ST. CHARLES – Just one game behind conference-leading Larkin, the defending Upstate Eight Conference River champion St. Charles North boys basketball team is generating little buzz in the conference race.
That’s fine by North senior forward Kyle Swanson.
“I kind of like going under the radar,” Swanson said. “We were kind of under the radar a little bit last year, and ended up coming out conference champions. So I’m fine being under the radar.”
A combination of Larkin’s sizzling recent play and two double-digit conference losses by North in December – one to the Royals, one to Geneva – have relegated the North Stars to dark-horse status.
Facing a crucial final half of January, North aims to re-assert itself as a conference contender, beginning with Friday’s UEC River game at St. Charles East. North (10-6, 4-2 UEC River) was beaten soundly by the Saints at East’s Thanksgiving tournament, but that meeting didn’t count toward the conference standings.
“We haven’t beaten Larkin, Geneva or St. Charles East, so they’re above us, just from what’s happened on the court,” North coach Tom Poulin said. “But I like our group going forward. I think we’ve grown an awful lot in the right areas. They’ve figured out what they need to do to beat good teams.”
The North Stars believe their performance at the prestigious Pontiac Holiday Tournament – where North went 3-1, beating Waukegan, Bloomington and Peoria Manual the last week of December – was a turning point in their season.
“When you go 3-1 against some of the better teams in the state, it really gives you confidence,” Swanson said. “Just the way we did it, with our defense, really will help us, going forward.”
North has split a pair of games since then, but even the loss at Bartlett, in which the North Stars surrendered a lead in the second half, produced “a great film to look at,” Poulin said.
Much of North’s progress has come on the defensive end, said Poulin, who also thinks the North Stars are beginning to more consistently play with the sense of purpose needed to beat quality opponents.
That theory will be put to the test over the next 10 days. In addition to Friday’s game at East, North will take its second crack at first-place Larkin on Jan. 26, with a UEC crossover game against East Aurora also on tap a week from today.
To make that Larkin rematch as meaningful as it can be, North will need to first handle the Saints on Friday. East, retooling after Kendall Stephens’ season-ending injury, has dropped three games in a row.
“Offensively, I think they’re going to do a lot of the same things that they do with Kendall, but it would be more with Dom [Adduci] in his role,” Poulin said. “I could be wrong, but it looks more like Dom in Stephens’ role and [Cole] Gentry in Adduci’s role. Defensively is where you wonder what the loss of Kendall is going to do to East. They lose length in their zone and on their press.”
Gentry, a sophomore, has emerged as a dynamic point guard for the Saints since entering the starting lineup, scoring 30 points against Evanston and 31 against Naperville North this month.
North senior point guard Tony Neari is looking forward to the matchup.
“I’ve been friends with Cole since elementary school,” Neari said. “He’d always play a little football with us. He’d play up because he was one of the faster kids, so it’ll be nice seeing him, playing against him.”
With the way Larkin – which has only one conference loss – is playing, and Geneva and East joining North a game behind the Royals in the loss column, the North Stars have little margin for error if they’re going to successfully defend their UEC River title, which they shared last year with Elgin.
It’s up to the North Stars to show how much progress they’ve made since those earlier losses to their fellow contenders.
“We start just a huge stretch of the season right here,” Poulin said. “I guess there’s no better place to start it than against your rival, on the road, if you want to talk about challenges.”