Sports editor MATT DANIELS breaks down the latest news regarding programs from Danville, Fisher and Mahomet-Seymour ahead of this weekend’s action:
1 DANVILLE — The origin of bringing multiple boys’ basketball teams to Danville for a one-day shootout started last May. Shortly after Durrell Robinson became the Vikings boys’ basketball coach last spring, the former Danville standout from the mid-1990s wanted to showcase his alma mater to other teams from throughout the state.
So he approached Danville athletic director Mark Bacys with the idea. Bacys was all for it. Then, the work began.
“It’s never easy doing a shootout,” Robinson said with a laugh. “It took a while. Some teams that we thought we would have wanted to come had previous commitments the day we wanted to do it. With schedules and the date of the shootout, everything has to match.”
Everything does now. The result?
The first-ever Watchfire Signs Shootout will tip off this Saturday featuring six games and 12 teams.
“We had looked at eight teams initially and then we just went ahead and decided to go for 12,” Robinson said. “We’re just thankful we’ve got everyone on board for this first year. I’m very eager and excited about the shootout. Just to have the chance of hosting the first-ever in-season shootout is a big deal for us. We’ve got a great group of teams, and we just want to make sure everybody feels welcome.”
Unbeaten Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin (26-0) plays Rantoul (5-19) at 11 a.m. to tip off the shootout, followed by Normal West (10-14) against Rich South (9-13) at 12:30 p.m., Gary (Ind.) Roosevelt (2-12) against Plainfield East (6-20) at 2 p.m., Peoria Richwoods (9-14) against Chicago Westinghouse (11-13) at 3:30 p.m., St. Charles North (18-6) against Decatur Eisenhower (10-15) at 5 p.m. and Danville (13-14) against South Elgin (11-15) at 6:30 p.m. to wrap up the event.
“It’s an interesting dynamic of teams that’s coming from everywhere,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be real cool to have all of those different teams and different playing styles all in our gym.”
Danville has had all week to get prepared for South Elgin, with the Vikings’ last game happening last Friday with a 67-66 overtime win at Normal Community in Big 12 action, thanks to a buzzer-beating basket from junior forward Martez Rhodes.
“He was just so happy and excited,” Robinson said of Rhodes. “Everybody was embracing him aftewards, and that’s the thing about this team: Everyone loves and supports one another. I’m hoping that game can really boost Martez’s confidence and it does just carry on into the rest of the season.”
Danville has played the last 17 games without 6-foot-5 junior forward Tevin Smith, who has several Division I offers. The Vikings’ leading scorer last season on a team that went 31-4 and reached a Class 4A sectional final, Smith hasn’t suited up since suffering an injury to his right knee on Dec. 27 against Peoria Manual at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament. Smith tore the ACL in his left knee last spring.
Smith won’t play this Saturday, but Robinson said Smith might return to the floor next Friday night when the Vikings host Peoria Manual in Big 12 action.
“He’s been doing rehab and everything’s been great in that regard,” Robinson said. “He’s been eager, but I just want to take precautions with him. His future is so bright. I want him to be able to experience all of that in the future.”
In Smith’s absence, junior guard Nathnael Hoskins has increased his role, along with junior forward Robert Stroud. The veteran duo will need to keep their production going into March if the Vikings want to make a run in 3A.
“Robert’s started to step up more with a leadership role since Tevin’s been out,” Robinson said. “It’s to the point where he’s starting to see what we’ve been on him about. He’s been learning how to play more as a wing and learning how to attack and when to attack. He’s really elevated his game.”
2 FISHER — The start of the Class 1A postseason later this month won’t feature Fisher boys’ basketball in a favorite role to win any postseason hardware.Fifth-year coach Cody Diskin understands this. His Bunnies, after all, just ended a 10-game losing streak on Tuesday night with a 72-54 home win against Uni High. And carry a 4-20 record into Friday night’s Heart of Illinois Conference game at Lexington that tips at 7 p.m. Fisher is 0-9 in league play this season.
“Some quarters we look great, and some quarters we don’t look so good,” Diskin said. “It’s been a little bit of a rough season, but we’re progressing and we’re improving. The guys are finally seeing it, and the effort is getting there. The effort wasn’t there earlier. I keep telling the kids, ‘You’re right there.’ I hope that confidence of winning Tuesday continues with them throughout the end of the regular season here and into the postseason.”
Junior guard Carson Brozenec and senior guard Will Delaney are Fisher’s top two scorers, with Brozenec averaging 16.7 points and Delaney averaging 14.9 points.
“Will is a great senior leader for us,” Diskin said. “Carson is a great offensive threat.”
But the main deficiency for the Bunnies this season has centered around their defense. Fisher has allowed 14 teams to score at least 70 points this season.
“We’ve always been able to score and get to the basket,” Diskin said. “We’ve been struggling with help defense and just containing the top guys on the other team.”
But Diskin is noticing some small strides on the defensive side of the ball in recent games he’s hopeful his team can duplicate the rest of the season. Namely from Brozenec.
“He knew he needed to work on his defense,” Diskin said. “Lately, he’s been one of our biggest contributors of playing hard on defense. He knows what it takes now to be successful in that end, and that’s what he’s really been working on.”
Two other juniors, forward Jake Cochran (7.5 points, team-high 4.2 rebounds) and guard Landen Stalter (4.3 points) have made strides this season that Diskin feels can benefit the program next season, too.
“Those guys are getting the experience of what it takes to play hard at the varsity level,” Diskin said. “Cochran is developing his post moves, and next year, when he’s a senior, I think it’s really going to click for him. Stalter does all the little things right where he can get us going offensively.”
Fisher, which last won a regional title in 2017, will find out its postseason draw on Friday afternoon when postseason pairings are released. The Bunnies will either head to Gilman or Lexington for regional action, with Fisher drawing the 14th seed in the 16-team sub-sectional that feeds into the Schlarman Sectional.
Diskin is optimistic playing a rugged HOIC schedule against 2A teams like El Paso-Gridley, Eureka and Tremont, among others, will pay dividends for Fisher in the postseason. Add on the fact the Bunnies played 20-win 2A teams like Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, Tuscola and Prairie Central in nonconference action, and it’s safe to say the Bunnies haven’t played a typical 1A schedule this winter.
“In our sub-sectional, we probably have the second-toughest schedule among all the teams there,” Diskin said. “It doesn’t matter who you play in the HOIC because it’s going to be against a good team and it’s going to be a battle each night. It definitely gets us ready for the postseason.
“We’re going in with that mentality that we’ll be ready for anything. Even though our record doesn’t show it, I feel strongly we can compete with anybody.”
3 MAHOMET — Height isn’t lacking on the Mahomet-Seymour boys’ basketball roster. Senior forward and Milwaukee signee Grant Coleman checks in at 6 feet, 7 inches. Sophomores Luke Koller and Tyler Uken are both 6-8. Junior Zach Severns is 6-6. And senior Kobe Essien is 6-3.
The trio of Coleman, Koller and Essien were all on the court at the same time this past Tuesday night, using their length to play a key defensive role in the Bulldogs defeating Urbana 76-52 for another quality nonconference win. M-S (16-10) carries a season-best five-game win streak going into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. home game against Apollo Conference foe Taylorville. The M-S girls’ basketball team will play Taylorville at 6 p.m. on Friday as part of a Coaches vs. Cancer night the Bulldogs are putting on.
M-S only led Urbana 32-28 at halftime before outscoring the Tigers 25-8 during the third quarter to take control. The Bulldogs used a 1-3-1 zone only implemented last week and one they had only practiced sparingly to stifle Urbana.
“It was a huge factor for us,” M-S coach Ryan Bosch said. “As we were watching some film last weekend on Urbana, it was something as a coaching staff that we talked about where we just wanted to move guys to different alignments. We ran a lineup that quarter we normally wouldn’t play with Grant, Koller and Essien, and it just made us a really big team.”
The efforts of senior guard Cole Lener was instrumental for the Bulldogs as well, with Lener supplying nine points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and superb defense.
“Cole just had to have a really special night for us defensively, and he did with just how responsible he was for covering stuff up,” Bosch said. “He was able to do that very quickly.”
Along with the 13 points Essien delivered, it was a move to the top of the zone defense that left Bosch impressed with one of his senior stalwarts.
“We practiced it a little bit, but he had never done it in a game,” Bosch said. “He just had a great energy to him and had some key deflections.”
The emergence of Koller isn’t lost on Bosch either. The forward finished with 12 points and six rebounds against Urbana, with his game improving seemingly every night. It’s notable, too, considering he missed half the season after suffering a shoulder injury last June and not being fully cleared until January.
“He’s been a huge help for us the second half of the season just with his length and his ability to catch the ball in traffic,” Bosch said. “He makes our defense longer, and he gives us a little bit different look offensively, too. He’s made some really good strides here the last couple weeks, and I’ve been really pleased with how he’s bought into his role of doing whatever he can to help the team.”
M-S’s win against Urbana (14-12) could benefit the Bulldogs ahead of the postseason. Seeds come out next Thursday for the Class 3A postseason, with pairings set to be unveiled next Friday.
“You’d like to think that’s an important victory against Urbana,” Bosch said. “Not all games are created equal necessarily. Winning a game of that importance at this time of year was worth a little bit extra. We certainly like the way we’re playing right now, but we know we’ve got more work to do.”