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Article updated: 1/23/2013 9:41 PM

Centre of attention: Showdown draws top teams

By Dick Quagliano

Coaches hate to give up home games. But for Mike Howland and his St. Viator boys basketball squad, the opportunity to play at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates was just too good to pass up.

St. Viator was originally scheduled to host East Suburban Catholic Conference rival Notre Dame this year. But when the offer to play in the 16th Annual National Guard High School Hoops Showdown at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates was made, Howland went to his team.

"It is fun for everyone," said Howland, whose team will meet Notre Dame this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the first game of a tripleheader at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. "I went to my guys and asked them, 'You want to play at home or at Sears Centre?' And they all said that they wanted to play at the Sears Centre. "

The second game will feature a rematch between Naperville Central and Benet Academy. Naperville Central edged Benet 57-54 in overtime in the title game of the Oswego Thanksgiving Tournament.

The final game of the evening has two Hall of Fame coaches colliding for the first time since 1984, when they met in the state third-place game. Gordie Kerkman will bring his 14-3 West Aurora squad up against Gene Pingatore's St. Joseph team that was ranked earlier in the season but has slipped to 9-8.

The St. Viator-Notre Dame matchup has always been contentious between the two league rivals.

"I don't think our schools exactly love each other," Howland said. "But we respect them. And I think they respect us, too. It is going to be a war when we go out there."

When St. Viator played at Notre Dame last season, the Lions clinched their first East Suburban Catholic title since 1997.

"Our teams are very similar," Howland said. "Both are very heavily guard-oriented with Division I players on both teams. Both teams shoot it well -- but they guard it better than we do."

Notre Dame assistant coach Shay Boyle agreed about the similarity between the teams.

"We have a lot of respect for St. Viator," Boyle said. "We have very similar makeups. Their guys know our guys, and it should be a lot of fun."

St. Viator's Ore Arogundade, who lives just minutes from the Sears Centre, is excited to play there, even though he has never been inside the building.

"It will be a great experience for all of us," said Arogundade, who is a junior and has offers from Northen Illinois and Toledo along with interest from Creighton. "It will be great to play close to home. We will get to play on a big stage and show what we got."

Arogundade is just one of the top juniors that will be featured in Saturday's event. Both Benet and Naperville Central feature two of the area's best big men in 6-foot-9 Sean O'Mara of Benet and 6-foot-9 Nick Czarnowski of Naperville Central.

The two are good friends and drove together to Thursday's night press conference together. They also play on the same AAU team, IBA Musclemilk 2014.

"It is going to be fun out there," said O'Mara, who already has 16 Division I offers, including Illinois-Chicago, Illinois, Loyola and DePaul. "We have been friends for a long time. It would have been fun to play together in high school, but this is OK too."

Czarnowski, who has played against O'Mara since third grade and on the same AAU teams since eighth grade, is looking forward to battling his giant friend.

"It is really going to be a lot of fun," said Czarnowksi, who has offers from Santa Clara, Chicago State, Loyola, American University and Wright State. "We both have learned a lot from each other over the years. I have learned a lot from him and I would like to think that he has learned a lot from me."

O'Mara was not in 100 percent basketball shape when the teams met earlier this season. He'd only returned to the gym for a few days following the Redwings' deep run in the state playoffs.

Benet coach Gene Heidkamp says his team has improved since the first matchup.

"I hope we are a little bit better defensively," Heidkamp said. "Central did a great job down the stretch exposing us. They really broke us down well."

Naperville Central coach Pete Kramer will look to build on what the Redhawks were able to accomplish in the last meeting.

"I don't think it is going to be much different," Naperville Central coach Pete Kramer said. "We are very similar, with two big men. We just hope to be there in the end."

Two guys who know about being there in the end are Kerkman and Pingatore.

In his 33 years as head coach Kerkman has won 678 games while losing 251. His teams won a state title in 2000 and have finished second once and third three times.

Pingatore is considered the dean of coaches in Illinois. In his 44th year, he is approaching 900 career wins with a record of 893-313. His team won a state title in 1999 and has also finished second, third and fourth.

Yet despite this, the two programs have only squared off one time during the regular season. Kerkman's Blackhawks came out on top in that one.

"We used to play at least twice in the summertime over at Oak Park," Kerkman said. "Why we never have got together, I don't know. "

"It is just difficult to schedule nonconference games," Pingatore said. "That's why an event like this is good for us."

Both teams feature standout sophomore guards in West Aurora's Jontrell Walker and St. Joes' Glynn Watson.

"This is a great opportunity to show what we can do," said Walker, who plays on the same AAU team with O'Mara and Czarnowski. "It will be a great atmosphere."

Tickets, which are reserved and include all three games are still available. Cost is $12 for adults and $10 for students under 18.

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