St. Francis is big surprise in Class 3A

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St. Francis is big surprise in Class 3A

In his first year as head coach at Wheaton St. Francis, Bob Ward thought he had the best of all worlds. After teaching history for 35 years and coaching at Round Lake, Spring Valley, Lake Zurich and Wheaton North, he was eager to accept a coaching-only assignment for the first time.

"I retired from teaching in June but I still wanted to coach in some capacity," Ward said. "I took this job in May. It has been a revelation. I always dreamed of just coaching, not lecturing in history class. But I wasn't sure what I was walking into."

Wheaton St. Francis has a reputation as a football school. Coach Greg Purnell produced a state champion in 2008. Mike Harper had a successful basketball program for 23 years, winning five regional titles and finishing fourth in Class A in 1989. But that was the school's only sectional winner.

"They always had a good program under Mike Harper," Ward said. "But in all the scouting I did, I never saw St. Francis. We didn't play them. I only knew of one kid, Ryan Coyle, a three-year player who started last year."

But Ward wasn't sure if Coyle would be able to play this season. The 6-foot-6 senior was hampered with a lower back problem last summer. In late July, after being cleared to play, he was undercut in an AAU game and suffered a broken collarbone and a concussion.

"He was out indefinitely," Ward said. "What we heard when it first happened was that he would miss the entire year of basketball. Then he gradually got better. He was struggling in the fall when school began. But then he came around."

On Friday night, in what Ward described as "my biggest win in coaching," Coyle scored 13 points, including a game-winning three-pointer with just over a minute to play as Wheaton St. Francis stunned top-seeded Orr 39-36 for the Class 3A regional championship at Wheaton Academy.

"We have tough kids but I had followed Orr during the year knowing that they would be in our sectional," Ward said. "I saw them on Tuesday and marveled how difficult they would be to guard. They were the best team we have played all year.

"But we told our kids that we have played De La Salle, Bogan and St. Viator, all highly rated Class 4A teams. In those games, we came back and weren't intimidated."

Coyle wasn't the only starter who was missing in action during the summer. Nick Donati, a 6-foot senior point guard who played quarterback on the football team, was sidelined with a bum shoulder.

"I didn't see them in the summer," Ward said. "To their credit, they never missed a day of camp or a summer game. I had a good idea of the character of these guys who would be our leaders.

"At camp in late May, I noticed these kids took coaching pretty well and they defended well in man-to-man defense. Honestly, I wasn't optimistic or pessimistic. I didn't know how good they would be. But we won the Batavia tournament against Class 4A teams to start the year. That boded well for us. They jelled as the season went along."

Ward was further encouraged by his team's 2-2 showing at the York Holiday Tournament. We played a lot of Class 4A teams and that has helped us."

So Wheaton St. Francis will carry a 19-7 record into Tuesday night's sectional against Crane at Glenbard South.

Ward will start Coyle (16 PPG, 8 RPG), Donati (8 PPG, 4 assists, 5 RPG), 6-foot-3 senior Brian Spahn (9 PPG), 6-foot-7 senior Zach Roswold (6 PPG, 4 RPG) and Andrew Kimball (6 PPG), who missed the last two games with illness but scored 18 and 19 points in two earlier games. Kimball is due to return for Tuesday's game.

Tim Zettinger, a 6-foot-2 junior, and Jason Pisarski, a 6-foot-3 junior, provide spark off the bench.

"To keep winning, we must prepare well and maintain our confidence, as we were for Orr," Ward said. "Our kids aren't overly loose or cocky. They are playing their best basketball of the season right now."

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Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Bulls visit Bucks in final regular season meeting on CSN

Watch as the Bulls take on the Toronto Raptors tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Bulls Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Bulls Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

Click here to watch the game or download the NBC Sports App, your home for live streaming coverage of the Bulls.

Five Things to Watch:

1. Can the Bulls get one on the Bucks? The Bulls are 0-3 against the Bucks so far this season and it hasn't been pretty. The Bucks have won the previous three meetings all by double digits and by an average of 19 points. The youth and athleticism of the Bucks has been a tough matchup for the Bulls so far.

2. Containing Giannis. There may be no stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the Bulls can at least try to contain him. Antetokounmpo is averaging 23 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. In three games against the Bulls this year he has averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and 7.3 assists per contest. If the Bulls are to stay in the game, they will need to keep him to numbers lower than that.

3. Playoff implications. The Bulls playoff hopes are still alive with nine games remaining, but things are looking a bit bleak. The Bulls are a game and a half out of the eighth playoff spot, but only 3.5 games behind two teams tied for the No. 5 seed, the Bucks and the Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks have won three in a row to improve their position.

4. Mirotic on a roll. Streaky play is nothing new to Nikola Mirotic, but he's on a good run currently. After scoring a season-high 28 points on Wednesday against the Pistons, Mirotic followed that up with 15 points against the 76ers. Since missing three straight games earlier this month, Mirotic has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games and is averaging 15.6 points during that stretch.

5. Beginning of a tough stretch. The Bulls' playoff hopes could be made or broken in the next three games. After taking on the Bucks, which occupy a playoff spot, the Bulls host two more Eastern Conference playoff teams in Cleveland and Atlanta. The Bulls need to string some wins together and this is not an easy stretch to do so against.

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