Willowbrook's boys basketball team loves a good challenge.
It doesn't get much more challenging than what the Warriors are facing this week.
On the heels of Tuesday's 70-67 nonconference victory over Larkin, Willowbrook (17-3) plays Proviso East in West Suburban Gold action on Friday and West Aurora on Saturday as part of the Batavia Night of Hoops.
That's three conference leaders with a combined record of 40-13. All in five days.
"You want the guys to be challenged, and we feel like we're ready for that kind of challenge," said Willowbrook coach Chris Perkins. "We've played a lot of good teams this year, but this will be like nothing we've seen."
Despite a few missteps Willowbrook has proved to be a team with the talent and experience to win the Class 4A Glenbard East sectional title. Six-foot-six senior Ethan Schuemer, committed to St. Cloud State, leads the team with 14.3 points and 9 rebounds a game, while Neil Paxton Jr., Matas Masys, Matthew Myers, Marshawn Phillips and Sikander Zafar all average between 5 and 12 points.
Two more wins this weekend would be a big boost to the Warriors' bid for a top-four seed at Glenbard East.
"It might be better if all these games weren't in one week, but that's the only way we could schedule it," Perkins said. "It's good for the program to play games like this."
On an eight-game winning streak, No. 4 seed Lisle (12-9) will play No. 3 Streator for the Interstate Eight Conference Tournament title, 7 p.m. Friday at Coal City. In a tourney dating to 2007 the Lions are in their second championship game, having lost 61-44 to Plano last season.
No. 2 seed Westmont (14-4) will face top-seeded Herscher in the third-place game.
In conference play on Jan. 5, Lisle beat Streator 52-51 behind Jay McGrath's 17 points, 12 by Cameron Stitt and 10 from Devin Tincu. Streator nearly made up an 18-point deficit but missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity with no time left on the clock.
Lisle, which beat Herscher 58-53 on Tuesday, historically is 3-1 against Streator, with that 1-point margin and two games decided in overtime.
"There's definitely a rivalry here even though we're 80 miles apart," said Lisle coach Mark LaScala.
It takes a little something extra to beat a strong team like Hinsdale South (14-5).
That's where J.T. Daniels came in last week.
The 6-foot-3 junior forward led Addison Trail (11-11) to its first West Suburban Gold victory as the Blazers edged Hinsdale South 52-50 on a last-second shot by Connor Palesch.
Not only did Daniels score 21 points and grab 5 rebounds, he was also a critical part of defending Iowa State-bound forward Zion Griffin. It was a busy night for Daniels, but that's nothing new.
"J.T. is always J.T.," said Blazers coach Brendan Lyons. "His motor never stops. Some days he's scoring, but he's always doing something to help us win."
As he showed against the Hornets, Daniels has the ability to score in bunches. Considering the Blazers graduated 90 percent of last season's scoring, they definitely need those bunches.
But it's his defense that often turns the tide during games. Daniels has taken 20 charges in 22 games, and the win over Hinsdale South marked the second time he's taken three charges in a game.
"That's what he loves to do," Lyons said. "He's such a smart player, and that really helps him defensively."
St. Francis coach Erin Dwyer believes every team has one of those "glue guys." For the Spartans, Dwyer says it's 5-foot-10 senior Alex Rueth.
"He's just a perfect role model for what a high school athlete should be," Dwyer said.
A two-year starter and multisport athlete who scored a 36 on his ACT test, Rueth is Dwyer's defensive stopper, leading St. Francis in both deflections and steals while committing only 17 fouls in 22 games.
Rueth is Dwyer's top defensive option against an opponent's best scorer, Dwyer said. Due to Rueth's length and jumping ability, regardless of his lack of height he can defend every position on the court.
Dwyer doesn't name captains but calls Rueth "a quiet leader," mainly by example.
"I've never had a kid who I could say is more consistent in his effort in practice and games," said Dwyer, whose Spartans (9-13) have won six of their last nine games.
"Usually every player has a day when he's just not focused, everybody has an off day," Dwyer said. "I don't remember Alex having an off day in terms of effort and focus. He's a team guy, always positive, always wants to work to get better. I guess that's kind of hard to do when you get a 36 on your ACT."
Figuring things out:
Bit by bit Waubonsie Valley (9-13) is improving. Coach Jason Mead sees the determining factors being the Warriors' effort in practice, sticking to a game plan and commitment to each other.
"Turning into a winning culture," as he said.
"I think we've tasted enough of what happens when we do things right," said Mead, already one victory ahead of last year's total.
He likes their work since wrapping up the Lake Zurich MLK Tournament, earning a win over Lake Park after competitive losses to Naperville North and Wheaton North.
Sophomore forward Marcus Skeete scored a season-high 20 points against Lake Park. Junior guard Derrien Porter did "exactly what we want," Mead said, in driving under control and finding open teammates.
Waubonsie gets solid post defense from Kyle Schroeder, and Caymen Woods on the wing, and Mead liked what Cole Gregorio and Kenan Collier brought against Lake Park. Junior guard Eric Cannon averages 15.6 points, 2.8 assists and 1.8 steals.
Mead believes the Warriors' two best practices of the season preceded games against Naperville Central and Geneva -- which turned out to be upset victories for Waubonsie. Mead's goal is they maintain that discipline daily, including the entire 32 minutes of a game.
"They're starting to love and care about each other, too," Mead said. "And when that starts happening that's when you start to trend in the right direction."
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