Seniors will be scarce when Larkin faces Rockford Jefferson in a Class 4A DeKalb boys basketball sectional semifinal Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
Of the 10 players leading Larkin (23-5) in minutes played, four are seniors and only two -- all UEC River guards Quantice Hunter and Quentin Ruff -- are starters. Coach Deryn Carter regularly starts three juniors: all-UEC River guard Kendale McCullum and forwards Drew Jones (6-foot-6) and Brayden Royse (6-5).
The rotation for Jefferson (19-12) skews even younger.
"We're very young with only three seniors and four or five sophomores, but we're playing real loose," J-Hawks coach Todd Brannan said Monday. "At this point of the season, kids are secure in their roles. We've got a number of interchangeable parts, kids who can play multiple positions."
Jefferson went 9-7 in the NIC-10 conference and finished sixth, but the J-Hawks heated up when it mattered, winning 4 of their last 5 games. In the final month of the season, they notched a key win against Boylan Catholic (51-47) and impressive wins at Auburn, at Freeport and two victories at Rockford East.
In the regional title game at Rockford East last Friday, The J-Hawks built a 13-point, first-half lead against the hosts and held on to win 53-49. Their final 8 points were scored by three sophomores: guards M.L. Moore and Antoine Pittman and forward Stephan Hunter.
"They may be young, but they're good," said Carter, whose team won the UEC River outright. "They have a 6-4 kid (senior Tyrice Morgan) who is athletic, and Antoine Pittman is one of the best sophomores in the state. We've got a lot of respect for them. They are every bit as good as some of the teams we've been playing."
Both teams possess quickness and depth at the guard position. Larkin guards Derrick Streety, Hannibal Marshall and Taylor Boley come off the bench to reinforce the defense. Brannan said his younger players must show poise when faced with Larkin's formidable defensive pressure.
"First and foremost, we'd better be able to handle the ball against their full-court press, traps and things like that or it's going to be a long night for us, no doubt about it," Brannan said. "Our defense has been pretty good the second half of the season, too."
A trip to the state finals was at stake the last time Larkin played Jefferson in a postseason game in 2005. The J-Hawks won that Class AA supersectional game 73-60 at the Mark of the Quad Cities in Moline despite 31 points from Larkin star Dayvon Ellis. Jefferson went on to finish fourth in the state after losing a semifinal matchup against eventual state champion Jon Scheyer and Glenbrook North.
For Larkin to advance to its first sectional final in eight years, the Royals must stay the course, according to their coach.
"I want us to continue doing what we've done all year, which is play hard," Carter said. "When we've had success, we've played with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. When we've lost it's because teams have done that to us. Our message to the team the last couple of days is to just be ourselves."
The winner advances to Friday's 7:30 p.m. championship game against the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between Crystal Lake Central (26-3) and Boylan (20-8).
CL Central, co-champions of the Fox Valley Conference's Fox Division, defeated host Jacobs 65-58 to win its second regional title in three seasons. Four Tigers scored in double digits against Jacobs: 6-7 senior Kyle Fleck (14), senior guard Jake Van Scoyoc (13), 6-6 forward David Panicko (11) and senior reserve guard DJ Thomas (10).
The team's leading scorers are seniors Brad Knoeppel and Corban Murphy, who average 26 points combined. Seventh-year coach Rich Czeslawski has led the Tigers to s 72-14 record the last three seasons combined.
Boylan finished in a three-way tie for second place in the NIC-10 with Rockford East and Auburn, 3 games behind champion Belvidere. Guard Frank Cimino canned five 3-pointers to lead the Titans with 21 points in their regional championship victory over host Hononegah. Boylan won that game on a putback by Drew Gaurke at the buzzer.