Maine South has high expectations...in basketball

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Maine South has high expectations...in basketball

In the 1950s, when Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams won a record 47 games in a row and dominated college football, the university president used to joke that his goal was to "build a university that the football team can be proud of."

Maybe he wasn't joking.

Fast forward to 2012. At Maine South, basketball coach Tony Lavorato Jr.is building a program that the Park Ridge community, the high school and its football team can be proud of. Maine South has won five state football championships since 1995, three in a row in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and Lavorato has a plan to be every bit as competitive on a state level.

It won't be easy. Maine South hasn't won a conference title since 1999. Even old-timers are hard-pressed to remember the 1979 state championship team. But seeds have been planted. The Hawks were 28-6 in 2010 and lost to Whitney Young in the supersectional. They won 21 and 19 games in the last two seasons. They currently are 7-0 going into Thursday night's game at Glenbrook South.

"We are proud of where we are at," Lavorato said. "But it's early in the season. There is a lot of basketball to play. What is exciting is the kids are dedicating themselves to basketball. We have structured the program where we put kids in a position to be successful.

"Can we play basketball at a football school? We have a winning tradition in many sports at Maine South, not just football. We have a winning culture. Is this the best team we have had? Our 2010 team has been our standard-bearer. We'll compare other teams to that one until we have a team that surpasses it."

In his 10th season as head coach, Lavorato has taken a while to fuel his engine and put it on the right track. For example, he had to figure out a way to tread water while waiting for the football season to end so the football players, like 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior John Solari, would have time to get into basketball shape.

He installed a unique matchup defense that is difficult for opponents to prepare for and to execute against, then organized a feeder system in which lower level coaches lay a solid foundation by teaching youngsters to play the defense from the first time they lace up their Michael Jordans.

"What is the key to our success?" Lavorato said. "I have never had a Division I player in my 10 years. We need to keep playing as a team, control the tempo and keep the points down. Our opponents are only averaging 34.7 points per game. If we keep people under 50 points per game and keep getting better as a team offensively, we can compete with the top teams in the state."

Which is exactly why, after participating in the York Holiday Tournament for the last nine years, Lavorato decided to switch to Proviso West this year. After Thursday's game against Glenbrook South and games against Lane Tech at the Benedictine Shootout on Sunday and at Waukegan on Dec. 21, Maine South will meet Hillcrest in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament on Dec. 26 in Hillside.

"We are going there to play teams like Hillcrest and test ourselves," he said. "I am looking at the big picture. We're trying to get over the hump. We're looking to play teams that are ore athletic and will make us better in January and February.

"Every since we lost to Whitney Young in 2010--we were trailing by two points at halftime, then lost by 18--I thought if we could put our program in a position to where we could see that type of team and athlete before the state tournament, we could finish that game and be competitive with any program in that state.

"That's why we decided to go to Proviso West--to test teams with great athletes and Division I players. That is the next step for our program to take."

Danny Quinn has watched Lavorato's program develop since he was playing quarterback and wide receiver for the Park Ridge Falcons youth football program from second to eighth grade. And he recalls when his father took him to Proviso West to watch Marcus Jordan, Wayne Blackshear, Dave Sobolewski, Frank Kaminsky and other Division I players.

But Quinn never had the passion for football that he had for basketball. In fact, he dropped football and baseball to concentrate on basketball. In sixth grade, he played on a Junior Hawks team was 80-13. And he played with future Maine South teammates Frank Dounis and Andrew Palucki on the Chi-Town Diablos.

"I wanted to become better at basketball," said Quinn, a 6-foot-6 senior forward. "You have to sacrifice to be good at it. I wanted to dedicate myself to basketball. I had a passion for it. I liked the fast tempo. It isn't always about who is biggest and strongest. You can be a good shooter or ball-handler or be versatile and contribute in a lot of ways."

Quinn never had a doubt that Lavorato would develop a winning basketball program at Maine South. "We always had good talent. It was never a question of if but a matter of when. We have plenty of athletes. We are proud of the football team. We aren't trying to take anything away from them. But we know we can be successful, too," he said.

Quinn (9.4 ppg, 4 rpg), Solari (9.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Dounis, a 6-foot-3 senior (10.9 ppg, 3 rpg, 3.4 assists) are the most experienced players in the program. Solaris, a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, was a tight end on Maine South's 11-1 football team and likely will play football in college. "Everything starts with them," Lavorato said.

They are returning starters from last year's 19-13 regional champion. With five of his top eight players returning, Lavorato had several reasons to be optimistic about 2012-13.

The other two starters are Palucki (5.7 ppg), a 6-foot-2 guard, and 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Caleb de Marigny (5.7 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 6-foot-7 sophomore George Sargeant (3.9 ppg).

Lavorato split the season into six parts--Thanksgiving tournament, six games between now and Christmas, Proviso West tournament, four games in five days before the King tournament, the home stretch, then the postseason. "We break it up so we don't get ahead of ourselves," he said.

A 1991 graduate of Hinsdale South, Lavorato played for his father, then played for four years at Augustana. He coached at Homestead in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for one year, then coached at Stagg in Palos Park for four years before being hired at Maine South.

"It was a great opportunity," he said. "I wanted to get into a conference that was successful in getting to the sectional. Seven of 12 Central Suburban League teams went to the supersectional in a seven-year period. Maine South was very competitive on a north suburban scale. It was a great route to get to Peoria. But I knew we had a lot of work to do."

Five years ago, Lavorato implemented a defensive system he refers to as "the Maine South defense," a matchup man-to-man that is similar to the famed ball-press defense that legendary coach Vergil Fletcher developed at Collinsville in the 1950s and was copied by Jerry Leggett at Quincy and Neil Alexander at Lincoln.

Lavorato picked it up from Frank Palmisani, who ran it at Providence with Walter Downing, and Frank Nardi, who ran it at Bloom with Brandon Cole.
Bill Geist ran it at Benet with Kevin Conrad and Mike Lang. At one time, Lavorato rank it at Stagg.

"I wanted to make sure it is difficult to play us," he said. "We want to keep the ball out of the lane, rebound every shot and contest all shots. I wanted to do something that other coaches had to prepare for. No one else runs it in our conference.

"I have run it with middle size post players and an immobile post player and I have run it with guards who were immature and physically not gifted.
Communication is the most important thing. It is a five-man defense. Everyone needs to communicate and be on the same page. Our kids believe in it."

Quinn said the defense is tough for other teams to figure out. "Now many teams run it. It is hard to scout and to adjust and to teach. It's tough enough for us to run. It's all about communication and chemistry. If one guy is out of synch, the whole thing is messed up. You have to know it. You can't run it half-heartedly. You must be committed to it. Teams have to play well to beat it," he said.

So Lavorato is eager to test his team and his defense against the field at Proviso West. The players are excited, too.

"This is what I have been waiting for for four years," Quinn said. "We have no fear. We feel we can play with those teams. We have been building for this. This will show we aren't just a football school but we can play basketball against anyone. If we stick with our system and play our game, I don't think anyone can top us."

Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with'

Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with'

The majority of the talk surrounding Tuesday night's pitching matchup at Guaranteed Rate Field will be focused on the guy pitching against the White Sox.

Chris Sale returned to the South Side for the first time since being traded to the Boston Red Sox this past offseason, and he'll take the mound against his former teammates Tuesday. But the White Sox, who traded away one of the best pitchers in baseball, will be sending another All-Star hurler to the mound to oppose Sale.

Jose Quintana gets the ball for the White Sox, and while the attention will be squarely on Sale — and the emotions he does or does not show and the reaction he receives from the fans — Quintana will have his own emotional roller coaster going on, pitching against a guy who served as a mentor of sorts for the first five seasons of his career.

"Throwing on the same day will be a different feeling for me because he was the best teammate I ever played with," Quintana said. "It will be a different feeling watching him go against me after the last four years when he was my teammate. We talked last night. He said, ‘Hey, I’m in town. I can’t wait to see you guys.’ So I’m excited to play against him."

Sale had a few years on Quintana in major league service, but the duo looked like they would be a near-untouchable 1-2 combo at the front of the White Sox pitching rotation for years to come.

They both represented the White Sox at the All-Star Game last season and both finished in the top 10 in voting for the American League Cy Young Award.

[WHITE SOX TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Sale was shipped to the Red Sox to start the White Sox rebuilding effort, breaking up that duo leading the staff. But as is often the case, it's not the performances and the statistics that Quintana misses the most about Sale but rather the qualities he brought as a teammate.

"I learned from his focus on the game and his passion for baseball," Quintana said. "We talked a lot over the years. But the first thing I learned from him was focus.

"I miss him. He was one of my best teammates ever that I played with. I understand it was part of the game. It’s a business and that happens. ... I miss his energy. We have a lot of guys here with energy too, but I miss the energy he had every time we talked in the dugout, watching the game."

Sale is having one of the best campaigns of any pitcher in baseball through the season's first two months. And while Quintana's start has been shaky at times, he's still the White Sox ace. It's that standing, though, that has had his name the subject of plenty of trade rumors during the offseason, spring training and since Opening Day. There is an expectation, warranted or not, that he will soon join Sale in departing the White Sox for a big prospect haul.

Until then, though, Quintana is taking over for Sale as the team's No. 1. The two old mates will go head to head Tuesday night in a monumental matchup, and Quintana is already projecting that focus he learned from Sale.

"I have just one game, and I have my focus on throwing the ball well for my team, to get a 'W.' That’s my focus every time, to do my job," Quintana said. "It will be a different feeling because I’m pitching against him, but I don’t want to pay attention to the other team. I just want to do my job."

Chris Sale has 'no hard feelings' as he returns to face White Sox

Chris Sale has 'no hard feelings' as he returns to face White Sox

Though he had a “couple blips on the radar,” including a few high-profile instances last season, Chris Sale has no regrets about his White Sox tenure.

The former pitcher returned to Guaranteed Rate Field as an opponent for the first time on Monday morning and said the majority of his White Sox memories are fond. The five-time All-Star takes the mound for the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night in a highly anticipated matchup against former teammate Jose Quintana. Despite an, at times, intense final campaign that included a five-game suspension imposed by the club for destruction of team property, Sale wouldn’t change anything about his six seasons with the White Sox.

“It got me to where I am today,” Sale said. “Can't change the past, just try to become better in the future. Appreciative of my time here, the people I met here, the relationships I built, most of the things I did here, too. I'm appreciative of everybody involved that got me to this point right here. Without a lot of people in this building I wouldn't be sitting here right now, that's for sure.”

Sale’s current seat is atop the world.

Not only does he pitch for a perennial contender at “buzzing” Fenway Park, Sale has thrived. He’s 5-2 with a 2.34 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 73 innings over 10 starts. During those 10 turns Sale tied the major league record he already shared with Pedro Martinez with at least 10 strikeouts in eight consecutive starts.

It’s all part of a transition he has found easier than he expected. Sale spent spring training at home because the Red Sox train in Florida. He also has liked working with Boston pitching coach Carl Willis and appreciates a fresh set of eyes.

“It wasn’t as crazy as I thought,” Sale said. “Boston has been nothing but great to me.”

If Sale holds any ill will toward the White Sox front office, he wasn’t letting on.

The 2010 first-round draft pick is still highly thought of within the White Sox clubhouse and known as a great teammate. Quintana and James Shields both called Sale one of the best teammates they’ve played with in their careers. Nate Jones described Sale as a “model citizen” who stood up for what he believed in. Those beliefs led to Sale erupting twice publicly during the 2016 campaign, including a lengthy rant in spring training directed at executive vice president Kenny Williams after Adam LaRoche’s abrupt retirement. In July, Sale objected to the team wearing throwback uniforms and cut them to pieces during batting practice, which led to a five-game suspension for insubordination.

[MORE: Jose Quintana on Tuesday opponent Chris Sale: 'He was the best teammate I ever played with']

But Sale sounds as if he has moved on.

“There's no hard feelings,” Sale said.

He admits there could be a few strange moments on Tuesday night when he sets foot on the mound. Sale had already experienced some abnormal emotions when he set foot in the building he called home for seven seasons for the first time since last October. Aside from a brief visit following a 2015 brawl with the Kansas City Royals, Sale set foot in the visiting clubhouse for the first time -- “a little longer walk,” he said. He wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more in store when he faces some former teammates on Tuesday.

“It's going to be hard not to crack a couple of smiles out there, just because I spent a lot of time with these guys,” Sale said. “These guys were my teammates for a handful of years, some of them. We've had some good times together so it would be hard not to smile out there.”

Sale looks forward to Tuesday’s atmosphere and has thought about how he’ll be received by White Sox fans. He said he feels like he run into more White Sox fans since he’s left than when he played on the South Side. While he’ll be a little nervous, Sale said he expects he’ll have fun with the experience.

“I just want to let everyone know that I appreciated my time here,” Sale said. “There’s a couple of blips on the radar amongst a lot of really good times. So more times than not it was great. I appreciated it.  I always had good teammates. I always had a great coaching staff. I’m appreciative of that so I don’t want to lose sight of that.”