In the 1950s, when Bud Wilkinson's Oklahoma teams won a record 47 games in a row and dominated college football, the university president used to joke that his goal was to "build a university that the football team can be proud of."
Maybe he wasn't joking.
Fast forward to 2012. At Maine South, basketball coach Tony Lavorato Jr.is building a program that the Park Ridge community, the high school and its football team can be proud of. Maine South has won five state football championships since 1995, three in a row in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and Lavorato has a plan to be every bit as competitive on a state level.
It won't be easy. Maine South hasn't won a conference title since 1999. Even old-timers are hard-pressed to remember the 1979 state championship team. But seeds have been planted. The Hawks were 28-6 in 2010 and lost to Whitney Young in the supersectional. They won 21 and 19 games in the last two seasons. They currently are 7-0 going into Thursday night's game at Glenbrook South.
"We are proud of where we are at," Lavorato said. "But it's early in the season. There is a lot of basketball to play. What is exciting is the kids are dedicating themselves to basketball. We have structured the program where we put kids in a position to be successful.
"Can we play basketball at a football school? We have a winning tradition in many sports at Maine South, not just football. We have a winning culture. Is this the best team we have had? Our 2010 team has been our standard-bearer. We'll compare other teams to that one until we have a team that surpasses it."
In his 10th season as head coach, Lavorato has taken a while to fuel his engine and put it on the right track. For example, he had to figure out a way to tread water while waiting for the football season to end so the football players, like 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior John Solari, would have time to get into basketball shape.
He installed a unique matchup defense that is difficult for opponents to prepare for and to execute against, then organized a feeder system in which lower level coaches lay a solid foundation by teaching youngsters to play the defense from the first time they lace up their Michael Jordans.
"What is the key to our success?" Lavorato said. "I have never had a Division I player in my 10 years. We need to keep playing as a team, control the tempo and keep the points down. Our opponents are only averaging 34.7 points per game. If we keep people under 50 points per game and keep getting better as a team offensively, we can compete with the top teams in the state."
Which is exactly why, after participating in the York Holiday Tournament for the last nine years, Lavorato decided to switch to Proviso West this year. After Thursday's game against Glenbrook South and games against Lane Tech at the Benedictine Shootout on Sunday and at Waukegan on Dec. 21, Maine South will meet Hillcrest in the opening round of the Proviso West Holiday Tournament on Dec. 26 in Hillside.
"We are going there to play teams like Hillcrest and test ourselves," he said. "I am looking at the big picture. We're trying to get over the hump. We're looking to play teams that are ore athletic and will make us better in January and February.
"Every since we lost to Whitney Young in 2010--we were trailing by two points at halftime, then lost by 18--I thought if we could put our program in a position to where we could see that type of team and athlete before the state tournament, we could finish that game and be competitive with any program in that state.
"That's why we decided to go to Proviso West--to test teams with great athletes and Division I players. That is the next step for our program to take."
Danny Quinn has watched Lavorato's program develop since he was playing quarterback and wide receiver for the Park Ridge Falcons youth football program from second to eighth grade. And he recalls when his father took him to Proviso West to watch Marcus Jordan, Wayne Blackshear, Dave Sobolewski, Frank Kaminsky and other Division I players.
But Quinn never had the passion for football that he had for basketball. In fact, he dropped football and baseball to concentrate on basketball. In sixth grade, he played on a Junior Hawks team was 80-13. And he played with future Maine South teammates Frank Dounis and Andrew Palucki on the Chi-Town Diablos.
"I wanted to become better at basketball," said Quinn, a 6-foot-6 senior forward. "You have to sacrifice to be good at it. I wanted to dedicate myself to basketball. I had a passion for it. I liked the fast tempo. It isn't always about who is biggest and strongest. You can be a good shooter or ball-handler or be versatile and contribute in a lot of ways."
Quinn never had a doubt that Lavorato would develop a winning basketball program at Maine South. "We always had good talent. It was never a question of if but a matter of when. We have plenty of athletes. We are proud of the football team. We aren't trying to take anything away from them. But we know we can be successful, too," he said.
Quinn (9.4 ppg, 4 rpg), Solari (9.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Dounis, a 6-foot-3 senior (10.9 ppg, 3 rpg, 3.4 assists) are the most experienced players in the program. Solaris, a four-year varsity player and three-year starter, was a tight end on Maine South's 11-1 football team and likely will play football in college. "Everything starts with them," Lavorato said.
They are returning starters from last year's 19-13 regional champion. With five of his top eight players returning, Lavorato had several reasons to be optimistic about 2012-13.
The other two starters are Palucki (5.7 ppg), a 6-foot-2 guard, and 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Caleb de Marigny (5.7 ppg, 3 assists). The sixth man is 6-foot-7 sophomore George Sargeant (3.9 ppg).
Lavorato split the season into six parts--Thanksgiving tournament, six games between now and Christmas, Proviso West tournament, four games in five days before the King tournament, the home stretch, then the postseason. "We break it up so we don't get ahead of ourselves," he said.
A 1991 graduate of Hinsdale South, Lavorato played for his father, then played for four years at Augustana. He coached at Homestead in Fort Wayne, Indiana, for one year, then coached at Stagg in Palos Park for four years before being hired at Maine South.
"It was a great opportunity," he said. "I wanted to get into a conference that was successful in getting to the sectional. Seven of 12 Central Suburban League teams went to the supersectional in a seven-year period. Maine South was very competitive on a north suburban scale. It was a great route to get to Peoria. But I knew we had a lot of work to do."
Five years ago, Lavorato implemented a defensive system he refers to as "the Maine South defense," a matchup man-to-man that is similar to the famed ball-press defense that legendary coach Vergil Fletcher developed at Collinsville in the 1950s and was copied by Jerry Leggett at Quincy and Neil Alexander at Lincoln.
Lavorato picked it up from Frank Palmisani, who ran it at Providence with Walter Downing, and Frank Nardi, who ran it at Bloom with Brandon Cole.
Bill Geist ran it at Benet with Kevin Conrad and Mike Lang. At one time, Lavorato rank it at Stagg.
"I wanted to make sure it is difficult to play us," he said. "We want to keep the ball out of the lane, rebound every shot and contest all shots. I wanted to do something that other coaches had to prepare for. No one else runs it in our conference.
"I have run it with middle size post players and an immobile post player and I have run it with guards who were immature and physically not gifted.
Communication is the most important thing. It is a five-man defense. Everyone needs to communicate and be on the same page. Our kids believe in it."
Quinn said the defense is tough for other teams to figure out. "Now many teams run it. It is hard to scout and to adjust and to teach. It's tough enough for us to run. It's all about communication and chemistry. If one guy is out of synch, the whole thing is messed up. You have to know it. You can't run it half-heartedly. You must be committed to it. Teams have to play well to beat it," he said.
So Lavorato is eager to test his team and his defense against the field at Proviso West. The players are excited, too.
"This is what I have been waiting for for four years," Quinn said. "We have no fear. We feel we can play with those teams. We have been building for this. This will show we aren't just a football school but we can play basketball against anyone. If we stick with our system and play our game, I don't think anyone can top us."