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."

CSN to carry live coverage of Class 1A-4A IHSA Girls Basketball State Championships

CSN to carry live coverage of Class 1A-4A IHSA Girls Basketball State Championships

CSN Chicago will be carrying live coverage of the IHSA Girls Basketball State Championships beginning on Friday and Saturday with Class 1A and 2A. Each telecast will be streamed live on CSNChicago.com and IHSA.tv, and will be made available via the NBC Sports app on tablets and smart phones.

CSN will also air highlights packages throughout the weekend, and live stream every postgame press conference.

Viewers are urged to visit CSNChicago.com's Channel finder or IHSA.org for complete channel location details for all games throughout the state. 

For a full list of carriers and more information about CSN's live streaming service, viewers are urged to visit the following link: http://www.csnchicago.com/live-faq .  

Here's what the schedule looks like this weekend:

Friday, Feb. 24:

11 a.m. – Class 1A Semifinal No. 1: Harvest Christian Academy (Elgin) vs. Annawan 

12:45 p.m. – Class 1A Semifinal No. 2: Unity (Mendon) vs. Calhoun (Hardin)

5:30 p.m. – Class 2A Semifinal No. 1: Byron vs. Central [Coop] (Camp Point)

7:15 p.m. – Class 2A Semifinal No. 2: St. Edward (Elgin) vs. Central Catholic (Bloomington) 

Ssaturday, Feb. 25:

11 a.m. – Class 1A: Consolation game (Teams TBD)

12:45 p.m. – Class 1A: Championship game (Teams TBD)

5:30 p.m. – Class 2A: Consolation game (Teams TBD)

7:15 p.m. – Class 2A: Championship game (Teams TBD)

High School Lites Week 13 basketball capsules

High School Lites Week 13 basketball capsules

CSN Chicago will have cameras covering the biggest high school basketball games across Chicagoland for another basketball edition of High School Lites. Catch the show live at 11 p.m. Friday on CSN and streaming at CSNChicago.com. 

This week's show has a postseason feel to it with a lot of Class 1A and Class 2A regional championships being decided on the boys side while the girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals will also have highlights.

We'll have highlights from the Interstate Eight as well.

And this week's Wintrust Athlete of the Week is St. Rita senior wrestler Austin O'Connor as he just became the 15th wrestler in IHSA history to win four state championships. O'Connor completed his second consecutive unbeaten season last weekend and finished his IHSA career 181-4 as he's planning on going to North Carolina.

FRIDAY

Plano at Sandwich, 7:00 p.m. -- The regular season is still finishing up and this one is important in the Interstate Eight. Plano (20-6, 9-1) is trying to hold on to a one-game conference lead. Sandwich (15-11, 8-2) is only a game behind in conference play going into Senior Night, so it should be a great atmosphere. 

Luther North vs. Waldorf, 7:00 p.m. 1A St. Benedict Regional Championship -- No. 1 seed Luther North is hoping for its second regional title in three years as they take on Waldorf. Luther North (19-8, 9-2) advanced by beating North Shore Country Day in the semifinals. Waldorf (19-8, 10-0) went through the Lake Shore Athletic unscathed as they are the No. 5 seed. Waldorf beat No. 4 seed Ida Crown to advance earlier this week.

No. 21 Uplift at No. 11 Orr, 7:00 p.m. 2A Orr Regional Championship -- The game of the night features two legitimate Class 2A state title contenders -- meeting for a regional title. It's unfortunate that these two fixtures in the CSN Preps Power Rankings have to play so soon but this should be interesting. Orr (17-5, 8-2) was one of the Red-West's toughest teams this season as junior Raekwon Drake leads a balanced team. Uplift (22-5, 10-0) was bounced early from the Public League Playoffs by Farragut so they'll be motivated in this one. The Red-North champions feature the dynamic duo of brothers Demarius Jacobs (senior; Southern Illinois) and Markese Jacobs (sophomore; Kansas).

Leo at U-High, 7:00 p.m., 2A Chicago U-High Regional Championship --  Another quality matchup of city teams in Class 2A as Leo travels to U-High. The Lions (19-8, 5-2) finished second in the Catholic South this season as they move up to Class 2A after a runner-up finish in Class 1A last season. U-High won a Class 2A regional in its own gym in dramatic fashion last season as they're hoping to earn more hardware on their home floor.

Latin at DePaul Prep, 7:00 p.m. 2A DePaul Prep Regional Championship -- DePaul Prep will be favored in this one as they host Latin in another Class 2A regional final. The Rams (19-9, 7-2) were one of the top teams in the Catholic North this season as they're a state title contender in Class 2A. Latin (12-12, 6-6) has some young talent, including sophomore 

Timothy Christian at IC Catholic Prep, 7:00 p.m, 2A IC Catholic Prep Regional Championship -- This should be a good matchup in Class 2A as Timothy Christian heads to IC Catholic Prep. Timothy Christian (17-10, 8-4) finished second in the Metro Suburban Red this season while IC Catholic (20-7, 10-2) was second in the Metro Suburban Blue. These two teams played on Jan. 20 with IC Catholic winning 61-46. 

GIRLS BASKETBALL CLASS 1A & 2A SEMIFINALS

Harvest Christian Academy vs. Annawan, 11:00 a.m. -- Harvest Christian Academy (29-3) is favored in this one as they haven't lost since Dec. 9. The Lions are led by junior guard Alyssa Iverson as she averaged 19.5 points per game this season. Annawan (26-8) also hasn't lost in 2017 as they have a balanced lineup that doesn't feature one senior on the roster. 

Mendon (Unity) vs. Hardin (Calhoun), 12:45 p.m. -- The second Class 1A semifinal features Mendon against Calhoun. Mendon (23-10) got hot at the right time as they've won five straight tournament games since dropping its regular-season finale. Calhoun (27-5) is led by senior forward Grace Baalman as she's averaging 23.2 points per game.

Byron vs. Camp Point (Central ) - 5:30 p.m. -- A couple of 30-win teams matchup in the first game of the girls Class 2A semifinals. Byron (32-2) hasn't lost since Jan. 6 as they've won all but one of those games by double digits. Camp Point (Central) has bounced back nicely since losing the regular season finale as they're a balanced scoring team. 

St. Edward vs. Bloomington Central Catholic - 7:15 p.m. -- Another Elgin-area school headlines this one as St. Edward faces Bloomington Central Catholic. The Green Wave (27-5) are led by senior guard Maddie Spagnola as she's averaging 21.2 points per game.