DRIVE: Young punches ticket to Class 4A semifinals

DRIVE: Young punches ticket to Class 4A semifinals
March 21, 2014, 9:45 am
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Kristen Harper

After years of coming up short in their state championship run, the Whitney Young Dolphins finally accomplished a four-year long goal after a huge 58-32 victory over Loyola Academy Tuesday night at Chicago State University, punching a ticket to the State semifinals. 

“We came out and played a great game tonight against a great Loyola team, definitely top ten in the state,” senior Miles Reynolds said following the win. “We were able to make it difficult for them. I am definitely happy with the team. This is my first time going downstate and the school’s first time going downstate in four years. So the last few seasons we weren’t able to get it done but tonight we came out extremely focused and we made it.”

The night was indescribable, more so the moment for the trio of seniors seeing that they have been waiting on it since they were 13 years old watching from the sidelines as Ferrari teammates -- the AAU team affiliated with head coach Ty Slaughter.

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“The last time they went downstate was when we were in eighth grade and they lost in the championship game,” senior Jahlil Okafor recounted. “We failed three times in a row to get there but now we finally have the opportunity to be there. And we are hoping to finish that mission.

“Very big moment. I couldn’t sleep last night. None of us could sleep. We were all texting about the game. We didn’t look past this game at all. We knew that this game had the potential to end our season.”

And with the season on the line, Georgetown-bound Paul White came to play, leading the team in scoring.

“I didn’t even know that,” White said humbly. “This moment right here, the individual accomplishment is nice, but coming out here and finally going downstate is a huge accomplishment. You know I’m happy. You saw me just wave in the camera. So I am looking forward to it.

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“It means the world to us right now. We’ve spent four long years getting close but never really accomplishing this goal. Now, we are here. “

But just last month, following their Chicago Public League championship loss to Cliff Alexander and the Curie Condors, this moment seemed out of grasp for the Dolphins as they fell in a quadruple overtime loss in this very gym.

“My last down was in this building, losing the City Championship,” he continued. “So it feels good to redeem ourselves and finally get down to the point where we have been waiting. We have a couple ex-teammates over there and they didn’t get a chance to experience what we are doing. So it’s nice to be able to share this moment with them as well.”

Seeing that this game was historic in many ways, former Dolphins’ alumni came out to show support, including former head coach George Stanton who won state championship during the 1997-98 season.

“It was really big for us,” Okafor said of the support providing inspiration to the team. “We are stepping in the footsteps that they have laid already because they were here before us. Anytime that he comes to talk to us it is a great feeling. Just knowing all the players that he has coached and all the things he has done for the program, how he started this whole thing up is great. He talked to us last year before we played the City Championship game and that really motivated us to get another city championship for Whitney Young because we hadn’t won in like 10 or 15 years. It is a really great feeling when he comes back and he tells us something like he loved the way we played and stuff like that. It kind of makes you feel really good about yourself.”

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Two days later the team was again surrounded by a massive support system as the school hosted a pep rally in their honor, prepping them for their two-game road trip to Peoria. And despite a state championship being on the line, coach Slaughter insists the team will not prepare any differently than previous games in the past.

“We don’t prepare any different but to say it’s not different is a little disingenuous,” coach Slaughter clarified. “Playing to wear the crown of your state is definitely different. I think our guys have been tested through the year and over the summer playing in very high-level events. I hope that we are going to be ready. Our expectation is that they will. And as coaches it is our job to make sure that they are.”

But the Dolphins will face a tough Stevenson team Friday night -- a team ranked No. 1 in CSN Preps Rankings. Junior guard Jalen Brunson -- son of former Bulls’ assistant coach Rick Brunson -- has been on a role all season and the idea of him slowing down anytime soon is seemingly unrealistic.

“It is really a challenge because they have some really great players that are really well coached,” he continued. “And they are battle tested also. I think one of the things that we talk about is just doing what we do and if what we do is good enough then we are going to win but if what we do isn’t good enough then we aren’t going to win. So I think from our perspective that is what we are going to do. Do what we do well and do it better than what they do.”

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And with the experience the Dolphins have gained this season, both nationally and locally, the highly anticipated matchup against Stevenson is not one they intend on shying away from.

“They understand the level of competition and they understand what’s at stake,” Slaughter further confirmed. “The bar is set and I believe we are going to meet that expectation.”

Okafor, who is very familiar with Brunson seeing that they played AAU basketball together with the Mac Irvin Fire, was short in his response when questioned about Brunson but acknowledged the caliber of team they would face come Friday night.

“It should be fun. We haven’t talked about it yet but I’m sure coach will give us the game plan. But we know about Jalen Brunson and they are a good team so it should be a lot of fun,” Okafor said.

“Staying focused right now, that’s not the task,” White said. “Now we just have to make sure we are ready to execute everything. We want this bad so whatever we have to do we are willing to do it.”