NSC tourney title game meaningful to Libertyville, Stevenson
It's not the IHSA state tournament, but it's something.
In a strange and crazy year, and in a strange and crazy high school basketball season, the North Suburban Conference decided to give basketball players the chance for a pinnacle, and for some closure.
So, with no official March Madness via the IHSA, the conference created an end-of-season conference tournament.
And, it just so happens that both the girls championship game and the boys championship game features Stevenson against Libertyville.
On the boys side, Stevenson, seeded third with a 12-3 record, leapfrogged No. 2 Lake Forest in the semifinals this week to punch its championship-game ticket. Libertyville, which is 9-7 and the No. 4 seed, got there by way of forfeit when No. 1 Mundelein had to go on a brief COVID-19 pause right before that semifinal game on Tuesday. The Mustangs have since been cleared by the Lake County Health Department, but waved on Libertyville to keep the timing of the NSC conference tournament in tact.
While the girls play Saturday, Stevenson will host Libertyville for the boys championship at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night at Woodlawn Middle School in Long Grove.
"We'll take it," Libertyville coach Brian Zyrkowski said of his team's unexpected path into the championship game. "This means something to our kids. It should mean something. Ya, this is new to us, but you can end the season considering yourself a champion.
"Mundelein won the regular season conference championship, but this is kind of like the NCAA where you have a regular season conference champion and a conference tournament champion. This is important to our guys."
Likewise, Stevenson is totally dialed in.
The Patriots see this conference tournament game as a chance for not only positive closure, but some redemption.
Entering this season, Stevenson had either won or shared the last eight straight North Suburban Conference championships. Mundelein dethroned the Patriots this year.
Mundelein, which was given a clean bill of health and will next play Friday in the Chipotle Clash of Champions at St. Patrick High School, ran through conference play with a perfect 7-0 record.
"We had gotten kind of spoiled by winning conference for so many years," said Stevenson assistant coach Paul Swan, who joined fellow assistant Chandler Simon in taking the reins of the program when head coach Pat Ambrose took a pause from coaching in late February.
"I think it kind of stung our kids a little bit that we didn't win the regular season title this year, so they really want to win the tournament. This means everything to them, and they are really excited about playing in the championship game."
So would coaches and players in the North Suburban Conference be in favor of an end-of-season conference tournament becoming an annual thing?
The jury is still out, but opinions are trickling in, and they vary.
Libertyville boys coach Brian Zyrkowski gives the idea a big thumbs-up.
"I like the opportunity to win something with multiple teams involved," Zyrkowski said. "If you don't win the regular season (conference title), this gives you another chance."
Stevenson assistant coach Paul Swan likes the conference tournament idea for this season, since there is no IHSA state tournament, but thinks it's more of a novelty event that wouldn't work in a normal season.
"By the end of the season, you've already played teams in your conference twice, and you've already played in a couple of holiday tournaments, and now it's time to get ready for the state tournament," Swan said. "For this year, it's cool to do it. It gives a sense of closure and something to look forward to in this strange season. But in a normal season, I really think that the team that wins a full conference schedule should be the only conference champion."
The NSC boys tournament championship game is basically a tossup.
In the only other meeting between Libertyville and Stevenson this season, Stevenson escaped with a 2-point victory, 47-45, at Libertyville on March 3.
"That was a great game because it was two teams really going at each other," Stevenson assistant coach Paul Swan said. "It was tight all the way. We just had a little more at the end."
The Libertyville boys are happy to be in the NSC conference tournament championship game, but they wish they were able to face Mundelein in the semifinals to get there.
Top-seeded Mundelein, which went 7-0 in NSC play this season and is the regular season conference champion, forfeited the semifinal game against Libertyville that was scheduled for Tuesday due to a brief COVID pause.
"Our guys really looked forward to playing Mundelein," Libertyville coach Brian Zyrkowski said. "We've played against their big four guys for the last four years and we would have really liked to say goodbye to them."
Zyrkowski is referring to Mundelein stars Conor Enright, Scottie Ebube and Trey Baker, 4-year varsity starters, as well as Jack Bikus, a 3-year varsity starter. Enright has signed with Drake, Ebube will be playing at Southern Illinois, and Baker is moving on to Maryville University.
"Those Mundelein guys are so good and they have made so many positive contributions to our conference over the last four years," Zyrkowski said. "It would have been cool to play against those guys one last time."
In their only meeting of the season this year, Mundelein defeated Libertyville 62-49 on Feb. 17 at Libertyville.
Libertyville's big 3:
Libertyville is led by junior Chase Bonder and seniors Blake Ellingson and Marc Michelotti. All three have upped their numbers from last year.
"Chase is putting up more than 6 points per game more than he did last year. He's had a great year," Libertyville coach Brian Zyrkowski said of Bonder, who is averaging 17 points per game. "He's also putting up almost double-digit rebounds (9.7 rpg). He has really stepped up big time."
Ellingson, a 3-year varsity player averages 13.5 points per game and Michelotti, the Wildcats' starting point guard, leads the team in assists and is the team's best on-ball defender.
The experience of Bonder, Ellingson and Michelotti has been crucial in leading a group of three sophomores -- Jack Huber, Cole Bonder and Nik Raic -- who are getting significant minutes for Libertyville.
"I'm really proud of our seniors, they're doing a great job of leading and helping our young guys," Zyrkowski said. "When we are playing our best, everyone is contributing and actively involved. Everyone is doing something. We don't have just one player who takes over, it's a collective contribution."
Only one player, senior forward Darius Clemons, averages double-figures for Stevenson. Clemons is at about 12 points per game. He also gets around 10 rebounds per game.
But a handful of Patriots are between 7 to 9 points per game, giving the team plenty of depth and firepower.
Guards Evan Porto and Andrew Chieng are 3-point sharpshooters and Jaison Williams is a slasher while Jacob Morris is a jack-of-all-trades known for his hustle plays.
"We share the ball well and we work for really good shots," Stevenson assistant coach Paul Swan said. "We've been playing pretty solid basketball. We are riding the coattails of everything that Coach (Pat) Ambrose has taught us and our players. He deserves a ton of credit for where we are."