If there is any solace in Crystal Lake Central's 54-49 loss to Huntley in the championship game of the Jacobs Holiday Tournament, it is that the Tigers will have an opportunity to avenge their only loss in 12 games when they play at Huntley on Wednesday night.
"What I learned in that game is the best defensive team will win, the best disciplined team on offense and defense," said Crystal Lake Central's Chase Cane, a 6-1 senior and the only returning starter from last year's 24-5 squad.
"That's what won for them. They did the little things right. They didn't turn the ball over as much as we did. They stayed in front of us on defense and boxed out. We know we can do those things but it is a matter of focusing on them."
Cane, 6-3 junior Corban Murphy and their teammates are eagerly awaiting Wednesday's rematch with Huntley. They believe this is one of the best teams the the McHenry County school has ever produced and they are anxious to prove it to one and all.
"Our goal since the start of the season is we want to be the team that will be remembered," Cane said. "We want to look back and say: 'Yes, we were the team that make it to state.' I think we can be that team."
Basketball hasn't been a trademark at Crystal Lake Central. The school went 28 years without a regional title. Jim Condill coached four 20-victory teams in a row in the 1990s. But the school's only sectional title was won by John Swenson's 13-14 team in 1974.
"Crystal Lake Central basketball hasn't been the best for a few years. We want to keep improving on what we did last year," Murphy said. "We want to go to state. We want to do something that never has been done before.
"Before the season began, we sat down and said our goal is to go Downstate. We think we are talented enough to do it. We are all athletic, we all shoot well and we work well together. It gives us an edge over other teams. We have no weaknesses."
Coach Rich Czeslawski, a Crystal Lake Central graduate of 1994, also prefers to look on the bright side. He points to the Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1974 and also to the fact that the school has won 54 percent of its games since 1924. But can this year's Tigers improve on last year's 24-5 finish?
"I hope people look at us and say we will always be a tough team to play against, not a team that people say: 'Good. We're playing against Crystal Lake Central.' I have the luxury of having gone to Central and I know the tradition," Czeslawski said.
"We can do things that we have never done before. We can make history. We beat all of our district schools in one week for the first time. We want to make history. We want to do things that we never have done before. These kids are buying into the idea that they want to make history.
"How good is this team? It is more skilled than last year. It has a lot of versatility and depth. Defense will determine how good we are. We could go further than last year."
While his players re-run last week's loss to Huntley in the minds, Czeslawski still replays last year's overtime loss to Rockford East in the sectional semifinal in his head.
"We could have played Rock Island in the supersectional," he said. "But we got killed on the boards. They had 31 offensive rebounds and took 87 shots to our 54. And we lost by one point in overtime. Some missed free throws would have put the game away in regulation time.
"What did I learn? Our core group of players were at that game. They know that every possession counts so much at that level. They know that little things count...taking care of the ball, blocking out, making an extra pass. They remember what happened last year."
The core of the team is Cane (14 ppg), Murphy, 6-1 senior guard Nick Marchetti, 5-9 junior guard Brad Knoeppel and 6-7 junior Kyle Fleck. Production off the bench comes from 6-3 senior Nick DeCoster and 6-4 senior Vinny Inzerillo.
"There is a nice confidence to them, a swagger," the coach said. "They surprise me from game to game. I'll be worried or nervous and they'll come out and take care of it.
"But I'm not surprised that we are 11-1. Our sophomore team was 20-1 last year and worked with the varsity. We have been building from the lower levels. We let them experience success at the lower levels. We kept our juniors and seniors together. That provided consistency and let them get used to playing their roles. We expect them to win when they get to the varsity."
Czeslawski, 34, brings an analytical mind to the basketball court. He played three sports at Crystal Lake Central but a torn ACL at the end of his junior year ended his dream of competing in college. After graduating from Arizona State, he came home to work as a computer technician in the elementary school district.
He coached under Jim Condill at Judson University in Elgin and served as the school's network administrator. He returned to Crystal Lake Central as technology coordinator and, after serving as an assistant at Central for three years and at Judson for two years, was elevated to the head coaching position at Central in 2006.
While his wife teaches at the school, Czeslawski also works for a sports technology company, Fastmodelsports.com, which allows him to coach. He said he has turned down six-figure job offers from other companies to keep coaching.
"In college, I was headed to being a pediatrician," he said. "But I coached youth teams in college. I can do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week and not get tired of it. Coaching basketball is my biggest passion. But I also have a passion for technology.
"My very first job was coaching seventh graders in Arizona on an outdoor court. The first time a kid did something in a game that I taught him in practice felt like a really cool thing. I enjoy my lasting relationship with kids. It is my reward in coaching."
Thanks to Czeslawski, the team is into making history on several levels his season. For the first time, they raised 10,000 for the National Cancer Society as part of the Coaches Vs. Cancer initiative. And they also raised money for military families in the Crystal Lake area.
Cane, Murphy, Marchetti, Fleck and Knoeppel were optimistic about 2011-12 because they played well in several tournaments during the summer. They won 30 of 35 games, including a 10-2 mark while winning a national AAU tournament in Bolingbrook. In the final, they defeated a team from Philadelphia.
It is enough to excite the community and the Central Crazies, a body of 150 to 200 students that provides a loud fan base at all games.
"The community hasn't been involved in basketball for the last few years but it is way more involved this year," Murphy said. "The Crazies are insane home and away. They give us a lot of energy. They pump us up a lot."
"We knew if we did some things, we could do well this season," Cane said. "The perception of basketball in Crystal Lake has had some good moments but it wasn't very good before I came to high school. We wanted to turn it around. We wanted to make Central basketball something to be heard of."