Ridgewood seeks first sectional title

Ridgewood seeks first sectional title
February 21, 2013, 10:15 am
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Last December, coach Chris Mroz took his Ridgewood basketball team to a two-day shootout in Missouri. The Rebels defeated Waynesville by five points in front of 2,000 people on the first day, then lost to Jefferson City by 45 points the next day.

"It showed me we weren't mentally prepared for that kind of competition yet. We didn't finish," Mroz said.

Last weekend, the 29-year-old coach thought his team was ready. On Friday, Ridgewood upset Riverside-Brookfield 71-65 in overtime in what Mroz and his players described as their best performance of the season. So they looked ahead to Saturday's game against Galesburg to demonstrate how much they had matured since December.

Galesburg won 59-52. It snapped the Rebels' seven-game winning streak, dropping them to 17-8 going into Friday night's regular season finale against Timothy Christian and left them wondering if they are good enough to beat favored North Chicago and Lakes in the Class 3A Antioch sectional.

"A win over Galesburg would have showed me we are putting it together, that we have matured, that we have learned how to compete, that we have learned how to finish," Mroz said.

Nobody was more disappointed that Mike Morawiec, the team's leading scorer. The 6-foot-3 senior was limited to six points, 10 below his season average. Shadowed from start to finish, he converted only two of five shots.

"It was the most disappointing game of the season for me," Morawiec said. "We wanted to beat R-B. It was a big high. We had been playing on the Junior Rebels since sixth grade and we had been losing to the R-B kids. This was our last time to play them. It was the biggest win I ever had.

"Then the next night we played Galesburg and I don't know what happened. I can't explain it. We didn't come to play. We were sluggish and not read to play. It looked like we weren't into it. I have no clue, no excuses. They had a guy on me all the time. I couldn't get open.

"It was the same feeling as the December experience. Galesburg was a wakeup call. But we know what this means. We have to beat Timothy Christian to give us momentum for the playoff, then play every game like it is our last. I'm mad that we lost. But we know we just have to be ready to play from now on."

Mroz has been building for this moment. It isn't easy being Ridgewood, located in Norridge and Harwood Heights and always battling St. Patrick and Niles Notre Dame for athletes and hoping to win the first sectional championship in school history.

The basketball program has known a level of success. Ron Kalina produced winning teams in the 1970s and 1980s but never won a regional. The school's only regional titles were realized in 1988, 1997 and 1998. But Mroz has revived a program that went through 10 losing seasons in a row. He is seeking a third regional title in a row.

His first team was 20-10 but lost to North Chicago in the sectional final. Last year's team was 21-8 but lost to Lakes in the sectional semifinal. With a good group of seniors returning, he anticipated another good 20-victory season -- if the seniors played like seniors.

"Even though they are seniors, some of them didn't play very much in the last two years. This is all new to them. They watched but they didn't play. They were more role players. Now they are in the shoes that they have to perform," the coach said.

Morawiec is one of three team captains with 6-foot-4 senior Adam Krozel (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and junior point guard Anthony Mroz (14 ppg, 6 apg), the coach's younger brother. The other starters are 6-foot-2 senior Igor Cirkovic (12 ppg) and 6-foot senior Justin Santiago (4 ppg). Mike Livak, a 6-foot-2 senior, comes off the bench.

Krozel had his best game of the season against R-B. He had 19 points and 10 rebounds and scored 11 in the fourth period and overtime to spell the difference. Marawiec also scored 19 points, Cirkovic 13, Mroz 10.

Against Galesburg, Krozel scored 18 points and Cirkovic had 13. But nobody else scored in double figures.

When Mroz took the job, he knew what he was getting into. He had to persuade kids to stay home. The school district helped by renovating the school and building a new gym. Mroz did his part by hosting a summer shootout and sending his team to play in the Oak Park summer league.

"We try to schedule tough competition in the summer so we're not intimidated when the season begins," the coach said. "In three years, we have played several top 10 teams...Benet, Morgan Park, North Chicago, Oak Park, New Trier. Our kids get up for those games."

And he arranged for a home-and-home series against Galesburg, a program with a rich tradition of success dating to the 1950s.

"We were better prepared for the season," Morawiec said. "We played tough teams in the summer. We weren't intimidated when we got into the season."

As Ridgewood braces for the regional, Mroz knows his kids are hungry. Some didn't get a chance to play in the last two years and they are eager to get a shot at being the first team in school history to win a sectional.

"I've learned to be patient," Mroz said. "I used to think I wanted everything right away. But sometimes you have to go through bumps to get where you want to go."

But Morawiec doesn't have any more time. He is a senior. A year ago, he came off the bench. Next year, he hopes to be playing basketball at Millikin University in Decatur. He also plays soccer, but basketball always has been his first love.

"Basketball came first. I love watching it and playing it," he said. "Growing up, I didn't know much about Ridgewood's background. People don't think we have a great program. But they've begun to have more respect for the team in the last two years. I knew we had never won a sectional. We'd like to be the first."