After reaching a signature milestone long circled on the program’s to-do list, the Geneva boys basketball team faces not only a challenging opponent tonight, but the task of recalibrating its goals on the fly.
The Vikings nabbed the program’s first regional title Friday since the 1985-86 season – one of the area’s more startling pieces of trivia – and it was a goal coach Phil Ralston and company made no attempt to downplay.
Now that it’s been achieved, the Vikings will have to show they’re still hungry when they face powerhouse West Aurora in tonight’s IHSA Class 4A East Aurora Sectional semifinal. Ralston sounds the part of a coach who is anything but complacent, saying the Vikings will take a “survival mode” mindset onto the floor.
“It’s focusing on what we need to do to be able to beat an extremely talented and experienced West Aurora team,” Ralston said. “It’s also our third game in a row in which we’re matched up with a Division I guard [Jontrell Walker], so in some senses it’s the same, old gameplan against a high quality team with a tremendous guard. So that makes it a little easier, but every game you’ve got to be in survival mode.”
Taking the survival theme a bit further, the sectional’s sixth-seeded Vikings were in critical condition – if not intensive care – in Friday’s Plainfield East Regional final before staging a remarkable late-game rally to upset third-seeded Bolingbrook, 66-63.
The Vikings haven’t pressed as much with this year’s team as some of Ralston’s past squads, but that changed in the fourth quarter as desperation was in full effect.
“I really believe advancing in the state tournament, especially the further you go, has to do with, A) your passion, and, B) a little bit of luck. For the team to be at an 11-point deficit with more than 3 minutes to go in the game and still pull out the win, and a three-point win especially, required both of those,” Ralston said. “A lot of what our gameplan was for Bolingbrook went out the window in that situation, so we knew we had to score and score quickly, so really we were just alternating between two set plays, and pressing.”
The Vikings (24-5) vanquished a pair of dangerous teams last week in Plainfield East (led by Illinois recruit Aaron Jordan) and Bolingbrook (featuring Division I prospect Prentiss Nixon).
No. 2 seed West Aurora (24-4) doesn’t have the size of either of those teams but the Blackhawks have a deeper collection of slashers capable of exploiting gaps in a defense, Ralston said. While Walker is West Aurora’s marquee player, Ralston identified 6-foot-4 forward Roland Griffin as a major factor in the Vikings’ prospects for another upset.
“He is the difference-maker for them,” Ralston said. “He can shoot the 3 but he’s probably more dangerous on his drives to the basket, and he really is their only true post that can play with his back to the basket as well. Those are going to be difficult things for us to stop.”
Geneva’s bid to end its regional drought in 2013 was ended by the Blackhawks in a regional final at Wheaton Warrenville South. Many of the key players on this year’s Vikings played in that game, in which the Vikings led early in the fourth quarter before fading late in a 45-37 loss.
Ralston said he’s reviewed that game film “about a dozen times” since then.
“To know we made them play the way we wanted to play and we were winning that late in the game, and to just see five possessions change the game, there’s some sting for us in that loss, and I still believe our kids are still hurting from that a little bit,” Ralston said. “They want their moment where they can relieve that, so what a great opportunity for us to see them again and for it to be a game at an even higher level than last year.”
Geneva is comfortable on East Aurora’s floor after winning the Christmas tournament there, but plenty of blue in the crowd would be a welcome sight for the Vikings, especially playing in West Aurora’s hometown. Geneva’s fan support at regionals took a hit both because of the distance to Plainfield and because the Vikings girls basketball team competed at Redbird Arena in Normal this past weekend.
A student fan bus to tonight’s game is planned, and preliminary indications on the enthusiasm scale are encouraging to Ralston.
“I’ve had more emails and phone calls and voicemail messages and text messages over the past three or four days than I have for the whole, entire year combined,” Ralston said. “It’s obviously something our entire community has gotten very excited about.”
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.