Posted Online: March 06, 2014, 8:01 pm

Rockets keeping eye on the prize

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By Daniel Makarewicz, danmak@qconline.com

Photo: Steve Davis/Galesburg Register-Mail
Rockridge coach Toby Whiteman watches from the sideline during a Class 2A Olympia Sectional semifinal against Monmouth-Roseville in Stanford on Wednesday night. The Rockets earned a 76-51 win.
Amid the smiles, hugs and high-fives on Wednesday night after a 76-51 win over Monmouth-Roseville in a Class 2A Olympia Sectional semifinal, Luke Johnson stood near the baseline and proclaimed the Rockridge boys' basketball team just completed "probably one of the best games we've played all year."

The celebration ended a few hours after that statement.

"Our focus is winning a sectional championship game," the Rockridge junior guard said. "We're not looking past that."

Standing on the brink of history, the Rockets keep their eyes on the moment. A first-ever sectional title was not won after their convincing semifinal victory over a long-time rival, a fact the team acknowledges as they prepare for Bloomington Central Catholic.

As soon as they returned home, tonight's sectional championship game had their attention.

"These kids have been very good about that," Rockridge coach Toby Whiteman said. "There hasn't been one game this year where our kids have rested on a previous win. It's never happened."

So any lingering thoughts Rockridge (28-0) may rest on its semifinal win were squashed moments after it was over.

"We have to get back to work," Johnson said.

The postseason run allows the Rockets to understand a blue-collar approach is needed if they want to win a first-ever sectional title. Rockridge learned that in its regional opener.

Junior guard Bryan Heath said the team thought Mercer County "would lay down for us" because the Rockets entered the regional as the unanimous top-ranked team with an undefeated record. The Golden Eagles, though, stayed tough.

In that moment, Rockridge knew each game had to be treated with the same intensity and focus.

"It transferred to the Kewanee game (in the regional final)," Heath said. "That transferred here that (Monmouth-Roseville) wouldn't lay down for us."

Carrying that perspective into the sectional semifinal, the Rockets scored the first 13 points and held a double-digit lead the entire second half. Rockridge entered as the top-ranked team and played that way. Part of that comes from realizing special things can happen the next two weeks and the other is motivation.

There is a perception Rockridge can be beaten if Heath and Ethan Happ are contained, indicating the role players cannot contribute. Whiteman has heard them labeled as "roster fillers."

"I've been with this group for three years," Whiteman said. "I know they're better than that. That fuels those guys. People want to keep doubting them and doubting us, then let them. We just show up to play and compete."

Nothing matters right now except Central Catholic.

"We're going to stay mentally focused and come out ready to play," Johnson said. "We want that first sectional championship."





Toby Whiteman
"I've been with this group for three years. I know they're better than that. That fuels those guys. People want to keep doubting them and doubting us, then let them. We just show up to play and compete.

I don't know if it was defining. It was a win.

"These kids have been very good about that. There hasn't been one game this year where our kids have rested on a previous win. It's never happened.

Bryan Heath
"Right now, we'll enjoy it.

"We should enjoy every win. We have to cherish them.

Thinking of MC they would 'lay down for us
"We learned that wouldn't happen. It transferred over to the Kewanee game. That transferred here that (Monmouth-Roseville) wouldn't lay down for us.

Luke Johnson
"We see our record as 0-0 before each game. We're trying to go 1-0.

"This was one of the best games we've played all year. Our focus is winning a sectional championship. We're not looking past that. It's winning the sectional championship.

Forgett
"We have to get back to work.

"We're going to stay mentally focused and come out ready to play. We want that first sectional championship. That's big for us.