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O’Brien: Marco Pettinato “has the heart of a basketball player”

Marco Pettinato, the junior guard behind Lincoln-Way West’s incredible Cinderella run to the Class 3A state title game, wasn’t even supposed to be a basketball player.

“No one in my family had played basketball before me, so it was kind of a big thing,” Pettinato said. “My dad is a football guy, he’s definitely more of a brute.

Pettinato was projected as a major college football prospect before he even entered high school. But he’s a gym rat at heart, a basketball aficionado. Pettinato has even made regular trips to Carver Arena to watch the state tournament, back when he was just a fan.

“We didn’t really want him to walk away from football,” Theresa Pettinato, Marco’s mother, said. “We thought that would be his future. But he was very adamant about it. Now we realize he has the body of a football player and the heart of a basketball player.”

The body was the main issue with the transition. Pettinato is wide and strong, but only 6-1. That means he’ll have to play guard in college.

“Early on I was tall for my age and I played as a big” Pettinato said. “Everyone was telling me I couldn’t make the transition to guard.”

With special kids like Pettinato, there is often one teacher or coach that will light a spark. For Pettinato that was James Sotos, the father of one of his club basketball teammates.

“[Sotos] believed I could make the transition and be a good college basketball player,” Pettinato said. “I knew that basketball was what I wanted to do and when someone like him, that played in Europe, saw the potential and believed in me it gave me the confidence that I could do it. That conversation meant the world to me.”

Sotos’ son Jimmy is currently a standout point guard at Conant.

“I’ve been around basketball most of my life,” James Sotos said. “Every six to seven years I’ll see a kid who defies all the odds when all the experts say there’s a million reasons he can’t succeed, because he’s too small, too slow, can’t do this, can’t do that. But people who have said that about Marco didn’t know his heart. He has an incredible abundance of integrity, tenacity, and toughness, and he’s far more skilled than people give him credit for. More than anything, I was incredibly impressed with his passion.”

That passion has lit a fire under the entire New Lenox community. Students at Liberty Junior High, Pettinato’s old school, watched the Warriors beat Peoria Manual in the state semifinals on Friday. They also watched the game at crosstown rival Lincoln-Way Central.

Win or lose on Saturday, the New Lenox Fire Department will meet the Warriors when they arrive back in town. A parade is planned from Liberty Junior High to Lincoln-Way West.

“It’s something that has really brought the community together,” Theresa Pettinato said. “Things have been difficult since they announced that [Lincoln-Way] North was closing, so this has been a great thing.”

Pettinato is poised for a monster senior season, but college coaches generally don’t taking chances on awkwardly-sized players.

“College coaches will focus on what they see as limitations and miss out on an opportunity that transcends vertical jump, aesthetics, and speed,” Sotos said. “And they won’t realize it until he beats them because more than anything, Marco is a flat out winner, but he wins with humility and integrity. He always has, and some lucky college coach is going to convince Marco to play in his program, and four years later, he’ll say that ‘getting Marco was the best move I’ve made.’”