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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