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Keeping up with ... Johnsburg's John Smith
John Smith has already played in more Division II men's basketball games than anyone in history.
Foremost in his mind currently, though, are the three additional games he and his Winona State (Minn.) teammates will need to win this week in Springfield, Mass., to earn a second Division II national championship in three years.
"I've been called the Brett Favre of Division II basketball and some people call me Cal Ripken," said the 6-foot-8-inch Smith, a Johnsburg graduate who enters the week having started all 143 games of his college career. "A streak like that always comes down to luck and I've been lucky to stay healthy. I get beat up pretty good in the paint but it's never been anything more than bumps and bruises."
Not only has Smith started every games of his career but he's played at a remarkably high level. After averaging 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a redshirt freshman three years ago, he emerged the next season when he was named the Elite Eight Most Outstanding Player as the Warriors won the national title. Last season, he was a consensus first-team All-American and was named Division II national Player of the Year by several media outlets.
Talent obviously has played a major role, but simply being in the right environment has also been a significant factor.
Major Division I basketball recruiters don't ordinarily blaze a trail to off-the-beaten-path Johnsburg. Smith was on the radar of some mid-major programs with attention coming mostly after his one year of playing on the AAU circuit and after Johnsburg's state tournament playoff run in 2003 that saw the Skyhawks advance to the Class AA state quarterfinals, where they suffered a 47-24 defeat to Glenbrook North.
Being largely overlooked was okay with Smith.
"I come from a small town -- I don't even know if there's ever been a Division I athlete from my school," said Smith. "I really didn't like the business side of recruiting. I would have much rather gone to a really good Division II program than a mediocre Division I team."
It was that lack of ego that also made Smith actually appreciate being redshirted, something players often try to avoid like the plague. When Smith arrived at Winona, there was an all-conference post player ahead of him and his playing time would have been curtailed. So he took a year to improve his game.
"I was only 215 pounds when I got to college, so it gave me a chance to get into the weight room," he said. "I wasn't worried about missing the games because I was still playing every day. And it gave me a chance to be a normal college kid for a year."
The first year Smith played, in 2004-05, was the best year the program had ever experienced, as the Warriors advanced to the Elite Eight before bowing in the semifinals.
The following season Winona began a win streak that eventually would swell to 56 games, the longest in Division II history. It came to a screeching halt in last year's national championship game as Barton (N.C.) rallied for a buzzer-beating 77-75 win.
"That was pretty crazy -- we had a 10-point lead with a minute left," said Smith of last year's title game loss. "Everything comes to an end and you have to lose once in a while. At least I had another year left
It definitely has served as motivation."
Winona enters this week's Division II Elite Eight having won 35 of 36 games this year and Smith is again leading the squad in scoring (17.7 points per game) and rebounds (8.6 per game). He has more than three times as many blocked shots (103) as any of his teammates, has been the team scoring leader 16 times and its rebounding leader on 26 occasions.
The Warriors won their third straight regional title last Tuesday with a 68-60 decision over Northern State, their 29th win in a row and 95th triumph in the program's last 100 games. Smith and Co. will face a stern test in Wednesday's quarterfinal in Grand Valley (Mich.) State, which shares the top ranking nationally and defeated Michigan State in an exhibition game in November.
"It's a hard road back to the national championship game but I think we're up to the challenge," said Smith. "As we saw last year, a lot of crazy things can happen. But as long as we play our best, we can beat anybody."
Whether Smith helps Winona to another title this week or not, his college career will definitely end. He's grown to view Winona as a second home and is looking forward to continuing his career professionally, with a trip overseas the most likely destination. He expects invitations to a few pre- NBA Draft camps and will look to hire an agent once the season ends.
"I know any game (this week) can be my last college game but it's about time," said Smith. "It will all get pretty crazy once the season ends and I'll hopefully be able to play for a long time. It'll be nice to actually make some money; I'm tired of being a poor college kid."
The reigning Big Ten's men's and women's Gymnasts of the Week both hail from Chicago's suburbs. On the men's side, Iowa junior Geoff Reins (Stevenson) was last week's winner, and Illinois freshman Allison Buckley (Conant) won the women's award.
To earn the award, Reins posted season-high scores in winning both the vault (16.3) and floor exercise (15.1) in Iowa's March 14 meet against Nebraska. He had a season-high score of 16.15 in the vault in the previous meet as well, winning the event against Illinois March 1.
Reins is the school record holder on the vault with an individual score of 9.55 and is a two-time all-American. Last year, he came in fourth nationally with a score of 9.275 and as a freshman, Reins took home a seventh-place finish at nationals on the floor exercise with a season-best score of 9.3.
Buckley earned her weekly award largely by posting the second best all-around score in Illinois history (39.45) to take first in the event at Illinois-Chicago March 15. Besides the all-around title, Buckley also had the top score in the vault (9.9), balance beam (9.925) and floor exercise (9.9); her score on the beam tied for second-best in program history in that event.
Buckley kept it up Saturday afternoon, claiming individual wins in balance beam (9.9), vaulting (9.875) and all-around (39.35) at the State of Illinois Classic in Champaign. With 19 individual titles this season, Buckley is third all-time at Illinois, trailing only two yearly performances in the 1970s by Olympian Nancy Thies. Her all-around score Saturday gives her three of the top five all-around scores in Illinois history.
Buckley and her Fighting Illini teammates will next be in action Saturday at the Big Ten's Women's Gymnastics Championships in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Several local performers fared well at this year's NCAA Wrestling Championships, which concluded Saturday night in St. Louis. Leading the way were second-place finishes by Michigan senior Eric Tannenbaum (Naperville North) at 165 pounds and Illinois junior Mike Poeta (Highland Park) at 157 pounds.
The top-seeded Tannenbaum dropped a 5-2 decision to Iowa's Mark Perry, who was the No. 2 seed, and No. 2 seed Poeta fell to No. 8 seed Jordan Leen from Cornell 5-4.
The loss capped a brilliant career for Tannenbaum, a four-time All-American who finished fourth, sixth and fourth in his previous three trips to nationals. Poeta came in third last year.
Also achieving All-America status was Illinois sophomore Jimmy Kennedy (Grant), who was fourth at 133. The No. 2 seeded Kennedy defeated Minnesota's Mack Reiter to advance to the third-place match, which he lost 7-2 to top-seeded Franklin Gomez of Michigan State. Kennedy, who qualified for nationals as a freshman but didn't place, ended his sophomore campaign with a record of 32-7.
Two other local products also became first-time All-Americans, both with seventh-place performances. Northwestern sophomore Brandon Precin (Sandburg) earned a 5-3 decision over Old Dominion's James Nicholson at 125 pounds, while Iowa State sophomore Nick Fanthorpe (Naperville North) defeated Navy's Joe Baker 7-6 at 133 pounds for his seventh-place finish. Fanthorpe was the Big 12 champion at 133.
Northern Illinois senior Pat Castillo (Lyons Township) came up just short in his bid for All-America status by losing to Reiter in the 133-pound consolation bracket. Castillo qualified for the nationals for the third time, placed for the third time at the Midlands Championships, won his second Mid-American Conference Most Outstanding Wrestler Award, and led the nation with 16 major decisions. For his career, Castillo had a record of 100-35.
Two former Public League guards -- sophomore Jeremie Simmons (Von Steuben) and freshman Jacquez Williams (Carver) -- were major reasons that Mott Community College team of Flint, Mich., won a second straight NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball National Championship Saturday.
The Bears (35-3) earned the repeat title 83-73 over Columbus (Ohio) State Community College and both Simmons and Williams were named to the All-Tournament Team. For the season, Simmons led the Bears in scoring, averaging over 21 points per game, while Williams, who averaged 5.3 points for the year, saved his best play for the postseason.
Also on the Mott roster is one of Williams' Carver teammates, sophomore guard LaMarr Drake, who was Mott's fourth-leading scorer for the season.
Michigan junior Adam Harris (Wheaton North) ended his indoor track season on a high by finishing fourth in the 60-meters at the NCAA Indoor Championships March 15. His time of 6.62 was only .01 seconds behind the school record he set in winning the Big Ten indoor title in the same event in February.
Harris is the first Wolverine sprinter to claim All-America honors in the indoor 60 meters since Gene Brown finished fifth in 1971. Besides winning the 60 meters at this year's indoor conference meet, Harris also was a winner in the long jump. His best effort was 24-10½; it was the first time a Michigan athlete had won the event since 1984.
Wisconsin senior swimmer Jackie Vavrek (West Chicago) had a mixed performance at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships over the weekend. On the plus side, she earned her third career All-America designation by swimming the second leg on the Badgers' fourth-place 200-yard freestyle relay. Wisconsin's time of 1:29.18 trailed champion Arizona, California and Auburn.
On the down side, Vavrek failed by only one spot to qualify for the finals of the 50-yard freestyle, finishing 17th in preliminary action with a time of 22.46. Also, two additional relays she swam on finished out of All-America territory, as the 200-yard medley relay came in 11th-place (1:39.63) and the 400 freestyle relay finished 16th (3:19:54).
Vavrek finishes her Wisconsin career as a three-time All-American; she also has seven honorable mention designations.
Illinois-Chicago freshman Ilinca Cristescu (Logos Christian) was named last Tuesday as the Horizon League Women's Tennis Player of the Week.
To earn the award, Cristescu won three of the four matches she competed in during the Flames' spring trip to Florida. She won both of her matches at No. 1 singles and split two doubles outings.
In a March 15 win against Florida Atlantic, she clinched the Flames' victory by defeating her No. 1 singles opponent, Natalia Totevska, 6-3, 6-7, 6-2. In the same match, she teamed with Jenna Reisch (Lyons Township) to defeat Hannah Findlay and Virginia Augustin 8-5 at third doubles. The next day in a 7-2 loss to Lynn University, Cristescu accounted for one of her squad's wins by coming from behind to beat 20th-ranked Victoria Weltz, 0-6, 6-4, 11-9.
Cristescu will enter the conference season, which begins April 5 at Wisconsin-Green Bay, with an 11-10 singles record, predominantly at the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Starting with that match, the Flames will aim to extend their record 93-match conference win streak.