Even a pair of recent losses that resulted in a West Central North title share instead of an outright crown haven't brought down the Rockridge Rockets.|
Hosting their own Class 2A boys' basketball regional gathering this week, the top-seeded Rockets remain confident and upbeat as they begin to pursue of their first postseason hardware since 2003.
"We went to Illini West and didn't come out of the gate and play very well. Against Monmouth, we played hard and got after it, but anytime you have 20-plus turnovers, you're not going to win,'' Rockridge coach Toby Whiteman said of his 21-4 team's lone WCC North losses, which resulted in the conference title share with Monmouth-Roseville.
"I don't think the kids' confidence is shaken. This is a confident group. The thing I like about them is when things don't go well, we look at those situations and see how we can get better."
Dealing with any pressure that could come from playing on its home floor in the postseason is another issue Whiteman feels his squad is capable of handling.
"Anytime you play at home, it's a great benefit," said Whiteman, whose team opens Wednesday night at 6 against the winner of tonight's Mercer County-Sherrard first-rounder. "We've talked since December about pressure. If we go out and play the way we're capable of and how we've been taught, wins should take care of themselves.
"Hopefully we do that every game, but if you look at (the Rockets' prospective opponents), Mercer County is playing well and Sherrard is coming off two huge wins. ... Our regional is tough."
Adding to that strength is second-seeded Kewanee (22-4), which won its second Three Rivers Conference title in three seasons with a spotless 14-0 league ledger. With four starters averaging double-figure scoring, led by senior guard Dayton Ince's 17 points per game and freshman forward Donovan Oliver's 17 points and 10 boards per outing, the Boilermakers are a force to be reckoned with.
As the Boilers gear up for Wednesday's 7:30 p.m. semifinal with third-seeded Orion (17-12), Coach Steve Salisbury is slightly concerned both about the competition and an eight-day layoff since Kewanee's last game.
"I'm concerned with the layoff in that we could come out flat, but it also gives us a lot of time to prepare for Orion," said Salisbury. "We beat them by a bucket at the Orion Tip-Off Classic, but I know we've both come a long way since then. We're both familiar with each other, and we're looking forward to the challenge. I think it'll be a great game."
Led by senior guard Dylan Schultz's 17 points per night, the Chargers feel the same way about their opening opponent.
"Our focus has to be on Kewanee," said Orion coach Brent Hutton. "They have a real offensive team; their kids shoot well from the outside, and Oliver has been an outstanding young prospect for them. They're shorter than us but very quick. They've had an outstanding season, and they'll be a tough team to get past in regionals."
Tonight's matchup between No. 4 Mercer County (18-9) and No. 5 Sherrard (6-20) is a rematch of a mid-December game won at home by the MC Golden Eagles, which started a stretch of strong play that has continued for Coach Brian Hutton's club. After a three-game losing streak following the Cliff Warkins Memorial Cardinal Classic in late December, the Eagles have won 10 of 11 games.
"I'm pretty happy with where we're at for the most part," said Brian Hutton, whose club is led by senior forward Tanner Matlick's 14 points and 11 boards per game. "We're pretty senior-laden, which helps going into the postseason. But, anybody who's watched us play knows we have to take better care of the ball if we're going to compete (this) week. That's been our big thing all year, taking care of the ball.
"Obviously, Rockridge is the favorite, but the other teams have started to play better. Four of the teams are fairly even, so one beating another wouldn't be considered an upset."
For Sherrard coach Barry Jackson, his team's biggest key to earning a semifinal rematch with Rockridge also revolves around valuing each possession.
"We've averaged 18 to 19 turnovers a game, and when you give away that many points, it's hard to win, no matter who you are," he said. "The games we won against Kewanee and Illini West, we had single-digit turnovers. So that will definitely be the key."
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