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Look around a Rantoul Township High School boys basketball practice, and it’s like you’re seeing double.
Spread throughout the court are eight guards similar in height, ranging from 5 feet, 10 inches to 6-1, including a set of twins in 5-10 juniors guard Devine Thompson and Davon Thompson. It doesn’t get much different if you look at the post players, either.
Senior forward Damontae Space is the lone exception — barely. The transfer from Champaign Centennial who should find himself in the Eagles’ starting lineup when the Eagles open the season at 5 p.m. next Tuesday against Serena in the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament is measured at 6-3.
An inch or two might be added with the mini-Afro that Space sports on top of his head.
“People think we’re a little team,” Space said, “but little doesn’t mean nothing.”
If you’re also looking for players who want to silence any doubts about how this team won’t come close to matching last year’s 21-6 squad, you’re in the right place.
“All 14 of us know that people don’t think we’re going to win and that we’re not as good as the last team,” said Tanner McLain, a junior guard who checks in at 5-10. “That’s why we work hard every day in practice. This team has a desire to win. We all push each other to the max. This team is probably one of the hardest-working teams that I’ve ever seen come through Rantoul.”
Probably one of the shortest, too. Devine Thompson doesn’t mind if outsiders think the Eagles will fall short this season, no pun intended.
“It’s a big chance to show everybody that (last year’s success) wasn’t just based on the seniors last year,” he said, “and that we’ve got more talent than just the seniors from last year.”
Maybe by March or when the 2013-14 season rolls around, people might take that comment more seriously. Last year’s RTHS squad won 20 or more games for the first time in more than two decades.
“It’s definitely different this year compared to the last two years because expectations were so high in the past,” RTHS third-year head coach Brett Frerichs said. “The kids have taken it as a challenge because they hear in the hallways and around town about how bad we’re going to be. They’ve come in with a chip on their shoulder. We’ve used it as a motivating tool to get better.”
How the Eagles play up at GCMS in that school’s 41st annual tournament might not be a good indicator of what Frerichs’ squad will be like come the Class 3A postseason.
Mixing in new players in new roles at the varsity level is never easy at the start of a season, and it’s more difficult this year since the Eagles’ lone returning starter, 5-10 junior guard Johnny Jones, won’t play until the team’s home opener and Corn Belt Conference opener against Bloomington Central Catholic on Friday, Nov. 30.
Jones — a second-team all-conference player last year who averaged 12.9 points — will sit out the first five games because of an athletic code violation.
When he does find his way back on the floor, Jones has a simple directive he knows must happen for the Eagles to come close to replicating last year’s regular season.
“I’m just going to get buckets. I’ve got too,” Jones said. “Coach tells me all the time I can get to the basket any time I want, so that gives me a good mindset instead of just worrying about the defense.”
Joining Jones in the backcourt could include junior guards Talon Hardin (6-0), McLain, both Thompsons, Josh Oliveras (5-10) and James Coleman (6-1).
The Eagles only have four seniors on this year’s squad, with senior forward Greg Morrow (6-1) the only one with significant varsity experience. Forward Cord Church (6-2) missed most of last season with a broken ankle and is out until at least January with a broken right forearm.
Forward Waylan Williams (6-2) is academically ineligible until January, and guard Tom Wood (5-11) did not play last year.
The Eagles will rely on aggressive defense to transition into easy baskets on the offensive end. It’s a virtual must.
“We’re going to run teams out of the gym every game,” McLain said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
It’s similar to the style the Eagles played last year and one Frerichs prefers playing. This year’s squad will have a slightly different look, though, once it gets in a half-court set.
“We don’t have any alley-oop plays in our playbook,” Frerichs said with a laugh. “The difference from this team to last year’s team is that last year’s team could jump out of the gym.”
Aside from Space living up to his name and creating space on the block, Frerichs will count on Morrow, junior forward Alex Vermillion (6-2) and junior forward Shane Starkey (5-11) to deliver near the basket.
Space is eager for an increased role after he saw limited time last year with the Chargers.
“Centennial played a lot of big guys, so I’m hoping to use the skills I learned from there over here,” Space said. “I’m pretty quick around the post, so I can score wherever I want to.”
The Eagles are coming off a second-place finish in the Corn Belt a year ago to champion Normal U-High.
Frerichs expects the Pioneers — who finished second in state in Class 2A last year and return a significant number of contributors, including a likely All-State candidate and one of the more sought-after players in the Class of 2014 in junior forward Keita Bates-Diop — to again be the school everyone is chasing in the Corn Belt.
The Eagles will compete in the Taylorville Holiday Tournament (Dec. 26-28) for the second year in a row, and have added a game at Paxton-Buckley-Loda (Jan. 5) and a home game against Charleston (Jan. 15) to their schedule this year.
In the Eagles’ first two years with Frerichs, great heights were achieved, with the program winning its first regional title since 1990 in 2011 and last year’s regular season run.
A perfect culmination in year three of the Frerichs era is regular season success and postseason success all rolled into one. Shaping the program into one of the area’s most consistent is a goal Frerichs strives to see his alma mater attain.
“It’s definitely realistic,” he said. “Building this program is all about playing hard and killing yourself on the floor. We want to be competitive to the point where we’re wearing other teams down. Already in practice so far, we’ve shown that we still have that fight. One of the few things I’m worried about with this team is when things go bad, how are we going to respond? When things are going good for these guys, it’s the perfect world. When things go bad, heads start to go down a little bit. We’ll definitely have to work on that.”