Neuqua Valley's boys basketball team is zeroing in on a seventh conference title and first since 2010.
Defending champion Metea Valley (15-8, 8-2) hopes 5-17 South Elgin -- which Neuqua (22-2, 10-1 UEC Valley) beat 71-32 on Dec. 15 -- can pull off the upset and the Mustangs can beat Waubonsie Valley and Bartlett to force a first-place tie.
A tie would not do for Neuqua coach Todd Sutton.
"The conference title does not count unless it is ours without sharing. Metea is within striking distance," Sutton wrote in an email.
"Our division has been great like always. The competition makes all of us better. Each night is a great challenge. There are many great players to try to defend. It can be overwhelming as a coach to try to figure out how to stop so many great players. These coaches keep running so many great plays for their players it is driving me crazy to try to get a win," Sutton added.
Sutton cited Waubonsie's Jared Brownridge and Bartlett's Lance Whitaker and the entire Metea team, challenging despite returning only Sean Davis from last year's starting five. He called the Mustangs "a surprise."
Neuqua isn't too surprising considering its pedigree. Also, Western Illinois-bound point guard Jabari Sandifer leads the team in scoring at 14.3 points a game, in assists at 4.1, in 3-pointers with 50 and in steals with 49. Sandifer's 4.3 rebounds a game follows only forward Pat Kenny.
The Wildcats go a strong 10 deep and allow an average of 45.7 points. Its last two games Neuqua held both Bartlett and East Aurora to 30 points.
"Our kids work very hard. Our defense can be awesome at times," Sutton noted.
When Naperville North (17-6, 7-3) suffered consecutive DuPage Valley Conference losses to West Aurora and Naperville Central, the Huskies' season could have taken a turn for the worse.
The Huskies dedicated themselves to regrouping, a decision that's led to a six-game winning streak heading into Friday's DVC showdown at Glenbard East (14-6, 9-1).
"It was important that we came back and played well after those losses," said Naperville North coach Jeff Powers. "We starting to gain some confidence again."
Senior forward Derek Westman, who scored 32 points in last week's win over West Chicago, has led the charge for Naperville North. Thanks to the six-game winning streak the Huskies now have the opportunity to avenge all three of their DVC losses in the next three games.
If Naperville North can sweep Glenbard East, West Aurora and Naperville Central in the next 10 days, the Huskies will put themselves in a position to vie for the DVC title.
As defending champ, Naperville North won't give up on a second straight title until it's mathematically impossible.
"If we can win out and finish with three losses, we're not out of it," Powers said. "Don't count us out yet."
Lisle chose an inopportune time to lose its second game in the Interstate Eight Conference.
The Lions (12-13, 7-2) lost 57-33 to Herscher on Tuesday. It was the same day Seneca lost its first conference game, falling to Plano 39-35.
Instead of Lisle joining Seneca at 8-1, and 6-1 Plano in the loss column, the Lions must now sweep Coal City and Peotone and merely hope for help.
"There's still some light there," said Lions coach Mark LaScala.
Feb. 20 was a red-letter date in the Suburban Christian Blue -- St. Francis (17-4, 5-3) visiting Wheaton Academy (17-5, 8-1).
Now, St. Francis' loss to Walther Lutheran last Saturday and Wheaton Academy's win Tuesday at Walther gives the outright SCC Blue title to Wheaton Academy and renders that game one for bragging rights and playoff tuneup.
Spartans coach Bob Ward doesn't see this as a disaster.
"When it's out of your hands really you're just in a position to try to get better for your next game," he said. "That's kind of the way we've approached it all year long."
Another way, he said, is as a "work in progress." Ward calls his senior core of Jason Pisarski, Andrew Kimball, Tim Zettinger, Kevin McShea and Matt Bonner a group of "interchangeable parts." At one point all have led St. Francis in scoring or rebounding.
Ward also credited the Spartans' success to quality backups who will comprise next year's core group: sophomore Jason Sullivan and juniors Zach Prociuk, Nick Fabianski and 6-foot-4 Killian Brown.
"We're the type of team that hasn't blown anybody out and we haven't been blown out," Ward said. "We've lost some close games, we've won some close games. We've said it all year long, we're a work in progress, we're a group that's looking forward to hopefully playing our best at the end."
Nothing free about it:
In Benet's 55-54 loss to St. Viator on Friday, the Redwings made 12 of 22 free throws in what has become a discouraging trend for the team.
The next night Willowbrook fell 61-59 to Barrington after making 10 of 17 attempts from the line.
On Tuesday Glenbard West hung on for a 53-49 victory over Wheaton Warrenville South despite hitting 13 of 22 free-throw attempts.
As the playoffs approach, every coach knows the margin for error becomes much smaller. Poor free-throw shooting won't cut it for teams hoping to advance.
"It's just another sign that we didn't play well," said Glenbard West coach Tim Hoder. "We've got to be better than that."
Duking it out:
With one of the area's elite players -- Colorado State-bound senior guard David Cohn -- York (18-5, 7-2 West Suburban Silver) quietly has put together a solid season.
The season, however, became quite a bit noisier after last week's 46-45 win over state-ranked Curie. Jack Heinle's last-second putback sealed the upset for the Dukes.
"A win like that just gives you a lot of confidence," said York coach Vince Doran. "Confidence is everything right now."
Cohn is just one element of York's success. The Dukes also have a strong post game with the 6-foot-8 duo of Justin Kurash and Frank Toohey.
York faces key upcoming Silver games against Downers Grove North, league-leading Hinsdale Central and Oak Park as the Dukes try to surge into the postseason.
"Teams are either headed in the right direction or the wrong direction," Doran said. "That Curie win give us a lot of momentum heading into this stretch of games."