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Rarely has the spotlight on boys basketball in Lake County shined one on of its westernmost schools.
Wauconda is looking to change that perception this year after earning some well-deserved attention with its first title in 34 years at Marengo's E.C. Nichols Holiday Tournament.
The Bulldogs improved to 9-6 with their 53-48 championship-game victory over Sycamore on Dec. 29. They have now won eight of nine games going into Tuesday night's trip to North Suburban Prairie and Class 3A state power North Chicago.
"I've been on varsity for a couple of years and this group is much different," said Wauconda senior point guard Keith Blomberg. "We play much more together than any of the other teams I've been with."
They've stuck together even though they had a difficult start to the season. Five of their losses are 7 points or less -- including a 2-pointer to Sycamore in pool play at Marengo -- and two went to overtime.
Senior Kodey Thomas leads the balanced Bulldogs in scoring at 13.5 points a game and senior Austin Swenson averages 11.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.8 steals and assists. Six-foot-6 sophomore Ricky Sidlowski (9.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) is shooting 65 percent from the field, junior Dion Head averages 6.8 points off the bench and Blomberg (4.4 ppg, 4.1 apg) and senior Devon King (3.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg) contribute in a variety of ways.
"This is definitely the hardest-working team I've ever played on," Thomas said after scoring a championship-game high of 17 points. "We all play as one because we all know at the end of the day a victory is what matters."
Victories have been in short supply since the Bulldogs' last winning season of 18-9 in 2005-06 under Rich Wolf. They were 4-23 the year before Scott Luetschwager took over and they are on track to continue their forward progress from 6, 8 and 11 wins the last three seasons.
"With a group of guys like this, a bunch of unselfish players, our confidence keeps rising," said Swenson, who also quarterbacked the Bulldogs into the Class 5A state playoffs. "We've all played for so long, since the fifth grade, and all that time together builds a trust with each other that is so strong."
Luetschwager said the combination of this group and the foundation set by Wolf has fueled Wauconda's turnaround.
"They love playing the game of basketball every day," Luetschwager said. "Coach Wolf changed the mentality to a hard-nosed team that wants to give its best.
"He started with (assistant) coach (Al) Marks with the matchup (zone) and the program and the kids understand what we want to do. They've worked hard to change that mentality."