McClain helped instill swagger
CHAMPAIGN — Day 1 was an open gym.
It was an opportunity for Wayne McClain to meet athletes who might be on his first Champaign Central boys’ basketball team.
It was a chance for the players to introduce themselves to the coach.
McClain wasted no time in establishing expectations.
“He told us we were going to win 20 games,” senior Kameron Rowan recalled.
With the memories of a 20-loss season fresh in their minds, the Central players wanted to believe, but Rowan acknowledged, “A few of us thought, ‘That sounds a little tough.’ ”
McClain wanted the players to think of themselves as winners.
“I did see potential,” he said, “but that was my ‘bar.’ I talked about being champions, holding the bar up high and not letting guys go under, but jumping over it.”
Rowan and the Maroons return to action Friday night (7 o’clock) in the championship game of Mattoon’s Class 3A sectional. They play the state’s top-ranked team, Lincoln.
“This time of the year, any time you step on the floor, that means you’re playing well,” McClain said.
His players have seen the progress.
“We were playing our best in midseason and continued to grow and grow,” senior Isiah Smith said.
Rowan was one of the players who made sure the team wasn’t satisfied with the development it had made by early February.
“I’ve improved, and the team has improved, but you can never settle for anything,” he said. “You have to keep going and going.
“Especially in March, when it’s win or go home, we have to play our best.”
Central (18-10) is on a three-game winning streak. Included is a victory against the No. 1 seed in the regional (Centennial) and a win against the former No. 1 team in the state (Springfield Lanphier).
“I don’t think we’re unstoppable,” McClain said, “but you’ve got to have confidence. We’re playing good basketball right now.”
Senior Sean Suggs remembered the successes his class had in their early years at Central. A three-loss season as ninth-graders was followed by a four-loss season as sophomores.
“I thought we’d do better (than 5-20 as a junior), but I didn’t think we’d do this good. I didn’t think we’d get a coach who’d totally change the season around.”
Rowan cited a transition period a year ago when many of the 13 underclassmen on the varsity roster were new to that level.
“We didn’t know how different it was from JV,” Rowan said, “how fast the game was and how big and strong the players were.”
Rowan started developing good feelings about this season shortly after practices began.
“We work way harder,” Rowan said. “In practice, I saw how hard it was. We felt like college players.”
McClain said there wasn’t one thing in particular that made him think the Maroons could become a team to reckon with.
“They play hard, and I felt like the guys were smart and could do things off the bounce,” McClain said. “Isiah created an aura where guys had to play hard. The intensity level was always higher when Isiah was there. Kam is so multifaceted, and Sean is a big-bodied guy who can shoot the ball. I could tell they had a chance to be decent.”
The coach also made sure the players saw him as more than the person in charge of the team.
“I’ve felt you’ve got to coach hard, and when you’re here, it’s business,” McClain said. “After they leave the floor, it’s important they see you in a different light, not as a dictator. I want to balance it.
“After it’s over, we’re one of the more fun groups. We understand we’re all in this together.”
McClain has hosted team dinners and has even been known to break out a dance move in the locker room. After a game.
“As a team, we act like a family,” Rowan said. “We listen to what Coach McClain says. He’s always thinking about basketball and life situations.”
One point the coach makes is to take advantage of opportunities. Another one arrives for the Central boys’ basketball team Friday night.
“We’re ready to perform at our finest,” Smith said. “We tend to compete because our coach is competitive and doesn’t back down.”
At stake for the Central/Lincoln winner is an Elite Eight berth and a Tuesday super-sectional matchup at Springfield’s Prairie Capital Convention Center against the Highland Sectional winner, where Cahokia and Marion are playing Friday night.
Suggs can’t predict the outcome, but there’s one thing he knows.
“We’ll come out with intensity, hungry and trying to win,” he said. “These past few games have been the best in my career ever.”
No ranking, no problem
Central is among the state’s 16 surviving Class 3A boys’ basketball teams. A look at how those squads were rated in the final Associated Press media state poll:
Chicago Orr 3
Chicago Morgan Park 5
Chicago Bogan 6
Rockford Lutheran 8
North Chicago 9
Oak Park Fenwick 14
Chicago Hyde Park 15
Champaign Central —
Joliet Catholic —
Mundelein Carmel —
Peoria Notre Dame —