Riverside-Brookfield seeks first sectional title

Riverside-Brookfield seeks first sectional title
February 17, 2013, 3:30 pm
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If you are a basketball player at Riverside-Brookfield, it is easy to suffer from an inferiority complex. You can win the conference championship every year, as the Bulldogs have done for the last 12 years in a row, and you can win 20 games, as they have done for the last five years.

But you can't win a sectional title.

Here is a school that has been playing basketball since the first state tournament in 1907-08 and it never has won a sectional. If the odds weren't bad enough, R-B was moved to Class 4A this season and placed in the same sectional complex as perennial state power Proviso East. Ouch.

"We always want to win the conference, try to win a holiday tournament, then set our expectations to win a regional and go from there," said coach Tom McCloskey. "We try out best (to win a sectional) every year and hopefully one of these years we'll get there."

Will this be the year? R-B is seeded No. 5 in its sectional behind Proviso East, Oak Park, York and Glenbard East. The Bulldogs open against Conant, which handed them one of their five losses in overtime at the York Holiday Tournament.

But first things first, right? R-B is 19-6 going into Tuesday night's game against St. Charles East. The Bulldogs are seeking their fifth 20-victory season in a row. They will close out the regular season on Friday against Elmwood Park.

In last Friday's 71-65 overtime loss to Ridgewood, which snapped R-B's six-game winning streak, Miki Ljuboja had 23 points and 14 rebounds and Damonta Henry scored 14 as R-B suffered its first conference setback.

McCloskey is in his second tour of duty at R-B. He coached for five years, went to Montini for seven, then returned to R-B. In the last 11 years, he was 212-84, a .716 winning percentage. In the last five seasons, he is 112-25. And counting.

How good is this team? "We have a good point guard, a good big guy and a bunch of guys who have had excellent years and have made great contributions," McCloskey said.

"The key to our success has to start with our man-to-man defense. We have to play great help-side defense and rebound so we can have a good transition game. When we are running, we have a lot of success."

The Bulldogs feature a good balance of scoring inside and outside, a good finisher in 6-foot senior point guard Damonta Henry and a good post player in 6-foot-7 senior Miki Ljuboja. "We have to figure out what the defense is doing and take advantage of it," McCloskey said.

Ljuboia, only 16, has made remarkable strides. He averaged 16 points per game as a junior on a 23-5 team that lost to Crane in the regional final.

This year, he is averaging 18.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and has Division II offers from Grand Valley State and Hillside. He also is talking to a prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, which could provide another option.

"I'll make a decision after the season," he said. "I missed the entire recruiting period last summer. I hurt my back. A lot of schools didn't have a chance to see me. I would have been playing in AAU. I had played in the spring and a lot of schools wanted to see me."

He wasn't much of a contributor as a sophomore. Then he had a growth spurt from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-7 before his junior year. He became dedicated to the game. He spent more time in the weight room, put up more shots in practice and developed more of a work ethic. It all paid off.

"He made remarkable improvement between his sophomore and junior year," McCloskey said. "He caught a lot of attention from basketball people. He came out of nowhere. He had a great junior year."

Ljuboja started playing basketball in fourth grade. By his own admission, he wasn't very good. He was very uncoordinated and had trouble growing into his body. As a freshman, however, he began to realize he had enough ability to play the game. So he began to work at it.

"As a sophomore, I was the second leading scorer but I knew I'd be on the bench as a junior if I didn't work hard," he said. "I was determined to be a starter."

Last season, he weighed 240 pounds and was out of shape. He didn't attempt a single three-point shot. This season, he is 25 pounds lighter.
He runs the floor better, is more active on defense, rebounds more efficiently.

And he is an effective three-point shooter.

Ljuboja and Henry (16.4 ppg, 4 apg) are the two best players in the Metro Suburban Conference, according to McCloskey. Henry will attend Division II University of Mary in South Dakota.

The other starters are 6-foot senior Eric Loury (10 ppg), 6-foot-2 senior Liam Lesniak (7 ppg), who will attend Ripon, and 6-foot-6 junior Jack VandeMerkt (8 ppg, 4 rpg), grandson of former R-B football coach Bill VandeMerkt.

VandeMerkt once was a promising quarterback in football. But recently he has expressed interest in playing basketball in college. "He has fallen in love with basketball. He has done a lot more things in basketball than he did as a sophomore," McCloskey said.

The first player off the bench is 6-foot-2 junior guard Will Kincanon.

"We are good enough to win the sectional," Ljuboja said. "We can play with any team if we play our game. We can do big things in the postseason.

"This is a better shooting team than last year. We have more fun. We like to get after it. Talent-wise, we are better this year. We're happy where we're at but we can play 20 times better. We have what it takes to get over the hump and win a sectional for the first time."