Seton's "glue guy" keeps team together


Seton's "glue guy" keeps team together

Seton Academy basketball coach Branden Thomas and Jordan Foster, his floor leader, were wondering if the Sting was as good as its unbeaten record and how it would handle adversity the first time it was confronted by a very strong opponent in a hostile environment.

They found out last Saturday in Milwaukee.

Trailing by seven points with 1:50 to play, Seton rallied, had a chance to win in regulation time at the buzzer, then bounced back to win 62-59 in overtime over the third-rated team in Wisconsin.

"It said a lot about our kids," Thomas said. "We've been waiting to face adversity and we got it twice last week. Against Crane, we were behind at halftime for the first time and won the game. And then we came from behind to win in Milwaukee. The kids didn't panic. They stayed calm and composed. Last year, we lost five or six games like that. We're more mature this year. I'm watching my team grow up in front of me."

Against Milwaukee Hamilton, Seton had to make some critical stops on defense to trigger its rally in the closing seconds. In the overtime, Kamal Shasi converted two three-point shots from the corner, Christopher Seaton made two free throws and Shasi stole the ball with less than a minute remaining to preserve the victory.

"It showed me the maturity we have that didn't show up last year," Foster said. "We made plays. We did what we had to do to win. And everybody contributed, not just one or two players. We have worked hard and finally got to see it pay off in overtime against a big-time team."

Seton is 10-0 going into Friday's game against St. Francis de Sales in South Holland. Then the Sting will be off until meeting Rich Central in the opening game of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament at Rich South on Dec. 26.

Thomas, in his second year, returned four starters and 13 of 15 players from last year's 21-8 squad that lost to Hales Franciscan in the sectional final. He believes his 2011-12 squad is deeper than Seton's 2009 state championship team but concedes it doesn't have a superstar comparable to that team's leader, D.J. Cooper.

But maybe that's a good thing. "The fact that we don't have a superstar player makes them believe more in the system rather than rely on one guy when we are in trouble," Thomas said. "In our first seven games, we had a different leading scorer in each game. We have a lot of balance."

How's this for balance? Four players average in double figures, two average between 7-9 and three average between 5-6. The leading scorer is 6-0 junior guard Mark Weems, who contributes 15 points, four rebounds and three assists per game.

Weems is surrounded by 6-foot-4 senior Sylvester (J.R.) Tolliver (12 ppg, 6 rpg), 6-foot-8 senior Russell Robinson (11 ppg, 8 rpg, 3 blocks), 6-foot junior guard Kamal Shasi (12 ppg) and 5-foot-11 senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 6 assists). Three players who also get a lot of playing time are 6-foot sophomore guard Christopher Seaton (8 ppg), 6-foot-5 junior Tre Patterson (5 ppg, 5 rpg) and 6-foot senior Damon Goodloe (4 ppg, 5 rpg).

"I like our speed and quickness--and I like our confidence," Thomas said. "We're not afraid to shoot. We are averaging 37 percent from the three-point line as a team. And Shasi is shooting 41 percent. Our guys are buying into defense and hard work.

"I am looking forward to seeing how we handle success. It is easier to motivate kids when they don't have attention and people are overlooking you. But no one will overlook us at the Big Dipper. I'm not surprised that we are 10-0. But it's still December. They don't hand out state trophies in December. We are confident now and the kids are locked into what we are doing."

Thomas, 32, took a roundabout route before arriving at the South Holland school. Born in Dallas, Texas, he was 6-foot-6 quarterback in high school who was recruited as a basketball player. He attended Grambling State, earned a degree in education, got married and followed his wife when she got a job in Chicago.

He started teaching at Hales Franciscan in 2004, met coach Gary London, joined London's staff for four years, then became an assistant under coach Ken Stevenson at Seton in 2009. He spent a year with coach Lew Thorpe at North Lawndale, then returned to Seton when Stevenson left and became head basketball coach and dean of admissions and enrollment. He beat out 40 applicants for the job.

"It's a good time to be in the program," he said. "The student body has really rallied around us. The seniors were freshmen when we won the state title so they remember how it was at the time. Now they know they have to keep working hard because we can't sneak up on anyone at this point."

Like his coach, Foster also took a roundabout route to Seton. He played basketball at Oak Park as a freshman and sophomore, then moved to Chicago and transferred to Seton because that's where his mother wanted him to go.
As a junior, he was voted team captain. He averaged eight points, five assists and three steals as the team's floor leader.

"I wasn't there when they won the state title. But I watched them play. I watched D.J. Cooper, a big-time player. I liked his game," Foster said. "What impressed me about the program was the coaches let the kids play through their mistakes. That was cool to me.

"We had a lot of talent last year but we never got enough time to put it all together. This year, we have played together for a year and we have more chemistry. We know each other's games. Everybody has matured into their roles. No one is focusing on being the guy like Cooper.

"I'm not surprised we are succeeding without a superstar. Anybody on the team can make big plays. We don't have to rely on one player. What is my role? I'm the glue guy. My job is to keep the team together. I need to do whatever it takes to win."

Griffins hope to avoid 'sick feeling' going forward after blowout loss to Bradley

Griffins hope to avoid 'sick feeling' going forward after blowout loss to Bradley

Not all losses are created equal.

When Lincoln-Way East suffered a 35-30 defeat in Week 3 to Homewood-Flossmoor, the Griffins took positives away from the loss. They had held a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, battled back from adversity in the second half and had a chance to win the game in the final minute. Even that loss in retrospect appeared acceptable – if there ever was an acceptable loss – as the Vikings are currently 8-0 and in their other seven wins have outscored their opponents by an average of 38 points.

By Week 3 the Griffins were still acclimating to the unique situation of playing at game speed with a host of Lincoln-Way North students who had transferred in the offseason. They had a defense made up almost entirely of first-year starters, and the offense was still rotating quarterbacks Jake Arthur and Max Shafer to figure out how to maximize their talent. By many standards the Griffins went toe-to-toe for 48 minutes with a team also considered to be a favorite for a state title.

The same couldn’t be said for the Griffins’ effort last Friday night in Bradley.

An esteemed program with a 2005 state title and 16 consecutive playoff appearances to their resume, it isn’t often the Griffins are embarrassed on Friday night. But those were the words head coach Rob Zvonar used in his postgame speech to the team following their 38-21 loss to the undefeated Boilermakers.

“We chose to play the game,” Zvonar began. “Which means you play it to the greatest of your ability and you honor each other, God, everybody by your play. And we didn’t do that tonight.”

There were plenty of reasons the Griffins suffered their second loss of the season. That is came in such blowout fashion was the bigger surprise. The Boilermakers found the end zone on their first two possessions, rallying behind a raucous home crowd hoping to see their team go 8-0 for the first time in school history.

The Griffins defense, which had allowed 27 points the previous three weeks combined, were on their heels as the Boilermakers used misdirection and a few trick plays to set up the short touchdown runs.

The Griffins offense moved down the field on their fourth possession, moving inside the Boilermakers red zone looking to get on the board. But Iowa commit Camron Harrell stepped in front of a Griffins screen pass on 4th down and returned it 89 yards for a score. On the final play of the first quarter, with the Griffins moving again, Damien Williams read a route and picked off Jake Arthur, returning it 53 yards for a score to give the Boilermakers a shocking 28-0 lead after 12 minutes.

After a spirited halftime speech from Zvonar, the Griffins came out firing in the second half, scoring on a touchdown run from Nigel Muhammad and a Jeremy Nelson 27-yard reception from Arthur. But the Boilermakers weathered the storm each time Lincoln-Way East attempted a comeback. The Griffins only got as close as 14 points late in the fourth quarter.

“I think we came into this game not ready,” said Muhammad, who finished with 164 yards on 24 carries. “But we’re all a team and we all accept this loss together.”

Added senior Jack Carroll, who finished with a team-high nine tackles: “We have this sick feeling in our stomach right now but the best thing is (next) Friday we can come back and get it out of our stomach. If we lose again in the playoffs then we’ll have that sick feeling in our stomach for the rest of our lives.”

That’s now the reality for the Griffins, and a silver lining if there ever could be one for such a blowout loss. With the playoffs a mere week away – the Griffins defeated Lockport on Friday to finish the regular season 7-2 – the feeling each of them felt getting on the bus back to Frankfort will linger with them and act as a reminder of how quickly things can slip away.

“We’re trying to put this behind us,” said Max Shafer. “We’re going to try to get hot and make a run in the playoffs.”

In a loaded 8A class, the Griffins’ two regular-season losses have already knocked them down in the seeding process. While any loss before Week 9 means little in the long run – the Griffins locked up a playoff berth weeks ago – it also means a more difficult road to Champaign. But that’s the reality for Zvonar’s group, and whether it’s a defense playing faster or an offense avoiding costly mistakes, the Griffins are running out of time to right the ship.

But Zvonar believes such a loss as the team suffered last Friday night can act as the catalyst to doing just that. The Griffins have established themselves as one of the state’s premier programs, and that means not riding the highs too high, and not breaking apart when the lows come. Last Friday night was as low as Zvonar had seen any of his 16 teams, but the silver lining occurred in that his squad now knows what it has to do to avoid it when it’s win or go home.

“What we also think is that the program is built on a solid foundation, so when you take a little hit like that you battle back and you go back to what you believe in and what you know can be successful. And that’s fundamentals and keeping things simple, and the kids have bounced back and they’re not acceptable to them what occurred to them, so very proud of their effort and the way they’re working.

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