Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

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Balciunas sparks Lemont's rise

It figures that Juozas Balciunas, who has led Lemont's basketball team to its best start in more than 35 years, didn't speak English until seven years ago, after his family immigrated from Lithuania.

Until Balciunas arrived, basketball was virtually a foreign language in Lemont.

Lemont is a football school. In the last four years, coach Eric Michaelsen's Indians have won 45 of 52 games and finished second in the state playoff on two occasions.

Meanwhile, the basketball team hasn't had a winning season since 2001 and hasn't won a regional since 1991. How many people remember when coach John Jones' 1975 team was 26-4 and advanced to the supersectional? The Indians were 2-24 the year before coach Rick Runaas was hired. His first two teams were 8-17.

So folks in the southwest suburban community must have thought Runaas, only his third season, was balmy when he said he was "guardedly optimistic" about his 2011-12 squad. He isn't surprised that the Indians are 14-2 going into Tuesday's game at Joliet Catholic.

"I knew the new point guard (Balciunas) was going to be good," Runaas said. "Our lower levels had experienced some success. I knew we would have more depth than in the past. We had success in the summer and fall. We went to Peoria for a weekend and played Peoria Manual and Peoria Central and realized what level they were at and where we want to be."

Peoria Manual and Peoria Central are elite programs in Illinois. Runaas, who rebuilt Thornton Fractional North's program and guided the Meteors to a regional championship in 2002, their first since 1946, believed he could do the same reconstruction job at Lemont.

Runaas had been out of coaching for seven years and was serving as athletic director at Thornton Fractional South when he learned that Lemont was looking for a basketball coach in the fall of 2009.

"I had an itch to get back into coaching," he said. "I didn't know much about Lemont. I knew it was a great community and growing and had great facilities. I knew they were a great football school, producing great athletes. I hoped they were also producing good basketball players."

How good is this team? Good enough to be competitive in the Class 3A playoff, Runaas predicts. He learned something about his players in a four-point loss to highly regarded Crane that he believes will be beneficial as the Indians negotiate the remainder of their season.

"Our strength is chemistry," he said. "Everyone has accepted their roles and realize what their weaknesses are. They play to their strengths. It is a match of 10 kids who complement each other and offset each other. It's just a bunch of good high school players. I don't know if we have any Division I players on the roster, no 7-footer, no (Crane star) Willie Conner. We're just playing well together.

"We have to remain true to who we are. We have to get used to being successful. Just because we are 14-2, we have to earn our wins. We are a blue-collar, hard-working group of guys who like each other. We can't lose sight of that. If we really want to make a run (in the Class 3A playoff) we have to shoot the ball well and get more production inside."

Lemont is 14-2 because of the stellar play of Balciunas, a 6-foot junior point guard who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He is averaging 17 points and six assists per game. He is shooting 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line.

"He seems to play better when the game is more competitive," Runaas said. "He handles traps and pressure. He is a lefty, like (former NBA star) Tiny Archibald. People (college coaches) are starting to figure out who he is."

Balciunas is surrounded by 6-foot-3 senior Matt Lipowski (6 ppg, 10 rpg), 5-foot-10 senior guard Joe O'Brien (6 ppg), 6-foot-1 senior Paulius Otruskevicius (12 ppg) and 6-foot-5 sophomore Jake Terrazas (5 ppg, 7 rpg).

The bench is headed by two underclassmen who project to be future stars--6-foot junior Joe Hehir (10 ppg) and 6-foot-1 sophomore Mike Wisz (5 ppg), the team's best three-point shooter.

Last week, Lemont beat Stagg 56-46 as Balciunas had 17 points and eight assists and Lipowski grabbed 10 rebounds and Argo 62-28 as Balciunas accounted for 12 points.

Balciunas admits learning to play basketball at the Lithuanian World Center in Lemont was easier than perfecting English and adapting to his new country.

"It was very difficult to learn English. It took a year to learn the language. And it was difficult to get used to a new country and new people.
Everything was so much bigger. But school was the most difficult thing. I had no friends. I didn't know what was going on," he said.

He started to play basketball for the first time when he moved from Franklin Park to Lemont five years ago. "I played soccer for fun. But basketball was more fun to me. It was in me. I wanted to play basketball and that was it. There was nothing more important," he said.

He enrolled at St. Joseph in Westchester "because it had a big basketball reputation." He spent two years in coach Gene Pingatore's program and is grateful for the experience. "I learned new things," he said.

After his sophomore year, however, he opted to transfer to Lemont. "A lot of my friends were at Lemont. I heard I could help Lemont to get better in basketball. Sure, I knew football was the main sport in Lemont. But times change. Maybe this could be year that basketball changes Lemont. It also could be a basketball town," he said.

From the first day that Balciunas began working out with his teammates, he felt they could be successful.

"I have great teammates, not just basketball players," he said. "We all get along. The strength of this team is we all play hard and all want to win. We're friends on and off the court, like brothers."

While Balciunas is a late bloomer and is only beginning to stir interest among college recruiters, Runaas believes he has what it takes to play at the next level. How high? He has the rest of this season, next summer and fall and all of the 2012-13 season to make an impression.

"Some people are starting to know who I am," Balciunas said. "I want to play college basketball. Ever since I started to play basketball, my father said I have to work harder than other guys. My job is to be the best point guard I can be, to lead team team by example on and off the court. I'm not surprised by what I am doing."

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

The tumult around the Bears quarterback position this offseason – signing Mike Glennon, cutting Jay Cutler, not signing Brian Hoyer, now signing Mark Sanchez – was to be expected. (Well, not all the brouhaha around Sanchez; if there has ever been more hyperventilating around the arriving backup quarterback, it’s escaping my recollections of a quarter-century on the beat.)

All of that, and a lot of the noise around Mike Glennon is really missing a larger point. A couple, really.

GM Ryan Pace established fixing the quarterback situation as a top priority, something it has been just about since Jim McMahon left, with the exception of a few Jay Cutler years. Doing that to any meaningful degree with the castoff options available in free agency or via trades wasn’t ever going to happen. What Pace has done with the quarterback situation, however, is more than a little intriguing.

The quarterback additions and subtractions, coupled with also suggest a draft plan far from locked in on a quarterback. The signings of Glennon and Sanchez don’t mean the Bears have solved their quarterback position, but it does mean the Bears have positioned themselves with the distinct option of NOT taking a quarterback – this year.

But here’s the bigger point.

Even with the optimum quarterback solution unavailable – Pace arguably did go best-available in his and the coaches’ minds with Glennon and Sanchez, all derision aside – Pace’s goal needs to be building a team that can reach a high playoff level regardless of quarterback.

Meaning: defense. And while the 2017 free agent and draft classes did not offer must-have quarterbacks in most evaluations, there are those elite-level defensive talents, and every indication is that the Bears will look there, in the draft, and should be. It had that feeling when the Bears, with ample, money to spend, backed away from day one free-agency runs at a couple of pricey defensive backs. The Bears simply think they can do better for less in the draft.

A perspective: With a defense at its levels during the Brian Urlacher era, the Bears could reach the NFC championship game with what they have at quarterback now. They did, twice, with Rex Grossman and with Cutler. Sanchez got to AFC championship games in each of his first two seasons. The Bears reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. They went 13-3 in 2001 with a solid-but-unspectacular Jim Miller as their quarterback. They reached the 2005 playoffs with Kyle Orton as their starter most of that year, and should have been in the 2008 playoffs with him as well. The Bears reached the NFC championship game in 2010 with Cutler.

There is a common denominator in all of these situations, and it is within Pace’s grasp, and that was an elite defense. Rex Ryan had one with the Jets and Sanchez, Grossman and Orton and Cutler had theirs with Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, etc.

Forget the quarterback situation for now. Nothing anyone, including Pace, can really do anything about it (other than land possibly Deshaun Watson, based on their turnout at his Pro Day).

But if Pace and his personnel staff do this right, they can lay in the foundation for something elite on defense that will transcend the quarterback, or at least allow the Bears to play more than 16 games in a season even if they do not have a great quarterback. With the Urlacher core defense, the Bears went to postseasons with four different quarterbacks.

The prime directive now for Ryan Pace is to create precisely that model again.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."