RANTOUL — The Rantoul Township High School boys basketball team had a lot of issues to deal with as it played through its season.
Issues included injuries, dismissal of players from the team and losing key senior players from last year. The team found itself in a big slump starting its first half of the season at 2-10, but the team did not give up senior, Hayden Cargo said.
"We definitely made some changes when it came to the game plan and at practice when we went about things," Cargo said. "We didn’t have an easy schedule at the beginning of the year, towards the middle of the year I don’t want to say the teams were easier, but we knew we had to step up. We knew what we had to do to get those wins, so we worked harder and longer at practices."
A key moment in the season for the Eagles was the Taylorville tournament in December, where the team after losing the first two games, then won three-straight matches in the tournament.
"When we started I thought it was going to be a bad senior year for me," said senior forward Latavius Winston. "After the Taylorville tournament that’s when we kicked it on and started winning games. We won like seven games in a row. We started bad, but finished the season strong."
Unfortunately, Rantoul’s last game on Feb. 25 in the regional against the Mahomet-Seymour Bulldogs ended in a loss. With less than final minute Cargo was both called for a foul and then a technical for slamming the ball afterwards. Cargo was not happy about the foul that was called on him by the referee, the foul that was called ended up being his fifth which meant he had to sit out for the rest of the game.
"In my head, I was thinking there was no way he just called that," Cargo said. "In that instant, all my energy and all my emotions took over me and I just threw that ball down. The ref was behind me and he gave me a technical. I didn’t look back, I just went out, because I knew I had messed up."
The call would put Mahomet-Seymour at the free-throw line for eight free throws. Mahomet-Seymour would make seven out of the eight free throws. The Bulldogs won the game 61-55.
It was a tough pill to swallow for the Eagles, both because of the final-minute loss and that they have played Mahomet-Seymour four straight times in regionals, losing all four games.
"Because of location, you always have a pretty good chance of playing Mahomet," Rantoul coach Brett Frerichs said. "It’s just odd that is has happened four years in a row."
Frerichs brought up the struggles against Mahomet-Seymour, referencing the first regional game against the Bulldogs where it looked like Rantoul had won the game with a buzzer-beater shot, but the basket was waved off by the referees.
"It was like tenths of a second too long after the buzzer," Frerichs said. "We make the shot, and half of the crowd is cheering, but it didn’t count. You just wonder if things would have changed if we won that game. Would our mentality have changed?"
Frerichs said a lot of people will focus on Cargo’s technical, but if it wasn’t for him, the game wouldn’t have been as close. "Hayden made a three-point shot to give us the lead earlier a couple of minutes before that technical," Frerichs said. "Without Hayden, we’re not in that position to win. So, it’s just unfortunate that happened and that we couldn’t overcome that."
For Frerichs, moments like Hayden’s technical are a learning tool he uses for his players. Frerichs tells his players they shouldn’t let their performance during the start of a game, whether it is good or bad, affect how they play for the rest of the game.
"If you miss 10 shots in a row then you should have the same demeanor as if you made 10 shots in a row," Frerichs said. "That just goes into it. You can’t let your emotions take over, because it just hurts you and it hurts the team."
It was the final game for Rantoul seniors Cargo, who finished the game with 10 points and Winson, scoring 11 points. Kamyrn Rome had a team-high 14 points.
The Rantoul group of seniors for this year are Winston, Cargo, Keyon Button, Angelo Brown and Lazarick Lewis. Frerichs said that the seniors did a great job representing the Rantoul community.
"They are just as good off the court as they are on the court," Frerichs said. "They played for the school, they played for their family, and they played for their teammates. Most nights they laid it on the line. The community should be proud of them."
For Winston, who grew up in the Rantoul community, playing with his teammates for RTHS for four years has meant a whole lot to him.
"I’ve been here for basically all my life, so to get to play here just feels good," Winston said. "We’ve had a lot of chemistry because we’ve been together for so many years and made a lot of memories. They are just great teammates to have on and off the court."
Cargo also grew up in Rantoul, watching his family who also went to RTHS playing sports, so for him to get the chance to play sports for the school such as basketball was personal.
"I know my parents went here," Cargo said. "As did my sister and my cousins. I always came to there games. It was always so exciting and just there’s something about it I guess that just makes me passionate. I take so much pride playing here."
After starting their season 2-10, the Eagles went 12-7, ending up with a final record of 14-17 and 6-3 in conference play, which puts Rantoul in a third-place finish in the Illini Prairie Conference.
For Frerichs, considering all of the issues that his team had to deal with this season, he believes his team was successful.
"I think it’s pretty satisfying with what we went through with things such as injuries and dismissing players from the team," Frerichs said. "For them to keep battling even though we were in a pretty big slump early, that’s probably the most satisfying thing with this group."
Contact Ben Theobald at email@example.com