Anyone hoping to follow Benet's boys basketball team better have a good GPS system.
The Redwings have played in every corner of the Chicago area in search of the best competition they can find. The journey comes to a bit of an end Saturday when they travel to Batavia's Night of Hoops event to take on state power Stevenson (18-1) and elite junior guard Jalen Brunson.
Saturday's game marks the fifth and final shootout appearance of the season for Benet (13-6), which will enter the postseason among the state's most battle-tested teams.
"It's a great experience for our kids, that's why we do it," said Benet coach Gene Heidkamp. "We've really played some strong teams in these shootouts. Stevenson's arguably as good as anybody."
Benet is 2-2 in its previous shootout appearances, boasting wins over Evanston and Redondo Union, Calif., while dropping games to Milwaukee Hamilton and Fenwick. The Stevenson game will prove especially tough considering the Redwings first face a Friday trip to Chicago for an East Suburban Catholic Conference matchup against Marist (15-5).
Powered by 6-foot-9 Xavier-bound center Sean O'Mara, a consistent 20-point and 10-rebound performer, Benet's been able to compete with every team it's played while ringing up numerous quality wins. Beating Stevenson would be the Redwings' biggest victory of the season.
"To play against these types of players and these teams, you take some chances that you'll lose some games," Heidkamp said. "In the big picture hopefully it makes us better for the playoffs."
With a 64-62 victory over Oak Park on Jan. 24, York (21-2, 8-0) officially made it through the first half of the West Suburban Silver season without a loss.
But it's not exactly downhill from here. Last weekend's 2-point win over Proviso West and overtime decision over Lyons Twp. -- both road wins -- show how difficult it'll be to stay atop the league standings.
"Every game is a huge test," said York coach Vince Doran. "You feel the pressure every time out, but the kids have been real good about the importance of understanding each game."
With a one-game lead over defending Silver champion Hinsdale Central (15-6, 7-1), York is in an ideal position to claim its first conference title since 2006. If the Dukes win Friday at Glenbard West, rematches with Downers North, Hinsdale Central and Oak Park stand in the way of claiming the elusive crown.
York does not want to settle for a repeat of last year's second-place finish.
"We've been in a lot of close games so far, so it's not going to be easy," Doran said. "There's so much balance in the conference this year. It just feels like any team can beat anyone on a given night."
One in, one out:
Glenbard North's bench was thinner for Tuesday's DuPage Valley Conference game against Lake Park because starting guard Justin Jackson was in Texas gearing up to play football for the U.S. under-19 team in this weekend's International Bowl.
Overall, though, the Panthers (14-5, 7-2) became deeper in the last week thanks to the return from injury by Pasquale Fiduccia, who hurt his wrist in the season's first game and came back in time for last Friday's game against Naperville North.
Fiduccia didn't score last Friday and tallied 2 points in a 53-40 win over Lake Park. As a senior who was expected to play a pivotal role this season for the Panthers, Fiduccia's comeback is a welcomed sight.
"It's great to see him on the floor," said Glenbard North coach Joe Larson. "He's such a good kid and we all felt so bad for him that first game, especially being a senior."
With Brett Gasiorowski and Eric Jones maintaining key roles off the bench, Fiduccia's return gives the Panthers more options with their lineup as the regular season winds down toward the playoffs.
"To have him back on the court with us and be part of this, it's great for him and it's good for everybody," Larson said.
The Lions share:
Now in a fourth year of participating in Coaches vs. Cancer fundraising, Interstate Eight Conference schools have raised $35,000 for the American Cancer Society.
Lisle visits Westmont on Friday, and Lisle coach Mark LaScala said his program has been selling T-shirts toward the cause.
The Lions can use more T-shirt sales and, on the basketball court, better handles.
Coach Mark LaScala knew before the season handling defensive pressure would be essential and that's how it's panned out. Through 16 games Lisle had committed twice as many turnovers as assists, a factor in eight losses by 5 points or less.
LaScala also knew he'd have quality senior height. Through 16 games 6-foot-7 Shane Murray and 6-6 Jeremy Glavanovits were around 11 points a game with Glavanovits nearly averaging a double-double with 8.4 rebounds per game.
"When we successfully handle the ball and get the ball into Shane and Jeremy we can score some points," LaScala said.
At the annual Interstate Eight Conference Tournament Lisle whomped higher-seeded Sandwich 76-50. It scored 64 points in a loss to suddenly hot Walther Christian.
Murray draws a crowd in the post, and LaScala said he's had the season "we had hoped for."
"When he gets single coverage he's really, really tough, especially 18 (feet) and in," the coach said. "His shooting percentage in the paint for the year is over 70 percent."
A major influence:
As a musicologist and rock historian, St. Francis coach Bob Ward might recognize the chorus of Rush lyricist Neil Peart's song, "The Garden": the measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.
Ward has lived a wonderful life.
Leading up to and following his 300th victory Tuesday, 54-39 over Chicago Christian, Ward's legion of admirers praised the retired teacher. After resigning the Wheaton North head spot following the 1999-2000 season due to since-remedied health "blips", he remained as an assistant before his 2011 hiring at St. Francis. It's been a perfect fit.
"Bob is not just a great person and coach but a remarkable mentor," said Mike Dunn, who played for Ward at Wheaton North and assists him with the St. Francis varsity.
"He always puts kids, parents and peers first. He defines what a great teacher is in the classroom and on the court. This is evident by the amount of former players that are now teaching and coaching," Dunn said.
It's a group that includes Waubonsie Valley athletic director Chris Neibch, Downers Grove North coach Jim Thomas, Batavia coach Jim Nazos, Wheaton North coach Dave Brackmann, Falcons girls coach Dave Eaton, Lakes boys coach Chris Snyder, Benedictine University men's assistant Steve Kollar and Andrew Pearson, football coach at Delaware County (Pa.) Christian School.
Many people reached out to Ward as he approached then achieved the 300 victory, his 50th in three seasons at St. Francis.
"It feels good," said Ward, who one day will be inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. "The people were so nice to give me a call or a text or whatever. I thought it was a good game. Like any other number, it's always better to win a game, so you feel good about that."
He recalled not having definite plans to continue coaching as he entered the last of his 34 years teaching in 2010-11. When Shawn Healy stepped down at St. Francis, opportunity knocked.
At the time "glowing reviews" was how former St. Francis athletic director Paul Linden described Ward's recommendations.
Ward enjoys having time to focus more on the game of basketball.
"I just think the fact that you're just doing the one phase of the job, the coaching part of it. You have more time to prepare, get ready for practices," he said.
Nazos assisted Ward for four years, then the roles flipped. Except for the possible stress involved, Nazos supported Ward's return as a head coach.
"I think he does everything for the right reasons," Nazos said. "When he decided he wanted to come back and coach, no doubt he's great for kids, no doubt he's going to be successful. I told him I think him coming back was a great thing."
Nazos was in his early 20s when he became part of Ward's staff at Wheaton North.
"The first thing you find out is he's not just a basketball coach, he teaches life lessons, too," Nazos said. "If you had somebody you could pick to teach your kids, you'd want somebody who could teach them more than just basketball. And he's one of the best."
Ward has that second wind, the focus, lots of fans, 300 wins.
Future goals? He'll aim for No. 301, undoubtedly witnessed by his wife, Valerie, from the Spyglass Athletic Center balcony.
"My future is playing Walther Christian on Friday," Bob Ward said. "They just went out and beat St. Edward. That would be the immediate future."
Getting back on that horse:
Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton expects success, but not perfection.
After losing to Waubonsie 60-56 in overtime last Friday for the Wildcats' first Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division loss after eight wins, the coach was asked if the loss took pressure off the team.
He said, "There's no pressure because no one goes undefeated."
Neuqua was the last team to do so, 10-0 in 2009-10 in a unified Upstate Eight.
"It's been a while since Neuqua Valley did that, and those teams were special," Sutton said. "We knew if last year's team (11-1, 28-3 overall) couldn't go undefeated in conference, this year's team surely wouldn't. We knew it going in, you're going to lose to someone. But we're still in first place, we've got a nice lead -- but next game (Friday against Bartlett) we've got to show up and play because they're going to try to knock us off also."
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