Tenth in a series The Patch Hardwood Tour examines boys high school basketball on a weekly rotational basis, focusing on teams in a 12-town region. Its intent is to celebrate and inform about prep hoops; the best high school sport in the state. The Tour will be stopping in your town soon.
Way back when I was a reporter for my college newspaper, I interviewed the head basketball coach for a preseason article. The team had a pair of excellent returning guards on the verge of setting scoring and assist records at the school, and I asked him if either had even a scintilla-of-a-chance of having a professional basketball career. His response was totally unexpected.
“Actually,” he said, “the guy who has the best chance is Steve Smith.” Now, Steve Smith (not his real name . . . it has long faded from my memory) was entering his sophomore season on the team. He was, to put it kindly, terrible; all arms and legs, painfully thin and bereft of coordination. But he stood 7-foot-2 inches tall.
The coach explained that if Smith could develop at all in the next three years, his height alone would attract NBA scouts. Which brings me to Keegan McAullife, the 7-foot senior center of the Libertyville Wildcats. After languishing on the bench for his entire varsity career, the big guy has recently begun to see some action. As of late, coach Scott Bogumil has been inserting him in the starting lineup, and the results have been encouraging.
I witnessed his performance in Tuesday’s 51-36 home win against Lake Zurich, and believe me, the big guy was impactful, despite the fact that he was 0 for 4 shooting the ball and shut out in the scoring column.
First off, McAuliffe changed the way Libertyville played defense, with Bogumil going to a zone, with the big guy, of course, manning the middle. Just occupying space in the lane and holding his hands above his head, McAuliffe presented an imposing figure. In about half of a regulation basketball game, he blocked four shots, changed three others and discouraged a few more Lake Zurich players who came into his area. On two of the blocked shots, the lofty pivot man did not even have to leave his feet.
Rebounds seemed to come to him almost as easily. Unlike the aforementioned “Smith,” McAuliffe has a solid frame at 260 pounds and appears to be well-coordinated, especially for his size. He is a tad slow, and the fact that he only played about half the game would suggest that he tires easily at this point.
Smith never amounted to much, and I’m certainly not saying that McAuliffe has a major basketball future. But the big guy from Libertyville is a rarity at the high school level who can make a difference for his team the remainder of his high school career (And don’t be surprised if some small college or jaycee takes a fling at developing him next year.).
With seven regular-season games remaining prior to the state tournament, Bogumil and the Cats (9-10, 3-6) have the chance to integrate this new defensive weapon into their overall structure and possibly become a post-season force that might topple a giant or two.
“He’s been coming on lately,” said Bogumil after the game. “I felt I had to force myself to play him and he’s obviously a very disruptive force for the other team. I wish I had him for another year.”
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it appears that the team’s top scorer, Ryan Barth, has taken a small step backward on the way to recovery from his knee injury. When I saw him play against Lake Forest a few weeks ago, Barth was the game’s high scorer with 19 points. But against Lake Zurich, he did not start and sat out long stretches of the game, finishing with just four points.
Coach Bogumil confirmed suspicions that the senior’s knee had been bothering him again as of late, making lateral movement very difficult and painful. Libertyville can still win without major Barth contributions. They proved just that in his absence around the Christmas holiday.
The team’s trio of juniors, Luke Mathewson, Griffin Pils and Ellis Matthews is a pyramid of strength, and after a few shaky games, Matthews seems to be back on track. Against Lake Zurich he led the team with 16 points and 6 steals.
But a recovered Barth and the insertion of the area’s only 7-foot player in the lineup would make the Wildcats a truly dangerous team come tournament time. Libertyville would lose at Zion-Benton 56-49 Saturday night.
Wins rare but relevant in Pitcher’s inaugural Lake Zurich campaign
First-year Lake Zurich head coach Billy Pitcher returned triumphantly to the place of his most recent employment this past Tuesday, fresh off the biggest upset of the North Suburban Conference season.
His Bears had shocked the highly ranked Mundelein Mustangs 62-57 the prior week, easily the high point of the team’s 5-15 season. Nothing would have been more pleasing to him than wresting a win away from the Libertyville Wildcats, but it was not to be. After securing a four-point first-quarter lead, Lake Zurich trailed by four at the half and was never really in the game from then on, losing 51-36.
It was doubly disappointing for Bears fans, in that the team had come within two of Libertyville earlier in the season and was assumedly carrying momentum from the big Mundelein win.
“We’ve had great first quarters all year, but we just don’t sustain them,” said Pitcher, who still found it within himself to make a humorous observation.
“I’ve never been in that locker room before,” said Pitcher, pointing to the girls’ facility which doubles as the visiting team’s room. “It’s pretty nice in there.”
Pitcher spent six years at Libertyville High prior to getting the head coach gig at Lake Zurich. While at Libertyville, he was assistant coach on the sophomore hoops level for three years, then head coach for the freshmen boys basketball team the last three.
Although his record may not be impressive on its own, Pitcher has already improved on predecessor John Zarr’s previous campaign, when the team won just three games. And his two North Suburban Conference, Lake Division wins this season ended a two-season drought for the Bears in which they failed to snare a single division victory.
Pitcher set a goal of finishing in the upper half of the very tough division, which he obviously will not reach, but Lake Zurich fans should find some comfort in the improvement the team has shown from the start of this season.
The stunning victory against Mundelein will likely be the centerpiece of the Bears season, but since last I saw them play I can assure Lake Zurich fans that their team is performing with more poise and confidence than when they lost in game two to a Palatine team which has struggled its way to a 7-13 mark.
Guard Mike Boyd earned special praise from Pitcher, who noted that he has been excellent with the ball ever since the Pekin holiday tournament. Drake Orser, at 6-8, looks much more aggressive and confident, but the team’s best player is still junior Mirko Grcic, which bodes well for the Bears’ future. In the game against Libertyville, Grcic was the only Lake Zurich player in double figures, scoring 13.
“The team took a little step back this game,” Pitcher noted. “I don’t know why we were so passive with the ball and not attacking the basket. “But this has been a really great group of kids to work with and they’ve grown a lot since the season began.”
The Bears were edged 47-45 by a very good Fremd team Saturday night.
Filling the Lanes: Other noteworthy accomplishments last week
The Crystal Lake Central Tigers (16-4, 6-1) won a Fox Valley Fox showdown game on the road Thursday against the hard-charging defending champs, the Grayslake Central Rams (10-9, 5-2). The Rams entered the game on a six-game winning streak and appeared to be peaking at the right time.
But Crystal Lake Central, led by junior point guard Chase Cane’s 18 points and Jake Chrystal’s 15, took control early and downed the Rams for the second time this season; this time by a score of 79-68. The Rams put on a mad fourth-quarter 34-point charge, led by junior guard Jordan Taylor (27 points), but it was too late.
Thanks to Grayslake North’s surprising loss to Woodstock Saturday night, the Tigers rest solo atop the conference standings, with the two Grayslake schools tied for second, one game behind. The Tigers went 2-0 on the week in conference, winning 65-57 Tuesday against Johnsburg.
Grayslake North’s Knights (13-5, 5-2) could not take care of business on the road against a 9-13 Woodstock team on Friday, losing a Fox Valley Fox conference game 62-56 that dropped them out of a tie for first place. Just a little over a week ago, the Knights came of age with a giant victory over the front runners from Crystal Lake Central. The loss to Woodstock did not come completely out of the blue, since the two teams went to overtime earlier in the season before the Knights emerged triumphant.
The Huntley ‘s Red Raiders (16-4, 4-1) won their third and fourth in a row this past week, squashing the Cary-Grove Trojans (8-12, 2-3) 57-27 for a Fox Valley Valley conference win, then taking it to Hoffman Estates 40-33. The Red Raiders are hot on the heels of Jacobs in the Valley, with a showdown game on Feb. 8.
The Jacobs Golden Eagles (12-8, 4-0) won an important Fox Valley Valley game at home against the Dundee-Crown Chargers (10-8, 2-2) to remain the only unbeaten team in the division.
The Crystal Lake Central Tigers (16-4, 6-1) beat Johnsburg and Grayslake Central last week to extend their winning streak to three. Both were Fox Valley Fox conference wins to keep Crystal Lake Central on top of league. The Tigers have now won six of their last seven.
Also of Note
The Crystal Lake South Gators (11-8, 1-4), with the return of 3-point specialist Kevin Rogers from suspension, stopped a four-game skid with their first Fox Valley Valley conference win of the season, a 46-33 home triumph over a good McHenry squad on Tuesday. The Gators then took it to Marian Central on Saturday with a convincing 48-30 road win.
The Fremd Vikings (14-7, 5-2) lost to its Mid-Suburban League West nemesis Schaumburg 60-55 in overtime Friday, ending a five-game winning streak. It was the second loss to the Saxons this year in as many games. Both teams are now 5-2 in conference, tied with Barrington. Fremd hosts Barrington in a big game Friday.
Barrington Broncos (15-6, 5-2) saw their seven-game winning streak come to an end Saturday night with a 63-53 home loss to South Elgin. The Broncs stayed in the thick of the Mid-Suburban League West race at 5-2 by besting Palatine 50-34 on the road the previous night. Fremd and Schaumburg are also 5-2 in the MSL west.
Rating the Top Teams on the Hardwood Tour
1. Huntley Red Raiders (16-4) Two more satisfying wins; improved Crystal Lake South looms Wednesday.
2. Crystal Lake Central Tigers (16-4) Convincing win against Grayslake Central in 2-0 week.
3. Barrington Broncos (15-7) At Fremd Friday for key MSL West game, then Crystal Lake South Saturday.
4. Fremd Vikings (14-7) Split two close ones; hosts Barrington in big one Friday
5. Buffalo Grove Bison (13-8) Went 1-1 last week; needs conference win against Hersey on Friday.
6. Jacobs Golden Eagles (12-8) Another Fox Valley Valley win, this one edging Dundee-Crown.
7. Crystal Lake South Gators (11-8) Back on track, but Huntley, Barrington await in killer week.
8. Grayslake North Knights (13-5) Seeking first win ever against Grayslake Central at home Wednesday.
9. Dundee-Crown Chargers (10-8) with Stevenson falling twice, moved up despite 0-2 week (up from 10th).
10. Grayslake Central Rams (10-9) Can they continue mastery over Grayslake North? (up from 11th).
11. Lake Forest Scouts (10-10) Knocked Stevenson off chart with 48-46 win (new to list).