Disabato: Moment of truth awaits Lemont
Pat Disabato email@example.com | (708) 802-8837 February 22, 2012 5:34PM
Rick Runaas will lead his sixth-ranked Lemont Indians against No. 1 Hillcrest in Friday's South Suburban Blue showdown. | Larry Kane~For Sun-Times Media
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Updated: March 24, 2012 9:00AM
Lemont boys basketball is in uncharted waters. And there’s a shark in the form of a Hawk circling, waiting to pounce Friday night.
Make no mistake, it’s been a season like no other in Lemont’s hoops history.
The Indians are 23-2, falling only to Crane and Evergreen Park, and sit at No. 6 in this publication’s Top 10.
Not even the most ardent Lemont fan could have predicted such prosperity. Not even Indians coach Rick Runaas.
“I don’t think anyone expected it (success) to happen so quickly,” said Runaas, in his third year at Lemont. “It’s such a quantum leap this year.”
Like jumping the Grand Canyon.
Still, critics remain, questioning whether Lemont’s gaudy mark is a product of greater talent or mediocre competition. Count me among the talent group.
The moment of truth arrives Friday in the form of perennial powerhouse Hillcrest.
Lemont is 12-1 in the South Suburban Blue. In most conferences, the reward for such excellence would be first place. In the SSC Blue, it’s good enough for second place behind undefeated and
No. 1-ranked Hillcrest.
It’s worth noting the Hawks have won conference titles for 23 straight years. They’ve guaranteed themselves at least a share, depending on the outcome of Friday’s showdown at Lemont.
The Hawks are generous kids, but do not intend on sharing the conference championship, not even with Lemont, which has produced one of the season’s best feel-good stories.
“We’re not in the sharing mood,” Hillcrest coach Don Houston said. “We want to be selfish about it.”
Whether Lemont can win will likely come down to how well it handles Hillcrest’s vaunted 1-1-3 trap defense. The Hawks execute the trap with such precision, they should have a patent on it.
If the Indians can adapt and execute their offense, they have a chance.
However, if they produce more turnovers than the local bakery, it could get Bulls vs. Bobcats ugly for Lemont.
“We’ll make sure the kids have a full understanding of their trap,” Runaas said. “There’s no way we can match their raw athleticism in practice. We don’t have five kids who can emulate what Hillcrest does. We’re going to try to practice some no-dribble rules and put our kids in more difficult positions than they’re used to, like playing 5-on-7 or 5-on-8.”
The good news for Lemont is that it has two guards who can handle the rock in senior Joe O’Brien and junior whiz-kid Juozas Balciunas.
O’Brien started at the point for Lemont last season before shifting to 2-guard to accommodate the arrival of Balciunas, who transferred from St. Joseph.
“Turnovers do two things: They prevent you from scoring and they lead to easy opportunities on the other end,” Runaas said. “We can’t give up easy baskets.”
While Balciunas’ addition to the squad clearly moved the Indians from the outhouse to the penthouse, the supporting cast has elevated its play.
Balciunas is averaging 15.5 points and 4.4 assists per game and boasts a cool-as-a-cucumber personality. He’ll need help Friday; whether it’s sophomore shooting star Mike Wisz, Matt Lipowski or Joe Hehir, Lemont can’t prevail relying on Balciunas.
“We’ve won a certain way all year,” Runaas said. “We have to guard against certain individuals thinking they need to do more for us to win this game. We have to play the way we have all year. One through nine, we have to continue to distribute the ball and find the open man.”
The Hawks (21-4) are battle-tested. Their only losses have come to Bloom, Simeon, Farragut and Rockford Auburn — not a slouch among them. One team Lemont lost to — Evergreen Park — Hillcrest drubbed by 18.
Runaas knows what to expect. He’s experienced pressure-cookers against Hillcrest in the past when he was coach at T.F. North.
“Hopefully, us being home gives us an advantage,” Runaas said. “I’m much more excited for the kids. They’ve never been in this position before. I’m confident they’ll be ready.”