At halftime, a cheerleader from each Crystal Lake team flip-flopped wildly across the basketball court from opposite ends, then slammed violently together in mid-spin near the center line to the concerned gasp of the full-house crowd.
Thankfully, neither of the young girls suffered serious injury, but their unintended meeting symbolized the full-bore battle that took place Friday night between the Crystal Lake Central Tigers (22-4) and the Crystal Lake South Gators (15-11).
The cross-town rivals put on the best show before the largest and most enthusiastic crowd of any game I witnessed on The Patch Hardwood Tour this season, with the visiting Tigers finally triumphing 54-51 in overtime.
The last minute of regulation alone was worth the price of admission. With his team trailing by a point, veteran Crystal Lake Central guard Joe Pijanowski (13 points) hit a cold-blooded 3-point shot with 6.6 seconds remaining to give his team a 49-47 lead. Long-shot specialist Kevin Rogers (15 points) of Crystal Lake South then put up an off-the mark trey with 5.5 seconds left that was corralled by teammate Tyler Dawson (10 points) and deposited in the hole just prior to the regulation-ending buzzer, tying the game and setting off a massive scream from the home fans.
The Tigers got just two baskets in overtime, a trey from junior point guard Chase Cane (11 points) and a deuce from 6-foot-7 Matt Gleixner (13 points), and that was all they needed. On the defensive end they hounded the Gators into 1-for-10 shooting in the extra four minutes of play to secure the victory.
No one witnessing the intensity could have guessed that this non-conference affair, which closed out the regular-season schedule for both teams, meant absolutely nothing as far as wins and losses was concerned. But it was just what the doctor ordered as far as prepping both clubs for state tournament play, which begins this week.
It’s been a wildly successful season for the talented Tigers, who captured the Fox Valley Fox Division with an 11-1 mark; almost too successful.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more from a final game,” said Tigers coach Rich Czeslawski. “We’ve been winning so many games by big margins that I was wondering how we’d respond in a close one.”
Gleixner, a team stalwart, missed school the previous two days with a high fever, but the prospect of competing against the Gators went a long way toward getting him back in the classroom on Friday.
“I wasn’t going to miss this game,” he said.
Still a little weak, Gleixner was on the bench when the game began, absent from the starting lineup for the first time all year. But he was an important cog in the Tigers’ victory, and by the second quarter, when he was an unstoppable 5-for-5 from the field and the sick bed the furthest thing from his mind.
“After a while the adrenaline kicked in and I felt just fine,” he said, smiling.
It was Gleixner who passed to Pijanowski for the clutch trey in the waning moments of regulation.
“Getting a chance to respond to tight situations like that is good for us before the playoffs,” he noted.
While the big Tigers center was able to experience the game first-hand, Crystal Lake South head coach Dan DeBruyker was fed the details after the contest via cell phone by acting head coach Jason Bott, who is also the school’s athletic director.
Bott acted as the team’s head coach for the night when just prior to the game, DeBruyker had to be taken to the hospital due to an elevated heart rate. The interim coach said that DeBruyker was okay but being held overnight for further observation.
“This game was good for us,” said Bott, despite the loss. “This is the type of atmosphere it’s going to be like in the playoffs, so we might as well get used to it.”
Crystal Lake South weathered a season where one, then two of its starters missed games due to team violations, and because of the fluctuating lineup in their absence, I don’t believe the Gators ever reached their full potential this season.
They are a big, strong team who could, however, hit their stride in the playoffs and the added experience gained by the subs could work to their advantage down the line.
“We had to put some guys in positions they wouldn’t normally have played,” said Bott, pointing specifically to 6-5 senior Tyler Kretchmer, “and it probably made us more versatile.”
The Gators face McHenry on Wednesday to start the tournament, a team they beat twice during the regular season and by just one point two games ago.
“That’s a good team,” said Bott, “with a lot of good players who can score. We’ll have our hands full.”
The Tigers begin what they hope will be a long playoff run on Tuesday against Burlington Central.
Let the Madness begin – a 17-team tournament primer
March Madness begins this week with 10 of the 17 teams on The Patch Hardwood Tour having legitimate chances to win Regional championships in the Class 4A and 3A tournaments respectively.
The following, in alphabetical order, is a thumbnail assessment of each team’s chances.
BARRINGTON BRONCOS (18-9) 4A
- No. 3 seed in own sectional (Libertyville Regional)
- Co-champs of Mid-Suburban League West Division
- Top seed in Libertyville Regional
- First game 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1 vs. winner of host Libertyville or Palatine
Projection: Nobody likes to play the host school in the first game of the state tournament, but Barrington will probably face an on-again, off-again Libertyville team right out of the gate. Even if the Wildcats play well, the Broncos should get past them and would probably play for the Regional title against six-seed Buffalo Grove on March 4 at 7:30 p.m. The Bison will be a most worthy opponent, having defeated Barrington 78-75 earlier in the year. But I like the deep, basketball-smart Broncos, led by Greg Gerrard, to advance to their own sectional.
BUFFALO GROVE BISON (17-9) 4A
- No. 6 seed in Barrington Sectional group (Libertyville Regional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. Deerfield
Projection: The Bison should get past Deerfield, setting up a Mid-Suburban League match against the champions from that conference’s West Division, Barrington, for the Regional title at 7:30 p.m. March 4. Big-time scorer, Nick Prus and his guard running mate Dan Recht led the Bison to a 78-75 win earlier in the year against Barrington on Buffalo Grove’s home court. This should be one whale-of-a-game on a neutral court, with Buffalo Grove a slight underdog.
CARY-GROVE TROJANS (11-15) 4A
- No. 4 seed in Prairie Ridge Regional (feeding Jacobs Sectional)
- First game Monday, Feb. 28, 7:30 p.m. vs. Prairie Ridge
Projection: It will be Nick Richter of Cary-Grove vs. junior Sean Valentine of the Prairie Ridge Wolves in the opening-game battle between two teams with sub-.500 records. The contest is a rematch of the last game of the season for both teams on the same court , won 38-28 by the visitors. As indicated by that score, neither team is an offensive juggernaut, but Cary-Grove should squeak by again. Powerful Huntley awaits either team at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 1. Odds are firmly against the Trojans pulling that upset. They lost by 30, then 22 to the Red Raiders during the regular season.
CRYSTAL LAKE CENTRAL TIGERS (22-4) 3A
- No. 1 seed in Hampshire Regional (Woodstock North Sectional)
- Champion of Fox Valley Fox Conference (11-1)
- First game 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, vs. Burlington Central (16-11)
Projection: This is the best 3A team among those on The Patch Hardwood Tour and one of the top four, regardless of class. Coach Rich Czeslawski has enjoyed his first 20-win season at the helm of Crystal Lake South and has his charges poised to go deeper into the tournament than any Tigers squad since the schools split into Central and South in 1978-79. Crystal Lake Central has everything a team needs to go downstate: good guard play, big men, depth and a balanced attack that features a five-man attack that can score from any position on the floor. It is a veteran group that has played together since the sixth grade, with the exception of junior point guard Chase Cane. Joe Pijanowski is a hard-nosed scorer at the two guard; John Nemcek a hustler who can get hot from outside; Alex Polk a defensive specialist; and 6-foot-7 Matt Gleixner can carry a club from his center position when he’s on a roll. I really like the play of 6-6 forward Jake Chrystal, who best epitomizes the versatility of this team. Chrystal has started and come off the bench and been equally effective. He scores, rebounds and plays tough defense with little fanfare. The Tigers are riding an eight-game winning streak and coming off an excellent win over a tough Crystal Lake South team. The road will not be an easy one, as the team immediately comes up against a very respectable Burlington Central team, then a Hampshire team with a 20-5 record they will likely meet for the Regional title on Hampshire’s home court. But all the pieces are in place for Crystal Lake Central, and I expect them to emerge and advance to the Woodstock North Sectionals.
CRYSTAL LAKE SOUTH GATORS (14-11) 4A
- No. 3 seed in Prairie Ridge Regional (Jacobs Sectional)
- First game 8:10 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. McHenry
Projection: The Gators are a dangerous team that, partly due to a few disciplinary issues, has not lived up to its potential during the regular campaign but could very well jump up and swipe the expected Regional title from Huntley in their projected championship meeting Friday. The Gators start against McHenry, a talented up-and-down team also from the Fox Valley Valley and a higher seed, but a team that Crystal Lake South has defeated twice this season. A third victory is expected. And if 3-point marksman Kevin Rogers is on in the championship game against Huntley, the Gators could put a startling end to the Red Raiders superb campaign. Crystal Lake South has a superb point guard in Ethan Breitenstein and four 6-foot-4 or bigger players besides Rogers who can hit the boards with the best of them. This team belies its record and its seed.
DUNDEE-CROWN CHARGERS (12-13) 4A
- No. 3 seed in the five-team Larkin High Regional in Elgin (Jacobs Sectional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. Jacobs
Projection: This forward-driven team led by senior big men Ryan Smith and Jamel Kimbrough has vacillated between good and bad all year long. They seem to play at the level of their competition, barely losing a game to powerful Huntley, then squeaking by a weak opponent like Prairie Ridge the next night. Their first opponent is familiar Fox Valley Valley conference foe Jacobs in what amounts to a rubber match for the season with the teams having split their two contests. The Chargers have struggled as of late, winning just once in their last six games. But that one victory was against Jacobs. I expect another close contest, with guard-oriented Jacobs prevailing.
FREMD VIKINGS (17-9) 4A
- No. 5 seed in Barrington Sectional (Fremd Regional)
- Co-champs of Mid-Suburban League West Division
- First game 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. winner of Rolling Meadows vs. Round Lake
Projection: Led by South Dakota State-bound guard Zach Monaghan, the Vikings overcame key injuries early and at mid-season to post another excellent campaign. Once they put their full complement of talented players on the court, Fremd finished the season with nine wins in their last 12 outings and a share of the Mid-Suburban League’s West Division championship. They have size, depth, and a star in the aforementioned Monaghan, a guard who can win a game single-handed with his outside shot and contributes mightily with steals and defense on average nights. The Vikings were given a huge advantage in hosting a regional that lacks a dominant team. Zion-Benton is seeded higher than Fremd, but is young and a year away. Fremd took care of Rolling Meadows, its first opponent, with ease during the regular season, and if they can keep freshman sensation Milik Yarbrough from overwhelming them, they can most definitely topple a young Zion-Benton team in the Regional championship.
GRAYSLAKE CENTRAL RAMS (15-12) 3A
- No. 5 seed in the Ridgewood High Sectional (Vernon Hills Regional)
- First game 8:10 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. winner of Wauconda vs. Aspira Charter
Projection: This team has all the ingredients needed to go deep in the tournament. Lightning-quick junior point guard Jordan Taylor can hang with anyone, especially offensively, and the Rams have a quartet of bigs in 6-5 Tim Abbott and Sean Kirby, 6-8 junior Casey Boyle and 6-6 C.J. Stempeck who are as imposing as anyone in the 3A tournament. Why they didn’t have a better overall record is puzzling, but the 9-3 conference mark indicates a team that can get up for important games. They are almost a lock to meet host school Vernon Hills in the Regional title game and the good news is that the signature win on the Rams’ resume is, indeed, against Vernon Hills. I’m picking Grayslake Central to rise to the occasion and win its third Regional crown in the last four years.
GRAYSLAKE NORTH KNIGHTS (19-7) 3A
- No. 2 seed in the Ridgewood Sectional and top seed in Fenton High Regional
- First game 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1 vs. winner of Senn vs. Kelvyn Park
Projection: This is the best team in the short history of Grayslake North High School, and the basketball gods smiled down on it by placing it in one of the easiest Regionals in memory. Having said that, I hope I haven’t jinxed Coach Todd Grunloh’s team, but the next best team in the five-team field has a 9-18 record. That team, Fenton, is also the Regional host and cannot be totally discounted. The Knights have sharpshooting guard Teddy Ludwick , sophomore sparkplug A.J. Fish and 6-foot-6 center David Sparks and if just one of them
has an offensive game worthy of their talents against Fenton, Grayslake North should be hoisting its first-ever Regional plaque by the time the balls stop bouncing in Bensenville. The Knights go into the tournament with a three-game winning streak and that momentum will also be a plus.
HUNTLEY RED RAIDERS (22-4) 4A
- No. 1 seed in the Prairie Ridge Regional (Jacobs Sectional)
- Valley Division champions in Fox Valley Conference with 9-1 record
- Opened season by winning Strombom Thanksgiving Tournament
- First game 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 against winner of Cary-Grove vs. Prairie Ridge
Projection: Hot as Hades Huntley has the longest winning streak of any Patch.com team on The Hardwood Tour, riding a 10-game victory skein into March Madness. Seniors Tyler Brunschon and Dylan Neukirch and junior 3-point specialist Troy Miller anchor a team sprinkled with equal parts of veterans and underclassmen that has been one of the two best teams on The Tour all season long. The only weakness this team has is size, which it compensates for with ferocious defense and superb ball movement. They have not allowed an opponent to score 50 points in the last eight games. Fundamentally, this team ranks with Barrington (who they split with during the season) as the best I’ve seen all year, and they have rarely faltered. In addition to besting Barrington, they’ve knocked off the 22-game winning team from Crystal Lake Central. Not once this season have the Raiders lost two in a row. But Huntley has a trap game on its hands in the Regional championship if Crystal Lake South’s Gators are their opponent. The Red Raiders have defeated South twice this season in conference play, but once by just two points. The Gators have the kind of big lineup that could give Huntley real trouble if used correctly, and you know what they say about beating a good team three straight times .
JACOBS GOLDEN EAGLES (16-12) 4A
- No. 2 seed at Larkin High Regional (Jacobs Sectional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2 vs. Dundee-Crown
Projection: Veteran senior guards Nick Hofman and Mike Peterson can both bury the 3-pointers, and if both are on their game simultaneously, the Golden Eagles can hang with most any team. The rest of the Jacobs lineup is replete with roll players who do their job well, especially where ball movement is concerned offensively. Jim Hinkle’s team is intelligent and well-drilled, which goes a long way toward making up for its lack of size and down-low scoring. It has a signature win on the road against Huntley, a top tier team that it almost beat again, losing by three in overtime. Its first tournament test is against Dundee-Crown, which boasts a pair of big forwards who present match-up problems for the Eagles. The teams split a pair during the season. I’m projecting Jacobs to the Regional title game where top seed Elgin will edge them out in a tight contest.
LAKE FOREST SCOUTS (12-14) 4A
- No. 13 seed in the Barrington Sectional (Fremd Regional)
- First game 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 vs. Lake Zurich
Projection: The young Scouts open state play against North Suburban Lake foe the Lake Zurich Bears, which has given Lake Forest fits during the regular season. The Bears bested Lake Forest 53-48, then took the Scouts to the final minutes before bowing 47-44 in the second meeting. Expect another barn-burner with Lake Forest emerging behind the play of junior scorer Thomas Durrett and savvy sophomore Carter Bass. Unfortunately, another conference opponent from Zion-Benton awaits, and the Zee-Bees have twice demonstrated that they are a tad too quick for Lake Forest.
LAKE ZURICH BEARS (7-19) 4A
- No. 20 seed in the Barrington Sectional (Fremd Regional)
- First game 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 vs. Lake Forest
Projection: The Bears, led by junior forward Mirko Grcic, at least have a fighting chance in their first game of the state tourney, despite being seeded No. 20. Lake Forest is one of Lake Zurich’s seven victims this season, and the one team on its schedule it played tough both times out. Despite a dearth of victories, rookie head coach Billy Pitcher’s team has had more than its share of shocking wins, with victories over No. 2 seed Mundelein and No. 4 seed Zion-Benton. The Bears enter the tourney with a two-game winning streak. If they get past Lake Forest, Zion-Benton will be waiting with revenge on their collective mind.
LIBERTYVILLE WILDCATS (11-15) 4A
- No. 15 seed in the Barrington Sectional (Libertyville Regional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 vs. Palatine
Projection: I’ll take Libertyville on its home court against lowly Palatine, but even with the advantage of playing on its own floor, the odds are at least 3 to 1 or worse that they upset Barrington the following evening. It would have to be one of those rare nights when all three Wildcat scorers (Ryan Barth and juniors Ellis Matthews and Griffin Pils) are on their offensive game simultaneously. Keep in mind that Libertyville, although wildly inconsistent, had enough talent to take the No. 1 seed in this sectional, Warren, to the wire on this court before finally bowing 55-54.
PALATINE PIRATES (9-17) 4A
- No. 19 seed in the Barrington Sectional (Libertyville Regional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 vs. Libertyville
Projection: It’s been that kind of year for the Palatine Pirates. Not only have they lost four consecutive games to end a really rough season, but their first game of the state tournament comes against the Regional host from Libertyville. There are not too many scenarios I can picture where the Pirates break through with an opening-game win. If Egan Malley and Peter Bony get hot from 3-point land and dependable junior forward John Millin goes off, an upset is a possibility.
PRAIRIE RIDGE WOLVES (7-18) 4A
- No. 5 seed in own Regional (Jacobs Sectional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 against Cary-Grove
Projection: The Wolves have home-court advantage against Cary-Grove in their opening game, but it didn’t help much the last time the two teams met on the same stage less than a week ago. Both teams demonstrated what can happen when two offensively challenged clubs meet, with Cary-Grove winning the snooze-fest by 10 despite scoring just 38 points. Aside from the Cary-Grove contests, Prairie Ridge persevered through a trying campaign to finish the season playing its best basketball. Coach Corky Card’s team had just three wins with six games remaining. By that point, a lot of clubs would have been just going through the motions, but the Wolves won four of those six down the stretch. If junior Sean Valentine gets hot, the Wolves could extend the season one more game.
STEVENSON PATRIOTS (14-12) 4A
- No. 14 seed in Barrington Sectional (Mundelein Regional)
- First game 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 28 vs. Grant
Projection: Despite an overall record that just barely made it past the .500 mark, I still believe winning the Mundelein Regional is a possibility for Stevenson, which boasts big, strong players whose forte is defense. The host school from Mundelein is Stevenson’s biggest roadblock, but the Patriots are just the kind of team that can upend the Mustangs. Stevenson, winners of five of their last six, should get past first-game opponent Grant, losers of their last five. Next up would be highly ranked Mundelein, a team that dropped Stevenson by nine and two points this season. They are a high-flying team that likes to play in the 70s and 80s, but the encouraging thing is that Stevenson has held them under 60 in both meetings. Stevenson needs to score in the high 50s to win that key contest, and after that the remaining teams in the Regional are less than extraordinary.