Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

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Wheeling goes from 1-14 to Elite 8

Who woulda thunk it?

Wheeling's girls basketball team was 1-14 and seeded 14th in a 19-team regional. Season over, right? Wrong. Coach Julissa Hernandez' Wildcats have advanced to Monday's Class 4A supersectional round and have become the first team in state history to qualify for the Elite Eight with a losing record.

In fact, the Wildcats need three victories to finish 18-18--and win the state championship.

Who woulda thunk it?

"Everybody asks how we turned it around but we didn't change anything," Hernandez said. "We've been doing the same things from day one. I just think the girls got tired of losing. They said to themselves: 'We can be in control.' We weren't in control in the first part of the season.

"The biggest difference from the first half was we had to get past turnovers. We had to realize that we would make mistakes on defense. But don't harp on it. As coaches and players, we didn't dwell on mistakes. We looked at positives. Now they are having fun. It is hard to have fun when you are losing. But there is nothing but smiles on their faces now."

As the 14th seed, Wheeling had to play into the regional. After losing their last regular-season game to Palatine 36-23, the Wildcats have gone on a tear, eliminating Round Lake 50-14, Libertyville 56-51, Prospect 58-32, Warren 41-26 and Zion-Benton 50-45 in Thursday's sectional final. They will carry a 15-18 record into Monday's supersectional against Loyola (25-7) at Stevenson.

"Honestly, I'm not surprised," Hernandez said. "We played well in the summer. It gave us some confidence. Our goals were to win conference, regional and sectional. We fell short in conference (third). But those were our goals in the preseason. We felt they were possible. We always knew it doesn't matter how we started, just how we finished.

"These kids didn't quit. When we were 1-14, they stuck with it. It was rough, not easy. But everybody still came to practice ready to work hard. We lost two games in overtime and 10 by 10 points or less. We felt we were better than our record."

They experienced losing last year, too. In Hernandez' first season, Wheeling was 4-26. "We fell short in a lot of games but it wasn't frustrating or disappointing. It was just a learning experience for all of us, coaches and girls," Hernandez said.

Now they are putting it all together. The senior leaders are Kellie Kuzmanic (12 ppg) and Leah Malsom (8.2 ppg). The other starters are Kellie's sister, freshman point guard Deanna Kuzmanic (10 ppg, 4 assists), junior Jessi Zuba (4 ppg) and freshman Hailey Dammeier (4.5 ppg). Freshman Hannah Dobrowski (3.5 ppg) comes off the bench.

Kellie Kuzmanic had 14 points and 13 rebounds in Thursday's victory over Zion-Benton. Deanna Kuzmanic scored 20 points and Malsom had seven points and four rebounds. Afterward, Zion-Benton coach Tanya Johnson, who produced state championship teams at Loyola Academy in 1997 and 1998, described Wheeling as a team of destiny.

Winning may be new to some of these girls but it isn't new to Hernandez or the Wheeling program. A graduate of Lake Park in 2003, Hernandez played on a team that lost to Candace Parker and Naperville Central in the supersectional. After graduating from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Hernandez joined Wheeling coach Shelly Weigel's staff.

From 2003 to 2010, Weigel was one of the most successful coaches in the state. After starting 11-16, she lost only 28 games in the next six years and won 25, 28, 23, 28, 33 and 26 games. Her 2009 team finished third in the state tournament. She won 80 percent (174-44) of her games in seven years.

While Weigel was more offense-minded, the 26-year-old Hernandez emphasizes defense. But one drill she picked up from her mentor, called the seven passes drill, proved to be a difference-maker in last Thursday's victory. Desperately trying to protect a slim lead in the last two minutes, Hernandez called for the strategy when Zion-Benton switched to a 1-2-1-1 trapping half-court defense.

"You have to pass the ball seven times before you try to score," Hernandez said. "You pass to a teammate and she must pass to another teammate. You can't pass it back to the person who threw the ball to you. And you are allowed only one dribble.

"We needed to keep the ball in our possession. We needed to find other people to pass, to avoid double-teamming. It involves a lot of teamwork and communication to make it work. Our girls stayed calm and handled the pressure and got open for passes."

So Wheeling is on its way to the Elite Eight. "Our fans have been with us all year. The parents didn't give up. It's nice to see the great support we have at Wheeling," Hernandez said.

Now everybody has smiles on their faces.

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

For the past two seasons, David Accam was a bright spot on bad Chicago Fire teams.

This season, with more talent on the roster, Accam has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league.

He had a hat trick and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win against Orlando. That gives him 10 goals and six assists on the season. Only two other players in Major League Soccer have 16 combined goals and assists, New York City FC's David Villa and teammate Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goal-scorer in the league).

“I thought I could do anything on the pitch today,” Accam said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself and entertain the fans and also help the team win. That’s what we did today, especially after my first goal. I just thought I could get more goals and also help the team win.”

Accam’s big game comes after he sat out the previous two games, which were both played on turf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, but coach Veljko Paunovic said, “he didn’t recover from the physical issues that he had in the previous game.”

The rest seemed to do Accam some good, but his success in the game (as well as his recent run of eight goals and four assists in his last eight matches) coincides with questions about his future. He was recently rumored to be the target of a Turkish club.

In the past, Accam has spoken about his ambition to play at the highest levels. Typically, that means Europe. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said last month that he expects offers to come in for the 26-year-old because he is a good player in his prime ages.

So is Accam playing like someone trying to earn a new contract? That could be either impressing potential suitors in Europe or boosting his negotiation position with the Fire. Rodriguez has talked about contract negotiations with Accam before, and said those will not resume again until after the season.

“I wanted to be in a team where I would develop as a person and also win trophies, whether here or somewhere (else) I don’t know,” Accam said. “For me, I’m doing really well here and every year if I keep playing well there will be always interest. I know there is a lot of interest because I’m doing well. For me it’s always extra motivation to keep doing well. You don’t know where I will end up, whether here or somewhere else. I’ll just keep playing.”

Accam’s play earned him another call-up to the Ghanaian national team. He will join the team on Sunday for a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The Black Stars will take on Mexico in Houston on June 28 and the U.S. in East Hartford, Conn., on July 1 as the two North American countries prepare for the Gold Cup.

“That’s where I want to be,” Accam said. “I want to be playing for the national team so it’s extra motivation for me to perform well and also to go to the national team.”

Accam has been one of the most productive players in MLS this year, based on goals and assists, and is young enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams. For now, the Fire have him as a key part of the best season the club has had in years.

“I think that he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates that he is surrounded with,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We just have to work to give David opportunities… Then we expect that performances like that will come even more.”

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