BRAIDWOOD — It seems odd that, until last Friday, Seneca hadn't won an Interstate Eight Conference boys basketball tournament championship, but then the sample size is small.
The 2013 tournament was only the seventh held by the conference, and during that time, the conference has consisted of 12 teams instead of the eight it had for many years, giving the Fighting Irish added competition.
Seneca has fielded teams that you would have thought were capable of winning one during those six fruitless years, but it's not as though either of its state-qualifying teams of the past decade got the chance to play in one. Mark Aubry's teams never got the chance to play in a conference tournament. Nor did Garrett Callahan — whose jersey number (33) will be retired by Seneca next Saturday, by the way.
But Seneca's drought wasn't the only I-8 Tournament quirk that was ended through Seneca's 50-34 win over Westmont. Up until then, no No. 1 seed had ever won the conference tournament. Again, six years isn't a giant sample, but it's pretty remarkable that the team deemed to be the best in the conference failed to win the tournament every single year for that whole time.
That all changed with this year's Irish, but their road to the title wasn't an easy one. After a first-round bye, they were pushed by Reed-Custer before winning 78-69. I was there for the second-round game against Herscher, a 43-34 win last Tuesday that was more competitive than the relatively close final score would indicate.
Seneca's largest margin of victory came in the championship, but at halftime, the Irish were leading just 21-20 over the Sentinels. They held Westmont to a 1-for-11 third quarter as they opened up a 34-25 lead and never looked back.
"It was an outstanding third quarter. Defensively, we got our heads screwed on straight," Seneca coach Russell Witte said afterward. "Any time a Seneca team can go spread at the end and take care of the ball, we're going to make our free throws down the stretch."
With that, the Irish checked one of the few remaining empty boxes left on the list of things their program can accomplish.
"Seneca High School has achieved everything possible short of national recognition, but we've never achieved this," Witte said. "For this great group of kids to go out and do this, and become the first one seed to do it at the same time, is just fantastic. I couldn't be happier for them."