Carmel Catholic hasn't started celebrating, despite the party hats being worn by friends of birthday-boy Nicky Pullano, who sported one himself following Wednesday night's basketball game at Vernon Hills.
Pullano's pals, stationed in a corner of the bleachers, stood all game and cheered on their team.
Make no mistake, the Corsairs have reason to be happy.
They jumped on the host Cougars early, hitting 7 of 12 shots in the opening quarter in building a double-digit lead, and cruised to a 70-44 nonconference win.
"Carmel's a football school," said junior guard Nickai Poyser, who's also a football player. "But basketball, I don't know. We just haven't been able to emerge as a team. We're doing good now."
Carmel improved to 3-1, while dropping short-handed Vernon Hills to 2-3. The Corsairs advanced to a regional final last season, but this is a program that has had trouble scoring and, more importantly, winning consistently.
"We're definitely trying to change that," senior forward Cullen Barr said.
Barr has been doing his part. His 21 points led all scorers against Vernon Hills, and the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder also pulled down 7 rebounds. He opened the season with consecutive double-doubles.
Carmel's 6-9 junior Jack George added 10 points, 6 boards and 3 blocked shots.
"We had our big men step up," said Poyser, who had 15 points.
"I'm really impressed, surprised and pretty happy with the way our big boys run the floor on our fastbreak and transition," Carmel coach Tim Bowen said. "I'm not (surprised) by the guards because I figured they were going to be good this year.
"The three of them had a great, great summer," Bowen added of guards Poyser, junior Billy Kirby and senior Greg Edkins.
Carmel barely missed a shot in the opening quarter. The Corsairs' baskets included a dunk by George and a 3-pointer by Poyser. The visitors took an 18-8 lead into the second quarter.
"It was a killer," Vernon Hills forward TJ Flis said of his team's start. "We knew what we had to do out there. They just made all the shots at the beginning, and we missed ours."
Carmel continued to move the ball well and hit shots in the second quarter, going 9 of 14 from the floor in extending the lead to 40-21 by halftime.
"We really started out fast," said Barr, who had 14 points in the opening 16 minutes. "We had a letdown (last) Saturday against Prairie Ridge (a 76-71 loss), a game we felt we probably should have won. Coach really worked us hard in practice and got our focus where it had to be. I think we went out there from the get-go, really gave it our all and did very well."
Vernon Hills played without a pair of injured starters in Trenton Fulton and Nate Rathod. The Cougars received 9 points apiece from Flis, Dylan McNamara (two 3-pointers) and sophomore Robby Nardini. Brett Peterson chipped in 8 points.
Poyser's 6 third-quarter points and a 3 by Kirby helped Carmel take a 55-33 advantage into the fourth.
"We knew they were going to be good," Flis said. "They definitely came out with a lot more than we thought. Their point guard (Poyser) was a bull. It was a fun game, but it was also a heartbreaker to come out at halftime and see the score."
Carmel won't get bigheaded. The Corsairs visit Huntley on Friday.
"We just got to keep our focus, treat every game like it's our last, every play like it's our last, keep working hard at practice and keep moving forward," Barr said. "No steps backward. We got to keep progressing."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.