Balciunas finds a basketball home in Lemont

Balciunas finds a basketball home in Lemont
December 28, 2012, 4:11 pm
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Lemont is a football school, like Mount Carmel and Providence and Maine South and Glenbard West and Lincoln-Way East and Wheaton Warrenville South. Coach Eric Michaelsen's football team has lost only 17 games in the last nine years and finished second in the state playoff in 2007 and 2008.

Meanwhile, coach Rick Runaas' basketball team was 25-3 last year, the program's first winning season since 2001. Lemont has qualified for the Sweet Sixteen only once. Coach John Jones' 26-4 team lost in the supersectional in 1975.

"I tell the kids that they have to earn the recognition we get," Runaas said. "If you want more, you have to win big games. We finished third in the Romeoville tournament last year. We want to win the title this year. And we have to win games against teams like Richards, Hillcrest, Providence and Thornton Fractional North."

Lemont had a chance to make a statement last Saturday against Marian Catholic. But Tyler Ulis scored 25 points and Marian Catholic prevailed 77-56, snapping Lemont's nine-game winning streak.

The Indians bounced back by defeating Fenger 75-63 on Wednesday in the opening round of the Romeoville tournament. Mike Wisz sparked the Indians by scoring 26 points.

In his fourth year, Runaas has three starters and four other experienced players returning from last year's 25-3 squad, which lost to Providence in the regional final. After going 8-18 for two years in a row, Runaas said he finally found a class that bought into his coaching philosophy.

"I found a group of young men to focus on," he said. "Last year's senior class dedicated a lot of time and energy to the program. They changed the culture on how to think about basketball at Lemont.

"We taught our kids how to play fast, not slow. We let our kids play. The community opened up a recreation center two years ago. The kids are playing more basketball than ever before. And they are involved in more travel basketball. Our freshman and sophomore teams are both 8-0."

Runaas insists another means of tracing the rise of interest in basketball in Lemont and the recent success of the Indians' varsity is the emergence of 6-foot-1 senior point guard Juozas Balciunas, who transferred from St. Joseph after his sophomore year. He averaged 17 points per game last season and is averaging 22 this season. He scored 22 in the loss to Marian Catholic.

"He is our leader, the stereotypical coach on the floor," Runaas said. "He knows how I want the game played. He shoots well off the dribble. He handles the ball. He is better than the recognition he gets. I haven't seen a better point guard this year."

Balciunas came to the United States from Lithuania when he was 10 years old. Although he lives in Lemont, he chose to attend St. Joseph in Westchester because of its reputation as a great basketball school. He also decided to follow two of his close friends to the school.

After two years, he decided to transfer to Lemont. "My parents and I talked about it. It was too far to drive and the tuition was too expensive. It was a tough decision. But I'm glad I did it," he said.

Ironically, Balciunas didn't begin playing basketball -- or any sport, for that matter -- until he was in sixth grade. He began playing club basketball at the Lithuanian center in Lemont.

"The more I played, the better I was getting. The more hard work, I got better and better," he said. "I loved playing basketball, to compete and meet new people. It drove me. Once I started playing, I didn't joke around with it. I did things I had to do to get better."

He wants to play in college. He is talking to Division II and III schools, including Lewis University. But recruiting isn't a priority at the moment, even though he is a senior. He is just focusing on the basketball season.

"Every game is a first game, like a championship game," he said. "We don't talk about our record, even if we are 10-1. We just try to be 1-0 after every game.

"My game? To play as hard as I can, to do whatever it takes...score, rebound, pass, hustle, dive for the ball, do the dirty plays. I don't talk about scoring, about averaging so many points, I have more opportunities to score this year. When we play a good team, they realize we have tough players and we play hard."

Balciunas lines up with 6-foot-2 junior Mike Wisz (17 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Jack Shereck (8 ppg, 9 rpg), 6-foot-5 junior Jake Terrazas (7 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-3 senior Martynas Einikis (12 ppg, 6 rpg), another Lithuanian who transferred from Oak Lawn. The sixth man is 5-foot-10 senior Joe Hehir (10 ppg).

"We could have done better last year, especially the last game against Providence. We weren't ready to play them the second time," Balciunas said. "But this year we don't think like that. We beat Evergreen Park back-to-back. We played hard from the first minute. We don't under-estimate any opponent.

"The difference with this team is our chemistry. The younger kids saw what they saw last year. They want to be a part of what we had last year. Everybody is bringing good energy. We're more physical this year, stronger, and we have more scorers, not just me. That's our edge.

"I don't look at it that this is my team. But I try to be the leader. We have a lot of leaders. My friends joke around about Lemont being a football school. I say it isn't a football school anymore. It's a basketball school, too. I think the town and the school feel that basketball is important, just as important as football.

"Football has been huge in Lemont for a long time. Basketball has only been good for the last two years. I feel it is a basketball school right now. More people show up for the games and support us. We want to show that last year wasn't a fluke, a one-year thing. We came out with the mentality that we want to prove how good we are to the people who doubted us."

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