Jed Johnson knows the thrill of playing meaningful basketball in March from his days as a Rock Falls Rocket.
Now he gets to experience it as a coach.
Johnson is in his fourth year as head coach of the Sauk Valley Community College women’s basketball team. On Monday in Freeport, he guided the Skyhawks to their first Region IV Tournament championship since 2008.
The reward for that is a berth in the NJCAA District D championship Saturday in Devils Lake, N.D, where they will face the Region 13 champ, Lake Region State College. The winner between the Skyhawks (23-5) and Royals (28-4) advances to the 24-team national tournament slated to begin March 17 in Salina, Kan.
“It’s always fun to play in March,” Johnson said. “It’s March Madness, and it’s kind of neat to be involved in that a little bit this month.”
“We’re so excited – we don’t want the season to end at all,” freshman center Autumn Smith added. “We get along amazing, and we just know that we didn’t want it to end, so we played our hearts out and kept the season going.”
The SVCC traveling party left this morning at 6 a.m. via charter bus for a 782-mile journey to Devils Lake. Johnson will use the anticipated 13-hour trip to learn what he can about the 28-4 Royals. He has downloaded two game films on his laptop to watch on the trip.
“I think we’ve got some decent information on them,” Johnson said. “It’s just two games, but at least we’ve got something to go off of. We’ll break things down, practice a couple of times there, and be ready to go.”
The leading scorer for Lake Region, which has won 16 of its last 17 games, is Jordyn Kirk, a 5-foot-10 sophomore forward who averages 16 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. She is backed by Sarah Schafer, a 5-9 sophomore guard who averages 14.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and Leslie Hairston, a 6-0 sophomore forward who averages 12.1 points and 5 rebounds.
The head coach is Duane Schwab, who will be stepping down after 25 years on the Lake Region bench. He has a career record of 571-242, with trips to the national tournament in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1997, 2005, 2006 and 2008.
Johnson has settled on a rotation of starters Jordan Giddings and Morgan Dean inside, with a three-guard combo of Sheldeen Joseph, Aleena Hammelman and Jaimie Hurd. The Skyhawks average 66.7 points per game, while allowing just 50.8, and Johnson particularly likes what this group accomplishes on defense.
“Lately, we’ve been playing well with the five or six we’ve been using,” Johnson said. “They’ve got a good thing going on the floor. Defensively, that’s what we’ve focused on. That group does a great job defensively, and if we can hold teams down in the 50s, we usually have a pretty good chance.”
When Dean got into foul trouble in the Region IV final against Kennedy-King, it meant more minutes for Smith, who responded with five points, five rebounds and four blocked shots in 21 minutes of action, her longest stint this season.
“It was so much fun,” Smith said. “I felt that game in my bones when I was warming up. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, to be able to help my team make it this far.”
District D championship
Who: Sauk Valley (23-5) vs. Lake Region (28-4)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Devils Lake, N.D.
Radio: 1240 AM
Up next: Winner advances to junior college nationals, which begin March 17 in Salina, Kan.