By Mike Sandrolini
With the publishing of our all-area teams for boys volleyball, girls soccer, baseball and softball over the next few weeks, the Voyager Media/Bugle Newspapers sports department closes the book on another exciting high school sports campaign.
Here are a few personal observations, noteworthy events and performances that helped make the 2014-15 year a special one for this scribe …
Best game of the year—I was eyewitness to Notre Dame’s near upset of eventual Class 4A state champion Stevenson in the semifinals of the Waukegan sectional last March.
The Dons fell behind 66-52 early in the fourth quarter and appeared to be yet another victim of the Jalen Brunson-led Stevenson juggernaut. However, Notre Dame chipped away and pulled to within 75-72 with 42 seconds to play; then it was 77-75 with 15.8 seconds left. Junior Anthony D’Avanzo layed one in with three ticks on the clock (78-77), but Stevenson held on for the win.
Brunson netted 41 points—his highest single-game total of the tournament—but didn’t score a field goal in the final eight minutes.
It turned out to be the most challenging game for Stevenson during the postseason. Stevenson won its six other playoff matchups by an average of 22 points.
The Dons will be one of the area’s most formidable teams going into next winter despite the graduation of guard Joe Mooney. They have D’Avanzo (6-7) and leading scorer Ammar Becar (6-6) returning, along with starting guard Lucas Simon and reserve Donte Washington , and sophomore Jeameril Wilson (6-5), who played major minutes vs. Stevenson; and a solid bench. Becar, Simon and Washington started as sophomores in 2013-14.
Maine South football streak continues—Getting back to the Class 8A state title game—something that’s eluded the Hawks since winning the crown in 2010—is, no doubt, a goal for the Hawks this fall.
Yet Maine South kept one of Illinois high school sports’ most successful runs intact. Last year, the Hawks went 5-0 in the CSL South and extended their conference winning streak to 70 games while winning the league crown for a 14th straight year.
Maine East volleyball—Not long ago, “Maine Easy” was the derogatory label opponents put on Maine East because playing the Demons often resulted in certain victory in most sports.
Maine East has been enjoying an athletic resurgence in recent years, and leading the charge during the 2014-15 school year were both the girls and boys Demons’ volleyball teams.
Coach Anne Bezek’s girls club put together a 23-10 season, won its first regional title since 2004 as well as its first CSL North crown since 2001—all this coming after the Demons endured a 4-28 season in 2011.
Meanwhile, coach Jon Kulesza’s boys team established new standards for the program by capturing its first CSL North championship since 1991—ending Glenbrook North’s string of 12 consecutive league titles—and winning a regional for the first time in school history while finishing 26-8.
Faces in the crowd—Sports Illustrated, of course, has a section near the front of the magazine devoted to individuals who’ve achieved noteworthy milestones or feats. Here’s a few from this past high school season that stand out in my mind:
- Niles West junior all-arounder Dalai Jamiyankhuu (his first name actually is Nomondalai), a native of Mongolia, was expected to miss the entire 2015 gymnastics season due to a fractured vertebra in his back. But he returned with only a few weeks remaining in the season, won the all-around title at the Fremd sectional and then went on to take the state all-around championship.
- Maine East junior Orion Yamat placed second in the state at the Class 3A tournament last October. It was the highest finish ever for a Maine East golfer at state. Yamat was at the top of the leaderboard going into the final round.
- Tommy Galanopoulos, a senior and three-year starting quarterback for Niles West, was named CSL South offensive player of the year after compiling over 2,100 combined yards (passing and rushing) last fall.
- Davis Neilands, the CSL Conference Lineman of the Year from Maine South, singlehandedly delivered the Hawks to victory from the jaws of defeat in Week 1. He blocked a punt with 13.8 seconds left in the game, scooped up the loose ball and ran it in for the game-winning touchdown as the Hawks defeated Montini, the Class 5A state runner-up, 36-35.
- After setting the Niles West girls soccer single-season goal-scoring record as a sophomore with 19, junior forward Nichole Lopatin shattered her previous record with a 36-goal season this spring. She would need to score 49 next year to get into the IHSA record books, which would put her in a four-way tie for 19th place as far as most goals in a single season by a girls soccer player.
Senior rite of passage—It’s often an emotional time for team members when a season ends in the playoffs—especially for the seniors, who won’t be donning their school colors ever again. A percentage go on to play at a college or university, but for many, that last game or match is the end of the line for their athletic careers.
Though roster turnover is a given each year as seniors graduate, it’s difficult for coaches to say goodbye, too. They’ve been in the trenches with their seniors for two, three or perhaps four years.
And let’s not forget the parents of these seniors who’ve made the road trips, dropped them off for, and picked them up after, practices, and experienced the emotional peaks and valleys of games and matches with their son or daughter in the bleachers.
While I interviewed Maine South softball coach Emmy Paiser after the Hawks lost to Trinity in their regional championship game, Bill Anderson—the father of senior pitcher Nina Anderson, who also was the girls basketball team’s top player—came up to Paiser. The two hugged, thanked each other and shed some tears (Paiser also is an assistant coach on the girls basketball team).
Nina Anderson is moving on to Illinois Wesleyan, her father’s alma mater where she’ll play basketball (Bill was a baseball player at IWU). Yet the exchange of well-wishes between Emmy Paiser and Bill Anderson illustrates that while there is always the annual rite of passage for seniors, it’s never easy.