By Joe Henricksen
A year ago Hales Franciscan reached Peoria in dominating fashion. Leading up to their Class 2A state semifinal berth, the Spartans won five games in state tournament play by an average victory margin of 22 points a game. There wasn't a team that came within single digits of coach Gary London's club, which included a 15-point win over Leo in the regional championship and a 10-point win over Paxton-Buckley Loda in the sectional final. Robinson and big man Meyers Leonard ended the run in the semis.
Here is a bit of bad news for Class 2A teams: Hales may be better this year. And that makes the Spartans a heavy favorite to capture a state title after finishing third a year ago.
That's even after losing all-state guard Pat Miller, who is now playing at Tennessee State, and his sidekick in the backcourt, Jamie Adams. Those two combined to average 39 points a game between them and led the Spartans in scoring in every game last year but two. However, the strengths and overall talents of Hales Franciscan this year are different--but greater and more impressive--than a year ago.
Hales will have undoubtedly played the toughest Class 2A schedule in the state when state tournament play begins in late February. The Spartans have been tested and won a batch of impressive games, the latest being a road win at Whitney Young last weekend. And London's personnel will certainly cause major fits for any 2A team in Illinois with its combination of length and athleticism. The foursome of 6-4 Aaron Armstead, 6-5 Aaric Armstead, 6-4 Eddie Alcantera and 6-5 Dominique Walls are the catalysts and bring similar strengths. They are all so athletic, long and active.
Aaron Armstead, a Wisconsin-Green Bay recruit, has grown up as a senior and evolved as a pretty complete player. The past two seasons the skilled Armstead showed promise and potential, but he has grown into a productive and consistent weapon--both with his shot and off the bounce. Both Aaron and his younger brother, Aaric, who is one of the top half dozen prospects in the junior class, are Class 2A all-state material. They are both comfortable with the game on the line and the ball in their hands.
But what has elevated this team has been the arrival of Alcantera. A transfer from New York, Alcantera is a physical specimen for a junior in high school. He has been a source of additional offense and brought a level of toughness and fiery play that the likes of Miller and Adams provided a year ago. He's both physically and mentally tough.
So who are the Class 2A challengers to Hales Franciscan? While we're still a few weeks away from the start of regional play, the road to Peoria may look very familiar to Hales. Look for a Hales-Leo regional rematch to take place, while state-ranked and unbeaten Paxton-Buckley Loda will once again be a sectional roadblock.
A state title this March would help take a little bit of the sting away from the program having to forfeit its dominating 2005 state championship run.
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