Seton Academy is making its third trip to the Final Four in five years, but this time the South Holland school won't be favored to win its second Class 2A championship.
Coach Brandon Thomas' Sting (22-10), which slipped past Providence-St. Mel 46-45 in Wednesday night's supersectional at Joliet Central, will meet top-ranked and unbeaten Winnebago in one Class 2A semifinal on Friday night in Peoria. Second-ranked and once-beaten Harrisburg will meet St. Joseph-Ogden in the other semifinal.
It has been quite an interesting ride for 33-year-old Thomas, who's in his third year as head coach at Seton. Born in Dallas, Texas, he was a 6-foot-6 quarterback who was recruited to play basketball at Grambling State in Louisiana. With a degree in education, he came to Chicago because his wife got a job here.
He started teaching at Hales Franciscan. But after meeting basketball coach Gary London, he was persuaded to serve on his staff for four years. Then he became an assistant under Ken Stevenson at Seton and helped to guide the Sting to the Class 2A championship in 2009.
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Thomas left to join Lew Thorpe's staff at North Lawndale in 2009-10. When Stevenson left Seton, he was one of more than 40 applicants for the job. Aside from his basketball duties, he is director of admissions and enrollment.
It didn't take him long to sell his program to one and all. His first team was 21-8 and lost to Hales Franciscan in the sectional final. Last year, his team was 28-8 and finished fourth. This year's squad has battled through a tough schedule and the Catholic League South to get within two victories of another state title.
Seton doesn't have an All-State player to compare to D.J. Cooper of the 2009 squad. But Thomas relies on seniors Mark Weems Jr., Kamal Shasi and Minnesota-bound Alex Foster.
In Wednesday's victory over Providence-St. Mel, Weems had 18 points and six rebounds while the 6-foot-8 Foster had 11 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in one of his best all-around performances of the season.
"Just getting an opportunity to do my part for these guys, it's special," Foster told the Times of Northwest Indiana. "But the journey isn't over yet. We still have work to do. It's about state now."
Seton survived despite shooting only 35 percent (16 of 45) and committing 22 turnovers. Weems and Shasi, the Sting's leading scorers, shot only 7 of 23 between them. Foster's size was the difference.
"I just knew I had to be aggressive because they didn't have much size," Foster said. "I didn't want to go home. It all started with defense. We knew this team couldn't handle our defense. All I can say is this isn't over yet for us."
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy and it wasn't pretty. But we did what we came to do," Thomas said.
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Weems is the school's all-time leading scorer with nearly 1,300 points. He is averaging 18.3 this season. Shasi averages 13 points per game, is the leading three-point shooter in school history and is close to surpassing former Seton star Tony Nixon, now at Northern Illinois, as the Sting's second all-time leading scorer.
Weems and Shasi are best friends. Three-year varsity starters, the two guards have helped to account for 68 victories, a school record. But they haven't forgotten two losses to Breese Central and Rockford Lutheran in last year's finals.
"We've got so much more to accomplish," Weems told the Times of Northwest Indiana. "All of these accolades can't get in the way of what our team goal is -- and that's a state title. Both Kamal and I know that."
Weems and Shasi know each other so well that they go together like peanut butter and jelly.
"We just know each other's games and we know how to make each other better," Shasi told the Times of Northwest Indiana. "Mark is more of a to-the-basket type of player and he finishes better at the basket whereas I'm more of an outside shooter."
Which is exactly what Weems prefers. "What Kamal does makes us better as a team. And I think what I do also makes us better as a team. Kamal and I use each other to our advantage. He gives me the ball in places I like and I try to do the exact same thing for him," Weems said.
Both have benefited from the presence of Foster, who transferred from De La Salle last June.
Once regarded as one of the most promising young players in the Chicago area along with Jabari Parker and Tommy Hamilton, Foster removed a big weight from his shoulders last November when he opted to sign with Minnesota. And he has given Seton something it was lacking, a big man around the basket.
Going into the game, Thomas said he deliberately didn't show his players film of Providence-St. Mel. Instead, he showed them film of last year's semifinal loss to Breese Central.
"I told them: 'Look at this game, envision yourselves back in this game. Watch yourselves not getting the job done last year and fix it,'" Thomas said.
His players got the message. Now Thomas hopes they will deliver another message on Friday night in Peoria.
"It's all about redemption for us this year," Weems said. "We want to get back and win it all this time."