Leyden's success has been its press

  • Palatine's Julian Campbell shoots over Grayslake North's Austin Martineau during a game last season.

    Palatine's Julian Campbell shoots over Grayslake North's Austin Martineau during a game last season. Daily Herald File photo

  • Matt Espinoza

    Matt Espinoza

 
 
Updated 1/9/2020 5:01 PM

Being in tiptop shape is a must.

The Leyden boys basketball team presses from tipoff to final buzzer, so there's barely time during the course of a game for the Eagles to catch their breath.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Not that they mind.

Leyden got through Christmas with a 10-5 record and took fifth place in the Maine East holiday tournament by pressing the daylights out of its opponents.

In their final tournament game against Lakes, a win, the Eagles forced 27 turnovers.

"We press after every made basket and it's (a commitment), but our guys see where it creates a lot of offense for us," Leyden coach Bill Heisler said. "We try to dictate tempo with it and we try to force turnovers. I think our guys like playing that way because of what it creates."

Matt Espinoza is Leyden's point guard and also plays the point of the press, setting the tone deep in the backcourt.

"I give our whole team a lot of credit for the defense we've been playing this season," Heisler said. "But it all starts with Matt. He's on the soccer team, he's one of our best baseball players. He's a great athlete and he is always in great shape. He's great for the point of the press. The more aggressive he is, it stretches everyone else out. He's got a great motor for our press."

Practice what you preach: So how do the players on the Leyden basketball team ready themselves for nonstop pressing each game?

"I've changed my practices over the years," Leyden coach Bill Heisler said. "I used to be really drill-y. But now our practices are really up and down. We (simulate) a lot.

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"We also have our kids take athletic (physical education classes) during the school day to keep them moving."

Hot from downtown: Early in the season, Leyden took a loss to Taft.

But just after Christmas, the Eagles avenged that loss, thanks in large part to the hot, long-range shooting of Jiovanni Garcia.

Just a sophomore, Garcia came in off the bench and drained five 3-pointers to help Leyden get the win.

Garcia finished with a career-high 17 points.

"Jiovanni is really talented, a really good shooter, so I wasn't shocked when he made five 3-pointers like that," Leyden coach Bill Heisler said. "I think it was just a matter of him getting his confidence up. Now, he's starting to learn and become more confident. I think he could have more games like that. He's definitely got the talent."

Close calls: There were no gimmies for Palatine at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York over Christmas.

The Pirates finished with an impressive 4-1 record, their best ever record at the Tosh, and won the consolation title. But their four wins came by a total of 14 points and an average margin of victory of just 3.5 points per game.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I told the kids that if you're able to go 4-1 in a competitive tournament like the Tosh, then you're obviously doing something right," Palatine coach Eric Millstone said. "The biggest thing is that we had the ability to close out all those close games. You try to simulate those situations in practice, but there's no better place to learn than in games and we've gotten a lot of practice on it."

At York, Palatine opened with a loss to Wheaton North, but then defeated Stagg by 5 points, Lemont by 4 points, Lake Forest by 4 points and then St. Francis by 1 point.

"Each of those games went down to the last possession, and we won them in different ways," Millstone said. "We made free throws in one game, we got a defensive stop in another, and we had a last-second basket too. It was really us doing the right things at the right time."

Millstone is also convinced his players are built for competitive situations. He's got a lot of multisport athletes on his roster.

"Eight of our top nine guys play other sports," Millstone said. "These are guys who have been in tough situations in their other sports, too. I think the close wins we got goes to the toughness they bring from their other sports."

Hitting his numbers: Palatine center Julian Campbell did nothing out of the ordinary at the Jack Tosh Holiday Tournament at York.

Which was extraordinary.

Campbell averaged 19 points and 10 rebound a game at the Tosh, which was right at his season averages.

"Julian was just really, really consistent," Palatine coach Eric Millstone said. "He was a huge presence down low, literally and figuratively."

Campbell, just a junior, is 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds and was making a similar impact for the Pirates last year as a sophomore.

"He's maturing," Millstone said of Campbell. "He's improving his mobility and he's extending himself with more minutes at a time. Last year, he'd get gassed sometimes with a few trips up and down the floor. This year, he's more focused. He's a goal-driven kid because basketball is really important to him."

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