Ben Niemann sat patiently on the Sycamore bench, flanked by teammates on either side, as the Wheaton Academy starting lineup was announced Friday.
The Sycamore senior forward didn’t appear anxious or nervous. Neither did fellow senior starters Jake Winters, Devin Mottet, Nick Feuerbach and Mark Skelley as the Class 3A Genoa-Kingston Regional title game was about to start.
All five have played in crucial games over the past two years. This was nothing new.
“It’s a big factor. When we were coming out in the fourth quarter, coach [Andrew] Stacy said, ‘All five of you guys on the floor right now are seniors’ so we’re experienced and we’ve been in a regional title last year where we won it,” Niemann said. “We knew what to expect from it and we were familiar with an atmosphere like this.”
Sycamore’s experience is part of the reason why the Spartans (22-8) never allowed Wheaton Academy to stretch its lead to more than four. Every Warrior run was seemingly answered by a Sycamore bucket, or two. More often than not they came from a senoir.
There were Cooper Vinz’s three first-quarter 3-pointers, Mottet’s two crucial three-point plays and Skelley’s steal and layup among countless other clutch plays.
Most importantly, Sycamore was 16 for 16 from the line, including 6 of 6 in the final 40 seconds. All but two of those free throws were taken by seniors, the charity-stripe perfection leaving Wheaton Academy coach Pete Froedden in almost shock after the game as he noted “you don’t see that in high school basketball, you don’t see that in college, you don’t see that at any level very often.”
“We got seniors that really stepped up tonight,” Sycamore coach Andrew Stacy said. “A game like this where every possession matters and every point can decide a game, it’s good to have those guys who can go up there and shoot the ball with confidence.”
The stakes only grow bigger as the postseason develops further and the teams remaining dwindle. But intimidation or nervousness is unlikely to show itself on the Sycamore sideline.
The Spartans face Marian at 7 p.m. today in a Hampshire Sectional semifinal.
Not when you consider that half of the varsity roster just finished a 12-1 football season in which they played in front of 8,000 people at Huskie Stadium in Week 3, a standing room-only crowd at home against Kaneland for the conference title in Week 8, and visited the home of the the four-time defending state champions in the 5A state semifinals.
“It goes back to football. They’ve been in pressure situations that last month of the year. In football, every game matters,” Stacy said. “I think that carried over to the basketball floor. You can’t say enough about seniors. They don’t panic in those situations and they did a great job being able to pull a close one through [Friday].”