Playing on Proviso East's star-powered 1991 state championship team, graduating from Colorado as the school's all-time leading scorer and playing for in the NBA were pressure-packed experiences for Donnie Boyce. But nothing compared to what he has felt as the head coach at his alma mater.
As a rookie last year, he took the Maywood school to a 32-1 record and the Class 4A championship game, losing to Simeon 50-48. This year, the Pirates are 29-3 with a 19-game winning streak going into Friday night's semifinal against three-time defending state champion Simeon.
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Boyce likes his team's chances to end Simeon's streak and he feels he is better equipped to handle the challenge of coaching in the state finals than he was a year ago. After guiding the Pirates to a 62-52 victory over West Aurora in the supersectional at Hinsdale Central on Tuesday night, he has that opportunity.
"My preparation is a lot better," Boyce said. "I never realized what preparation had to be put in last year as a first-year coach. You are always nervous the first time. I am a lot more relaxed and confident at this time this year than I was last year. I was more anxious last year. This year, I am a lot more relaxed during games. I don't show frustration as much. I have kept my composure more than last year."
Most important, Boyce thinks his team is playing as well as it can.
"I like the rhythm we have been in. At this time, you want to be playing your best ball. We have been in a nice rhythm for the last month. I think the guys with experience of last year understand the kind of effort that is expected and needed at this time of year," he said.
Proviso East has been on a roll since it lost to nationally ranked Lone Peak of Utah 84-46 in December.
"That got everybody's attention," Boyce said. "It got everybody re-energized and re-focused. They began to think about what kind of a legacy they want to leave behind. The only thing we carried over from last year was a target that got bigger on our back. From the first game, we knew we would get everybody's best effort."
For whatever reason, perhaps because of its 3-2 start and its 38-point loss to Lone Peak, Boyce thinks his current squad has been disrespected because many fans and media critics and recruiting analysts have declared that it isn't as good as last year's state runner-up.
But Boyce insists his 2012-13 squad is more versatile than last year, can match up better inside against opponents, can play any style and executes better than last year's club.
"I feel just as confident as I did last year. I like the way our guys have been playing," the coach said. "Last year, we had six or seven guys who could take defenders off the dribble. We didn't have to rely on teamwork. But the execution is better this year. We have to share the ball to be successful."
Boyce relies on a core of four players, like a year ago, who provide leadership and energy. SMU-bound Sterling Brown (17 ppg) and Illinois State-bound Paris Lee (14 ppg) have stepped into new roles. Complementary players a year ago, they had to adjust to leadership roles this season.
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The other starters are 6-foot-1 point guard Jevon Carter (18 ppg), who has emerged as the team's leading scorer, 6-foot-2 sophomore Kalin Fisher (10 ppg) and 6-foot-5 senior Paris McCullum (10 ppg, 6 rpg), a transfer from St. Patrick. Brandon Jenkins (15 ppg) and junior Malik Carter, Jevon's cousin, provide spark off the bench. Fisher is Jevon's brother.
"McCullum wasn't eligible until the Proviso West Holiday Tournament. So it took a while to get everybody playing together," Boyce said. "We knew expectations were high. But our gameplan hasn't changed. We try to wear people down with our defensive pressure and keep our composure when they make their run at us."
Against West Aurora, Proviso East broke open a close game with a 22-7 surge in the third quarter. Lee paced the Pirates with 18 points and four steals while Sterling Brown had 15 points and six rebounds.
West Aurora, led by 6-foot-7 senior Josh McAuley (22 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks), had a 36-15 rebounding advantage but committed 21 turnovers to Proviso East's seven.
"Ever since we came home from the state tournament last year, I felt we had a chance to go back to Peoria and compete this season," Boyce said. "Lee and Brown had to be our leaders. I expected them to have great seasons. And they have. They have done a great job of keeping the team focused."