By Joe Henricksen
Although the season is young and the conference races are still very fresh, it's December and the interest level and intensity picks up. Here is a quick look at some rather key early-season conference matchups Friday night that, when it's all said and done, could leave a lasting impression on their respective conference races.
• Niles Notre Dame at Benet Academy
This is the one that has people excited. An early-season showdown between two unbeaten ranked teams. Benet is growing used to being the hunted, while Niles Notre Dame still relishes the role of sneaking up on people. Plenty of senior go-to players in this key East Suburban Catholic Conference game, with Benet's David Sobolewksi and 6-10 Frank Kaminsky getting the edge over the suddenly potent 1-2 punch of Quinton Chievous and Rodney Pryor.
Importance Factor: Real Big. While there is another matchup between the two, the Benet-Notre Dame winner Friday night will have a leg up, especially if the Dons can steal one on the road.
• Rich South at Crete-Monee
The Southland Conference is expected to come down to both Rich South and Bloom trying to knock off the team with the sky high expectations -- Crete-Monee. Here is Rich South's first chance. Macari Brooks, fresh off a 26-point performance last week, will need to carry a big load if the Stars want to pull off the upset.
Importance Factor: Mild. There is certainly a long way to go, but the importance may be in finding out just where these two teams are. Crete-Monee has walked through its opponents. In its last four wins, Crete-Monee's average victory margin is 28 points. Coach Matt Ryndak's team needs a test.
• Evanston at Waukegan
Both of these teams are in a wait-and-see approach. Waukegan is getting adjusted to life without Jereme Richmond, while Evanston is adjusting to first-year coach Mike Ellis. But if either one of these teams want to make a serious run at the CSL South, this could be a pivotal game, especially for Evanston. The Wildkits were upset by Maine South earlier this week, raising the stakes a bit Friday night.
Importance Factor: Big. Again, especially for Evanston. While the Wildkits are firmly entrenched in getting adjusted to the Mike Ellis style and expectations, they don't want to tack on another CSL South loss. For Waukegan, it's an opportunity to grab some confidence and belief with Evanston coming into its gym. The Bulldogs then head to New Trier next week and a trip to the always-tough Pontiac Holiday Tournament later in the month.
• Hales Franciscan at St. Rita
The Catholic League Central is the Chicago Catholic League's most rugged division of the four, with De La Salle the favorite. Hales expects to challenge, but coach Gary London's club will have its hands full with St. Rita Friday night. Despite the fact coach Gary DeCesare's team is missing its best player -- talented 6-7 junior A.J. Avery has been out with an injury -- the Mustangs are 3-2 with a hard-fought loss to powerful De La Salle (67-60) and tough one-point loss to Tinley Park (63-62).
Importance Factor: Mild. These two meet again in February. Who knows where each will be in the standings at that point. St. Rita would hate to put itself in an 0-2 Catholic League hole, but the fact is this St. Rita team is about getting better and building toward March. With the young talent in place, along with the injury to Avery, that's the correct direction to take. Hales, meanwhile, just wants to be in a position to make next Friday's showdown with De La Salle the game in the Catholic League Central.
• Neuqua Valley at Waubonsie Valley
The Upstate Eight Valley is wide open, with Ryan Boatright and East Aurora the team to beat. But school district rivals Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley meet in a battle between two somewhat surprising teams -- for different reasons -- with a combined 11-1 record. Neuqua was hit extremely hard by graduation, including the loss of Saint Louis recruit and three-year star Dwayne Evans. The expectations were certainly tempered. Coach Todd Sutton's club, however, hasn't missed a beat in the win column (6-0) by capturing the York Thanksgiving Tournament and recent wins over Bartlett and Metea Valley. Waubonsie Valley, meanwhile, is improved from last year's 9-18 season. Sophomore guard Jared Brownridge has grown on the Hoops Report as a bright young prospect. The Warriors have won five straight since a last-second loss to Oswego in the season opener.
Importance Factor: Tempered. Both teams have to be pleased with where they stand, record wise, heading into this rivalry game. This one could be a springboard for Waubonsie Valley, though, as the Warriors have two more winnable games before hosting its own holiday tournament.
• Oswego at Oswego East
Rivalries are just fun. And this budding rivalry between district and conference schools is already on Round II this season. Oswego beat Oswego East to win the Oswego/Naperville North Thanksgiving Tournament. A youthful Oswego, with four sophomore starters, has jumped out of the gate a little more quickly than anticipated with a 5-0 record.
Importance Factor: High. Any crosstown game is big as Oswego East tries to even up the all-time series with its rival. Plus, Oswego East doesn't want to fall two games behind the conference leader this early.
• Morton at Downers Grove South
The West Suburban Gold is projected to have Proviso East and Downers Grove South battling it out for the top spot. However, Morton's convincing and impressive win over Waukegan on Sunday once again shows the Mustangs are that dangerous, gritty team no one wants to face. Morton would love to make a statement with a road win over the Mustangs, who continue to get solid play from big man Ziggy Riauka.
Importance Factor: Low. There is a lot of basketball to be played in the West Suburban Silver, with plenty of opportunities to stay in the conference mix. Still, a Morton upset would stir things up early.
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