The Elgin boys basketball players figured they had to power up if they wanted to become a powerhouse.
The Maroons enjoyed a highly successful 2010-11 season. They finished 22-7, won the school's first title in the Upstate Eight Conference in a decade and secured their first regional plaque since 2008. Yet, they seemed worn down by the time March arrived.
Elgin indeed won a regional title but did so by escaping with a 2-point win against Streamwood in the semifinals, saved by Kory Brown's no-look tip-in at the buzzer. They subsequently survived a 1-point decision over Dundee-Crown in the title game, thanks to Jordan Dean's 2 free throws with 5.3 seconds left.
The reality check came a few days later in the form of a season-ending 57-46 loss to Huntley in the sectional semifinal at Jacobs.
"We just weren't there strengthwise," said Brown, the reigning honorary captain of the Daily Herald Fox Valley All-Area team. " We weren't physically ready for Huntley, so everybody tried to improve as much as we could."
The difference eight months later is obvious to Elgin coach Mike Sitter (62-55), who has guided the program to a UEC River Division title and two regional crowns in his four seasons in charge, supported by assistants Jeff Howard, Marcus Howard and Quintin Howard.
"We're stronger and tougher," Sitter said. "We made our No. 1 priority in the off-season the weight room. Kory has just become a monster. But we've gotten stronger one through 15. Hopefully, that pays off, especially late in the year.
"Last year I thought we played our best basketball around the end of January. We had a run of five or six games that were over by halftime. Then we kind of faltered down the stretch. I don't know if that was strength, if that was conditioning or if that was because (graduated guard) Jordan (Dean) had to have surgery right when the season ended.
"This year I hope to play our best basketball in March. Hopefully, being in the weight room and working out year round will let us be stronger through the long season."
The Maroons lost only Dean from the rotation. Otherwise, they return 12 players from last season, including their top three scorers: Brown, and guards Dennis Moore and Arie Williams, the team's tri-captains this year.
Brown, a 6-foot-4, multi threat, led the Maroons last year with 16.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3 steals per game. Equally at home shooting the 3-pointer or driving the lane, he causes matchup problems for every opponent, especially as a defender.
Moore is the pure definition of explosive. Few guards can match his speed. The 5-10 senior averaged 10.8 points last season.
Moore missed the first several practices due to a broken hand suffered toward the tail end of the football season. The cast is off and he should be ready to go soon, but he won't be rushed. "It's a long season," Sitter said. "I'd rather not have him in November than not have him in March."
Junior point guard Arie Williams has undergone perhaps the most obvious transformation. No longer is he the diminutive 5-foot-1 guard who joined the varsity midway through his freshman year in 2009-10.
"Arie is about the same height as me now," Moore said. "I'm not lying. He's getting there. It's crazy."
Williams, the younger brother of Elgin 3-point shooting record holder Armani Williams (Texas-Arlington), grew in more ways than one.
"Arie is actually benching more than some of our post players," Sitter said, "but he still has the go-ahead to let it fly from anywhere past the half-court line." Last season Williams sank 57 shots from 3-point range, many of them from oh-no-he-didn't range.
A big factor for the Maroons could be the improvement of the next five players in the rotation.
Seniors Cortez Scott and Gerardo Mojica both impressed their coaches throughout the off-season, Sitter said. Mojica developed into an offensive threat to accompany his abilities as a rebounder and defender. Scott is a fearless ballhandler who can score. Both will see time at the position vacated by Dean.
Seniors Matt Andres and Devin Gilliam will each play significant roles. Andres is a third-year varsity player who "sets the meanest pick on this team," Brown said. He also keeps defenses honest by sliding out to the corner unnoticed for 3-pointers when teams over-defend Brown, Moore or Williams.
Gilliam is an athletic do-everything player more concerned with rebounding and playing defense than with his own statistics, according to Moore.
The rotation will get a shot in the arm from a few juniors, including Eric Sedlack, who led the sophomore team in scoring last year. Sitter calls him "a tall, lanky shooter who fits in with this team."
Elgin players will only see the floor if they come to play defense. This team knows it can score by creating its own shots, but additional points off turnovers would make the Maroons one of the toughest outs in the Class 4A bracket come March. That's why Elgin has been heeding the gospel according to Jeff Howard, whose official title is now listed as defensive coordinator.
"It's like a church service," Brown said of Jeff Howard's defensive drills. "He preaches to us all the time about defense because that's his area and that's what wins games. We want to keep teams under 40 points."
"We know we can score, but at the end of the day our motto is defense wins championships," Williams said. "A lot of our practices we don't even touch the ball. It's to the point where you'd rather give up a kidney before you'd let anybody score."
The Maroons hope their season doesn't conclude until they've advanced as far as their improved, powerful physiques can take them. The journey starts Monday at Buffalo Grove in the season opener. Along the way they'll play a rematch against Huntley at the Sears Centre on Jan. 21, and they'll host a showdown at Chesbrough against Chris Head's squad from Crane on Feb. 4.
"I'm not a big fan of goals and saying I want to win this many games or win this tournament or this title," Sitter said. "We honestly look at it one game at a time and right now we're looking at Buffalo Grove. The kids know if they do the right things game to game, titles will come to them."