While coach Brian Rahn was hurrying from Chadwick on Tuesday, his Milledgeville boys basketball team was waiting in the gym for practice to begin.
The minutes without adult supervision yielded a round of comparing jumping ability by seeing who could touch the rim, some sort of game that combined kicking and throwing a volleyball, and senior center Caleb Skoog trying to figure out how to operate the scoreboard. He found the buzzer pretty quickly.
About a half an hour later, Rahn made an astute observation without having been present for most of the above.
“The pressure doesn’t seem to be getting to them,” Rahn said, as the team played a little 4-on-4. “I mean, they seem like they are just having fun.”
No doubt about that. But then again, fun comes a little easier when winning happens more often.
For a group of juniors and seniors that suffered through years of attrition because of a lack of numbers from the classes above, the 2013-14 basketball season has been a reprieve from the glumness.
In football, the senior group endured winning one game in three seasons before a 3-6 campaign this fall.
In the last three basketball seasons, the Missiles have gone 16-63.
Entering this week, the team is 13-2 for the season, with a 4-1 record in the NUIC East. The two losses were to Oregon (60-53) at the Forreston tournament, and to Dakota (50-48) in an NUIC East game.
“I think it’s mainly a matter of maturity,” Skoog said.
“Physically, we are stronger now than we were before. Also, we have guys that can come off the bench that can really help us when we need it.”
“This team comes together because of the love of the game,” fellow senior Daniel Walker said. “We aren’t necessarily all the best of friends off the court, but we come together because we love the game. That is what got us through the rough times.”
Players could feel the tide turning back in the summer, when the team attended a camp in Champaign.
The trip allowed for plenty of bonding time, and it gave the Missiles a chance to play against some of the best teams in the state, including defending 1A state champion Illini Central.
“We got to see a lot of different teams that were really good,” Skoog said. “We could tell we were passing the ball around better. We weren’t necessarily winning every game, but we could tell we were better. I think it was there that we started getting excited for this season.”
The early success has put the team in new situations, including learning how to put teams away, and how to deal with success.
But, it is still from the losses that the Missiles have learned. Millledgeville was able to avenge the loss to Oregon last week by playing better defense.
The loss to Dakota taught the Missiles that they can’t allow teams to hang around.
“Both our games against Dakota were the same,” senior guard Kameron DawTyne said. “We let them hang around, when we should have put them away.
“When we played them at the Forreston tournament, we made the plays and pulled away for the win. When we played them in a conference game, they hit a couple big shots, and letting them hang around hurt us.”
Despite the loss, Milledgeville is still very much in the NUIC East race, and this week will go a long way in determining the conference title.
Conference frontrunner Aquin (15-3, 5-0) comes to town today. The Bulldogs have been an NUIC powerhouse over the last decade, and this year’s version is led by guard Aiden Chang.
“They have a lot of weapons,” DawTyne said. “You hope that if you can slow down Chang that you’ll have a chance. But there’s two or three other players than can hurt you, if Chang is having an off night.”
After that, the Missiles will host Polo (18-2, 5-1) on Saturday. The school has already put up bleachers on the one end of the gym in expectation of a big crowd for the rivalry game.
The Marcos are a veteran bunch, and hold a win over Eastland, which finished fourth in 1A last season.
“These are always rivalry games, but it’s nice that they also are important games for the conference,” DawTyne said. “The town is excited, and more people are coming to the games. They put up the extra bleachers, which hasn’t happened in a long time.
“It’s extra pressure, but it’s good pressure.”
Missiles at a glance
Coach: Brian Rahn
Record: 13-2, 4-1
FYI: Missiles are averaging 65.3 points per game. ... They have five players averaging nine or more points. ... Leading scorer Jordan Harris is averaging 13.7 points, while also averaging 3.0 assists and 2.1 steals.
Big week: Missiles are in a battle with both Aquin and Polo for NUIC East title. They host both schools this week. They play Aquin today and Polo on Saturday.