Winter year in review: Rantoul

BOYS BASKETBALL

OVERVIEW

A mostly fun, successful season saw Brett Frerichs’ Eagles finish with a 20-9 record for the program’s first back-to-back 20-plus-win seasons (they went 23-7 in 2015-16) since 1964. After stumbling a bit out of the gate with a 4-2 record that included a pair of losses in the Galesburg Tournament, Rantoul bounced back with three straight wins — including over former Big 12 rival Centennial.

Things got shaky during the Taylorville Holiday Tournament, but eventually Rantoul got back to its winning ways toward the end of the season. But consecutive losses to end the regular season fed into an early postseason exit.

HIGHLIGHTS

The Eagles completed two of their top two goals — a 20-win season and an undefeated Okaw Valley Conference campaign. Sweeping St. Joseph-Ogden, Monticello, Unity and St. Thomas More gave Rantoul an 8-0 record to go with a 10-0 record in 2015-16. Rantoul ended the OVC in style as it goes to the newly formed Illini Prairie Conference next season. The two wins over SJ-O — the second of which was a thriller in a raucous environment at the home of the Spartans — and an overtime victory over a Monticello team that finished fourth in state in Class 2A were two of the highest points of the season.

Two of the most unique moments of the year were the trip to Knightstown, Ind., for the game against STM at Hoosier Gym Feb. 17 and the Hall of Fame game versus Charleston Jan. 17. And nine straight wins toward the end of the year was another high point, along with Duck Gibson and Kevin Williams garnering unanimous first-team all-conference accolades and Erick Johnson getting a special mention honor.

LOWLIGHTS

The Galesburg Tournament was disappointing, but Rantoul still competed hard for the most part there — and being forced to travel to Moline right after a game in Galesburg didn’t help matters. In Taylorville, things took a turn for the worse when the Eagles dropped three straight games to fall to 7-5, and things looked even gloomier when Kevonte Williams went out with a broken hand in the tourney opener. After the Eagles got back on track, though, with those nine consecutive victories, they ended the regular season with an embarrassing blowout loss to Thornton Fractional North and a loss to Danville — a game Rantoul played very well in.

But quite obviously the biggest lowlight was the regional semifinal loss to Mahomet-Seymour. After using last year’s title game loss to the Bulldogs as motivation, making it known publicly time and again how bad they wanted a rematch, to be in control of the game for so long, and to eventually fall to a team less talented than themselves, the Eagles ended the year on a dissatisfying note.

QUOTES OF THE YEAR

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

“It was amazing to actually have the experience to play in this gym. I had never been anywhere that I saw on TV. It was amazing to actually come play here. It was a pretty special moment.” — Eagles junior guard Erick Johnson after the team’s 77-67 win over St. Thomas More at Hoosier Gym on Feb. 17.

“They drove from a bunch of different places to be here, so the best we could do was come out and give it our all. We wanted to give them a win. Plus when we were talking to them in the cafeteria (before the game) during our meet-and-greet, they were like, ‘You better go out there and win and blow them out of the water.’ And we were like, ‘We got you. We got to since you came this far.’” — Eagles senior forward Onycai Lawson after Rantoul’s 79-58 dismantling of Charleston at the school’s first-ever Hall of Fame game Jan. 17.

FUTURE

Next year will be full of huge question marks. Kevin and Kevonte Williams, Onycai Lawson and Gibson will all be gone. Replacing them will be basically next to impossible. Johnson and Meech Hudson improved tremendously throughout the season, but they will need plenty of help. And with the competition intensifying in a new conference, it will be a tough season if the Eagles don’t have a few players step up and greatly improve in the offseason.

GIRLS BASKETBALL

OVERVIEW

There was a lot of hope coming into the 2016-17 season for Jeff McKaufsky’s group. Two years ago, a 2-24 season saw some promise despite all of the losses piling up, and that fed into a much-improved 9-21 campaign. And with a core group of five seniors — Chakhalia Dunner, Breezy Espinoza, Akalah Spinks, Mackenzie Taticek and Kanosha Williams — leading the charge, there seemed to be a consensus that this could be the time for the Rantoul girls basketball team to shine and get back to some winning ways. Unfortunately, after a 4-3 start, the Eagles struggled the rest of the way to an official 9-19 finish. Take out two forfeit victories at the hands of Urbana and it would be a 7-21 record.

HIGHLIGHTS

Rantoul finished the season-opening Comet Classic 3-2 with a loss to Oakwood in the third-place game. But that loss to the host Comets came with a fight. The Eagles trailed 45-31 after the third quarter but fought tooth and nail to pull within four points with under 2:30 to play behind a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half before losing 62-55. They followed that with an 87-68 loss to Urbana — another hard-fought game in which they kept battling while going up against an elite Tigers’ offense.

Along with a rematch with Urbana later in the year, the Eagles officially were awarded 2-0 forfeit wins due to a pair of Tigers players being deemed ineligible. Rantoul also defeated local rival Fisher 40-38 on Dec. 3 for a 4-3 start to the season, and a 61-47 Senior Night victory over Unity avenged a 50-46 loss to the Rockets just a couple weeks prior — another intense comeback bid that fell just short in the final moments.

The end-of-the-year All-Okaw Valley accolades by Espinoza (first team), Williams (second team) and Spinks (special mention) were some nice recognition of their hard work. The biggest win of the year, though, was the 62-57 stunner over St. Joseph-Ogden on the road Jan. 23.

LOWLIGHTS

After the win over the Bunnies, the Eagles’ season hit a rough patch — to put it lightly. They dropped six straight games and lost 14 of 16 until the upset win over SJ-O — though, again, that’s counting an Urbana loss as an official win. There were some lowtimes for the Eagles this year, to be sure, and many of them could have been avoided if they had been able to solve the main problem that plagued the entire season: poor shooting.

The final game of the year, a regional loss to Urbana Feb. 13, was a microcosm of the whole season. Too often, Rantoul couldn’t find the bottom of the bucket.

QUOTES OF THE YEAR

“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.

“They’ve been through a lot. (Their) sophomore year was extremely tough. Last year, we saw some strides, and this year didn’t start great and there have been some rough stretches. And I think it’s a testament to them to keep battling. As seniors, if it’s not going well, you could start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but these last three weeks we’ve been playing our best basketball because of what kind of kids they are and how they keep battling and building knowing that it’s not done.” — Rantoul coach Jeff McKaufsky after Senior Night.

“She’s my partner in crime. We’ve been riding together since freshman year. We’re friends, and we argue, but on the court we’re there for each other and there for the team.” — Eagles senior guard Breezy Espinoza on her teammate and friend Kanosha Williams.

FUTURE

With that group of five gone, the Eagles now must turn to posts Kaylie Wilson and Myejoi Williams along with freshman sharpshooter Courtney Sutherland. Wilson and Williams have tons of potential if they can realize how good they could be, and Sutherland has first-team All-OVC potential if she continues to shoot like she’s capable.

WRESTLING

OVERVIEW

From the very beginning of the year, there was a buzz around the Rantoul wrestling program that it could see at least three, if not more, grapplers advance to see the University of Illinois at the state tournament. Demarius Smith was an obvious choice after his 38-2 season and fourth-place state finish in 2015-16. Peter McCusker should have been at the state meet last year, but he bowed out due to mononucleosis. And Nolan Roseman figured to get back as well. All three ended up advancing to the state tournament in coach Mark McCusker’s first season at the helm of the program.

HIGHLIGHTS

Although Smith, McCusker and Roseman fell short of sectional title goals, all three still advanced to state with superb seasons.

Smith fell 1-0 in the 152-pound state title match, but he wrapped up one of the most impressive seasons in Rantoul wrestling history with the top two state finishes in program history and a 34-2 record following a 31-0 start.

McCusker and Roseman advanced to state and will be back for more next year, and Seth Sprandel exploded onto the scene at 195 pounds and advanced to the sectional meet. And as a team, a second-place overall finish at the Bragging Rights Tournament at Crete Monee in early January was a nice surprise.

With McCusker, Roseman and Sprandel coming back next season, the program should continue to rise under the older McCusker.

LOWLIGHTS

What a plethora of options to pick from here — just kidding. When a “lowlight” is not having a wrestler win a state championship, the program and its wrestlers have reached an impressive height.

QUOTES OF THE YEAR

“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.

“It was a great showing for us. If anyone would have predicted a top three finish as a team, I would have thought they were crazy. I wanted the athletes to get some tough competition, and we did much better than I thought we would.” — Rantoul coach Mark McCusker after the team’s second-place finish at the Bragging Rights Tournament at Crete Monee.

“I had a great season. I was worried about every match one year ago. This sectional appearance helped my confidence, and I should be able to make it to state next year. I need to strengthen my offense and work on my takedowns.” — Eagles junior Seth Sprandel.

FUTURE

McCusker, Roseman and Sprandel will anchor the program next season. With each having experienced as much regular season and postseason success as they did, they should be more than capable of leading the team in 2017-18.

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

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