Another busy weekend of high school basketball is in the books. And here are three quick thoughts from the weekend …
➥ Youthful Evanston, Nojel Eastern turning the corner
Maybe this past weekend is the one Evanston will look back on as the turning point.
Evanston beat a ranked and very talented Riverside-Brookfield team Saturday night, which came less than 24 hours after knocking off rival New Trier in a key Central Suburban League South game. That’s a big weekend right there for the Wildkits.
More importantly, the Evanston team that beat R-B 66-63 is clearly different than the team anyone saw in November and December.
The youth is maturing, depth is developing and there is a clear star in the making.
The ballyhooed Nojel Eastern, the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 2 ranked sophomore prospect in Illinois, was ultra-special in the win over R-B. The 6-4 guard is at his best making others around him better, but he’s also capable of carrying a team with his offensive abilities. He did both Saturday night and in impressive fashion.
With his size in the backcourt, along with a growing confidence and understanding of how to impact games, Eastern is evolving from promising prospect to star player. He’s a program elevator.
There were going to be some growing pains and consistency issues when you’re talking about a team whose go-to player is so young and there is youth around him. Evanston lost to Maine South in mid-December, then dropped two at Pekin over the holidays, followed up with a loss to Oak Park in early January.
But this group has nearly 20 games under its belt now. The Wildkits are 13-6, have won three straight and are tied atop the Central Suburban League South. A big rematch awaits Feb. 5 with Maine South that could very well decide the conference championship.
➥ Talented Hinsdale Central shows some serious resolve
We knew Hinsdale Central was good. The Red Devils have played a tough schedule and fared well to the tune of 17 wins already this season. Coach Nick LaTorre’s team, which came into the season with high expectations, is one of the favorites in the East Aurora Sectional this March.
Thus, Hinsdale Central is no surprise.
However, beating St. Joseph Saturday night without two starters (Matt Rafferty and Thomas Ives), was a major statement. And when one of those two (Rafferty) is a veteran 6-8 senior who is a 20-point, 10-rebound guy every night out, it shows the makeup of this team.
The chemistry with this group bears special attention because they have thrived now even shorthanded –– and against high-level competition.
George Kiernan has always shown vast potential. The talented 6-6 Navy-bound senior had a breakout game with 30 points in the win over St. Joseph, while point guard Jordan Bradshaw has been an unsung player for two years.
➥ Lincoln-Way West program rising
There have been plenty of people who have talked up the interesting and competitive race in the Southwest Suburban Red. But most of that conversation has centered around Thornton, Thornwood and Bradley-Bourbonnais.
Enter Lincoln-Way West.
Everything is still fresh and new with the school, which just opened in 2009, and the basketball program, which hired former Bremen coach Brian Flaherty this past offseason.
The Warriors have a bad loss or two among their three defeats, but after taking in their game Friday night, a 68-57 win over Bradley, there is definitely a new-found respect and appreciation for this team and where this program is headed.
Lincoln-Way West has just nine varsity players, yet it sits 12-3 on the year and 5-1 in league play, just one game behind Thornton. Plus, the foundation, from a personnel standpoint, is young.
Jon Marotta, a 6-6 junior forward, was terrific in the win over Bradley-Bourbonnais Friday night. He had a solid summer playing with Meanstreets on the AAU circuit and continues to be a skilled, productive and efficient face-up 4-man with shooting ability. In the win over Bradley he connected on four three-pointers and finished with 27 points.
Sophomore guard Marco Pettinato is an easy player to like and value. Pettinato is tough, strong, physical and plays even bigger than his size –– and with a whole lot of heart and grit.
For a program that has gone 26-118 in its first five years of existence –– yes, that’s 26 total wins in the program’s infancy heading into this season –– there is still a lot of growing up to do. But there are some lofty and attainable goals in the immediate future.
Maybe a conference championship is a bit of a stretch. But you know what? The Warriors are 5-1 and played the league leader, Thornton, very tough in a 53-51 defeat. This nine-man group has a big road game this Friday at Thornwood. If it can keep itself in contention for a few more weeks, the Warriors will get Thornton at home in mid-February.
What’s not a stretch is the program winning its first regional championship. Lincoln-Way West, a Class 3A school, has positioned itself nicely in what should turn into a top four seed in the Rich East Sectional.
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