‘Having a blast’: St. Malachy basketball continues racking up Ws

RANTOUL — It has been a season filled with smiles and excitement for Rantoul St. Malachy boys basketball.

Two years after the Tigers’ seventh-grade team reached the 7-1A state tournament’s Elite Eight round, it looks like the 2018-19 seventh-graders and eighth-graders each have the potential to make a return trip to state.

The seventh-grade team is undefeated at 15-0, and the eighth-graders are 17-1. The season’s successful run thus far has not been surprising to the Tigers’ coaches.

“Honestly, this group is amazing,” seventh-grade head coach Jeremy Larson said. “At the risk of sounding cliche, they never stop surprising us with their success. We had some ideas that this group was special during their fifth- and sixth-grade seasons, but due to low numbers in the seventh- and eighth-grade classes that year, we leveraged the boys as sixth-graders to help fill the gaps.

“They grew up very much during that time, and it’s showing now. We have four sixth-graders and four seventh-graders, and being the family-orientated school that we are, everyone is concerned at keeping each other accountable, and we're having a blast doing it.”

The fun run continued Thursday night for both squads. The seventh-graders defeated Crescent City 37-31 behind Ross Gawenda’s 15 points, and the eighth-graders took down Crescent City 58-23 led by Caleb Neitzel (16 points), Jacksen Adkins (14) and Cabott Craft (10) in the teams’ first game since Dec. 14 and first home game since Nov. 26.

“Our team is so blessed,” Larson said. “Small in number, we're mighty in heart. The boys play on a seventh-grade team but play at higher level because of the maturity and skillset offered by the seventh-graders. Those four boys set the tempo and tone of the team, and the sixth-graders feed off them.

“We talk often about the peaks and valleys of a season a player can have and how important it is to have the team pick that guy up when he's having an off night. I think we do a great job of helping each other out and battling through the challenges the game gives. It wouldn't be fair to the others to highlight just one (player), so we'll call this one a team effort.”

Larson and eighth-grade head coach Steve Neitzel are each in their first season at helm of the Tigers’ seventh- and eighth-graders, and each is quick to credit the community support for the combined 32-1 start to the season.

“Our fan support is huge,” Neitzel said. “Between parents, grandparents and people in the community, they have ties to the school. A lot of them went to the school. Our fan support, home and away, has just been great. I think the dedication of the parents and the kids is big. A lot of parents get them started in the rec program Rantoul has through Andy Graham. A lot of the credit goes to the parents, and they support the kids. I know other parents at other schools do, too, but they seem to support the kids really well.”

Larson is in his second year coaching St. Malachy basketball after helping with the fifth- and sixth-graders last season. Larson and Neitzel are joined by assistant coaches Zack Anderson, who has been a St. Malachy coach the last two seasons, Steve Birmingham and Shannon Durhan.

“It's incredible,” Larson said of the community support. “The support we've gotten from the community is amazing. We've had generous parents and supporters bring sandwiches for the boys when we are on the road, carpooling and loading up the cars.

“We travel well. I don't think there has been a game yet that the opponent’s stands have outmatched ours. (Rantoul Township High School) coaches, (St. Thomas More) coaches, alumni from St. Malachy and the fans all have made an effort to reach out to the teams and show their support. It's so awesome to have that.”

One of the highlights of the season for the seventh-graders was earning the No. 1 seed in the Illini Conference tournament, defeating Next Generation 35-15 before taking down Philo St. Thomas More 37-32 in the championship game. The eighth-grade Tigers also earned the tournament’s top seed and took home a conference tournament title.

“Both teams were challenges that we gained a lot of growth from,” Larson said. “Philo gave us a good run.”

Both Tigers teams will find out their postseason seeds Thursday. Both squads will be hosting a regional. The 7-1A regional begins Jan. 19 at St. Malachy, with the championship game being played at 6 p.m. Jan. 23. The 8-1A regional begins Jan. 26, and the title game is at 6 p.m. Jan. 29 at St. Malachy.

“It’s been fun,” Neitzel said. “It’s a great group of kids. They’re hard workers and great listeners. Besides being talented, they’re also really hard workers in practice. They’ve been improving all year long. I’ve always been preaching we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and we’re working on that.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

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