9 months ago


The Frankfort Station 041218

52 | April 12, 2018 |

52 | April 12, 2018 | The frankfort station sports A decade of writing sports stories for 22nd Century Media RANDY WHALEN Freelance Reporter It was Feb. 5, 2008. The new year had settled in and on this sixth Tuesday of it I was a bit more excited than usual to cover a boys basketball game in my hometown of Lockport. That's because in addition to a couple of other papers, I was covering it for a newer publication — The Homerian. Lockport Township defeated Bolingbrook 52-43 that day and went onto place fourth in the state in Class 4A about six weeks later. Little did I know that day that I'd be continuing my journalism career a decade later, mostly writing for that same company that published The Homerian. That, of course, is 22nd Century Media, which includes one of the papers you're reading this column in now. A lot has changed in those 10 years, including the name of The Homerian. Shortly after I started freelancing there it became The Homer Horizon. When I first started stringing for 22nd Century Media there were two Lincoln-Ways. That fall, there were three, the next year four, and sadly, now it's back to three again. In the decade that I've done this job I've covered everything from golf to the latest official sport, lacrosse. Working in the community newspaper environment has helped make me a better reporter, a better writer, and hopefully, a better person. In the time I've freelanced for 22nd Century Media, the company has grown into not only the North Shore suburbs but also Malibu, Calif. I've remained in my favorite coverage area, the area I'm from — the southwest suburbs. The schools that I've covered in the past 10 years have captured a combined 30 — that's right, 30 — state championships during that time period. t would have been 32, but a pair of state titles by Lockport Township and Tinley Park in cheerleading took place on the weekend before I started covering events for the papers. But if there's one thing I have learned from covering the state cheer tournament the past few years, it's that cheer is most definitely a sport. But back to the 30 state titles ... Right here, in our little corner of the world, we are fortunate enough to have some of the best high school athletes and programs around. There are too many individuals who have won state titles for me to mention them all. But I'm going to touch on some highlights below from each school I've covered in that time period, starting with perhaps the most amazing accomplishment of them all. Providence baseball captured three straight large school state titles. Between 2014-2016, the Celtic baseball team never lost in the Class 4A postseason tournament. How hard is it to win a single elimination baseball tournament for three straight seasons? It had never been done in the 75-year history of the tournament before Providence pulled it off. In fact, a repeat had only been done twice in any class. Many times in that stretch the Celtics were down to their final inning, final out and even final strike. Under the leadership of coach Mark Smith, they kept battling all the way through it, however, and that resolve paid off with a trio of first place trophies. Actually, the best Providence baseball team in the last decade was the 2011 team, which went 37-4. But it ran into another 37-4 team — Lyons Township, which just happened to be the better team that day in the state title game. The Celtics also captured state titles in cheerleading in 2013 and football in the fall of 2014. Personally, two of my favorite Providence performances in this time were the 2012 softball team taking third in Class 3A, along with the recently completed wrestling season in which longtime coach Keith Healy departed with one more wizard-like lineup juggling performance as the Celtics also placed third in Class 3A. He went out with a final victory. While Lincoln-Way North never captured a team title in its too brief eight-year run as a school, there were certainly many highlights. Perhaps the main highlight was that when the school was open, athletes were given more opportunities to play and coaches had more opportunities to coach in a very talented area. The Phoenix football team went 0-9 in its first season, but the George Czart-coached team went 54-20 with six playoff berths in the next seven seasons. They started 11-0 in their final season in the fall of 2015 before losing in the quarterfinals for the second time in three years. The boys volleyball team capped an amazing season with a second place finish in 2013. Although they weren't official, North had two state titles (2011, 2015) in the Phil Lawler Summer Classic, put on by the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association. I got to cover both, as the one in 2011 saw perhaps the greatest comeback I have ever witnessed. Down 12-0 down in the regional title game, including 12-6 in the seventh, North rallied to defeat Joliet Catholic Academy 13-12 in eight innings under the lights on a sweltering July night. North's baseball teams Randy Whalen. Photo submitted were excellent in the spring too, winning at least 22 games and a regional title for their final seven seasons between 2010-2016. But the Phoenix had the unfortunate matchup of running into Providence in sectional title games in 2014 and 2016. Now in its ninth year as a school, Lincoln-Way West also has yet to capture that team title. I, however, got to cover a pair of bowlers who won individual state championships: Morgan Flaherty — who is now an assistant girls bowling coach at West — in 2012 and Josh Glover in 2014. While the Warriors haven't won a team title, they certainly came close during the 2015-2016 school year. The football team lost in the Class 5A state title game that fall and the boys basketball team tumbled in the Class 3A state championship game the following March. Even though the boys basketball team lost the championship game, the fact that the Warriors got there was one of the best stories I've followed. It should give hope to how a program can turn around. The team went from 0-31 in its first season and a total record of 14-104 in its first four seasons to a state title appearance in its seventh season. The highlight of that season was defeating Morgan Park 68-60 locally in the Joliet Central Supersectional. The Warriors weren't supposed to be within 20 points, let alone win that game. From the school's inception, the baseball, softball, and girls basketball teams have always been top-notch programs. I'm fortunate to deal with so many excellent coaches and administrators in my job. Two of the best are at West with Athletic Director Ted Robbins and Principal Monica Schmitt. With their leadership, there shouldn't be too long of a wait before a team tile comes to the West side of New Lenox. In my time as a local sports reporter I've encountered many, many good coaches. But perhaps the one I was most happy for when he won a state title was Dick Mandella. I first met coach Mandella when he was a fiery boys basketball coach in the mid 80s at Providence. He later became the softball coach there and turned that program around. In 2001, Mandella took a job as softball coach at the one-and-only Lincoln-Way, which became Lincoln-Way Central when East opened in the fall of 2001. His teams from 2001-07 won at least 26 games each season and went a total of 201-40. But the Knights never won a sectional, so they and coach Mandella were labeled as "couldn't win the big one." But everything that went wrong in the postseason those previous seasons went right in a glorious run in 2008. I got to cover the Knights' last five games that spring as it all came together and they found ways to win. From the home run hitting of right fielder Courtney Dunker in the sectional semifinal game. From center fielder Desi DeMarco hitting a late home run in the sectional final and throwing out a New Trier runner at home in extra innings in a scoreless state semifinal game. From shortstop Cassie Redman overcoming an earlier error and making a pair of good plays in the bottom of the seventh as the Knights overcame a bases loaded, no out situation to keep the supersectional game scoreless. To Rachel Larson lambasting a 2-run home run the next inning as Central defeated Moline 2-0 to advance to state. To the clutch pitching of Jackie Dugan throughout the postseason, including a pair of shutouts and a final fantastic performance in a 4-1 win over Barrington in the the first ever Class 4A state title game. It was my first state title coverage for 22nd Century Media and is still one of my favorite memories. That was the only team title for Central in the past decade. The badminton team placed second in 2008 and 2009, the girls water polo team came close with a runner-up state finish in 2013, and the Coley O'Connellcoached boys bowling team just placed third this season. I always enjoy going to the original Lincoln-Way high school and with many of its sports programs on the rise in the past couple of years, another state title should certainly happen soon. When I think Lincoln- Way East, I think athletic excellence. In the decade I've been working for 22nd Century Media, the Griffins have won 10 state titles in five different sports and have nine runner-up state finishes. I was on hand for only two titles, but two is more than a lot of other schools have ever won. The Griffins no longer compete in boys gymnas- sports the frankfort station | April 12, 2018 | 53 tics, but from 2005-12 they were among the best in the state with a pair of first place finishes and five seconds. I was there when Ajani Cargle helped lead them to the title on their home floor in 2011. While it was considered a coop team and an entire District 210 title, it's still listed under East since that's where the team practiced and a majority of them were from. Bolstered by some amazing individual talent, the East girls track and field team won four straight Class 3A state titles between 2013-2016. Aaliyah Brown helped kick that off in 2013 by winning the 100- and 200-meter dash as well as being a member of the first place 4x100 and 4x200 meter relay teams. The Griffin cheer squad took home a trio of titles between 2014-2017. I was there for the 2017 state championship, and once again I will tell anyone that cheerleading is a sport. Since its inception in the fall of 2001, the Griffin football team has made the playoffs every year and been a powerhouse. This past fall they took home their second state championship trophy, capping off a thrilling Class 8A ride with a 23-14 victory over Loyola Academy. East also took second in 2012. The boys volleyball team capped off an outstanding 41-1 season with a state title in 2014 and placed second a year ago. The sports I've covered the most at East are both boys and girls basketball and softball. While neither program has brought home a state trophy, you won't find many better coaches than Rich Kolimas or Jim Martin. I really loved following both of those teams setting school records for wins this season. You also won't find many better softball programs than the Griffins, who brought home a trio of state trophies in the past four years, including second place finishes in 2015 and 2017. They have a great opportunity to bring home another this spring. A sport I've loved to cover in the past decade is bowling. We've been fortunate to have some of the top programs around and for one glorious three-week period in 2012, Andrew was the state champion in both boys and girls bowling. The girls title was completely unexpected, but the Julie DeChene-coached Thunderbolts held off Minooka by 22 pins to capture the championship. The boys team, coached by Mark Lobes, took home another trophy with a second place finish two years later. The T-Bolt baseball and softball programs have always been winning ones and that's continued as I've been covering games for The Tinley Junction. But a program that didn't always win was the boys basketball team. That changed, however, in 2012 when Andrew went 24-3 and won just the second regional title in school history. It was an unforgettable moment to see then=coach Mike O'Halloran carried around after the T-Bolts edged Marian Catholic to win the regional title on their home court. Andrew had more hardcourt success this season too, winning 19 games and a share of the SWSC Red title. Sometimes the best stories aren't from state title runs. They are seeing the improvement of a program and building it back to where it once was. The T-Bolt football team fell on some hard times, and still had them under new coach Adam Lewandowski, losing the first eight games of the 2016 season. But they won the final one of the season over District 230 rival Stagg. It was fun to see the smiles on the faces of the players after they managed a victory to avoid a winless season. It was more fun to see the smiles on their face in the fall of 2017 as they had six wins and made the playoffs. That was a fantastic turnaround from a single win to a playoff berth and I was very happy to be able to report and write about it. Anytime I go to Tinley Park High School, it's like a throwback. The school itself isn't that old, opening in 1961. But its setting makes it appear older. I enjoy the smaller gym there. It gets loud when the place is packed. I always love covering a football game there, with the woods set in the background. It always looks like something out of a movie. No matter the setting, I always feel very welcomed whenever I'm at Tinley. The Titan football team has been back on the map in recent years too with five playoff appearances, including a run to the quarterfinals in 2015. I've been around so long as a sports reporter in general that I covered the Tinley Park state champion football team in 1986. In a theme that is personally growing common for me, I saw Eric Schultz compete in football and win an individual state title in wrestling at 195 pounds in Class 2A in 2016. I also covered his dad — who shares the same name — when he played football and won an individual state title in wrestling in Class AA at 167 in 1987. As I mentioned at the start, I just missed the Titan cheerleading state title. But the cheer team is one of the school's top programs, qualifying for the state finals in all 13 years of its existence. A few other teams I always enjoys covering at the school are coach Wendy Podbielniak's softball team — which had a great run to third place in Class 3A in 2013 — and coach Lee Rucinski's girls volleyball team, which won sectional titles in the fall of 2014 and 2017. Coach Josh O'Shea has turned the Titan baseball program into a winner and I look forward to seeing what the team can continue to accomplish. Everyone is from somewhere. Personally, I'm from Lockport. So, when I first started working for 22nd Century Media 10 years ago, I was extremely happy that my hometown school was in the coverage area with the Homer Horizon. Some of the people, who lived in Lockport, wondered where my stories on the Porters were in those days. But they no longer had to do that when The Lockport Legend was launched in 2011. I was proud to write a little intro in the initial paper seven years ago. Since I just missed the cheerleading one, the Porters have captured four state titles in the past decade that I've worked with 22nd Century Media. They nearly took home two titles in bowling in 2009. The boys team placed second while the girls team won it all. But the boys got their team title in 2013 as Shane Matejcek also won the individual top spot. Matejcek became the second Lockport bowler to win the individual championship. Kyle Anderson won it in back to back in 2010-11. I was on hand for the most recent girls bowling title, the fourth in school history, in 2015. That was the the first of three straight state trophies for the Porters. The Lockport wrestling team also brought home three straight trophies. That tied the girls bowling team and the 1996-98 boys cross country team — which took third and then won two titles — for most consecutive seasons a Porter program has brought home a trophy. The Josh Oster-coached wrestling team capped that three-year stretch off in style with an undefeated state championship in 2017. Once again, two of my favorite memories of Lockport sports don't involve state title teams, but rather a couple of programs that finished fourth. The first was right after I started, taking place in March of 2008. There, the Porter boys basketball team won two of the most exciting games in team history, first beating Bloom Township in overtime on its home court to win the sectional title and then stunning O'Fallon 50- 47 when Brian Bradley hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the supersectional win at Illinois State University. The 2012 Lockport boys water polo team had what is still the best celebration I ever saw after a victory. The Porters avenged a pair of one-point losses earlier in the season by beating Homwood-Flossmoor 10-9 to win their first ever sectional title. The coaches and players were human jumping beans at the end as there was complete joy in the accomplishment. With good nature, people always give me grief about being a Lockport fan at heart. I will always treat every program I cover with the same respect and thought. But yes, I'm from Lockport and still live in the town. There was always an amazing amount of Porter pride that was instilled when I was younger and then through high school. That, and my enjoyment of food, has helped make me into the person I am today. Speaking of high school, when I was in high school I didn't even know where Sandburg was located. In the past decade I've gone there as much or more than any school — and with good reason. The Eagles have won eight state titles in the past decade. I've been on hand to witness a trio of them. The badminton team took first in the spring of 2011 and the cheerleading squad captured first in 2009 and 2012 with a couple of third place finishes (2010, 2017) tossed in there too. The always excellent Eagle wrestling team followed up a trio of titles in the mid part of last decade by bringing home five trophies in six seasons. Coach Eric Siebert's groups won Class 3A state titles in 2012 and 2013, took second in 2010 and 2015 and third in 2011. I was there to see the boys volleyball team take home the championship and cap off a memorable 39-win season in 2011. I was literally in the midst of another memorable and fantastic celebration when the Sandburg boys cross country team capped off a long journey and captured the Class 3A title in 2015. My favorite Eagle state championship came in my favorite sport to cover — softball. That was in 2010, where Jim Fabianski's squad, the best softball team I've ever covered, capped off an amazing 40-2 season with a 2-1 victory over Fremd in the Class 4A title game. I will never forget pitcher Brittany Gardner running up to hug her dad, Paul, after the game. I've covered a lot of swimming and water polo at Sandburg over the years. Of course, Jane and Jim Caliendo coached for much of that time and their leadership spurred success. When Jane died in 2014, the community came together and still does each September to honor her memory with the Jane's Warriors 5K Run and Walk event. One of my favorite things as a sports reporter, in one way or another for 34 years, has been to cover kids of kids that I covered. That and to see athletes I've covered go on and become coaches and even professional athletes. Someone I saw numerous times as a softball sensation at Stagg in the late 90's was Jen Tyrrell, who will be the new principal at Sandburg starting next school year. With her leadership the school will continue its track record of success. Which goes to show this ... I can list all the titles, great moments, amazing athletic accomplishments in the past decade in this area. But what was behind all of them? People. The wonderful people of the southwest suburbs have made the past 10 years my most enjoyable as a sports reporter. Here's to the next decade and beyond.