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Comets grabbing timely momentum

FITHIAN — Stephanie Marsh’s Oakwood girls faced a quick challenge to their 2021-22 season. One that would set the tone for the initial few weeks of the Comets’ games.

“Our school went on (COVID-19) pause, and we lost our first week of practice,” Marsh said. “We’re just now getting to the part of the season where we’re really starting to click and understand all the things we’ve talked about.”

That shows in Oakwood’s three-game win streak, which the Comets (8-13) hope to extend to four on Thursday via a road battle at Georgetown-Ridge Farm.

Then comes a quick turnaround to immediately face the Buffaloes once again, on Saturday in a 10:30 a.m. Vermilion County Tournament opener at David S. Palmer Arena in Danville.

Oakwood holds the No. 4 seed, while G-RF possesses the No. 6 seed.

“I wasn’t really quite expecting the four seed, but it is what it is this year. It’s hard to look at scores and know how to rate people because you don’t know who’s missing whom,” said Marsh, in her fourth season running the Comets. “It’s tough to beat a team twice, especially within (three) days. So it’s not ideal to be playing Georgetown back to back.”

Oakwood has played some of its best basketball against Vermilion Valley Conference opponents, including wins over fellow Vermilion County Tournament participants Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, Hoopeston Area and Westville.

The Comets also enter the county tournament with the knowledge they’ll compete in next Friday’s placement-game round.

The seven-team tournament field is split into two pools, and those in the three-team pool — the Nos. 1, 4 and 6 seeds — automatically earn spots in the placement contests.

“It’s definitely got pros and cons,” Marsh said. “You get that extra game (in the four-team pool), and I feel that extra game is always a benefit.”

Getting more games under its belt has been a boon for Oakwood’s roster.

Especially standing out is 6-foot-1 junior forward Addie Wright. She logged repetitions as a freshman alongside current Murray State star Katelyn Young, and now Wright is the Comets’ dominant paint force.

“She’s definitely gotten in better shape, knowing she’s had to step up and play more minutes for us,” Marsh said. “You can definitely see some improvement, even from the start of the season to where she is now.”

Senior guard Ashlynn Pinnick has managed to exceed Wright’s scoring output on multiple occasions, making the two a solid duo.

“She flies under the radar for the most part but always manages to score some points for us,” Marsh said. “It’s like the other teams aren’t focused on her until we’re playing them.”

Senior Karsen Rupp and junior Kalie Tison also have stepped up of late to provide key offensive contributions for Oakwood, which previously captured the 2019 county tournament title during Marsh’s first season at the helm.

“We’ve very young ... but we’ve had our older girls be our leaders most of the time, so that’s really helped the girls adjust and step up and know it’s going to be OK,” Marsh said. “So I hope it stays that way.”

Storm boys pose danger for opponents

CATLIN — Andrew Johnson’s Salt Fork boys won’t enter the Vermilion County Tournament with the strongest recent resume.

The Storm (11-6) has lost three of its last five outings, including games against fellow tournament members Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin and Georgetown-Ridge Farm.

But Salt Fork boasts the No. 3 seed for a reason. And that recent spate of results may be a bit misleading.

“We got ourselves back to full strength (in Tuesday’s win at Cissna Park), and I think we took a step in the right direction,” Johnson said. “We’ve had to battle, just like everybody, with people missing due to sickness. ... That’s messed with a little bit of our chemistry. But overall, we’re heading into the tournament the best we can be right now.”

The Storm will face fifth-seeded Armstrong-Potomac in Saturday’s 5:15 p.m. first-day pool-play game. Salt Fork won a previous matchup between the squads, 62-32, during December’s BSN Classic.

“This tournament has a lot of competitive teams,” said Johnson, the Storm’s coach since 2012. “I don’t see one team walking up and blowing everybody out. Each and every night, if you don’t bring it, you have the chance of being beat.”

There are several athletes who should have a meaningful say in whether that happens to Salt Fork during four days of tournament play.

Junior forward Garrett Taylor is — literally and figuratively — the biggest of those players.

The 6-foot-3 reigning Class 1A state discus champion is a problem for most of the Storm’s opponents.

“His ability to be effective inside on the glass, as a defensive presence and scoring inside, really gives us an advantage some teams don’t have at their disposal,” Johnson said. “He’s a double-double machine, and when he’s on he’s one of those guys ... (who is) really difficult to stop.”

That said, Johnson feels Salt Fork operates best when junior Blake Norton is at his best.

“Guys that have the ball in their hands have a lot of control over the pace, style and tempo that’s being played. Blake has a lot of control over that,” Johnson said. “Garrett Taylor commands a lot of boards, but Blake Norton (also) does a tremendous job as a rebounder.”

Seniors Colden Earles, Camden Smoot and Michael Jones, junior Blake Hettmansberger and freshman Jameson Remole also will need to be in top form for Salt Fork, especially in Thursday’s 8 p.m. pool-play finale against second-seeded BHRA and in any of Saturday’s placement games for which the Storm might qualify in Danville.

“The five guys on the floor, you have to have balance,” Johnson said. “You can’t be a one-man show or a two-man show.”

Cornjerkers surging in new year

HOOPESTON — Aaron Fell’s Hoopeston Area girls didn’t seem to be having a season to remember through the end of 2021.

The Cornjerkers carried a 3-9 record into the new year along with losing streaks of three and four games.

Hoopeston Area’s first week of 2022, however, was much more enjoyable for program members.

The Cornjerkers (6-10) earned wins over three teams that were above .500 at the time of the games, defeating Paxton-Buckley-Loda 44-43, Milford 46-41 and Arcola 39-38 to go with a five-point loss to a quality Monticello team.

Fell’s bunch will try to snag one more triumph — hosting Cissna Park on Thursday — before rolling into the Vermilion County Tournament.

“We haven’t been healthy. We’ve had numerous girls out with COVID quarantine or actually COVID,” said Fell, Hoopeston Area’s fourth-year coach. “And then after Christmas break, it just seemed like we gelled. ... Honestly, I can’t take any credit for it other than having a hard practice. They just figured it out themselves.”

One thing that didn’t necessarily need solving as much as a conclusion was the absence of senior starter Tori Birge, who returned at the start of the current semester.

Now, the Cornjerkers are feeling whole and have found a groove.

“They have no fear. And once they got a taste of (winning) against Paxton, it was on from there,” Fell said. “We’ve had defensive stops at the end against Paxton ... against Arcola, and honestly they got embarrassed against Milford in a Christmas tournament at Iroquois West. I just think they had revenge on their mind.”

Freshman Claire Dixon has taken on Hoopeston Area’s point-guard responsibilities and is excelling. Fell described junior Klaire Pilcher as “the Dennis Rodman of our team” because of her rebounding.

Junior Bre Crose is a standout athlete who rated 17th in the 2021 Class 1A girls’ 100-meter dash state field. And junior Lacie Breymeyer submits a strong defensive pedigree for the Cornjerkers.

“Since our first practice, I’ve been telling them we have an incredibly talented team,” Fell said. “My expectations are high, just like they were the first week of the season.”

That remains true in the county tournament despite Hoopeston Area being given the No. 7 seed. The Cornjerkers begin play at 1:30 p.m. Saturday against second-seeded Armstrong-Potomac in Danville.

“That lit a fire under them,” Fell said. “They know we’re probably not the last seed, but it is what we got with what we were dealt this year.”

Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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