With the outcome long since decided in Rockford Auburn's favor, Huntley coach Marty Manning gave his three senior starters the well-earned opportunity to take a final bow Tuesday night.
Troy Miller came out first with 1:18 left in a 62-48 loss in a Class 4A Dundee-Crown sectional semifinal. He was greeted with appreciative words from Manning after the guard scored a team-best 16 points in his final high school game. Justin Frederick and Jake Brock exited to similar ovations with 53 seconds remaining.
No, Miller, Frederick and Brock won't be able to say they were part of a Huntley team that gained revenge for last year's season-ending loss in a sectional final to uber-talented Fred Van Vleet and the same Knights.
And though these seniors fell one victory shy of the school record of 27 wins by the 2000-01 team that won a Class A sectional, they carved an important niche that won't soon be forgotten by anyone on Harmony Road.
These Red Raiders won back-to-back outright titles in the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference and followed each with a regional championship title. Regionals aren't easy to win, folks. Winning them can make grown men weep, exasperated when decade-long droughts finally end. It happens every March.
It hasn't been that emotional in Huntley of late, though. Manning's teams have won 4 regional titles in his six seasons. Though Miller and Frederick went 15-13 as sophomores on the varsity, they won 51 of the 60 games they played as upperclassmen. They won three Thanksgiving tournament titles at Sycamore and the Jacobs Holiday Tournament title this season.
"From 15 wins as a sophomores to 51 wins in the next two seasons is quite an accomplishment for us and we're very proud of it," said Frederick, who scored 12 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in his final game.
"It's frustrating," Miller said of the loss, "but it's bittersweet because I'll remember all the good times we had. 26-4 is pretty spectacular."
Without question, Huntley has taken major strides as a program. The Red Raiders are an annual contender for their conference title and will be again next season with the return of such stalwarts as junior Bryce Only and sophomore Amanze Egekeze.
But if the Red Raiders are to ever break through and beat the Sweet 16-caliber teams like Auburn, the mindset of both the program and its confernce have to change, according to Manning.
"It's going to be tough because basketball isn't a big thing where we are," Manning said of FVC athletics. "Football and baseball reign supreme in our conference. If you want to be a team that makes it to an Elite Eight, you have to play in an area or in a conference where every single game is a dogfight. You have to go into the off-season thinking, 'I really know I really have to work on my game because I know the guys from that school are working on their game.'
"It'll be difficult. It has to be a mindset and kind of a culture change where the guys understand they're not really just competing against Fox Valley schools. If they want to get downstate, they have to be competing against the Rockford schools or the Upstate Eight schools. The sooner the players see that, the more likely something like that is to happen."
Manning is trying to get his players used to such styles of play as early as freshman year. That's why Fremd, Barrington and Elgin remain on the schedule next year. That's why Manning has opted out of Jacobs next December in favor of the more competitively diverse State Farm Classic in Bloomington. That's why he's still actively seeking a Rockford school to play during the regular season.
Maybe after four years of such tough games, the Red Raiders won't play "timid" as Manning described it when they fell behind Auburn 11-0 at the start.
"We have to play in games like this freshman, sophomore and junior years so they know what it's like and not just when they're seniors and it's the state tournament," Manning said. "They have to experience it as underclassmen so they know what they have to get better at."
The graduating seniors got a taste of such competitve play the last few years. Only and Egekeze have been exposed to high caliber competition at younger ages than Miller and Frederick. Will they eventually be able to take Huntley beyond sectional play?
"It's going to come down to some of the players working by themselves in the off-season," Egekeze said. "Yeah, we have a good record in our conference but in order for us to fully reach our potential we have to have guards who can avoid turning the ball over and be effective. And I've got to get stronger and do a lot of things, and I will. It'll take a collective effort, but I think it can be done."