The south suburbs used to be a dominant factor in the state tournament.
Remember Thornridge, Thornton, Bloom, Lockport and Providence? No longer.
Since 1979, the south suburbs have produced only two state champions--Richards in 2008 and Seton in 2009.
Rich South is anxious to toss its hat into the ring this season. The Stars have qualified for the supersectional round only once. Fred Jacobeit's 25-5 team reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1997. Two years ago, Scot Ritter's 25-5 team lost to eventual state champion Hillcrest in the sectional final.
Those pleasant memories are few and far between. This year, Rich South is 13-4 with losses to unbeaten Metea Valley, Marist, Hope Academy and Bloom. But recent victories over Seton and Bloom have sparked enthusiasm and bolstered confidence in what lies ahead. The Stars meet district rival Rich East on Friday.
"We still are inconsistent on offense. We make bad decisions at bad times. Our guard play has been inconsistent," Ritter said. "But we have the ability to rebound well. Our strengths are rebounding, our ability to share the ball and balance. We have no one player to key on."
That has been Rich South's fatal flaw. "We never had a lot of individual talent all at once. We have had good kids here and there. But we usually have a lot of balance. Our identity is to be patient on offense, get good shots, play defense and win the rebounding battle," Ritter said.
"The question in the south suburbs is always that we have had to go through some elite teams...Thornton or Hillcrest or Bloom or Homewood-Flossmoor. Two years ago, it was my most talented team but we lost to Hillcrest in the sectional final and they went on to win state."
But this year the playing surface appears to be level. A dominant team hasn't emerged in the south suburbs. Maybe it won't. Ritter believes Rich South can go to the head of the class--if his guards become more consistent, limit their mistakes and mesh with what appears to be one of the best front lines in the area.
"Two years ago, we had a lot of good guards. Guard play dominates the game. Guards are the key to winning state championships," Ritter said. "But this year our strength is forwards. I don't know how far we can go with our inconsistency at guard."
Ritter, 40, in his 10th season as Rich South's head coach, relies on four guards in the backcourt. He starts 5-6 senior point guard Marvin Williams (six points per game, five assists) and 6-foot-2 senior Ralph Abraham (10 points per game), his best perimeter shooter. But Williams commits four or five turnovers per game.
Williams and Abraham rotate with 6-foot junior Jalen Zachary and 6-foot-2 senior Jalen McKaskel.
"Who will take charge? I'm looking for two of them to be more consistent. It is a good rotation but they need to limit their mistakes for us to be effective on offense," the coach said.
"We need to stay focused and not be satisfied with a couple of victories (over Seton and Bloom). We beat two highly rated teams and are ranked in the top 25 in the Chicago area. Newspapers are calling us. But we can't be satisfied because we can get a lot better, especially on offense."
Up front, the Stars are solid with 6-5, 208-pound senior John Ruffin (13 points, 13 rebounds per game), one of the leading rebounders in the south suburbs, 6-foot-2 senior Cedric Russell (seven points, eight rebounds per game) and 6-foot-3 senior Marquel Small (13 points, nine rebounds per game).
They get help off the bench from 6-foot-1 junior Demetri Strickland, 6-foot-1 senior Antoine Lira and 6-foot-4 senior Vernon Young, a starter a year ago who became eligible for the second semester.
Ruffin is the designated leader. As a sophomore, he came off the bench for the 25-5 sectional finalist. He recalls how that team practiced hard and wanted to be great, how it set goals, how it wanted to win more than 20 games, win the holiday tournament and win the sectional.
"This year we are doing the same thing," Ruffin said. "We are getting better and playing harder in practice. We don't have one player. Each night another player steps up. Opponents can't key on one player. They have to look out for all five. If we play hard on defense and control rebounding, we can still be in the game."
Ruffin's forte is rebounding. As a sophomore, after he transferred from Thornton Fractional South in Lansing, he learned that he could command more playing time if he demonstrated he could be productive on the boards.
"Some guys are taller than me but I'm stronger and quicker than most. And I use my heart, too. I have will and heart and just do it," he said. "Sometimes I muscle people and when they try to box me out I use a swimming technique with my arms and legs to get around the defender and get in front of him."
His personal best is 21 rebounds in a single game. The school record is 24. That is another of his goals. But the most fun he has in basketball is winning.
"We're trying to make history this year," Ruffin said. "It is my last year. It is my team. I have to be the leader. "Size hasn't been an issue with us," Ritter summed up. "What we need is consistent guard play. We need to make passes to guys to make plays. We need to make good decisions, to get us into our offense, to be patient. We stay in games because we rebound the ball and get extra possessions. We need to be smart and not turn the ball over. We don't want to get satisfied. We're decent, not great. But we can get better. We can be a tough out in the state tournament."