Carter's expectations never changed, and now Larkin's 2 wins from state
The IHSA boys basketball tournament can be as unforgiving as a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
Just ask 28-win Geneva, 26-win Stevenson or 23-win Benet Academy.
Those teams, each with an impressive record, were sitting at home Tuesday after failing to win regional titles as higher seeds.
Meanwhile, Larkin (19-14), the No. 5 seed in a sub-sectional of the Elgin sectional, was beating NIC-10 champion and top seed Boylan 62-51 at Chesbrough Field House to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Yes, Larkin. The same Larkin many wrote off in late September after 6-foot-6 Loyola-bound senior forward Christian Negron injured his knee in a fall-league game and was lost for the year.
Before Negron's injury the Royals were considered a threat to make the Final Four in Class 4A.
In anticipation of having Negron lead perhaps his best team to date, Larkin coach Deryn Carter scheduled ambitiously. The goal was to make sure his team was battle tested. The Royals competed in Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr. weekend tournaments in Rockford -- including a January meeting against Boylan the Titans won 66-61 in overtime -- and the prestigious Proviso West Holiday Tournament.
Losing an all-state-caliber player was a cruel blow that cut Carter to his core personally due to his close relationship with Negron and his family, but that wasn't the face Carter showed his players in the wake of the news.
When it came to picking up the pieces and moving forward on a professional basis, Larkin's eighth-year coach never blinked.
"He said before the season that just because Christian's not here, the expectations are still the same," junior guard Kindrel Morris said. "I mean, we had a better chance with Christian, but he said the expectations were still the same."
And the players bought in?
"We're here now," Morris said with an ear-to-ear grin, his team two wins away from the Final Four.
The Royals are fulfilling the promise of a battle-forged, junior-centric team. After going 8-5 in tournament play against teams like McArthur (Fla.), Rockford Auburn, St. Joseph, Uplift, Hillcrest and Bogan, the Royals were ready to rematch against Boylan on a big stage in front of a big, attentive crowd.
Like their coach, the Royals didn't blink.
"Honestly, I've been telling people since the beginning of the year we were going to make it to sectionals," said Larkin junior Jalen Shaw, who finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds and 6 blocks against Boylan. "We practice too hard. I miss playing with Christian, but stuff happens. I think he'd tell you himself we're a pretty good team."
Negron, dressed in a shirt and tie and looking the part of the assistant coach role he has played all season, is proud of what the Royals have achieved.
"They're definitely playing above their expectations," Negron said. "I think with myself on the court, they wouldn't expect them to play the way they are now. But they're just filling their roles, accepting their roles and doing what they have to do to win."
Can the Royals continue their magical run Friday against the winner of Wednesday's semifinal between Jacobs and Hononegah? Or has this team gone as far as can be expected without its star?
"When people doubt us we feel we have to prove people wrong," Larkin senior guard Kashmir Ivy said. "That's where that energy comes from. People want to put a ceiling on us and it's like, no, we can do things without certain people on our team. Show them that we're still good, show that we're still the Larkin Royals."