Baranek: Rich Central a Southland surprise

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With holiday tournaments in the rearview mirror and conference races about to heat up, some things that come to mind at the halfway mark of the season …

Among the surprises, hands down the biggest has to be Rich Central, which under Craig Marek has risen from the ashes of a five-win season in 2012-13 to a 12-5 mark overall and 4-1 in the Southland Athletic Conference.

Marek inherited quite a mess in the wake of the Bryan Craig sex-advice book fiasco, and spent much of last season sorting things out. The Olympians shocked everybody by beating Marist at its Thanksgiving tournament. Today, the program looks very healthy, with sophomore Tyana Wilson stepping up as the leader of a team that’s learning to win and having fun.

It wasn’t so much a shock that Oak Lawn has turned out to be one of the area’s better squads. But a 13-0 record most certainly wasn’t on my radar. After watching LaTondra Brooks, Brooke Annerino and Brianna Markusic in action, though, I became a believer. Sure their schedule wasn’t tough and that second quarter against Hillcrest on Thursday was pretty ugly, but for 24 of the 32 minutes Oak Lawn was pretty much the measure of Hillcrest, which is a pretty good measuring stick for quality.

Speaking of Hillcrest, the Hawks probably have come the furthest from the start of the season to now. They looked anything but a perennial state contender in losses to Homewood-Flossmoor, Crete-Monee and Joliet Catholic, but Shayla Joyner and Aliah Acker have helped restore a confidence that showed brilliantly in a great game at Christmas against Bolingbrook and Thursday’s victory over Oak Lawn.

I wonder if new Marian Catholic coach Dan Murray was ready for all of the bus rides he inherited thanks to a first-half schedule that included just one home game and one that took less than a quarter of a tank of gas (Lincoln-Way East). If you were a Marian fan and wanted to see the Spartans you had to drive to Murfreesboro, Tenn., Indianapolis, St. Louis, Oswego, Montini, Young or Nazareth.

The good news is that Ashton Miller, Teniya Page and the Spartans will play five of their next six games at Casey Court, and Murray already has adjusted next year’s schedule to include the Rich South Galaxy tournament.

We’re also looking forward to seeing more of Homewood-Flossmoor in the second half. New coach Anthony Smith not only took his Vikings on the road, he even took them in the air, with trips to Murfreesboro, Phoenix and Cincinnati. I guess that left plenty of time for his six transfers to bond with the nine or so others that already were part of the program.

And then there’s Marist. You just expect the RedHawks to reload, but this year it’s been a struggle (8-8). They seemingly have all of the parts (height, speed, etc.), but they’re very young (six sophomores and one freshman) and mistake-prone. Right now their best player and leader is a softball star (Brooke Wyderski). That needs to change before the end of this season.

The second half also will tell us more about Crete-Monee. The Ashley Henry and Marsha Howard-led Warriors, returning a lot from a surprisingly good 2012-13 season, have been so dominating on some occasions (like against Hillcrest), but have shown a tendency toward letting bad breaks and adversity get to them. You’ve got to keep your cool, kids.

There have been no such cracks in Joliet Catholic’s armor. The unbeaten Angels, who we’re adding to our circulation area coverage starting this week, aren’t doing anything to change the minds of those who have them ticketed for Illinois State University as a Class 3A state finalist.

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