Jeremiah Box has been around basketball a long time, and even he admits the past 2 weeks have been a new experience for him.
The Rockford native and former Christian Life and Sauk Valley Community College standout is entering his second year with the Sauk Valley Predators, and he’s as excited about the sport he loves as he’s ever been.
Box and the rest of the players, coaches and management of the Sauk Valley’s lone professional basketball team are ready and raring to go in Year 2 for the PBL squad, and tonight’s season opener can’t get here fast enough.
“Everybody wants to get a lot out of this season,” Box said before Thursday’s practice at Chadwick Elementary School, “and we’re working twice as hard as we did last year to do that. We’ve definitely got the talent, and we can’t wait to get out there and start playing games.”
The thing that’s got Box really upbeat is how well the team has come together just 2 weeks into the proceedings. Seven of the 11 Predators on this year’s roster weren’t there last year, and the four veterans have been impressed with how easily all the new faces have intermingled.
“I’ve been on a couple teams where it takes a while to get on the same page,” Box said, “but that’s not happening here. The way we’re jelling, after only a week and a half of practices, it just seems like we’ve been playing together for a long time.”
Box, Jereme Richmond, Shelton Jackson and Antwon Harris are the holdovers from last year’s inaugural season, and that quartet is forming the nucleus which new head coach Ryan Vasquez is building around.
Two of the seven newcomers are also familiar faces. Heath Hoffman and Kwan Waller both played for the Sauk Valley Skyhawks, and hail from Winnebago and Rockford, respectively.
DeAndre Taylor, Keith Radcliff, Casey Love, Raymond Davis and Charles Corbin round out the roster, and all are looking forward to the chance to play pro basketball for a franchise that receives so much support.
“This is definitely a new experience for some of us, but I like it,” said Taylor, a Chicago native and former standout at Thornwood High School, Malcolm X College and Northern Michigan University. “It’s fun being in the small-town environment, close enough to home that my family and friends can come watch me play, and I can go visit them whenever I want to.
“Plus, I’ve got a wonderful host family taking care of me, and everybody around this area has been so great … and the season hasn’t even started yet. It’s been really nice.”
While Box has been happy with how well the newcomers are fitting in, Taylor is excited to see the talent he’s surrounded with. Both players describe their team as athletic and aggressive, with plenty of shooters, ball-handlers, pure scorers and post players to fill every niche on the court.
For his part, Vasquez is selling the same system he encountered as a Predators assistant coach last year. The always-positive Sterling native knows these guys know how to play the game, and now he’s interested in getting them to focus on the big picture.
“It’s all about buying in, understanding the system and getting them to realize what they can do if they work as a team,” Vasquez said. “It’s a building process, and it’s going to take some more practices and a couple of games to get where we want to be. But we’re going to keep grinding, and find that identity we can hang our hats on.”
So far, that’s been defense. Vasquez is looking for the Preds’ tough man-to-man to lead into the offense, and both Taylor and Box cited ‘D’ as the top priority heading into this weekend’s opening games.
The Predators host Kankakee at 6 p.m. Saturday at Musgrove Fieldhouse in Sterling, then travel to St. Joseph, Mich., to face Lake Michigan on Sunday at 3 p.m.
“Defense, defense, defense; we get sore working on it so much in practice,” Box said. “We know we’re going to be able to score, and we know if we can stop the other team from scoring, there aren’t a lot of teams that can stop us.”