It's been a year in the making, with twists on and off the basketball court, but Mooseheart's boys basketball team is downstate.
The plan was for coach Ron Ahrens, assistant coach Pete Daneels and the Ramblers to head to Peoria around 8 a.m. Thursday. On the itinerary for the first-time state qualifiers, Class 1A semifinalists, was lunch, some photos, a walk-through to prepare for Friday's 2 p.m. game against Unity, then get 6-foot-7 senior guard Mangisto "Manny" Deng ready for the Illinois High School Association Three-Point Showdown Thursday at Carver Arena.
Sending Daneels "scrambling" to acquire information on his semifinal opponent, Ahrens had no idea what Unity does on the basketball court.
Ahrens has every idea what unity does on and off the court.
"If we win it, I will probably be the same way as if we lose it. I think we had a great season, I think our kids have received the opportunity of a lifetime, which is great," said Ahrens, whose day job is director of residential living for Mooseheart Child City and School, near Batavia, with an IHSA enrollment of 116.
"I think it has put Mooseheart in the spotlight, which I think is great for us because I don't think a lot of people know about Mooseheart, what a wonderful organization it is. We have a million men and women who love us. If you ask our kids they're probably playing more for our Moose members than they are playing for a state championship."
He noted his enjoyment that "it puts us on a stage where hopefully people are asking questions about us."
He means positive questions. Because, boy, they'd been asked some tough ones.
In November 2012 the IHSA ruled as ineligible then-junior Sudanese students Deng, 6-foot-10 forward Makur Puou, 7-foot center Akim Nyang and cross country and track athlete Wal Khat. The crux of the IHSA's ruling was recruiting violations by Mooseheart in working with African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education (A-HOPE), out of Indiana.
The proceedings, sparked by accusations from a rival school, included a suit brought by Mooseheart, a temporary restraining order by a Kane County court, a compliance program quickly met by Mooseheart and a full IHSA board hearing in Bloomington on Dec. 10, 2012, where the boys were reinstated. The hearing produced statements like this from Deng, via conference call:
"I want to be an educated man. My country, South Sudan, we don't need basketball players, we don't need singers, we won't need things like that. Our dream over there is, how are we going to survive tomorrow?"
Pleased that, as he said, it's water under the bridge, Ahrens addressed that matter again Wednesday.
"We're not a basketball factory, we're here to raise good, young adults and help them through times when they need it. That's what we're all about," the coach said.
Mooseheart certainly hasn't proven to be a basketball factory, winning a second consecutive regional title for the first time this season.
A 1A school battling the likes of Benet, Curry and Proviso East last summer at DePaul -- and going 0-6 -- then winning eight of 11 games at Geneva, in the regular season Puou averaged 21.5 points and 13.7 rebounds and Deng averaged 17.1 points and hit 40 percent of his 3-point shots. Yet Ahrens stressed defense.
He credited point guard Freddy Okito and 6-4 guard Hameed Odunewu, who averages 5.5 assists, but noted that along with the Ramblers' quickness it's hard for opponents to simulate facing a post defender with Nyang's wingspan of 7 feet, 5 inches.
"That is what we stress, is defense, defense, defense," Ahrens said. "There's going to be some nights you're not going to be able to shoot very well and you're not going to have a very good night. You shouldn't have a bad night defensively, because that's in your heart."
It did the trick in a real grinder at the Somonauk regional final, 25-22 over Newark, and again in another relatively low-scoring game, 50-35 over to Chicagoland Jewish to avenge Mooseheart's 2013 sectional semifinal loss. The Ramblers got offense and defense in a 59-41 win over Eastland at Tuesday's Northern Illinois Supersectional as Puou scored 24 points with 17 rebounds and 5 blocks.
"We thought we'd be here last year but we didn't and that's why basketball is a funny game. That's why you've got to play hard every night when you've got a game," Ahrens said.
"We're happy now we're at this point. This is a goal of ours, now we have it in our hands, if we can be a state champion or not."
Upon Tuesday's official announcement that Sycamore dean of students Peter Goff will be Kaneland's new athletic director effective July 1, he drew friendly fire from co-workers and students at one of Kaneland's top rivals.
"My athletic director here (Chauncey Carrick) now says I'm the enemy," Goff said. "We just kid like that."
There was plenty of it to go around. As well, mixed emotions from administrators and students alike.
"The kids are sad, but they're happy that I'm able to do what I've always wanted to do," said Goff, who will replace interim athletic director Ralph Drendel, who held the job since the October resignation of Leigh Jaffke.
"That's what's great about (Sycamore), is I'm going to the rival and they're still so happy for me," Goff said. "This is a job that I've always wanted to do -- being an athletic director -- and I'm getting the opportunity to do it."
A 1986 graduate of Rock Falls High School, Goff is a lifelong sports guy whose only time not coaching in a 20-year career in education was his time at Sycamore, where the youngest of his three daughters, Chloe, is in the Sycamore girls basketball program headed by the unrelated Brett Goff.
Starting out as teacher and head softball and boys basketball coach at Ashton-Franklin Center, the Southern Illinois University graduate moved on to Sterling, where he first coached softball then quickly added the boys basketball head job, coaching a 2008 sectional champion. He came to Sycamore having served as both a teacher and two-year head boys basketball coach at Bloomington.
The 46-year-old is married to wife Molly, with two grown daughters in addition to Chloe.
He emerged from a grueling process that started from a pool of 103 candidates and included interviews before groups ranging from administrators to department chairs to coaches to students, according to Tuesday's release by Kaneland.
"It's very humbling out of such a big applicant pool, out of 100 people to be chosen at Kaneland," Goff said.
When "Back in Black" blares on a fall Friday night, it's a given neither current nor future employer will let him forget it.
"I'm excited to be there," he said. "Sycamore's a great place, but I'm really, really excited about getting into the Kaneland community."
Goff saw both Kaneland and Sycamore play on consecutive nights at the Class 3A Hampshire boys basketball sectional, but he'll miss the pleasure of having senior forward Tyler Carlson in the building next year.
After scoring a career-high 38 points in the Knights' 76-61 loss to Rockford Lutheran on Tuesday, Carlson was asked about his thoughts on this season, and his prep career.
"Just playing with guys like Marcel Neill and then playing with Matt Limbrunner last year, playing with all those guys every day as a sophomore, being up on varsity playing with them," he said.
"Just playing with guys from fifth-grade on up till this year -- seeing guys like Cole Carlson and Tommy VanBogaert contribute, they're my best friends ... Just all memories. Playing at the United Center was awesome.
Carlson added: "I actually changed my number this year to 23 for my uncle (Richard Watts) who passed away in August. I kind of dedicated my season to him."
Congratulations to West Aurora senior Erin Jacobsen and St. Charles East's Kyra Washington for making it downstate to participate in the Illinois High School Association's Three-Point Showdown last weekend at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Washington's nine 3s out of 15 attempts in her preliminary round tied her with Fremd's Haley Gorecki. In the tiebreaker round eventual second-place finisher Gorecki nailed 6 of 10 to Washington's 5 to earn advancement.
Kyra is the younger sister of Saints senior forward A.J. Washington, who is much more of a dunker than a 3-point artiste.
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