Slow start costs St. Charles East in sectional final
Tears welled in Eddie Herrera's eyes before answering.
Herrera, the St. Charles East senior, was the first chosen to wear Saints Athletics Hall of Famer Justin Hardy's No. 32 the season following his tragic passing last May.
The Saints achieved four wins a season ago, and had just one during the so-called COVID season the year prior.
Their resurgence ended 69-59 in the Class 4A Rockford Jefferson sectional final vs. Rockford Auburn on Friday. It marks Auburn's first sectional title since 2016.
Saints basketball, though, is "back on the map," as Herrera puts it.
"I grew up in the same neighborhood right down the street from [Hardy]," Herrera said following his 11-point finale. "I watched him play. He inspired me to get better. When coach [Pat] Woods asked me to wear the jersey, I was all for it and super proud. I think that helped the younger guys look up to me and I think I led them pretty well."
"Hopefully, they can continue the hard work in the years moving forward," Herrera concluded.
Herrera's group "came ready everyday to work."
"We didn't complain. We worked hard every day and we put St. Charles East basketball back on the map," Herrera continued.
Drew Clarke scored 11 points in the fourth quarter to keep the Saints afloat down the stretch.
"Our hard work, we really showed the rest of the program what we can do," Clarke said. We brought St. Charles East basketball back and we showed the younger kids how to work hard, get to where we are."
The Saints, vying for their first sectional title since 2011, competed to make what was an 18-point deficit down to 10 in the final quarter. Auburn, in the end, rode Rakim Chaney's 29 points as a major spark to clinch it for them.
St. Charles East (18-17) trailed 33-15 at half.
"What a great group this was," Woods said. "Just incredibly coachable. That's probably what I liked about them the most, but we fought until the end, too. We got it down to 10. We always say 'Success is on the same road as failure. It's just a little further down' and a little more time, it might've been a different story, but we scored 44 points in the second half and in the first half, we just struggled. We just didn't finish."
Jack Borri had eight points, while Steven Call had 10 points and six rebounds for the Saints. Jacob Vrankovich had five points and eight rebounds.
Rockford Auburn (23-12) will face top-seeded Benet in the 4A DeKalb supersectional on March 6 at 7 p.m. after narrowly avoiding an upset against Geneva.
Auburn senior Brennan Horton-Lee had 12 points, while senior Adrian Agee had 11 points and Terry Horton had eight points.
"[Chaney] is only a junior, but he's a veteran," Auburn coach Bryan Ott said. "Sixth man last year, and on this floor in a regional championship game, he hits the clutch free throws that gave us the game, really. He's just a completely unselfish young man who we ask to go guard a big a big man half the time. He doesn't force his own shot. He waits for it to come to him and he's always ready when the time is there. High IQ."
"I talked about that in an interview last week as well," Ott continued. "Just couldn't ask for a classier kid who had to endure all he did when tearing up his ACL is knee when he was a freshman. Just, what a great comeback as an athlete."