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Article updated: 11/21/2013 9:41 AM
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Bongiorno accepts the challenge at Maine West
 

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Bongiorno accepts the challenge at Maine West
  • John Bongiorno is beginning his first year of coaching at Maine West, but he brings a deep background to the task at hand.

    Purchase Photo | John Bongiorno is beginning his first year of coaching at Maine West, but he brings a deep background to the task at hand. JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Maine West's Joel Ferraren drives to the basket during practice.

    Purchase Photo | Maine West's Joel Ferraren drives to the basket during practice. JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

  • Maine West's Anthony Dones takes a shot during practice.

    Purchase Photo | Maine West's Anthony Dones takes a shot during practice. JOE LEWNARD | Staff Photographer

John Bongiorno laughed and said he wouldn't mind having a pair of players similar to Lucas Johnson and Kevin Frey from the glory days of Maine West's boys basketball program.

And the Warriors have never had anyone quite like the dynamic duo of big men who led a fourth-place finish in the 1998 Class AA state tournament before going on to successful college careers -- Johnson at Illinois and Frey at Xavier.

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But Bongiorno has never worried much about what he hasn't had during his coaching career. So, Bongiorno is not too concerned that he didn't have the opportunity to learn more about his new team in the summer, since his hiring at Maine West wasn't official until mid-August.

"I went in and talked to the kids and said, 'You can't make any excuses,'" said Bongiorno, who lives in Palatine with his wife Tracy and 10-year-old daughter Gabriella. "It's a situation where we play with what we have as far as the time we have.

"I didn't come in with it as a negative thing. I came in with a real positive attitude and said, 'Hey, let's go.' That's what we have to do and it will work itself out."

That's not just coach-speak considering Bongiorno has led a program with a gym on the second floor above a church at Immaculate Conception. A Kendall College program that didn't have a gym at all and was part of an unexpected move where the entire athletic program was axed.

Before coming to Maine West, he took Francis Parker, which is located near Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and was hardly a hoops hotbed, to two regional titles and a 57-25 record the last three seasons.

"He never had the resources or facilities and made the most of it," said Maine West athletic director Jarett Kirshner. "He was a successful coach at the college level and high school level.

"Now he's in a position with multiple gyms and a full coaching staff and the support of the athletic department.

"He's got a passion for the game ... and he's a basketball coach through and through."

That passion is something Bongiorno had dating to his high school days at St. Patrick, where he played for a little bit but was eventually cut from the program. But he started coaching grade school teams at the local parish where he lived.

Bongiorno got a job as an assistant coach at Elmhurst College after studying at Loyola and Northeastern Illinois. That led to a move just a few blocks away to Immaculate Conception, where he was also the athletic director and coached cross country. It was a job he enjoyed, but his dream of leading a small-college program came true at Kendall.

Bongiorno's teams cooked up two conference titles in six years at a school known for its culinary program. He was looking at practice and game facilities with Kendall moving its campus from Evanston to downtown Chicago. Then an administrator walked into his office one day and told him the upcoming season would be the last for athletics at the school.

"That really hurt because we were doing really well," Bongiorno said. "I had opportunities to go to bigger schools but I like situations that are kind of challenging."

The next challenge was being away from the game full-time as he did some high school and college scouting for coaching friends and spent time with his young daughter. Eventually he was back in the game and enjoying it at Parker, where he was 76-55 in five years, when a friend told him about the Maine West opening in late June.

He decided to apply and now will try to turn his philosophies into success at Maine West. There was no teaching opening in the building, but it wasn't viewed as a detriment by Kirshner and Bongiorno, who runs his own business.

The cornerstone of Bongiorno's program will be man-to-man defense that can be extended to full-court zone pressure. The offense will have a lot of ball movement, but he also wants his players to be knowledgeable enough to adjust on the court to the flow of the game.

And the challenges that are ahead hit Bongiorno at a preseason meeting of Central Suburban League coaches.

"I looked around the room and there are two guys who won a state championship," Bongiorno said of Glenbrook North's Dave Weber and Niles West's Bob Williams, who won his at Schaumburg. "I said, 'This is real basketball.'

"Then you look at Evanston, Niles North, New Trier, Waukegan and the others, and it's a very competitive conference. It's a tough conference to win in."

Bongiorno wouldn't have it any other way.

• Marty Maciaszek is a freelance columnist for the Daily Herald who can be reached at marty.maciaszek@gmail.com.

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