Metea Valley's boys basketball team entered last season with high expectations and achieved them. Now the Mustangs join most teams in trying to get better every game.
Gone are three-year starters like Milan Bojanic, Ryan Sullivan and last year's All-Area captain, Kenny Obendorf, who paced a 25-5 team that won a regional title in its second year of varsity play.
Back are three-year guys Sean Davis, Vin Patel and Shiv Desai, who join returners such as guard Trayvond Taylor and 6-10 Hayden Barnard. The Mustangs came off a 1-3 start at the tough Hoops for Healing Tournament -- losing to Proviso East, Oswego and Naperville Central and beating Oswego East -- before a 2-point loss at Neuqua Valley and a 38-point blowout win over East Aurora.
"We've definitely got the different pieces," coach Bob Vozza said. "I think it's just a matter of getting everybody on the same page with confidence. We've had a couple players play well and another couple struggled, so we're just trying to get everyone going in the right direction."
The former top aide to Neuqua Valley's Todd Sutton said the Mustangs have improved each game. Proviso East and Oswego can make progress difficult to gauge, but confidence was better in a 71-65 loss to Naperville Central and a 38-36 loss to Neuqua Valley. Metea came out like a house afire against East Aurora, Patel scoring all 22 of his points in the first half of a 94-56 win.
The Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division promises to offer more nail-biters than blowouts. Those are the ones Vozza hopes to get.
"We've got to be able to execute and do what we want to do against tough opponents in close games," he said. "And we're going to have a lot of those the rest of the year."
With more than a handful of players participating in Benet's run to the Class 7A football semifinals, a slow start would be understandable for the basketball team.
No chance. Two days after the Redwings lost in football, 6-foot-9 junior center Sean O'Mara was back on the basketball court leading his team to a 3-1 run at the Hoops for Healing tournament. Last week Benet stormed to three wins, including especially impressive victories over York and Curie, which was previously state ranked.
"It speaks a lot to the type of kid (O'Mara) is," said Benet coach Gene Heidkamp. "He got off to a real good start, but he'd be the first one to tell you he's not playing 100 percent right now."
One guy who is at full strength is fourth-year varsity member Pat McInerney, whom Heidkamp describes as being healthy "for the first time since February of his sophomore year." The 6-5 senior forward is averaging 11 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
If the Redwings can solidify their backcourt play, look for them to become even stronger as the season progresses. Jack Euritt, another football player, missed the first three games of the basketball season, but he's back to bolster the front line.
Lockdown defender Jack Toner, a third key player coming back from the football team, is expected to return from injury by Christmas.
"I thought we had the makings of a good team once everyone was in the fold," Heidkamp said. "We're encouraged by the start, but we're a long way from playing our best."
Double the fun:
The 52nd annual Proviso West Holiday Tournament is once again making history. The prestigious event is expanding from 16 to 32 teams, a move that became much more real with Monday's pairings announcement.
The tournaments website says it all: 61 games, 32 teams, 11 sessions, six days, two courts, all under one roof. The opening round encompasses two days -- Dec. 22 and Dec. 26 -- with the title game scheduled for 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve.
In addition to traditional tournament powerhouses like Proviso East and Morgan Park, the expansion allows for DuPage County to be well-represented. Benet, Downers Grove South, Glenbard East, Hinsdale Central and Wheaton Academy are all in the field.
Spartans tough as expected:
St. Francis' 4-0 start played out as Spartans coach Bob Ward anticipated entering the season -- good defense, varied scoring, depth at each position, non-flashy.
"For this group to be successful we'd kind of have to be the ultimate team defense and team offense type of group, and thus far we've been able to do that," said Ward, the veteran leader in his second year at St. Francis. "We've got a ways to go in both areas, but I think our team defense has been good."
Despite the graduation of last year's star, Ryan Coyle, the Spartans won Batavia's Thanksgiving tournament a third straight year, with point guard Tim Zettinger earning tourney MVP and guard Andrew Kimball and swingman Jason Pisarski receiving all-tourney honors. Only once did Zettinger lead St. Francis in scoring -- 10 points in a 42-33 win over Batavia. Scoring is not the most important part of his game.
"We need a kid that can really put pressure on the point of the defense and he's been able to do a good job of that, very much like (Nick) Donati did for us last year," Ward said of the 6-foot-3 Zettinger.
Fellow seniors Kevin McShea and Matt Bonner have rounded out the starting five, but Ward can go 10 deep, he said. Off the bench comes sophomore Jason Sullivan to move Zettinger off the point. Juniors Kilian Brown and Zach Prociuk are "banging inside," Ward said.
"The kids play well together within our offensive and defensive scheme," Ward said. "Thus far we certainly haven't been the type of team in our four wins that has gone out and blown anybody out, but we've gone out and defended consistently well and gotten good shots."
At Montini things just keep getting better.
The Broncos and fifth-year coach Brian Opoka are only a few years removed from 2- and 3-win seasons in which seniors either jumped ship or got scared off.
Last season Montini won 16 games, won a playoff game and kept its second playoff game against Marshall close for a bit. Now the Broncos stand at 5-1 entering Friday's game against St. Edward.
Along with three-year, all-conference point guard Logan Goss and 220-pound post Matt Brachmann, a big reason for Montini's early success this season is 6-foot-4 junior forward Simmie Cobbs, who transferred from Oak Park. He was cleared to play at Montini on Nov. 26 and has since had two games of 16 points.
"Any given day any one of those three guys can step up and be a factor," Opoka said.
Goss is averaging 14.5 points, Brachman 12.3 and Cobbs 11.8 with a team-high 6.8 rebounds a game. Junior Jack Brady delivers good defense, senior Sean Nash the versatility.
Cobbs, who didn't play his sophomore year at Oak Park, is an athlete who can go inside and out. With Brachmann or 6-foot-6 Brian Orr on the floor, it makes it hard to double-team Cobbs, who Opoka said can dribble from arc to rim in no time.
Cobbs was a sight for sore eyes when Opoka first saw him in Montini's main office.
"I saw him sitting in a chair and I said, 'Please tell me you play basketball.' He said, 'Yes,'" Opoka said.
Cradle of coaches:
Last week Naperville North coach Jeff Powers sent an email to his assistants in hopes of finding an idea for improving the Huskies' slow starts to games.
After hearing from Freshman B coach Clint Hunter, team MVP of the Huskies' 2008 squad, the light bulb came on.
"I've been getting frustrated with our slow starts," Powers said. "Clint got an idea from (Boston Celtics assistant coach) Kevin Eastman that the way you start your practices is the way you start your games."
Powers shifted his practice schedule by starting with rebounding and contact drills instead of shooting drills. The team still went through its normal batch of drills, but Powers shifted the more competitive elements to the first half of practice.
Naperville North responded with a great start in Friday's 62-41 DuPage Valley Conference win over Wheaton North.
"You never know where you're going to get great ideas from," Powers said. "Clint's going to be a great head coach some day. He really understands the game."