By Joe Henricksen

The unlikeliest unbeaten

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By Joe Henricksen

Simeon, with its 10-0 start, was expected. Even De La Salle and Benet Academy, two more teams with unblemished records, were preseason top five teams. And Thornton, which sits at 12-0 on the year, had a solid nucleus returning. But the least likely unbeaten team as we head into the second half of the season? Neuqua Valley.

It's not as if coach Todd Sutton's program isn't used to success. Neuqua Valley has averaged 26 wins a season over the past six years and won sectional titles in 2008 and 2009. But the veteran coach headed into this season with just one returning starter and having to live without all-stater Dwayne Evans, who is playing as a freshman for Rick Majerus at Saint Louis. Talented mainstays Rahjan Muhammad and 6-5 Kareem Amedu also graduated. Those three helped Neuqua to a combined 58-5 the past two seasons.

This was supposed to be the year Neuqua Valley fell back to the pack in the Upstate Eight, where the Wildcats have gone 28-2 and won three titles over the past three years. But here the Wildcats sit, with a 14-0 record and well on their way to 20-plus wins for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

"The five seniors are providing the leadership necessary to teach the youngsters how to play," says Sutton. "The juniors and sophomores are a year ahead of schedule. We did not expect them to contribute yet."

While Neuqua Valley hasn't yet faced a ranked team and it did win an Elgin Tournament that wasn't exactly loaded, the Wildcats still have done what only six programs in the Chicago area have done: beat every opponent on its schedule. Neuqua Valley did beat a very good Morton team in the season opener, knocked off Elgin on the road in the title game of the holiday tournament and have had a knack for winning tight games.

Since the season began, it's been the senior tandem of 6-4 Jim Stocki and 6-3 Sam Johnson that have set the tone. In the opener, a 74-71 win over Morton, Stocki and Johnson scored 29 and 28 points, respectively. Stocki also had 33 in a win over St. Charles North, while Johnson led the way with 21 in the win over rival Waubonsie Valley.

Sophomore point guard Jabari Sandifer is a rising talent, while role players like 6-2 post Alex Karkazis and perimeter threat Tyler Sutton have been key pieces around the seniors.

On paper, Neuqua Valley may not be as talented as past years. But throw away the paper, because this group is finding ways to win and getting it done in a conventional way. The Wildcats have done so in a variety of ways, including coming back from deficits in wins over St. Charles North and Elgin.

And don't underestimate Neuqua's past and recent success as a foundation for this year's fast start. A winning mentality has been established within the program, with a certain level of expectations players in the program are familiar with.

Now Neuqua Valley heads into a big weekend, with a road game at Lake Park Friday night and then hosting East Aurora and Ryan Boatright Saturday night. Surprising Lake Park had a solid showing in the Wheeling Hardwood Classic and is 10-4, while East Aurora is the favorite in the Upstate Eight Conference's Valley Division and ended Neuqua's season a year ago in the regional championship.

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5 Comments

Great write up! I did not realize what a big winner this program has been and continues to be. Do they have a chance with Benet or Glenbard East? I believe those teams are in their path in March.

Doesn't Neuqua sound like last years Fremd? For their sake I hope not.

To answer your question on Neuqua Valley getting past Benet or Glenbard East; they are going to need to get past East Aurora first. Of course, anyone can be beaten on a given night. Here are my predictions for the top 8 seeds for the East Aurora Sectional as of today

1.Benet
2.Glenbard East
3.East Aurora
4. Neuqua Valley
5. Downers Grove South
6.West Aurora
7. Oswego East
8. Waubonsee Vallet

Hard to argue with Troy's seeds too much. Glenbard East-Benet game in late January will determine top seed. So Benet and GE will be 1-2. Neuqua-East Aurora game this Saturday could determine 3-4. But Downers South schedule is tougher than Neuqua Valley so East Aurora win over Neuqua could change that.

I don't know how Glenbard East looks. Never seen them play. I know East Aurora has Boatright but I've never seen them play either. I have, however seen Benet. They are stacked. Very well coached. Great teamwork. 2 solid stars. East Aurora and GBE will most likely play in the Sectional Semis and knock each other out, unless Neuqua gets the 2 or 3. Those teams would have to put together a hell of a performance and catch Benet on an off night to beat them. I don't know if Benet can beat Simeon or Whitney Young, but they can beat anyone else. I think it is impossible this year for Simeon, DLS, and WY to all get downstate. I think only one can. So Benet may very well come down to beating one of those 3 in the Title.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on January 5, 2011 7:41 AM.

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