The two local entrants will both be looking to make history, to some degree, at the 2013 Interstate Eight Conference Boys Basketball Tournament, which opens today.
Top-seeded Seneca's aim is to win a conference tournament for the first time in program history. The I-8 is only holding a league tournament for the seventh time, and the Fighting Irish — who have won numerous regular-season conference titles, as well as a state championship, over the years — have yet to win one.
Seneca will also be looking to have a better showing than it has had in a couple of tournaments in the past calendar year. The Irish were seeded second in the 2012 conference tournament and went 0-3. They were also seeded second in this year's Plano Christmas Classic and finished sixth.
"I think the team realizes that we do have a target on our back — No. 1, because we have a solid team, and No. 2, because we're Seneca, and Seneca's always had that bullseye," Irish coach Russell Witte said. "But our kids have the desire to be something we've never been and a chip on their shoulder from last year. Let's just say that we'll be highly motivated heading into Saturday."
A championship would also be a first for Coal City, but it is not necessary for the Coalers to have their highest ever finish. Twice — in the inaugural tournament in 2007 and again last year — they won the consolation championship. They were consolation runners-up in 2008, and otherwise have not finished higher than ninth place.
"Our goal that we set at the beginning of the season is to be playing on championship night of the tournament," Boresi said. "That would guarantee us either playing in the championship game or in the third-place game. If we could accomplish that goal, then I think we would have had a pretty good tournament."
For that to happen, the Coalers must first advance past their play-in opponent, 10th-seeded Sandwich. The teams have already met once, with the Indians defeating the Coalers 44-41 on Dec. 14. Coal City trailed by double-digits before rallying to tie the game late, but Sandwich hit a basket with "about a second" left, Boresi says, to win.
"We did not show up ready to play," Boresi said. "I’m not making excuses by any means, but we had 10 days off before that game and we came out flat. That game has been one the entire team would like to have back, and we are happy that we get the chance to play them again."
The Coalers unveiled a new lineup in their first game of the new year — a 63-36 win at Dwight on Jan. 4 — and have not lost since. Among the teams they have beat is fourth-seeded Herscher, which was the 2011-12 regular-season I-8 champion, though it lost to Westmont in last year's tournament championship.
As of the beginning of the week, junior forward Nick Peters was the Coalers leading scorer (14.2 points per game) and leading rebounder (6.4 per game). Guard Brennen Shetina was the only other player with a scoring average in double digits (10.4).
"I think players are now a bit more comfortable with their roles and they realize what they need to do in order to help our team win," Boresi said. "(Tuesday) night against Herscher was a big win for our program. It was the first time Coal City has beaten Herscher in quite some time.
The Irish are hoping to avoid the fate of Herscher in 2012 — a fate that has befallen every No. 1 seed in the tournament's history, including past Seneca teams. Thus far, they are 7-0 in conference play this season, and they defeated the tournament's No. 2 seed, Lisle, 64-48 last Friday night.
"Much better," Witte said of the team's play since the Plano Classic, "though to tell you the truth, I could really only count only two poor games at Plano. Even the games before that, while they were low scoring, weren't poor games — we just weren't hitting shots. ... One thing we have done a better job of is getting more shot opportunities and pushing the tempo."
Guards Conlan Callahan (13.0 points per game) and Peyton Schrag (10.0) enter the tournament as the leading scorers for the Irish, who are outscoring opponents by an average of more than 10 points per game (51.8-41.5).