For the Eastland boys basketball team, there is a certain been-there, done-that quality to its next step along the postseason tournament trail.
The Cougars are at the Elite Eight level for the third time in the past 6 years. Next up is the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional, where they'll take on Newark tonight at 6 p.m. in the Convocation Center on the campus of Northern Illinois University. At stake is a berth in the state tournament, which begins Friday in Peoria.
When Eastland last played in a supersectional, in 2010, it rolled to a 70-57 victory over – you guessed it – Newark. That Norsemen team was a junior-dominated squad whose nucleus rolled to a state championship in 2011.
There is one key bridge from those Newark teams to this one – senior forward Brett Anderson.
The 6-foot-4 Anderson is a 4-year starter who once played second fiddle to stars like Kyle Anderson (no relation) and John Avery, but he is the unquestioned leader of the Norsemen now. He averages 21.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He can score inside and out, and also brings the ball up against opposing team's presses.
Anderson, who is headed to Division III Anderson (Ind.) University, compares favorably with Erie's Jacob Johnston, another big scorer who Eastland encountered in a sectional semifinal. Eastland coach Tony Dunlap considers Anderson to be more of a spot-up shooter, without Johnston's quickness, but with a superior post-up game.
"They're both great players," Dunlap said, "and we'll try to handle Anderson a lot like we did Johnston. We'll try to contain him. I don't think you can stop a kid like that."
The Cougars have one of the area's premier defenders in 6-3 junior Skylar Paulson, who will likely draw the assignment of guarding Anderson. He held Johnston to nine points, after Johnston had scored 89 in two regional wins.
"I like guarding the best player," Paulson said. "He has over 2,100 career points, and I'm up for a challenge. Hopefully I do well on him. If I do good enough, we go to state."
Newark's other main scoring threat is 6-5 freshman Jack Clausel, who averages 14.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. He can score inside, especially when teams collapse on Anderson, but also can step out and hit long-range shots.
Rounding out the Newark (21-11) starting lineup are 5-10 senior Joe Hughes (7.1 ppg, 46 percent 3-point shooter); 6-0 senior Kenny Hume (3.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.4 apg); and 5-9 sophomore Matt Eike (3.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg). That trio, along with sixth man Grant Riehle-Moeller, a 6-1 junior (5.9 ppg), are role players, but Anderson and Clausel are the main threats.
"We're going to play man – everybody knows that," Dunlap said, "but we'll just have to adjust to a two-post offense, compared to a one, or a four-out or a five-out. We'll just have to play it by ear, but Newark's the real deal."
Eastland (29-3) has been on a defensive roll of late. It shut down Johnston in a 62-41 over Erie in the sectional semifinal, then did the same to Aquin in a 49-31 sectional final win. It was a season-low for the Bulldogs by 13 points.
"When we're all talking and working on defense as hard as we have been this postseason, it's really fun," senior guard Austin Hansen said. "We put so much hard work into the game. To come out there and play defense like we have, it's amazing, and it's fun to shut teams down."
That's music to Dunlap's ears.
"They're playing with a lot of energy and a lot of effort," Dunlap said. "They're helping each other out, communicating well on defense and taking a lot of pride in it."
Offensively, the Cougars are clicking as well. Junior guard Dalton Shaner (17.9 ppg) has been on a tear, but he's hardly a one-man show. Senior forward Ty Hartman (13.3 ppg), Hansen (9.4 ppg) and Paulson (8.8 ppg) are also capable scorers.
"We've got a lot of threats," Hansen said, "and that comes in handy when someone's not feeling it."
The Cougars have won 18 games in a row, with their last loss coming to Hinckley-Big Rock on Jan. 4. They ran the table in the NUIC West, and haven't been pushed to the brink in the postseason – yet.
"I really think we're a force to be reckoned with," Hansen said. "I think we're playing really, really good basketball at the perfect time. Everyone who underestimated us through the year, they're seeing now how good we really are."