As Benet's boys basketball team took the court Saturday at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, the scene felt eerily familiar for Pat McInerney and Sean O'Mara.
But in a good way.
It was the first time in two years the Redwings played in the National Guard High School Hoops Showdown. In 2011 they beat Glenbard East and compiled a 29-0 mark before suffering a sectional semifinal loss to East Aurora.
Following Saturday's 46-35 win over Naperville Central, McInerney talked about the similarities between this season and 2010-11. Aside from McInerney, the only non-senior starter two years ago, and O'Mara being on that team, the string of success also has been similar.
"It brings back pretty good memories from beating Glenbard East two years ago," McInerney said. "It's obviously an awesome environment playing on a big stage in a huge arena. You don't really get that opportunity many times in high school."
Like 2010-11, the Redwings are heading back to the McDonald's City-Suburban Showdown on Feb. 23 at House of Hope Arena in Chicago. Benet beat Simeon two years ago in the shootout, and this year it faces powerful Whitney Young.
Benet enters Friday's East Suburban Catholic Conference matchup against St. Viator with a 19-3 overall record and a 4-0 mark in the ESCC. Coming off thrilling wins over Notre Dame and Marian Catholic, the Redwings aim to keep their grip on first place in the league.
Waubonsie Valley coach Steve Weemer recently bumped into Tom McCloskey, former Montini coach now at Riverside-Brookfield, and gave him an update on the Warriors.
"I told him, Since we saw you (at York's holiday tournament) I think we really took on a new turn."
The Warriors (16-7, 5-4 Upstate Eight Valley) have won six of seven games since falling to R-B in the third-place game at York on Dec. 19. The sole loss was a 50-47 decision at Neuqua Valley that came down to the final seconds.
Weemer said a couple things have aided the resurgence.
One, senior forward Bryan Jefferson has played more consistently, more "within himself." Not scoring less than 12 points in this span with a 26-point game against Lincoln-Way East, the 6-foot-7 forward is not trying to force things or constantly finish at the basket.
"I think one of the biggest factors since Christmas is Bryan Jefferson has really come into his own," Weemer said.
Another factor is overall defense. Weemer cited Dylan Warden, Javares Stewart, Matt Gialamas and Jack Cordes in this vein.
"Those glue guys have really stepped it up and have done a nice job," Weemer said.
Climbing the chart:
Waubonsie senior Jared Brownridge has a shot at finishing second all-time in program scoring. The Santa Clara-bound guard entered the season sixth with 992 points, and his 451 points this season have moved him to fourth.
The Warriors' all-time mark of 1,753 points by George Poulikidas looks safe, but Brownridge could pass No. 2 Lance Broderson (1,513 points) and No. 3 Mason Stewart (1,505) before the season's through. Waubonsie has four regular-season games remaining and at least one playoff game. Brownridge owns one program record with eight 3-point baskets in a game his sophomore season.
Ups and downs:
In a short span of five days, Naperville Central endured all the highs and lows accompanying a brutal schedule.
It began Friday with a 68-47 DuPage Valley Conference win over Glenbard East, which was previously unbeaten in the DVC. The next night the Redhawks fell 46-35 to Benet, leader in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, and on Tuesday they lost 57-52 at West Aurora, which is now tied for first in the DVC.
"Not to make any excuses, but our kids played awfully well (Friday) night in a big game that we needed to have and prepared all week for," said Redhawks coach Pete Kramer. "(Saturday's) game we didn't have too much preparation at all."
The tough stretch didn't just arrive for those five days. Naperville Central boasts one of the area's toughest schedules, a list of games that includes Proviso East, Oswego, Notre Dame and St. Viator. That's in addition to two games against Glenbard East and West Aurora.
Hinsdale Central was quite content laying in the weeds while stringing together a strong season.
That happy place officially disappeared last weekend.
The Red Devils notched their sixth and seventh straight wins with back-to-back victories over Downers Grove North and Oak Park. By beating the Huskies 53-45 in Oak Park, Hinsdale Central (13-5, 7-1) claimed sole possession of first place in the always treacherous West Suburban Silver.
"We've been able to close out a lot of games we didn't close out early in the year," said Hinsdale Central coach Nick Latorre. "Our conference is so balanced, it's tough not to lose along the way."
Headed by 6-foot-7 sophomore center Matt Rafferty and senior guard Brian Owens, Hinsdale Central's unbeaten January is attributed to a balanced lineup even into its bench. Only four times this season has the leading scorer reached 20 points.
With a one-game lead atop the Silver standings and four games remaining, Hinsdale Central has plenty of work remaining. And no one will be looking past the Red Devils.
"If we have a target on our back, I don't know," Latorre said. "Maybe we're still a team that gets overlooked a little bit."
Tuesday Montini coach Brian Opoka visited IC Catholic Prep, scouting the Knights' game against Wheaton Academy. IC (16-5) and Montini (14-6) square off Friday in Elmhurst, each 6-1 in the Suburban Christian Gold.
The smiling Opoka clearly was enjoying himself, scouting a game with conference title ramifications ahead of him. He's taken the Broncos a long way from the three-, four- and six-win seasons of his first three years at Montini.
IC's loss to Wheaton Academy, and Montini's 68-64 loss Jan. 25 to third-place St. Edward, gives each contender losses in their last games.
IC coach T.J. Tyrrell still sees Friday's contest as a battle between teams sure of their abilities.
"They've got some new guys this year with (Simmie) Cobbs, him settling in," Tyrrell said. "They've been playing very good basketball as well. Their confidence is very high, too. Our confidence is good right now but their confidence is up there as well."
The deciding factor?
"Who wants it more," Tyrrell said, "and who's ready to play?"