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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Nathan Garard (20) and Tuscola's Jalen Quinn (3) in a Class 2A Unity Sectional semifinal at Unity High School in Tolono on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette ° Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Nathan Garard (20) and Tuscola's Jalen Quinn (3) in a Class 2A Unity Sectional semifinal at Unity High School in Tolono on ° Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

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TUSCOLA — The Tuscola boys’ basketball team survived Hell Week last month.

“We called it that because we took a full week of practice where we just ran and ran and ran,” Tuscola third-year coach Justin Bozarth said. “Our hope, long-term, is that it pays off and we’re in much better shape than what we have been in the past.”

The Warriors could afford to dedicate enough time for sprint after sprint after sprint because, well, all they’ve done since practices started on Nov. 11 is just that. Practice.

And, unlike in years past, Tuscola boys’ basketball practices this November featured a full complement of players since the Tuscola football team’s season ended in the second round of the playoffs on Nov. 9.

So, with Tuscola the last area boys’ basketball team to open the season — the Warriors play their first game at 2:30 p.m. this Saturday at nonconference foe Okaw Valley — it’s easy to say the Warriors are ready for the season to start.

“Our guys are so tired of going against one another in practice,” Bozarth said with a laugh.

But back to all the conditioning the Warriors have done already. They’ll need those aspects to kick in throughout this month considering Saturday marks the beginning of 11 games during the next 21 days for Tuscola, a program with increased expectations this season after winning a Class 2A regional championship last February en route to a 20-12 record.

The postseason hardware marked Tuscola’s first regional title since 2008 and only the fourth this century.

Bozarth said the current group probably won’t be able to sneak up on programs like it did last season, but is optimistic the Warriors can sustain this run of success.

Having Jalen Quinn on Tuscola’s roster is a key reason why. A 6-foot-3 sophomore guard with multiple Division I schools interested, including Illinois, Missouri and Purdue, Quinn averaged 16.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.1 assists last season during his varsity debut.

“Last year, we threw him in from Day 1,” Bozarth said. “He had no idea what to expect because he was going from playing eighth-grade basketball to now all of a sudden we’re throwing him in against seniors. It’s much different with a year under his belt. He knows what the speed of the game is like. He has high expectations for himself because every expectation we put on him, he’s got a similar expectation of his own.”

The Warriors aren’t just a one-man show, though. Far from it.

Senior Jacob Kibler returns after the forward averaged 8.4 points and 5.3 rebounds last season. Senior Ben Dixon, along with juniors Grant Hardwick and Cole Cunningham, are back as well after playing significant minutes a year ago. Bozarth said seniors Nick Williams and Silas Hortin, along with juniors Donovan Chester, Michael Calderon and Ben Tiezzi, are other contributors the Warriors will rely on.

“Jalen gets a lot of attention, but we’ve got 12 other kids that we feel really comfortable with,” Bozarth said. “It’s not just Jalen and four other guys out on the court.”

Tuscola has had stretches of consistent postseason triumphs in its program’s history. The Warriors won five regional titles from 1978 to 1983, rattled off four consecutive regional championships from 1988-91 and then won three in four seasons from 2005 to 2008. The culmination of all those postseason accomplishments happened 30 years ago when the Warriors reached the Class A state quarterfinals in 1989 under coach Kerry Kincaid, the only state tournament appearance in Tuscola boys’ basketball history.

Bozarth isn’t jumping to any such lofty heights or guaranteeing the Warriors will play on March 13 in a 2A state semifinal game at Carver Arena in downtown Peoria. First, he just wants his team to get a game in to see where they’re at.

Yet he welcomes the increased expectations Tuscola enters the season with compared to the recent past.

“The No. 1 thing that’s going to help us as we try to build our program to the level where Monticello, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, St. Joseph-Ogden, Paxton-Buckley-Loda and some of the other great small-school programs in the area are at is our kids finally tasted success on the basketball court,” Bozarth said. “The atmospheres that we were able to play in last year and what it’s like to compete in front of those crowds, they’re ready to replicate. What we’ve battled with over the years is inconsistency. We’ve got to carry a little chip on our shoulder where we’ve got to protect what we’re trying to build.”

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).