High-scoring Francis leading Wheaton College into Final Four
At this point, Wheaton College men's basketball coach Mike Schauer said, "We're a little numb to it."
That being the astropoints scored by senior guard Aston Francis, who has led the Thunder to its first NCAA Division III Final Four appearance.
Wheaton (23-8) faces Oshkosh (27-3) in the national semifinals at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at 7 p.m. Friday. The winner advances to play either Swarthmore or Christopher Newport for the Division III championship at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Wheaton's highest previous Division III advancement came in a 2007-08 Elite Eight appearance. Wheaton won the College Division Tournament (now Division II) in 1956-57 under the late Lee Pfund. Then known as the Crusaders, they finished fourth in 1957-58.
On Saturday night against Marietta, Francis broke his own program record and set a Division III tournament record with 62 points in Wheaton's 91-87 sectional final victory. The Thunder rallied from a 14-point deficit to reach the Final Four.
Francis had 17 points in the game's first five minutes and finished with 19 baskets -- a school-record 12 from 3-point range -- in 37 field-goal attempts. He went 12 of 13 from the foul line and added 12 rebounds. Wheaton North graduate Luke Anthony scored 12 points.
Francis, Wheaton's second leading all-time scorer behind Mel Peterson, enters the semifinals owning the Division III record for points in a season at 1,052. He leads all NCAA divisions at 33.9 points a game.
His 168 3-pointers this season are the second-most in a single season in Division III history, his 383 career 3s rank seventh. Francis also leads the Thunder in rebounds and is second to guard Luke Peters in assists. On Tuesday the native of Tyler, Texas, was named the winner of the Jostens Trophy as the top student-athlete in Division III men's basketball.
"It's kind of part of who we are," Schauer said of Francis' scoring -- and shooting -- proclivity. Initially Schauer said, jokingly, that Francis' range was "in the area code of the basket" before amending that to a "comfortable" range of 30 feet.
"He's going to take a lot of shots and some of them are going to be very difficult shots," said Schauer, who on Monday was named a D3hoops.com regional coach of the year for the second time in his 10 years as head coach.
"He's just such a unique scorer of the basketball. He's really good, so we're going to let him do some things that we wouldn't let anybody else I've ever coached do," he said.
Opposing coaches have thrown every defensive scheme and gimmick in the book at the 6-foot-1 All-American, to no avail.
"They are usually pretty shocked," Schauer said. "It's unlike anything you've ever seen."
Teammates such as forward Anajuwon Spencer and guards Anthony, Nyameye Adom and Kobe Eichelberger have also produced, making it more difficult for teams to double-team the hotshot. In Wheaton College's 93-79 sectional semifinal win over No. 3 Augustana, Spencer scored 18, Anthony 15 and Adom and Gavin Hawkins 9 apiece.
Back on Nov. 17, its third game of the season, Wheaton College defeated Oshkosh 86-74 in Wheaton's Lee Pfund Classic championship game. After two pedestrian 26-point efforts Francis torched Oshkosh with 45 to win tournament MVP honors and set the stage for a landmark season.
"It's an amazing accomplishment, an amazing feeling," Schauer said of the Final Four berth. "It's hard to imagine it happened, it's kind of surreal. Then you go back to trying to win two basketball games this weekend, as well."
Naperville North sophomores Grace Raquel and Anna Tarantino will miss the school's spring dance on Saturday, but that's OK. It'll be warm and sunny where they're going.
The Huskies duo, who last year were the only freshmen on Naperville North's third-place girls water polo team, will be in Riverside, California, this weekend for USA Water Polo's Olympic Development Program National Championships.
They're on the Midwest Zone's Youth level team for girls born in 2003-04.
"I'm super excited," said Raquel, a goalkeeper who made 9 saves in the Huskies' 11-9 victory over Loyola in that third-place game. Tarantino, who plays utility or "driver," as Raquel said, scored a goal in that one.
"We became really good friends because we were the underclassmen, so I think we had a special bond," Raquel said.
She's excited about the trip because of that and other reasons.
One is they survived the stiffer competition to get to California. This is Raquel's third trip to the ODP championships, and compared with her prior outings in seventh and eighth grade (last year she focused on integrating into the high school team), there was more talent in the pool at qualifying tournaments at Stevenson High School in October and in Greensboro, North Carolina, in January.
"This year they had to make a bunch of cuts," said Raquel, whose eighth-grade sister, Sophie, also a goalie, will be in Riverside as part of the Midwest Zone ODP's Cadets squad.
Her team also includes players from Illinois polo powers such as Mother McAuley, Stevenson and New Trier. The illpolo.com website ranks each among its top six teams with Stevenson No. 1 and Naperville North No. 4. Playing with these girls can only make one better, particularly a goalie, and may provide valuable insight down the road.
"In the back of my head, I'm thinking, hey, this girl's a really good shooter. I should remember that," Grace Raquel said.
Concerning really good shooters, the Midwesterners are heading right into the locus of American water polo strength. Of the 16 zones represented in the Youth ODP Championships, nine of them have the words, California, Pacific or Hawaii attached to them.
"Playing against those girls is really, really tough, and overall it really helps," said Raquel, in the sport since she was 9.
"The girls in California practice a lot harder, their practices are a lot more intense. Going out there in seventh grade I kind of knew what was coming, but their dedication and their skills really make you work a lot harder."
Then, of course, there's the weather.
"I'm going to California when it's cold outside," Raquel said.