St. Mel aims for rematch with Seton

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St. Mel aims for rematch with Seton

Khalil Small, Kevin King, Teadric Anderson and their Providence-St. Mel teammates were looking forward to this week's trip to the State Farm Classic in Bloomington as a "good test," a chance to measure themselves against the likes of state-rated Quincy Notre Dame, St. Joseph or Rockford Lutheran.

They opened in impressive fashion on Wednesday by storming to a 31-17 halftime lead and coasting to a 62-37 victory over Cissna Park. Small led a balanced attack by scoring 17 points.

But, to a man, they have circled Jan. 15 on their calendars. That is when Providence-St. Mel hosts Seton Academy in what is being described as a prelude to the Class 2A championship.

"That will be a signature game," St. Mel coach Tim Irvin said. "It will tell us how good we are."

A year ago, St. Mel finished 23-7, losing to Seton in the supersectional.

"We can't wait for the Seton game," King said. "Last year, I tried to prove as a sophomore that I can put a team on the map by being the best player I can be. But I was too young last year. I have another chance to prove it this year. I wasn't focused last year. My attitude was score, score, score. I wasn't focused on defense, the best part of my game."

Anderson said he still remembers the feeling in the locker room after the 61-51 loss to Seton. "We remember that supersectional every time we step on the floor. I remember the feeling of the seniors. I feel we owe it to pay them back. We felt we could have been a contender for the state title. But we didn't get it done because of small things," he said.

"It was a terrible feeling...loose balls, rebounds, mental breakdowns here and there. I'm the team leader. My job is easy. We're all on the same page. We all realize our goal is to win the state title. I just have to keep them motivated, to make sure we are having fun and have a love for the game."

St. Mel could be 11-0. The Knights, who handed highly rated North Chicago its only setback two weeks ago, lost to Hyde Park by two on a last-second tip and to Indiana power Indianapolis Brebeuf by four in overtime when King, who scored 19 points, was sidelined for the last six minutes with a knee injury.

"This is my best team in terms of how hard they play," said Ervin, noting that the top six players have returned. "They enjoy playing with each other. They have bought into the system in playing defense and being unselfish. We lack size so our two big kids have to play big for us. We must continue to be humble and hungry and not take anyone for granted."

The lineup features Small (20 ppg), a 6-foot-2 senior; King (18 ppg), a 6-foot-2 junior; Anderson (8 ppg, 5 assists), a 6-foot senior point guard; Anthony Mosley (9 ppg), a 6-foot-1 sophomore; and Donald Morgan (7 ppg), a 6-foot-2 senior.

There is plenty of punch off the bench with 6-foot-2 junior Bernard Lilly and the two bigs, 6-foot-4 sophomore Tyler Turner and 6-foot-4 junior Joshuan McNeal. Turner is a transfer from Fenwick. McNeal was academically ineligible last season.

"This year we are more hungry," Anderson said. "Our edge this year is defensive intensity. We preach defense this year. Everyone has stepped up on the defensive end. We're boxing out more and putting more pressure on the ball and talking more. It is a team effort."

Anderson said every player has improved in at least one facet of the game...King on offense, Anderson on defense, Mosley is more aggressive, McNeal and Morgan and Turner are boxing out more, Small is passing better.

Ervin, a 1991 graduate of St. Mel, has made quite a comeback at his alma mater. After playing for Gene Keady and graduating from Purdue in 1995, he worked at a financial company while serving as an assistant coach at St. Mel from 1995 to 2000.

He was named head coach in 2001 and took St. Mel to the Elite Eight in 2002. A year later, however, he went 0-26 and was fired. He was out of coaching for six years, then was rehired at St. Mel only 10 days before the 2009-10 season began.

"There was no bitterness over being fired," Ervin said. "I understood. It all worked out."

He has reminded his players of Tom Shields' 1985 state championship team that was led by Lowell Hamilton, Fernando Bunch and Joe Jackson. Small, King, Anderson and their teammates were born well after that glorious season but they have heard the stories of how it used to be and the way it was at the West Side school. And they want to write another chapter.

"Kids don't relate to the 1980s but they know about it," Ervin said. "They see the trophies in the trophy case. They want to restore that feeling in the school. Today, kids have a short shelf life. But they know the importance of tradition. They are excited about the progress we have made."

St. Mel's 1985 team might have been the best ever to compete at the small-school level in Illinois. Better than the unbeaten Lawrenceville teams of 1982 and 1983 with Marty Simmons? Better than the 1979 Providence team with Walter Downing? Maybe.

"We are aware of the state championship team of 1985," Anderson said.
"We want to bring back that winning tradition and the reputation we had. We have met the players. They were very good and played hard. They were dominant. We want to renew that."

King, who chose St. Mel over Whitney Young, Marshall and Crane "because it gave me a better opportunity to prove that I didn't have to go to a powerhouse school to make a name for myself and also academically prepare me of for life," learned about the 1985 team after he enrolled.

"We think about going back and doing what the 1985 team did," King said. "A lot of people hadn't thought about our basketball team for a while. Now there is a lot of support. When I was growing up on the West Side, I didn't know about St. Mel, only Marshall and Crane and Whitney Young. But now we know we can be something special.

"This team is more mature and more disciplined and more focused than last year. We have got in our minds that we really want to win state. Last year, we got caught up in the hype. We got too big-headed. But we got into the gym over the summer and worked together. We got to know each other better."

And they circled Jan. 15 on their calendars.

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Cole Kmet

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Cole Kmet

St. Viator senior tight end Cole Kmet is a four-star recruit who plans to commit to Notre Dame in February.

But growing up, Kmet also played baseball, which happened to be his best sport as coaches were eyeing his abilities.

Kmet was faced with the difficult decision of having to pick one or the other as a career, and ultimately chose football.

See why he was named this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week in the video above.

Halftime speeches propel resilient Griffins to come-from-behind victory

Halftime speeches propel resilient Griffins to come-from-behind victory

For 24 minutes in Bolingbrook last Friday night, the Lincoln-Way East Griffins were lost.

A week after suffering a home loss to No. 3 Homewood Flossmoor – a game in which they led 14-0 in the first quarter – Rob Zvonar’s group was reeling in what was expected to be another litmus test for one of the top-ranked teams in Illinois. In front of the Griffins was a second chance to prove against a ranked opponent that they belonged in the top tier, and for quarterbacks they looked anything but.

An offense with two poised quarterbacks and myriad talent at the skill positions had come to a screeching halt after a touchdown drive on their first possession. A pair of lost fumbles and an interception negated three successful drives into Raiders territory in the game’s opening half; three turnovers in two quarters almost always spells doom, let alone doing so on the road at one of the state’s toughest home venues.

And an inexperienced yet talented defense littered with future collegiate talent had allowed three long scoring drives, though a goal-line stand in the first quarter that limited the Raiders to a field goal helped. The lackluster performance on both sides of the ball pinned the Griffins with a 16-7 deficit – that felt like much more than nine points – as the team trotted into the south end zone to meet with coaches for halftime adjustments.

And it was during that 15-minute intermission that something clicked for Zvonar’s group. A fiery halftime speech from wide receivers coach Lance Lokanc, and another from Zvonar before the team took the field in the second half acted as a rallying point for their most impressive half of football to date.

The Griffins reeled off 34 unanswered points in the second half, and only a late Raiders touchdown in the game’s final minute kept Lincoln-Way East from pitching a second-half shutout in the 41-23 victory.

“At some point they’ve got to turn it on themselves,” Zvonar said after the game. “You can be a real clever coach, but they’ve got to make up in their minds (to do it). And I’m glad they did.”

All week in practice Zvonar had been preaching three words to his team: persistence, resolve and perseverance. And while his message was in relation to the previous week’s loss – wanting to see how his team learned from their first setback of the year – they received an in-game test, and passed with flying colors.

The offense bounced back in a major way. Quarterback Jake Arthur threw for a touchdown and ran for another, while Max Shafter connected on a 20-yard touchdown pass to Ken Anderson, who found the end zone for the fourth time. Jeremy Nelson was on the receiving end of Arthur’s, controlling his body on a fade route to the back of the end zone that got the offense going in the third quarter.

It was one of 11 receptions on the evening for Nelson, the Griffins’ leading receiver who finished with 133 yards.

“A lot of us had our heads down (at halftime),” Nelson said after the game. “Then Coach Z fired us up, Coach Lokanc fired us up, and that really got us going. We came out really strong.”

Four scores from the offense – running back Nigel Muhammad iced the game with a 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter – were a boon, but it was the defense that ramped up its intensity after halftime.

Zvonar’s group allowed just 39 yards in the second half. The Raiders completed three of 14 passes and averaged a measly 2.2 yards per rush. Defensive end Devin O’Rourke showed why he’s one of the most highly sought-after juniors in the state, tallying three sacks – two in the second half – and finishing with a game-high seven solo tackles.

Linebacker Brett Stegmueller was everywhere, racking up six tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. The swarming Griffins defense took a lesson from the halftime talks, and persevered with their backs against the wall on the road.

“Just coming out making plays, just motivating the whole defense to come together playing as one,” he said. “That’s what allowed us to do what he did.”

Zvonar’s definition of showing resolve was illustrated clearly by wide receiver Nick Zelenika. The slot receiver fumbled in the first half and had a ball go off his hands that resulted in an interception early in the third quarter. But the senior responded, returning a punt 38 yards for a touchdown that gave the Griffins a 20-16 they did not relinquish.

“It’s easy to talk about what we’re going to do,” he said of the halftime speeches, “but to go out there and actually do it is a whole other thing. And I think we really showed that in the second half.”

It was only one game, albeit the Griffins’ last real steep competition before the playoffs roll around in six weeks. But the stark contrast from the prior week, when the Griffins came out firing against HF and fizzled down the stretch, gave them another difficult situation to look back on should they find themselves in a similar spot later in the year.

And unlike Week 3, the Griffins showed persistence, resolve and perseverance. They learned something about themselves in that loss, but were also able to take away an important lesson in what became their most impressive victory to do date.

“I think we found out maybe we’ve got a group that won’t quit when the chips are down,” Zvonar said. “I think that was the biggest thing. They kept battling, and we came out with a decisive win.”