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."

Evanston more prepared to make a deep playoff run this March

Evanston more prepared to make a deep playoff run this March

The biggest takeaway from a busy weekend of local high school basketball is Simeon beating Morgan Park for the city championship on Sunday at Chicago State.

The eighth city title for the Wolverines is important and it is the reason that Simeon currently sits at No. 1 in the latest CSN Preps Power Rankings. But Simeon's win Sunday also meant that people quickly forgot (or dismissed) how well Evanston played against Simeon the previous night in the annual McDonald's City-Suburban Showdown.

The 18-point win over Simeon does come with an asterisk because of the Wolverines' playing backups a lot of minutes because of the impending Morgan Park game. Evanston does deserve credit, however, for still put a beating on Simeon, impressing Wolverines' head coach Robert Smith enough to acknowledge that Evanston might have won even if Simeon was at full strength.

It's part of the reason that Evanston comes in at No. 2 this week in the latest Power Rankings.

"I give them credit. They did everything they needed to do to win the game," Smith said. "Even if we were at our best, I don't know what the outcome would be. It would have been a little more competitive than that. But they did some good stuff out there."

The scary part about Evanston's takedown of Simeon is that star senior and Purdue commit Nojel Eastern only totaled four points. Unlike a lot of top-10 teams in the CSN Preps Power Rankings, the Wildkits only have one player signed to play college basketball next season. 

Eastern is the big draw for Evanston but he doesn't have to score for the Wildkits to beat good teams this season. He still helped with nine rebounds and played a solid floor game -- showing his usual ability to find open players with creative passes -- but Eastern didn't shoot the ball well and missed multiple dunks.

"We talked about [Nojel's play]. We talked about that at halftime," Evanston head coach Mike Ellis said. "Ten-point lead and Nojel had played below average. Imagine how we look in the second half if he plays above average? Let's be honest about the whole thing, Nojel is such an unselfish player that it doesn't cause his teammates to panic. Nojel is not a guy, if you don't get us 30 points we're gonna lose. He's the glue that keeps our team together and it gives others confidence to say that he looks for me [to make plays]."

The Wildkits faltered down the stretch last year to end the regular season and ended up losing to Notre Dame earlier than some predicted in the sectional semifinals, but this year's group appears to be peaking later in the season.

A deeper and more experienced Evanston team showed its overall depth and talent in the Simeon win. Senior Chris Hamil knocked in five three-pointers and played hard on both ends while senior Malcolm Townsel had a good outing as well with a team-high 20 points. 

Others like senior Elyjah Williams and sophomores Lance Jones and Jaheim Holden have shown great flashes of play as well this season and the Wildkits go even deeper than that at times. Evanston isn't just a one-man team. That showed with Saturday's win as they had 20 field goals on 15 assists.

Four years with a notable player on varsity has shown Eastern and Evanston plenty of unique defensive looks like box-and-ones and differing zones. In the past that might have rattled Evanston. This year's team is more prepared to handle those situations now after playing more of a national schedule in 2016-17 that included the loss to nationally-ranked Montverde at the Chicago Elite Classic and finishing as the runner-up in the loaded Beach Ball Classic.

Evanston has a solid draw as the No. 1 seed in the Waukegan Sectional as they hope to make a run in Class 4A. Eastern has talked before about his desire to take the Wildkits back to Peoria with his group of seniors and other teammates.

And the Wildkits still only have one loss to an Illinois opponent all season, when they lost to Naperville North back in January at Glenbard East.

Simeon might be bigger favorites in Class 4A at full strength as we get closer to March but Evanston is ready for a run of its own.

Simeon beats rival Morgan Park for city championship

Simeon beats rival Morgan Park for city championship

The Battle of Vincennes is one of the best high school basketball rivalries in Illinois. But for as often as storied rivals Morgan Park and Simeon play, the two Red-South titans had never met for the city title.

That changed on Sunday. 

In an epic clash of top-five teams that might go down as the season's best game, No. 4 Simeon held on for a 68-64 win over No. 3 Morgan Park in the Public League Playoff finale at Chicago State.

The city title is the eighth for the Wolverines as they've won this event in back-to-back years -- the first time a team has done that since the Derrick Rose-led Simeon teams in 2006 and 2007. 

Simeon (24-3) was led by junior Kezo Brown, as he finished with 26 points while senior Evan Gilyard added 18 points. Simeon also had 13 points from junior Talen Horton-Tucker while role players like Messiah Jones (six points, seven rebounds) and Madison Lowery (three points, five rebounds) made winning plays down the stretch by grabbing key rebounds in a tight game. 

After going six consecutive quarters without a made three-pointer after going 0-for-6 in the first half on Sunday, the Wolverines finally heated up from the perimeter in the second half thanks to Brown's three triples and a key bucket from Gilyard.

The Mustangs (19-6) had a chance to tie this game down by three with 11 seconds left but junior Ayo Dosunmu missed a contested pull-up three that was rebounded by Lowery. 

Lowery made one of two free throws at the other end to ice the game after getting fouled.

Dosumnu finished with 16 points despite battling foul trouble for Morgan Park while big man Lenell Henry continued a strong recent stretch with 15 points. Melo Burrell added a double-double for the Mustangs with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. 

Simeon and Morgan Park split the regular-season series in Red-South conference play during the season as the road team won both games. Sunday's clash at Chicago State was a fitting conclusion to three great games between the two rivals this season as both schools enter their respective classes as potential title favorites.

Both Simeon and Morgan Park were clearly focused on Sunday's city championship game on Saturday as the two teams both lost in the annual City-Suburban Showdown. Playing a lot of reserves and not going their hardest, the Wolverines lost to Evanston and Morgan Park fell in overtime to Stevenson. 

While Morgan Park has a far easier path to Peoria in Class 3A, Simeon is still a major contender in Class 4A as the Wolverines are playing very balanced ball entering the final stretch of the season.