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Editor’s Note: All team records are as of Dec. 10.
St. Joseph-Ogden hasn’t hoisted the Leader Classic trophy in four years.
That might change this year.
The host of the 24th annual boys basketball tournament that’s become a pre-Christmas staple in East Central Illinois is the prohibitive favorite in the eight-team field that features two-time defending champion Paxton-Buckley-Loda and tournament newcomer Cissna Park.
“Obviously, St. Joe is the class of this tournament,” veteran Westville head coach Jeff Millis said. “I don’t think there’s any ifs, ands or buts about that.”
The Spartans, who take a 5-0 record into their opening game of the tournament at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday against Armstrong-Potomac, rely on proven veterans like senior guard Chase Patton, junior guard Nate Michael and junior forward Brent Schluter.
“With Chase, he’s really started strong on both ends of the floor,” SJ-O head coach Brian Brooks said. “He had 18 the other night at Unity (on Dec. 4), and someone said, ‘Boy, it didn’t seem like he had 18.’ He’s attacking the hole harder and playing a really good all-around game this year. Brent’s giving us the inside presence that we didn’t have consistently last year. He’s giving us those points in the paint that are sorely needed on any team. Nate struggled a little bit early with his shot the first couple of games, but he was still distributing the basketball.”
SJO will strive for its 13th Leader Classic championship in the tournament’s history, but first since 2008.
Aside from the scoring versatility Patton, who at 6 feet, 2 inches is a three-year starter for the Spartans, Michael (6-0) and Schluter (6-3) bring to the Spartans, Brooks can also count on senior forward Louis Acklin (6-5), senior forward Corbin Hesterberg (6-0) and senior guard Aaron Woller (5-11).
“Louis Acklin has been so active on the boards and doing so many little things for us,” Brooks said. “When he came back after a couple weeks (where he was sidelined with an ankle injury), we were just a different team with him in the lineup. Hesterberg’s played very well, and he’s been guarding the other team’s best player. We feel like Aaron Woller is as good as a sixth man as any team in Class 2A basketball. He’s a huge difference-maker for us off the bench.”
SJO is cast in the White Pool along with Armstrong-Potomac, Chrisman and Stanford Olympia, and opposite of PBL (5-2). The Panthers edged the Spartans last year in the championship game, but SJO is fresh off a convincing 78-45 win at PBL on Nov. 30.
If the Spartans go unbeaten through the White Pool, PBL will have to work its way past Fisher, Cissna Park and Westville in order to set up a possible rematch between the two Sangamon Valley Conference foes.
“If we have an opportunity to meet them again, we look forward to the challenge,” PBL head coach Scot Vogel said. “Obviously they’re probably the team to beat in the area, and anytime you compete against a top-notch caliber team like that, it lets you know exactly where you’re at.”
The Panthers will have had an eight-day layoff before opening the tournament on Thursday against Fisher. PBL relies on a junior-heavy cast this season, with guards Drew Schrodt (5-10), Weston Weber (5-8) and Jay Eshleman (5-7) playing significant minutes. Junior forwards Tyler Rubarts (5-11) and Axl Denault (5-11) are also options Vogel can go with.
Cissna Park (3-2) joins the field after playing in the Watseka Holiday Tournament and replaces LeRoy. The Timberwolves — who have the smallest enrollment in the field with 96 students — count on three seniors in forward Cole Hasselbring (6-4), guard Alex Rabe (5-10) and guard Beau Anderson (6-2). All three played a big role in advancing Cissna Park to a 1A regional championship last winter.
“With that kind of experience, we have high expectations this season,” Cissna Park head coach Kevin Long said. “Through five games, we feel like we have a lot of improvement to make. We will use the Leader Classic as a measuring stick.”
Cissna Park’s postseason run ended at the hands of Fisher, which went on to play in a 1A super-sectional at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena. But the Bunnies (0-9) are a much different team than a year ago.
Senior forward Hans Carmien (6-2) is the only starter back off last year’s Elite Eight squad. Fisher head coach Ron Ragle also relies on senior forward Tate Estes (6-1), junior guard Kyle Williams (5-9) and sophomore guard Grant Pointer (5-9).
“Going over there in years past, we felt like we’d be competitive and have a shot at a couple wins,” Ragle said. “This year it’s going to be a great challenge, especially with the opponents we have, to get a couple wins in pool play.”
Westville (3-1) has a veteran group back led by senior forwards Layn White (6-4) and Robert Elliott (6-4), along with steady guard play in juniors Kyle Brazas (6-2), Tanner Cox (5-10) and Jeffrey Thompson (6-0).
“We’re a pretty balanced team,” Millis said. “It’s not like we’re depending on any one person to do everything. They all pitch in. You can count on all of them to get some things done defensively and offensively.”
Two more Vermilion Valley Conference schools, Armstrong-Potomac and Chrisman, comprise the field.
Chrisman (5-5) is markedly improved from last year’s squad that finished 3-26, but played for a 1A regional championship. The Cardinals and head coach Greg Gisinger depend on senior guard Chris Hoult (5-11), junior guard Ty Bolen (5-11) and junior forward Chase Anderson (6-1).
The Cardinals are one of several teams that have conference games during the week of the Leader Classic, and in Chrisman’s case, the Cardinals will face Westville on Wednesday, Dec. 19, and could possibly meet them again on the last night of the tournament, Friday. Dec. 21.
“Whether it’s in a tournament at St. Joe or in a conference game at Westville, we just want to go out there and compete,” Gisinger said. “I love the setup at the Leader year in and year out. You get it done before Christmas, so you can get away from basketball and spend some time with your family.”
Armstrong-Potomac (0-7) has a first-year head coach in Mike Twidwell, who has coached boys basketball and girls basketball at Salt Fork in the past decade.
Senior guard Wade Rogers (5-10), junior center Shawn Johnson (6-3) and sophomore guard Dentler Loschen (5-11) are part of the pieces he’s working with in an effort to turn the Trojans around.
“I’ve made some major adjustments in my whole philosophy with this group,” Twidwell said. “I’m going to try to back off my transition philosophy. Sometime from a coaching standpoint, you have to re-evaluate, look at the personnel you do have and make adjustments to fit those players. That’s what I’ve really been focusing on.”
Stanford Olympia rounds out the field. The Spartans, out of the Corn Belt Conference, are the biggest school at the tournament with 569 students, but were 0-6 at the start of this week under first-year head coach Jason Sweeney. Junior guard Drew Stribling (6-1), senior center Reese Stroud (6-6) and junior guard Ethan Schmidgall (6-0) help carry Olympia.
Who carries the tournament trophy home with them will be decided in the next eight days. All eyes, however, will be locked in to see if SJO can keep its perfect start intact and go into Christmas without a loss.
“We know what the expectation level is,” Brooks said. “We talk about it in the locker room, and we told our guys that’s where you want to be. You want that expectation level to be high.”
On Dec. 7, St. Joseph-Ogden beat Iroquois West, 68-33. Leading by nine points at halftime, the Spartans outscored the Raiders 19-2 in the third period to take command in a home win. Acklin, who shot 9 of 12 from the field, scored 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds for SJO.
Hesterberg added 14 points and four steals. Keaton Zirkle paced IW with 12 points.