WHEATON – The Geneva boys basketball team posted winning records in three of coach Phil Ralston’s first four years with the program but a shortage of postseason success – a bugaboo for the program long preceding Ralston’s arrival – has remained a sore spot.
In year five of Ralston’s tenure, the Vikings appear to be finding their postseason sea legs.
A hard-nosed, inspired effort from start to finish Thursday earned 12th seeded Geneva a 55-49 upset victory against No. 5 seed Hinsdale Central in an IHSA Class 4A Wheaton Warrenville South Regional semifinal. The win vaults the Vikings into tonight’s regional championship against DuPage Valley Conference powerhouse West Aurora.
Ralston said today will mark Geneva’s first appearance in a regional final under Illinois’ four-class system. The Vikings’ last regional final appearance was in 2006, and Ralston said the program has not won a regional crown since 1986.
“To these kids, they don’t know any better, but to everyone else that’s been around high school basketball, a regional semifinal now in 4A is really like winning a regional,” Ralston said. “That’s a tremendous accomplishment for the program. These boys have helped step us in the right direction, but we definitely have to come ready to play for tomorrow.
“We celebrate this one for about 20, 30 minutes on the bus ride home, and then it’s back to work.”
Playing in front of a modest-sized but feisty crowd, Geneva took the lead for good on a pair of Mike Trimble free throws with 3:27 to play in the fourth quarter for a 45-44 edge. Sophomore forward Nate Navigato followed with a layup to make it 47-44 about 30 seconds later.
An inside basket by highly touted Red Devils sophomore big man Matt Rafferty (15 points, 10 rebounds) drew the West Suburban Silver champions within 47-46 with 2:26 to play, but the Vikings (21-8) padded their lead when junior Cam Cook split a pair of free throws and Navigato added another layup thanks to sharp ball movement, making it 50-46 Vikings with 1:05 to go.
Trimble, a senior, scored all nine of his points in the second half to help subdue the defensive-minded Red Devils’ second half charge. His 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter gave Geneva a 41-37 lead.
“I was scared. I did not want it to end that way,” Trimble said of his scoreless first half. “I had to do something. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep tonight if I knew it was going to end like that.”
Navigato also saved his best work for crunch time, posting 11 of his team-high 17 points in the second half to help Geneva build off its 24-21 halftime edge.
The Vikings made 10 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter, five of them in the final minute to fend off a Hinsdale Central team that had won 12 straight games late in the regular season and finished with an 18-7 mark.
K.J. Santos, a sophomore forward called up to the varsity in the late stages of the regular season, sparked the Vikings with consecutive 3-pointers in the second quarter to give Geneva an 18-11 lead, prompting a Red Devils timeout.
The Vikings needed offense from nontraditional sources with senior big man Connor Chapman plagued by foul trouble. He supplied only a pair of free throws in the fourth quarter.
“That kind of shows you a little bit of the depth of the team,” Ralston said. “That’s not the first time that things haven’t gone our way with Connor. … I thought Santos did a great job coming off the bench and giving us some solid minutes defensively, I thought [Kyle] Brown did a tremendous job as well coming out and helping clog up the middle for us. So we had other kids that were able to step up and give us minutes.
“But Navigato, Trimble, [Chris] Parrilli and Pace Temple, they were out of this world tonight. They played some of their best basketball tonight.”
Geneva opened the regional Monday with a win against host Wheaton Warrenville South, then saw its scheduled semifinal date with the Red Devils pushed from Wednesday to Thursday because of snow postponements Tuesday.
That leaves the Vikings without a traditional preparation day to gear up for the vaunted Blackhawks. Ralston, an English teacher at Geneva, noted that he has responsibilities at the school’s in-service day today, so he said game preparation would take place “late tonight, very early tomorrow morning.”
Trimble didn’t seem to mind the prospect of hunting another upset 24 hours after Thursday’s conquest.
“I kind of like it for momentum,” Trimble said. “We have a lot of energy right now. That was a huge win. It feels really good actually, so I don’t mind it at all.”
The 21 wins ties the high-water mark during Ralston’s tenure. Geneva went 21-7 in 2008-09, his first year on the job.