Westbrook had this to say about the team's next meeting Feb. 11 in Oklahoma City: "I'm going to get his ass back. Straight up."

Bummer draft news for Bulls

Sorry, Bulls fans. That future first-round pick Sacramento owes the Bulls (top-10 protected) from the Luol Deng trade years ago is almost certainly going to become a second-round pick this June. The Kings just went 1-6 on their longest homestand of the season, and now head out on the road for eight straight games. Even worse, they just lost their second best player, Rudy Gay, to a season-ending Achilles injury. Under the terms of the Deng trade, if the first-round pick owed to the Bulls isn't conveyed by this year's draft, it converts to a second-round pick. And after losing Gay for the season, the Kings are a lock to finish in the bottom 10.

So a chance for the Bulls to add a low lottery pick to their roster this summer just went out the window.

Stat of the week

Thanks to my friend Nick Friedell, who tweeted this gem from Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats and Information: Tuesday night's game against Dallas marked Jimmy Butler's 16th game this season with 10-plus free throws made, which ties him with Chet Walker for the 10th-most such games in a single season in franchise history. Only Michael Jordan has more games in a season with 10-plus free throws made in franchise history.

And Russell Westbrook's incredible season continues as he looks to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double since the great Oscar Robertson back in 1961-62.

NBA season leaders in triple-doubles since Westbrook's rookie season (2008-09):

Season Player Triple-doubles Total NBA triple-doubles
2008-09 LeBron James 7 30
2009-10 LeBron James 4 23
2010-11 LeBron James 4 37
2011-12 Rajon Rondo 6 18
2012-13 Rajon Rondo 5 42
2013-14 Lance Stephenson 5 46
2014-15 Russell Westbrook 11 46
2015-16 Russell Westbrook 18 75
2016-17 Russell Westbrook 21 53 (through Jan. 18)

Quote of the week

Congratulations to Jimmy Butler on being named an Eastern Conference All-Star starter for the Feb. 19 game in New Orleans. Last week, Butler told reporters he really didn't care about whether or not he made the team, saying he'd be relaxing on a beach somewhere if he wasn't selected.

That prompted this response from Taj Gibson: "He's lying, he's lying so much. You never know what you're going to get from Jimmy. I know, definitely, he wants to make the All-Star team. He's been putting in a lot work in for it."

No question about it, Taj, Butler deserves to be in the East starting lineup as he continues to rise up the rankings of the top players in the game. Now the challenge for the Bulls is finding more athletes and shooters to put around him.