Everybody from here to Cairo wrote off Hope Academy's chances of winning the Class 1A championship when 6-foot-3 junior point guard Jalen James, who is committed to the University of Illinois, transferred to LaLumiere, a prep school in LaPorte, Indiana, in the first week of January.
But coach Mike Edwards didn't toss in the towel. Neither did 6-foot-5 seniors Alex Houston and Colin Blaydes or 6-foot-6, 255-pound senior Torrance Johnson or 6-foot-1 senior Tyrone Smith or 5-foot-11 sophomore Carson Hughes or any of the other players that James left behind.
Last year's team was 20-11 and lost to eventual state champion Newark in the sectional final. Despite James' absence, Edwards remains optimistic that this year's squad can be every bit as good if not better.
"What Class 1A school is quick enough to press us even without James? There isn't," Edwards said. "And we have a lot of balance. Seven kids have scored over 18 points at one point this year. And Alex Houston has done a great job of stepping up with his leadership. He has taken on James' role and knows what is at stake. Our kids have a chip on their shoulders."
Houston is averaging 14 points per game. He had 36 points and 13 rebounds in a victory over Carver in January. Blaydes is averaging 10 points and eight rebounds, Johnson 14 points and eight rebounds. Smith and Hughes each average eight points per game. Andre Thomas, a 5-foot-7 senior, has moved into James' backcourt spot.
"Against Class 1A competition, we still have a big lineup," Edwards said. "We still can win the state title if our kids do what they are supposed to do. Nobody is selfish with points. They are an athletic team but they play disciplined ball. We have athletes to play with Chicago public schools and discipline and teamwork to play with suburban and Downstate teams. We have blended them both together."
Another Chicago team that could make an impact in Class 1A is St. Benedict, which lost to Hope Academy 75-70 for the Chicago Prep Conference title in January. The Bengals are seeded No. 2 behind Hope Academy in the Hope sectional. They'll meet in the regional final at Hope on Friday night.
Coach Tom Horn is optimistic. His team had a 10-point lead in the third quarter against Hope Academy. The Bengals are averaging 80 points per game and even Hope Academy didn't slow them down. "We can score with anyone. We're not afraid to match basket for basket," Horn said.
St. Benedict's leading scorers are 6-foot-1 junior guard Lamon Dawkins, who is averaging 21.5 points and three steals per game, and 6-foot-3 senior Henry Mireku , who is averaging 16.5 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. Horn also relies on 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior Earl Briggs to clear the boards and defend under the basket.
Hope Academy ranks No. 3 in the state in Class 1A behind Mounds Meridian and Brimfield. Okawville and Madison, a pair of traditional state powers, rank 4-5 respectively.
Brimfield is 30-0 and led by three players who almost punched a ticket to Peoria in the past two years. Last year's 30-3 team lost to Orion in the sectional semifinal. Two years ago, the 29-3 team lost to Lewistown in the sectional semifinal.
Nick Unes, Dan Dwyer and Ryan Wilbur are three-year starters. The 6-foot-3 Unes averages 17 points per game, the 6-foot Dwyer averages 14 and the 6-foot-5 Wilbur averages 10.
"Potentially, this is the best team I've had," said coach Scott Carlson, who is in his 15th year at Brimfield. "Those three know what it takes and what our next step is. In each of the last two years, we graduated our best player but these three guys have progressed. We have experience, size and length for a Class 1A team."
Brimfield is averaging only 57 points per game but is allowing only 34 as opponents have trouble with Carlson's 1-3-1 zone defense. "Our defense is our edge. You don't see many 1-3-1 zone defenses. We are long and quick. And when teams get in the middle, they have a 6-foot-5 guy (Wilbur) to deal with," the coach said.
But can Brimfield get out of its own regional? Four of the top five Class 1A teams in the Peoria area are going to the Brimfield regional. One of them Elwood, a 26-4 team which has lost twice to Brimfield.
Brimfield almost didn't get out of the semifinal. The top-seeded Indians missed seven free throws in the fourth quarter but managed to oust Peoria Heights 43-42. They'll meet Elmwood in the regional final at Brimfield on Friday night.
Nick Unes converted two free throws with 3.6 seconds left to give Brimfield a 43-39 lead. Brimfield led 22-11 at halftime and 25-11 early in the third quarter.
"We have a new gymnasium and a home-court advantage. It's one of the toughest regionals in the state. If we can get out of our regional, we might have some breathing room," Carlson said. "Our kids are maturing. One thing we have more than ever before is physical strength as a team. I think that will take us a long way.
"We've taken little steps in the past. We can see where we have been. We hope to take bigger strides ahead. We just have to keep working hard at what we have been doing."