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James Coleman launched a 3-pointer during one game of the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Thanksgiving Tournament.
The Rantoul Township High School junior guard’s shot fell short from the beyond the arc. A cascade of ‘Air ball! Air ball! Air ball!’ chants from the opposing student section serenaded the gym.
Last year, if Coleman would have put up the same shot with the same outcome, he probably would have just jogged back on defense, not hearing a peep from the crowd.
Welcome to varsity basketball.
“The fans contribute a lot to how you play,” said Coleman, one of several Eagle juniors who are making the transition this season from playing at the junior varsity level to contributing and seeing significant minutes at the varsity level. “Listening to them can throw off how you’re playing. At (the) JV level, the game’s a lot slower, and there’s no one really there. It’s just like you and your team at a practice. At varsity games, you’ve got rowdy (student sections). It’s a lot more pressure.”
Pressure that can sometimes bring out the best in players. Sometimes, the opposite happens.
The Eagles have experienced myriad emotions en route to a 6-9 record going into the new year. Some good. Some bad. Some for the first time.
“We’re young,” RTHS junior guard Tanner McLain said. “We don’t know how to get over that hump yet, but once we do get over, we’ll be just fine.”
Been here before
The Eagles found themselves in this situation two seasons ago.
A subpar regular season mixed with a new cast of characters resulted in a Class 2A regional championship, the program’s first postseason hardware since 1990.
Then again, the newcomers on the squad RTHS head coach Brett Frerichs inherited in his first season at the helm included Travis Britt, a guard who spent his first two high school seasons at Culver Military Academy in Indiana before transferring back to his hometown school.
But compared to Coleman, McLain, junior guard Devine Thompson, junior guard Josh Oliveras and junior guard Talon Hardin, Britt had varsity experience before.
Aside from Hardin and McLain going in at the end of blowouts last season, none of the other three even dressed for varsity games.
Going into the season, the only junior who saw significant time last year in varsity games was guard Johnny Jones.
He missed the first six games of the season because of an athletic code violation and academic ineligibility, hindering the transition process along the way.
“I knew there would be a transition,” Frerichs said. “I didn’t expect us to start winning right off the bat. We saw it this summer. We had a lot to learn.”
Like offensive and defensive principles, for one.
Under Frerichs, the Eagles want to use their defensive pressure — whether it’s a fullcourt man-to-man press, fullcourt zone press, three-quarters court zone press or halfcourt man-to-man — to account for easy buckets off turnovers. It’s how last year’s team sprang out to early leads or put teams away with a decisive run.
Through the season’s first month, the defense hasn’t always responded, leading to similar frustrating moments on offense.
“They’re still trying to pick up the varsity system in terms of offense,” Frerichs said. “We basically ran no offense for the first seven games, but at the same time, I knew we’d be competitive just because the way they like to compete.”
Coaches work together
A.J. Richard is easy to spot on the basketball floor. At 6 feet, 7 inches, the former Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley standout who is the Eagles’ junior varsity head coach gets just as involved in the game as his players.
He’s on the bench for the Eagles’ varsity games, too, pointing out defensive assignments or helping signal in out-of-bounds plays.
“I’m just as involved, which is nice because (the players) still get me when they’re a varsity player, so they understand what my expectations are going to be as soon as they come in,” Richard said. “If they’re not doing something that I’ve taught them, I definitely let them know about it.”
While Frerichs can show more subdued signs on the sideline, the intensity Richard generates is evident. The players who have played for both notice the differences, too.
“Coach Richard has us running a lot of sets, but we ran through them fast, so we didn’t really run them (as much as we do at the varsity level),” Thompson said. “We just got up and down the court. Coach Frerichs wants us to run them a lot more. Coach Frerichs is more calm, but he expects more out of us without saying it. We can tell when Coach Frerichs is serious, but you can always tell when Coach Richard is serious because he starts yelling and getting mad.”
Defense is the biggest area Richard helped prepare them for what they’d see at the varsity level, several players said.
Even if stopping opponents has often felt like a struggle at times this season.
“Coming up as kids, we were always bigger, faster and stronger than everyone,” Coleman said. “Coach Richard helped us a lot, especially on defense and with the defensive schemes.”
A quality basketball program, like the one Frerichs wants to build under his watch, includes a seamless switch from playing at the junior varsity level to playing at the varsity level.
The Eagles might have shown they could handle the move effortlessly after winning their first three games at the GCMS Thanksgiving Tournament, but have produced a 3-9 record since defeating Blue Ridge 72-64 on Nov. 23.
And it’s just not Richard who acclimates the Eagles of what they should expect once they put on the varsity uniform.
Varsity assistant coach Andy Graham coached the current players on the freshman team, along with watching them play at the youth level in the Rantoul Recreation Department, while assistant coach Ryan Parker handles the freshman team this season.
“All our coaches are a great help,” Frerichs said. “It’s all been a group effort. A.J. relates well to the kids, but at the same time, he’s a disciplinarian, and he really knows how to teach what we do at the varsity level. The kids respect him, so he’s a big asset. He’s a big conditioning guy who really works them out in the fall. The familiarity with the kids and the coaching staff is a huge asset to where we’re at now. I know the record is not very good, but I feel like we’re playing pretty decent.”
Player development is the role Richard sees himself in with his current gig. Whether that’s imploring a player improves his grades in the classroom, works on setting better screens at practices, runs hard during conditioning or has the proper release on a jump shot, it’s all the same to Richard.
“That’s my job with this whole program is to develop players,” he said. “You take the bad parts of their game and work with them to improve on it, and hopefully by the time they’re a senior, they’ve learned enough that those mistakes and those weaknesses are going to become even strengths for them.”
The current group of juniors the Eagles have now have enjoyed success before. Jones, Coleman, Thompson, Davon Thompson, Hardin and Oliveras all helped Eater Junior High place third in state in Class 4A during their seventh-grade seasons.
“Back when we were at Eater, Devine and Davon were the biggest kids on the floor,” Coleman said with a laugh of the twins, who are now among a handful of 5-foot-10-inch players the Eagles have this season. “Now we’ve all grown past them. They still got their roles. Devine’s always been a good shooter, and Davon’s always been aggressive. I really didn’t have a role in seventh and eighth grade. I usually was on the bench because I was 5 feet tall.”
Jones was the scorer at Eater, with Hardin playing the role of distributor. Hardin has had to handle both jobs this season, and is still adapting to both.
“Talon was probably put in a difficult situation last year,” Richard said. “He’s not necessarily a one (guard) and maybe not even necessarily a two (guard). He’s kind of that combo one and two guard, so now when you throw Johnny into the mix, he’s still trying to look for his role. With having Johnny back, it’s going to be a lot simpler for him to find out what he’s supposed to do on this basketball team.”
Hardin, who plays AAU basketball for the same Peoria Irish squad that Britt played on and current Illinois commit Michael Finke does as well, said the speed of the game isn’t the hardest adjustment. It’s the mental aspect.
“You have to be a lot smarter and use your head a bit more,” Hardin said. “I’ve been ready for (varsity basketball). I’ve been watching how other people did it and how they handled it. (Last year’s RTHS team) helped me a lot. They showed me how to win and how bad you have to want to win.”
This current group involves the core from Eater, but also players who played at Gifford Grade School like McLain, junior forward Shane Starkey and junior forward Alex Vermillion.
Those three also saw success in junior high, leading Gifford to the 1A state quarterfinals in seventh grade.
The RTHS players have dealt with success before.
The transition they’re going through this year, from figuring out who will score, who will defend and who will help rebound, among other areas, is an ongoing process that might continue to feel that way the rest of the season.
“We’ve just got to stay tough through those times,” McLain said. “It gets to players. People are going say, ‘Oh, you guys are losing. You guys are terrible,’ and when we’re winning, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, you guys are great.’ We’ve got to learn to just stay right in the middle and not get too high or too low.”