Kyle Lindberg was one of the leading soccer players in Illinois for the last two years. The midfielder led Naperville North to fourth place in the state tournament in 2010 and to the sectional final last fall. He landed a scholarship to Illinois-Chicago.
But Lindberg has been playing basketball as long as he has been playing soccer--and almost as well. The 6-foot-2 senior is the defensive stopper on a 13-4 team that has scrapped its way to the top of the DuPage Valley League standings. Who woulda thunk it?
"I like playing both sports but I consider myself better at soccer. I have been playing at a high level for years, traveling teams and AAU," Lindberg said. "Naperville North isn't known as a basketball school. Our motivation this season is to shock everyone."
That's what coach Jeff Powers' team is doing. The Huskies haven't won a conference championship in 14 years and never have advanced beyond the Sweet Sixteen. In 14 years, coach Dick Whitaker won only one regional title. Coach Mark Lindo won two sectional titles. He was 25-4 in 1994 and 26-3 in 1998. Last year's team was 16-12, losing to highly rated Benet in the regional final in double overtime.
Naperville North, which defeated Rich Central 64-59 on Tuesday night, is used to winning close games. But the Huskies aren't overpowering, have a nasty habit of getting off to slow starts, no one is averaging more than nine points per game and their leading rebounder is 6-foot-2.
"How good are we? Good enough to be 13-4," Powers said. "We're a bunch of guards, only two forwards. We play well and hard together. We have learned how to win close games. It is surprising to everyone that we are in first place in the conference--except to the 16 kids on the team and the four coaches.
"We found out in the summer that they can play well when they play together. They share the ball and play hard on defense. On any given day, any kid can get hot. We shoot well from the three-point line and from the free throw line in the fourth quarter.
"Our kids have an edge to them. They felt everyone overlooked them. They were picked to finish sixth in an eight-team race. But they worked hard in the weight room and shot a lot on their own. They wanted to prove to everyone that they were as good as the past two teams. No one believed in them but themselves and the coaches."
What convinced them? When did they begin to open some eyes?
On Dec. 6, when they defeated Benet by four points. "They learned they can win close games. They believed in the scouting report and executed the plan," Powers said.
Also when they demonstrated they could be competitive against the best teams at the York Holiday Tournament. And when they defeated Glenbard East and West Aurora back-to-back.
"That's what really convinced them," Powers said. "They stepped up a level. They knew they could do it. They knew something neat is happening here."
Lindberg and his teammates were excited and driven by the transformation. Naperville North is known as a football school. Coach Larry McKeon, who retired in 2010, won 231 games or 76 percent of his games in 27 years and won state championships in 1992 and 2007.
Now perhaps it is basketball's turn.
"We knew we were losing a lot of players from last year. We knew we had to step up our game to be anywhere near that level. And we don't have a star player like Matt LaCosse last year," Lindberg said.
"But this team has more balance. It is unselfish, works hard and plays together. There are no egos. Personally, in the summer, I was surprised how well we played and how fast we came together. But now I'm not surprised because we are used to it. People are getting behind us."
Lindberg averages only six points per game but Powers describes him as "one of our stars, the key to the defense, our stopper, the guy who plays against the best player on the other team, the one who runs the team on offense."
Other starters are 6-foot-1 senior Matt Stacho (7 ppg, 3 rpg, 3 assists), another relentless defender who covers opposing point guards and scored 16 points in a four-point, triple overtime victory over Naperville Central; 6-foot-5 senior Mike Keane (7 ppg, 5 rpg); 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Derek Westman (6 ppg, 8 rpg), who grabbed 12 rebounds against Naperville Central and 11 in a two-point victory over Danville; and 6-foot-2 sophomore Anthony Rehayem (4 ppg).
Powers describes Westman as "200 pounds of I'll get the ball wherever it is at." He was a guard on the sophomore team last season and also plays tennis.
Surprisingly, the team's leading scorer comes off the bench. Davis Sinikas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, averages 9.7 points per game. An outstanding three-point shooter, he has started more than half the games but needs to improve his defense. Chris Mullin, a 5-foot-11 senior, averages seven points.
Powers, in his third season, is a 1976 graduate of Reavis. He attended George Williams College in Downers Grove but, as the oldest of six children, had to give up basketball after one year to go to work while going to class.
He coached baseball at Hinsdale Central for five years, basketball for one year at Reavis and York, then was hired as basketball coach at Timothy Christian in 1996. He resigned after 11 years and was going back to officiating, which was how he made ends meet since he was a sophomore in college, when he got a call from then York coach Al Biancalana.
He assisted Biancalana for one year, then applied for the Naperville North job when Mark Lindo retired. Was he surprised to get the job? No, because he felt he had built a good reputation at Timothy Christian. Yes, because he hadn't been a head coach for a year. In his first season, the Huskies were 20-7 and lost to West Aurora in the regional final.
"We talk about learning every day, what we have to do to get better," Powers said. "We turn the ball over too much. To win, we have to move the ball from side to side. We are notoriously slow starters. We have to get going at the start of games. I have done all kinds of pep talks. We fell behind Naperville Central 10-0 in the first four minutes and trailed Danville by seven in the first quarter. We have to work on that. We can't do that against good teams in the state tournament."
It is a tiresome clich but Lindberg reminds that the team has an attitude of taking each game as it comes and not looking too far ahead. "That's how we have succeeded so far, being humble," he said.
Lindberg points to the play of Keane, Westman and 6-foot-4 senior reserve Max Lewis under the boards. "We knew we had good shooters and ball-handlers but we are surprised that our post presence has helped us to win games," he said.
"Not many people have taken us seriously. Being picked to finish sixth in the conference motivated us. There is no pressure. We can play loose."