Year in review: Looking back at the entire 2016-17 prep sports year

STRAIGHT OUT OF THE RANTOUL PRESS SPORTS VAULT STARTED BY FORMER SPORTS EDITOR MATT DANIELS, WE TAKE A LOOK BACK AT THE 2016-17 AREA PREP SPORTS SCENE AND A LOOK AHEAD TO THE 2017-18 SCHOOL YEAR

RANTOUL PRESS MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR

Demarius Smith

Rantoul senior: Wrestling

Smith wrapped up a terrific career by becoming the most decorated Eagles wrestler in school history. Though he fell 1-0 in the 152-pound state championship match, the University of Illinois commit went 72-4 over his final two seasons, which also included a fourth-place finish in 2016. He didn’t let an early-season injury stop him from getting out to a 31-0 start in 2016-17. Smith was, of course, disappointed in his second-place finish, but he left a legacy at Rantoul Township High School nonetheless. Smith is also a talented rapper on the side.

RANTOUL PRESS FEMALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR

Brittney Enos

Fisher senior: Volleyball, basketball, softball

There was one word that all three of Enos’ head coaches used to describe her: leader. Assistants and teammates agreed, all labeling the Bunnies’ standout as the one who would keep the team together, get them going when energy was low and always be the calming voice in the locker room or in the huddle. Enos will be following in mother Diane’s footsteps in becoming a collegiate athlete. The younger Enos, who won a regional softball title all four years, is headed to Monmouth to play volleyball and softball.

NOTABLE MOMENTS

RANTOUL

Rantoul football — The one moment that stood out most during the Eagles’ fourth straight season of one-or-none wins came in Week 2. The first two games of the year saw Charleston and Seneca across the sidelines, the two most likely opportunities for a Rantoul win. Following a 14-6 loss in Week 1 to Charleston under muddy conditions, the Eagles got out to a 6-0 start on their first offensive play from scrimmage against Seneca. They ended up losing 36-12, and while walking off the field, a Rantoul player’s eyes welled up with tears. We think he knew Rantoul had given up both of its best opportunities to nab a victory. The Eagles would be outscored 319-34 (average of 45.6 points allowed) in the final seven weeks, with 22 of those points coming against Unity’s backups late in the second half. Playing tough for a half and surprising a 12-1 Monticello team that reached the 3A state semifinals was also a nice surprise.

Rantoul volleyball — For as much excitement four-year coach Traci Riddle had coming into the season, she probably expected a better start than the dismal one her Eagles began 2017 with. After going 2-11 across the first 13 matches, Rantoul rebounded for a 10-9 mark over the last 19, including a stretch in September in which it won six in a row and seven of eight. Taking third at the Paxton-Buckley-Loda Invitational was another high point. The Eagles also sent Kaylee Spegal, a four-year setter and one of the most critical pieces in the program, on her way to Kankakee Community College to continue her collegiate career.

Rantoul soccer — The Eagles played tough competition early in the season, and it showed. They started off 0-7 and didn’t record a single goal. But Tim Robinson, who always seemed to be fair and honest with his players, was at the helm of an impressive 7-12-1 turnaround of a program still trying to get fully off the ground. Michael Masters takes over for Robinson in year four of the program and will look to build on a successful run that saw Rantoul win its first postseason game with a 5-0 win over Georgetown-Ridge Farm in the regional quarterfinals. The electric atmosphere under the lights on Senior Night in a win over Unity was something Robinson and the players seemed to cherish more than any other moments during the season.

Rantoul cross country — Elijah Hall earned first-team all-conference honors by finishing seventh at the Okaw Valley Conference meet in October. Hall, the team’s MVP, advanced to the Class 2A Metamora Sectional and finished 58th. He consistently broke 17 minutes in every meet during the 3-mile races. Hope Russell carried the girls’ cross country team by herself as the lone member.

Rantoul/PBL golf — A team full of youth had first-year coach Patrick Leary happy about the future heading into the 2016 season. Juniors Luke Jones and Seth Allen, sophomores Chase Moore and Noah Shields and freshman Trey Van Winkle were the youngsters on the Rantoul golf team while seniors Ben Amerio and Gabe Armstrong provided the veteran leadership. Armstrong took second place at the Okaw Valley Conference meet, and Moore will be back to try to advance to the sectional meet for the second year in a row.

Rantoul girls tennis — Alex Hastings took MVP honors for Bryce Hartranft’s team that struggled to notch wins most of the year. Mackenzie Taticek earned her first of three most improved awards, with her second and third coming in girls basketball and softball.

Rantoul boys basketball — The Eagles won 20 games for the second year in a row — the first time they had done that since the ‘60s — and won a second consecutive Okaw Valley Conference title, cemented by a thrilling win over St. Joseph-Ogden. A pair of close wins over fourth-place Class 2A state finisher Monticello — an overtime victory in the second matchup was one of the best games of the entire prep sports year and was labeled by coach Brett Frerichs as “one of the biggest wins in my career” — provided some regular season fireworks. The school’s first Hall of Fame basketball game against Charleston on Jan. 17 was a unique night, as was the team’s trip to Knightstown, Ind., for a game in “Hoosier Gym.” The season ended in heartbreak for the second time in a row with a regional semifinal loss to Mahomet-Seymour.

Rantoul girls basketball — The Eagles opened the season with a fourth-place finish in the Comet Classic to host Oakwood, which went on to have a phenomenal season. There were some highlights sprinkled in during a 7-21 season (officially 9-19 coupled with two Urbana wins that were later vacated). Beating Fisher, Unity and St. Joseph-Ogden were the top highlights, as was Breezy Espinoza’s first-team all-conference honors and her inclusion into the seventh annual Battle of the Border All-Star Game between players from eastern Illinois and western Indiana. She set the all-star game’s single-game scoring record with 19 points.

Rantoul wrestling — First-year coach Mark McCusker sent three of his boys to the state meet at the University of Illinois. Demarius Smith graduates, but Peter McCusker and Nolan Roseman will be back for junior seasons in which they each hope to make a second straight state appearance. Seth Sprandel also returns after advancing to the sectional meet at 195 pounds.

Rantoul baseball — A 4-4 finish in the Okaw Valley Conference was disappointing, considering the Eagles’ potential. Rantoul took down the 2016 Class 2A state champs and 2017 runners-up St. Joseph-Ogden in a 1-0 gem twirled by Adam Crites. They competed for an OVC crown in the conference’s final year, but losing seven of the final eight put a damper on an 11-17 finish.

Rantoul softball — The Eagles are a year ahead of schedule thanks to the five phenomenal freshmen who matured quicker than expected. Even ace pitcher Lindsay Jordahl thought it would take another year for the core of Jenna Sanford, Madisyn Walton, Lexi Turner, Lexi Sherrick and Kristen Fauser to blossom and gel. Things came together quickly, and the Eagles went 22-11 with a second-place OVC finish and a trip to a regional title game. Catcher/third baseman Brianna Tatar was fun to watch, smashing 14 home runs, second in the area. Her late go-ahead home run against Fisher allowed the Eagles to celebrate their most exciting win of the year.

Rantoul boys track and field — The 1,600-meter relay team of Raul Castillo, Jerry Harper, Jared Motley and Garet Kinnett had a historic season that culminated in a seventh-place finish at the Class 2A state meet. The foursome became the first Rantoul relay team to medal at the state meet in 18 years, and they did so by running their top time of the year in a new order. Kinnett ran the anchor leg all season, and Harper went second. The two switched for the final race of the year, and the move paid off big time.

Rantoul girls track and field — Myejoi Williams burst on the scene by taking an Okaw Valley Conference meet championship in the shot put as a freshman. She will be back next year to defend her crown, but senior Akalah Spinks, who reached the state meet in back-to-back years, will not be.

FISHER

Fisher football — It was a tough season on the gridiron for both area teams. Fisher went 1-8 in coach Jake Palmer’s first season. The Bunnies took care of Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland 41-6 for their lone win of the season, but blowout losses to 2A state champ Deer Creek-Mackinaw and powerhouse Tri-Valley were indicators of how the season went. Palmer, like first-year Rantoul coach Tom Hess, believes the Bunnies are on the right path to righting the ship.

Fisher volleyball — The optimism for a Bunnies team that went 9-18 comes in the form of returning standouts Sydney Eichelberger, Bailey Hadden and Becca Clanton. The pessimism is the loss of seniors Brittney Enos, Megan Nigg, Lydia Sprau and Cassidy Thomas. Despite being nine games under .500, the Bunnies took a perennially successful Blue Ridge squad to the brink in a 25-23, 16-25, 17-25 regional semifinal loss. The coaching staff believed that final record was not indicative of the turnaround the group made from its middle school days. Brooke Clemmons takes over head coaching duties heading into next season with the resignation of Tricia Schwing after the 2016 season.

Fisher/Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley soccer — Normally a 10-8-4 record would provide neutral feelings: Well, we didn’t do great, but we didn’t do bad. But how this Bunnies team responded following a 3-7 start was nothing short of immensely impressive. Eleven straight matches with no losses, including a seven-game win streak and a 2-0 win over Rantoul highlighted a bounce-back season which ended in hard-fought loss at the hands of a Bloomington Cornerstone team that finished fourth in state. Though the loss of Caleb Pulley will hurt, Fisher/GCMS returns Caleb Bleich, Alec Johnson and Mattias Dean to lead the 2017 charge.

Fisher golf — Max Harmon, Fisher’s lone senior, shot a 79 at the Tuscola Regional and finished third overall to advance to the sectional round. It was Harmon’s second sectional finish in three years. Sidney Hood and Sean Ward also advanced to the sectional round.

Fisher boys basketball — Fisher ended a pair of droughts in 2016-17. The Bunnies’ 21-10 record gave them 20-plus wins for the first time in 29 years, and a demolishing of Chrisman in a regional championship game gave them a regional title for the first time since 2012. Fisher’s 65-51 upset of Class 1A’s No. 1-ranked team, the Ridgeview Mustangs, on the road in Colfax on Jan. 6 signified this team was for real when it played like it’s capable. Fisher lost a 47-44 heartbreaker in a rematch with the Mustangs in a sectional semifinal. The Bunnies accomplished all three season goals: 20-plus wins, a regional title and a trip to the Shirk Center. Unfortunately for coach Cody Diskin, he will have to retool his schemes a bit with the graduation of super senior Zach Griffith, who scored more than 1,000 career points. Cale Zook and Jesse Pedigo will also be far from easy replacements.

Fisher girls basketball — An inconsistent season in Fisher was highlighted by the Bunnies matching the boys with a road win over Class 1A’s No. 1-ranked Ridgeview Mustangs squad. Ken Ingold builds his team on a slow pace and tough defense, and that’s exactly how most of the Bunnies’ games played out. The scores were typically in the high 30s or low 40s. That’s how Fisher upset Watskea in the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devil Classic. That win over the Warriors — a friendly coaching rival for Ingold — was part of a rough 3-10 stretch in December. 

GCMS/Fisher wrestling — A regional championship is always on coach Josh Carter’s agenda, but things didn’t shake out that way for the Falcons, who finished in sixth place at the Deer Creek-Mackinaw Regional. Jacob Horsch and Payton Kean reached the sectional round, however, and Horsch took second at the Clinton Sectional to advance to state.

Fisher baseball — Jon Kelly’s final season at the helm of the program was his worst. The Bunnies finished 5-20-1, running into the other team’s top pitcher in most games. Austin Henson was a bright spot in Fisher’s two wins over Ridgeview, but a season-ending loss to Salt Fork in the host Bunnies’ regional semifinal game was disappointing. That was a game Fisher put itself in position to win, keeping it close throughout.

Fisher softball — A fifth consecutive regional title is obviously impressive, though the sectional is not where the Bunnies’ run should have ended. They fell in heartbreaking fashion to Dwight in the sectional semis after jumping out to a 2-0 lead. But Dwight’s three-run homer to break a 2-2 sixth-inning tie spoiled an otherwise terrific performance from ace pitcher Sydney Eichelberger. After beginning the year a dismal 9-8 against a schedule drowning in state-ranked competition, Fisher went 11-3 the rest of the way. Kylie Terven’s go-ahead RBI in the sixth in a win over state-ranked Heyworth jump-started the Bunnies midseason.

Fisher boys track and field — Kade Thomas finished fifth in the high jump, leaping 5-feet, 7-inches to lead Fisher’s individual placers in the Heart of Illinois Conference meet. KJ Patton finished sixth in the shot put and eighth in the discus, and Fisher had three relay teams tally top-10 finishes. The 4x100 and 4x200 relay teams of Bryce and Dalton Burk, Ethan McCoy and Tyler Wilson each placed fourth while the 4x400 relay team of McCoy, Nathan Kuhns, Jaden Jones-Watkins and Kellen May finished sixth as part of 10 top-10 finishes for the boys team.

Fisher girls track and field — Alayna Stalter and Lexie May were the two Bunnies with the most distinction in 2017. Stalter finished third in the 100-meter hurdles for the second straight season and will be back for a 2018 senior year in which she is confident she will take gold. May won an HOIC championship in discus with a first-place throw of 108-feet, 11-inches. Fisher had nine top-10 finishes at the HOIC meet.

ARMSTRONG-POTOMAC

Armstrong-Potomac volleyball — When the Trojans struggled in the PBL Invitational, it ended in a consolation championship — disappointing but acceptable. When they came out flat and unprepared in a dull performance in third-place game loss in the Vermilion County Conference tournament, it was a head scratcher. But apparently that was the right kick in the tail they needed, because they used the loss as a learning experience they turned into the program’s first regional title game appearance since 2008.

A-P boys basketball — When the Trojans surprised many with a Tri-County Conference championship to tip off the season, it was indeed a happy Thanksgiving for Sean O’Brien’s squad. But that sweet feeling soon wore off, as the Trojans limped to another poor season in which they finished 6-23. Ruger Crozier’s game-winning layup put a thrilling cap on a fun final sequence in a 49-48 win over Chicago Longwood at The Leader Classic.

A-P girls basketball — It was a preps season chock full of turnarounds, as the Lady Trojans were another example of a 180-degree change. Stuck in the mud with a 4-7 showing in mid-December, Angela Sieberns, Madi Gayheart and Co. rebounded to win 11 of 16 to close the season. That included a third-place finish in the Vermilion County Conference tourney.

A-P baseball — There were not too many notable moments during a 2-20 finish, other than Dalton Loschen’s inclusion into the first-team All-Vermilion County team.

A-P softball — The regional semifinal loss (more on that ahead) was a devastating way to end a season in which the Trojans were playing their best in the final weeks. Offense was there many times, but defense and pitching was not.

NOTABLE STORIES

August

Headline: Tommy John the founding father of the Zipper Club

Synopsis: Former Rantoul Press sports editor Brendan Quealy interviewed former Major League Baseball pitcher Tommy John last summer. John is famous for the elbow reconstruction surgery on the ulnar collateral ligament that now bears his name.

The quote: “Every time you throw a baseball, there’s pressure. But these kids, they’re not strong enough to withstand those forces. When you try to throw harder than you should or harder than what you can, that’s when you get hurt.” — Tommy John

September

Headline: Welcome to the club

Synopsis: Rantoul Township High School inducted its latest Hall of Fame class during halftime of a Week 2 game against Seneca. The newest members were Lena Geronimo, David Council and Andrew Kurtz.

The quote: “I honestly got emotional and almost started crying when I was up there. Oh man, I think I’m going to start crying now. … This moment means the world to me.” — Lena Geronimo as tears began to well up in her eyes following her HOF induction

October

Headline: The Big 3

Synopsis: Caleb Pulley, Alec Johnson and Caleb Bleich of the Fisher/Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley soccer team were in the midst of a seven-match winning streak, due in large part to the trio’s chemistry.

The quote: “This is a special team. This is the kind of team I’ve wanted to play on in all of my years of playing soccer that I’ve never really felt like I’ve had before.” — Fisher/GCMS senior soccer player Caleb Pulley

November

Headline: Turning point

Synopsis: In a 2016 regional championship game, then-Rantoul junior Duck Gibson missed a potentially game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of a 58-57 loss to Mahomet-Seymour on the Eagles’ home floor. Gibson made a putback but after the final buzzer sounded. Gibson, who made a simple, yet drastic position change from shooting guard to point guard prior to the 2016-17 season, said most of his motivation for the season came from that final heartbreaking game.

The quote: “I watch it every day, and it hurts me every day.” — Duck Gibson on watching game tape of the final seconds of the loss to M-S

December

Headline: Unblemished

Synopsis: Rantoul wrestlers Demarius Smith, Nolan Roseman and Peter McCusker were all still undefeated by the time Christmas rolled around.

The quote: “I’ve tried to schedule outings so they don’t remain undefeated for the year. I’ve tried to get the toughest schedule possible. We want our wrestlers to learn from their mistakes and be fired up at the state finals.” — Rantoul wrestling coach Mark McCusker

January

Headline: Growing up

Synopsis: Rantoul basketball senior Onycai Lawson and his girlfriend, Alayah, were preparing to have their daughter, Aaliyah, in mid-January. Aaliyah was born in February.

The quote: “Once (my daughter) comes, Alayah thinks I’m going to cry. I know I’m going to cry.” — Onycai Lawson

February

Headline: ‘Second chance’

Synopsis: Fisher’s boys basketball team throttled Chrisman 80-51 in a 1A regional championship game. It was a feeling 180 degrees different than the end of the 2015-16 season in which Fisher fell in a 44-43 overtime heartbreaker to Salt Fork.

The quote: “I feel like our team has taken our game to the next level.” — Fisher junior Kade Thomas

March

Headline: Taking center stage

Synopsis: Rantoul native Mike Mennenga was one of the critical parts of Oregon’s Final Four run in men’s basketball. The Ducks assistant was instrumental in getting three of the program’s top players, Dillon Brooks, Dylan Ennis and Chris Boucher, to transfer to Eugene.

The quote: “We’re trying to soak it all up, and we understand there are a lot of great players and coaches out there who work a long time in their lives and never get a chance to experience a Final Four.” — Mike Mennenga

April

Headline: Crites in command

Synopsis: Rantoul sophomore pitcher Adam Crites continued to show his dominance, tossing a two-hit, eight-inning shutout against eventual 2A state runner-up St. Joseph-Ogden in a 1-0 win. Crites was perfect through 5 1/3 innings.

The quote: “It takes a lot to rattle him. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him rattled.” — Rantoul baseball assistant Allen Jones Jr.

May

Headline: Historic run

Synopsis: The Rantoul boys track and field team’s 1,600-meter relay squad of Raul Castillo, Garet Kinnett, Jared Motley and Jerry Harper finished seventh in the Class 2A state meet.

The quote: “We didn’t know that would be that big.” — Jared Motley, when informed it was the first Eagles relay in 18 years to medal

June

Headline: Heart of a champion

Synopsis: Rantoul grads Kyle Flessner and Thomas Wolken became national champions in June. Kankakee Community College won the NJCAA Division II College World Series. Flessner and Wolken were two of the leaders who called a players-only meeting following the Cavaliers’ embarrassing loss to Madison College. The meeting led to a complete turnaround that jump-started the Cavs’ championship run.

The quote: “After that game, everyone came out, for lack of a better word, pissed off.” — Thomas Wolken

TOP THREE PROGRAMS

MOST BOYS WINS

How Rantoul, Fisher and Armstrong-Potomac stack up based solely on combined wins from football, boys basketball and baseball during the 2016-17 school year.

1. Rantoul — 31 (football: 0-9; boys basketball: 20-9; baseball: 11-17)

2. Fisher — 27 (football: 1-8; boys basketball: 21-10; baseball: 5-20-1)

3. A-P — 9 (*football: 1-8; boys basketball: 6-23; baseball: 2-20)

*Co-op with Hoopeston Area/Schlarman Academy

MOST GIRLS WINS

How Rantoul, Fisher and Armstrong-Potomac stack up based solely on combined wins from volleyball, girls basketball and softball during the 2016-17 school year.

1. A-P — 45 (volleyball: 22-12; girls basketball: 15-12; softball: 8-21)

2. Rantoul — 43 (volleyball: 12-20; girls basketball: 9-19; softball: 22-11)

3. Fisher — 41 (volleyball: 9-18; girls basketball: 12-18; softball: 20-12)

TEN SENIORS WE’LL MISS

Raul Castillo — One of the fastest players in the area, Castillo was a blur on the field each direction he zigged and zagged for Rantoul’s soccer team.

Brittney Enos — The Monmouth commit is set for success in her collegiate career after standing out as a hitter in volleyball, forward in basketball and first baseman/pitcher in softball.

Breezy Espinoza — One of the hardest workers RTHS has ever seen, Espinoza enjoyed success on the soccer pitch, but she starred on the basketball court. She is set up for a great career at Danville Area Community College, where she will continue her basketball career.

Duck Gibson — The most athletic Eagle on the roster, Gibson can jump out of the gym, either to sky for a dunk or levitate for a Wes Washpun-style jumper.

Zach Griffith — Fisher’s latest 1,000-point scorer may be the leading scorer in school history, but the Bunnies don’t have the official stats. Griffith was a matchup nightmare who could pass, rebound, nail threes and play with his back to the basket.

Anisa Hall — Rantoul’s senior libero was quieter than a church mouse, and she struggled early in her career and early in the 2016 season. Hall was a revelation to her teammates and coach Traci Riddle, earning legitimate, severely honest praise for her improvement and her confidence gain.

Holley Hambleton — A star in volleyball, girls basketball and softball, Hambleton is slated for success at DACC on the softball diamond.

Caleb Pulley — It’s almost not fair that Pulley won’t be around for another season with Caleb Bleich and Alec Johnson, three of whom developed a smooth, fun-to-watch chemistry on the pitch.

Kevin and Kevonte Williams — Even though Kevonte’s season was cut short because of injury, watching these two playing together was fun each night they both took the court. The brothers are heading to Lake Land College to continue their careers.

Mackenzie Taticek — This one was an obvious choice. Taticek showed passion each and every time she took the tennis court, basketball court or the softball field. That passion showed with her hustle for loose balls and sprinting into fences on fly balls into the outfield. The fact she earned “Most Improved Player” in all three sports her senior year speaks volumes.

TOP TEAMS

1. Rantoul boys basketball — Though the season didn’t end the way the Eagles wanted, a second straight 20-win season and Okaw Valley title wasn’t a surprise.

2. Fisher boys basketball — A historic season ended in heartbreak in a narrow sectional loss to Ridgeview, but the highlights were plentiful.

3. Rantoul softball — The Eagles were a couple defensive mistakes away from winning a regional title. Despite the defeat at the hands of Chatham Glenwood, it was a successful season for a team filled with youth.

4. Fisher softball — Ken Ingold always schedules one of the toughest slates in the area, and this season it led to a 9-8 finish. But the Bunnies turned things around, and their difficult schedule helped prepare them for a fifth straight regional title.

5. Fisher/GCMS soccer — Perhaps the best turnaround of the preps season belonged to the Bunnies, who bounced back from a 3-7 start to finish 10-8-4.

6. Rantoul wrestling — Getting three wrestlers to the state tournament and four total to the sectional round was about as good as it can get in Mark McCusker’s first year.

7. Armstrong-Potomac volleyball — The Trojans reached their first regional title game since 2008 but after a loss to Blue Ridge are still searching for that first regional hardware since 1999.

8. Armstrong-Potomac girls basketball — If not for some hiccups in a regional semifinal game against Cissna Park, the Trojans would have been fighting for a regional title.

9. Rantoul boys track and field — Mitch Wilson had a number of superb athletes, including one of the top relay teams in the area, and the Eagles have potential to be even better in 2018.

10. Rantoul soccer — Raul Castillo, Germaine Salinas, Derrick Anderson and Jesus Gonzalez were an entertaining bunch, but all four seniors are gone. Returning are Garet Kinnett, Jared Motley and Maycoll Parades to lead the Eagles’ parade.

TOP GAMES

1. Fisher vs. LeRoy, boys basketball (Jan. 19): In the fifth-place bracket of the McLean County/Heart of Illinois Conference game, Zach Griffith and Nick Perry took us on a thrill ride in LeRoy’s 70-69 win. Fisher’s Griffith exploded for a season-high 31 points on 12-of-18 shooting (4-of-6 on threes), and Perry poured in a season-high as well with 37 points on 11-of-22 from the field (also 4-of-6 on threes). Jaden Jones-Watkins chipped in 20 points for Fisher, which got a go-ahead free throw from Griffith with 18.4 seconds left for a 69-68 lead. The Panthers then converted a pair of free throws on a controversial call before Griffith was called for a push off on the other end, and his three-quarter-court prayer banged off the right side of the rim at the buzzer.

2. Rantoul vs. Mahomet-Seymour, boys basketball (March 1): The Eagles led for nearly 27:30 of the 32-minute game but fell to the Bulldogs 62-58. M-S guard Bradley Hamilton nailed a 3-pointer on a broken play to go up 58-56 with less than 50 seconds remaining for the Bulldogs’ first lead since midway through the first quarter.

3. Rantoul vs. Monticello, boys basketball (Feb. 3): Rantoul escaped with a 69-65 win in overtime. The Sages trailed nearly the entire game, but Calvin Fisher’s back-to-back 3-pointers with 13 seconds and 3 seconds left in regulation helped send the game to OT. Kevin Williams exploded for 35 points on an incredibly efficient 14-of-17 shooting to help the Eagles continue their eventual second consecutive undefeated OVC season.

4. Rantoul vs. St. Joseph-Ogden, baseball (April 18): Eagles ace Adam Crites was absolutely sensational, tossing a perfect game through 5 1/3 innings on his way to a two-hitter. He tossed just 84 pitches and was extended to the eighth inning. Crites’ complete eight-inning performance led to Nolan Roseman’s walk-off single in a 1-0 win at Wabash Park.

5. Fisher vs. Ridgeview, boys basketball (Jan. 6): Trailing 19-13 after the first quarter and 33-27 at halftime, Fisher adjusted its defensive style on the fly, which sparked an 11-0 run to go ahead 44-35 with 1:08 left in the third quarter. Jaden Jones-Watkins (19 points, six assists) and Zach Griffith (20 points, 14 rebounds) combined for all 11 points of that run, and Cale Zook tallied 14 points and six rebounds over the No. 1-ranked team in Class 1A on the road.

6. Fisher vs. Ridgeview, girls basketball (Jan. 25): While the boys won handedly, the girls kept things a bit more interesting with a game that ran down to the wire. A 40-37 win was capped by a Becca Clanton layup off a beautiful lob pass from Sidney Hood in the final 30 seconds — the exact play they ran just six days prior to help beat El Paso-Gridley in the McLean County/Heart of Illinois Conference tournament.

7. Fisher/GCMS vs. Rantoul, soccer (Sept. 27, 2016): Unlike most of the games in these top 10 rankings, this match isn’t on here for being any type of thriller. It was a 2-0 Bunnies shutout win that didn’t feature many fireworks. What the game signified, though, was the return of the Fisher/GCMS program to success and the potential birth of the Eagles’ soccer program. Both entered the match on hot streaks, Fisher/GCMS with seven straight wins and Rantoul having won five of six. It was an indicator of how both programs could look in the future. 

8. Rantoul vs. Fisher, softball (March 23): We can only wish this game had been played later in the season rather than in March, when it wasn’t apparent yet how successful both clubs would be. Both enjoyed 20-plus win seasons, trips to regional title games and a final top-10 News-Gazette ranking. Brianna Tatar’s pair of two-run blasts, the second a go-ahead homer in the sixth, secured an elated postgame celebration by an Eagles team dying for a win over their local rivals.

9. Rantoul vs. LeRoy, softball (April 25): Ahead 9-5 in the seventh, the Eagles surrendered the large lead and allowed the Panthers to force extra innings. Both clubs scored in the eighth, but LeRoy came out on top 11-10 in nine innings.

10. Armstrong-Potomac vs. Woodland, softball (May 16): This is always going to be looked at as a “what could have been game” for Gary Duden’s club. The seventh-seeded Trojans never trailed against the No. 3 seed in an offensive explosion that ended in a 15-14 loss in the regional semis. A-P led 13-8 going into the seventh and was still ahead 13-10 with two outs. But defensive mistakes cost the Trojans a second straight regional championship game appearance, despite Kayla Roe’s two home runs, one of which gave the lead back to A-P in the eighth inning.

ALL-INTERVIEW TEAM

Bree Davis — Probably Rantoul volleyball’s most violent outside hitter, Davis was great at articulating the scene that just took place and bringing enthusiasm to postgame sessions.

Holley Hambleton — Not a surprise to see The News-Gazette correspondent for Armstrong Township High School on this list.

Erick Johnson — The Rantoul senior-to-be has always been a joy to interview after games. Following his first career dunk, Johnson lit up while talking about how amazing of a feeling it was to slam one home. He will be getting plenty of buzz during the 2017-18 season.

JT Jones — Only interviewed a couple times, but he’s given good stuff, as expected from a coach’s son.

Lindsay Jordahl — Rantoul’s No. 1 pitcher wasn’t just great on the mound. She was also expressive and clearly intelligent in postgame interviews.

Onycai Lawson — Always with the “yes sir” or “no sir” answers, Rantoul’s senior forward was always polite with thoughtful, honest responses.

Ryan Meents — A junior guard from Fisher, Meents has always been one to give smart, articulate answers in just a few words.

Caleb Pulley — Pulley was interviewed just one time all year. Doesn’t matter. The Fisher/GCMS senior soccer standout could give a paragraph response with just one question.

Shawn Reardon — Another “yes sir” or “no sir” guy, the Armstrong-Potomac senior-to-be seems to give honest answers.

Kanosha Williams — A four-year starter on the Eagles’ girls basketball team, Williams was fun to discuss past games and future games with.

SUPER SOPHOMORES

1. Sydney Eichelberger — Not just a dominant ace pitcher for Fisher’s softball team. Eichelberger was also a standout setter and will be back and (presumably) even better in both areas next season.

2. Adam Crites — If Crites can add some MPH to his fastball, watch out.

3. Nolan Roseman — Even if Roseman wasn’t such a tremendous grappler, he would still be on this list for his potential to be a phenomenal baseball player. The southpaw projects as the leadoff hitter for Jon Donovan’s club in 2018. His defense in left field is solid, and Donovan is hoping he will develop into the Eagles’ No. 2 arm behind Adam Crites.

4. Peter McCusker — The coach’s son is searching for a second straight state appearance on the wrestling mat. In cross country, McCusker has a bright future as well.

5. Caleb Bleich — Bleich will surely see even more success in 2017.

6. Sarah Porter — Armstrong-Potomac volleyball is in good hands with the 5-11 Porter to lead the way.

7. Chase Moore — The Rantoul/PBL golf team has one returning sectional qualifier due to Moore’s postseason success.

8. Nicole Sprague — The Armstrong-Potomac point guard, in Nick Hipsher’s words, “doesn’t know how good she can be.” Sprague is one of the better shooters in the area, and that will be proved this winter.

9. Donnell Robertson — A hard-nosed fullback who will once again be a mainstay in the Eagles’ backfield and on defense as either a linebacker or lineman.

10. Angelo Brown — Seems penciled in as Rantoul’s No. 1 quarterback who will probably use his legs more often than his arm.

FANTASTIC FRESHMEN

1. Jenna Sanford — The Rantoul outfielder was one of the most impressive youngsters in the area, earning second team all-area honors from The News-Gazette.

2. Kristen Fauser — Fauser will be looked on the next three years to be a power bat to provide some pop in the heart of Rantoul’s order, and she will be one of the top defensive outfielders in the area.

3. Jerry Harper — Rantoul needs to enjoy the success this youngster will have over the next three years in football, basketball and track.

4. Lexi Sherrick — Sherrick will probably move up higher in the order in 2018, and her defensive ability at second base will be combined with her role as the Eagles’ top reliever of Lindsay Jordahl.

5. Lexi Turner — Coach Travis Flesner will surely miss Turner’s steadiness at shortstop next season as she moves to Johnston City.

6. Sidney Hood — The rookie reached the sectional round in golf before being the top bench player for the Bunnies and one of the top run-producing bats as Fisher’s shortstop.

7. Madisyn Walton — Walton held down first base for the Eagles softball team, and she will need to keep improving in the batting cage in the offseason.

8. Maycoll Parades — Rantoul’s goalkeeper had some ups and downs, but the talent and athleticism is there for him to have a standout sophomore campaign. He could get a shot at some varsity time on the basketball court too.

9. Myejoi Williams — She will have three more chances to defend the OVC crown she won in the shot put, and first-year Rantoul girls basketball coach Kelly Thompson will be able to utilize her in the post.

10. Ethan Kasper — Fisher’s freshman goalkeeper had a solid year and will now have plenty of room to grow in what should be a fun year for Bunnies soccer.

TOP QUOTES

1. “This one feels worse. We gave this one up. I didn’t feel like we necessarily gave it up last year. This year, I felt like we gave this up.” — Rantoul boys basketball coach Brett Frerichs following the Eagles’ 62-58 regional semifinal loss to Mahomet-Seymour, the second straight season-ending loss at the hands of the Bulldogs

2. “I’m blessed to come out and compete. In that way, I’m completely blessed. It was a great experience being here. But not going home with one (championship) was just … It’s a legacy, but I hope anyone who comes up after me can beat it.” — Eagles senior Demarius Smith after his 1-0 loss in the state title match.

3. “It was a great feeling winning the title, and I feel like our team has taken our game to the next level. We’ve been so unselfish and passing the ball around and getting guys shots. Honestly, I feel like these past three games have been the best I’ve seen us play in a long time.” — Bunnies junior guard Kade Thomas after the team’s regional championship game win over Chrisman.

4. “That was one of the biggest wins in my career.” — Eagles boys basketball fifth-year coach Brett Frerichs after a 69-65 OT victory at Monticello on Feb. 3

5. “(The loss) left a bad taste in our mouth. It was a bitter feeling after that game, and that’s what pushed us the whole season to get better every single day, and it showed tonight.” — Bunnies senior forward Zach Griffith, following the regional title game of the motivation Fisher took from the 44-43 loss to Salt Fork in the regional title game on its home floor in 2016.

6. “I remember Coach calling out who was on what teams and looking at the other four freshmen like, ‘Did we make it? Are we on that team?!’” — Rantoul freshman Madisyn Walton on her reaction to each of the five freshmen being named to the varsity softball team after preseaon try-outs

7. “My mom told me to stick it out for one more season, and I am glad that I did. Even though I missed so much personal stuff, I gained an extended family through softball. Everything happens for a reason. So for anyone wanting to play softball, a word of advice is keep on keeping on. Don’t give up.” — Fisher junior catcher Becca Clanton, who thought about quitting softball a few years ago

8. “It was kind of (Luke and I’s) own little sign that, ‘Look, even though I’m coach, here’s a dad moment.’ Every now and then, I still catch myself doing it. It’s our own thing. … I’ve been doing the pinky thing for a long time. You’ve got to find a way to separate (the roles) and teach them the difference between ‘Coach,’ who can be very judgmental, and ‘Dad,’ who can (have) favoritism. It’s tough.” — Rantoul assistant coach/pitching coach Allen Jones Jr., who said he would bridge the gap between father and coach with son Luke by raising his pinkie during a game as a sign to give his son confidence. Jones Jr., whose father Allen Sr. is a volunteer assistant with the Eagles, has another son, JT, who was Rantoul’s senior starting catcher.

9. “McKaufsky has been a great supporter these last four years. I’ve never had love for a coach (like I do for McKaufsky). I took him as a second father, basically. He loves us like we’re his own, and I really appreciate that.” — Eagles senior guard Kanosha Williams on coach Jeff McKaufsky following a 61-47 win over Unity on Senior Night.

10. “I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. This is the team that worked hard and was fun. This is, by far, the best team overall (that I’ve had) with those two characteristics. I’m not saying they’re the best team we ever had, but overall, for being fun to be around, working hard and being coachable, it’s definitely the best team. … They just kept working and working.” — Rantoul softball head coach Travis Flesner following a season-ending loss to Chatham Glenwood in a regional title game

WATCH OUT FOR ...

Dylan Baker — It was a difficult season for Bunnies baseball, but Fisher’s catcher was one of the few bright spots.

Lataveous Bell — Bell will be the only Rantoul boys basketball player with much height this season. He projects as a strong defender, but his post game needs polishing.

Caleb Bleich —  If Bleich fails to record at least one hat trick, it would be a surprise. If he doesn’t find his way onto an all-area team, that would be even more shocking.

Madi Gayheart — Will be the leader of every team she plays for this season: volleyball, basketball and softball. She will need to step up big time.

Jerry Harper — Not very big, but it doesn’t matter. The former state champion at Eater is going to be one of the top weapons in Hess’ arsenal, and he will be a fixture off the bench for Frerichs. And he will look to get the Rantoul 1,600-meter relay team another top-10 finish in addition to an individual medal of his own.

Meech Hudson — Just a bench player last year, Hudson will be one of the top two offensive options for the Rantoul boys basketball team.

Erick Johnson — Last season, the guard was a defensive stopper for Eagles basketball coach Brett Frerichs. This year won’t be different, he will still be asked to defend the opponent’s best perimeter player. But in 2017-18, Johnson will be the offensive centerpiece.

Jaden Jones-Watkins — Will be Fisher QB Kade Thomas’ favorite target and will be returning for another season as Cody Diskin’s starting point guard. He is a part of several relay teams gunning for state.

Lexie May — Her best area is as a returning conference champ in the discus throw, and she is an excellent shot putter. The sophomore also has a chance at starting for Fisher’s basketball team.

Sarah Porter — Don’t be surprised if Porter finds herself on a couple all-area teams following the 2017 volleyball season.

Kayla Roe — If there wasn’t such a logjam at catcher this year, Roe would have had a shot at earning Rantoul Press first-team all-area honors at the position. Roe can rope it.

Kameron Rowe — Rowe is another whom Frerichs’ staff is excited about for the future. He will be part of a small, quick, aggressive backcourt that is going to press more often in 2017-18.

Emily Schluter — One of the biggest reasons the 2017 Eagles volleyball team could soar to new heights.

Kade Thomas — Projected to be Fisher’s starting quarterback and will be looking for that triple-double that eluded him by one rebound in last year’s regional title game. Also will be gunning for a state appearance in the high jump.

Kaylie Wilson — Another key piece of the 2017 Rantoul volleyball squad, and she will be one of the top players for Kelly Thompson’s basketball group too.

Andrew Zook — Cale’s younger brother looked impressive in the post against Rantoul’s Lataveous Bell in a game earlier this summer.

10 HEADLINES YOU’LL SEE IN 2017-18

— Brown, Bell rush Eagles to first win in two years

— Thomas, Jones-Watkins connect for game-winning TD

— Bleich hat trick leads Bunnies to regional title

— Davis puts dent in bball floor with vicious spike

— Johnson’s breakaway dunk notches 30-point game

— Jordahl tosses no-hitter

— Eichelberger twirls perfect game

— Sutherland buries astonishing eight 3-pointers

— Sprague explodes for 20-point game in Trojans’ blowout win

— Kinnett exhausted following marathon sports year

10 HEADLINES YOU WON’T SEE IN 2017-18

— Harper’s late TD secures Illini Prairie Conference title

— Meents’ Bunnies topple Hudson’s Eagles

— Fauser and Sanford’s defense costs Rantoul

— Tennis resumes at Wabash Park

— Bunnies fall short of sixth straight regional championship

— College coaches lose interest in Clanton

— Zero 2017-18 area coaches resign

— IHSA moves Rantoul back to 2A level

— Eagles relay team fails to advance to state

— Stalter falters at state hurdles

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZCarp11.

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