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Column: Things looking up in Dixon

Morton's Ian Saathoff dives for a ball between Dixon's Isaiah Roby (left) and Cal Jarrett (right) during their Class 3A Peoria Sectional semifinal Wednesday night at Renaissance Coliseum. While the Dukes lost 41-33, Roby and Jarrett are two of the team's five starters who will return next season.
Morton's Ian Saathoff dives for a ball between Dixon's Isaiah Roby (left) and Cal Jarrett (right) during their Class 3A Peoria Sectional semifinal Wednesday night at Renaissance Coliseum. While the Dukes lost 41-33, Roby and Jarrett are two of the team's five starters who will return next season.

PEORIA – Opportunity came knocking for the Dixon boys basketball team Wednesday night at the Class 3A Bradley Sectional.

Unfortunately for the Dukes, they didn’t answer – this time.

But they just might, and soon.

Dixon (23-7) had its magical season come to an end after a 41-33 loss to Morton at the Renaissance Coliseum, on the campus of Bradley University. Why was the season so magical?

Twenty-three wins might be expected at hoops powerhouses across the state. At Dixon, it is a major cause for celebration. The Dukes have surpassed 20 wins just three times since basketball was first played at DHS in 1919.

The other 20-win finishes were 22-4 in the 1958-59 season, and a 25-2 campaign in 1966-67 – which was also the last time the Dukes won a conference championship.

As for a regional title, the last one of those for Dixon, before this season, was in 1985-86. On paper, this seemed like the perfect year to be in this position.

There is usually at least one dominant team from Peoria standing in the path of a local regional champ.

Take Peoria Central, for example, which dominated a good Sterling club 2 years ago on its way to a 3A title.

This year, however, the path seemed a little clearer. The Dukes drew Morton (17-14), which won the Peoria Manual Regional as a No. 4 seed. The Potters are members of the powerful Mid-Illini Conference, which helps explain their ordinary record, but still, it seemed like a winnable game.

Only this time, the Dukes didn’t perform. Their 33 points marked a season-low, eclipsing a 56-37 loss to Ottawa 2 months ago. Dixon shot just 38.7 percent (12-for-31) from the field, and made just 7 of 13 free throws. Four of those misses came in the fourth quarter, thwarting any possible comeback.

“This is a game we felt we should have won,” Dixon junior guard Cal Jarrett said. “We came into the game thinking we were going to win, just like any game, but we just didn’t get it done.”

A major thorn in the Dukes’ side was Ian Saathoff, a burly 6-foot-6 senior who scored 19 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, and was the focal point of the Potters’ offense. Dixon’s Isaiah Roby was the main defender on Saathoff, and did block six shots, but acknowledged he needs to put up a better fight inside.

“He’s really, really physical,” Roby said, “and I guess I wasn’t prepared. I need to put on some weight and get a little bit stronger so I can bang people down in the post.”

Roby carries just 185 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame. He hopes to be up to 200 by the time next basketball season rolls around.

“My dream is to play college basketball,” Roby said, “and I’m going to get pushed around all the time at the level I want to play it, playing at the weight I am now.”

The maturity Roby is seeking is a microcosm for the Dukes in general. On Wednesday, they started two sophomores (Roby and Kyle LeBlanc) and three juniors (Jarrett, Laron Carr and Matt Coffey).

They are the core of teams that went 1-27 2 years ago, and 3-25 last season. They likely weren’t ready for varsity ball, but were the best Dixon had, and they were going to give it their best.

They lost – and worse, few in Dixon seemed to care. Jarrett remembers a stretch of games his freshman year in which there were 50, maybe 60 fans at Dixon games. About 20 of them were rooting for the Dukes, and only four of them were students.

“We had four fan buses at tonight’s game,” Jarrett said. “It was incredible to see how many people came to see us play.”

The needle is definitely pointing up for the Dukes, with all five starters returning. They were saying all the right things Wednesday night.

“We’re going to work even harder to get back here next year,” Jarrett said, “and hopefully go even farther.”

“After the game, Coach [Jason Mead] asked us again if we’re satisfied,” Roby said. “None of us said yes. We’re all disappointed, but we’re really motivated for next year, for what could happen.”

Still, nothing is ever guaranteed. Mead rightly pointed out things can happen. Players can get injured, move away, or find other interests. There are upsets all the time.

“When you have the opportunity we had, it’s really disappointing to have the offensive game we had,” he said. “Some of that had to do with Morton, but we had open looks, and we missed them.”

“We want to be playing as long as possible in March, because that’s what teams are judged on,” Mead continued. “I think our year has been phenomenal, and we had a lot of fun, but I don’t think any of us are satisfied. The next 8 months are critical. How hard are we going to work? If we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll have a good season and compete for things we haven’t competed for in Dixon in a long time. It’s all up to the kids.”

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