Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

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Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

Ryan Solomon and Kenny Obendorf are proud members of the first senior class at brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art Metea Valley High School in Aurora. They are anxious and determined to set a standard for others to follow, to establish a tradition where there is none.

They were freshmen at Waubonsie Valley but were aware that they would move to Metea Valley as sophomores. Everything at the 124.7 million complex was new...teachers, 2,400 students, gym, fieldhouse, weight room, swimming pool, energy, excitement, expectations, school song, school colors, nickname.

Everything but tradition. If you don't inherit it, as at schools like Joliet Catholic or Mount Carmel or Thornton or Wheaton Warrenville South, you have to build it...game by game, year by year.

"Not many people have the opportunity to start off new," Solomon said. "We have the opportunity to start our own tradition. What we do this year will set the tone for future years to come in basketball. Knowing we are competing for a new school and having all our classmates behind us creates a fun atmosphere."

Winning is fun. Metea Valley is 8-0 after Friday's 68-58 victory over Bartlett and Saturday's 55-43 victory over South Elgin. Obendorf scored 22 points against Bartlett and Solomon had 15 against South Elgin. The Mustangs play at Neuqua Valley Friday, then compete at the Hinsdale South Holiday Tournament.

"I knew we had a chance to be 8-0," coach Bob Vozza said. "Expectations are high. Each and every day these seniors are building what Metea is and shaping what the program is going to be.

"We put them in big-game situations last year with East Aurora, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley and they learned to handle pressure. They are building a tradition. This is their team, the first senior group. In the future, we'll be talking about them to younger kids. Their motivation is to build success that others will be building to achieve."

With all five starters and four others returning from last year's squad, Vozza had a solid foundation to build on. Obendorf, a 6-2 senior guard, averages 15 points per game. Solomon, a 6-1 senior guard, averages 12. Milan Bojanic, a 6-4 senior, averages 13.

Other major contributors are 5-10 senior point guard TreSean Mackey, 6-4 junior Sean Davis, 5-10 senior LaShawn Cargo and 6-2 senior Raysean Parker.

"Our strength is pressure man-to-man defense," said Vozza, whose team forced 16 turnovers in the second half against Bartlett. "We can match up with a lot of people."

"It was tough coming in...no upperclassmen, no tradition. But it's just basketball," said Obendorf, who carries a 4.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 35 (out of 36) on his ACT. "A lot of us have been doing this for a long time. We felt we had the talent to compete.

"Our chemistry is a big thing. All of us like each other. We get along. We have built up a trust in everyone else. When we get in big-game situations, we know that everyone is working together and on the same page and doing what they have to do to help the team succeed. We've been in close games this year and haven't panicked."

But Obendorf and Solomon, who played on the sophomore team at Waubonsie Valley as freshmen before moving to Metea Valley, agree that athleticism also gives the Mustangs an edge.

"We enjoy the fast pace of basketball," Obendorf said. "We can play against any team in the area. The difference is our athleticism on defense gives us an ability to make stops and get up and down the court."

"We have so much energy," Solomon said. "We have a lot of fast kids, moving at a fast pace. We excel at going up and down the court. We feed off the energy we create with one big play. All of us are athletes. Not many teams have as much athleticism as we do."

Vozza, 39, is as excited as his players with the challenge of breaking in a new school and establishing a new identity and a new tradition. A Waubonsie Valley graduate of 1990, he played basketball under Spike Grosshuesch on teams that went 50-6 in two years and reached the sectional finals. So he knew something about winning.

He tried to coach other sports, including baseball and soccer, but always came back to basketball. He recalled his experiences at Waubonsie Valley and his trips to the state finals in Champaign and Peoria. "I fell in love with the atmosphere," he said.

"Why basketball? It is one of the high school sports that generates fan support and excitement in the high school and community," he said. "It gives kids the same experience you had."

After graduating from Aurora University in 1995, he coached and taught at Geneva, at a middle school in Aurora, Waubonsie Valley for one year, then to Neuqua Valley as an assistant coach, teacher and guidance counselor from 1997 to 2009. When the job at Metea Valley opened up, he applied and was hired.

"I'm excited to start from the ground up, a new school and a new staff," he said. "I saw growing pains there. But I learned how to build a foundation."

Vozza was allowed to handpick his staff--former Geneva head coach Tim Pease, who was an assistant at Waubonsie Valley; Andrew Browning, who was an assistant at Geneva; Matt Wolpole, who came from Waubonsie Valley; Pat Brusveen, a former player at Neuqua Valley; Grian Giovanini, who was an assistant at Neuqua Valley; and Patrick Grady, who came from Maine West.

He formed his philosophy "by taking bits and pieces" from Grosshuesch and coach Todd Sutton at Neuqua Valley.

"Honestly, we had mixed feelings coming over to a new school, leaving the kids at Waubonsie Valley," Obendorf said. "But it is interesting to go to a new school and start something new. It is a challenge to start something new. There is a lot of energy here.

"We were 15-13 in our first year. We played better than others expected but we felt we could have a winning record. It was a matter of getting experience in big games and pulling out wins in the end. We're all excited about the school, starting something new."

Scott Darling takes the reins for Blackhawks in Corey Crawford’s absence

Scott Darling takes the reins for Blackhawks in Corey Crawford’s absence

It’s an interesting working life, really, this backup goaltending gig.

Most of the time, you’re in hurry-up-and-wait mode. But now and then something bizarre happens – like the starting goaltender needing an appendectomy on the road – that thrusts you into the No. 1 spot for a time.

Scott Darling has been here, done this before, though, and he did it well. And considering how goaltending has been the backbone of this team’s performance this season, the Blackhawks are confident he can handle the job.

Darling gave the Blackhawks a chance again on Sunday night, his 30-stop performance keeping them within one goal in what was ultimately a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. Darling started his second consecutive game – Crawford was diagnosed with appendicitis prior to the team’s game in Philadelphia, where he had his operation. An interesting turn of events, for sure, but Darling will do what’s necessary in Crawford’s absence.

“Obviously you don’t want it to happen this way. But there’s not too many other ways it can happen so it’s an exciting opportunity for me,” Darling said following Sunday’s game. “I mean I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how long Corey will be gone or what the game plan is. But I’m excited to get a few more starts than usual.”

Darling had a whole three games of NHL experience in December of 2014 when he subbed for Crawford, out with a lower-body injury at that time. That worked out just fine – he won three of his first four starts and came up even bigger in the Blackhawks’ first-round series against the Nashville Predators that postseason.

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Coach Joel Quenneville said Darling has handled the extremes well.

“I think that’s what it’s all about in that role: you’re ready to play once every four or five games and then all of a sudden you’re playing every night and it’s a different job description, workload, pressure. But the expectations when you do get it can be different,” Quenneville said. “Some guys handle it the same way, going every fourth or fifth game and don’t change a beat. I think Darls did exactly that. He had a good demeanor, had a good approach, was patient as he always was. I think that helped a lot. He played some critical games for us in the playoffs, handled it the same way and that’s how you’re hoping they handle it.”

Darling is expected to get most, if not all, of the workload while Crawford’s out. Lars Johansson was recalled on Sunday and will serve as backup, but he has no NHL experience – then again, Darling didn’t have much a few years ago, either.

But Darling isn’t taking anything for granted during this stretch.

“I’ve gotta win some games to have the right to get those minutes,” he said.

Maybe, but the Blackhawks also have to give him some help. The goaltending hasn’t gotten a ton of that from the Blackhawks, who have sputtered offensively most of the season. No matter who’s in net, the Blackhawks need to start producing more.

For now, Darling is the man. He’s rolled with the backup-gig demands before and should be fine again. And if the Blackhawks can help him out some, they shouldn’t miss much of a beat without Crawford.

“He’s played great. I thought he played great again [Sunday],” Duncan Keith said. “He gave us a chance, and you know, more than a chance to win. He stopped breakaways and made big plays all night. We’re lucky to have him as a goalie we can look to when we’ve got a guy like Crow out.”

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

Bears Grades: Offense ignites to end 1st half, puts up season-high points vs. Niners

With less than 2 minutes to play in the first half the Bears had gained a total of 45 yards, and had zero pass completions (2 attempts) and zero points . By the end of the half they had 115 yards, Matt Barkley had completed 4 of his last 6 passes and the Bears adjourned for halftime with a 7-6 lead.

For the second straight week Barkley engineered a comeback, this time for a win, and running a two-minute offense that, curiously perhaps for an inexperienced quarterback, seems to suit Barkley even more than the offense run a normal speed. More than one player said that 70-yard drive to finish the first half was a tipping point, on all sides of the football.

The turning point “was that two-minute right before the half,” said right tackle Bobby Massie. “Everybody just executed, did what we needed to do and drove right down the field. Then we come out after the half and drove right down again. It was good.”

More than just good for the offense. “I think that really spurred both sides of the ball to be motivated to finish the game strong,” said Barkley, who got the Bears into the end zone twice in last Sunday’s Tennessee game, and nearly a third, within the final 10 minutes, running 35 plays over the span of those minutes.”

This time the result was the highest point total (26) this season and scores on four out of five possessions beginning with that hurry-up score to end the half.

Quarterback: A-

Once again Barkley was beset by dropped passes, although nowhere near the avalanche of them that defeated him against the Tennessee Titans. Barkley shook off the conditions and poor start to complete 4 of 6 passes on the final drive of the half, for 64 yards – the entire passing production for the half.

Barkley followed a shaky first half with a solid second, completing 7 of 10 passes for 128 yards and zero interceptions, a significant key with the 49ers unable to do much of anything against the Bears defense. Barkley effectively convinced coaches that he could operate in the adverse conditions with passing and not simply handing off to Jordan Howard.

“I thought [the way] he handled the two-minute drive before the half, we had to open it up some and throw the ball,” said coach John Fox. “I thought he executed outstanding.”

Barkley finished with 11-of-18 passing for 192 yards, no touchdowns but no interceptions and a passer rating of 97.5.

Running back: A+

In a game that demanded effective rushing, Jordan Howard delivered a statement game, his fifth in the last eight with 100 rushing yards and 115 total yards of offense.

Howard rushed for 3 touchdowns, giving him five on the year, and carried 32 times, an average of 3.7 that belies the overall, which involved the chemistry of the run game, now averaging 4.4 yards on the season . “He’s fun, man,” said guard Eric Kush. “We block our butts off to try to give him something. Even if it’s not the prettiest block, we try to finish our blocks and give him a chance.”

Howard displayed power inside as well as burst on the Bears’ outside-zone runs that exploited the San Francisco edges. He carried 10 times in the first half, then 22 in the second.

“I’m definitely ready to be that workhorse,” said Howard, who now has 883 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns despite not starting until game four. “Even though they might know the run is coming, they still have to stop it.”

Receivers: B+

Josh Bellamy, replaced in the starting lineup by Deonte Thompson after his drop-laced game against Tennessee, had perhaps one the streakiest game of the Bears year. Bellamy again suffered with drops that included lost TD catches, but Bellamy rebounded to match his career-best 4 catches against Tennessee but with 93 yards and a long of 31 and others of 24, 22 and 16 yards. Bellamy also was handed the ball on an end-around for 12 yards.

All of this despite two egregious drops, one of a potential TD ball with Bellamy two steps behind his defender. “He came up to me and said, ‘Keep feeding me,’” Barkley said. “I’m not going to stop giving those guys the ball… .I’m going to keep coming back to them for the rest of the year.”

Cam Meredith remained in the starting lineup and caught 3 of the 4 passes thrown to him, with Thompson and tight end Daniel Brown catching 2 each.

Offensive line: A

With the adverse weather conditions expected, coaches made a specific challenge to the offensive line to take over this game against a struggling San Francisco front. Guard Josh Sitton was active but still limited with an ankle injury, so coaches stayed with Eric Kush at left guard and were rewarded with some consistent blocking in the run game. Kush executed combination blocks and worked to the second level. Kush and Charles Leno repeatedly dominated the San Francisco left side as the Bears pounded with the run and never let up in the snowy conditions.

“With the conditions, you had to run the ball,” Leno said. “The O-line just tried to come together, not worry about the record and win one week at a time.”

The result was another 100-yard rushing day for Jordan Howard, with 3 touchdowns, and 142 rushing yards, high for the season. “Today the offensive line got great push like they always do,” Howard said.

Barkley was sacked once, in the fourth quarter, on a breakdown in one-on-one blocking by tight end Daniel Brown.

Cody Whitehair going down in the fourth quarter with a leg injury was a blow, but Whitehair was able to return later in the period. The Bears had Sitton dressed and part of field-goal unit, and Sitton came in at right guard and Ted Larsen moved over to center.

Coaching: A

The obvious overall effort and preparation of a 2-9 team for a game of virtually no import to the season was noteworthy, as the Bears again played with intensity and efficiency throughout, including recovering from first-half gaffes on special teams that put the Bears down 6-0.

The defense schemed for 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by staying almost exclusively in a 3-4 front, utilizing three down-linemen and two outside linebackers to pressure Kaepernick and with the speed to thwart his runs. The result was the worst game of Kaepernick’s career, with 20 rushing yards and 4 passing, vs. 25 yards lost to sacks.

The offense held to a run-based mindset and plan, even when the 49ers turned two special-teams mistakes into field goals for the first two scores. The 49ers also relied primarily on man-to-man coverage, committing an extra defender to run defense, but the Bears were willing and able to challenge downfield knowing that the San Francisco pass rush was hampered by the field conditions.

“Props to Dowell[Loggains, offensive coordinator] and the whold coaching staff for getting us ready and making adjustments like that during the game,” Barkley said.

Special teams was again mistake-prone with mental breakdowns compounded by physical mistakes.