Balciunas leads Lemont turnaround032509/ studio
Pat Disabato sports writer southtownstar ( photo by Carol Dorsett)
Updated: January 30, 2012 8:44PM
With the exception of undefeated Andrew, the biggest surprise among area boys basketball teams is Lemont.
The Indians are 18-2 overall, 8-1 in the South Suburban Blue.
The program that won a combined 16 games the past three seasons, including a two-win effort in 2008, now ranks among the more prolific in the area and in Class 3A.
Hey, next thing you know, Lemont staple Nick’s Tavern is going to replace its juicy one-pound burger with french fries on the menu.
There are various reasons for the Indians upswing. Coach Rick Runaas, in his third year, being one, for sure.
However, great teams generally have one difference-maker. Lemont’s is Juozas Balciunas.
After spending two years at basketball hotbed St. Joseph’s in Westchester, Balciunas transferred to his hometown high school, Lemont, over the summer.
Christmas had, indeed, arrived early for the Indians.
“It was a 35-minute drive to St. Joe’s,” Balciunas said. “Now it takes me 10 minutes to get to school. I have a lot of friends that go to Lemont. I talked to my father about transferring over the summer. I thought I could help the basketball team.”
Balciunas is doing more than helping. He’s leading.
Allow me to be blunt: There’s no way Lemont is 18-2 if Balciunas hadn’t taken his talents to Lemont.
Runaas admitted as much.
“I think without him, we were looking at getting to .500,” Runaas said. “With him, we’ve exceeded that.”
That’s not a knock on the Indians roster, which is talented and unselfish. Balciunas’s arrival meant a new role for senior Joe O’Brien, last year’s starting point guard.
“Joe came in and said, ‘Coach, how do you see me this year,’” Runaas said. “I told him he has to start working at two-guard because Juozas is going to be the starting point guard. Joe had a great attitude about it. There aren’t enough kids around like Joe. His points and shots are down, as are his minutes. But he sacrificed for the benefit of the team.”
Balciunas has proven to be the missing ingredient. When opponents apply defensive pressure, he has the ball-handling and decision-making skills to avoid coughing the rock up. He can also bury shots from the perimeter and is fearless driving to the rack, averaging 15.4 points per game.
He scored 29 Saturday during a 68-62 win over Oak Forest.
“We had a reputation that if you would go and press and harass Lemont, they were going to turn the ball over,” Runaas said. “You can’t do that this year because of Juozas. And because of him, we can put a little more pressure on teams. He can obviously put the ball in the basket, too. He’s our leading scorer.”
When you consider Balciunas didn’t start playing hoops until the sixth grade, his development is rather shocking.
The 6-foot junior is of Lithuanian descent. His family moved from the town of Siauliai, Lithuania, and initially took residence in Franklin Park before moving to Lemont when Balciunas was in sixth grade.
Lemont is an attractive destination for Lithuanians. The community is home to the Lithuania World Center, which boasts a 15,000-square-foot gymnasium where many young Lithuanians like Balciunas hone their skills.
A few years ago, a Lithuanian by the name of Modestas Masiulionis provided Lemont with a subtle lift in the win column.
Balciunas has elevated the Indians to new heights.
“I think more Lithuanian kids will choose Lemont,” Balciunas said. “They’re seeing how good the program is.”
Lemont students haven taken notice.
“We love the support and for me, it’s motivation,” Balciunas said. “The fans work so hard to go to our games. They’ve really helped us win games.”
Their help will be required more than ever on Feb. 24. That’s when the Indians host perennial power Hillcrest, for what Lemont hopes has conference ramifications.
And overall validation.
“I can’t wait for that game,” Balciunas said. “I don’t care what other people think, we’re winning our games. Maybe we haven’t played the best teams, but I know we’re a good team.”