AURORA – As I reached the 40th anniversary of the first time that I saw a boys basketball sectional championship game, which involved defending state champion Lockport while I was a freshman student there, Friday’s Class 4A East Aurora Sectional title game brought back some great memories of the many sectional finals that I’ve been to throughout the years.
Coach Rob Brost’s Bolingbrook program was seeking its third sectional title in five seasons while Oswego East made its initial sectional finals appearance. A huge crowd turned out at Kivisto Gymnasium and they were not disappointed as the game was close throughout and both sides gave it their all before the Raiders managed to hang on for a 66-64 victory.
Before the current run of success began with a sectional title in 2015, the Raiders had to go back 30 years prior to that for their first team to reach the Sweet 16, which was led by the school’s legendary player, Trent Jackson, and was coached by Bob Mitchell. The long gap between titles shows hard winning sectional championships have been for most area schools.
As a researcher who worked with IHSA Assistant Executive Director Scott Johnson on the history of the state tournament, which included being a co-author of the IHSA’s book on the subject, “100 Years of Madness,” I understand the major role that sectionals have played. Regardless of the changes in the number of qualifiers, the sectionals finals, which debuted in 1922, was the game that determined if a team advanced to state for most of its history.
I’ve seen so many great sectional finals throughout the years and have to say that Friday’s title game ranks among the very best. There was a great atmosphere with both teams leaving it all on the court. While the Raiders were the favorites, coach Ryan Velasquez’s Wolves made a great statement for their program and the Southwest Prairie Conference.
The Raiders are obviously well-prepared for their postseason run after facing a very tough schedule with quality opponents who have helped to make them perform under pressure. That was evident in Friday’s game when they had to battle throughout in order to advance.
“Our coaches have prepared us extremely well for all of these scenarios so we just had to keep calm and play like we were taught,” said Darius Burford, who had 14 points. “I love playing for this team, the coaches and my teammates since they all put in 110 percent into the game. We prepare ourselves all week in practice so we’re ready for games like this.”
Another good quality that Bolingbrook possesses is strong team chemistry. Brost has been a big proponent of focusing on what’s best for the team, and that approach featuring chemistry and teamwork has certainly paid off in a big way for the Raiders during recent years.
“We all knew that this game would be competitive from Tuesday when we watched them and we have friends on their team,” said Joseph Yesufu, who led the Raiders with 16 points. “Our bench has played a huge role since they come out strong and I’m really proud of those guys but also everyone on this team. Coach preaches the importance of the program and the family mentality and our program preps us for the big stage like this.”
While the Raiders are obviously feeling very optimistic about where they’re at as they head into the final week of the season, they realize that the rest of their contests will likely be just as intense as Friday’s was and they need to elevate their game to an even higher level.
“That win was big,” Tyler Cochran, who collected 15 points, said. “Everyone has bought into the system and is ready to play right to the last second. The whole team talked about keeping our composure and having everybody playing nice, solid basketball. But we can’t get too hyped up about this game since we have to come back ready to go.”
Facing defending state champion Belleville West in Tuesday’s 4A Illinois State University Super-Sectional, the Raiders realize that they face a major obstacle. But there’s confidence that if they can perform like they’re capable, then they could be playing for another trophy.
While three sectional titles in five years is a feat that most programs would be thrilled about, the Raiders have an opportunity to assure themselves of a third trophy during the same span and believe they could achieve that if they have one of their top performances on Tuesday.