On the heels of the regular season’s first week, preps coordinator COLIN LIKAS checks in with the area’s three biggest schools closest to The News-Gazette:
Maroons experience little change, keep things fun
CHAMPAIGN — Pancho Moore’s fifth Champaign Central group could have been behind the 8-ball.
The Maroons’ coach admitted a hectic personal schedule made for inconsistent preseason practice layouts.
His approach to Central’s Monday regular-season opener, therefore, was “let’s just come out and have some fun.”
Safe to say the Maroons are having a blast so far.
They knocked off Charleston 56-38 in that debut game, then skirted past Terre Haute (Ind.) North 63-54 on Tuesday, both in the Paris Thanksgiving Tournament.
What made the former victory a little extra special was that Central fell to Charleston in a Class 3A regional championship bout last season.
“We still felt we should’ve been in last year’s game,” Moore said of the 75-49 defeat. “So that was the whole key.”
Sure, the Trojans’ roster changed quite a bit and the Maroons’ alignment not so much from that Feb. 14 meeting up to Monday.
But that wasn’t going to stop Central’s kids from getting pumped about gaining a measure of revenge.
“After, in the locker room, they were ... wanting to be all excited,” Moore said. “And I’m trying to tell them it’s a long road and all this stuff. Keep it level. We don’t get too high on the wins so that way we don’t get too low if we happen to lose.”
The Maroons didn’t lose too much from their varsity outfit in the most recent offseason. They graduated two seniors, neither of whom received an abundance of playing time, as well as guard Morgan Browning.
Central still is led by reigning News-Gazette All-Area first-teamer Chanice Willis, who put up 21 points Monday versus Charleston.
“We had a little heart-to-heart this summer,” Moore said. “As a result, she’s having fun this year. The last few years, I think, life and school and things have been a little stressful.”
The senior Willis doesn’t have to look far for support, either. Junior forward Azaria Smith banked 21 points in Tuesday’s triumph to go with 16 points from senior forward Kelsey Wells.
Junior guards Jayden Wilson and Aija Gwin also play critical minutes, and freshman Nevaeh Essien has shown a good defensive touch so far.
“We actually gained, in my mind,” Moore said. “There’s chemistry pieces there, and this is one of my strongest freshman classes that I’ve ever had.”
Perhaps a first regional title since 2010 — or more — could be in reach for the Maroons.
“We have a final goal where we’d like to be, but we’re not pushing it and stressing anything,” Moore said. “It’s like taking a road trip: You understand all the stops you’re going to make along the trip just so you can actually enjoy that vacation.”
Chargers looking to awe after difficult 2018-19
CHAMPAIGN — Fifth-year Centennial coach Jeff Carleton was aware things weren’t going to be easy for the Chargers right off the bat.
Their start to the 2019-2020 season, in the Paris Thanksgiving Tournament, was unforgiving. Centennial suffered consecutive losses to Terre Haute (Ind.) North (61-50) and Charleston (64-34) this past Monday and Tuesday as a result.
That’s not dampening Carleton’s enthusiasm for this outfit.
“We’re going to surprise some people,” he said. “We don’t really have that big post presence, but we’ve got some long, athletic kids. We changed philosophies a little bit.”
Perhaps it was a necessary adjustment, considering Centennial trudged through a 1-27 record last season.
Carleton now has the Chargers moving up and down the hardwood at a more rapid pace. The result, in his mind, was sticking with an out-of-state opponent on Monday that “probably would’ve beat us by 20 or 30” in the past.
“Last season, toward the end of the season ... we platoon subbed five at a time, and the goal was just to go,” Carleton said. “Just get in the habit of running. Get in the habit of playing full-court man-to-man.”
That advance preparation doesn’t change the fact Centennial still is relatively young.
Carleton boasts just three seniors after seeing five graduate earlier in the year.
At the forefront is 5-foot-4 Silvia Du, whom Carleton said is “quick as lightning” and also not scared to play with bigger enemies. Mackenzie Kersch and Lia Potter, the other two upperclassmen, also impressed Carleton in the club’s first few games.
Carleton expects significant growth from juniors Jadyn Mattfolk, Alayah Biggers and Nalia Nash — as well as Bayara McDonald, when she recovers from a torn ACL suffered last season — and believes his current sophomore crop will be key to an ongoing retooling.
“We’re doing a lot of good things,” Carleton said. “We have some things we’ve got to fix. ... I was very pleased with the kids, though.”
Tigers still putting together various pieces
URBANA — Chris Mennig isn’t afraid to express his mindset when it comes to high school hoops.
“Early in the season, everyone’s going to look bad,” the fourth-year Urbana coach said. “How you respond when you’re making mistakes is the biggest thing.”
Mennig was pleased in that regard when his Tigers began the season this past Monday with a 66-45 win over Rantoul.
It left him reason for optimism amid much uncertainty.
Urbana’s prior run ended earlier than the Tigers’ would’ve hoped, via a regional semifinal loss to Champaign Central. They’ve since lost a couple key players, as Amaya Bahler graduated and Alarea Jackson no longer is with the team.
So the onus is on seniors such as Raevyn Russell, Chian Scott and Kynzee Boastick to build around a largely young roster.
“We’re just still trying to establish what some of our practice-drill goals are right now,” Mennig said, “comparatively to years past, because you want to set a bar that is realistically obtainable.”
Mennig has asked Russell to shoulder more of a basket-filling role than the rebound-snagging position she primarily occupied in the past.
“Raevyn ... has her confidence on the floor as an athlete overall,” Mennig said.
Scott is expressing a more vocal leadership stance, and junior Sariah Townsend-Cooper is slotting in well at point guard, which Mennig was hopeful for based on past viewings.
Russell, Scott, Boastick and Townsend-Cooper are described by Mennig as “our core nucleus.”
“After that, I told the group of juniors, sophomores and freshmen it’s almost like I’m taking a handful of confetti and throwing it up in the air,” Mennig said, “and let’s see who shows confidence out of the group.”
For Mennig, that means not putting too much emphasis on last year’s 18-12 campaign, even if its end could’ve served as fuel in a different situation.
“We need kind of this first month of so of just getting acclimated with each other,” Mennig said. “... It’s just unfair for us to tag one way or the other with so many new faces.”