Until last week Hinckley-Big Rock senior forward Michael Bayler couldn’t tell you how many games the Royals had won in a row.
His dad puts each of H-BR’s game results up on the family refrigerator, but Bayler didn’t notice that the Royals’ winning streak was up to 14 games, dating back to the Plano Christmas Classic.
“After each win I know myself and the other teammates, we enjoy the win while it’s there but then we’re right back in the gym the next day usually at practice focusing on our next game,” Bayler said. “It’s pretty remarkable to think we’ve won this many games and we had a perfect January ... but we’re taking it one game at a time.”
H-BR’s winning streak came to an end Friday with a 53-51 loss to Paw Paw, their only defeat in Little Ten Conference play, as H-BR shared the regular season title with Paw Paw. It was the Royals’ first loss to a Class 1A school all season and they finished ranked in the top 10 of the AP Class 1A poll entering today’s playoffs.
H-BR has put together a stretch of basketball unrivaled in coach Bill Sambrookes’ 11-year stint as the varsity coach.
“This is the first team that I’ve had that has won this many games in a row,” Sambrookes said before Friday’s loss. “The group I had when I was first here was probably the closest thing talent-wise to this group, but I only had them for one year, so I didn’t know for sure what I had.”
The Royals came into the season with big expectations, returning most of the key contributors from last year’s sectional runner-up. In addition, many of the team’s core players made a historic run with H-BR’s soccer team in the fall as the Royals took third place at state, the best finish in school history.
But around Christmas, H-BR made key defensive adjustments. It worked on positioning and keeping the intensity level up, not taking any plays off.
Its progress was evident in the Little Ten Championship against Indian Creek, as the Royals held the Timberwovles to 30 points. Despite not having a lot of size inside, H-BR was able to limit 6-foot-8 center Garrison Govig to two points.
“Zach Michels is just an incredible post defender. He’s only 6-1 and that’s if you stretch him, but he’s so strong. he’s a very physical player, he’s got a lot of lower body strength,” Sambrookes said. “When they do take shots, they don’t get a second and third chance to rebound and that’s as important as anything.”
The road to state won’t be easy. A date with Mooseheart, a team H-BR rallied to beat in December, likely looms in the regional final.
Friday’s loss wasn’t how H-BR envisioned ending its regular season. But the Royals don’t have to look very far for an example of a high school team that lost its last regular season game, and then made a run to the state tournament. The Royals’ soccer team lost to Somonauk, 2-1, in its finale, before winning five consecutive postseason games.
“As a team we want to carry our momentum that we have going through the rest of the season,” Bayler said. “We really want to play our best basketball right now. That’s our top goal.”