Seton Academy basketball coach Branden Thomas and Jordan Foster, his floor leader, were wondering if the Sting was as good as its unbeaten record and how it would handle adversity the first time it was confronted by a very strong opponent in a hostile environment.
They found out last Saturday in Milwaukee.
Trailing by seven points with 1:50 to play, Seton rallied, had a chance to win in regulation time at the buzzer, then bounced back to win 62-59 in overtime over the third-rated team in Wisconsin.
"It said a lot about our kids," Thomas said. "We've been waiting to face adversity and we got it twice last week. Against Crane, we were behind at halftime for the first time and won the game. And then we came from behind to win in Milwaukee. The kids didn't panic. They stayed calm and composed. Last year, we lost five or six games like that. We're more mature this year. I'm watching my team grow up in front of me."
Against Milwaukee Hamilton, Seton had to make some critical stops on defense to trigger its rally in the closing seconds. In the overtime, Kamal Shasi converted two three-point shots from the corner, Christopher Seaton made two free throws and Shasi stole the ball with less than a minute remaining to preserve the victory.
"It showed me the maturity we have that didn't show up last year," Foster said. "We made plays. We did what we had to do to win. And everybody contributed, not just one or two players. We have worked hard and finally got to see it pay off in overtime against a big-time team."
Seton is 10-0 going into Friday's game against St. Francis de Sales in South Holland. Then the Sting will be off until meeting Rich Central in the opening game of the Big Dipper Holiday Tournament at Rich South on Dec. 26.
Thomas, in his second year, returned four starters and 13 of 15 players from last year's 21-8 squad that lost to Hales Franciscan in the sectional final. He believes his 2011-12 squad is deeper than Seton's 2009 state championship team but concedes it doesn't have a superstar comparable to that team's leader, D.J. Cooper.
But maybe that's a good thing. "The fact that we don't have a superstar player makes them believe more in the system rather than rely on one guy when we are in trouble," Thomas said. "In our first seven games, we had a different leading scorer in each game. We have a lot of balance."
How's this for balance? Four players average in double figures, two average between 7-9 and three average between 5-6. The leading scorer is 6-0 junior guard Mark Weems, who contributes 15 points, four rebounds and three assists per game.
Weems is surrounded by 6-foot-4 senior Sylvester (J.R.) Tolliver (12 ppg, 6 rpg), 6-foot-8 senior Russell Robinson (11 ppg, 8 rpg, 3 blocks), 6-foot junior guard Kamal Shasi (12 ppg) and 5-foot-11 senior guard Jordan Foster (9 ppg, 6 assists). Three players who also get a lot of playing time are 6-foot sophomore guard Christopher Seaton (8 ppg), 6-foot-5 junior Tre Patterson (5 ppg, 5 rpg) and 6-foot senior Damon Goodloe (4 ppg, 5 rpg).
"I like our speed and quickness--and I like our confidence," Thomas said. "We're not afraid to shoot. We are averaging 37 percent from the three-point line as a team. And Shasi is shooting 41 percent. Our guys are buying into defense and hard work.
"I am looking forward to seeing how we handle success. It is easier to motivate kids when they don't have attention and people are overlooking you. But no one will overlook us at the Big Dipper. I'm not surprised that we are 10-0. But it's still December. They don't hand out state trophies in December. We are confident now and the kids are locked into what we are doing."
Thomas, 32, took a roundabout route before arriving at the South Holland school. Born in Dallas, Texas, he was 6-foot-6 quarterback in high school who was recruited as a basketball player. He attended Grambling State, earned a degree in education, got married and followed his wife when she got a job in Chicago.
He started teaching at Hales Franciscan in 2004, met coach Gary London, joined London's staff for four years, then became an assistant under coach Ken Stevenson at Seton in 2009. He spent a year with coach Lew Thorpe at North Lawndale, then returned to Seton when Stevenson left and became head basketball coach and dean of admissions and enrollment. He beat out 40 applicants for the job.
"It's a good time to be in the program," he said. "The student body has really rallied around us. The seniors were freshmen when we won the state title so they remember how it was at the time. Now they know they have to keep working hard because we can't sneak up on anyone at this point."
Like his coach, Foster also took a roundabout route to Seton. He played basketball at Oak Park as a freshman and sophomore, then moved to Chicago and transferred to Seton because that's where his mother wanted him to go.
As a junior, he was voted team captain. He averaged eight points, five assists and three steals as the team's floor leader.
"I wasn't there when they won the state title. But I watched them play. I watched D.J. Cooper, a big-time player. I liked his game," Foster said. "What impressed me about the program was the coaches let the kids play through their mistakes. That was cool to me.
"We had a lot of talent last year but we never got enough time to put it all together. This year, we have played together for a year and we have more chemistry. We know each other's games. Everybody has matured into their roles. No one is focusing on being the guy like Cooper.
"I'm not surprised we are succeeding without a superstar. Anybody on the team can make big plays. We don't have to rely on one player. What is my role? I'm the glue guy. My job is to keep the team together. I need to do whatever it takes to win."