The high point of Wheaton St. Francis' season, until now, was a trip to Wharton Field House in Moline in January. The Spartans defeated Rock Island Alleman 57-39 to boost their record to 15-3. Then they stumbled a few times.
Now coach Bob Ward thinks they are back on the right track.
"We walked into that big barn and started to take pictures," said Ward, recalling his team's experience in one of the most fabled playing facilities in the state. "Most kids had heard about it. They looked it up on Google and looked at images on the bus ride. It was a great experience...the raised floor, the banners hanging from the rafters. It was a big-time atmosphere, more like a college stadium."
Now the Spartans would like to experience another big-time venue, Carver Arena in Peoria, home of the Class 3A finals. St. Francis is 20-7 after outlasting Suburban Christian Blue rival Aurora Central Catholic 46-43 last Friday for the regional championship. They will meet Sycamore on Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Class 3A sectional at Freeport.
The Spartans are seeking only their second sectional title in school history. Mike Harper's 1989 team went 27-5 and finished fourth in the Class A tournament, when the event was played at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
Ward, in his second year, didn't have such high expectations when the season began. Last year, his first team was 20-8 and lost in the sectional final to Marshall by four points. But he returned only one starter.
"I had guarded optimism based on the fact that we had decent depth last year," Ward said. "The kids who were coming back were backups. They played well in junior varsity games and in practice.
"This is the ultimate team story. We're not like a team that has the potential to score 70 points per game but we're giving up only 45 per game on defense. We've held several teams to the 30s. It's a workmanlike team.
The seniors like each other and share the ball."
St. Francis cuts its teeth on its pressure man-to-man defense, something that Ward picked up from the late Norm Goodman, the former coach at East Leyden whom Ward describes as "one of the great influences of my life."
"We don't play pressure defense like Norm's teams but we try to do it," Ward said. "As a young coach, I always gravitated to mentors to learn as much as I could. Some were older, some were peers. I got involved with Norm. I worked his camp and we became friends. We were co-owners of the camp for more than 20 years.
"Norm could be 35 years old or 82 and he was current with the game. He always would tell you about what he had picked up or talked to someone of this or that. I tried to soak it all up. We spent a lot of long evenings talking about basketball. That has been our defensive philosophy--to put pressure on the ball."
Ward is a 1973 graduate of St. Charles High School. He played with Mark Vitali, the basketball Player of the Year in the Chicago area in 1973 who went on to play quarterback at Purdue. "He was the best athlete I have ever been around," Ward said.
After graduating from Northern Illinois in 1977, he coached at Lake Zurich, Spring Valley Hall, Round Lake and Wheaton North before retiring in the spring of 2011. But he still wanted to teach and coach. When good friend Sean Healy left St. Francis for a job in Wisconsin, Ward applied and got the job.
"Any time you are around kids, on the floor or in the classroom, as a head coach or as an assistant," said Ward, 58, who taught history for 34 years, "you feel younger. I do. I'm here at school right now. I have become part of what they do. I see kids in the hallway. It never feels like I'm coming in a 3 o'clock for practice."
He admits this is the type of team he loves to coach. He doesn't even know who the leading scorer is. Seven or eight players have scored in double figures. "On offense, we mirror what we do on defense. It is a group that shares the ball and looks for each other," he said.
The five senior starters are 6-foot-3 point guard Tim Zettinger,
6-foot-1 Andrew Kimball, 6-foot-3 Jason Pisarski, 6-foot-1 Matt Bonner and
6-foot-3 Kevin McShea. Top reserves are 5-foot-10 sophomore Jason Sullivan,
6-foot-4 junior Killian Brown and 6-foot-1 junior Zach Prociuk. Kimball had a team high 12 points against Aurora Central Catholic.
Zettinger is the catalyst. He was backup point guard last year but when Kimball was sidelined by illness he came off the bench and demonstrated in big games against Orr, Wheaton Academy, Crane and Marshall that he could develop into the leader of the 2012-13 squad.
"We came into this year with high expectations. We worked hard in the summer. We got off to a great run," Zettinger said. "The key to this team is how we play as a team. The defense is five guys workout together. We have good movement on defense, good rotation.
"On offense, we work together to get team shoats, not individuals.
Everybody makes an extra pass and looks for a shooter. We have a lot of balanced scoring. That is why we are so effective. No one can focus on one guy in any game."
Zettinger said last years’ experience make him more mature. He played against senior Nick Donati in practice. "He was my mentor. He helped me to learn how to play in pressure games. He was a great kid to have in front of you. When Kimball got sick, I got a lot of valuable minutes," he said.
That wasn't all. The seniors scheduled exhausting team workouts. They worked out in the weight room. In the fall after school, they practiced on an outdoor court in Winfield. Everything was geared to making a run at the postseason in 2013. And all the work has paid off.
"We were a work in progress," Zettinger said, "but we felt we would be really good when it came time for the state playoff."