If ever a team needed good senior leadership, it was this year's Aurora Central Catholic boys basketball squad.
Faced with one bad break after another -- and seemingly one loss after another -- the wheels easily could have come off the Chargers' season.
Instead Aurora Central, as has become its tradition, regrouped and saved its best basketball for the most important time of the year. The Chargers gave their fans four memorable postseason games, and those fans came out in droves for each one, the final one a standing-room-only setting in a 63-52 loss to Rockford East in the Class 3A Sycamore sectional championship game Friday.
The leadership through tough times was just one reason Chargers coach Nate Drye was so thankful for the on- and off-the-court contributions of seniors Joey McEachern, Robert DeMyers, Paul Kaminski, Matt Czerak and Kevin Bond.
"Joey and Robert especially but all the seniors held us together through a very difficult season," Drye said. "I think this team was destined for some more wins but then some things happened and they went through a lot of adversity and if you don't have great seniors you aren't going to pull through. They held this team together and showed terrific leadership."
DeMyers missed seven games and while his absence garnered the most attention he was far from the only injured Charger.
Those injuries were a big reason why the Chargers struggled to a 9-17 record in the regular season, but they kept their eyes on the postseason. They tuned up with a win over another sectional finalist St. Francis to close the regular season, then kept the momentum going by beating Marmion, Yorkville and Johnsburg.
"Joe was awesome the last month of the season and Robert finally got in form the last month of the season which was not soon enough for us," Drye said. "And Paul has hit big shots for us for three years and so has Matt Czerak and Kevin Bond is probably the best teammate we have ever had in the program."
DeMyers and McEachern are the two starters among the five seniors the Chargers will have to replace. DeMyers did everything he could inside in his final high school game, battling Rockford East's gifted 6-foot-6 Steven McNease and finishing with 15 rebounds, 4 blocked shots and 8 points.
McEachern, the hero a week ago with a buzzer-beater to win the regional title over Yorkville, scored 12 of his team-high 16 points in the second half. Both will leave big holes in Aurora Central's lineup, though Drye has made a living the last few years of finding new underclassmen to develop their games and become his new stars.
"I'm going to miss him (DeMyers), he's one of the best players I've ever played with," McEachern said. "They are all my best friends. That's what I'm going to miss the most. Not even the basketball, just being around them."
The group's time together goes back longer than their high school days. Moments after their final game together Friday, DeMyers and McEachern both thought back to some of the first games they played together as sixth-graders on the Illinois Attack travel team, one that also included Bond and Kaminski.
"I'm going to remember playing with Joey forever," the 6-foot-5 DeMyers said. "I think sixth grade Joey was taller than me. It's funny how things change.
"To be honest, I was pretty freaked out by his family. The first time I met them, his grandparents, parents, siblings, they all gave me a hug. In sixth grade I was a shy kid and I was too overwhelmed by that. It's just great how Joey and I have developed this friendship since sixth grade."
Both McEachern and DeMyers played central roles in the 2011 sectional championship win over Rockford East, 85-82 in overtime.
The difference in the rematch? Dye pointed to his team's shooting woes on makable shots in the first half. Rockford East coach Roy Sackmaster said the way his team closed the game after letting a double-digit lead slip away a year ago made for the different outcome.
"I went and watched that game from last year again today," Sackmaster said. "It was the whole not-to-lose mentality. We just kept telling them over and over again tonight to keep attacking. I felt we just stayed aggressive."
The Chargers' run this postseason was quite similar to last year. They entered at .500 last year and won four games to reach the supersectional; this season they came in at 9-17 and won three to reach the sectional championship. That's a 7-2 record in the games that count the most the past two years from teams that were 22-30 during the regular season.
"I think it's focus," Drye said. "This is what we do, this is who we want to be. This is the part of the season we are playing for. We want to be in these games and win these games. The regular season is about peaking and getting better at the right time and I think our kids buy into it."
The Chargers, who have now played in six straight regional championship games and won three regional titles the past five years, will have three returning starters back in 2012-13.
One of those is guard Zach Flint who stepped into the starting lineup last Friday against Yorkville. He scored 12 points in Friday's loss and gave Drye plenty of reason for optimism along with fellow junior starters Anthony Andujar and Phil Schuetz.
"I thought of everybody on the team he (Flint) probably stepped up to the moment more than anybody on the entire team which was great to see. I didn't think he was scared, I thought he went right at them. That was probably his best game of the year which was great to see with the lights on to come through and play like that," said Drye, who let those juniors know their work for next year started with Friday's loss and that they can learn from the seniors who will be graduating.
"I'm truly blessed to coach this team because they have probably come farther and through a lot of turmoil and they came out pretty solid on the other end," Drye said.