Vernon Hills surging toward Prairie title

Updated 2/12/2015 8:48 PM

It's been one winning streak after another for the Vernon Hills boys basketball team this season.

No wonder the Cougars are on the verge of their first outright North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title.

Vernon Hills is 9-0 in the Prairie Division with three games left, against Round Lake, Lakes and Grant.

Included in that perfect Prairie Division record have been some long winning streaks, six straight wins early in the season, a nine-game unbeaten streak halfway through and then the late six-game win streak that the Cougars are currently riding.

The longest win streak in program history is 10 games, set by the 2010-11 team that opened the season with a 10-0 record.

"It's nice to think about how we've been putting those wins together," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "The kids have really enjoyed that. We talked as a team though about how they have a lot of other things they'd like to do, like win a conference championship and win a regional."

Vernon Hills has never played in the North Suburban Conference championship game. The Cougars were Prairie Division co-champions with North Chicago in 2010-11 with a 10-1 record, but North Chicago won the tiebreaker and played in the conference title game against the Lake Division champion.

Vernon Hills has also never won a regional.

History lesson:

Vernon Hills got its 20th win of the season last month against North Chicago.

The moment wasn't lost on anyone in the program. After all, it was only the second time in program history that the Cougars, now 22-3, won 20 games in a season.

The first time was in the school's second year of existence when Matt Glees, Steven Melvin and Jason Newburger helped Vernon Hills hit the milestone in 2001.

"That team was a very good team and they finished with 20 wins right on the nose," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "When we got our 20th this time, I got a really nice text from Jason (Newburger) telling me that records were made to be broken…and now this team has the most wins (in program history)."

Newburger is a math teacher and baseball coach at Barrington but he also still has some strong ties to his alma mater. He coaches football with the Cougars in the fall.

Short and sweet:

The secret to the long winning streaks at Vernon Hills this season might be something short.

As in, the Cougars' practices.

Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty has been keeping his practice time as concise as possible. During the dog days of the season, his goal is to keep his players focused, fresh and upbeat.

"I'm really concerned with all the bumps and bruises and the fatigue this time of year," McCarty said. "I'm also really looking for energy and enthusiasm at practice, especially this time of year. It's not always easy to drum that up right now. Sometimes you end up spending too much time in the gym. I'd much rather go shorter and keep the energy level high and hope (the players) take that into our games."

At the beginning of the season, McCarty said his practices would run about two hours and 15 minutes. Now, the Cougars might go only 1 hour and 10 minutes.

"No more than an hour and a half," McCarty said. "I know the players like it."

Helping hands:

There's a reason Vernon Hills is one of the top three-point shooting teams in Lake County.

The Cougars pass the ball around the floor so well and so fast that many of their three-point shooters are getting open looks with their feet perfectly set.

Guards Corey Levin and Bo Manso have been especially good at setting up their teammates.

They are the top two playmakers on the team, with Manso leading the way at nearly 6 assists per game. Levin is at about 5 assists per game.

Manso is coming off of a school-record 16 assists in Tuesday's win over Chicagoland Jewish Academy. Levin had 11 assists in a game against Niles North back in January.

"It's kind of the point guard mentality that both Corey and Bo have," Vernon Hills coach Matt McCarty said. "They are both extremely unselfish and the way they pass the ball is a big reason we shoot so well. They do a great job of finding our shooters."

Shooters such as Robby Nardini, one of the deadliest three-pointers shooters in Lake County and the Cougars' leading scorer at more than 20 points per game.

"I can tell you that Robby loves playing with Corey and Bo," McCarty said with a chuckle. "They find him and Robby gets to shoot a lot."

Penny is money:

When it comes to taking care of the basketball, Lake Zurich guard Nick Penny has been money this season.

He's rolled up 110 assists to just 35 turnovers, which is a 3.14 assist to turnover ratio.

"In the five seasons I've been coaching here, we've never had anyone be 2:1, let alone 3:1 in assists to turnovers," Lake Zurich coach Billy Pitcher said. "We're more efficient in our possessions because of Nick. He does a really nice job of handling the ball and directing our offense."

That's not the only thing Penny does well. Pitcher says he's also one of the better defenders on the team and is an incredible offensive rebounder for a guard.

"Nick does a little bit of everything well," Pitcher said. "He's got 70 offensive rebound on the season. He crashes as well as any guard we've had. He's also a great defender. Now, we've just go to get him shooting more."

Penny advanced downstate in last year's 3-point shootout. He's hit 29 three-pointers this year and has connected on nearly 50 percent of his attempts.

Making good:

When Lakes point guard Jake Balliu went down with a serious ankle injury earlier this season, the Eagles needed reinforcements.

That's when coach Chris Snyder called up sharp-shooting sophomore Kyle Rohr. Rohr was dominating sophomore games and was nearly brought up to the varsity at the beginning of the season.

"Minutes-wise, we just weren't sure how much time we'd be able to get Kyle early on," Snyder said. "But he's taken full advantage of being up with us."

So much so that Rohr is actually seeing his floor time increase, even though Balliu has now returned from his injury.

Rohr scored 6 points, including a 3-pointer, in Monday's nonconference win over Carmel.

"Kyle had a 3 and a 3-point play and it was really impressive to see him do that," Snyder said. "He's really taken the decision (to remain on varsity since the return of Balliu) out of our hands.

"We brought him up because of the injury but he's made it real easy for us to keep him up. He's a great kid and he gives us another really good guard and makes us deeper there. He's just showing that he belongs out there."

Learning on the job:

Each day, Justin Smith gets to study in one of the best classrooms in Lake County.

We're talking basketball classrooms.

He's a sophomore in the starting lineup at Stevenson, the No. 1-ranked team in the state of Illinois. In practice, he's playing alongside, or going head-to-head against a boatload of talent that includes two future Division I players in Jalen Brunson (Villanova) and Connor Cashaw (Rice).

"I feel pretty good about it because it's a good experience to be able to learn from Jalen and Connor and Matt (Johnson) and everybody else," Smith said. "They're teaching me how to do things. I'm going to make mistakes, but I always know that they have my back and that they're always going to help me get through it."

Smith, who is coming off a 15-point game against Zion-Benton in which he delighted the crowd with a thunderous alley-oop dunk, was on the varsity as a freshman. But his role this season has been upped considerably. He came off the bench last year.

"I've gotten stronger and much quicker and I have more confidence," Smith said. "Last year coming off the bench, I'd play in spurts and that was sometimes hard. Now, I just play freely and that's a lot easier."

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