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Mark Thornton has coached boys basketball at J.W. Eater Junior High in Rantoul for more than a decade.
The eighth-grade squad he has right now ranks up there among those from his 13 seasons roaming the sidelines for the Bulldogs.
“I think potentially this team could be a top-four team in the state if everybody’s available,” Thornton said. “Right now, I certainly hope everybody will be available.”
When they have all their players at their disposal, the Bulldogs are tough to beat. Eater took a 16-2 record into a Tuesday night game against Decatur Robertson before ending the regular season on Thursday against Danville North Ridge Middle School.
Kevontae Williams, Kevin Williams and Onycai Lawson have led the high-flying Bulldogs most of the season. When talking about players who are still only 13 or 14 years old, high-flying isn’t usually mentioned. But with this group, the description is appropriate.
Kevin Williams, at 6 feet, 3 inches, Kevontae Williams (6-2) and Onycai Lawson (6-1) give Eater a starting frontcourt RTHS boys basketball head coach Brett Frerichs would love to have this season.
“The key is we have a lot of size,” Thornton said. “It’s very nice at the junior high level to have that size. Kevontae, Kevin and Onycai, they’re usually pretty dominant physically. We usually win the battle of the boards and get a lot of inside baskets for those three.”
Thornton said Kevontae Williams has had about eight dunks this season while Lawson has thrown down about five dunks.
“I think it puts the thought in the other team’s head that it might happen at any time,” Thornton said. “Usually when we dunk on the other team at the junior high level, that’s a big thing emotionally.”
Not only is their leaping ability producing easy baskets, it’s helping Eater in another critical area: rebounding.
“The main advantage we have is usually the other team only gets one shot,” Thornton said. “We control the backboards, and offensively, we get a lot of shots in the block. We throw it to the high post and dump it down to get a lot of close shots. Our size has really been a huge, huge factor.”
After Thursday, the Bulldogs won’t have another game until regional play begins.
Eater could receive a bye in the Class 4A Monticello Regional, meaning it might not open the postseason until Monday, Jan. 28. How well Eater does once the postseason — which will have Limestone High School in Bartonville as the host of the state tournament — tips off will be worth watching.
That is, of course, if Thornton has his full squad intact.
“If we have everybody available to play, I feel very strongly about our chances, but if we don’t have everybody available to play, it’s going to be very, very disappointing,” he said. “I hope we have everybody.”
Watch out. Eater might not just throw down a few dunks along the way in the postseason.
They might just come home with some postseason hardware.
Matt Daniels is the sports editor with the Rantoul Press newspaper. Like the column, love the column or hate the column? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org