First of all, congratulations to the Huntley boys basketball team for an excellent season.
Led by seniors Tyler Brunschon and Dylan Neukirch, the Red Raiders finished 25-5 and were the last team standing from the Fox Valley area.
They won the outright title in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference, their third regional title in five seasons under coach Marty Manning and they matched the deepest postseason run in school history with Friday's appearance in the Class 4A Jacobs sectional title game.
Each of the aforementioned accomplishments is important because each is difficult to achieve. Winning the title in any conference is a grind.
And just ask any of our local coaches how incredibly difficult it has become to win a regional title these days let alone a sectional game. Here's hoping you have half an hour to hear the answer.
However, Rockford Auburn's 59-31 dismantling of Huntley delineated the difference between a very good local team able to reach the Sweet 16 and an elite team.
The Red Raiders lose Neukirch and Brunschon to graduation, and those losses will hurt. Neukirch was a subtle contributor who did more for the Red Raiders than met the eye. And Brunschon, as Manning pointed out, unselfishly took 100 less shots this year to get teammates more involved. His scoring average dropped from 15 to 12 ppg as a result. That's leadership.
However, Huntley is in good shape with the other six players from Friday's rotation set to return next season: junior forward Justin Frederick, junior guards Troy Miller, Jake Brock and Jake Dachman, sophomore forward Bryce Only and physically gifted 6-foot-5 freshman Amanze Egekeze.
It's a group with a ton of promise, and there are several more in the current sophomore class expected to develop into good players, according to Manning. But is it a group that will allow the Huntley basketball program to make the transition from very good to elite?
"We're good for a team out here in the Fox Valley Conference, and we probably will be," Manning said. "The question is are we going to be able to compete with teams like Rockford Auburn, Rockford Boylan, Warren and some of the better suburban and Rockford teams. That's a pretty big step for a program to take. We're one step away, but it's a big step.
"You have to get stronger, you have to get quicker and you have to be able to be able to play with teams like (Auburn). We have to find another gear, find multiple ways to score."
Manning pointed to Auburn junior guard Fred Van Vleet and senior guard Antony Strickland as examples of the versatile players Huntley needs to develop in order to win sectionals and more.
"They can take you off the dribble, they can pull up, they can shoot threes," Manning said. "We've got some guys who can do one or maybe two of those but not all-around players who can do all three of them.
"It'll be interesting to see with the sophomore class we have coming up whether guys rest on their laurels with what we accomplished this year or whether they are going to push each other and really work to get better. This summer will be a big summer for us."
Becoming stronger will be a major component of any improvement plan. The Red Raiders were able to impose their will physically against FVC teams during the regular season, but they got a taste of their own medicine from the stronger, more athletic Knights.
"They pushed us around," Miller said. "We're not the quickest and not the biggest, so we've got to get a lot stronger. It all depends on what happens in the summer. If we keep on getting better and work hard and if we put on some muscle, we could definitely do it."
It's not a question of desire.
"Guys want to get better," Only said. "They're hungry. They want to play ball. I think they'll do anything to get the program to the level of Rockford Auburn, where you reach a certain level of playing intensity every night. I'm not saying we're a bad team, but we didn't match their quickness and we didn't match their athleticism."
"We had a young team this year. It should be fun next year."
Just how much fun the Red Raiders have next season depends on how hard they're willing to work between now and next November.
Based on returning talent alone, Huntley should be very good again next season, even with just an adequate off-season effort.
With a supreme off-season effort, however, elite is not out of the realm of possibility.