TUSCOLA — Jacob Kibler takes note.
So does Jalen Quinn. Cole Cunningham. Grant Hardwick.
And others on the Tuscola boys’ basketball team.
Step into an opposing gym — which the undefeated Warriors will do on Friday night for a 7:30 p.m. game at Clinton that also doubles as Tuscola’s Central Illinois Conference opener — and plenty of black and gold is dispersed throughout the crowd.
Rightfully so based on how Tuscola has performed through the first month of the season. A season that began with increased expectations and one the Warriors have delivered upon.
Hence, Tuscola boys’ basketball is quickly becoming the talk of the town this winter in Douglas County.
“We have a really good fan base that comes to a lot of our games,” said Kibler, a senior forward for the Warriors. “The more games we win, the more fans come. It’s really welcoming to go to an away game and see so many people there.”
Tuscola (12-0) has put on a show more times than not this season, winning its games by an average of 17.8 points. Only three have been decided by single digits going into Friday’s road game against Clinton (4-13).
“I kind of expected to have this level of success,” senior guard Silas Hortin said. “This group has been playing together for a while, and then adding a key piece like Jalen, he just brings us all together. We just click. I’m not at all surprised that we’re 12-0 so far.”
Quinn carries the charge for Tuscola.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, with Division I interest from the likes of Illinois, Missouri, Purdue and Virginia Tech, is averaging 21.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals. He’s the catalyst for what is a potent offense.
The outside shooting combination of Cunningham and Hardwick, two junior guards, means teams can’t just try to limit Quinn, either.
Cunningham is Tuscola’s second-leading scorer, averaging 10.3 points and connecting on 27 of his 71 three-point attempts, good for a 38 percent clip.
Hardwick isn’t far behind Cunningham in his prowess from three-point range, making 24 of 70 (34.3 percent) from beyond the arc en route to averaging 9.9 points.
“When Jalen does attack the basket, of course he’s going to draw attention,” Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth said. “But those guys shoot it really well. They’re getting clean looks at the basket because we’re doing a really good job of sharing the basketball. When they’re open, they’ve shown consistency to knock down shots.”
The key, however, in establishing the identity of this Tuscola team — which will vie in late February for the program’s second consecutive Class 2A regional championship and try to win the first sectional title in school history since 2005 — resides in the contributions from Kibler. A bit undersized in the post at 6-2 and 185 pounds, Kibler averages 9.8 points and 6.5 rebounds, but produces other intangibles to the Warriors.
“He’s the guy that brings his lunch pail and hard hat, busts his rear end for two hours at practice, goes and takes a shower and then is optimistic about doing it again the next day,” Bozarth said. “He sets the tone for our entire team. There’s no days off for Kibler. He’s everything that you would want in a senior captain. He fell in love with the game of basketball early on, and that love has never wavered.”
Add in unsung contributions from seniors like Ben Dixon (6.0 points, 4.5 rebounds) and Nick Williams, along with junior Donovan Chester, and Tuscola has found the right mix to get off to one of its most successful starts in program history.
Another key reason? They seem to just enjoy the game.
“The very next day after we lost in the sectional last year to Gibson City, we had nine kids who wanted to come to the gym,” Bozarth said. “It carried over to this season.”
Case in point: the recent Christmas and New Year’s holidays, which was sandwiched in between Tuscola winning Monticello’s Holiday Hoopla for the first time. Bozarth and his staff scheduled three days off in that stretch for the team. No such luck.
“Two of those three days, we had 14-15 guys who called one of the coaches to see if they could play pick-up,” Bozarth said. “We’re trying to give guys days off, and all they want to do is get in the gym. You don’t see kids doing that every day. You win, kids are excited about winning and they want to keep building on it. I know it’s cliche, but we’ve got guys that are gym rats.”
Guys who will get to see plenty of area gyms besides their own, too, in the coming days. After Friday night’s game at Clinton, the Warriors travel to take on Cerro Gordo/Bement at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday in Bement before playing at Unity at 7 p.m. next Tuesday. That marks eight straight games away from Tuscola’s own gym — the Warriors knocked off Tri-County 71-58 on Dec. 21 in their last home game — before the Warriors return home for a 7:30 p.m. CIC game on Jan. 17 against Shelbyville.
Tuscola isn’t worried, though, about the lack of support in the bleachers just because they’re on the road.
“The last few games here, we’re starting to see so many community members coming in and supporting us,” Bozarth said. “A lot of times, it’s people I grew up around in Tuscola that would come to basketball games that haven’t necessarily come to games in quite some time. We’re starting to build a fan base and get people there. We talk about how we want to keep giving them a reason to come back. It’s been pretty cool to see, and I wouldn’t call it pressure. What I’d call it is excitement.”