Balciunas finds a basketball home in Lemont

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Balciunas finds a basketball home in Lemont

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."

57 Days to Kickoff: Coal City

57 Days to Kickoff: Coal City

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.

School: Coal City

Head coach: Lenny Onsen

Assistant coaches: Jim Mikula, Francis Loughran, Jim Looper, Ryan Bunton, Mark Masters, Ryan Vanduyne

How they fared in 2015: 5-5 (3-2) Interstate 8 Large Conference. Coal City made the 4A state playoffs and lost to Marengo in opening round action.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Coalers run the football effectively this season? 

Names to watch this season: RB Nick Hayden, OL Virgil Geers

Biggest holes to fill: Who steps up to replace graduated QB Nick Micetich this season?

EDGY's Early Take: With three starting offensive linemen back, along with RB Nick Hayden in the fold, look for the Coalers to challenge for the top spot in the I-8 and beyond.

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

58 Days to Kickoff: Oak Lawn Richards

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.

School: HL Richards Bulldogs

Head coach: Tony Sheehan

Assistant coaches: Steve Fleming, Kevin Szczepkowski, Adam Ziemba, Jeff Kortz, Charlie McCullough, Matt Royce, Charlie Kipp, Rick Pratl

How they fared in 2015: 7-4 (5-1) South Suburban Red Conference. Richards made the Class 6A state playoffs and defeated Morgan Park, then lost to Lincoln-Way North in second round action.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Bulldogs make a deep run this fall?

Names to watch this season: RB Pat Doyle, RB/LB Anthony Quinn, OL Joe Carpenter

Biggest holes to fill: The Bulldogs welcome back just one returning offensive linemen in senior Joe Carpenter (6-foot-2, 285 pounds).

EDGY's Early Take: The Bulldogs always have speed and athletes and confidence is pretty high in regards to this team. With 12 starters back including the entire starting offensive backfield, expect Richards to make some serious noise this season.

59 Days to Kickoff: Deerfield

59 Days to Kickoff: Deerfield

CSNChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 1, we’ll unveil the @CSNPreps Top 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 26.

School: Deerfield Warriors

Head coach: Steve Winiecki

Assistant coaches: Brandon Geuder, Nick Rossie, Mark Januszewski, Steve Downs, Flo Mitran, Quentin Davie, Luke Strotman

How they fared in 2015: 7-4 (4-1) Central Suburban North Conference. Deerfield made the Class 6A state playoff field and defeated Kenwood in the opening round. The Warriors lost to DeKalb in second-round action.

Biggest storyline in 2016: Can the Warriors reload on both sides of the football?

Names to watch this season: MLB/DE Joshua Maize, WR Charlie Jones

Biggest holes to fill: The Warriors have some DI names in Maize and Jones, but they return just three starters on each side of the football.

EDGY's early take: Deerfield is always involved in the Central Suburban North conference race. If the Warriors can get a large group of inexperienced starters up to speed sooner rather than later? Deerfield will challenge for a state playoff spot in 2016.