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Four Patch Teams Survive First Week of Madness

Libertyville concluded its season by edging Palatine by a point.

The attrition that accompanies the beginning of March Madness is startling in its callous swiftness. Teams build all year for a run in the state hoops tournament, but most hopes are snuffed almost immediately, and oft-times cruelly.

After one week, just four of the 17 Patch Hardwood Tour teams are still standing, proudly hoisting Regional championship plaques. Three of those (Huntley, Crystal Lake Central and Fremd) were listed as this column’s top four teams in the final regular season poll. The fourth (Grayslake Central) is no real surprise, based on potential demonstrated numerous times during the year that belied its record.

The advancing quartet in equally divided, with two of the squads (Huntley and Fremd) advancing to Class 4A Sectionals and the other pair to the eight Class 3A Sectional sites.

Just 32 teams remain in each tournament. Here’s a breakdown of how the 17 Patch Hardwood Tour teams fared in the first week:

REGIONAL CHAMPIONS

Huntley Red Raiders (24-4):  Went 2-0 to win Class 4A Prairie Ridge Regional, beating Cary-Grove 44-27 and McHenry in championship game 34-32. Next game 7:30 p.m. Tuesday vs. Elgin (22-6) at Jacobs Sectional. The Sectional title game is Friday at 7:30 p.m. against winner of South Elgin vs. Auburn (Rockford).

The Huntley Red Raiders are riding a 12-game winning streak, but had to lean heavily on their well-honed survival instinct to get out of the Regional intact. They are living proof that during tournament time, no one can be overlooked.

The final score in the team’s semifinal contest against Cary-Grove (12-16) is not indicative of the upset-minded tussle the opponents provided. The Hardwood Tour was on hand for this contest, which saw the underdog Trojans take Huntley into the fourth quarter tied 23-23, thanks to the patient, unnerving possession strategy of the underdogs. The Red Raiders, usually a good-shooting perimeter team, were getting excellent looks from behind the arc, but just not connecting.

Finally, the dam burst in the fourth quarter and Red Raider shots started to fall. A pair of Huntley 3-pointers by junior Troy Miller (17 points) and Dylan Neukirch (9 points) forced Cary-Grove to abandon its slowdown tactics and the Red Raiders talent took over.

“It was good strategy on their part,” said Huntley coach Marty Manning, noting that no team had employed stall-ball against his team. Nor does he expect to see it again down the road.

“We’re just so small (tallest starters are 6-foot-3) teams just try to exploit us inside.”

In an attempt to get a little more size into his lineup, Manning played promising 6-5 freshman Amanze Egekeze a lot more than usual against Cary. The still-developing youngster gave his team a boost, especially on the board.

“He did very well today,” said Manning. “He’s still a young kid who needs to get stronger, but he has a chance to be really, really special.”

The Red Raiders survived Cary-Grove, and advanced after an even bigger challenge, a 34-32 Regional championship-game victory in another low-scoring contest. It was a second straight tough-shooting night for Huntley, which was led in scoring by Neukirch’s 10 points.

The Red Raiders won the regional championship contest sinking just one of 15 tries from beyond the 3-point-arc, once again demonstrating that Huntley can gut out a win in any number of ways.

I saw Elgin, the Red Raiders’ next opponent, early in the year and was not overly impressed. And the fact that Dundee-Crown, a .500 team, took them to the mat in the Regional finals before finally succumbing makes me believe that Huntley can get to the Sectional title game at the very least. Elgin has just one senior in its starting lineup and is led by 6-4 junior Kory Brown.

(24-4): Went 2-0 to win the ridiculously tough Class 3A Hampshire Regional, beating Burlington Central 75-52, then downing Marmion Academy 60-50 in the championship game. Next game 7:30 p.m. Tuesday against Rockford East at the Woodstock North Sectional. Championship game is 7:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Marian vs. Aurora Central Catholic.

On any given day, any one of five Tiger starters can step to the forefront and lead the team in scoring. Against Burlington Central it was two guard Joe Pijanowski leading the way with 22 points, with versatile Jake Chrystal and big man Matt Gleixner adding 16 and 15 respectively.

The Tigers, ranked No. 1 or 2 all year in the Patch poll, got a bit of a break, thanks to Marmion Academy’s ambush of the 20-game winners from Hampshire. Crystal Lake Central, now winners of 11 in a row, methodically took out the Marmion upstarts by 10 in the title game, snagging the school’s first Regional title since 1998. Junior point guard Chase Cane ran the show and led the way in scoring with 16. 

The next opponent, the Rockford East E-Rabs (18-11) are experiencing their first winning year in the last 11. East was led in scoring by Steve McNease (18 points) in their 67-63 Regional title game victory over Belvidere North.

Although nothing is a given, I dare say that this Sectional actually looks easier than the rough Regional from which Crystal Lake just emerged. They should get past Rockford East, and have already defeated sharpshooter Jake Everly and his cohorts from Marian Central this season. And Aurora Central Catholic is only 15-13 on the year, hardly a juggernaut.

Fremd Vikings (19-9): Went 2-0 at own 4A Regional, destroying hapless Round Lake 57-17 then outlasting Lake Forest 44-38 for the championship. Next game 7:30 p.m. Tuesday against Warren Blue Devils (27-3) at the Barrington Sectional. Championship game is Friday vs. winner of Mundelein vs. Deerfield.

Zach Monaghan led the way with 20 as the Vikings flicked Round Lake aside in the first contest, then potted 28 as Fremd came from behind to edge surprising Lake Forest in the title game to win the Regional crown at home.

The Vikings will be hard-pressed to defeat a young, deep, defensive-minded Warren in Tuesday’s Sectional opener. Somebody besides Monaghan will have to step up and help with the scoring load because Warren coach Chuck Ramsey is known for devising defenses to stop specific players.

Grayslake Central Rams (17-12): Went 2-0 to capture the 3A Vernon Hills Regional, the team’s third in the past four years. Rams victims were Wauconda (65-42) and the host-school Cougars in the championship, 49-39. Next game is 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Ridgewood Sectional against North Chicago’s Warhawks (14-13). The championship game is 7:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Fenton vs. Ridgewood.

The Rams from Grayslake Central put the cuffs on Vernon Hills star and exacted revenge on Davaris Daniels and Vernon Hills in the Regional title game. Davaris hit a buzzer-beater last year to eliminate the Rams, but this time out, Grayslake Central hounded him into a 1-point first half while building a double-digit lead that was never seriously threatened.

Central, which is peaking at the exact right time of the season, utilized its bigs to perfection in this one, with 6-8 junior Casey Boyle scoring 15 and 6-5 Tim Abbott adding 12.

The pair will have to be huge again for Coach Brian Moe’s charges when the team takes on North Chicago on Tuesday. The Warhawks, who bested the Rams 64-51 in December at the State Farm Holiday Classic, are the polar opposite of Central in style. Led by junior sensation Aaron Simpson, a sharpshooting guard, North Chicago is much smaller but runs teams into the ground.

They wore out Gordon Tech 81-53 in their Regional title match. It will be imperative for Grayslake Central to control the pace of the game in order to emerge victorious. 

One discouraging note is the continued absence of 6-6 veteran Grayslake Central center CJ Stempeck, who was missing in action for the entire regional and will reportedly be out with mono for the remainder of the state tournament. That’s a tough break for the Rams, but they still have enough size to get out of this Sectional if they can bully their way past North Chicago.

ON THE SIDELINES

Libertyville Wildcats (12-16): Went 1-1 hosting their own 4A Regional with a 46-45 win over Palatine before bowing 53-41 to Barrington.

Libertyville concluded its season by edging Palatine by a point, with junior guard Ellis Matthews pacing the winners with 11. Senior Ryan Barth led the charge in the semi-final game against the Regional’s top-seeded team from Barrington, scoring 16 in a losing effort. It was a tough year for Barth, who started strong but suffered a knee injury at the midway point that hampered his play. It was nice to see him go out with a strong effort.

Lake Forest Scouts (13-16) Went 2-1 at 4A Fremd Regional, besting Lake Zurich 60-49 in overtime, upsetting Zion-Benton 47-40, then finally getting eliminated by Fremd in the championship game 44-38.

It only lasted a week, but the state tournament was a head-spinning carnival of fun and achievement for Phil LaScala’s young team. In their three games, the young, unheralded Lake Forest Scouts made big noises, getting all the way to the Regional title game where they gave an excellent account of themselves before finally losing.

Junior Thomas Durrett hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime against Lake Zurich, and the Scouts would go on to dominate the extra four minutes. Then the Scouts, led by junior John Hayes and his 17 points, ousted heavy favorite Zion-Benton, a team they had fallen to twice during the regular campaign.  And finally, after giving favored Fremd a scare, Lake Forest relinquished a 26-21 lead before giving way to Zach Monaghan’s 28-point effort.

Barrington Broncos (19-11): Went  1-1 at 4A Libertyville Regional, beating the host school 53-41 before losing in the championship game to Deerfield, 61-58 in overtime.

It’s a testament to the grit of the Barrington Broncos that on a night they were able to extend the Regional championship game into overtime, despite shooting a horrendous 27.4 percent from the floor.

“It wasn’t our best shooting night,” understated Coach Bryan Tucker after a game that concluded the school’s best hoops season in two decades.

Usually a good 3-point team, the Broncos were a sickly 4 for 23 from beyond the arc, but stayed in the game with a ferocious defense that held Deerfield to zero field goals in both the fourth quarter and  overtime. Unfortunately for Barrington, the Warriors were a clutch 19 for 23 at the charity stripe during that period.   

Barrington was in many ways a remarkable team, basically devoid of star power, that used its depth and effort to win its first Mid-Suburban League division crown in 20 years. One of those key ingredients suffered a key blow when 6-foot-5  Lukas Osmundsen showed up at game time sporting a boot, courtesy of a stress fracture. Osmundsen provided tremendous inside spark with 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Libertyville win, and the Broncos could have used his help near the basket in this one.

“I told the guys in the locker room that they shouldn’t let this loss ruin what they accomplished this year,” said Tucker.

I couldn’t agree more.

Cary-Grove Trojans (12-15): Went 1-1 at 4A Prairie Ridge Regional, beating the host team 52-48, then losing to Huntley 44-27.

In their loss to the heavily favored Huntley Red Raiders, the Trojans proficiently demonstrated arguments both pro and con for the addition of a shot clock in the prep game. With cries of “Play basketball Cary-Grove” coming from the Huntley cheering section, the Trojans eliminated the excitement  of up-and-down basketball, but evened the playing field with disciplined fundamentals that limited possession time for the more talented Huntley team.

It was beautiful to watch, and almost worked.  And honestly, it was the only chance Cary-Grove had to steal a victory.

Coach Ralph Schuetzle’s team milked the clock like it was a stubborn Guernsey, and for three quarters the slowdown tactic worked. Just a few games ago, these same Red Raiders pounded Cary-Grove by 22 points, 64-42. But at the end of three quarters in this Regional contest, the score was knotted 23-23 before Huntley hit a pair of treys that broke the game wide open.

The game was the swan song for Cary-Grove’s wonderful guard Nick Richter, who concluded his high school career by leading his team in scoring the final two contests with 23 in the win against Prairie Grove and 15 against Huntley.      

Dundee-Crown Chargers (13-14):  Went 1-1 at 4A Larkin Regional, with a 50-43 win over Jacobs before dropping a heartbreaker 36-35 to top-seeded Elgin.   

After winning a hard-fought Regional opener against conference foe Jacobs, the Charger took highly regarded Elgin to the brink before losing with 5.3 seconds remaining. As usual, Dundee-Crown was led by its two senior forwards. Ryan Smith hit a pair of free-throws in the waning moments that gave his team its last lead, 35-34, and Jamel Kimbrough led the Chargers in scoring with 12.

Stevenson Patriots (15-13):  Went 1-1 at 4A Mundelein Regional, beating Grant 61-41, then losing to the top-seeded hosts from Mundelein 66-57.

As expected, the Patriots collided with the home-team Mustangs two games into the state tourney. Unlike two previous losses to Mundelein, Stevenson had a nice offensive showing, scoring nearly 60. But the usually stalwart defense of the Patriots gave up a season-high 66 points. It was the first time in 21 games a Stevenson opponent reached the 60-point total.

Senior Ryan Chapman and junior Michael Fleming each concluded the season with a pair of double-digit scoring games.

Buffalo Grove Bison (17-10): Lost opening game of 4A Libertyville Regional to Deerfield 54-44.

The higher-seeded Bison had a horrible shooting night and suffered an injury to their top inside player, junior Sam Wacker as a peaking Deerfield team ended Buffalo Grove’s season.

If misery does indeed love company, BG could take some solace in being joined on the sidelines by fellow Mid-Suburban League member Barrington, which was knocked out of the tourney a few nights later by the same Deerfield club.

(15-12): Lost opening game of 4A Prairie Ridge Regional in overtime to McHenry, 61-58.

The sudden finality of the state tournament is probably most intensely felt by talented teams who believe they are finally on the right track. Such is the case of the Crystal Lake South squad, which stuttered and sputtered its way to an above. 500 season despite internal  mishaps that kept some of its best players off the court on a couple of occasions.

“I think what I’ll remember the most about this year is the way we came together at the end of the season and overcame adversity,” said three-year varsity player Kevin Rogers after his team was eliminated in overtime in the first game of the tournament.

“I’ll also remember getting the chance to be a part of this team with some of my best buddies.”

Winners of four of their last five in the regular season, the Gators struggled uncharacteristically to put the ball in the hole against McHenry, a team they had twice defeated. Crystal Lake South stayed right with McHenry all night despite woeful 3-point shooting (2 for 17) that is usually their hallmark.

Rogers, who thrilled many a Gator fan with his long shots over the last three years, closed out an excellent prep career with just 7 points, going 1 for 5 from 3-point Land.

The tournament is cruel in that respect. Unless you win, there is no “next game” to set things right again.

Grayslake North Knights (19-7): Lost opening game of 3A Fenton Regional 68-66 to Senn.

Ending the best season in school history to a six-win team is going to take a while for the Knights players to gulp down, especially after they led by 14 in the final quarter. In time, however, they’ll learn to savor the some extraordinary accomplishments, like beating Grayslake North for the first time in history and being one of the few teams to knock off powerful Crystal Lake Central.

Teddy Ludwick (24 points), David Sparks (16) and sophomore A.J. Fish (16), stalwarts all season, left behind a good-looking box score in their final effort of the year. But once momentum swung violently against them, even this trio couldn’t stop the curtain from coming down on a great year.

Jacobs Golden Eagles (16-13): Lost opening game of 4A Larkin Regional 50-43 to Dundee-Crown.

If familiarity really does breed contempt, then the aversion Jacobs feels toward Dundee-Crown has got to be palpable. Jacobs was riding a nice three-game winning streak into the state tournament, its last loss coming at the hands of Dundee-Crown. Then D-C ended the Jacobs season for good.

Four-year varsity player Mike Peterson went out swinging for the Golden Eagles, delivering a team-high 13 points. Right there with him, as he was all campaign, was graduating three-year varsity starter Nick Hofman who added 11.

Lake Zurich Bears (7-20): Lost opening game of 4A Fremd Regional 60-49 in overtime to Lake Forest.

The Bears came within seconds of victory, only to see Lake Forest drain a trey to send the game into overtime, where the contest eventually came apart.

But first-year coach Billy Pitcher can cling to the knowledge he has the superb junior Mirko Grcic back next year. Grcic, who was a constant star all season, finished with a 22-point game, including what might have been the winning bucket in regulation if not for the late Lake Forest heroics. Pitcher can also hang his hat on three conference wins, three more than the team had in the last two campaigns, including giant-toppling victories against Mundelein and Zion-Benton.

Palatine Pirates (9-18): Lost opening game of 4A Libertyville Regional 46-45 to Libertyville.

It was a tough year to be a Pirate;  right down to the last loss. Palatine went into the state tourney on the heels of a one-point defeat to Elk Grove, then battled a bigger Libertyville team to near-stalemate on  their own floor before losing again by the smallest of margins.

Once again smooth forward John Millin carried Palatine offensively with 18 points. The good news is that he’ll be back next season.

(7-19): Lost opening game at own 4A Regional 52-48 to Cary-Grove.

It’s hard to speak for any coach, but I wonder if granted the option, Corky Card of Prairie Ridge would be in favor of extending the season for his Wolves. They certainly played much better at the end of the campaign, racking up three wins in their final four games leading into March Madness.

And even in the defeat that ended their season, the Wolves played solid, competitive basketball.

Or would he rather just regroup next year with leading scorer Sean Valentine back in the fold?

What are your thoughts?

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