CHAMPAIGN — Clayton Jones still was a year away from entering high school. Two years away, too, from playing varsity basketball for Champaign Central.
But if there was such a thing as an ex officio member of the 2007-08 Maroons, the then-eighth-grader seemingly fit the description.
Central coach Scott Davis still vividly recalls the sight of Jones and his father, Verdell Jones II, taking in virtually every practice that season from seats in the balcony of Combes Gym.
"Clayton saw hours of Champaign Central practices when he was an eighth-grader," Davis said this week.
Jones also was welcomed into the Maroons' locker room on game nights, no doubt a perquisite of being the kid brother of one of the team's veterans — two-time News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year Verdell Jones III.
"I was there every single game," Clayton said. "I felt like I was part of the team. I was in the locker room, cheering them on, getting them pumped up — like I was part of the team. Really exciting."
An impressionable middle-schooler would have been enthusiastic about his connection to those Maroons under any circumstances, but certainly it was an experience made all the more memorable by Central's march to the 2008 state tournament, where it finished third.
Just as certain, Clayton Jones had similar aspirations for his own varsity career. Aspirations that until this season fell strikingly short of what big brother realized during his own three-year varsity career. Entering his senior year, Clayton's postseason record was 2-2; Verdell left Central with a postseason audit of 11-3.
"I always compare my season with how my brother's was when he was in high school, and I always came up short," Clayton said. "It was hard. I mean, I haven't been out of regionals since I've been in high school."
Make that hadn't. This season, the 6-foot guard and his teammates not only cleared the regional barrier but now find themselves among the 16 teams still standing in the Class 3A tournament.
"Winning that (regional) was huge," Jones said. "I mean, we're not done, but winning that was huge. That was a step in the right direction."
The next step on Central's postseason journey takes place Friday night. And it figures to present the biggest hurdle yet. Standing in the way of the Maroons (19-10) in the Lincoln Sectional final is the state's top-ranked Class 3A team: Springfield Lanphier.
The Lions (26-3) have won 15 of their last 16 games, the lone loss occurring Feb. 18 against then-No. 2 Peoria Central.
Lanphier has a well-earned reputation for an unrelenting press that can be withering. On Wednesday night, Davis saw the Lions produce 24 points off turnovers in a 71-54 sectional semifinal win against Decatur MacArthur.
"You're going to see 32 minutes of pressing," he said. "They're extremely quick."
Although Lanphier typically starts three players 6-1 or shorter, rebounding rarely is an issue. The Lions are particularly aggressive on the offensive glass. Larry Austin Jr., a 6-1 guard, racked up eight of his game-high 11 rebounds against MacArthur on the offensive end.
"They crash the boards hard," Davis said. "They use their athleticism. They're going to get (the ball) up on the boards and try to go put it back."
It's clear, then, that ball security and defensive rebounding will be critical to Central's chances. Davis says his Maroons have been forced to contend with similar quickness and pressure this season against the likes of Montgomery (Ala.) Carver, McCluer North (Mo.) and Big 12 Conference rival Urbana.
"So I think we've seen it," Davis said.
As has been the case against most opponents, the Maroons will have an edge on Lanphier in inside size and strength. With a starting frontcourt that stands 6-4, 6-5, 6-5, Central is at its best offensively when it's working the ball inside and attacking the basket.
"From what we understand, what little difficulty (Lanphier has) had this year has sometimes come against teams that have some size inside, and maybe we can take advantage of it," Davis said. "But we know their pressure's going to be relentless. They're going to be quick, and we've got to be careful."
Friday's game offers parallels to the last time Central reached a sectional final. The 2008 Maroons also faced a top-ranked team at that stage of the tournament. In one of the most memorable wins in Central's rich basketball history, the underdog Maroons shocked undefeated Decatur Eisenhower 65-63 at Mount Zion.
Of course, Clayton Jones was there.
"I've never been in a high school atmosphere like that," he said. "It was like North Carolina-Duke in there. It was crazy that night."
Can history repeat itself Friday night? Verdell Jones III's younger brother hopes so.
"That would be huge," Clayton said. "Probably bring me to tears. That would be amazing, man."