SOUTH ELGIN – Can Quinten Payne maintain this scoring pace?
Did Justin Stanko just go behind his back?
Whoa. Where was that pass going?
Can St. Charles North get this back to within single digits?
The progression of questions from courtside at Friday’s 4A South Elgin Regional final illustrated the North Stars’ struggles with consistency before producing a season-ending lament. Moments after his team lost, 75-64, to conference nemesis Larkin, North Stars coach Tom Poulin emerged from the locker room. He greeted a throng of well-wishers and justifiably told them, “Really thought we had this one.”
North attacked the rim early, weathered first-half foul trouble and entered the second half optimistic about doing more of the same. That was about when the Royals made this a too-familiar tale, using its fierce pressure defense and quickness in transition to pull away, veering off toward next week’s sectional at DeKalb.
“They sped us up and we started taking silly shots and not doing what we do best,” said Stanko, a 6-foot-6 senior forward. “We get high-percentage shots, and they sped us up. We ran into the lane, chucked something up, and sooner or later, we were on defense.”
For North, that ultimately meant players were also in reflection mode as the game’s final minutes ticked down. Although shaky Larkin free-throw shooting kept North in the neighborhood – a pair of Alec Goetz 3-pointers in the fourth quarter would have brought the North Stars to within six – the upset bid, like those shots, rattled out.
Larkin’s student section bellowed the boastful “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!” chant before the game tipped off about a minute earlier than its scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time, suggesting an outcome as scripted as South Elgin’s production of “Grease” down the hall.
Earlier encounters with the North Stars – Larkin victories by 13 points in St. Charles and 20 points in Elgin – certainly informed the Blue Crew’s opinion, but the group clearly didn’t stick around after the Royals won Wednesday’s first regional semifinal against crosstown rival Elgin.
Facing a St. Charles East team it had lost two of three meetings against during the regular season, North started fast and persistently got to the basket to score a 69-53 rout of the Saints. As had been the norm this week, the North Stars dug deep into their bench for contributions.
To hear the North reserves tell it, their sterling play this week truly was the case of a group of inspired understudies. After the East game, junior Erik Miller admitted even the simplest bench contribution “gets everyone fired up,” prompting urgent minutes from all else summoned to cast aside their warm-up jackets.
Regulars noticed the eagerness of players such as sophomore guard Jake Ludwig – who earned a spot start Friday – and classmate Jack Callaghan, a forward, to absorb whatever they could.
“They’ve definitely looked up to me and all the other seniors this year, and I think they’ve learned a lot,” Stanko said. “That the four years goes fast. So value your time here.”
Before reflecting on the seniors who’d be graduating – including longtime starters Tony Neari, Kyle Swanson and Payne – Poulin briefly pondered the future. He channeled a flank of “multiple people contributing” alongside Goetz.
“Jake, Jack, I can continue to list people,” Poulin said. “And our sophomore group is really a team-first type of group. I’m excited, honestly, to see how they mesh and play together, because that’s the one thing that they’ve done at the lower levels is play unselfish basketball. So it’s going to be fun to coach this next group.”
The outgoing one also provided Poulin with plenty to remember. His players, too.
“I love this team,” Stanko said. “It’s going to be hard not going after school and playing in the gym with them.”
• Kevin Druley is a sports writer for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.