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‘Really special’ season ends for Vikings

Geneva's Nate Navigato, left, and Mike Landi defend Benet Academy's Sean O'Mara in the fourth quarter of their sectional title game Friday at East Aurora High School.
Geneva's Nate Navigato, left, and Mike Landi defend Benet Academy's Sean O'Mara in the fourth quarter of their sectional title game Friday at East Aurora High School.

AURORA – Geneva’s Viking ship transformed into a gravy boat last week, when the boys basketball team earned its first regional title in 28 seasons.

Coach Phil Ralson deemed any postseason success that followed “gravy,” and players bought and laughed along, even though some of them initially weren’t quite sure what Ralston meant.

On Friday, top-seeded Benet ended Geneva’s bid to keep feasting on higher seeds, pulling away in the second half of the IHSA Class 4A East Aurora Sectional final. The Vikings, who pulled out gritty win after gritty win to reach this round, saw their season end with a 60-41 defeat.

“Once Benet got out, we knew, ‘We’ve come back before. We can do this,’ ” Geneva junior Nate Navigato said. “And then they just kept making shots. Toward the fourth, getting late, it was just kind of a huge shock. We were like, ‘All right.’ But we had a [heck] of a season. I’m just proud of where we got.”

Geneva (25-6) trailed, 26-23, at halftime before Benet opened the third quarter on a 14-2 run fueled by senior center Sean O’Mara. The 6-foot-9 Xavier recruit totaled a game-high 24 points while adding nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks.

Senior point guard Cam Cook (11) was Geneva’s only double-figure scorer. Juniors Mike Landi (nine) and Pace Temple (six) were next. The Vikings shot 24 percent in the second half and 29.4 percent for the game, struggling to get open looks down the stretch.

Benet countered with a 62.9 percent effort from the floor, including 10 for 13 (76.9 percent) after halftime.

“We felt like the first half, we didn’t play with enough purpose. We didn’t play with enough fire,” Redwings senior guard Josh Yesufu said. “So the second half, we came with urgency and played very hard.”

Benet (23-7) advanced to face Glenbard North in Tuesday’s Hinsdale Central Supersectional. The Redwings stormed to their first three postseason wins by 45, 32 and 11 points, a stark contrast to Geneva, which won by 11 points combined in the same span.

On National Sleeping Day, Geneva again executed an attack rival student sections sometimes have branded as “BO-RING” in Ralston’s six seasons: Pass as often as need be to find the best shot, and never chuck anything up in haste.

Catcalls aside, that meticulous method – plus a versatile half-court defense that thrives on hunches and substitutions – has produced its share of “I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN” chants from blue-clad Geneva backers through the years. This season, the Vikings earned more victories than any team since the 1962-63 club went 30-3 and advanced to the state tournament.

On Friday, the Redwings simply got in the way and didn’t budge.

“They did a great job of scouting us and trying to stop all our actions. We were going to our second, third and sometimes fourth actions within our sets and they were still draped on our guys,” Ralston said. “My hat’s off to them. They were certainly the best team we’ve seen all season, and I thought we gave them a great match for a half. I thought our kids really competed well. They threw their heart and soul into the game. So from that perspective, I have really no complaints.”

Benet’s success from distance helped swing the momentum in the third quarter. The team finished 5 for 10 from beyond the arc, with Liam Nelligan (12 points) and Colin Bonnett (11) offering complements from the outside.

“We got it all going and we made some stops on defense, and that really allowed us to push the lead in the third quarter,” Bonnett said.

Landi followed up on his lay-in in the closing seconds of the third with a 3-pointer 21 seconds into the fourth. The shot cut the Vikings’ deficit to 12 and got the crowd stirring again. O’Mara scored through two defenders the next time down the floor.

After the game, the hallway outside Geneva’s locker room teemed with students, parents and former players. Channeling an earlier talk, Ralston suggested that this group elevated the foundation that past Vikings teams laid.

“Gravy” might have been the buzzword of this postseason, but there was something much more hardened propelling the Vikings the past few weeks.

“These guys were difference-makers, and from that perspective, they are more exceptional than a 25-6 record,” Ralston said. “Because they’ve done something really special.”

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