By Joe Henricksen
There are just a few days remaining in the 2008-2009 regular season. With nearly every conference championship already wrapped up and the first regional game for 3A and 4A schools still a week away, the City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look at this year's biggest surprises -- and the forecast for those surprises this March.
Yes, there were expectations for the the Scouts this season. Coach Phil LaScala's club welcomed back a Player of the Year candidate in Michigan-bound guard Matt Vogrich and were just outside the Hoops Report preseason Top 25, checking in at No. 26 back in November. Regardless of those expectations, Lake Forest has surpassed them. Vogrich & Company have climbed past the 20-win marker, won the North Suburban Lake when everyone picked Zion-Benton, have beaten both De La Salle and Zion-Benton, and earned the No. 1 seed in the loaded Waukegan Sectional. While Vogrich is a legitimate star, Lake Forest has overachieved. The Scouts lack athleticism and have very little size. However, 6-3 junior Mitch Hopfinger has been huge and consistent all year long. Both Hopfinger and 6-0 Jonathan Sobinsky play much bigger than their size.
March fortunes: This is no time to start questioning the fortunes of Lake Forest after the season it has put together, but a rough-and-tumble sectional awaits. Though Vogrich is capable of putting this team on his back, winning the Waukegan Sectional may be too much to ask of this team.
First, forget about the missed opportunity Sunday night against North Lawndale in the city championship game. There were some big expectations heading into this season for a Hyde Park team that was ranked by everyone. But just like Lake Forest, this team has also matched and even exceeded those expectations. Did anyone really believe Hyde Park would be playing for the Public League championship while teams like Whitney Young, Marshall, Simeon and Curie were home watching?
March fortunes: If Hyde Park thought it opened some eyes with its run in the Public League Tournament, the opportunity is there to add to a chapter to the scrapbook this March. The Thunderbirds are the No. 1 seed in a very winnable Hinsdale Sectional. A sectional title would put coach Donnie Kirksey's team just one win away from Peoria, where it would face the Morton Sectional winner (De La Salle or Whitney Young?) in the supersectional. The question now is can this Hyde Park team, which has shown it can play and compete with anyone in the state, get over the hump and beat an elite team this March?
CENTRAL SUBURBAN LEAGUE SOUTH
Waukegan was expected to win the CSL South and it did. However, who would have thought New Trier and Evanston would both finish 5-5 in league play and combine for a 22-26 record at this point? Evanston, which the Hoops Report had No. 21 in the preseason, was ranked No. 14 by both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune back in November. The positive is both these teams have a solid nucleus to build around for next year and surely won't stay down for long. Maine South, meanwhile, quietly has put together a solid season, finishing second in the CSL South and above .500 in league play for the first time in nine years.
March fortunes: Waukegan, which will host the sectional, has a great chance of playing in Peoria. And who knows what kind of momentum the Evanston-New Trier winner will have after those two rivals meet for the fourth time this season in a regional semifinal game. Realistically, though, the winner will have a tough time beating a red-hot Glenbrook North team in the regional final. Maine South, meanwhile, could surprise as a No. 6 seed in the Niles North Sectional. The Hawks would have to go to Niles Notre Dame and beat the Dons on their home floor.
All the Vikings have done is go 19-5 and, since losing to Whitney Young at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament in December, haven't lost. H-F, winners of 12 straight games, has beaten Rich East, St. Joseph and Glenbrook North -- all teams ranked in the Top 25. They also own wins over Bolingbrook and Fenwick, while losing to the No. 1 team in the state, Thornton, by just two points. Yet no one talks about them. They climbed into the Hoops Report's Top 25 several weeks ago and haven't left. And all this from a team that lost virtually everyone from last year's juggernaut, including Mr. Basketball Kevin Dillard and standouts Supo Sanni and Russell Ellington. Plain and simple, coach Jim McLaughlin has done a terrific job with this team. Big man Mike Buchanan has been a rock, Jeremy Saffold has been clutch and junior Ladon Singleton has provided some offensive production.
March fortunes: It won't be easy for the Vikings in March. H-F squeaked by both Lockport and Sandburg in conference play and would play one of them in the regional final. If H-F can take care of business, which would include beating ranked T.F. North in the sectional semis, it would get a rematch with Thornton in the sectional final. While the season has been one of surprise and success, winning a sectional title would be an even bigger one.
The Rockets, with a senior nucleus of point guard Jamere Dismukes, 6-5 Shea Sumpter, 6-5 Stephen O'Neal and guard Freddie Lay, came into the season as a sleeper to watch but has emerged as a bonafide Top 25 team and a March threat. An impressive run over the holidays to their first-ever Big Dipper Tournament title game appearance -- Rich East fell to Thornton in the title game -- put the Rockets in everyone's rankings where they have remained. Junior Kashaune McKinney has provided a boost for a team that won the SICA South, Rich East's first-ever conference title.
March fortunes: First, this is a program that hasn't won a regional title in over 40 years. But there is no reason why this team shouldn't be dreaming big. While the road isn't easy, Rich East should win a regional title and be a threat to reach Peoria. The No. 2 seed in the Richards Sectional, the Rockets lost a heartbreaker to top-seed Richards back in January but could get a rematch.
When the season began there were many who believed R-B would be sitting where they are right now as conference champs with a glitzy 21-2 record. The Bulldogs, however, are better than people think, especially now that sharpshooter Dan Oswald has returned from an injury that kept him out from Dec. 26 until this past weekend. Junior point guard Sean McGonagill is vastly underrated and overlooked in the Chicago area, sophomore Ryan Jackson has put together a terrific season, junior guard Billy VandeMerkt has been steady and solid, and now Oswald is back in the mix. R-B connected on a ridiculous 19 three-pointers last Friday night in a win over Fenton.
March fortunes. At first glance they are bleak, considering the R-B Sectional has arguably the three best Class 3A teams in the state in St. Joseph, North Lawndale and Marshall. However, with the solid guard play R-B features, it can hope to play the role of spoiler while playing on its home floor. But first R-B must take care of a solid Glenbard South team in the regional.