Joliet Central, built in 1901, is old enough that this is the second global pandemic the high school has been through. The Steelmen managed to play 11 basketball games during the 1918-19 season, when the Spanish Flu ravaged the country.
Lockport played eight games that season. High school records are spotty and difficult to track down, so it is unknown if the neighboring cities managed to play each other, but it seems possible.
More than 100 years later, the teams met again under difficult circumstances. The Porters pulled out a 36-32 win Saturday in Joliet.
Lockport’s old gym is known as “The Pit.” Joliet Central’s “The Barn.”
The Pit, at Lockport’s Central campus, was hot and cramped and claustrophobic. It was a vertical experience, with almost no fans at court level and everyone looking down at the action. The Porters played in the Pit for 75 years, but now play in a new gym at the East Campus.
The Barn is the opposite — huge and horizontal — with massive empty spaces behind each basket. All that space and history made Saturday’s matchup between the two old rivals in a nearly empty gym seem especially odd. There were about 15 spectators on hand, all parents of the players.
“It’s just strange,” Lockport coach Brett Hespell said. “That’s what we are in right now though. But what everyone says is true. The kids are at least getting a chance to do what they love with the guys they like hanging out with. And that’s the most important thing.”
The Porters (2-1) led the entire way until Joliet Central (1-2) opened the fourth quarter with a 6-0 run to take a one-point lead.
Lockport’s Matas Deksnys stepped up in crunch time. He found center Scott Szymkowiak for a post basket with 2:42 to play that put the Porters up 32-30. Then Deksnys drained a three-pointer with 48 seconds left to put Lockport ahead 35-32. His free throw with two seconds remaining sealed the win.
Deksnys has been a bit of a late bloomer, but college coaches are starting to show interest.
“We’ve heard from a lot of Division III schools, and a lot of NAIA schools are intrigued by his size and shooting ability,” Hespell said. “A handful of Division II schools have inquired. It’s great for him to get out and play because he’s been under the radar a bit.”
College coaches aren’t allowed to come to games. It’s an NCAA dead period. But Deksnys says they ask him to send links to the game streams.
The 6-7 senior finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, and Ethan Gallagher added six points and eight rebounds for the Porters.
“It’s very different without a crowd,” Deksnys said. “We have to learn to provide the energy ourselves.”
Senior Ryan Wisneski led Joliet Central with nine points and five rebounds. Samuel Martin added six points and seven rebounds.
The Steelmen also started slow on Friday, but managed to overcome a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and beat Romeoville in overtime. They got going in the fourth against the Porters as well, but couldn’t finish it off.
“It’s tough for the kids to get started because they are out of their regular routine,” Joliet Central coach Larry Thompson said. “Every game, home or away, is like being on the road. You can’t be relying on fanfare to motivate you and get you ready to play. You can tell in the pregame when they announce the starting lineup that kids are just going through the motions. They are going to have to learn to find that motivation.”
Watch the final minute of Lockport at Joliet Central: