Naperville Central looking for momentum
Which way do we go?
That's the question being asked by Naperville Central's boys basketball team, which frustratingly keeps flirting with a turnaround from a rough first half of the season.
Since losing their first seven games, the Redhawks (7-14, 2-2 DuPage Valley) have posted a .500 record. So balanced, in fact, that they haven't won or lost more than two games in a row.
Perhaps their biggest victory of the season came last Friday against Metea Valley when the Redhawks rallied from a 14-2 hole and a 32-24 third-quarter deficit to beat the Mustangs 57-55 in double overtime. It was a stark reversal from their first meeting, won 67-41 by Metea Valley.
"I think we've come a long way," said Redhawks coach Pete Kramer. "We still have things to work on, but we're fighting through the frustrating parts of the game. Just keep working, keep fighting and don't lose your composure."
Cam Dougherty, averaging 15.9 points, was the only returning starter heading into this season. Fellow junior Chris Conway, who holds an offer from DePaul, played sparingly but beyond that there was little experience back from last year's 20-win team.
Redhawks quarterback Payton Thorne, committed to play football at Michigan State, joined the team this season, as did sophomore Bolingbrook transfer Sam Jackson. It's a solid core of talent, but it's taken longer than expected to mesh.
Naperville Central has won three of its last four games heading into Friday's cross-town matchup against Naperville North. Between now and the end of February, the Redhawks aim to stay headed in the right direction.
"We have seven wins but you wouldn't know it watching us practice and seeing how hard they're working," Kramer said. "We've been here a couple different times and we've taken a big step forward and then we take two steps back. We're going to try and avoid those two steps back."
A few plays going its way and West Chicago could have a much different record.
West Chicago (8-14, 2-10 Upstate Eight Conference) has lost eight games by 6 points or less. Most came early in the season, but over a week span in early January the Wildcats lost 51-46 to 15-5 Glenbard South, then lost to East Aurora and Bartlett in respective 10- and 9-point games that played closer than that.
Wildcats coach Bill Recchia, whose 84 victories trail only Lee Maciejewski's 116 in program history, has a couple take-aways from these narrow losses.
"One, we can compete with anybody we play with," Recchia said. "Our failure to not only realize that the team we're playing against is our opponent but the clock is our opponent at times, we have not been able to grasp that to the full extent, and that's hurt us."
Though late-game decisions and quick shots have taken a toll, the Wildcats have hit opponents with a senior Big Three of 6-foot-4 guard-forward Sam Ricci and guards Isaac Nelson and Jordan Wilkins.
Twelve times all three have reached double figures and in five other games two of them have.
Ricci averages 18 points a game, Wilkins 14 points and Nelson averages 12.7 points. All 3-point shooters, Wilkins has hit 69 3s, making an astounding 46 percent behind the arc with Ricci close behind at 41 percent. Nelson averages a very healthy 38 percent from 3.
Joining what had been an exclusive club for the Wildcats, recently junior guard-forward Raed Haroon and sophomore guard Jacob Lim scored in double figures.
"The positive is the kids play hard every single minute they're on the floor," Recchia said. "They compete and give a ballgame to anybody we're playing. Nobody can take us lightly, I'll tell you that."
Another year, another 20?:
With a 17-6 record heading into Friday's East Suburban Catholic Conference game at Joliet Catholic, Benet (4-1 ESCC) is closing in on its 10th straight 20-win season.
The trek hasn't been easy.
The Redwings just overcame a three-game losing streak by beating Naperville North in Saturday's When Sides Collide Shootout. The 66-56 win featured a strong post game from Kendrick Tchoua and Colin Crothers as well as potent perimeter shooting from Trevor Casmere and Will Engels in one of the team's best performances of the season.
"When you make shots everything seems to work a lot better," said Benet coach Gene Heidkamp. "We've struggled to shoot the ball, and it's no secret. To shoot the ball this well (Friday and Saturday) from the 3-point line is huge for our team. It's a complement to our inside game."
Not only is Benet eyeing another 20-win season, the Redwings are also in line for a top-four seed in the Class 4A Bartlett sectional. First, though, they need to navigate a tough final stretch of the regular season.
To vie for the ESCC title, Benet needs to survive games against Joliet Catholic (4-19, 0-5), Marian Catholic (21-3, 5-0), Notre Dame (14-8, 4-1) and St. Viator (18-5, 5-1). That's in addition to nonconference games against St. Charles North, IC Catholic Prep and Stevenson.
"We've played inconsistently for the last month or so, so we've got a lot of work to do," Heidkamp said. "If we want to be the team we're hoping to be in March, then it needs to start happening right away."
A good fit:
Like Glenbard South football coach Ryan Crissey, Raiders boys basketball coach Wade Hardtke likes playing in the Upstate Eight Conference after moving from the Metro Suburban.
That's not to say the UEC is easy pickings.
"I don't know what the word is -- nervous, apprehensive, something like that -- because I knew the caliber of teams that were in the league, and it has lived up to every bit of that coming in. Every night is a test and a battle," he said.
The Class 3A Raiders have fared very well against the Class 4A competition. Entering Friday's home game against Hardtke's alma mater, Glenbard East, Glenbard South (15-5, 8-3) has lost only to West Aurora, twice, and to Streamwood. That was a quirky 60-57 loss Friday, when due to snowy roads it took the Raiders an hour and a half to arrive on a cold bus.
Glenbard South fields a veteran roster of which seven players in Hardtke's regular rotation are seniors.
Guard Kevin Enright is a heady team captain and "glue guy" whom the coach can confidently assign to defend any position on the floor. Forward Cole Hardtke, one of Wade's two sons on the team along with sophomore guard Cade, has added inside scoring to his outside range to average a team-high 11.4 points, just ahead of forward Tommy Powers' 10.3. Of the few juniors, guard Nick Plaso has come off the bench with solid impact.
On average Glenbard South allows just 46 points a game.
On Friday the Raiders will try to go 3-0 against Glenbard East, where Hardtke assisted Rams coach Scott Miller for several seasons. Glenbard East (10-13, 6-6) lost to the Raiders 50-37 in the District 87 tournament and 47-40 on Dec. 21 but has won six of its last 10 games.
"They're playing very good basketball right now, Scott's got them going in the right direction. It looks like they'll be peaking at the right time," Hardtke said.