Fred Kroner's midseason hoops report

Fred Kroner's midseason hoops report

In 29 days, the postseason will start in girls’ basketball with regional tournaments
for Class 1A and 2A schools. The small-school boys have 43 days until their tournament trail begins. Executive sports editor Fred Kroner offered his views on midseason awards:

Boys

Top 10
SCHOOL    REC.    COMMENT
1. St. Joseph-Ogden     12-2    Defensive average: 48.3 ppg
2. Arthur-Lovington    10-1    Defensive average: 40.5 ppg
3. Ridgeview    15-0    Defensive average: 39.2 ppg
4. Centennial    11-4    Defensive average: 55.7 ppg
5. Bismarck-Henning    14-1    Defensive average: 37.8 ppg
6. Cissna Park    8-5    Defensive average: 47.4 ppg
7. St. Thomas More    8-5    Defensive average: 59.9 ppg
8. Salt Fork    11-4    Defensive average: 43.6 ppg
9. Cerro Gordo/Bement    10-4    Defensive average: 61.4 ppg
10. Milford    8-0    Defensive average: 46.3 ppg

Best team: St. Joseph-Ogden
The Spartans don’t have a player taller than 6-foot-3, but they have three capable senior scorers (Hunter Hart, Nate Michael and Brent Schluter), a sophomore point guard (Jake Pence) who has a pass-first mentality and two other major contributors (Tyler Harms and Dalton Walsh) who can score in double figures on any given night. Throw in an emphasis on defense and it’s a winning combination.

“You don’t have to have great size to be successful in basketball, but when you don’t have that size, you do have to be even better at the little things such as footwork when guarding the post, defensive pressure on the perimeter and boxing out every possession,” SJ-O coach Brian Brooks said. “We didn’t have much height last year, either, but we had success because we were incredibly selfless and had a high level of willingness to do all the little things to make our team better. We brought back a few guys from last year’s team that saw firsthand the rewards you receive when players are so selfless and willing to do whatever it takes to help their team, and it covers up areas where the team isn’t as strong, such as size. This group as a whole is getting closer to those types of intangibles, but we aren’t quite there yet.”

Midseason MVP: Cerro Gordo/Bement’s Conner Gross
The popular choice would be Centennial’s Michael Finke, but the UI recruit was held under double figures by Normal Community and North Chicago. The most consistent senior is the Broncos’ Gross. In his first 12 games, he wasn’t held to fewer than 13 points and eclipsed 20 points in nine of those games. Gross — a Parkland College baseball recruit — is one of the area’s top three-point marksmen and is shooting 89 percent from the free throw line.

“He works extremely hard, and when your best player is one of your hardest workers, that sure helps,” CG/Bement coach Scott Bacon said. “Prior to coaching him, I’ve worked UI camps and had a chance to work with him. He’s ultra-competitive and is not your typical high school player. He wants to be coached and has a refuse-to-lose competitive edge. He’s an amazing shooter, and whether he is moving forward or backpedaling, he gets his feet set correctly.”

Midseason surprise: St. Thomas More
Coach Matt Kelley’s team is coming off a 16-10 season, but the current 8-5 start is somewhat unexpected. Two freshmen have emerged as top scorers — Clavin Davis and Douglas Wallen each have had 20-point games — and two sophomores brand new to the varsity — Lawrence Blomberg and Joel Yumba — have registered double-figure scoring games as well. Combined with the steady play of senior veterans Storm Joop and Michael Plecki, STM has avoided a rebuilding year. “Our young guys get a lot of attention, which they have deserved, but we wouldn’t be where we are without our senior leadership and toughness,” Kelley said. “Storm Joop, Mike Plecki and Keaton Davis have been huge this season. They have been willing to help our younger guys and show them how hard you have to work to compete at this level. They do a lot of things that don’t show up on stat sheets.” The Sabers received a bonus this week. Senior Kyler Jones — who started every game last year — returned from a knee injury suffered in soccer.

Best coaching job: Cissna Park’s Kevin Long
After losing nearly 75 percent of the offensive output from last season’s Elite Eight team, the school with 103 students has beaten area Top 10 teams Salt Fork and STM as well as a strong Paxton-Buckley-Loda squad, which received votes in this week’s Class 2A state poll. In the process, the veteran coach surpassed the 400-win mark in his 24th year.

“Winning the nine regionals and the four sectionals means more to me than the 400 wins,” said Long, whose father (Bob) is a Hall of Fame football coach. “What is most gratifying and satisfying are the lifelong relationships that basketball has allowed me to build. I love, like a son, each and every player that has been a part of our program.”

Cissna Park (8-5) has lost to just one Class 1A opponent (St. Anne).

“It all goes back to the kids,” said Long, whose brother (Matt) is closing in on 400 wins with the Camp Point Central girls’ basketball team. “I have great kids who are very coachable and play their roles well. There’s not a better place to teach and coach than Cissna Park. We don’t believe in rebuilding. We expect to win. A lot of these kids were playing in practice (last year) against those kids (on a 21-win regional and sectional championship team).”

Mark your calendar: Friday, Jan. 17
Head to St. Joseph-Ogden. The state-ranked Spartans (No. 6 this week) host state-ranked Teutopolis (No. 8) in a nonconference showdown between two Class 2A powers. The junior varsity game will tip at 6 p.m., and the varsity teams should be on the court by 7:30. “We do try and play teams and programs like Teutopolis,” SJ-O coach Brooks said. “Playing good competition and good programs in the regular season helps you prepare for the postseason. Teams like Teutopolis are really going to guard you, and those are the kind of teams you are going to have to beat in the postseason if you are going to make a deep run. Talent on each team changes every year, especially at the small-school level, but having the ability to guard people doesn’t change, and that is what makes certain programs successful year in and year out. The more teams we play like that throughout the season, the better we will be at the end of the season.”

Best game to date: Central 80, Centennial 79 (3OT)
The thriller Dec. 6 was as close as the final score indicates. In the last four-minute overtime session, there were six lead changes. Fifteen players scored, and seven hit three-pointers as Maroons coach Wayne McClain had a successful debut in the intense Unit 4 rivalry. The rematch is Jan. 31 at Centennial. “There were times we would take control, then they would take control and, at one point, they were definitely in position (to win),” McClain said. “There were so many people at the game, and the atmosphere was electric prior to the game. As an introductory game for me to the city rivalry and the conference, I personally couldn’t have scripted an outcome any better. There were so many ups and downs. It boiled down to resiliency. Either one of us could have won that game. It was an exciting high school basketball game.”

Girls

Top 10

SCHOOL    REC.    COMMENT
1. St. Thomas More     16-2    Defensive average: 37.3 ppg
2. Sullivan    13-1    Defensive average: 47.7 ppg
3. Clinton     13-2    Defensive average: 40.0 ppg
4. Watseka     14-2    Defensive average: 37.1 ppg
5. Iroquois West     15-1    Defensive average: 35.2 ppg
6. Centennial    11-3    Defensive average: 39.4 ppg
7. Shiloh    14-3    Defensive average: 27.2 ppg
8. Arcola    12-3    Defensive average: 34.7 ppg
9. St. Joseph-Ogden    11-3    Defensive average: 36.4 ppg
10. Prairie Central    12-3    Defensive average: 36.7 ppg

Best team: St. Thomas More
Two seniors (Randa Harshbarger and Courtney Wax) start at a school with an enrollment of 292, but they’ve been up to a challenging schedule. Eight of the first 17 games were against opponents that were state-ranked or receiving votes. At least four more ranked teams remain on the regular season schedule. STM is averaging more than 20 points per game in the opening quarter and has trailed once entering the game’s second eight minutes. “Overall, I can’t complain having had the bull’s-eye on our back from the onset,” coach Chris Mennig said. “We have had glimmers of greatness. Our starting five never had the chance to play together full strength even once this past summer, so there has been a lot of chemistry being built starting in November, which is a bit challenging.”

Midseason MVP: St. Thomas More’s Tori McCoy
The 6-foot-4 sophomore can dominate inside on offense and defense, but that’s only a part of why she’s regarded as the nation’s best female player in the Class of 2016. She can handle the ball, distribute the ball or shoot from the perimeter. She still makes some unnecessary fouls, but it’s worth the price of admission to see her in action. “When she is ‘dialed in’ she can take over a game in a matter of minutes and show why she is one of the best in the country in her class,” Mennig said. “Tori continues to develop her perimeter shooting and ball-handling as we are still encouraging that aspect of her game when it is there. Just as with any underclassman, the ability to mentally stay in any game — no matter what the score, adversity, officials — is important. Her shot-blocking and ability to use both hands comfortably has improved. She is getting fewer over-the-back calls while offensive rebounding, so she is getting a stronger understanding of when to go after the ball and positioning.”

Midseason surprise: Sullivan
Former Redskins standout Sheri Adams McCain (who started for the school’s unbeaten 1991 state championship and nationally ranked team) has turned the program around in her third year as head coach. Her squad has won 13 games in a row, including a one-point decision against Clinton when it was state-ranked. Sullivan is thriving with limited numbers. Last season’s regional championship team had 10 players. This season, there are 11. “It’s a little different than when we were kids,” McCain said. “We lived to play basketball. The tradition is coming back. It has just taken a little time. I’m hoping with more success, there will be more who want to come out.” There’s just one senior (guard Maggie Plank) and only two squad members taller than 5-7 (5-11 Brittin Boyer and 5-9 Emily Neuhauser), but the team has excelled on the glass. “We crash the boards and get key rebounds in key moments,” McCain said. “Brittin owns the defensive boards. Any of our girls can score. It’s an all-around team effort.”

Best coaching job: Iroquois West’s Kristy Arie
The Raiders lost their scoring leader and only senior (Morgan Small) with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 3, but it didn’t devastate the state’s second-ranked Class 1A team. They improved their winning streak to 15 games despite never having more than two non-freshmen or sophomores on the court at the same time. “Morgan was a huge piece to our puzzle, but we also knew that the rest of our team was solid,” Arie said. “I think losing her has really motivated the others to step up and play better for Morgan. We have all taken it hard not having her on the court with us, especially since it’s her senior year, so I think each and every one of the girls wants us to succeed and make a deep postseason run so that Morgan can be a part of that again even if she can’t be on the court. Big keys for us in our success have been our shooting ability from the guard positions. Elena Sanchez, Skylar Small and Grace Schroeder can all knock down the long ball. We have two big posts in Taylor Cultra and Andrea Fuoss (both 6-footers) and in many games have had the advantage with our size alone.”

Mark your calendar: Saturday, Jan. 25
Can’t say for sure which schools will play in the finals at 6:30 p.m. (assuming the day’s earlier games end on time) of the Sangamon Valley Conference tournament at Parkland College, but two likely entries are St. Thomas More and sixth-ranked Watseka, which fell behind the Sabers 48-6 in the first half of a previous meeting. Or, Iroquois West or St. Joseph-Ogden could play. All four schools are ranked this week among the area’s Top 10 teams. No other area conference has as many representatives. We’ll see what difference a college court makes. “We are seeing a ‘recalibrating’ of what 2A basketball now is,” STM’s Mennig said. ”Our conference now has players that are ‘all-state worthy.’ East Central Illinois and the south-to-southwest region are the state’s two strongest at the present time for 2A.”

Best game to date:
Unity 37, St. Joseph-Ogden 34 (OT)

One sequence in the overtime epitomized the effort that Unity coach Kelly Gallick is seeing from her 9-7 team. After a missed Unity shot, the ball was going out of bounds, but Hannah Stone didn’t give up on it. “Typically, she will win any 50-50 battle,” Gallick said. Stone got a hand on the ball and threw it back inbounds. Teammate Rebecca Maxwell caught it and sunk a three-pointer. It wasn’t the game-winner in terms of providing the final points, but Gallick said, “That was the turning point.” The nonconference triumph came against an opponent that will be a league foe next school year when the Okaw Valley Conference reorganizes. Before the outcome was finalized, the Rockets needed two late-game defensive stops. That’s an area in which Gallick’s team excels. “In that situation, our kids are more confident playing defense and getting a stop because we are such a defensive-minded team,” she said. “When they need a stop, they will do what it takes.”

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