Will a first-timer blaze a new trail at this week's Class 4A Elgin sectional, or will it be a program that knows the path?
Four boys basketball teams with compelling storylines converge on Chesbrough Field House this week for what promises to be three entertaining high school playoff games.
The action begins Tuesday when Larkin (18-14) tangles with NIC-10 champion Rockford Boylan (27-4) at 7 p.m.
Fox Valley Conference champion Jacobs (28-1) takes on NIC-10 runner-up Hononegah (23-7) in the second semifinal Wednesday at 7 p.m.
The winners meet for the championship Friday at 7 p.m.
Jacobs and Hononegah each seek the first sectional title in program history. Jacobs has been sniffing around that prize since fourth-year coach Jimmy Roberts arrived on the scene from Round Lake. Led by four-year varsity standout Cam Krutwig (6-foot-9, 270 pounds), the Golden Eagles have won three regional titles in four years.
After being knocked out of the state tournament in sectional semifinals in 2013-14 and 2015-16, the Golden Eagles are aiming for a berth in the sectional title game and more.
"We have confidence because we've been in the sectional before, but it's also because of all the things this team has been through," Roberts said. "We've been through all the wars with the competition we play, the teams we play in the summer, the company we keep. It becomes a strange thing how winning becomes a habit. Our kids have been through a lot and because of that they find ways to win in different situations."
The Indians are the tallest team in the NIC-10 and one of the most versatile, led by 6-foot-9, 200-pound Max Miller (12.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), 6-6, 210-pound Spencer Murdoch (3.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and 6-3 junior Kyle Kolberg (12 ppg, 4 rpg).
While Hononegah's top concern is Krutwig, he isn't the only concern.
"Krutwig gets a lot of attention at 6-9, but they are all 6-3, 6-4 and long-armed guys," Hononegah coach Mike Miller said of the Golden Eagles. "Defensively, we have to be able to guard Krutwig in the post and still get to their 3-point shooters. One thing that's really underestimated is how great a passer Krutwig is. He really makes you pay for coming to double him. He finds shooters who can knock down shots so we have to be attuned to what we're doing defensively."
Larkin seeks the fifth sectional title in school history and its first since 2004-05, when Dayvon Ellis and Carliss Henderson led the Royals to a supersectional in Moline.
Boylan is the most decorated team of the group when it comes to postseason success. The Titans boast 19 sectional titles, including last year when they were assigned to the Class 3A bracket and advanced to the NIU supersectional before losing to Peoria Manual 61-58.
Larkin is the feel-good story of the sectional. Coach Deryn Carter's team persevered to win a regional title despite the September loss of Loyola-bound senior Christian Negron to a knee injury.
Led by junior guard Anthony Lynch, 6-10 junior Jalen Shaw and senior sixth-man Kashmir Ivy, the Royals held their own against one of the most ambitious schedules in program history, including two tournaments in Rockford and the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. Experience in big games paid dividends in regional wins against Elgin (59-54), Prairie Ridge (50-39) and Bartlett (71-51).
Boylan and Larkin faced each other at the Rockford Jefferson MLK Showcase on Jan. 16. Though each team was playing its fifth game in four days at the end of the holiday weekend, the proud programs battled into overtime before the Titans prevailed 66-61. Shaw led Larkin in that game with 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out in the extra session.
"They know they can beat us because they did it, and we know we can compete with them because we took them to overtime," Carter said. "It should be a hard-fought game."
Boylan is led by Air Force recruit Zach Couper, a 6-4, 205-pound senior forward. His 3-pointer against Larkin in overtime gave Boylan the lead for good in the earlier matchup.
"It all starts with Couper," Carter added. "He's a scorer. We have to defend him and make him play in a crowd."
The Titans hope to limit turnovers against Larkin's guards, get the ball inside and take their chances with Couper.
"The big thing is protecting the basketball, especially in Elgin," Boylan first-year coach Brett McAllister said. "I know it's not technically a home game for them but it is in Elgin. It helped us a lot on Friday (a 67-48 win vs. Rockford East) for us to know we had to protect the ball, get shots and get back on defense. Watching Larkin last Friday, Lynch really went off in transition. He's tough in the open floor and Shaw runs really well for a guy who's 6-10."
At Lincoln-Way East
Once the afterglow of No. 5 West Aurora's 64-54 regional championship victory over Neuqua Valley wore off, the reality of the task ahead sank in -- a sectional semifinal against No. 1 Bolingbrook (27-1) Tuesday at 7 p.m.
It's a rematch of a 2014-15 supersectional, which the Raiders won 50-49 to punch their ticket to Peoria, thus ending the career of former West Aurora coach Gordie Kerkman. Senior guard Caleb Siler (10.8 ppg) and junior guard Camron Donatlan (16.5 ppg) played in that game, among other Blackhawks.
West Aurora (21-8) faces a team considered to be one of the fastest and most athletic in the state, a squad ranked atop or near the top of the Class 4A AP poll all season.
Bolingbrook is led by 6-foot-6 Nebraska-bound wing Nana Akenten, who scored 13 points in a 63-54 regional championship win over Lemont. Another weapon is 6-6 double-double machine Malik Binns.
Perimeter play is a Bolingbrook strength with the ball-handling backcourt of junior Kaleb Thornton and sophomore Joseph Yesufu. The Raiders have another double-digit scorer in 6-1 sophomore forward Tyler Cochran.
"They have elite-level talent and coach (Joe) Brost does a great job of implementing actions that are hard to guard whether in a zone or man," West Aurora coach Brian Johnson said. "(Akenten) is one of the best players in the state. He can make shots from 10 feet beyond the arc or finish at the rim while he gets fouled by three or four guys.
"They'll attack you in the paint and they can play inside-out, especially with Binns. He's a man down low. If he misses, he's going to get it. And if someone else misses, he's going to get it. Keeping him off the glass is going to be huge."
Junior Jared Crutcher (6-4) is the leading rebounder for Upstate Eight Valley champion West Aurora at 6.2 per game, followed by Donatlan (5.4) and Siler (5.2).
"We have athleticism," Johnson said. "We're just not as big as they are, but I'll take my chances with guys like Crutcher, Donatlan and Siler. And Ben Young (6-4) has been rebounding well lately. He and Trayvon Avery (6-4) need to use good positioning. We might give up some offensive rebounds, but our boys will fight. That's for sure."
Joliet West (25-3) faces Joliet Central (23-5) in the second semifinal on Wednesday at 7 p.m.