Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Oakwood's Nathan Wright (33) and GCMS' Jordan Lee (32) in their Monticello Holiday Hoopla game at Monticello High School on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Oakwood's Nathan Wright (33) and GCMS' Jordan Lee (32) in their Monticello Holiday Hoopla game at Monticello High School on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019.

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Sports editor MATT DANIELS offers up the latest insight on programs from four area programs:

1 FITHIAN — The favorite to win the boys’ basketball portion of the annual Vermilion County tournament is clear.Unbeaten Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, led by senior standout guard Drew Reifsteck, only needs to win two games in order to advance to the championship game at 8 p.m. on Jan. 25 inside Palmer Arena in downtown Danville. The Blue Devils (17-0) begin play at the county tournament against Westville (3-13) at 8 p.m. next Tuesday before wrapping up pool play with a 6:30 p.m. game next Thursday against Hoopeston Area (7-9). BHRA, in fact, has added a regular-season game at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday at St. Joseph-Ogden, the same day the boys’ county tournament tips off.

The other Vermilion County teams in the field, however, will need to win three games in a five-day span to reach the title game and possibly face BHRA, barring an upset by either Westville or Hoopeston Area of the Blue Devils.

Maybe Oakwood (10-8) is one of those teams who can make a run to the tournament title game. The Comets just defeated Salt Fork 50-45 on Tuesday night at home, ending a five-game winning streak by the Storm (11-4) and giving Oakwood a boost before it starts its county tournament action with a 6:45 p.m. game this Saturday against Armstrong-Potomac (1-12).

“I told the kids it’s always good to win those Tuesday night games because it’s easier to get up and go to school the next day,” Oakwood coach Jeff Mandrell said with a laugh. “Salt Fork is a real good team. They’re tough to play because they’re solid defensively and they’re so well-coached.”

Brevin Wells was a big reason why Oakwood left its home court feeling good about itself. The junior guard sank six three-pointers against Salt Fork en route to a game-high 22 points.

“When he was open, he shot it with confidence and made the shots,” Mandrell said. “He was really on, and we needed that. At times, we struggle offensively, but we’ve had some players come through for us. That was a great game for Wells.”

The win against Salt Fork was made even sweeter considering Oakwood accomplished it without junior center Isaiah Ruch. One of Oakwood’s top players, Ruch missed the game because of the flu.

“I don’t know if he’ll be able to back in time for Saturday, but we feel like he will probably play in the county tournament at some point,” Mandrell said. “He’s a good, key cog for us so we need him back when he’s healthy again.”

Senior forward Elijah Harden contributed 10 points off the bench on Tuesday night, and sophomore forward Josh Young is capable of giving the Comets a lift inside. Young produced a team-high 23 points during Oakwood’s 73-65 win in three overtimes at Georgetown-Ridge Farm on Jan. 7. Add in contributions from the likes of senior guard Jackson Powell, senior forward Jayden Cox and senior forward Kade Anderson, and Oakwood has a plethora of players that Mandrell can turn to.

“There have been some kids that have been steady and picked it up when we needed it,” Mandrell said. “We’ve got a chance to have a winning season.”

Since losing its first three games at Monticello’s Holiday Hoopla, Oakwood has responded with wins in three of its last four games. The only loss in that stretch happened last Friday at home against BHRA, with the Blue Devils easily winning 65-37 in a game where Reifsteck delivered a game-high 28 points.

“Reifsteck is just super quick and such a strong leader,” Mandrell said. “But they have some kids that come off the bench, too, and they don’t miss a beat. They’ve got the combination of being aggressive and being able to score at a high clip. They’re definitely the favorite to win county.”

2 GIBSON CITY — Winning a tournament steeped in so much tradition is one Ryan Tompkins is familiar with.The veteran Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley boys’ basketball coach guided his Falcons to the McLean County/Heart of Illinois Conference tournament title last January, the 108th edition, and also did so in 2007.

“We were the first non-county school to win it, and for those traditional schools in the county, it probably didn’t sit well,” Tompkins said. “The first year we played Lexington in the championship game, and everyone was rooting for Lexington in the gym except our fans.”

GCMS edged El Paso-Gridley 40-36 in last year’s championship game, one of many memorable wins by the Falcons en route to an eventual third-place finish in Class 2A. But when the 109th McLean County/HOIC tournament tips off this Saturday with first-round games at El Paso-Gridley, GCMS isn’t in the role of favorite. The Falcons (4-12) graduated every starter from last season’s team and will open up tournament play as the 11th seed against No. 6 seed LeRoy (11-3) at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“We have a lot of new faces this year,” Tompkins said, “and some of our seniors have been snake-bitten with injuries.”

Junior Braden Roesch is one of the Falcons’ go-to players this winter. The 6-foot-2, 160-pound forward is GCMS’s leading scorer and rebounder.

“He’s just a kid who finds a way to get to the basket,” Tompkins said. “He’s got that long basketball build where he has the ability to go up and get the ball. It seems like in the last two weeks, he’s getting continually better and better. It’s nice to see.”

Senior guard Cade Elliott, senior guard Tanner Cribbett and junior guard Nathan Kallal, among others, are options the Falcons can turn to when they need a key bucket. Tompkins’ hope is the Falcons can perhaps surprise a few teams in the upcoming week and use a solid run at the McLean County/HOIC tournament to spring GCMS forward before 2A regional action starts next month.

“The kids have done a good job of continuing to work and have had a good approach,” Tompkins said. “Practices have still been upbeat, and that’s a testament to the kids we have because if you have some tough losses, you can dread coming to practice. That hasn’t been the case.”

3 FISHER — A month ago, the Fisher girls’ basketball team was in the midst of a difficult season.Sitting at only 1-7, the Bunnies were mired in a five-game losing skid entering their Dec. 13 game at Blue Ridge.

“We played tough teams early and after that, I thought we were practicing a lot better,” Fisher coach Ken Ingold said. “It wasn’t coming out in the games yet.”

Now, Fisher is seeing the efforts from the practice floor translate into games. The Bunnies (9-9) have won eight of their last 10 games going into Thursday’s 7 p.m. tip at Flanagan-Cornell and carry the sixth seed into the start of Saturday’s 13-team McLean County/Heart of Illinois Conference tournament.

“I was surprised, to be honest with you, that we were sixth. I don’t know if the other coaches like me or what the deal is,” Ingold said with a laugh. “The tournament is going to be a fight, but it should be fun.”

Fisher opens up play at the McLean County/HOIC tournament at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday against No. 11 Tri-Valley in a first-round game at El Paso-Gridley. Knock off the Vikings for the second time this season — Fisher won 55-51 when the two teams met in Downs on Dec. 16 — and a quarterfinal game awaits against No. 3 Deer Creek-Mackinaw at 5:30 p.m. next Monday at El Paso-Gridley. Get by the Chiefs, who Fisher defeated 52-46 on Monday night, and a top-four finish is assured.

Leading the charge for Fisher is 5-foot-8 senior guard Sidney Hood, who surpassed 1,000 career points earlier this season.

Senior guard Kylee Bishop and freshman guard Kallie Evans complement Hood in Fisher’s backcourt, with senior forward Brianna Keeton, junior forward Leah McCoy, senior forward Ashley Smith and senior center Ashlyn Carpenter providing help in the frontcourt.

“We didn’t have any seniors last year, so we took our lumps, but even last year, I thought we were making steady improvement,” Ingold said. “We’ve been able to win some close games in our conference, and that kind of gave us some confidence.”

Now, Fisher hopes to sustain its success the rest of the season.

“We’re pretty good defensively and we rebound the ball well,” Ingold said. “We’ve just got to score enough. There are going to be a lot of close games for us down the stretch.”

4 BISMARCK — This is the fourth and final opportunity for Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin senior standout Emily Meidel to win a Vermilion County tournament championship.Same for fellow seniors Sierra Bryant, Ryley Cash and Emma Clapp.

“The county tournament means a lot to us at Bismarck,” veteran BHRA girls’ basketball coach Mike Stephens said. “This group hasn’t won a conference championship yet. They do have a regional title, but the county tournament is something that we certainly have our sights set on.”

BHRA (17-4) receives a quality test on Thursday night at Vermilion Valley Conference opponent Schlarman (9-6) before its stay at the Vermilion County tournament tips off at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday against Georgetown-Ridge Farm (0-13) at Palmer Arena in Danvile.

“Thursday night is a very important game for us,” Stephens said. “The kids are aware of that, and it’s going to have an impact on the conference race. It would be nice to get a win like that to go into the county tournament on a positive note, but we’ve just got to play our game.”

Meidel, a four-year standout who has 2,126 career points going into Thursday night, will need to keep producing at a high level in the upcoming week if the Blue Devils want to win their first county tournament since 2014. They’ve come close each of Meidel’s first three seasons, but ended up losing to Oakwood each of those seasons in the title game.

The Comets (16-5) begin defense of their tournament title at 8 p.m. next Monday against Armstrong-Potomac (4-12) and are one of two Illinois teams to have beaten BHRA this season.

“We’ve had some really good battles with Oakwood the last three years,” Stephens said. “We’d like to get through it, but the dilemma is nobody is putting us in the championship game. You’ve got to earn it.”

Stephens, who started coaching the Blue Devils in 1993, said he didn’t understand the importance of the Vermilion County tournament early on in his career.

But he gets it now.

“It really took me a while to have it set in just how important the county tournament is,” Stephens said. “I was more of a postseason guy then, and I still am to an extent. But when you talk to past players and some of their favorite recollections are of winning a county title, you start to appreciate it even more.”

Which is why Stephens wants to send Meidel and her other senior teammates out with a flourish during their last time playing at Palmer Arena. BHRA also tips off against Westville (3-17) at 6:30 p.m. next Monday and Salt Fork (11-9) at 8 p.m. next Wednesday, needing wins against those two foes to solidify a spot in next Friday’s 8 p.m. championship game.

Meidel will undoubtedly get her points in the next week, but her contributions go beyond just scoring.

“Each year she’s progressed,” Stephens said. “She’s become physically stronger. She’s able to play through contact a lot better than she was able to early in her career. She impacts this team in all ways and not just in performance, but her leadership and support of her teammates is just so important to us. When she’s on the bench, if we’re in a big win and we’ve got our subs in, she’s up clapping and supporting them. That’s the type of person she is.”

But Meidel can’t do it all for the Blue Devils. So seeing Rome, Audrey Taylor and Cash all hit double-digit point totals during Monday’s win against Georgetown-Ridge Farm was encouraging.

“Slowly but surely our kids have improved as shooters,” Stephens said. “They understand what we’re looking for in each set, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in Cash, Rome, Clapp and Bryant. Everybody is playing well at the right time for us.”

Matt Daniels is sports editor at The News-Gazette. His email is mdaniels@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mdaniels_NG).