MOOSEHEART – Mooseheart boys basketball coach Ron Ahrens recognizes that in another month or so, his phone number no longer will carry the cachet in the hoops community that it does now.
For now, though, Ahrens and the Red Ramblers are delighted to answer the unprecedented calls that have come their way, including an invitation to participate in Batavia’s prestigious Night of Hoops showcase Saturday.
This isn’t your older sibling’s Ramblers schedule, not with games like a Night of Hoops rumble with downstate powerhouse Bartonville Limestone and a Feb. 16 matchup against Curie – the state’s top-ranked team – on the schedule.
Those kind of marquee dates came about thanks to the presence of South Sudanese standouts Akim Nyang (7-foot-1), Makur Puou (6-10) and Mangisto Deng (6-7), seniors who are nearing the end of their decorated two-year careers at Mooseheart.
“When they were sitting out their sophomore year, I was already bugging Batavia High School,” Ahrens said. “I was saying ‘Hey, get us up in there, get us up in there, we’d love to play that high competition [at Night of Hoops]. We’ll play anyone, just let us know.’ ”
Mooseheart (18-2) has won 17 straight games since a lukewarm start to the season against a formidable Thanksgiving tournament field in Canton, but many of those victories have come against fellow Class 1A schools, most of which the Ramblers have crushed.
The difference in caliber of opposition between – say, Alden-Hebron, which Mooseheart walloped, 89-44, Tuesday – and teams such as Limestone and Curie is about as dramatic as it comes, but Ramblers guard Hameed Odunewu thinks his team will be able to rise to the occasion.
“I think one of the things that is going to help us transition is the fact that when we played those teams we were able to blow out, we didn’t play to their level,” Odunewu said. “We still played them like they were a great team, and by doing that, we’re going to transition to the next game. Not saying we’re going to blow out the next teams we play but the way we play isn’t going to change because we’ve been working just as hard as if they were a good team.”
Ahrens said the Curie matchup – part of a quadrupleheader Feb. 16 at Northside Prep – “kind of fell in my lap.” Event organizer John Hodel recently called Ahrens, whose team had an opening after an early-season trip to Indianapolis was wiped out by inclement weather.
Playing Curie means the Ramblers’ enormous front line must deal with Kansas recruit Cliff Alexander, considered one of the elite high school players in the country. The high-rising Odunewu dunked over Alexander in a summer game at DePaul’s team camp, but Odunewu said “then the next four possessions, [Alexander] came down and dunked it like every, single time, so all I did was tick him off a little bit.”
In the summer meeting, Mooseheart played without Puou, who was dealing with dehydration. A terrific shot blocker, Puou will be a focal point of the Ramblers’ plans against Alexander.
“I’ve studied his game and, I think how should I defend,” Puou said. “I’m not going to say I’m going to shut him down but I think I’m going to try my best on him. He’s very strong on the baseline so if you give him baseline, there’s no way you’re going to stop him at all.”
Mooseheart will play in the opening round of the Northeastern Athletic Conference tournament Friday before turning its attention to the Night of Hoops battle with Limestone, which finished third in Class 3A last year. Regardless of how the Ramblers fare against Limestone and Curie, playing high-end opponents should be beneficial before Mooseheart begins the postseason as one of the 1A state favorites later this month.
“I’m hoping with Night of Hoops and with Curie that we see so much speed that when we get into the playoffs, that everyone’s going to look slow,” Ahrens said. “Because in all honesty, last year in our sectionals, Chicagoland Jewish was quicker than us. They put on pressure that we couldn’t handle.”
As much as Mooseheart has beefed up its schedule the past two seasons, the Ramblers maintained many of their traditional opponents, which should pay longterm dividends. Ahrens is well aware it will be back to scheduling reality for Mooseheart next winter.
“I didn’t want to lose everyone,” Ahrens said. “I love playing Paw Paw. I love playing Leland, who we’ve played for 15 years. I love playing Indian Creek, who we’ve played for 15 years. I couldn’t go overboard and say let’s just scrap this schedule and get [a new schedule] for two years, and then I don’t have any of those guys. I never wanted to do that.”