Lemont’s success starts at its coach5-27-09 Chicago Sun-Times Photo Studio. Headshots of prep sports writers Michael Clark. Photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times
Updated: January 26, 2012 6:55PM
Three years ago, Lemont’s boys basketball program wasn’t in very good shape.
The Indians were coming off a two-win season, in the midst of a coaching transition and watching the town’s top eighth-grader head for greener pastures.
But look at the Indians now.
After knocking off Providence Tuesday night in a matchup of two of the south suburbs’ better Class 3A programs, Lemont is 16-2 and starting to dream some bigger dreams.
“[Tuesday] night was the first time we really talked about that stuff,” said Rick Runaas, who’s in his third season as the Indians’ coach. “These are the fun games. It’s nice to be relevant in February.”
Runaas knows a little about that from his last stint as a head coach at T.F. North, which began when he took over for Mike Fies in 1998. After a couple of sub-.500 seasons, the Meteors broke out in Runaas’ third year, finishing 21-6. The season after that, they went 23-5 and won the program’s first regional title since 1946.
You wonder what might have happened after that in Calumet City, and maybe Runaas does, too. He left after that season to serve as an assistant principal at a school in Georgia, but was back in Illinois a year later as a dean and assistant athletic director at Elmwood Park.
Three years there were followed by three more as the athletic director at T.F. South. Often when coaches move up the food chain into athletic administration, they stay there or keep rising into prinicipals’ jobs or beyond.
But Runaas had the itch to go back to the bench. “I went through these phases in coaching,” he said. “I definitely felt like we had accomplished a little at T.F. North, [but] I felt like it was a time for something different.”
When the Lemont job opened up in 2009, he was ready to go full circle. It was an interesting move.
The Indians were and continue to be a football powerhouse under Eric Michaelsen, and they have state-caliber programs in several other sports including wrestling and girls soccer.
Runaas had a feeling Lemont could be a force on the hardwood, too, but not everyone shared his vision. “It was a hard sell at first,” he said. “The kids my first year, I’m not sure they bought it that they could be successful.”
But that has changed. A new community center that opened shortly before Runaas’ arrival gives kids more opportunities to play in the offseason, as has the expansion of travel programs.
“The community really got behind basketball,” Runaas said.
There’s plenty to cheer these days. Junior point guard Juozas Balciunas, the eighth-grader who was leaving for St. Joseph as Runaas was arriving, has transferred back to Lemont and is the team’s “best individual player,” according to the coach.
But Balciunas isn’t the Indians’ only good player. Senior forward Matt Lipowski is the top rebounder, while senior Joe O’Brien, who started at the point last season, has unselfishly shifted to the two guard spot without skipping a beat. Senior forward Paul Otruskevicius and sophomore center Jake Terrazas also start for the Indians, who use a nine-man rotation.
All of those guys have a big fan in 5-year-old Ryan Runaas, who like his 7-year-old sister Madison, wasn’t around for his dad’s previous coaching stint. But Ryan, who doesn’t know who Kobe Bryant is, according to his dad, knows all of the Indians and looks forward to going to Saturday practices as the highlight of the week.
It’s just another part of the feel-good story unfolding in Lemont, one that proves that there are indeed second acts in life.