Undefeated Crystal Lake South has played so well that all but one of its victories are by double digits.
The Gators have rolled through opponents with a mixture of full-court pressure, transition offense and forward Austin Rogers’ inside game.
The road is likely to get bumpier as South, along with six other local teams, opens play in Jacobs’ Hinkle Holiday Classic. But the Gators not only welcome the challenge, they embrace it.
South (8-0) will get one of those at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in its tournament opener against Zion-Benton, a 5-2 team with a pair of NCAA Division I recruits in Milik Yarbrough and Admiral Schofield.
“Zion’s going to be the best team we’ve played so far,” senior guard Caleb Johnson said. “It’s going to be a challenge. We haven’t really had a close game yet, so it will be good to see how we come out against a really good team.”
South’s closest game was its opener, a 60-55 victory over Richmond-Burton, in the Johnsburg/R-B Thanksgiving Tournament. The Gators are averaging 72.1 points a game, about 17 more than they averaged last year, despite losing the four starters besides Rogers.
“[Zion-Benton] is a big program game for us to see where we’re at,” Gators coach Matt LePage said. “We’ve played well … Zion’s a different animal, though. This is a team that, year in and year out, is one of the best around. It’s a great test. I think we’re going to be up to the test. We have guys who believe in what we’re doing. It’s a great game to have right now.”
Bartlett (6-3) and Marian Central (5-3) are the other teams in South’s pool at Jacobs. The Gators had a strong showing last year, losing in the championship game to Crystal Lake Central.
“The tournament was like that for us last year, a lot of challenges and we grew as a team,” senior guard Chris Mahoney said. “I look forward to doing the same thing with this group.”
Rogers, a 6-foot-2 forward averaging an area-best 21 points a game, is the lone returning starter from that team. Reserves Mahoney, Johnson and Steve Thomas have stepped into starting roles and 6-9 sophomore Josh Friesen shares center duties with 6-6 sophomore Wes Buckner. LePage just keeps bringing quick guards who can hit 3-pointers off his bench.
The depth helps South play an up-tempo style and press most of the game.
“It suits this group and our depth,” LePage said. “We’ve had more possessions and that’s going to get you more scoring. These guys have worked hard to be in this position. They knew coming in there was a good junior class behind them and it sparked a competitive practice every day and people pushing each other.”
Rogers has a quick answer for the Gators’ key to success.
“Unselfishness,” he said. “We’re all passing the ball well, we have really good ball movement and we’re just moving it around and making shots. I had a lot of confidence in this team. LePage is a good coach, he knows what he’s doing. We’re all playing well and when you make shots, things are going well.”