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Curtain Falls on Tourney Hopes for Last Four Patch Teams

The uncompromising tournament known as March Madness had swallowed the quartet whole.

Sixteenth 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.
 
Four remaining survivors of the 17 Patch Hardwood Tour teams advanced into week 16 of the high school basketball season, but by the end of the seven-day stretch, the uncompromising tournament known as March Madness had swallowed the quartet whole.

Such is the one-and-done nature of the IHSA prep basketball tournament, which snuffed the hopes of Huntley, Crystal Lake Central, Grayslake Central and Fremd. Each had managed to survive the first week of exhilarating cut-throat tournament play, earning hard-won Regional championships along the way.

But the arduous task of conquering increasingly more difficult opponents came to a halt at the Sectional level of play, where the Red Raiders from Huntley were the only team able to get past the initial contest and into the championship game.

It was fitting that Huntley advanced the farthest. The Red Raiders were the top team in the Hardwood Tour’s weekly rankings for a majority of the season and more than worthy of  a Sectional title shot. But dreams of advancing to the school’s first Super-Sectional soon vanished in the sold-out, joyously raucous Jacobs gym.
 
Huntley Red Raiders (25-5)

… beat Elgin 57-46 in semifinals of 4A Jacobs Sectional  before losing 59-31 to Auburn of Rockford in the championship game.

Having just completed what was arguably the best hoops season in school history, the returning members of the Huntley Red Raiders were challenged by their coach to up the ante next year.

“This was a learning experience for them,” said Coach Marty Manning after his team’s thorough drubbing at the hands of the Auburn Knights in the Sectional championship game. “I’m hoping it will help them understand what they have to get better at in order to advance further in the state tournament.”

All year long Huntley has overcome its lack of size (tallest players were seniors Tyler Bruschon and Dylan Neukirch at 6-foot-3) with defense, quickness, 3-point shooting and unselfishness on offense. But Auburn took speed to a whole new level for the young Raiders, who fell behind 7-0, then 18-5 as they were continually beaten to loose balls and struggled with 12 for 40 shooting. When Auburn started the second quarter with a 10-0 run, the game was, for all practical purposes, over.

Manning, who I’ve found to be refreshing in his forthrightness, noted that his Raiders compiled a dominant record, but still needed to get better “if we want to compete on the big stage.”

“We can continue to be really good around here, in the Fox Valley, or we can decide we want to take it to the next level,” noted Manning.

The young Huntley team accumulated its heady victory total with a squad that included just two seniors,  Brunschon and Neukirch. So next year’s club will be battle-tested and bolstered by members of a sophomore team that went 24-4.

The Red Raiders will return outside junior sniper Troy Miller, scrappy junior forward Justin Frederick and defensive specialist, sophomore guard Bryce Only.  Amanze Egekeze, a 6-5 freshman with a world of potential, saw a lot of varsity action this past year and did not shrink from the competition during his time on the court in the Sectional finals. Junior Jake Brock and sophomore Jake Dachman were also regular members of the varsity rotation.

Manning explained that the returning Raiders need to be more individually well-rounded in their games if the team is ever to challenge for state championship supremacy “or be on the same level  as the Warrens or Mundeleins.“

“The returning guys have to be more than just a shooter, a post-up guy or a rebounder,” said the coach. “We saw against Auburn how limited we sometimes were. Our guys have to be able to create their own shots . . . drive the lane . . . attack the basket.”

It was nevertheless a glorious year for Huntley, a team that won the Fox Valley Valley Division with a 9-1 mark, captured a Thanksgiving tournament, ran off two five-game winning streaks and ripped off an amazing stretch of 13 consecutive victories before finally bowing to Auburn.

The last of those triumphs was a memorable 57-46 Sectional semifinal win against a more highly touted Elgin team. Miller ripped the cords for 22 points in that one, going 5 of 6 from beyond the arc, and Frederick had an excellent shooting game, contributing 16 points.

“Our seniors really adjusted their games this year and did whatever it took for us to win,” noted Manning. “Their leadership and unselfish play were keys to our success. Tyler (Brunschon) took 100 less shots this year and went from a 15-point average to a 13-point average. He was more of a distributor, and did all the little things we needed from him and Dylan in order to win.”

The Red Raiders finshed the season as one of the last 16 teams left standing in the 4A tournament. With continued improvement in the right places, they could go a lot deeper next year.

Crystal Lake Central Tigers (24-5)

... lost 71-70 in overtime to East High of Rockford in 3A Woodstock North Sectional semifinal.

After 11 consecutive wins the bell of defeat tolled for the Crystal Lake Central Tigers in a one-point overtime Sectional loss. Just like that, one of the best campaigns in the history of this school came to an abrupt end at the hands of the E-Rabs of Rockford’s East High Tuesday night.

As an outside observer, I felt bad for the Tigers, a team I thought had the best chance of all The Patch Hardwood Tour teams of making it to Peoria. In my estimation, they were playing in the 3A tourney with what I considered 4A talent.

Crystal Lake Central was the first team I saw this season, and I was immediately struck by their size, depth, senior-dominant lineup and ability to beat an opponent in multiple ways.

“Crystal Lake Central fans are really going to like this Tigers team,” I said at the time.

They did not disappoint, winning their own Thanksgiving tournament, slashing their way through the Fox Valley Fox with an 11-1 record and seizing an undisputed championship, then grabbing the school’s first regional crown in 13 seasons.

So losing by a point in overtime to East in the state tournament was especially cruel when you consider the following:

• East High turned around and lost in overtime to Aurora Central Catholic in the Sectional championship game.

• Aurora Central Catholic, which is barely over .500 for the season, only managed to beat Marian Central Catholic by three points in their Sectional semifinal contest.

• Crystal Lake Central soundly disposed of Marian Central earlier this season.

Unfortunately, a team does not advance in the state tournament by means of extrapolation, but it sure would be easy to imagine the Tigers in place of Aurora Central as one of the remaining eight teams still in the running for the state championship. But instead, a tying basket in the waning seconds by East sent the semifinal game into an extra four-minute session, and a bucket in the final ticks of overtime eliminated the Tigers from the tourney.

Jake Chrystal, the team’s “Mr. Versatility” all year long, led the Tigers in their last game with 24 points, while junior point guard Chase Cane had 16. Departing seniors Joe Pijanowski and 6-7 Matt Gleixner each added 10 in the valiant, final effort.

This was the best team Coach Rich Czeslawski has had in his five years at the helm and posted the second-best win total in school history behind only the 28-2 team of 1996-97. It will be a hard act to follow. In addition to Chrystal, Pijanowski and Gleixner, John Nemcek and defensive specialist Alex Polk will all be gone when the next hoops season rolls along.

But this group should be celebrated for the impressive set of accomplishments it left in its wake.

Grayslake Central Rams (17-13)

… lost to North Chicago 64-60 in semifinals of 3A Ridgewood Sectiona.

The Rams have been the victim of their own slow starts all season long, and an 11-point first-half deficit to a quality team like North Chicago (15-13) proved too much to overcome this time.

But Grayslake Central did not go down without a fight, pulling even with the Warhawks late in the contest before finally succumbing by four points to Aaron Simpson (24 points) and company. Coach Brian Moe’s team, as it has all year, stayed competitive and clawed its way back into the contest behind star point guard, junior Jordan Taylor (16 points) and junior Savonte McWilliams (12), even though the bigger Rams allowed the quicker North Chicago aggregation to climb all over the offensive boards.

The Rams played a quality schedule, especially early in the year, suffering losses at the hands of powers like Mundelein,  Barrington and other Class 4A teams that prepared Central for an exciting late-season run and a third Regional championship in the last four years.

Grayslake Central started the season losing seven of their first nine games, but hit its stride after the new year began, winning 14 of 18, finishing second in the Fox Valley Fox division with a 9-3 mark. They were forced to finish the year without the services of 6-foot-6 veteran pivot man CJ Stempeck, suffering from his bout with mono, and one wonders if his added height would have been the difference in getting past North Chicago.

Grayslake Central has established itself as a quality hoops program over the past six seasons, posting excellent records in five of those campaigns.  Next year, Coach Brian Moe will go into his fourth season with a group of returnees that should keep Grayslake Central at the elite level.

Among those coming back are the ultra-quick Taylor, who is the team’s best player, McWilliams, the athletically gifted 6-8 Casey Boyle and late-season call-up, sophomore Danny Reed, who scored 11 against North Chicago. Sean Geary and Tyler Smith, who also saw quite a bit of action, will also return.

This was a nice season for the Rams, but next year could be even better.
 
Fremd Vikings  (19-10)

... lost to Warren 72-43 in 4A Barrington Sectional semifinal.

The Zach Monaghan era officially ended for the Fremd Vikings with Tuesday’s one-sided loss to powerful and deep Warren in the Sectional semifinal.  But the 6-foot-2 South Dakota State-bound star went down firing, racking up 25 points against a Blue Devils team designed to stop him.

The wiry guard provided a bevy of thrills for Vikings hoops fans in the three years he was on the varsity. Before wrapping up his prep career Monaghan scored 28 points to lead his team to an elusive regional title, one that escaped the previous year’s 24-12 club. His efforts also contributed mightily to a share of  the Mid-Suburban League West championship, the second in a row for the Vikings.

Although it was not unusual for the savvy 3-point shooter to put up 20- and even 30-point games in his high school career, the games I saw Zach play were off nights for him offensively; and still he impressed. Now that’s the sign of a great player. This kid went all out at all times, especially defensively.

In a game I saw him play against Schaumburg, Monaghan had six steals and led his club in scoring while hitting the boards hard and making one good pass after another to his teammates.

He first caught my eye as a skinny sophomore valiantly attempting to guard 6-foot-7 high school superstar Jereme Richmond in a regional championship game won by Waukegan. Monaghan bumped, shouldered, held, talked to and just generally bothered Richmond all over the court.

“I knew I was completely overmatched physically,” he told me earlier this year when I reminded him of the game. “So I just had to try and get into his head and get him out of his game if I could.”

That kind of grit and willingness to pursue victory, in whatever way is needed, was again apparent this season. Involved in a serious car accident just before Christmas that totaled the car of teammate Joe Leaf, Monaghan missed the next four games before returning to action wearing a protective mask and scoring 23 in his first game back. When confronted with a challenge, he never seemed to flinch.

This kid will be missed.

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