Saying goodbye to seniors never an easy job
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Win and advance. Lose and go home.
Those are the basics when describing the annual Illinois High School Association's boys basketball tournament.
However, it doesn't tell the entire story.
In fact, it's an oversimplification that barely scratches the surface.
With the exception of West Aurora (Class 4A) and St. Francis (Class 3A), the rest of our Tri-Cities area basketball teams saw their seasons come to an end last week.
While Aurora Christian was eliminated by unbeaten Winnebago in the Class 2A sectional semifinals, the other local clubs suffered season-ending defeats in the Class 4A and 3A regional rounds.
A few things stuck with me from last week's tournament action:
It's never easy for 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds to play their hearts out only to come up short.
The end of the line comes with an emphatic thud — especially for the seniors who took off their high school uniforms for one last time.
After more than 4 months of being together as a team, the players aren't the only ones who have problems watching the final seconds tick off the clock.
Coaches take the losses hard, too.
"It'll be difficult not to see (Kyle) Swanson every day — that kid is something special," said St. Charles North coach Tom Poulin while fighting back tears moments after the North Stars' 75-64 regional championship loss to Larkin last Friday at South Elgin.
"And obviously, Quinten (Payne)," added Poulin. "That kid, he'd run through the wall for you. Tony Neari — I remember seeing him come to the open gyms when (older brother) Nick was here and he was a tiny, little kid. It's going to be tough not to see Ryan Thomas and those guys. It's a great senior group, it really is — (Justin) Stanko, (Matt) Pretet and (Chris) Preocanin.
"If you don't see them every day, people don't appreciate them. They're some good, high-character people from top to bottom. This senior class is people that you wish your sons would be like."
If you think losing to Larkin was difficult, imagine how St. Charles East felt after last week's 69-53 loss to cross-town rival St. Charles North — a team the Saints had beaten 2 of 3 times during the regular season.
"There were really only a few games all year where I thought we didn't have a chance to win it at the end," said Saints coach Patrick Woods. "That's the tough part about it (16-point loss to STC North); especially in a rivalry like this and in front of the great fan support we've had all year.
"We don't like to disappoint and the kids don't like to disappoint," added Woods.
After the loss, Woods said goodbye to 7 seniors — Ethan Griffiths, Jimmy Liss, Ben Skoog, Purdue-bound Kendall Stephens, Tyler Windau, Dan Wilkerson, and Joren Wilson.
"We had a lot of young guys out there so the future is good but we're going to miss our seniors because they're a good group of kids on and off the court," said Woods. "The character of that group was just tremendous."
One of the best aspects of last week's "Battle of St. Charles" was the sportsmanship displayed by both teams.
Right after his team's season ended, Woods pledged his allegiance across town.
"I'm rooting for them keeping it (regional title) in St. Charles as far as Friday night is concerned," the coach said last week.
Meanwhile, Poulin admittedly felt "bad" for his coaching counterpart, Woods.
"I know how difficult it is for Pat (Woods)," Poulin said moments after his team split the 4-game season series.
Likewise, Poulin had words of admiration for Larkin after the North Stars' third loss in many games against the Royals this season.
"When they beat you three times, you've got to take your hat off and say, 'we wish them the best moving forward,'" said Poulin.
"They've got a ton of speed and quickness. We've seen teams that do the same and you try and tell yourself that you can handle what they do but obviously we weren't able to do it in our three games with them."
Payne, who scored 54 points in 2 postseason games, praised St. Charles East underclass guards Dom Adduci and Cole Gentry after last Wednesday's clash.
"Both of those guys are great players and they're going to have great careers," said Payne.
Larkin coach Deryn Carter echoed similar sentiments when talking about the Loyola-bound Payne.
"First off, he's a great player," said Carter, "and he's an unbelievable competitor. He plays so hard that you have to match his intensity. It's hard to match it because of how hard he goes. He's had a great (high school) career and he's going to have a great college career."
Batavia's senior group, headed by Mike Carlson, Luke Horton, Jake Pollack, Mike Rueffer, and Zach Strittmatter, suffered a 91-51 loss to top-seeded Oswego in its season finale last week.
"There will be a time I turn and am really excited about the future (sophomore team went 23-2) but I think what they need to look at is how the seniors did things and try to emulate and follow their footsteps," said Bulldogs first-year coach Jim Nazos.
"Tough game but I think these guys, this team, I think they will be remembered way more than just this game," added Nazos. "It's never about one game. It's about what happens during a season and how you do things. This group did it right every single day."
Geneva, which knocked off West Suburban Conference Silver Division champion Hinsdale Central (55-49) in the regional semifinals before giving fourth-seeded West Aurora a scare in a 45-37 regional championship defeat, parted ways with seniors Anthony Bragg, Connor Chapman, Pat McCaffrey, Luke Polishak, and Mike Trimble.
But not before the Vikings earned 21 victories.
"It was a great season for us," said Chapman.
"Our kids battled," said Vikings coach Phil Ralston. "They put their heart and soul on the line."
While win or go home may be the mantra, it's the season-long journey that should be remembered most.
You can reach Craig Brueske at firstname.lastname@example.org
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