Seton favored, but not easy path to 2A title

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Seton favored, but not easy path to 2A title

Seton Academy of South Holland won the Class 2A championship in 2009 and coach Brandon Thomas' Sting is favored again in 2012. But once-beaten Breese Central and unbeaten Byron look to be formidable threats.

Seton could be tested in the Herscher sectional by the host school. Another Chicago area school that could contend is Immaculate Conception. Other contenders are Normal University High, Teutopolis, Pinckneyville, Alton Marquette and Flora.

With four starters and 13 of 15 players returning from last year's 21-8 sectional finalist, Thomas believes his 2012 team is deeper than the state championship team. The Sting average more than 80 points per game.

Thomas concedes he doesn't have a player of superstar credentials like 2009 star D.J. Cooper but has more quickness and overall talent with junior Mark Weems (15 ppg), 6-foot-4 senior J.R. Tolliver (12 ppg), 6-foot-8 senior Russell Robinson (11 ppg, 8 rpg), junior guard Kamal Shasi (12 ppg) and senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 6 assists).

"The fact that we don't have a superstar player makes them believe more in the system rather than relying on one guy when we are in trouble," Thomas said. "Our kids are more mature this year. They believe they can win. I'm looking forward to seeing how we handle success."

Seton is battle-tested. The Sting has beaten Marist and Hope Academy but lost to Chicago Public League powers Orr and Farragut. Thomas, who once assisted Gary London at Hales Franciscan, is well aware of what can happen in a state tournament that often is unpredictable.

"I was at Hales Franciscan when we were the favorites to win it all one year," Thomas recalled. "We had JaVale McGee and Jerome Randle, two future pros, and we wound up losing to Herscher in the sectional. So it can happen."

Thomas must have a premonition of things to come. In Wednesday night's Class 2A regional semifinal, Seton barely got past Chicago University High 72-64 in double overtime. Russell Robinson had 23 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks while Mark Weems scored 16 points.

Seton (24-4) will meet tradition power Hales Franciscan in the regional final at University of Chicago's Ratner Center Gymnasium on Friday night.

Once again, Herscher awaits in the sectional. Coach Todd Schwarzkopf's 2010 team won 24 in a row before losing to Hales Franciscan in the sectional. Last year's team was 20-7 and lost to Paxton-Loda-Buckley in the regional final. But the 2012 team could be best of all.

Herscher has great size with the Ruckman twins, 6-foot-5 Jordan and Justin, and 6-foot-5 Ben Wenzelman, who averages 17 points per game. They make Herscher's 1-3-1 half-court trap defense very effective by playing on tap and on the wings. Spike Engelman is the floor leader.

Immaculate Conception, favored at the Lisle sectional, is enjoying its best season in school history. IC has never won a sectional and just won its first conference title since 1967. So coach Darren Howard has every reason to believe that this squad is capable of accomplishing even more.

The Elmhurst school is led by point guard John Cheng (15 ppg, 5 assists, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 Brian Harvey (14 ppg, 8 rpg) and 6-foot-2 junior Demetrius Carr (16 ppg, 5 rpg), a transfer from St. Joseph. Lack of size--IC's tallest player is 6-foot-4--hasn't been a serious issue to date.

Breese Central, which is 27-1 and ranked No. 2 in the state, is in the lower bracket and could meet Seton in the semifinals in Peoria. Coach Stan Eagleson is in his 26th year. His 2010 team was 30-5 and finished fourth in the state after losing to Peoria Manual and Hales Franciscan. Last year's team was 30-3 and lost to Murphysboro in the supersectional.

Since 1996, Eagleson has been enormously successful. He has produced four teams that have won 30 or more games and eight that have won 20 or more games. How good is this year's team? "Potentially, this is the best team I have had," he said.

"We play good man-to-man defense and we feel we have the best player on the floor in 6-foot-6 senior Brandon Book," Eagleson said. "When he is on his game, he is as good as anyone the other team can put on the floor. He can post up but he also is our leading perimeter shooter."

Book, who averages 21 points and nine rebounds per game, is the leading scorer in school history. Other contributors are 6-foot sophomore point guard Jacob Timmermann (9 ppg, 4 assists), 5-foot-10 senior guard Nick Grapperhaus (9 ppg), 5-foot-10 junior guard Justin Becker and 6-foot-7 junior Kyler Scheer.

Becker is the team leader in steals and Sheer, who missed most of the season with a stress injury in his leg, has returned to give Breese Central two intimidating big men under the boards.

Breese Central's only loss was to Vianney of Kirkwood, Missouri, in January. Eagleson's team has beaten some of the best teams in his area, including Breese Mater Dei three times, Harrisburg and Flora. The Cougars likely will meet Breese Mater Dei in the regional final on Friday night.

How does Eagleson explain his success since 1996? "We've had a lot of great players since 1996, a nice run of good basketball players and good basketball players with good size, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6 kids who can play," he said.

Eagleson also credits a feeder system developed in a consolidated school district and the stability of his coaching staff. Assistant Dave Thomas has been with him for 26 years. Junior varsity coach Jeremy Shubert for over 10 years and freshman coach Kurt Peters for over 15 years.

"The competition with Breese Mater Dei also makes us better, also with Carlyle, Trenton-Wesclin and Nashville," Eagleson said. "This is a strong area for high school basketball."

Byron, which competes in the South Beloit sectional in the upper bracket of the Class 2A playoff, is 27-0 and likely will have to get past Rockford Lutheran for a fourth time if it hopes to advance beyond the sectional for the first time in school history.

Byron has beaten Rockford Lutheran three times this season, the only losses the Rockford school has suffered in a 24-3 season. Byron beat Lutheran by one point on Feb. 4 on a buzzer-beating shot by Hunter Hill. Earlier, the Tigers beat Lutheran by four and 12.

In his fourth season, Byron coach Tom Schmidt has taken his program from 16-12 to 20-8 to 23-6 to 27-0. Last year's team lost to Rockford Christian in the sectional. This year's squad averages 66.4 points per game while allowing only 39.5.

Despite its success, Schmidt is looking for more. "Offensively, we still haven't played a complete game yet. We haven't put it together where everybody is making a shot," he said.

Schmidt returned six of his top eight players from last year's squad. There were high expectations and the Tigers have delivered. There is plenty of balance with five players averaging between nine and 12 points per game. They are unselfish, handle the ball well, shoot well, pass well and aren't afraid to share the ball.

"We have a few kids who can score 20 points per game but we don't have to," Schmidt said, dispelling the notion that a team must have at least one player of All-State stature to win a state championship.

Hunter Hill, a 5-foot-9 senior point guard and a three-year starter, makes the offense go. He averages 10.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. Others to watch are 6-foot-6 senior Collin Russell (12 ppg, 5 rpg), 6-foot-2 senior Ryan Hopkins (10 ppg), 6-foot-3 senior Gavyn Nelson (10.5 ppg) and 6-foot-3 senior Logan Crull (9 ppg).

"Hill has been the consistent guy for us. He gets the ball where it has to be. Then one or two different guys step up," Schmidt said. "To continue to be successful, we need to continue to play the same type of defense (man-to-man and zone) we have been playing and execute on offense."

Another team to watch is Pinckneyville, which is 24-4 and has won 13 in a row but is unranked among the state's leading Class 2A teams. The Panthers are comparable to the 2006 and 2008 teams that finished fourth in the state tournament.

Coach Bob Waggoner's team, led by guards Hunter Queen and Brian Shute, will meet Trico (25-5) in the regional final at Pinckneyville on Friday night. Ironically, Trico is coached by Shane Hawkins, the greatest player in the long and distinguished history of Pinckneyville basketball.

Watch: Illini present Huskers with signed jersey in honor of Sam Foltz

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Watch: Illini present Huskers with signed jersey in honor of Sam Foltz

Big Ten teams have been honoring Sam Foltz all season long, and Illinois came up with a new way to honor him Saturday.

The Nebraska punter was tragically killed in a car accident in July, and teams playing the Huskers this season have done everything including lay flowers on the 27-yard line (Foltz wore No. 27) and wear helmet stickers honoring Foltz.

Saturday, Illinois visited Lincoln, and the Illini's specialists presented the Huskers' specialists with a Foltz Illinois jersey autographed by the team.

And Nebraska caught the emotional exchange on video. It's a must watch.

It's certainly been an emotional season for Nebraska, but it's great to see the whole Big Ten coming together to honor Foltz's memory.

Northwestern offense comes to play in upset win over Hawkeyes

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Northwestern offense comes to play in upset win over Hawkeyes

Forget everything you thought you knew about the Northwestern offense.

A unit that's looked sluggish through a rough 1-3 start came to play Saturday, scoring touchdowns on three consecutive second-half drives to pull an upset 38-31 win over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Down 24-17 early in the third quarter, the Wildcats scored on touchdown drives of 75, 77 and 80 yards, all the while the defense holding the Hawkeyes to just a pair of three and outs in that same span.

Clayton Thorson hit Austin Carr for touchdowns on two of those drives — Carr had three touchdown catches on the afternoon — and Justin Jackson sprinted away for a 58-yard scoring rush as Northwestern put a two-score gap between itself and Iowa. Even a fourth-quarter score by the Hawkeyes couldn't close that gap.

The Cats piled up a not-all-that-impressive 362 yards of offense, but it was plenty compared to the Hawkeyes' 283 yards. Northwestern out-rushed Iowa, 198-79.

The game started in almost near-perfect fashion for the Cats, with Thorson running in for a touchdown after a long punt return by Flynn Nagel. But the Hawkeyes evened the score shortly thereafter, Akrum Wadley rushing in for a touchdown after a long punt return by Desmond King.

After a field goal, Thorson hit Carr for the first time on the day to put Northwestern up 17-7, but the momentum turned from there. Iowa scored on a short field off a punt, Jay Scheel making a great catch on a C.J. Beathard pass to set up another Wadley touchdown run. Then Brandon Snyder forced a Jackson fumble, and the Hawkeyes turned that into another score, Beathard finding Riley McCarron for a go-ahead touchdown before halftime.

But after an Iowa field goal, Northwestern's offense took over in the third quarter. The Cats got a score to cap a 75-yard drive with Carr making a highlight-reel catch in the end zone. Then the defense forced a three and out. Then Jackson scampered for that 58-yard score. Then the defense forced a three and out. Then an 80-yard drive wrapped with Thorson finding Carr on a crossing route, and the receiver bounced off a would-be tackler to reach the end zone for a two-score lead.

Iowa did score once more in the fourth quarter, Beathard leading a nice 75-yard touchdown drive. But once more the Northwestern defense stood tall and picked off Beathard at game's end to secure the upset.

The Cats looked like a totally different team on both sides of the ball, particularly after an ugly, mistake-filled loss to Nebraska last weekend. The offense was incredibly productive for that second-half stretch, 38 points being the most Northwestern has scored in a game since last September's win over Eastern Illinois and the most scored against an FBS team since November 2014 wins over Purdue and Notre Dame.

The defense deserves a heck of a lot of credit, too, limiting Iowa's offense to just 283 total yards and just 79 rushing yards a week after getting shredded by Nebraska for 556 yards. Ifeadi Odenigbo sacking Beathard four times and doing so in clutch moments, all four of his sacks coming on third down. The Cats had six sacks on the game.

Meanwhile, Iowa continued to have offensive struggles two weeks after falling to North Dakota State and one week after mustering just 14 points in a one-touchdown win over Rutgers. And the defense, as it did in those two games, had more trouble shutting down the run as Northwestern racked up 198 rushing yards.

The win sent the Cats to 2-3 on the campaign, and they have a bye next weekend before a trip to Michigan State.

The Hawkeyes fell to 3-2 with the loss and face Minnesota in the Floyd of Rosedale game next weekend.