Nothing seems to faze senior guard Darius Wells and the South Elgin boys basketball team during this dream postseason run to the Sweet Sixteen in Class 4A, not even the loss of their head coach.
Some thought the Storm might lose to Elgin in their play-in game at last week's St. Charles North regional.
Not only did they bounce the Maroons, the next night they made headlines by upsetting No. 1 seed Larkin and went on to beat St. Charles East to claim the program's second regional title.
However, it wasn't until Wednesday's 71-66 victory over Jacobs in a Class 4A Elgin sectional semifinal that we glimpsed South Elgin's true mettle in the face of adversity.
The Storm played some of their strongest basketball of the season against Jacobs despite the absence of first-year coach Matt Petersen, who was informed by the IHSA Tuesday around noon he was suspended for the rest of the season because his team had played one too many regular-season, nontournament games. Teams in Illinois are allowed 18 such contests. South Elgin, due to confusion involving the end-of-season conference crossover in the Upstate Eight Conference, according to Petersen, played 19.
If ever a team had a built-in excuse to underperform, it was South Elgin Wednesday night.
"(Petersen) told us (Tuesday) when we had our walk through that we have to act like he's still on the sideline," said Wells, who canned six 3-pointers and led all scorers with 26 points. "We still have to do what he said and play like we've got to play."
Instead of caving and blaming the distraction, the Storm thrived like never before. They advanced to a sectional title game for the first time in program history, driven by Wells on the court and directed by longtime area assistant Steve Szpejnowski on the sideline.
Szpejnowski was previously an assistant coach at Bartlett and at Streamwood, where he was Tim Jones' assistant for several seasons before losing his job due to a reduction in force within District U-46. This is first season at South Elgin.
Szpejnowski, whose father, Leo, was the head coach at Streamwood and Bartlett, saved his best advice for early in the fourth quarter, when Jacobs sliced the Storm's 15-point halftime lead to 53-52.
"I just told them take a deep breath, keep your composure and take care of the basketball," the interim coach said. "Realize the stage you're on. Everyone's here watching you."
Well, not everyone. Watching from afar was Petersen. South Elgin High School was a ghost town on Wednesday night because anyone with even a fleeting interest in Storm basketball was at Chesbrough watching the game. However, one conference room was occupied. That's where Petersen streamed the game to a big-screen television and watched as his team carried on without him. He watched with pride.
"Steve did an excellent job and I have complete confidence in his ability to lead the basketball team," Petersen said. "He has done a good job of understanding and trying to learn a new system he wasn't used to. He picked it up and he's been phenomenal on the bench with his suggestions and how he works with the kids during practices and during games.
"I give my coaches a lot of responsibility throughout the course of the year. They've done a lot of running situations in practice. He's fully prepared and he's going to do a great job for as long as these kids make a run. He's a great coach."
How long this run might last is impossible to say. South Elgin (18-14) will face Rockford Auburn (27-5) on Friday at 7 p.m. for a berth in the NIU supersectional. The Storm will be underdogs against a program with bigger guards and more postseason experience.
Regardless, South Elgin remains unfazed with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line next.
"It's something you dream about," Wells said. "You wake up and say we want to go to the sectional championship, the supersectional and state, but you have to play them one game at a time."