For as long as Lyons Township High School seniors Graham Smith and Nik Polonowski can remember, whatever their sport, the balance with strong academics has remained a constant.
“I’ve kind of gotten used to it at an early age. I’ve always kind of had to go to practice afterschool and then got to finish your homework,” Smith said. “It’s no different than any other student. You just have to make sure that you handle all of your stuff. You’re not given any extra grades or credit for being an athlete. It’s all just time management, really, just making sure you’re sticking to it.”
The seniors are among the reasons that the Lions (24-5) are enjoying another successful boys basketball season and are a postseason threat as the No. 5 seed in the highly competitive IHSA Class 4A Hinsdale Central Sectional.
Next season, Polonowski will play basketball for the University of Pennsylvania and Smith will play football at Yale University.
“It takes a lot of time to be good at both and so you sacrifice the other time with having fun and stuff like that on a Friday night, but I think it’s all worth it,” Polonowski said. “My parents always said get your schoolwork done. It’s always been school first, basketball next. You’ve got to sacrifice a lot, the social life aspect of things. You’re committed to the process of academics and basketball.”
The 6-foot-6 Polonowski is the lone returning starter from last year’s sectional finalist. Polonowski generally leads the Lions in scoring with senior point guard Jackson Niego, committed to Illinois Wesleyan, with the versatility to score with threes, or inside, rebound and defend the perimeter with Niego and seniors Connor Carroll and Matt DeSimone.
Smith and Niego have continued emerging from being the first forward and guard off the bench as juniors. The tight end for the Lions’ Class 8A state quarterfinal football team, Smith asserts a physical presence beyond his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and fuels their inside attack along with senior Carter Reid and junior Brady Chambers, both 6-6.
“Both [Polonowski and Smith] are obviously really good athletes and they’re really good kids – smart, good students, good role models off the court. They teach our younger guys. They bring the group together,” LTHS coach Tom Sloan said. “When schools start recruiting players, they start asking me questions at the beginning that have nothing to do with (sports) because they’ve seen them play. When Ivy League schools come calling, that’s a pretty high bar to meet.”
Neither Smith nor Polonowski specifically sought out Ivy League programs. Their decisions came through their visits and the usual recruiting process.
Polonowski, who is learning toward business economics, received multiple Ivy League offers before choosing the Quakers.
“To go to the Ivy League is like a thing in itself, but I went to Penn just because I felt it was the right spot for me. I felt the most comfortable when I was there,” Polonowski said.
Smith is projected to remain at tight end for the Bulldogs. His talented hands may one day see work as a surgeon.
“[During my visits] I came in with no expectations and [Yale] was the place that I was thinking about most,” Smith said.
The Lions open regional play Feb. 22 against No. 12 Jones with the winner playing No. 3 Curie or No. 14 Leyden for the regional title Feb. 24.
Waiting in the Hinsdale Central Sectional semifinals most likely is No. 2 Hinsdale Central, which has beaten the Lions twice, or No. 7 Riverside-Brookfield, and No. 1 Whitney Young in the final. At last season’s sectional, the Lions beat Curie and lost in the sectional final to Young, which took second in state to Glenbard West.
The Lions won the regular season finale 52-46 over Lake Park on Feb. 17 in front of a packed Senior Night and blackout home crowd with help from Polonowski (17 points), Smith (9 rebounds) and Niego (8 assists).
They beat Proviso West 61-46 on Feb. 14 to finish third in the West Suburban Silver at 8-4. Smith had 14 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
LTHS girls win regional title
The No. 2-seeded Lions (28-4) continue their quest for their first sectional title and downstate berth since 1999 on Feb. 21 by playing No. 3 Whitney Young in the Proviso East Sectional semifinals.
The sectional final is at 7 p.m. on Feb. 23 against No. 1 Kenwood or No. 4 Mother McAuley. The Hinsdale Central Supersectional is at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 against the West Aurora Sectional winner, where Benet is the No. 1 seed.
The Lions won their second straight regional on Feb. 16 by beating No. 7 Hinsdale Central for the third time this season, 56-33, behind Nora Ezike (18 points, 5 rebounds), Ally Cesarini (14 points, 4 steals) Kennedy Wanless (9 points, 5 rebounds), Ella Ormsby (5 steals, 4 assists), Avery Mezan (5 points) and Elin O’Brien (4 points).