Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster

Notre Dame Dons suprising with inexperienced roster
January 18, 2012, 6:26 pm
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There are a lot of strange things going on with Notre Dame's basketball team. But the Dons are 14-4 so coach Tom Les isn't complaining.

There isn't a single player on the team who is averaging in double digits in scoring.

A player has scored 20 or more points in only two of 18 games.

Les is a fifth-year coach who was hired on a volunteer, no-pay basis--at his own request.

One of the team captains is a junior who comes off the bench.

The starting lineup includes only one senior and three underclassmen with no previous varsity experience.

This is a team that was picked to finish sixth in the conference race.

"I lost five starters from a 23-7 team. So experience-wide, on the varsity level, it has come this season," Les said. "I was apprehensive early. When the lights go on and referees are wearing long pants and people are in the stands, it is different than spring, summer and fall leagues. But these kids have responded."

Last week, the Niles school defeated Brother Rice 63-44, Loyola 50-46 and Nazareth 65-54. The Dons will host St. Patrick on Friday, then meet Downstate Morton on Sunday in the Whitney Young Shootout.

Matt Mooney, a 6-foot-1 junior guard who averages seven points per game, scored 16 against Brother Rice, 9 against Loyola and 18 against Nazareth to lead Notre Dame. Donte Stephenson, a 5-foot-9 junior, scored 10 against Loyola.

"We don't have a dominant scorer," Les said. "Who do we go to? We change it up. We go to the hot hand depending on who it is. It gives us an advantage. The teams scouting us don't know who to defend. They don't get a true indicator of which player will turn it up.

"In the state tournament, history says you need someone to turn it up on a consistent basis, an All-Stater, a big-time scorer. But we rarely have a scorer with 20 or more points this season. Who would be our most valuable player? I have no idea who it would be. So far that has been an advantage."

The lone senior starter and leading scorer is 6-foot-4 Joe Ferrici (8.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg). Mooney and Stephenson (8 ppg, 5 assists) form the backcourt. Stephenson, the floor leader, is called "Scooter" to differentiate him from 6-foot-3 sophomore Duante Stephens (8 ppg).

"Why Scooter? That's the way he flies around the court," Les said.

The other starter is 6-foot-6 sophomore Jon Johnson (6 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 blocks).

Top reserves are 6-foot-3 junior Eddie Serrano, 5-foot-10 senior Greg Leifel and 6-foot-5 junior Justin Halloran.

"Experience is key. We're starting two sophomores and one junior with no varsity experience. None of them have had big roles in the state tournament, in one-and-done games, in pressure-packed situations," Les said.

"One concern I have is when we get behind, we turn up intensity and focus. We can't afford to get behind in the state tournament because good teams will put you away."

Notre Dame has lost to four quality teams--Simeon, Evanston, Libertyville and Stevenson. The Dons trailed Simeon by nine in the third quarter before losing by 20. They trailed Marist by 16 at halftime but rallied to win. They trailed Zion-Benton by 12 going into the fourth quarter but rallied to win. They were disappointed by their 2-2 showing at the
Wheeling Holiday Tournament. To a man, they believe they should be 16-2, not 14-4.

"It was a great learning experience by playing Simeon," said Eddie Serrano, who shares the team captaincy with Ferrici. "We learned we need to play hard from the get-go to win. We competed against the best team in the nation (Simeon). No one backed down. We weren't intimidated. We came out to play. We stuck with them and cut their lead to nine points in the third quarter before they pulled away. If we can compete with them, we can compete with anyone.

"We can go far (in the state tournament) because not many people can understand what it is like unless they experience it themselves, to not have a go-to guy. It is a rare case but it can work out. It is pretty unique. But we find ways to win even without a dominant scorer. It starts off the court. We all get along very well. It's not easy to find with many teams."

Serrano said he and his teammates accepted a lot of advice from last year's team, which featured a pair of dominant scorers in Rodney Pryor and Clinton Chievous. They finished 23-7, losing to Niles North in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the Dons were 20-9, losing to Glenbrook North in the sectional final.

In fact, Notre Dame has advanced beyond the sectional round only once. In 1997, coach Denny Zelasko's 23-8 team lost in the Class AA quarterfinals to Rockford Boylan.

"To be successful, we knew we would have to have more guys who could score for us," Serrano said. "Last year's team wasn't as close as this year. The kids hung out with their own class. Our success starts with the fact that we have a lot of humble guys. We know we have to sacrifice for each other. No one player thinks he is the best guy out there. We need each other. We learned that even with two good players, you need to be a team to
be successful."

Les has been encouraged by how his team has bounced back from its disappointing fourth-place finish at Wheeling. "They are very coachable. They understand the importance of defense. We have found ways to win because our man-to-man defense has kept us in games," he said.

Les, 57, has a special attachment to Notre Dame. A graduate of 1971, he is 10 years older than his more celebrated brother, Jim, the former NBA player and former coach at Bradley University who currently is a head coach at California-Davis. Les has one significant distinction, however. He is Bradley's all-time assist leader.

After graduating from Bradley, Les wasn't able to follow Jim into the NBA. Instead, he began a career as part owner in a Crystal Lake-based Althoff Industries, an electricalmechanical contractor.

Ten years ago, he got the itch to get back into basketball. He served as head coach at Marian Central in Woodstock for five years. When Zelasko retired at Notre Dame five years ago, Les received a call from the school's new principal, the Rev. John Smyth, former executive director of Maryville Youth Center in Des Plaines and a former All-American basketball player at the University of Notre Dame.

"Would you be interested?" Fr. Smyth asked Les.

He didn't have to ask twice. Les met with Fr. Smyth and Notre Dame athletic director and football coach, Mike Hennessey. He accepted--on a volunteer, non-paying basis.

"I have a quality relationship with Fr. Smyth," Les said. "When I was in high school, many orphans from Maryville went to Notre Dame. I spent a lot of weekends there. My parents and I met Fr. Smyth. I was influenced by him. He's the No. 1 reason I'm here.

"Another reason is the foundation that Notre Dame had built for me in my personal life. This is a way of giving back. I'm fortunate enough that I work in a business where I can come and go as I like. I'm having the time of my life."