Grant is 19-7 after a 4-4 start. The Fox Lake school has won 10 of its last 11 games. So what did coach Wayne Bosworth's Bulldogs get for all of this recent success? The No. 12 seed in the 21-team Barrington sectional. Some consolation prize.
"Our kids felt like it was a slap in the face. We feel we deserved better. So now we're playing with a chip on our shoulder," Bosworth said. "Our goal is to keep improving every day. We can be a dangerous team as the No. 12 seed."
Jared Helmich, Grant's 6-foot-2 senior forward, said he and his teammates are happy with the No. 12 seed. "It puts us in an underdog situation. If we play together, we have a good shot at winning the regional," he said.
Helmich and his teammates are in a familiar position. In a mock preview of the sectional, Grant was seeded No. 16. "Teams don't give us much respect. But the last 17 games is who we really are. We've learned to mesh. We know each other's strengths. And we also have stepped up on the defensive end," he said.
"I was shocked when I saw us seeded No. 16 in that mock preview. Teams we had beaten were rated a lot higher than us. Other teams look at us and say we don't play in as tough a conference as they are in. They don't look at what we are actually doing."
Grant has lost twice to highly regarded North Chicago but has beaten Barrington, Stevenson and Rolling Meadows. In their last two outings, the Bulldogs beat Round Lake 52-41 last Friday and Libertyville 55-54 on Tuesday night. They will open regional play against Wheeling on Monday.
"We have a bunch of good players, no stars, four seniors who average in double figures," Bosworth said. "They have bought in to what we are preaching--defense first, man-to-man. Our goal always has been to win the regional for the first time since 1989."
Grant has known success in basketball. In 25 years, coach Tom Maple won 368 games. Bosworth, a 2000 graduate of Grant, played for Maple. He served as an assistant coach at North Chicago and Grant before becoming head coach four years ago. At 30, he is young and ambitious and optimistic.
His starting lineup includes Helmich (15 ppg, 8 rpg), 6-foot senior guards Allen Lewis (11 ppg, 5 assists) and Sean Wells (12 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior Ilya Kadushin (11 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-2 junior Brandon Lombardino (4 ppg, 4 rpg). Helmich was an All-Lake County selection last year.
"Someone will score for us. At one point this season, every one of the four seniors have scored 20 or more points in a game. I have been impressed with our seniors stepping up and having huge games," Bosworth said.
Kadushin had 17 points and 18 rebounds against Rolling Meadows. Helmich had 29 points and 16 rebounds against Lakes in the final of Grant's Christmas tournament. Wells had 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Barrington. Lewis had 26 points and eight assists against North Chicago. Helmich scored 20 and Wells added 17 against Libertyville.
"And our defense needs to be where it has to be, holding opponents to one-and-out, keeping them in the low 50s," Bosworth said.
The coach also praised Helmich. "The best thing about him is teams have been keying on him in the last month and his numbers have been down because they are doubling and tripling on him. But he has done a great job of getting others involved, spreading the wealth," he said.
"When we played Rolling Meadows, they double teammed me every time I touched the ball. And every time I got the ball against Lakes, there was a guy on every side of me," Helmich said. "Even when I don't get double-teammed, I try to look for someone who has a good shot before I take a shot. If someone is wide open, I will kick out before I do a jump hook from within five to eight feet of the basket."
While basketball is Helmich's favorite sport, he admits he is more proficient at baseball. He hopes baseball will pave the way to a college education. A first baseman and pitcher, he has scholarship offers from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Augustana, Upper Iowa, North Park and Edgewood.
"But I love playing basketball. You can get friends together and play whenever you want, at the Libertyville Sports Complex or our gym or our neighborhood park," Helmich said. "I used to dream about being 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 so I could play college basketball. I like the environment, the fans cheering you on, pumping you up. It's good to see when a teammate has a good night, good to see when all the teamwork pays off."