CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake South senior Tyler Miller thought back to what made last season, which produced the team’s first Fox Valley Conference championship since 1994, so special, and quickly found his answer.
“Last year, wow. We had some guys that didn’t care about being hurt or anything,” Miller said. “They were diving on the court for loose balls and willing to put their bodies on the line every day. Patrick Fischer, Ryan Lawson ... those two kids would do anything for the team.”
South’s surprise run, which included a 10-game winning streak, to a share of the FVC title with Crystal Lake Central is something Miller and the rest of the Gators don’t take for granted.
“There are probably only four guys on the team that got to experience that last year,” Miller said. “It’s going to be tough, but we’re going to try and show the new guys what it takes to win. We’re going to try and win another FVC title, go win a regional title and keep going. That’s our goal.”
The Gators were one of 11 local teams playing this weekend in South’s Gary Collins Shootout at Gator Alley, which concluded Saturday.
South graduated five from last year’s FVC co-champion that finished with a 23-8 record, tied for the fifth-most wins in school history.
Miller is the Gators’ top returning scorer at 13.4 points a game, but South will have to replace the production and leadership of Matt Reall (13.1 ppg), point guard Ben Geske, Lawson, Fischer and Griffin Coakley.
Coach Matt LePage, who is entering his eighth season at South, thinks his players can compete for another conference title. However, at this point in the summer, it’s still a work in progress.
“Our chemistry is going to come, but it’s going to take some time,”
LePage said. “Those seniors that graduated were very, very strong at communication and those things that don’t always show up in statistics.”
LePage likes the Gators’ athleticism going into the season with returning seniors Damir Glamoc and Tommy Wolek and juniors Casey Haskin, Brock Jewson and Will Stewart.
“We’ve got a lot of length,” LePage said. “And we’ve got a lot of guys who can catch, shoot and score. It’s just matter of sharing the basketball, finding the right fit.”
Miller makes the Gators go, LePage said, and Miller is ready to fill an even bigger role as a senior.
“Last year, I was kind of second in line,” said Miller, who was fifth in the area with 83 3-pointers. “This year, I’m trying be No. 1 and really be a leader for the guys. I want to be that guy and step up when we need it in a clutch situation.”
Reall, Geske and Miller were the main ballhandlers for South last year, so that’s an area of concern for the Gators. LePage said Jewson, who played on varsity last year as a sophomore, has really stood out this summer and “can make a big jump at the guard position.”
LePage’s son, freshman Cooper LePage, has played significant minutes with the varsity, as well.
“He puts a lot of time into basketball,” Matt LePage said. “I think he possesses some of the things we really need. It’s not going to be something easy. He’s going to have to work hard for everything. I’m really just asking him to contribute right now with his ballhandling and defense.”
Matt LePage and his wife, Marissa, both played basketball at NCAA Division II Northern Michigan. Marissa coached Cooper from fifth through eighth grades in South’s feeder levels.
“She was really hard on me, too,” Cooper LePage said. “I think she was even harder on me than my dad is. The guys have really taken me in well here. It’s been a very good experience. I think we have a really good group.”
South has played a competitive summer schedule and won the consolation bracket of the Rockford Chicagoland Showcase last week. Matt LePage and the Gators hope that tough competition pays off.
South is moving down to Class 3A this year and looking for its first regional title since 2002 (Class AA).
The Gators have plenty of time and plenty to work on.
“Right now, it’s about growing and building,” Miller said. “Throughout the summer and June, our goal is to build our team chemistry and get to know and bond with the younger guys. We’re just trying to get better every day.”