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."

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

After winter of taking heat, Cubs still have Joe Maddon's back

MESA, Ariz. — It only took 21 minutes into spring training — or the first press conference on the day pitchers and catchers officially reported to Arizona — before Joe Maddon listened to another question about all the heat he took for his World Series Game 7 decisions.

More than 2,000 miles away at Yankee camp in Florida last week, Aroldis Chapman told the Chicago Sun-Times that he "was just being truthful" when he used the conference call to announce the biggest contract ever for a closer — five years and $86 million — to inform the New York media that Maddon misused him during the playoffs. Nothing lost in translation there.

Miguel Montero finally declared a ceasefire on Monday night, getting the sit-down meeting the Cubs felt should go longer than the standard meet and greet after the veteran catcher's jarringly critical comments on WMVP-AM 1000 (if only because it happened on the same day as the championship parade and Grant Park rally).

"It's such an unusual situation," general manager Jed Hoyer said, "because we won the World Series, and theoretically you think that people would be really happy."

As ex-Cub manager Dale Sveum might say: "Ya think?"

Ending the 108-year drought might lead Maddon's Hall of Fame plaque someday, but it also led to waves and waves of second-guessing and speculation about how it might impact his clubhouse credibility. But with Maddon and Montero declaring their Andreoli Italian Grocer summit a success, gonzo strength and conditioning coordinator Tim Buss cruising onto the field in a Ferrari for the first wacky stunt of 2017 and Cactus League games beginning on Saturday, it's time to remember that the Cubs still have their manager's back.

"Everyone says they don't see or read anything," pitcher Jake Arrieta said. "We see and hear a lot of the stuff. But I just think that critics are going to find holes in something always.

"Joe was our leader all year last year. He obviously set the tone in spring training and gives us all these freedoms that help us play the way we played. So the people that matter — and know what Joe's about — are on the same page with his philosophies.

"The way he expresses himself to us is the most important thing. And we stand behind him. We trust that he's going to do what's in our best interest. And we know that any decision he makes is geared towards trying to help us win."

Within the last two seasons, the Cubs have won 200 games, five playoff rounds and their first World Series title since the Theodore Roosevelt administration. Maddon readily admits that the scouting and development wings of Theo Epstein's front office did most of the heavy lifting and credits the strong coaching staff he largely inherited. Spending more than $475 million on free agents like Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist certainly helped.

But all this doesn't happen without Maddon and the environment he created. The Cubs Way absolutely needed a ringmaster for this circus.

Arrieta developed into a Cy Young Award winner. Kyle Hendricks transformed into an ERA leader. Kris Bryant burst onto the scene as a Rookie of the Year and the National League MVP. Addison Russell became an All-Star shortstop by the age of 22. Maddon didn't prejudge Javier Baez, immediately appreciating the dazzling array of skills and super-utility possibilities.

Surprised by the Maddon backlash?

"Yes and no," All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo said. "Because there needs to be a story. But what he did — people who are real involved know that since Day 1, he came in and he set the tone.

"He completely flipped the way people think, the way we believe, and everyone has bought into it. The credit he deserves — he gets a lot of it — but I don't think he gets enough of it. Because he lets me be me. He lets Javy be Javy.

"Willson (Contreras), Kris and Addie — everyone has their different personalities. He understands that. And it's not easy to do."

It's such an impossible job, at times, that even Cubs officials and players have acknowledged their frustrations with some of Maddon's in-game decisions and communication gaps. This can't just be written off as a media creation. But imagine the grumbling if the Cubs didn't have a leader with seven 90-win seasons and three Manager of the Year awards on his resume.

"We have a competitive group of guys," Hoyer said. "Every guy wants to be on the field at the right time. Every guy wants to be on the roster. Every guy wants to pitch in winning games.

"That's not realistic sometimes. It comes from a great place. It doesn't come from a place of selfishness. It comes from a place of: 'I want to contribute to winning.'

"The meetings we've had have been awesome. Our camp is unbelievably focused. We are just as focused as last year. I really don't look at it as a negative."

The last word from Maddon, who turned 63 this month and has a $25 million contract, a wide range of off-the-field interests and the championship ring that will make him a legend in Chicago forever, no matter what kind of heat he took this winter.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me at all," Maddon said. "Regardless of what people may have thought — like any other game that I worked all year long — I had it planned out like that before the game began. So it wasn't anything I tried to do differently game in progress. Had I not done what I thought I was supposed to do — then I would have second-guessed myself.

"So, no, I have no problem with that. I really don't mind the second-guessing from anybody. I kind of encourage it. Please go ahead and do it, because I'll take that kind of second-guessing after winning a World Series on an annual basis. Thank you very much."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Is Jonathan Toews' the Blackhawks' MVP?

Chris Emma (670TheScore.com), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune) and national college football analyst Anthony Herron join Kap on the panel.  The guys discuss if Jonathan Toews is the Blackhawks’ MVP so far this season, whether a Jimmy Butler trade to the Celtics makes sense and why Rob Manfred is focused on shaving seconds off of the length of games.

Plus with Jay Cutler heading out the door, who will replace him?  And should Northwestern be on the NCAA Tournament bubble after losing again to the Illini?