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SSC Blue baseball season officially sworn in

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

St. Laurence sophomore pitcher Marius Balandas bears down in his victory over Mt. Carmel on Saturday.

A fan arrived at the St. Laurence/Mt. Carmel baseball game at Haggerty Field in Chicago a little late on Saturday morning.

He looked and then squinted at the scoreboard, which showed that St. Laurence had scored nine runs in the top of the first inning.

“Holy (deleted)!” he said. “Is that NINE runs?”

That reaction came moments after one of the Mt. Carmel players walked off the field in disgust and shouted a dark oath of his own.

Now that’s putting the blue in the Chicago Catholic League Blue.

The powerhouse league got off to a wild start including St. Laurence’s shocking 11-1, five-inning, slaughter-rule victory as well as Brother Rice’s 16-1 slaughter-rule victory over Loyola in Wilmette and St. Rita’s 2-0 victory over three-time defending Illinois High School Association Class 4A state champ Providence.

There will likely be more cussing in anger and amazement before this season is done. After all, the stakes and emotions are high in a league that arguably has had the most success in state play in recent years. In seven of the past eight years, the Class 4A state championship game has seen either one or two CCL Blue teams participate.

Another wild year appears to be in store, if Saturday is any indication.

The preseason rankings from the Prep Baseball Report website saw Brother Rice as the No. 1-ranked team in the state with St. Laurence third. Things got shuffled around a bit after Rice went on the road and out of state to suffer some losses against powerhouse national teams in the USA Baseball National High School Tournament and fell to ninth. St. Laurence took over the No. 1 spot.

Heading into Saturday, CCL Blue teams had played a crossover game against each of seven CCL White teams, which counted in their league record and the eight Blue teams combined for a 50-6-1 record.

Brother Rice (which went 21-0 in league play last year), Mt. Carmel and Loyola each posted 7-0 marks against White teams while St. Laurence, Providence and St. Rita were 6-1.  St. Francis was 5-1-1 and Marmion 6-2.

Now it’s time to mix it up against each other for 14 games and Saturday was just the beginning.

The St. Laurence triumph was the most surprising as the No. 1 team in the state according to PBR dominated against No. 4 Caravan. The Vikings scored nine in the first with the big blow coming via Zach Verta’s grand slam over the right-center fence.  Matt McCormick drove in a pair of runs while Tim Molloy, Tommy Farrell and John Peterson also brought runs home in the first.

That gave sophomore pitcher Marius Balandis a lot of breathing room and he responded by allowing a run on three hits with seven strikeouts to improve to 5-0 and the Vikings’ pitching depth is even more dangerous this season with his presence.

Ryan Kutt had three doubles and four RBI and was the winning pitcher as Brother Rice whipped Loyola. Pat Mayo added three hits and drove in three runs to give the Crusaders their 10th straight win.

St. Rita’s Steve Washilweski shut out Providence in New Lenox.

There are plenty of huge games coming up in this league but it appears the two-game series between Brother Rice and St. Laurence on May 10 (in Chicago) and May 11 (in Burbank) could be the main event.

 

 

St. Laurence hires Sexton to replace outgoing Maley

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Jim Maley, crouched next to the scorer’s table, resigned as St. Laurence’s boys basketball coach for another job and Jim Sexton (seated on the last chair on the right) will take over.

 

Jim Malay has big shoes to fill. So does Jim Sexton.

Maley stepped down as St. Laurence boys basketball coach last week to reportedly accept the job at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates and was immediately replaced by his assistant coach Sexton, the school announced Friday.

Maley will take over for retiring Tom McCormack, who coached at Conant for 31 years, won 573 games and 13 regional titles. Maley coached the Vikings three years and posted a 40-50 record. While that record won’t get him into any Halls of Fame, he provided a three-year spark after the program went 51-137 the previous seven years. He will also miss a chance to coach one of the strongest sophomore classes at the school in recent memory.  

"This is a very bittersweet moment for me,” said Maley. “I absolutely love St. Laurence, my players, my students and the people I work with. While I'm excited for the next opportunity, I'm saddened to leave, however the program is in great hands. 

“Hiring Jimmy as an assistant was one of the best moves I've made. His passion, knowledge, and basketball pedigree will make him an excellent head coach. I truly believe that he, the returning players and coaching staff, will take another step forward and become a force in the Catholic League.  While I'm no longer the coach, I will be a huge fan of him, the program and the school."

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment in the Maley era was in 2016, when the 13th-seeded Vikings finished fourth in the Chicago Catholic League Tournament.

Sexton is a Brother Rice graduate and Evergreen Park native who earned the Regional/Reporter Player of the Year honor in 1993 and 1994. He played college basketball at Creighton University and was a member of the first-ever NCAA tournament team at UIC. In high school, he was a three-time All-Catholic League player and earned All-State honors his senior year.

He is the 10th boys basketball coach in St. Laurence history. He served as assistant varsity coach and director of player development on the Viking basketball staff for the past two seasons. Sexton co-founded Beyond The Arc Academy, a basketball club in Evergreen Park that coaches and trains more than 250 boys and girls grade school basketball players.

“I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work with a great administration, group of coaches and, most importantly, group of student-athletes at St. Laurence,” said Sexton. “I truly appreciate the faith President Joe Martinez, Principal Jim Muting and Athletic Director Tim Chandler have in me to continue to move St. Laurence basketball into prominence, not only in the Catholic League, but in the state of Illinois. I would also like to thank coach Maley for putting the program in a positive place in which we can continue to build.”

 “Viking Basketball has come a long way in recent seasons, and we are excited for coach Sexton to take us to the next level,” said Chandler. “With coach Sexton, we will be able to provide continuity with the program that will allow us to have a seamless transition. We thank coach Maley for putting the team on the right track the past three seasons and wish him the best in the future.”

Current fifth through seventh grade boys can meet Sexton at a free basketball clinic from 930 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Students can sign up at www.stlaurence.com/clinics. For any questions about the clinic, contact Director of Admissions Joe Spano at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

This is the second area boys coach to resign. Earlier, longtime Stagg coach John Daniels left to spend more time with his family and his position has not been filled yet.

 

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: Baker gets a jump (or several) on the weekend

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Last week, Jason Maholy wrote a front page story on Brother Rice’s Jimmy Baker in the Regional-Reporter on how the senior is trying to play both volleyball and participate on the track and field team.

Now for a quick update.

Between Baker, track coach Tom Wazio and volleyball coach Dan Dwyer, they have all worked out a schedule that everyone could live with. Wazio said that if there is a big volleyball tournament on a weekend the track team has a meet, he agreed to let Baker play volleyball.

On Friday, there was the first round of a big volleyball tournament – the Smack Attack. It’s one of the best in Illinois. And a portion of it was at Brother Rice. That night, the Crusaders track also hosted a pretty big track meet – the Rice Relays.

This time Dwyer agreed to allow Baker to miss the first match of the Smack Attack so that the kid could get some jumping in. Baker led his team with a 5-foot-8 high jump, was second with a 19-0.5 long jump and was second in the triple jump with a 39-4. The Crusaders’ three jumping teams scored 26 points to help Brother Rice win the 10-team event with 79.5 points. St. Laurence was second with 73 followed by Marist with 60 and Evergreen Park with 55.5.

After track, he made it back to the gym and helped his team win a pool match over Cathedral from Indiana.

The next day, the third-seeded Crusaders played three matches and finished second.

“I had a personal best in the high jump and my long jump…I really didn’t do that well,” Baker said. “In the triple jump, I jumped and headed right to the volleyball match with about five minutes to spare. It was a lot of fun.’’

His Friday fun sure beat last year at this time. In an opening-round Smack Attack battle with Payton High School at Brother Rice, he injured his left knee and ankle.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year,” he said.

Tweet of the week

Second guessing coaches and managers is common in the Twitter world but this rip job is unique.

Last week, a Tweeter wasn’t happy with a St. Xavier University baseball loss and wrote: “Poor coaching decision cost the cougs in a 5-4 loss game 1. Gotta go get em game 2 @gosxucougars.’’

The kicker? The man who wrote the tweet was SXU coach Rocco Mossuto.

He was ripping himself.

Ratings of the weak

The National Women’s Soccer League was thrilled with its TV deal with the Lifetime Network for a Game of the Week all season.

But the Awful Announcing website is reporting awful ratings for the first Game of the Week on April 15. 

The Portland Thorns and Orlando Pride played in the debut game and an estimated 82,000 watched the match.

Interestingly, the pregame show drew 131,000 viewers. What could be more captivating about a pregame show than the match itself?

Nothing.

The theory is that the showing of a dusty old movie, “Two Weeks Notice” starring Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock may have helped. This 2002 movie drew 237,000 and some continued to watch the pregame show for a while before they realized Grant and Bullock were not coming back on the screen.

Even worse news for the league – the Game of the Week picked up less viewers than the 118,000 folks who watched Skip Bayless on ‘The Undisputed” the day before on FS1, and he has been a laughingstock in the ratings game since bolting ESPN.

Might as well JUMP

  • Written by Jason Maholy

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Brother Rice’s Jimmy Baker practices a jump on Saturday. The senior is participating in both volleyball and track this season, a year after suffering serious leg injuries.

 

Brother Rice volleyball player Jimmy Baker entered the spring sports season with an eye on competing for a state title.

 In the long jump. Perhaps the triple jump, too.

And he might as well go for the gold in the 200-meter dash and four-by-200-meter relay.

 Baker, a senior from Oak Lawn, is gunning for a spot in the Illinois High School Association boys state finals while also being the best player on a volleyball team that has aspirations to make a deep post-season run. And all of this with a leg that was seriously injured a year ago next week.

 As a sophomore, Baker was named the 2015 Catholic League Player of the Year in volleyball, and he and the Crusaders were off to a good start last season when disaster struck. As the 6-foot-2 outside hitter came down after making a kill, he landed on a teammate's foot. He sustained a fractured fibula and a seriously sprained ankle

 Baker remembers the moment well.

 “I was watching the ball, and as I was coming down and landed I heard it crack; but it didn't hit me until I was on the ground that my ankle was cracking,” he said. “It was pretty awful.”

 The sprain was actually worse than the fracture, Baker said, but what was even more painful was being relegated to the role of an observer helpless to assist a deep, talented team that had lofty goals but ended at the sectional level.

 “The week prior we had been playing really well, so we were enjoying the success of the season and were looking forward to the playoffs,” he said. “Our team was really good. It was hard watching, knowing I couldn’t help at all, I could do is watch.’’

 After intensive physical therapy, Baker was back on the court playing club ball within eight weeks, and after the club season had about three months to rest before the start of training for his senior season at Rice.

 He came into his final high school campaign planning to leave it all on the court, but figured he may as well leave it all on the track too. He plays volleyball during the week, and on weekends he doesn't have tournaments, he competes for the Crusaders track team in the long jump, triple jump, 200-meter dash and 4x200 relay.

 “I always wanted to join track, but I just figured I never could because of volleyball,” he said. “But I worked it out. Senior year came around and I thought I might as well go for it. It's a lot of fun... I figure it out day to day, pretty much.”

 Baker's brother, Pat, was a standout jumper at Rice nearly a decade ago.

 “He was just a great athlete, and me being little, I would watch him and think, 'I want to do that,'” he recalled.

Baker competed in the indoor track season and at the Chicago Catholic League conference meet placed fourth in the long jump (20 feet, 9 inches) and sixth in the triple jump (40-4.75).

 “My vertical is pretty good, so I figured if I joined track I could do well,” he said. “I was kind of just hoping the coach would try to get me on the pole (vault).

 

“I'm trying to qualify for state, qualify for volleyball state, and win multiple state titles.”

 He enrolled at the University of Tennessee and is going to try to walk on the men’s track team although he could scotch those plans if he is accepted into the Coast Guard Academy.

 

 

Jeff Vorva's Extra Point: A lot of guts, very little glory for liberos

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Evergreen Park native Zach Rothstein, left, and Fontbonne teammate Tony Pitaro hit the ground during a match against Marian University in Wisconsin recently. 

This might be the worst job in sports.

OK, maybe rodeo clown and the poor people who have to clean up the huge brown apples at the horse racing track might have it worse. But it certainly is one of the least appreciated jobs.

It is being a libero on a volleyball team. The job is to be a defensive specialist who can come and go into matches an unlimited amount of time but is not allowed in the front row. It’s a job that requires a lot of guts with little glory in return. It gets little respect.

Here are my 10 reasons, in no particular order, on why being a libero…well…sucks:

-- You have to wear a different uniform top. Already you are set apart from the other players.

-- Because you are wearing a different uniform top, it’s easier for fans to spot your screw-ups.

-- No one knows how to even pronounce the darn position. It’s supposed to be lee-bah-row, which kind of sounds like Figaro. (I never thought I would get an opera reference into a volleyball column, but I digress.) Most people – including myself – call it a lib-bear-oh.

-- And no matter how you pronounce it, it will never be as cool as “outside hitter” or “middle blocker.’’ In fact, I can’t think of a goofier name in a sport with a ball. Now, if we’re talking rowing…

-- It’s been decades since liberos were added to volleyball, but to this day, I hear some fans saying “Why is that girl (or guy) wearing a different color uniform?”

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-- You have to hit the ground hard – a lot. That causes plenty of injuries, especially the wrists and ribs.

-- When the ball gets by you, you look stupid.

-- When you make the greatest diving play in your life, it is almost forgotten quickly because play continues and one of two things will happen – your team will get the point or give up the point and that’s what the fans remember. 

-- There are no sexy statistics for a libero to get. No kills. No attacks. No blocks. Digs-per-set is about as good as it gets and even that can’t tell you the difference between a very good libero and an excellent libero. It might just mean the other team is getting the ball past the blockers too much.

-- Very few kids playing in the early stages of their career say “Yep, I’m going to be a libero in volleyball!”

So, somebody has to do it.

And those who do it, love it.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” said Evergreen Park’s Zach Rothstein, a former Brother Rice standout who plays libero for NCAA Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis and after the regular season was ranked fifth in the nation with 3.31 digs per set and was the No. 2 freshman in the country with that stat.

“When you play hard all year, it’s fun to get some credit,” he said. “But my main goal was 15-11 (the team’s won-loss mark – just the second winning season in program history).

“I love playing defense, so I love playing libero,’’ added Rothstein, who pronounces it lib-bear-oh. “But the only reason I am playing libero is because I am not tall enough (5-foot-11) to play front row. I feel like I’m the runt of the group.’’

When Rothstein arrived at Brother Rice, he was also playing for the Chi-Town Volleyball Club and that’s when the seeds were planted that he was heading to the back row. 

“At first I said ‘I don’t know—I kind of like hitting and blocking,’ ’’ he said. “Then I started seeing these kids with five or six inches on me jumping and I said ‘OK, I can take this back-row position.’ ’’

Even though he is digging being one of the top diggers in the country, he said it’s not the best way to judge a libero. 

“The stat I saw that shows a true libero is grading serve-receive,’’ he said. “You are graded on how well you pass. A three is perfect to the setter. I think the coaches had me a 2.3 or 2.4 average. Serve-receive is a huge part of a libero’s deal. One kid could be crazy on defense and you call him a good libero but if he can’t pass…I think serve-receive is one of the hardest things to do mentally.’’

Even though his body goes through nightly punishment in practice and in matches, he is looking forward to three more years of it at the St. Louis school.

“Over the years I’ve grown to know that you don’t get some of the respect that you deserve – but what it really comes down to is playing for your team,” Rothstein said. “Liberos are not going to get all the glory in the world, but you still have to play to put your team in a position to win, even if it means people are not talking about your great plays.’’