PLANO – Kaneland didn’t win the Plano Christmas Classic this year, something it hasn’t done since Dave Dudzinski led the Knights to the championship in 2009.
But the Knights tripled their win total on their season, leaving Plano with a 3-12 record after heading into the tournament with a single victory.
“It’s been a struggle, but it's been kind of a fun struggle for me,” first-year Kaneland coach Russ Zick said. “I’ve been in programs that are trying to get back on their feet before and it’s very similar here and I think that makes the wins very gratifying.”
Kaneland ended the tournament in strong fashion, defeating Streator, 50-40, on Dec. 29 for 11th place behind 12 points apiece from juniors Brett David and Will Cushman.
“When Brett David and Will Cushman play well it really makes us go,” Zick said. “And then if we get Bryce Ebert out of foul trouble, he can be really effective offensively and that gives us three pretty big weapons out on the perimeter and allows you to guard pretty hard.”
Cushman (12 points per game) led the Knights in the tournament, while Ebert (8.5 ppg), senior Wyatt Peeler (8.0 ppg) and David (6.5 ppg) also were big throughout the four games.
“We’re playing a lot better defensively and rebounding the ball a lot better,” Peeler said. “That’s definitely key to winning basketball games for us for sure.”
The Knights hung close with Burlington Central in their tournament opener, before falling 56-50. They bounced back with a 57-43 victory over Coal City but then struggled mightily in a 71-49 loss to Plano.
Shooting woes were apparent all tournament as the Knights shot just 37 percent from the field (79-of-216) and only 25 percent on threes (21-of-84), but still found a way to earn a pair of victories.
“It definitely feels good to show everybody that we can actually win,” senior Brett Wallner said, “I think we’ve had some games where we had chances to win where we just fell short, but here we were able to stay in the game and win by playing our game, I guess.”
Despite losing far more than winning this winter, the Knights appear to be staying positive through their struggles while making positive strides.
“A lot of us played as freshmen and sophomores and were on teams that were really good,” Wallner said. “We know that we can be top-notch. We just have got to get it going. Previously, our bench was pretty quiet but during this tournament it showed up and the fans could definitely hear us cheering for each other so we just need to keep helping each other out.”
Those guys on the bench aren’t always sitting either, and they were key contributors at Plano.
“I was really happy with how Ben Durbala (10 points against Plano) and Brett Wallner played,” Zick said. “Wallner give us a big lift off the bench [against Streator] and those are kids who haven’t gotten a lot of playing time but have come in and not batted an eyelash and did their job, which is heartwarming to a coach, especially an old coach.”
And one who quietly won his 600th game as a high school coach without any pomp and circumstance.
“That’s for grandpa time,” Zick joked.
Now the Knights will get a breather, albeit a brief three-day one.
“Maybe it can be like having a Diet Coke between nine holes when you’re golfing,” Zick said. “Sometimes you come back out refreshed and ready to go. I hope so. I’ve never been discouraged. I just have tunnel vision and know where we have to be and I keep on trying to head there, and I do appreciate having some kids who are really trying to get us to that spot too.”