Can Montini win four state titles in a row?

935629.png

Can Montini win four state titles in a row?

Montini coach Chris Andriano has made a deal with the Lombard school's administration. At 60, he is completing his 33rd season. Two more years and he will call it a career. But he wants to go out with a flourish. How about four state championships in a row? Maybe more?

"I felt we could win again this year," Andriano said as he put the finishing touches on his game plan for Saturday's Class 5A quarterfinal game against unbeaten Marian Central in Woodstock.

"I felt we had the talent and leadership and returning players to make a deep run in the playoff. We have a great rivalry with Marian Central. It is for the prize. To get to the top, you have to beat them.

"We play each other so often. We know we have to go through each other at some point if we want to be state champion. When you play each other twice a year, it is a respectful rivalry but it develops into a mentality that you know they are waiting for you."

In each of its four state championship seasons, Montini had to defeat Marian Central en route to the title. Marian Central ousted Montini in 2006 and 2007 but Montini prevailed in 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

Saturday's game could be Montini's toughest test yet. Marian Central won their conference match-up 49-24 in Week 7, overcoming a 24-7 deficit behind a sensational performance by Minnesota-bound quarterback Chris Streveler. He completed 17 of 19 passes, ran for four touchdowns and passed for two more as Marian Central rallied to win.

"Streveler is the best quarterback we have ever played against, better than Tom Fuessel of Lincoln-Way East," said Andriano, referring to the Northern Illinois-bound quarterback who beat Montini 20-14 in Week 2.

"He is smart, accurate and can really throw. We couldn't contain him. He is as complete a player at quarterback as you will find. You have to limit him in his ability to run. You have to make him throw. If he scrambles and takes off, he is devastating."

Andriano compares his 2012 squad favorably to his last three state championship teams. "We have the same mentality, the same drive and motivation. The difference is this year's team isn't as explosive on offense. We don't score as quickly or in bunches as in the past. We have to be smarter--and this is a smart team," he said.

For example, Montini was trailing Aurora Christian by four points with two minutes to play and Aurora Christian had the ball. But Montini's defense stripped the ball at the 50 and the Broncos scored with a minute remaining.

"Those are the kinds of things our kids do," Andriano said. "They are prepared to play 48 minutes."

Montini survived another heart-stopping experience last Saturday, beating Sycamore 24-22 on Andrew Harte's 34-yard field goal as time expired.

"It was a real test of our preparation and perseverance," Andriano said. "We gave up the lead with 30 seconds left on a two-point conversion. But our kids have that mentality. We had a great 35-yard kick return to the 50 that gave us life. It gave us an opportunity to believe we can get this thing done. We executed three plays in a row to get into position to win the game. I thought it was over. But our kids just believe."

Andriano rates Harte as the best kicker he has had. He has set a state record with 102 extra points in a row. Eighty percent of his kickoffs land in the end zone. He converted a 54-yard field goal against Aurora Central Catholic. An outstanding student, he hopes to attend Yale.

Andriano concedes he doesn't have any five-star players in a class with last year's star, Jordan Westkerkamp, now a freshman at Nebraska. But he describes Joey Borsellino as "this year's Westerkamp." He is a 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior who plays several positions and is a leader and playmaker.

"He is Montini," the coach said. "He loves and eats and breathes Montini, like Westerkamp did. He is demanding. He understands what it takes to win. He has the history of Montini in his memory. He brings an intensity and flavor for football. He loves the game. He makes a lot of plays for us."

One he won't forget happened against Aurora Christian. He stripped the ball, recovered the fumble and caught the game-winning touchdown on a 20-yard pass with a minute to play. After missing two games with an injury, he has emerged as a difference-maker as a wide receiver, defensive back and quarterback in the Joe-Cat formation, Montini's version of the wildcat.

"What impresses me about our team is we are very versatile. We have a lot of guys who can move around and make plays," said Andriano, referring to Borsellino, Mark Gorogianis, Alex Wills and Dimitri Taylor. "And we have been making a lot of big plays lately."

At Montini, the Borsellinos are a family tradition. Joey's father and uncle played at Montini in the 1970s. His father is the offensive coordinator. His half-brothers played at Maine South. His cousins played at Montini. In fact, Joey is the eighth Borsellino to play at Montini.

Joey has been playing football since he was 4 years old. He started in flag football but in his first game he tackled an opponent. "I didn't know about the flag," he said after being penalized. His father immediately put him on a tackle team, the Lombard Falcons.

Joey, who is being recruited by Eastern Illinois, Illinois State and Western Illinois, believes the 2012 squad is as good as the recent state championship teams, even without Westerkamp.

"Sure, there are a lot of big differences. But we are as good as we have ever been," he said. "We have it. We always love each other. We do anything to win the game. No matter what is happening, we can win the game. We have that this year, too, what all of our teams have had."

He said the Aurora Christian and Sycamore games are good examples.

"Against Aurora Christian, we were down by one point with 24.9 seconds left when we took the ball. It was a perfect example of how tough we are. We play as one. It showed how we truly believe we aren't out of a game no matter what the situation is," he said.

But Joey is the last of the Borsellinos--and he wants to be sure that he leaves a legacy. "It is my senior year and any senior would say it is different from other years. I was used to Westerkamp being the main guy and me being the complement. Now I am the main guy on the offensive side of the ball," he said.

"Sure, there is pressure. But I like it. It's good pressure, pressure on me to perform, to see if we can win four state titles in a row. We are expected to get back there again. But the Marian Central rivalry has been building up over the years. They beat us in the regular season and we beat them in the playoff or vice-versa. We play for the conference title, then play to get to the state final. So it's a big game both times."

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

15494063_10154553009606858_998332033_n.jpg
USA TODAY

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

The 2011 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls and Miami Heat featured three future Hall of Famers in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Derrick Rose had been named the youngest league MVP in league history weeks earlier. Luol Deng was blossoming and would earn All-Star nods in each of the following two seasons. $82 million man Carlos Boozer had averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds in his first season with the Bulls. The series was loaded with star power.

But buried deep in that series was a matchup of unsung reserves that influenced the series far greater than their numbers in the box score indicated. Udonis Haslem averaged just 4.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 22 minutes in the series – the Heat won in five games – but his impact was felt nonetheless, in part because of the physicality he brought against an energetic second-year forward named Taj Gibson.

“When we played them in the Eastern Conference Finals, Gibson had an incredible impact on that series, and (Haslem) was just coming back from an injury,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said before Saturday’s tilt between the Bulls and Heat. “And we thought that was probably the missing component in that series early on, was having a player like UD to match up against (Gibson). And that really helped us close that series.”

Five years later Haslem is on the final leg of his NBA career. He’s only appeared sparingly in seven games for the Heat in this his 14th NBA season. But the two-time NBA champion has had a lasting impact on the Heat organization – so much so that they allowed him to miss Friday’s game to attend his son’s state-title football game in Florida – and has etched himself in Heat lore, despite never averaging more than 12 points or nine rebounds in a season.

It’s not unlike the career path Gibson has taken in his eight seasons in Chicago. The now-31-year-old Gibson has spent the majority of his career playing behind the likes of Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah. And while he’s been an integral part of the Bulls’ rotation since joining the team in 2009, his role has never matched his ability or production. It’s why Haslem said he sees so much of himself in Gibson, an unselfish, care-free teammate, yet also someone who is willing to work every day despite the lack of accolades.

“Taj plays hard, man. He’s a guy that gets all the dirty work done. The banging down in the paint, he knocks down that 15-footer, (he) rebounds,” Haslem told CSNChicago.com. “A lot of similarities to myself when I was a little younger. Like you said, unsung. Doesn’t look for any attention, doesn’t look for any glory. Just goes out there, is professional, and does his job every night.”

And in his eighth NBA season, Gibson has done his job every night incredibly well. Through 23 games he’s posted career-best numbers in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and steals, and isn’t far off in points and blocks per game. His 16.9 PER would be a career-high.

He’s done all this with little real estate in the spotlight. Jimmy Butler has cemented himself as a legitimate MVP candidate, and free-agent acquisitions Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have earned headlines.

But Gibson has been as reliable and consistent a frontcourt player as the Bulls have – he’s one of three players to have appeared in all 23 games this season – and he’s playing some of his best basketball while the Bulls are mired in a mini-slump.

“He’s a rock for us on this team,” Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s going to go out and do his job. He’s never going to complain about his role. He’s going to put on his hard hat and make the little plays that may not show up in the box score, but help you win.”

Including Gibson’s 13-point, seven-rebound effort in Saturday’s win over the Heat, he’s averaging 12.6 points on 58 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in the Bulls’ last 11 games. He’s corralled 16 offensive rebounds in that span – including two on Saturday that he put back for layups – and is the main reason the Bulls entered as the league’s top offensive rebounding team in the league (and second in total rebound percentage). The Bulls are also nearly six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Gibson on the floor.

Gibson’s and Haslem’s career numbers are eerily similar – Gibson has averaged 9.3 points on 49 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds, compared to Haslem’s 7.9 points on 49 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds, with this year excluded. And both players accomplished their numbers while acting as the third scoring option, at best, on their respective teams. Wade, who spent 13 seasons with Haslem, also sees similarities in the two forward’s games and personalities.

“Taj does his job. He doesn’t try to do too much. Some nights he’s featured a lot. Some nights he’s not. He’s out there to do his job, wants to win,” he said. “(Haslem and Gibson) are very similar. He has that mentality where he’s a workhorse and he’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Added Spoelstra: “Incredible amount of similar qualities. In my mind both those guys are winning players and have all the intangibles and toughness. Doing the little things, the dirty work, both those guys embody all those qualities. We’ve always respected Gibson because of that.”

Gibson is third on the Bulls in field goal attempts per game, the first time in his career he’s been higher than fifth in that category. The Bulls are using him more than ever before, and it’s paying off. He's in the final year of his four-year contract with the Bulls, and is looking at a significant pay raise in free agency this coming summer. Whether his future is in Chicago or elsewhere, don’t expect him to change his persona or mentality anytime soon. Much like Haslem did for years in Miami, Gibson has defined being a consummate professional, teammate and player.

“When you’re on championship teams, competing for a championship, trying to go deep in the playoffs, trying to do special things, guys are doing to have to sacrifice their game. Everybody can’t play big minutes; everybody can’t take the shots,” he said after the Bulls’ win over the Cavs on Thursday. “I’m one of the guys that sacrificed my game for the good of the team. Whatever the coach wants me to do, I’m going to go out and do (it).

“If a coach wants me to set 100 screens and not take a shot, I’m gonna do that because I’m about helping the team. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. As long as I’m out there enjoying myself, having fun and playing with great teammates, I’m blessed.”

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

morning_update_pic.jpg
USA TODAY

Morning Update: Bulls take down Heat for second time this season

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks square off with Stars tonight on CSN

Complete Bears-Lions coverage on CSN

Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade lift Bulls to win over pesky Heat

Brent Seabrook could return, but Jonathan Toews will miss ninth straight when Blackhawks play Stars

Three Bears necessities to lay a broom on the Lions

The consummate pro: How Taj Gibson has become the Bulls' version of Udonis Haslem

Bill Dineen, father of Blackhawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen, passes away

Tracy Abrams pours in career-high 31 points as Illini cruise past Central Michigan

Cincinnati hires Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell as new head coach