MAHOMET — Toby Willard knew his Mahomet-Seymour eighth-grade boys' basketball team was special. Early in the year, Willard compared his crew to the likes of Joe Kenney, Jack Rettig, Christian Romine and Conner Diedrich, a group that advanced to the high school Elite Eight in 2015 under coach Chad Benedict.
Throughout the year, the eighth-graders relied on their deep bench to outlast opponents. M-S would regularly play eight to 10 hoopers each game, and a different player could step up as the leading scorer.
But in the past, Willard has had a tough time getting over the hump and winning a regional championship. His Bulldogs finally accomplished their goal.
Thanks to 10 points from Carter Selk, M-S rolled past Jefferson 52-37 in last Monday's Class 4A IESA regional semifinals. Quenten Rogers added nine points, and Adam Dyer chipped in eight, as M-S advanced to a regional championship showdown with a loaded Danville North Ridge squad.
The young Bulldogs shook off a slow start and had ice in their veins, knocking down 17-of-22 free throws in the fourth quarter to salt away a 51-41 victory.
"Danville's pressure got to us, but the more the game went on, we became more comfortable throughout," Willard said. "Their penetration hurt us at times, but we tightened up the defense and made them shoot from the outside, and fortunately their shots weren't falling. We knew they would make a run, but good teams find a way to win. We got a couple stops and then made a few free throws down the stretch."
This time, it was Ben Wagner who stepped up. Wagner came off the bench and poured in a team-high 16 points. Rogers chipped in with 13 points. Selk (nine points) and Dyer (eight points) both had productive nights as well.
"I couldn't be more proud of these kids and what they've accomplished," Willard said.
Bourbonnais 50, M-S 34. M-S saw its season come to an unfortunate end in the IESA Class 4A Sectionals as Bourbonnais rode its talented big man to a 50-34 win. M-S led 21-19 at the half and trailed by just five at the end of the third quarter, but the Bulldogs couldn't get that one big shot to get over the hump.
"We couldn't get anything to go around the basket," Willard said. "The crowd was terrific and provided much-needed energy with this being our third game this week."
The Bulldogs finished their season with a record of 22-4, and the eighth-graders will infuse some talent into the varsity team. Coupled with a strong current freshman class, M-S boys' basketball could have a really bright future.
"I personally think last year's team, they had two kids in the 6-foot-4 range, and this group, I think you're looking at the same thing as 2015, to be honest," Willard said. "That can happen. There's such a good mix of basketball talent in those two classes. There's a real possibility which is exciting. When I get done coaching, I get to go back and watch these kids play, and boy that's a great thing to see what they've accomplished and what they've done in their life. I'm just glad about all of that. I'm so glad to get to watch them after I'm doneand they're done with me."