MORRIS – Morris has already matched its second highest single-season boys basketball win total since 1993. It will at least share its first-ever Northern Illinois Big 12 East conference championship.
This will be the Redskins’ fifth straight winning season under coach Joe Blumberg, and I’d say it’s already the second best season of the Blumberg era. An argument can be made that it’s the best, though the Redskins are a long shot to exceed their 21 wins of 2010-11. Should Morris win the Class 3A Prairie Central Regional, I’d deem this its best season since 1992-93, whether it reaches 20-plus wins or not.
As good as the season’s been as a whole, the Redskins are presently mired in one of their worst stretches in years. Defeats at the hands of Streator and Kaneland last week comprised their first losing streak of the season, and when the Redskins fell to Ottawa, on Tuesday, they’d lost three straight games for the first time since January of 2010.
“I’ll be honest. I think we maybe overachieved a little bit early in the year,” Blumberg said. “Maybe won some games we shouldn’t have, and you have a decent record and you have a target on your backs and teams scout you an extra time, and it’s tougher to get wins.”
Before last week, Morris had gone 5-0 and won by an average of 13 points in games that immediately followed a loss. The Redskins are in a new situation this week as they try to respond to multiple, consecutive defeats.
“We’re just staying positive, ’cause if we start being negative, it’s just gonna keep continuing, so we just have to put it behind us going into regionals,” junior Evan Bjelland said.
“We have hung around, I guess people would say, the last three games. I guess that’s just a learning opportunity for us, ‘cause all we have to do from here on is get better and learn from making mistakes. Instead of hanging around in the future, maybe the other team will be hanging around with us.”
Had Morris held onto a 44-34 lead it held midway through the fourth quarter against Kaneland last Friday, its current situation would be much different. There would be no losing streak, and the Redskins would have clinched the outright NI Big 12 East championship when Sycamore lost last Saturday at Kaneland.
Instead, the Redskins must win Friday at Sycamore to be the sole conference champs.
“We do treat every game the same – well, at least we try to. We are conference champions,” Bjelland said. “We don’t wanna be tied, so we’re going to go into the game, and we know Sycamore is a good team, but we’re not gonna go in and just play, we’re gonna have to play hard because we know how good of a team they are. We want the conference by ourselves and not share it.”
The thing is, today’s game is the least-important one the Redskins will play the rest of the season. It is their final one before they enter the Class 3A postseason. For a team that has had the goal all season of winning a regional, the details of a conference title of which they’ve already clinched a share can’t be the top priority.
“We can’t put so much pressure on that ballgame that it effects our weekend and our ability to prep for the regional, so we have to go up there and be the team that’s loose. The pressure’s on [Sycamore]. They need to win to call themselves champions,” Blumberg said.
“We’re gonna get a great effort, and we’re gonna play extremely hard to win that ballgame. The moment we walk out of that locker room, win or lose, we’re gonna call ourselves champions and make sure we’re focusing on Prairie Central, Herscher, Coal City and Pontiac.”
Junior Austin Patterson says the team’s confidence is just as intact now as it was two weeks ago.
“It’s still there,” Patterson said. “We just need to regroup and see what we can do at Sycamore.”
The Redskins may still be confident. After weeks of playing almost nothing but conference games or games against teams from neighboring towns, though, I wondered: will they be able to bring the proper amount of intensity to what lies ahead? Have they spent too much already?
“We don’t expect the crowds at the regional to be as large as at Yorkville, at Sycamore or our home games,” Blumberg said, “but the stakes are higher, and for that reason alone, we should be focused, enthusiastic and play extremely hard. And if we don’t, our season will end. It’s really a simple matter.”