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

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

PAGE 4 Fire 23 3 16

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


PAGE 1 M 3 S 3   3 9

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.




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


PAGE 3 24 eats net 3 9

 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.’’



Fire makes a point before Toyota Park opener

  • Written by Jeff Vorva





Sure, the Fire wheeled and dealed during the offseason to bring some offensive firepower to a team that has struggled in recent years to score goals.

Nemanja Nikolic, Juninho and Dax McCarty are expected to bring some scoring savvy to a team that averaged 1.1 goals per game in Major League Soccer matches the past two years.

But on Saturday, it was good ol’ David Accam who was the lone Fire player to score and to avoid bringing the team home pointless. Instead, his goal at the 73-minute mark gave Chicago a 1-1 tie against Columbus in the season opener at MAPFRE Stadium.

The Fire picked up a point with the tie and its aggressive play in the second half give the team some steam as it hosts Real Salt Lake at 1 p.m. Saturday at Toyota Park.

Accam led the Fire with 10 goals in 2015 and nine in 2016, which isn’t a lot in the MSL for a team leader. The top five goal scorers had 16 or more in 2016 with Bradley Wright-Phillips of the New York Red Bulls leading the league with 24.

Accam, who has had injury problems the past two seasons, could become a huge scorer if he stays healthy and Saturday’s game was a good start.

"It feels great,” Accam said of his goal. “For me, my confidence is going higher and higher. I am happy to get on the score sheet in the first match of the season."

Fire coach Veljko Paunovic didn’t see a lot of spark from his team early as the Fire was down 1-0 after Ethan Finlay’s goal at the 17-minute mark, so the second-year coach called an audible from the sideline.

"Thirty minutes into the first half, we switched to 4-3-3 and that helped us to spread a little bit more in the midfield line, so David Accam could be closer to Brandon Vincent and help him to cover Harrison Afful, because he was obviously very dangerous in the first half,’’ the coach said. “And then, we also dropped Dax McCarty to help out in the defense and cover Federico Higuain better. And then (we received) a huge, huge commitment from the guys, it's all up to them.

“Whatever we, the coaches imagined or whatever we want to do, whatever is the plan, it's about the player so I think (it was a) fantastic reaction, I'm proud of our players and our comeback was great."

The home crowd could see a new goalie in the net as 35-year-old Jorge Bova will likely get the nod over Matt Lampson. Sean Johnson and Lampson were the goalies last year and Johnson was traded during the offseason in a three-team deal after spending seven years with the Fire.

Bova made three saves in the Columbus game.

McCarty and Nikolic didn’t score and Juninho was suspended for a game for receiving a red card on Nov 26 with Club Tijuana.

“We only learned of this situation midweek,” said Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez. “We petitioned the Mexican Federation through U.S. Soccer, but we were denied. While disappointing, we remain confident in our roster and look forward to Juninho’s debut at Toyota Park.”

McCarty is happy with his team’s ability to score a point on the road before heading home.

“There is a lot of potential on this team,’’ he said. “I still think we have a long way to go, for sure. We're a project. Obviously we were missing a very important player in Juninho. I thought John Goossens stepped in the middle of the field and played really well, had a couple of good chances, probably could've scored a goal. I thought for the most part we grew into the game. It was a tough first half but the second half we showed more of our potential. We were dangerous.

“We have to get Toyota Park back to being a fortress. We have to make sure teams are scared to come play us there.’’



SSC Red goes down to the last 1.6 seconds

  • Written by Aaron FitzPatrick and Tim Cronin

PAGE 1 DRYNAN 2  3 2

Photos by Aaron FitzPatrick

Inside, 6-foot-10 Michael Drynan of Evergreen Park made life miserable for Argo in a 27-point performance to help the Mustangs clinch its first conference title since 1994

The first part was done.

Evergreen Park disposed of the host Argo Argonauts, 75-49, Friday night in Summit and the win assured the Mustangs of at least a share of their first conference title since 1994 and only third in school history. Michael Drynan, a 6-foot-10 senior, came up big with 27 points.

The second park came when Mustangs coach Pat Flannigan took out his phone and scrolled through his texts.

“Oak Lawn beat Richards,” he said after looking at his phone with a satisfied smile on his face after finding out the Bulldogs were upset 66-64.

Now there was no sharing anything.

The Mustangs were sole possessors of the South Suburban Red conference championship with an 8-5 mark. It was their third boys basketball title in school history. Richards, which won 10 of the last 11 SSC Red titles was second at 7-6.

 “It’s been a special season.” Flannigan said.

Friday night’s game followed the pattern of the 2016-17 season for the Mustangs to this point; getting off to a slow start before putting everything together.

Despite a 1-24 record coming into the game, the Argonauts gave the Mustangs everything they had in front of a lively Senior Night crowd at Swanson Gymnasium. Argo led Evergreen Park in the first period and trailed by less than double digits at halftime before the Mustangs caught fire and pulled away in the second half.

The Mustangs connected on eight three-pointers, including four from senior swingman Kyree Hannah (16 points). Hannah helped the Mustangs pull away from the pesky Argonauts with three bombs in third period.

“I’m happy that we can put something on a banner now,” said Hannah. “We knew at the beginning of the season that the chemistry was clicking. We just knew we were going to have a good season.”

While Hannah was dazzling outside, Drynan was damaging inside.

 “We told him ‘You’re special,’ ’’ Flannigan said. “We said ‘Start believing and start being special.’ And tonight he was special.”

Drynan wasn’t just special, he was almost perfect. He made his first eight shots en route to a 27-point performance on 12 of 14 shooting.

“It feels pretty good,” said Drynan after the game about winning a conference title in his senior year.

As for the rest of the season, the Mustangs still feel that there’s more to accomplish. The Mustangs 17-9 overall) opened play Monday in their own Class 3A Regional and picked up the 13th seed. Seeding-wise, they were in line to play No. 1 Morgan Park on Wednesday.

“It’s been a great group of kids to work with and we don’t think we’re done,” said Flannigan. “We’ve got a tough seed. We’re in an all-city sectional and we don’t get a lot of respect so we’ve got to earn it. If we can knock out Morgan Park it gets easier.”



PAGE 1 Osmani

Photo by Jeff Vorva

Adem Osmani came up with a game-winning tip-in for Oak Lawn in a stunning win over Richards.


    The winning play didn't go as planned. Turnovers almost took them out of the game. The opponent's parade to the free-throw line was perfect.
    Yet, Oak Lawn still beat Richards on the Bulldogs' home court on Friday night, depriving the hosts of an 11th South Suburban Red title in the last dozen years.
    The Spartans' 66-64 victory came about through the offensive tandem of seniors Rashad Johnson and Adem Osmani – and Adem's younger brother, freshman Sami – plus a defensive effort that held Richards to one field goal in the final quarter.
    To spring the surprise was not only immensely satisfying for Oak Lawn (10-17, 6-8), it squelched the chance for a share of the conference crown Richards (12-14, 7-6) had coming in. That went to Evergreen Park (17-9, 8-5) via its 74-49 thrashing of Argo, the first gonfalon for the Mustangs since 1994.
    "It's a dream come true since my freshman year," said Johnson, who led all hands with 30 points and added six rebounds and a trio of steals. "It feels good. Me and my teammates, we kept our heads in the game the whole day.
    "I've been working on my attitude. I knew it was going to be a close game. I knew what I've done with my records and stuff. I wasn't going to let my team down. I promised them we weren't coming out with a loss."
    That bold pronouncement was both dramatic and accurate.
    "It's always special to beat Richards, and really special to beat them on their home floor," Oak Lawn coach Jason Rhodes said. "I kind of feel like we stole it a little bit. But we made plays."
    The Bulldogs were quick-handed, forcing 15 turnovers, and were perfect from the line, making all 18 free-throws, with 10 from Jaylan Catledge (28 points, six rebounds). But on this night, perfection would not be enough.
    "We knew what they had," Richards coach Chris Passafiume said. "We came back pretty tough. A couple plays didn't bounce our way, just basketball plays. We tried to contain Johnson as best we could but couldn't give him an inch.
    "No title, but hopefully we can learn from that."
    The game was won on Adem Osmani's tip rebound of Johnson's missed shot on a drive to the basket with 1.6 seconds remaining. It wasn't supposed to happen that way.
    "For him to get that last tip was huge," Rhodes said. "They took away both the first and second options. Off the inbounds, Adam Stallworth was intelligent to get it back to our best player (Johnson). That's the thing with Rashad. When he attacks, there's so much attention paid to him, we get a lot of second-chance opportunities."
    Oak Lawn had made up a four-point deficit with 1:18 to play, first on Johnson's conventional three-point play and a three-pointer by Sami Osmani that created a 64-62 lead. A pair of Catledge free-throws with 12.4 seconds left created the game's fourth tie.
    Oak Lawn had controlled the first 14 minutes, building a 31-21 lead, but Richards' 11-0 run brought the hosts a 32-31 lead at the intermission. That momentum continued into the third quarter. Richards built an eight-point lead on Nate Stewart jumper with 1:32 left in the third, but Oak Lawn came back, tying the game at 54 via Johnson's second straight three-pointer early in the fourth.