Stagg has lost three of its last five games, including last Friday's 64-61 loss to Lincoln-Way North, which isn't the way coach John Daniels was hoping his team would be playing as it launched its bid for only the third regional championship and first sectional title in school history.
But the Palos Hills school is 18-8 and seeded No. 6 in the Class 4A Thornton sectional behind south suburban powers Marian Catholic, Bloom and Homewood-Flossmoor, which means the Chargers have been competitive in most of their games from start to finish.
Stagg will meet Andrew or Plainfield South in the semifinals of the Sandburg regional on Wednesday night.
"I've had good mentors in Rick Howat (at Addison Trail) and Jim Prunty (at York)," Daniels said. "Prunty told me: 'The first thing you have to do is compete and put your kids in a situation where they can succeed.' I think we've done that."
Daniels, in his 10th year at Stagg, has come a long way since his first team went 4-24. He has had eight winning seasons. His 2005 team was 20-7 and his 2006 squad was 21-7. Last year's team was 16-11. But he still is looking for his first conference and sectional titles.
He came to Stagg after coaching stops at Elmwood Park and York and inherited a program that hadn't experienced much success. It's only regional titles were realized in 1996 and 1997. Playing in the same conference as perennial power Thornton isn't a blueprint for climbing up the ladder.
"We had two starters returning from last year's team and two really good juniors coming up," Daniels said. "I thought we could compete for the conference title -- and we did. Even in our losses, we competed. We finished fourth in the Hinsdale South tournament. We lost to Lincoln-Way North at the buzzer and we avenged losses to Andrew and Thornton. We just didn't get over the hump."
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Sean Dwyer, a three-year starter, has felt the frustration. The 6-foot-7 senior guard scored a game-high 19 points in last Friday's three-point loss to Lincoln-Way North but his three-point shot attempt to tie the game at the buzzer felt short.
"It was kind of a last-second shot, a 30-footer. I didn't have my feet set. I knew the clock was running out. The ball hit the front of the rim and bounced back," Dwyer said. "It was disappointing to lose my last home game.
"But you have to stay optimistic for the playoff. It's a new season. The coach said: "It is upsetting to not win a conference title in my three years but we still have the regional ahead of us.
"The coach said: 'Would you trade a conference title for a regional title and a chance to play in the sectional?' In a heartbeat, I said. It would mean a lot to our team and the program and the school to be the first team under coach Daniels to win a regional. It would pave the way for the future, a way for me and the other four seniors to leave our legacy."
But Dwyer has another priority -- academics. He has a 4.2 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 28 on his ACT. He wants to study business and play basketball in college and is considering Illinois Wesleyan, North Central, Wisconsin-Oshkosh, St. Xavier and Loras. He also has applied to Indiana if he opts not to play basketball.
He also is involved in student council and National Honor Society. And he and teammate Steve Kubiak, a three-sport athlete, work together in the Youth in Government program at Stagg.
"My college decision will be based on academics," he said. "I will find a role in basketball but academics are very important to me. I have to prepare for life after basketball. I love basketball and want to play in college. But I realize my basketball career will end in four years. I gave up my dream of being an NBA player long ago."
Dwyer's first love was baseball. He played travel baseball for eight years as a pitcher, first baseman and third baseman. He played baseball as a freshman and sophomore at Stagg, then skipped the sport to concentrate on basketball as a junior but plans to play baseball this spring.
"In high school, I realized I had more potential to grow as a basketball player," he said. "I had a skill set to do better things in basketball than baseball. I peaked in baseball earlier. I'm a White Sox fan and I dreamed of being the next Paul Konerko.
"But my dad played basketball at St. Xavier. He pushed basketball. He saw my potential. In high school, I saw the player I could become and am still trying to become. I have an outside shot and I'm developing a stronger post game. In college, I'll play small forward."
The desire to excel in academics came early. His grandparents, who taught in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 30 years, pushed him hard to be the best student he could be. "School comes first in my mind. That's what I have been taught," he said.
But Dwyer hopes to leave a mark in basketball. "I hope after this year that we leave a legacy for the other guys that if you put in work you can become successful. If everyone on the team buys into it, you can accomplish anything you want," he said.
Dwyer is averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game. He converts 42 percent of his three-point shots and Daniels claims he is the best shooter in the conference. Other starters are 6-foot-2 junior Max Strus (14 ppg), 6-foot-1 junior Kevin White (15 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior Steve Kubiak (4 ppg) and 6-foot-3 junior Mike Scapena (2 ppg). Kamil Barnas, a 6-foot-3 junior, comes off the bench.
"We can score but we have to defend better," Daniels said. "Our goal is to build the program."
"School spirit runs low at our school but it is a lot better," Dwyer said. "Once we started winning, we started to draw more fans. We expect to win in basketball."