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Shimko hire makes for a Peace-ful transition

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

George Shimko was named the first girls basketball coach in St. Laurence history. 

It looks like most of the old gang is going to be back.

Just across the street and in different uniforms.

When Queen of Peace announced in January it was going to close, many players of its record-setting basketball team – as well as members of the student population in general -- were sad and worried about where they would end up next year.

In February, when next-door neighbor St. Laurence in Burbank made the shocking announcement it was going to go coed, people just assumed that coach George Shimko and his players would end up there and all would be well.

It looks like that may indeed be the case.

Shimko was hired on March 15 and he said that many of his returning players on this year’s 28-win varsity team and a majority of players on the sophomore team will be enrolling at the school as well.

The coach said he is grateful for the opportunity to build a new program up.

“It’s exciting to come in and try to build a quality program that matches the things they have already done athletically,” Shimko said. “The Vikings have a pretty rich tradition on the athletic side with baseball and football and basketball and to be able to come into the program from scratch is really, really exciting to me.’’

And it doesn’t hurt that when he blows his first whistle at his first practice in the summer, there will be a lot of familiar faces around.

Shinko’s son, Alex, will continue to be his assistant. The elder Shimko plans to ask his other assistants to make the trek across the street.

He added that so far varsity players Kelly Mason, Ashley Murphy, Erin Foley, Brooke Vida and Ashley Kevin told him they were coming to St. Laurence.  He said several lower-level players also plan on attending St. Laurence.

“We have a pretty good group of those who are coming over,” Shimko said. “Some of them saw me in the hallway after I got the job and said ‘Yay! Yay!’ They were excited.’’

Shimko is glad that some his players will be able to get through their senior year without too much angst.

“I’m happy for the juniors because I was really worried about them,” Shimko said. “It’s difficult to acclimate yourself to a new program when you are a senior. Now they have the opportunity and they chose the opportunity to stay together so that will be nice for them.’

Shimko said St. Laurence will replace Queen of Peace in the Girls Catholic Athletic Conference White division. The team will have summer workouts and play in a league at Shepard and a shootout at Marian Catholic. The schedule is not finalized, but Shimko is hoping to have the Vikings open the season in November at Oak Lawn and participate in a Thanksgiving Tournament in Beecher as well as a holiday tournament at Guerin Prep.

St. Laurence athletic director Tim Chandler said this hire was historic since it was the naming of the school’s first girls coach.

“We are very excited to welcome George, whose extensive basketball background and great reputation of developing student-athletes makes him a great culture fit for St. Laurence,” Chandler said. “He did a tremendous job in turning around the program at Queen of Peace, and I look forward to working with him as he builds a successful program at St. Laurence.”

Shimko has been a basketball staple in this area for years, running the George Shimko Basketball School in Oak Lawn.

Four seasons ago, he took over the Queen of Peace program and his team suffered what looked like a season in which it wouldn’t win a game, but pulled off two late-season wins to finish 2-28.

Since then the team progressed and won 19- and 28-win seasons and a pair of Class 3A Regional titles the past two campaigns. The Pride also won a league title in the GCAC this season.

Despite all of his accolades and that this position seemed like a perfect fit, Shimko and St. Laurence took nothing for granted. This was not a case where the Vikings brass said “Here you go George – you have the job.’’

“It was a long interview process,’’ Shimko said. “The first interview, I met with five people and I was fortunate to be invited back for a second interview. There were a long series of questions and answers.

“It was thorough. It was a job interview and I approached it as a job interview. I came prepared. I gave everyone a package of information for all of them to learn about me and what my plan was going to be. I didn’t look at it as the fact I was at Queen of Peace, I was going to automatically be at St. Laurence.’’

But not that he will be there starting in the summer…

“I look forward to being a Viking – it’s going to be fun,’’ he said.

 

Fire suffers bad loss but makes a huge deal

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

A few days after suffering a 4-0 loss to expansion Atlanta, the Chicago Fire expanded its roster with a huge signing.

The Chicago Fire signed one of the biggest names to ever don a Fire uniform on Monday when they inked German and Manchester United star Bastian Schweinsteiger to a one-year contract worth a reported $4.5 million. There is also a mutual option for 2018.

“This is a very big day for our club,’’ Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez said. “And I believe it’s big for Major League Soccer by acquiring one of our sport’s great champions. It’s not often you can add a player not just of Bastian’s pedigree but also one who represents our values.

“This is a historic moment for our club.’’

Mixing the 32-year-old scoring threat in a roster that already features David Accam, Juninho, Michael de Leeuw, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic gives the Fire some offensive firepower after averaging just 1.1 goals per match in the 2015 and 2016 campaigns.

The MLS has an off week this week and Rodriguez said it’s possible Schweinsteiger could make his Fire debut April 1 at Toyota Park.

The new Fire star is ready to help make the team elite again.

“Through my conversations with Nelson and (coach Veljko Paunovic) I’m convinced by the club’s vision and philosophy and I want to help them with this project,’’ Schweinsteiger said.

Schweinsteiger has 24 goals in 121 international matches for Germany, had 70 goals and 103 assists in 535 first team games and has been a part of 23 major domestic and international cups – more than any previous player entering their first season in MLS.

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic had plenty to applaud with his team the first two weeks, but suffered one of the worst defeats in his young tenure on Saturday with a 4-0 loss to expansion-team Atlanta.

 

ATLANTA 4, FIRE 0

Ouch.

This one hurt.

The Chicago Fire, puffed up from salvaging a 1-1 tie to open the season at Columbus and a 2-0 home-opening victory over Real Salt Lake, went to Atlanta on Saturday and stunk up the joint in a 4-0 loss to Atlanta United FC in front of an announced crowd of 45,922 at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Now, a 4-0 spanking would be humiliating against any opponent, even an elite team in Major League Soccer.

But this came against an expansion team that had just two games under its belt.

Time will tell if Atlanta (2-1-0 with 11 goals in three matches) is the real deal or not. If so, a lot of veteran general managers are going to be scratching their heads wondering how a team can build a power from scratch while their teams are scratching for respectability.

That includes the Fire and general manager Nelson Rodriguez.

Rodriguez spent time and money this offseason to build a team that is supposed to be vastly improved over the past two seasons, when the Fire had the worst record in the league.

For two weeks, things looked good for the Fire. The team was even named the MSL Team of the Week after salting away Salt Lake. And it’s not right to freak out over the third game of the season.

But, again, this came against an expansion team that had just two games under its belt.

One could argue that the Fire deserves some slack because it played this game with only 10 men most of the way after Johan Kappelhof received a red card for clipping Josef Martinez in the 11th minute. It’s debatable whether a yellow or red card should have been issued.

But ultimately, the Fire defender put his team in a bad spot.

Martinez may have been denied a goal in the 11th minute, but he scored against the Chicago 10 in the 60th and 82nd minutes in the game and set the MLS record for scoring five goals in his first three games.

The Fire was able to put together an impressive first half after the red card, shutting Atlanta out for the final 34 minutes. But damage was already done in the fourth minute when a shot when off of defender Brendan Vincent’s foot for an own goal.

It didn’t look good that 10 men were going to stop a high-octane offense in the second half and they didn’t.

For us, this was a hard lesson that we learned and we have to fix a lot of things,” Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. “But I also want to appreciate the effort and hard work that all of our team had.’’

The Fire returns to action April 1 for a home game with Montreal.

The team has a long time to try to fix this.

It's tough when you don't get a result,” Fire midfielder Juninho said. “It's hard to say something, but we had a system to start, we tried to score on the counter but their team was better today. We lost a guy in the beginning of the game and it made everything complicated. But you have to move on, you have to adjust on what we did bad in this game and move on to the next one.

"This is our third game of the season and we played against a good team. They have their system and their different mission and style so we're getting to know them for the first time. Our experience was not the best, but we have to fix a lot of things. Our coaches will talk to us throughout these two weeks. We won't have a game because of the FIFA break, but it's going to help us to take this time to put everything in place."

 

Despite being c-c-c-old, Niko was hot, hot, hot

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Nemanja Nikolic socred a goal in his first home game as a member of the Chicago Fire.

The new star complained it was too cold.

But he warmed up some Chicago Fire fans’ hearts quickly.

New Fire forward Nemanja Nikolic, who scored 41 goals in 56 games for Legia Warsaw, made his Toyota Park debut and, at 28 degrees, it was a coldest home opener in the history of the team.

"The conditions were very difficult for me,’’ he said. “It's a lot of wind, it's too cold. I need to adapt to this, it's not the same as in Europe.’’

Imagine how good this guy could be when the weather warms up. He warmed up to the crowd in Bridgeview right away in the 11th minute as he scored his first MSL goal to help the Fire beat Real Salt Lake, 2-0, in front of an announced crowd of 13,024.

Nikolic’s one-on-one finish was aided when Michael de Leeuw carried the ball forward near midfield, and Real Salt Lake midfielder Sunny (yes, that’s his name) stepped in to make a tackle, but hit the ball past his back line and into the path of Nikolic. While most on the field stopped with an offside call on their mind, Nikolic continued forward and slotted his shot past goalkeeper Nick Rimando.   

"I think it was very important for him and the team to score his first goal on his first opportunity,’’ Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said.  “We believe that he is doing a huge job and effort to help the team when the team is in a situation where we have to defend, we have to press, and his commitment is great and it is very important to see him have a good game. We also believe that as the season will start moving forward, we believe he will become even sharper and have more opportunities and maybe he can get one more goal." 

The Fire (1-0-1) received its other goal from Arturo Alvarez at the 15-minute mark after the ball hit an RLS defender and the ball deflected away from Rimando, whose team fell to 0-1-1.

The Fire defense stayed busy the rest of the way and goalie Jorge Bava earned his first MLS shutout.

But it was Nikolic who is giving fans the most hope after the team finished with an MLS-worst record two years in a row. When he arrived in Chicago, dozens of fans greeted him at O’Hare International Airport in January.

“MLS is a new challenge for me,” he said. “I wanted to try something new. I decided to come here because of the project, because I spoke with our coach Pauno and with (general manager) Nelson Rodriguez. They were really motivated and they wanted to achieve something this year, they want to invest in the club. After the conversation with Pauno, I was sure I wanted to come here and help him. I look forward to achieving good results here.

"This was my first game in Toyota Park, and my first goal and first victory in Chicago is wonderful. I expect more of this. It is very important to win at home. We start the season with four points, it gives us confidence. We need to stay focused, we need to work, we need to have an identity.’’

 

Marist wins regional, stopped in sectional

  • Written by Phil Arvia

 

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Photo by Jeff Vorva

Marist's Maurice Commander (right) and Simeon's Evan Gilyard collide Tuesday night.

With 39.6 seconds left in what would be a 56-36 loss to Simeon in the Class 4A Thornwood Sectional semifinals Tuesday night, Marist seniors Justin Brown and Bobby Hawkinson were pulled from a game for the last time by coach Gene Nolan.

Each made their way toward the end of the bench, shaking hands and issuing hugs along the way, until finally embracing each other before sitting.

“I was thinking just how grateful I was for the season,” Hawkinson said.

“It was hard, obviously,” Brown added. “Our high school careers are over with.

“But I have so much love for these guys. I feel like we were definitely the best team that ever came through (Marist). … I’m going to miss it.”

The RedHawks finished with a school-record 27 wins against four losses. They won their first outright East Suburban Catholic title ever, their first Centralia tournament since 1991 and a regional crown for first time since 2012.

“When you see kids crying, it means they really won because they know they can’t come back tomorrow and be with each other,” Nolan said.  “I’m really lucky to have been their coach.”

The RedHawks showed their resilience against Simeon (27-3), the state’s top-ranked team. Trailing 30-9 halfway through the second quarter, Marist got within 11 twice in the third.

“When we got it to 11, everyone was like, ‘We can do this,’” Maurice Commander said. “But they matched our runs. Give them credit.”

Commander and sophomore Chase Robinson shared team-high scoring honors for Marist with nine points each. Brown, who now moves on to analyzing college offers from Chicago State, Lindenwood, Northern Michigan, Quincy and Lewis was held to four points and six boards.

Simeon, attempting to emerge from the sectional for the third straight season and seventh in the last eight, was led by Evan Gilyard’s 13 points. The Wolverines, winners of six state titles since 2006 and third-place finishers last year, will meet the winner of Wednesday’s semifinal between Brother Rice (25-5) and Thornton (22-5) on Friday, with the winner advancing to the March 14 Illinois State Supersectional.

For Marist, it’s wait ’till next year — which looks promising, given they’ll return  Commander, the East Suburban Catholic Player of the Year, along with second-leading scorer Morgan Taylor. Also back will be David Daniels, at 6-4, will be the tallest returning starter, and Robinson, who got quality minutes all year and stepped into the starting lineup when Taylor missed four weeks with a broken wrist.

“We lose two big pieces of our team,” Commander said. “But we’ll still have tough guards with me, Morgan and Chase. I feel good about next year.”

Or at least he will, once the sting of this one subsides.

 

MARIST WINS REGIONAL

 

At times, Marist’s dissection of T.F. North’s full-court defensive pressure in an 89-66, T.F. South Regional championship win Friday looked easy.

It looked easy as Maurice Commander hit his first nine field goal attempts on the way to a game-high 32 points. It looked easy as Justin Brown made his last nine — nearly all of them dunks — on his way to 18. It looked really easy when the RedHawks were pushing the pace of play and slashing in for layups as their lead ballooned to 33 points in the late going.

“It wasn’t easy,” Commander said. “But it felt like it was.”

It felt like it because Marist’s starting five ran full-court scrimmages in practice last week against a team of eight reserves.

“When we came out five-on-five, it was like second nature,” Commander said.

Marist coach Gene Nolan has used the tactic before in his 17 seasons at the helm, but not this year.

“We had to do it,” he said. “There’s no way we can simulate what T.F. North does five-on-five. Five-on-eight was the closest we could come.”

The results were Marist's first regional title since 2012 and a balanced effort, despite Commander’s gaudy numbers. His career high came on just 16 field goal attempts — he made 12 — while the RedHawks shot 60 percent (33-of-55) as a team. Brown’s 18 came on 9-of-12 shooting, and he added eight rebounds.

“It’s that extra pass thing,” Brown said. “One of our core values is unselfishness. Maurice is a pass-first point guard — this was his first 30.

“I’m not shocked by it. I know he’s capable of scoring like that. Together, I feel like we can play with anybody in the state.” 

The fifth-seeded RedHawks (27-3) advanced to Tuesday’s Thornwood Sectional opposite No. 1 Simeon (26-3), a 56-43 winner over Marian Catholic in the Eisenhower Regional title game. The fourth-seeded Meteors, led by Terrell Porter’s 15 points, finished 23-4.

North last led at 16-15 with just under a minute to play in the first quarter. Marist was up 19-16 at the end of the period on a pair of Chase Robinson free throws and a Commander put-back.

Commander had 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting in the first half as the RedHawks got out to a 40-29 lead.

“He’s had a lot of great games for us,” Nolan said of the East Suburban Catholic Player of the Year, “but this was the best game of his career. 

“The pace of the game offensively was the way it was because of him. He was everything we needed him to be tonight.”

Commander added Marist’s first bucket of the third quarter and stole the ensuing inbounds pass for another quick deuce before finally, at the 6:27 mark of the period, missing a field goal attempt. Incredibly, the junior point guard fired up an airball on a deep 3-point attempt.

“Just a heat check,” Commander said. “I felt pretty good taking it, but I was probably a little far out.”

Commander’s teammates required no such “heat check.” They came out fired up.

“Everyone was together from jump,” Commander said. “That’s what I’m proud of.”

Morgan Taylor (14 points), David Daniels (13) and, off the bench, Robinson (10) also reached double figures for Marist. 

“We always make the extra pass,” Daniels said. “The sky’s the limit when we play together.”

The idea was to play fast — on offense.

“When we could run, we wanted to do that,” Nolan said. “More importantly, we were able to create patience defensively.

“Getting them to have long possessions, that was the key to the game for us.”

 

Brother Rice tastes regional championship

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

 

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 Photo by Jeff Vorva

 

Brother Rice senior Josh Niego gets a taste of the net after his team won its first regional title since 2008.

 

After Brother Rice won its first regional title since 2008, senior Josh Niego climbed the ladder under the west basket in the Homewood-Flossmoor gym and was the first to cut the net down.

After snipping some of the twine, he put it in his mouth.

So, what did it taste like?

Chicken? Rice?

“It tasted delicious – it tasted like victory,” he said.

Niego probably deserved steak or lobster after he and his second-seeded Crusader teammates beat seventh-seeded Homewood-Flossmoor, 57-50, Friday night in the H-F Class 4A Regional title game. Brother Rice (25-5) was scheduled to face third-seeded Thornton (22-5) in the Thornwood Sectional semifinal on Wednesday.

The 6-foot-4 senior Niego, who is still in the process of deciding a college to attend next season, scored 15 points in the final quarter Friday to help the Crusaders advance. He finished with 27 points and while some of them were tough, driving baskets, a few of them were a little lucky. His first 3-pointer of the game was a bank shot and it was a school-record 44th straight game with a trey.

After the Crusaders and Vikings were knotted at 39 after three quarters, Niego took a shot inside early in the fourth while being fouled. The ball rolled into the basket and he was awarded a free throw and screamed to the crowd with joy.

“The ball just slipped off my hand and spun in and it went straight in,” he said. “Sometimes you get lucky.’’

Even though a second-seed beating a seventh-seed on paper doesn’t sound like much, this was a dangerous game for the Crusaders. H-F (18-12) was one of the top teams in the state early in the season but injuries and losses mounted. The Vikings were getting healthier and, combined with the home-court advantage, there were some who speculated an upset was in order.

But Niego had other plans.

“I wasn’t going to lose this game,” he said. “I wanted the ball. We heard people saying they could beat us and we didn’t want that to happen.’’

Mike Shepski added 13 points for Brother Rice.

Second-year coach Bobby Frasor, a former star player for the Crusaders, said that regional titles were commonplace years ago and wasn’t used to long gaps without them.

“It’s been eight years between titles,” he said. “I have to credit the seniors – Mike and Josh – for this. They have been through a lot. They came to Brother Rice thinking they were going to play for coach (Pat) Richardson and went through a couple of different coaches. They have seen the history and tradition of the program and they wanted to be a part of it.

“It means so much to them. They etched their names in the record books and they will stay there for years and years to come. They are unbelievable senior leaders and they are just a joy to coach.’’