The Sauk Valley Magic AAU teams can count among their coaches Ray Sharp and Alex Coppejans, two coaches whose high school teams collide today at Carver Arena in the Class 1A state semifinal when Newman meets Annawan.
“I respect him very much as a coach, he’s a great coach,” Sharp said. “Usually we’re coaching different age levels, but during practices we’re together, and he’s a great guy and a great coach.”
Coppejans went to state as a player in 2009, and took over the Braves in 2014. His first season saw Annawan go 5-24, but in the 3 years since, his teams have gone 86-14.
This trip to state is the Braves’ first since Coppejans was on the team.
The trip to state is Newman’s first time reaching the semifinals. Sharp has a 225-95 record in his 11 years helming the Comets.
“He’s a tremendous mentor,” Coppejans said. “I envy the way he’s able to get the best out of his players.”
Coppejans and Sharp have never coached against each other at any level. When Friday’s game tips off and the two are on opposite ends of the scorers’ table, it will be another first.
“I think it will make the game a little more fun, and personal,” Sharp said. “When we go into AAU, we have tryouts on the 25th, it’ll sure be nice to have the bragging rights.”
The two coaches bring with them two first-team all-state players.
Newman sophomore center Devon House earned first-team honors after averaging 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
Braves senior guard Owen Landwehr is a first-team pick who averages 19.3 points per game.
In addition to Landwehr, Ben Buresh averages 12.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. The senior forward was an all-state honorable mention.
“I expect a pretty good team,” House said. “They’re probably going to be playing pretty hard, like we have been the past couple weeks to get to this point. It’s going to be a big game, probably. We’re going to look for a lot of effort in the seniors that we have.”
The Braves also get 8.8 points per game from Brendon Shaw, a 3-point shooter who is shooting 26-for-93 from behind the arc this year. Shaw, Jacob Wolf and Dante Weathersby have all topped the 100-rebound mark this season.
“[Landwehr and Buresh] are the two main guys, but I know the other guys fill roles very well,” Sharp said. “They play about six or seven guys. I don’t think they’re looking for a fast-paced game at all, but hopefully we can push the pace and get out and run a little bit.”
Newman has a fairly balanced attack of its own, with House, Cade Gorzny and Travis Williams all averaging more than 10 points per game, and Brycen Bartel not far behind at 7.3 points per game. Gorzny has hit more 3-pointers this season (84) than any Brave other than Shaw has attempted.
Annawan needed just 39 points to get past Ridgeview in the 1A Normal Supersectional on Tuesday. The Comets have seen that pace before, winning a 46-43 game over East Dubuque last week in the Eastland Sectional final. The Comets have also seen a much faster pace at times, twice facing up-tempo Polo and Milledgeville, and getting into a track meet with Providence St. Mel at times in the DeKalb Supersectional.
“We went from River Ridge who pressed all game, to East Dubuque who slowed the game down,” House said. “That was a big win for us. Annawan, they’re going to play the same way, and we’re going to play our way.”
The Comets also have experience playing a close game in the low-tempo, half-court style, with the win over East Dubuque coming down to a Warriors’ shot at the buzzer falling short. Newman also survived a close supersectional game, with a Williams free throw with 1.1 seconds on the clock securing the 61-60 win over St. Mel.
“I think Annawan is going to be more like an East Dubuque, and it’s going to come down to the final moments and see who’s going to break first,” Newman guard Gehrig Koerner said.
For Newman, every win now is uncharted territory. Sharp hopes to get his Comets into some sort of routine to cut down on players feeling the pressure of being on the big stage of the state tournament with an all-state first-teamer.
It’s a recipe that has worked so far.
“That was a big stage [Tuesday], and it’s a similar stage [today] and Saturday,” Sharp said. “If we get into our routine where we’re doing the same thing pregame and going over the scouting report, digesting the gameplan, making sure we’re getting it right, and then going out and making sure we understand what we need to do offensively and defensively to win the game, hopefully they’re just thinking about strategy and not the spotlight.”
1A state semifinal
Newman (28-4) vs. Annawan (30-3)
When: 11 a.m. today
Where: Carver Arena, Peoria Civic Center
At stake: Winner advances to 1A state championship game, vs. Goreville or Okawville, 12:45 p.m. Saturday at Carver Arena
Twitter: @AdamFeinerSVM & @BrianWeidman