Pressure is trying to build a program from scratch when all of the teams around you are winning state championships. Pressure is trying to win the school's first conference title in basketball in 12 years while the football team has won four state titles in a row.
"Is there pressure to put the program in the right direction? Absolutely," said Montini coach Brian Opoka. "People said I was doing the right thing and good things would come in due time. The other coaches are 100 percent behind me. And I get good support from the administration."
"Everybody knew it was a rebuilding project. I got the job at 29, not 42. If I got it at 42, I probably would have been drained. I put pressure on myself to maintain personal goals for the school and build a respectable high school basketball program."
In his fifth year at the Lombard school, Opoka is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. His first two teams were 2-24 and 3-23. In his third year, the Broncos were 6-18 but there were signs of improvement. Last year, they were 16-9. This year's team is 15-7 going into Tuesday night's game against Elmwood Park.
Last Friday, Montini remained in the chase for first place in the Suburban Christian's Gold Division by beating Guerin 71-54 as senior point guard Logan Goss collected a unique triple double--10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Simmie Cobbs scored 21 points, Matthew Brachmann added 16 and Sean Nash 14 as the Broncos are one game behind Immaculate Conception in the conference race. They host conference rival Marian Central on Friday.
Here is a school that has won state championships in football, girls basketball, wrestling, dance and math. At last count, Montini has won 18 state titles in sports, including four in a row in football, five in a row in wrestling and three in a row in girls basketball. So what about boys basketball?
"As a team, our goal is to win the conference and win the regional and go from there. We haven't won a regional in more than 15 years or a conference title in 12 years," said Goss. "We realize we have an opportunity to put up another banner in the gym for boys basketball."
"It was tough to walk the halls as a basketball player. Other students made fun of us. It got better last year. A lot of fans came out. And we get a lot of support this year, at least 50 kids every game. They call themselves 'Opoka's Army.' No one is laughing at us anymore."
Opoka recalls the bad times. The seniors won only eight games as freshmen, then quit en masse as sophomores. Only six juniors came out for the varsity, forcing the coach to bring up six sophomores. In his third year, only one of six juniors returned. The team was a laughingstock. Kids quit at will. They didn't want to play in junior varsity games.
Opoka graduated from Weber in 1997, two years before the school closed.
He played baseball at Quincy College, taught at Quincy Notre Dame, then returned to Chicago to serve on John Bonk's staff at St. Rita.
After being head freshman and head sophomore coach at St. Rita, he was hired as a math teacher at Montini. At the same time, he volunteered to coach at Montini and also assisted Frank Lollino Jr. at Morton Junior College. When the Montini job opened up, he was ready for the challenge.
As expected, he took his bumps in his first two years. in his third year, his best player was injured and his second best player was academically ineligible. But his players began to buy into his system last year and the Broncos lost to Marshall in the regional semifinal.
With two starters returning and a transfer from Oak Park-River Forest, Opoka was optimistic about 2012-13. He built around Goss (12.5 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg), a 5-foot-8 all-conference returnee whom the coach describes as the "heart and soul of our team, our leader."
"He played football as a junior but chose not to play as a senior. He is having a great year," Opoka said. "When we need a calm in the storm or a big basket or to get the ball to the right guy or make a big defensive stop or save me from calling a timeout, it is a blessing to have a true point guard."
The other returning starter is 6-foot-4 junior Matthew Brachmann (12 ppg, 7 rpg), a tight end on the football team who missed four weeks of the basketball season with mononucleosis.
The transfer is 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior Simmie Cobbs (16 ppg, 10 rpg), who didn't play basketball at Oak Park last year. He was ruled ineligible for the football season because of residency rules. But he was ruled eligible for basketball and scored 29 points against Crane.
"He is on the verge of being a Division I athlete," Opoka said. "He is the best player in our conference by far. He is the best athlete in school.
In football, he could play running back or wide receiver or tight end or defensive back or linebacker. Indiana already has talked to him."
Cobbs' dream is to go to college to play both sports. "In my mind, his athleticism makes him a Big 10 football player," the coach said.
Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Sean Nash (8 ppg) and 6-foot-2 senior Pat Mooney (6 ppg), cousin of Niles Notre Dame star Matt Mooney. Top reserves are 6-foot senior Cameron Roedel, 6-foot-6 senior Brian Orr and 5-foot-10 junior Jack Brady.
"The important thing was to have the kids understand there is a year-round commitment to the sport," Opoka said. "They pay a price and good things will pay off for them. If you commit yourself to being a good basketball player, if you ask a lot of yourself, you will find rewards. It doesn't mean you will win a state title but if it makes you a better player or a better student or a better person, it is worthwhile."
Now Opoka, who said he styles his program after Bonk and coaches Terry Head of Foreman and Tom White of De La Salle, is reaping some rewards. "For the first time, we are cutting good players because we don't have room for them on the 13-man roster," he said.