By Joe Henricksen
The opening day of the Class 3A and Class 4A state finals proved to be a proving ground of different sorts for the eight programs playing in the four state semifinal games.
Whitney Young is the one headline grabbing, talent-laden team in the state that, believe it or not, had the most skeptics. Despite the abundance of talent, the believers were few. There weren't many who thought they would get out of the tough Morton Sectional. This program has had its share of setbacks in trying to reach the next level, including being upset last year in the sectional by Mt. Carmel, falling at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament this past December and not winning the Chicago Public League championship.
However, Young's master plan was to be a state champion despite everyone believing there were too many pieces to the puzzle. After piling up more losses than the other contenders while playing the toughest schedule in the state, which included games in all parts of the country, coach Tyrone Slaughter and the Dolphins are one game away from winning the coveted state championship they've been after since the 1998 title.
Oswego is a different story, yet another one that includes proving their worth. No one picked Oswego to beat Leo, mostly because those around the state knew nothing about Oswego. The Panthers, however, were the talk of the first day in Peoria after their dramatic buzzer-beating win over Leo.
Champaign Centennial probably didn't get the respect it deserved all season due to playing outside of the Chicago area. The 1-2 punch of James Kinney and Rayvonte Rice, however, is awfully tough. No, Centennial didn't play the schedule other Chicago area powers played, but they managed to beat the big, bad giant known as North Lawndale.
Other first day thoughts and observations
.... Thank goodness for the Oswego and Dundee-Crown fan bases. If not for the representation of those two schools here in Peoria the crowds would have been downright scary in comparison to other years. The 3A afternoon session crowd was dreadful aside from the Oswego contingent.
.... Nothing new here but Colin Nickerson of Waukegan is good. Really good. I don't think there is any question Fairfield received the recruiting steal of the fall signing period by nabbing the 6-3 guard. As he adds some strength and tightens up his overall handle, Nickerson can be a dominant offensive force for Fairfield in the near future. He most certainly is capable of playing at a higher level.
.... And not far behind Nickerson as a big-time steal is Centennial's James Kinney. The kid can score and showed why the future backcourt of Kinney and Seton Academy's D.J. Cooper will be one of the best in the Mid-American Conference when those two team up together at Ohio for the next four years.
.... And speaking of Centennial. There are not 15 players in the junior class better than Rayvonte Rice. He doesn't possess the greatest body type, he doesn't do anything at an off-the-charts level, but he's so productive. He is so strong and uses his strength and body so well. Plus, his skill level is better than people give him credit for.
.... Lost in the shuffle of Oswego's upset win over Leo was the coaching moves Oswego coach Kevin Schnable made defensively. With a mismatch with Leo point guard James Pointer and lacking the overall quickness and athleticism of Leo, Schnable did a masterful job of mixing up defenses. He showed man-to-man, zone, halfcourt traps, box-and-one. You name it, Oswego threw it at them. Leo was befuddled and its offense never was able to get comfortable.