LANARK – Eastland boys basketball coach Tony Dunlap went from sad to happy in a matter of moments while observing the conclusion of Monday's practice.
His starters were running a 5-on-6 drill when an ill-advised, one-handed bounce pass was easily deflected and stolen.
"We're going to play a sectional basketball game tomorrow," Dunlap said, "and we'll be turning in our uniforms the next day if we make plays like that."
On the next possession, the Cougars worked the ball around crisply and found an open man for a corner jump shot. The ball went cleanly through the net.
"Oh my gosh," Dunlap said. "We spaced the floor, reversed the ball twice and put the ball in the basket. That's how we're supposed to do it."
A full range of emotions from everyone involved will be on display tonight – weather permitting – when Eastland takes on Erie in a Class 1A Eastland Sectional semifinal. Game time is 7:30 p.m.
If inclement weather moves in, the game will be played at 6 p.m. Wednesday, to be followed by a matchup between Freeport Aquin and River Ridge. The title game is slated to be played Friday.
The semifinal against Erie gives Eastland (27-3) a chance for payback. The Cardinals overcame a 51-42 deficit with 6 minutes to play to pull out a 68-63 victory in the championship game of the West Carroll tournament Dec. 15.
"We kind of gave it away the last time we played," Eastland junior forward Skylar Paulson said. "Now we play them again in the tournament, and we really want to win it, especially in front of our fans."
"They're just a very fine, well-coached team," Dunlap said, "and they might have the best player in northern Illinois in Class 1A basketball in [Jacob] Johnston. He's just a ton."
The 6-foot-4 Johnston has been on a tear of late. He scored 49 points in a double-overtime win over Indian Creek in an Erie Regional semifinal, then backed that up with 40 in a title-game victory over Paw Paw two nights later.
When asked about Johnston, Dunlap noted his team will try to limit touches and make him work for his points.
"He can do anything he wants," Dunlap said, "and he's just a special player. We'll just do the best we can to contain him. I don't think anybody can stop him."
The 6-3 Paulson noted he'll likely get the first crack at checking Johnston, with 6-4 senior forward Ty Hartman waiting in relief. Paulson got in foul trouble in the team's first meeting, when Johnston dropped 35 points.
"He likes to get to the basket whenever he can," Paulson said of Johnston, "but he can also shoot the 3. He's just tough to guard."
Erie (18-12) is one of three teams to beat Eastland this season, the others being Winnebago and Hinckley-Big Rock. Those losses were by 17 and 15 points, respectively, but it was the five-point loss to the Cardinals at West Carroll that has the Cougars especially revved up for a rematch.
"I hope our kids remember that game," Dunlap said. "I sure do. I can tell you a lot of mistakes we made in all of our wins, and I can tell you every mistake we made in our losses. We made a lot against Erie, and they forced us to make those mistakes."
1A Eastland Sectional
Tuesday: Erie vs. Eastland
Wednesday: Aquin vs. River Ridge
Friday: Championship (all games at 7:30)