Carpenter: Hopefully, Rantoul and Fisher will get a season series rolling again

Even before Monday night’s summer basketball game between the Rantoul and Fisher boys basketball teams, I’ve been wondering what it would be like if the two teams rekindled a season series.

After Rantoul’s tight 59-57 victory in which it was lucky to have rallied for a win, I’m more convinced than ever it would be a good idea.

Yes. I get it. It’s summer basketball. Sometimes it can look like a bunch of chickens running around with their heads cut off. There was only one referee, neither team had its full squad out there, and the offense flowed about as well as a pound of Jello coming out of a mason jar.

But I’m still dying to see this game play out at the beginning of every season when both teams are still trying to find their identity.

In general, I’ve found that Rantoul fans would think it’s a joke if these two programs were pitted against each other, even for one game, every season.

A 1A team against a 3A team? That’s outrageous!

Maybe so. But definitely not this year.

Of any recent years, this would be the time for them to play each other.

Both squads are heading into a season where they have to figure things out in a hurry.

Gone from Rantoul are seniors Duck Gibson, Kevin and Kevonte Williams, and Onycai Lawson. Those starters had superior size, speed and athleticism that might have run Fisher out of the gym after four quarters (despite sporting a crippling “no-kill” mentality which proved to be their downfall).

Departed Bunnies starters are seniors Zach Griffith, Cale Zook and Jesse Pedigo. They would have been able to put up a fight, but eventually the Eagles would probably have taken care of them by double digits. But who’s to say this season (and maybe next season)?

Rantoul and Fisher are about on equal ground now in terms of size. As showcased on Monday, the Eagles still hold the advantage in speed and athleticism, but that doesn’t change the fact that this year, it would be a fun, up-and-down game. Both squads are most likely going to have four-guard offenses with run-and-gun, up-tempo styles. 

And why wouldn’t fans want to see that matchup play out?

They wouldn’t have to travel very far — 11 miles there and 11 miles back would save plenty of gas money. With tournaments as far away as 137 miles (Galesburg) and 93 miles (Taylorville), and single games against Thornton Fractional North (110 miles) and Chillicothe IVC (107 miles), Rantoul fans and media (i.e. Me) could all use the savings. Fisher fans, having to travel to games in the spread out Heart of Illinois Conference, would also have their pockets spared.

“It would be nice to play a local team right down the road from you, just for even driving purposes because our conference is so spread out,” Fisher coach Cody Diskin said. “We’ve got late nights and long games. But we only get three or four nonconference games, so it’s nice to have teams you could potentially see in regionals. We would never see a team like Rantoul in regionals, but it would be nice for another little rivalry down the road.”

Rantoul has four more nonconference games it still needs to schedule for this upcoming year.

The stars are aligning for this matchup to actually happen...

...Alas.

Fisher, playing in the 13-team HOIC (Blue Ridge is no longer in the league) that also features a week dedicated to the conference tourney, has its schedule already filled up for 2017-18. And the Bunnies’ main focus is filling up their nonconference slate with teams they might match up with in March.

And the Eagles’ main priority is stacking the schedule, as they always do, with the best big school competition they can find. But maybe in the near future it will happen?

“I would rather not,” Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said of playing a regular season game against Fisher. “I’m not totally opposed to it, but on our nonconference schedule, we really look for 3A and 4A teams to balance the schedule out.”

Rantoul has traveled 100 miles roundtrip the past two years to beat up on a bad 3A Clinton team that isn’t as talented as Fisher (a series Frerichs did not set up, however). In my eyes, in the future, you might as well save the extra 80 miles and stack up against a better program. As for Fisher, maybe it could replace the Monticello game with a matchup versus Rantoul.

“My goal is to get the best 3A and 4A teams on the schedule. My goal is to play the most talented teams we can get, and it’s not always easy to get those because of all the conference realignments,” said the sixth-year coach Frerichs, whose Eagles team played Fisher in each of his first three seasons. “Our first goal is to get the most quality 3A and 4A teams to balance it out. Fisher has had some very good teams, but playing a team like Fisher is a no-win situation for us. If we win, we’re supposed to win. If we lose, it’s ‘the end of the world.’ If we only win by 10, it’s, ‘Why did we only beat Fisher by 10?’ Not to mention all the calls from alumni (asking), ‘Why are we playing Fisher?’

“I don’t mind playing Fisher. I don’t mind playing (Paxton-Buckley-Loda). But we really need to try and balance it out with the bigger schools and small schools because pretty much our whole conference (is filled with small schools).”

Clearly, the coaches don’t really want a season series, and it seems to be split among the players.

“I would love to play against them. I would play against anybody,” Rantoul senior Erick Johnson said. “We’re not going to say no to a team just because they’re 1A, 2A, 3A or 4A. We’re still going to play with the same defense and same energy.”

“This (game) is helping us because it’s not the actual season yet,” Rantoul senior Meech Hudson said prior to Monday night’s two-point win. “But during the regular season, I wouldn’t want to play them because I would like a challenge. I wouldn’t want to say we won off of an easy team, so I would want a challenge so people would stop doubting us and have confidence in us. … I’m not saying they’re bad, but, me personally, I think we should blow them out. I’m not saying that they’re bad, but I don’t think we should be playing them in the regular season.”

It should be noted Hudson said that before Rantoul nearly lost to Fisher. And again, Monday’s matchup was a summer basketball game. I get that. Anything and everything can happen when you roll the ball out during a helter-skelter version of undisciplined basketball, when coaches are more concerned with getting the players in shape and establishing cohesiveness than they are with wins and losses.

Fisher was missing arguably its best player, Jaden Jones-Watkins was out with a foot injury, and another projected starter, guard Dalton Burk. And Rantoul had a few players missing, most notably potential starters Lazarick Lewis and Joe Schluter. 

Neither team was at full strength, though it can be argued Fisher was missing more without Jones-Watkins, who will be gunning for all-conference recognition in his senior season.

Again, yes, "It's summer basketball you (idiot)." But right now, these two teams clearly are not that far apart. And when the regular season is a month old come mid-December, I still don’t think there will be that much separation. Fisher is in a bit of a rebuilding mode but still have a lot of experience and are still gunning for a potential HOIC championship. 

"I think we could be really good this year," Fisher guard Ryan Meents said. "I think we can compete for No. 1 in conference or top two."

Meanwhile, Rantoul is in a severe rebuilding season heading into the new Illini Prairie Conference.

It would be fun, and I don’t think there would be any harm, to see a tiny 1A school trade blows with a 3A school for just one game. I'm hoping (and it seems to be wishful thinking) that somehow Fisher will have a nonconference game open up either this season or next, and I hope that Rantoul comes calling. After all, the schools play each other in almost every other sport. And imagine if every year Rantoul vs. Fisher was the season-opening boys basketball game.

The gym would be rockin’.

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

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