RANTOUL — Ty Pence and his St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball teammates highly anticipated their scheduled Feb. 5 season opener against Cissna Park.
It would have marked the Spartans’ first game since a Feb. 28, 2020, loss to Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin in a Class 2A regional championship game.
Instead, Pence and pals watched that matchup with the Timberwolves get taken off the schedule. They also witnessed the postponement of a meeting against St. Thomas More last Tuesday.
COVID-19 issues among the SJ-O roster meant the Spartans would need to wait even longer to play. And that coach Kiel Duval’s team wouldn’t have a complete roster, as those who tested positive are working their way back to eligibility.
“It hurt,” Pence said. “We were all ready for that Friday and our first game, and when Coach told us, we were all down. But we had to make sure we just kept the right mindset and that we were all ready to play for this game.”
“This game” was Friday’s road matchup with Illini Prairie Conference rival Rantoul. And SJ-O proved how much it wanted to play, running away with a 73-54 victory.
“We’re definitely out of shape, but we did more good things than bad things,” Duval said. “I was proud of some of our guys’ efforts. It’s good to see guys that have never had varsity experience before, and then they just show up on a big stage, and that was fun to watch.”
Pence, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, was the only member of the starting five for the Spartans (1-0) who boasted any varsity starts prior to Friday. The quartet of senior Lukas Hutcherson and juniors Hayden Brazelton, Andrew Beyers and Evan Ingram was entirely new to the idea after SJ-O graduated nine seniors.
The eye test didn’t convey that fact. SJ-O enjoyed a 22-10 lead against the Eagles (0-3) after one quarter.
“I’ve got to give credit to my teammates: They did great (Friday),” said Pence, a 2020 News-Gazette All-Area special-mention pick, “and they did a great job stepping up.”
Pence carried a sizable workload himself, producing a game-high 24 points to go along with 20 rebounds.
“We’re asking him to do a lot of things … but we need even more out of him,” Duval said. “He gave us some really, really good things.”
Both Ingram and senior Cameron Costa added 15 points for the Spartans, with all of Costa’s coming on three-point makes. It was Ingram, however, whom Duval gushed about afterward.
“That was the best I’ve seen him play in three years, without a doubt,” Duval said. “He guarded (Friday) and he took a big charge, and he never takes charges. … That’s just a big growing moment for him.”
Rantoul made seven three-pointers on the night, but struggled to finish consistently down low. Senior Jaxson Freeman’s 12 points, senior Ethan Winston’s 11 points, junior KeJuan Caradine’s nine points and junior Avontay Anderson’s eight points paced the Eagles.
“We got off to a bad start,” Rantoul coach Ryan Parker said. “We can’t get away from giving up these runs. We got slaughtered on the offensive rebounds right out of the gate.”
Parker said the Eagles need to “play with more effort.”
“When you’re not playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” he said, “you get exposed.”
The Spartans wouldn’t mind doing that to more foes, now that they’ve worked through the additional delay.
“Since we’ve been preparing for so long, I think we were ready to get out on the court,” Pence said, “and when we finally (were), we took advantage of it.”
Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.