Bulls

Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

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Metea Valley seeks to establish its identity

Ryan Solomon and Kenny Obendorf are proud members of the first senior class at brand-spanking-new, state-of-the-art Metea Valley High School in Aurora. They are anxious and determined to set a standard for others to follow, to establish a tradition where there is none.

They were freshmen at Waubonsie Valley but were aware that they would move to Metea Valley as sophomores. Everything at the 124.7 million complex was new...teachers, 2,400 students, gym, fieldhouse, weight room, swimming pool, energy, excitement, expectations, school song, school colors, nickname.

Everything but tradition. If you don't inherit it, as at schools like Joliet Catholic or Mount Carmel or Thornton or Wheaton Warrenville South, you have to build it...game by game, year by year.

"Not many people have the opportunity to start off new," Solomon said. "We have the opportunity to start our own tradition. What we do this year will set the tone for future years to come in basketball. Knowing we are competing for a new school and having all our classmates behind us creates a fun atmosphere."

Winning is fun. Metea Valley is 8-0 after Friday's 68-58 victory over Bartlett and Saturday's 55-43 victory over South Elgin. Obendorf scored 22 points against Bartlett and Solomon had 15 against South Elgin. The Mustangs play at Neuqua Valley Friday, then compete at the Hinsdale South Holiday Tournament.

"I knew we had a chance to be 8-0," coach Bob Vozza said. "Expectations are high. Each and every day these seniors are building what Metea is and shaping what the program is going to be.

"We put them in big-game situations last year with East Aurora, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley and they learned to handle pressure. They are building a tradition. This is their team, the first senior group. In the future, we'll be talking about them to younger kids. Their motivation is to build success that others will be building to achieve."

With all five starters and four others returning from last year's squad, Vozza had a solid foundation to build on. Obendorf, a 6-2 senior guard, averages 15 points per game. Solomon, a 6-1 senior guard, averages 12. Milan Bojanic, a 6-4 senior, averages 13.

Other major contributors are 5-10 senior point guard TreSean Mackey, 6-4 junior Sean Davis, 5-10 senior LaShawn Cargo and 6-2 senior Raysean Parker.

"Our strength is pressure man-to-man defense," said Vozza, whose team forced 16 turnovers in the second half against Bartlett. "We can match up with a lot of people."

"It was tough coming in...no upperclassmen, no tradition. But it's just basketball," said Obendorf, who carries a 4.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and scored 35 (out of 36) on his ACT. "A lot of us have been doing this for a long time. We felt we had the talent to compete.

"Our chemistry is a big thing. All of us like each other. We get along. We have built up a trust in everyone else. When we get in big-game situations, we know that everyone is working together and on the same page and doing what they have to do to help the team succeed. We've been in close games this year and haven't panicked."

But Obendorf and Solomon, who played on the sophomore team at Waubonsie Valley as freshmen before moving to Metea Valley, agree that athleticism also gives the Mustangs an edge.

"We enjoy the fast pace of basketball," Obendorf said. "We can play against any team in the area. The difference is our athleticism on defense gives us an ability to make stops and get up and down the court."

"We have so much energy," Solomon said. "We have a lot of fast kids, moving at a fast pace. We excel at going up and down the court. We feed off the energy we create with one big play. All of us are athletes. Not many teams have as much athleticism as we do."

Vozza, 39, is as excited as his players with the challenge of breaking in a new school and establishing a new identity and a new tradition. A Waubonsie Valley graduate of 1990, he played basketball under Spike Grosshuesch on teams that went 50-6 in two years and reached the sectional finals. So he knew something about winning.

He tried to coach other sports, including baseball and soccer, but always came back to basketball. He recalled his experiences at Waubonsie Valley and his trips to the state finals in Champaign and Peoria. "I fell in love with the atmosphere," he said.

"Why basketball? It is one of the high school sports that generates fan support and excitement in the high school and community," he said. "It gives kids the same experience you had."

After graduating from Aurora University in 1995, he coached and taught at Geneva, at a middle school in Aurora, Waubonsie Valley for one year, then to Neuqua Valley as an assistant coach, teacher and guidance counselor from 1997 to 2009. When the job at Metea Valley opened up, he applied and was hired.

"I'm excited to start from the ground up, a new school and a new staff," he said. "I saw growing pains there. But I learned how to build a foundation."

Vozza was allowed to handpick his staff--former Geneva head coach Tim Pease, who was an assistant at Waubonsie Valley; Andrew Browning, who was an assistant at Geneva; Matt Wolpole, who came from Waubonsie Valley; Pat Brusveen, a former player at Neuqua Valley; Grian Giovanini, who was an assistant at Neuqua Valley; and Patrick Grady, who came from Maine West.

He formed his philosophy "by taking bits and pieces" from Grosshuesch and coach Todd Sutton at Neuqua Valley.

"Honestly, we had mixed feelings coming over to a new school, leaving the kids at Waubonsie Valley," Obendorf said. "But it is interesting to go to a new school and start something new. It is a challenge to start something new. There is a lot of energy here.

"We were 15-13 in our first year. We played better than others expected but we felt we could have a winning record. It was a matter of getting experience in big games and pulling out wins in the end. We're all excited about the school, starting something new."

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.