Timothy Christian can achieve two preseason goals in one fell swoop this Friday.
With a win at Ridgewood, Timothy Christian (19-4, 9-0 Metro Suburban Red) would earn its 20th victory and at least a share of its first conference title since 2014-15. The Trojans own a two-game lead over Ridgewood, three up on Chicago Christian with three Metro Suburban Red games remaining.
Given that Timothy Christian returned only two seniors with starting experience -- center Brandon Orange and guard Ty Merrick -- the Trojans' first-year coach, Scott Plaisier, called his players' preseason goals "lofty." He's been pleasantly surprised.
"The thing I really like about our team is we've responded to every challenge that's been put out before us," he said.
"The crazy thing about this group is every night some guy steps up and gives us a little bit more than what he's been giving us, then we get consistent play by the rest of the guys," Plaisier said.
The anchor in the paint, Orange has racked up 11 double-doubles in points and rebounds. Senior Nick Huisman, 6-foot-6, can spell the 6-7 Orange or give Plaisier a big lineup. Junior Danardo Jones, 6-6, can jump out of the gym.
When teams sag inside, guards Mike Thomas and Matt Owens can make them pay. Thomas has four 20-point games; Owens made six 3s in nine attempts for 27 points last Saturday against Peoria Christian.
Glue guy Merrick hasn't broken 10 points but averages 6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and averages nearly 3 assists per turnover. He's a key defensively as are bulldog junior guards Chris Brooks and Justin Baez, with Mike Martens also helping out.
"I was unsure that we'd be as good defensively as we have been," Plaisier said of a Class 2A team that lost three games to Class 4A foes at York's Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament and is 6-0 at Timothy's new Ward Athletic Center.
The Trojans prepare for every opponent with the same mindset. That could benefit the Trojans' third preseason goal, a regional title.
"If they played the same way all year then our regional games should be no different than what a regular-season game is because they've already trained themselves to think that way," Plaisier said.
Wheaton Warrenville South starts five players just like every other team.
For the Tigers, though, it might as well be a starting seven.
They have their returning three starters from last season's DuPage Valley Conference and regional championship team -- seniors Jake Healy, Parker Robinson and Chase Stebbins -- but it's also the other four members of the rotation keeping the Tigers (21-4, 12-1) in the hunt for a repeat.
"I really like our seven-man rotation," said WW South coach Mike Healy. "You look at the guys, and it's hard to take any of them off the floor. They all have something to contribute."
With scoring, ball-handling, defense and leadership, Healy, Stebbins and Robinson provide a bit of everything. Matt Brodhead, the team's second-leading scorer who came off the bench early in the season, and gritty undersized post player Zach Harris have rounded out the starting lineup in recent weeks.
Paul Cuddihee and Jeff Kratz, the lone junior of the rotation, have appeared in every game so far this season and contribute as if they're also in the starting five. It's a unit that's worked to become seamless.
"Coming into the year we felt like we had six starters between Matt and Paul," Healy said. "And now Jeff's playing pretty well, too. It's really come together for us."
Hinsdale South experienced the difference between life with and without point guard Robert Barnes.
The Hornets definitely prefer having him on the court.
"He was out when we lost to York, and we committed 27 turnovers," said Hinsdale South coach Brett Moore. "With him we're averaging only eight or nine turnovers."
Barnes, averaging 9 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, missed four games around the holidays with an ankle injury. The return of the 6-foot-2 senior has helped Hinsdale South (16-5, 6-2) win six of its last seven games including last Friday's key West Suburban Gold victory over Willowbrook.
The Hornets are trying to keep pace with the Warriors and Proviso East in hopes of claiming a second straight conference title. They obviously need Iowa State-bound senior forward Zion Griffin, but they also need Barnes.
For a player who last season spent the bulk of his time in the post, it didn't take long for Barnes to become a critical floor leader at the point this year.
"It just makes us a lot better," Moore said. "He's become pretty good at playing the point."
With only senior forward Amari Reed among a group of underclassmen, Fenton coach Chaz Taft knew the challenges the Bison (6-15, 0-8 Metro Suburban Blue) faced this season. He's tried to impart that to the Bison, who beat Addison Trail 37-34 on Tuesday.
"We just keep telling them it's about a process," said Taft, a Fenton graduate. "They've got to believe in the system, they've got to trust each other, got to trust what I tell them is going to happen in games."
When coaches lament inconsistency in any sport they'll often attribute it to players being "high school kids." Fenton's are barely that, like freshman point guard Marcus Rule.
"He's done a great job," Taft said. "He's just a freshman, though. His backup, Jose Alvarez, he's a sophomore."
As are guard Ivan Sosa and forwards Isai Gomez and Diamon King. The 6-foot-2 King leads the Bison with 7.5 rebounds, his 9.1 points per game second to Reed's 13.3.
After committing 18 turnovers in a loss to Wheaton Academy, the Bison went 1-1 in two close games.
"That's the process. You could slack off because you're tired, because you hit some adversity, but you've just got to get through it," Taft said.
"They just keep grinding it out with me, so it's awesome."
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