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There were times at Benedictine University and before that at Wilde Field when Lisle football coach Dan Sanko stood incredulous and speechless. Other times he exploded in red-faced, blurting frustration.
When the mistake was his he owned it humble, honest and disconsolate. He gave credit where credit was due. With a sly grin or hearty laugh he'd sling an arm around your shoulders as if for a noogie or a playful takedown -- which as an assistant wrestling coach and a stocky, motorcycle-loving man's man, he could easily do.
His unifying trait over 17 seasons as Lisle's football coach is he cared. He coached the Lions for the right reason -- "to try to make kids better people," he said. That's why it's hard to imagine the football team without Dan Sanko leading it.
The 52-year-old health and physical education teacher told Lisle athletic director Dan Dillard the day before Thanksgiving he would not be returning for an 18th season as the Lions coach. Sanko asked that the announcement be embargoed until after the Interstate Eight Conference all-conference banquet on Dec. 1 to keep the focus on the players and not on him.
"He was a hardworking coach and his teams always represented Lisle well with a competitive spirit and class," Dillard said. "I appreciate his long service to Lisle as our head coach and how easy he made it to work with the football program."
"I always loved coach Sanko's intensity, and you could tell he cared a lot for his players," said Wilmington coach Jeff Reents. "His players played very hard for him. He will definitely be missed in the Interstate Eight Conference."
Sanko didn't miss a day of practice other than 2010 when for more than a month he remained at the hospital bedside of his wife, April, who suffered a stroke during their summer vacation in Colorado.
Sanko was all-in before the phrase was coined.
"That's kind of the way I expected the kids to be, too, as well as my staff," he said. "I hate to say 'life lessons,' but they are. As far as my philosophy goes, I always felt comfortable that I did teach those. I was comfortable being like that and holding kids accountable, and that they are really not, as a culture, held accountable. And that got a little tougher."
That included the football culture, he said. Sanko was frustrated at the varsity football team's ability to compete lacking what he felt was a competent feeder program, particularly after the Interstate Eight expanded by adding larger schools.
"I'm not blaming anybody, it's just the way it is," said Sanko, who would like to continue as an assistant.
Though Lisle was not a power after reaching the Class 3A semifinals in 1985 before his arrival, Sanko led the Lions to eight playoff appearances including six straight from 2001-06. Overall, he was 80-84. Win or lose, Sanko had a motto learned from his mentor and high school coach at Grant, Mark Barczak.
"He was the one who taught me when you win it's the kids, when you lose it's the coach," Sanko said.
Streamwood coach Mark Orszula was one of those kids. A lineman who earned a scholarship to Northern Illinois University after graduating from Lisle in 1999, Orszula returned as a football assistant for Sanko from 2005-07. That influence led Orszula to ditch an unsatisfying career in business to become a teacher and coach.
"I know he touched a lot of lives at Lisle. I know he touched my life," Orszula said.
"With him he always told you the truth -- positive or negative, he always told you the truth. He always cared for all his players," he said.
Sometimes visiting nearby apartments to wake a troubled player late for practice, seeing prospects leave for private schools, dealing with a pockmarked practice field and annual juggernauts at Wilmington and Plano, Sanko didn't get a lot of huge wins like the 22-19 upset over Nazareth in the 2001 playoff opener. But he doesn't regret a thing, not even his resignation.
"I think what always comes back to me is most coaches coach because they like being around kids. They love the sport and have a passion for both, and I did," said Sanko, who has four children of his own.
"Every day is different. You can go in with a bad mood and those kids can make you smile, and vice versa. But every day's different, every day's a challenge on the football field. And then when you put it all together on Friday and you're successful, nothing can beat that."
Congratulations to the Naperville North girls and the Hinsdale Central boys for their appearances in the last high school cross country team meet of the season, the 10th annual Nike Cross Nationals on Dec. 7 in Portland, Ore.
Naperville North, the Class 3A runner-up in Illinois, finished 13th as a team. Elly DeTurris was the Huskies' first finisher, followed by Judy Pendergast, Mary Hamilton, Maria McDaniel, Emory Griffin, Jenny Gibson and Ella Guppy.
Reigning Class 3A boys champion Hinsdale Central placed 22nd. Blake Evertsen paved the way followed by Tim Caveney, Matt McBrien, Emmett Scully, Kevin Huang and Alex Domiano.
The Dukes of Mat
On Saturday at the Plainfield North Mega Duals, York beat Willowbrook to win its 700th dual meet in history, dating back to the 1949-50 season. Current 23-year coach Terry Clarke has 435 of those victories and stands as the Dukes' winningest mat coach of all time.
Entering Friday's duels at Lyons Twp. and a tournament at Prospect on Saturday, Jordan Santiago is unbeaten at 10-0 at 160 pounds; senior heavyweight Tom Helton is 9-0 and sophomore brother Joe Helton is 9-1 at 195 pounds.
Noah Fleckenstein, at 220, is 8-2 with a team-high 6 pins. Mike Ordonez, a 132-pounder, tops York with 27 takedowns.
Multitalented Neuqua Valley junior Maya Neal, a soccer midfielder who also is a track star, has been called into action on the U.S. Under-18 Women's National Soccer Team camp taking place Dec. 14-21 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Waubonsie Valley product Vanessa DiBernardo, who just ended her senior soccer season as a midfielder at Illinois, will participate in the U.S. U23 Women's National Team camp, running Dec. 14-21 in Sunrise, Fla.
Oyster produces gem
Megan Oyster had helped win soccer tournaments she said "had meaning at the time," but none bigger than Sunday's NCAA Division I women's soccer championship.
The 2011 Neuqua Valley graduate's cross to UCLA teammate Kodi Lavrusky for the game's sole goal in the 97th minute against Florida State gave the Bruins their first title in program history and the first championship decided in overtime since 2002.
"I've had big moments in my high school career but nothing of this caliber, nothing of this level," Oyster said Tuesday, having just returned to Naperville for Christmas break.
"It was unbelievable," said the UCLA junior defender, whose teammates include Neuqua graduate Zoey Goralski.
"I was in shock, even way after I couldn't believe it," Oyster said. "I had to wait till the referee blew the whistle and the ball went fully in. I lost it. I'm still speechless, and I still feel it. Just an unbelievable moment in my career that made everything in my past, all I sacrificed for soccer, all the hours that I put in, it just made it all worth it in that moment."
The all-tournament player said the game-winning play started with the Bruins "knocking the ball around possession-style." From her left backfield spot she started to penetrate, found space "and I just kept going."
Out of the corner of her eye Oyster spied Lavrusky streaking down the field on the right. Oyster delivered the ball through the box to the sophomore, who sent the ball past Florida State keeper Kelsey Wys and inside the far post to win the College Cup.
"It was an amazing run on (Lavrusky's) part, and I was lucky enough to dribble it through," Oyster said. "I knew it was the time to do it. We didn't have that much time left -- one more overtime period, and we didn't want to go into penalty kicks."
On a wet night and slippery field in Cary, N.C., Florida State nearly won the game in the 87th minute on a header off a throw-in, but Oyster headed that attempt out of harm's way.
"I just remember being so focused that I just knew I had to get the ball out," she said.
Now the Cup is installed among UCLA's 110 championship knickknacks. Oyster is organizing a sort of shrine in her room with all the assorted tourney memorabilia including a replica trophy and some confetti launched while she hoisted the real thing.
She looks back on the road to the title -- beating No. 1 seeds North Carolina and Virginia to get there, then No. 1 Florida State -- with maybe more relish than even the championship itself.
"It was a hard-fought journey and we did it," Oyster said. "That made it that much sweeter. You can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it, and I think our team did that."
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