Every week day, Matt Mooney makes a two-hour commute, back and forth from his home in Wauconda to Notre Dame High School in Niles. He has no regrets. "Your job is to get a college scholarship," his father told him. He did it. So his father pays for the gas.
"It's a good deal," said Mooney, who has signed with Air Force Academy. "Notre Dame is the best fit for me. It gives me the best chance to play college basketball and get a good education and get recognition, to play in the state tournament and against the best teams in the state."
Mooney, a 6-foot-3 senior, is the leader of a Notre Dame squad that will carry a 9-1 record and the top seed into the Wheeling Hardwood Classic on Dec. 26-29. The Dons will meet Chicago Alcott in the first round. He is averaging 16 points, four rebounds and three assists per game.
Last Saturday, Notre Dame defeated Leo 54-37 in the Chicago Catholic LeagueEast Suburban Catholic Challenge at Loyola. Mooney scored 11 points while Jake Maestranzi, a transfer from South Elgin, had 12 points, four assists and three steals.
He is one of six starters on coach Tom Les' squad. That's right, six starters. Les has a unique rotation. Before each game, he and assistants Shay Boyle and Kevin Clancy gather to determine the starting lineup. Which five will start and who will be the first player off the bench?
"We have six kids who are very good. All six deserve to be a starter," Les said. "We talked about it with the six guys. Depending on how things go in practice or the match-ups, we could start any five of those six. I could pull five names out of a hat and be comfortable.
"But the kids all want to start. We have had multiple different starting lineups. Our criteria includes a multiple of factors--who has been the best team leader that week, who has worked the hardest, who has been best in school, the best defender, who matches up the best.
"Playing time usually is even among the six players. In high school, it isn't like the NBA. There is no sixth man award, no John Havlicek. They all want to start. For teenagers to understand why they work so hard and don't start isn't an easy concept to grasp. But these kids do understand."
Three of the six have started every game to date--Mooney, 6-foot-3 senior Eddie Serrano (7 ppg, 9 rpg) and 5-foot-7 senior point guard Jake Maestranzi (9 ppg, 5 assists, 2 steals), whose brother Anthony played at Northern Illinois.
The other three are 5-foot-7 senior point guard Donte "Scooter" Stephenson (6 ppg, 4 assists, 3 steals), 6-foot-6 senior Justin Halloran (8 ppg) and 6-foot-4 junior Duante Stephens (9 ppg).
"Parents are spending a lot of money to send their kids to Notre Dame," Les said. "Based on that, I don't mind talking to them. I sat down with them before the season and talked about our unique situation.
"I explained the criteria and what we are doing. There is no preferential treatment. We are doing what is best for the boys and what is best for the team. We laid the groundwork and the parents agreed with everything. We're all on the same page."
Mooney, who has a 4.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale, scored 27 on his ACT and ranks in the top 5 percentile of his class, leads by example. Last year, he failed to make the all-conference team. Twelve players were selected. He was 13th in the voting.
"I felt I deserved to be on the team," he said. "It was motivation for me. I worked hard over the summer and got a scholarship. Last year, we lost to Benet, St. Viator and St. Patrick and finished third in the conference.
Winning the league is a big thing this year.
"We have a chip on our shoulders. We have stuff to prove. We didn't achieve what we wanted to last year. We're starting to get noticed now. We were picked to finish second to Marist in the conference this season and we beat them by 15 last Friday."
Mooney said who starts and who doesn't isn't an issue anymore. Each player knows he needed to contribute when he gets on the floor. "Motivation for me is to never take a play off, to show up for practice and not to slack off on my grades. Everyone knows they will get their chance, even if they are coming off the bench," he said.
With four returning starters from a 20-9 team that lost to Evanston in the regional final a year ago, Notre Dame figured to contend with Benet, St. Viator, Marist, Marian Catholic, Nazareth and St. Patrick in the very competitive East Suburban Catholic. All of them have lost only once to date.
"This could be the best team I've had in six years," Les said. "As juniors, this nucleus got a significant amount of playing time against a high-quality schedule. We have great senior leadership and chemistry. The kids have put their egos and personal agenda on the side and made it a team agenda.
"We got here because we worked hard and were unselfish. If we keep doing those things, it will be a very successful season. Our one weakness is rebounding. We must rebound by committee. We are a nightmare for other teams to match up with because we have a 6-foot-6 kid (Halloran) on the perimeter. But we have to play against bigger guys under the boards. Great chemistry overcomes a lot of deficiencies. Our players cover each other's backs."
Mooney, described by Les as one of the five best players in the conference, believes there are three reasons for the Dons' success--chemistry, everybody knows their roles and the six-man rotation is multi-dimensional.
"We have six guys who contribute in different ways," he said. "We practice hard, we trust each other and we have a lot of confidence in each other. We don't have any big-time Division I players like some schools but we can play with all of them because we will out-hustle and out-work them and play as a team."
Mooney chose Air Force because it was his only Division I offer going into the season and Michigan, his dream school, didn't offer. He visited the Colorado Springs school and liked what he saw. Air Force saw him play in some summer tournaments, offered and gave him a month to think about it. In early November, he accepted. On Nov. 15, he signed. He has no regrets.
"It's a good education and good basketball. I'll be playing in a big-time conference, the Mountain West," he said.
His decision to enroll at Notre Dame was more complicated. As a resident of Wauconda, his close-to-home choices were Wauconda and Carmel in Mundelein. Neither basketball program appealed to him. His father, who attended Notre Dame, knew Les, who was coaching at Marian Central in Woodstock at the time.
"I was playing with the Carmel varsity in a summer league. We weren't winning. I asked my father: 'Do you think I'll ever play in the state tournament or against the top teams in the state?' He said: 'Not if you go to Carmel.' My older brother agreed. Then Coach Les, who had become the head coach at Notre Dame, asked me to come to an open gym. It worked out well."
Mooney used to take a train to get to school. Now he drives. To avoid the tiresome commute on a daily basis, he often stays with his grandmother, who lives in Morton Grove, or his grandfather, who lives in Skokie.
"I stay at my grandparents as much as I can to save on gas," he said. His father appreciates the sentiment.