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Columnist
A look back at the spills, thrills of another season
By Jerry Fitzpatrick | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/14/2012 12:30 AM

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Fox Valley area teams produced plenty of thrills during the boys basketball season, but none produced a sectional championship.

Rockford Auburn and point guard Fred Van Vleet saw to that for the second straight year.

You have to tip your hat to the Wichita State-bound guard. He's a special player. Elgin (26-4) defended as well as any team in the very tough Upstate Eight Conference this season, but Van Vleet looked smooth in putting up 32 points in a 67-56 sectional title game win.

Three nights earlier, Van Vleet torched Huntley (25-4) for 35 points in a semifinal. It was pretty much a replay of what he and the Knights did to the Red Raiders in the sectional title game a year earlier..

Bottom line, the teams of the northern Fox Valley have not been as good as Rockford's best team two years running. That represents a turnaround.

Rockford teams had struggled in this sectional since 2007-08, when the IHSA expanded to four classes and began preassigning schools from Rockford and the northern Fox Valley to regionals based on geography.

In 2008, Elgin defeated Rockford Boylan to win the Class 4A Jacobs sectional.

In 2009, Auburn was erased by St. Charles North in a sectional semifinal at Elgin. Dundee-Crown eventually won the sectional and advanced downstate.

In 2010, Bartlett traveled to Rockford and knocked off Jefferson and host Boylan to advance to the Elite Eight.

Whether the talented Van Vleet is solely responsible for the shift in power to Rockford for the past two seasons is a question that won't be answered until next March. Meanwhile, here's a look back at some season highlights and a glance ahead to next year.

Moving on up: Three players left indelible marks on the list of all-time leading scorers at their respective schools.

Burlington Central's new career scoring leader is Ray Hunnicutt. A four-year varsity player, Hunnicutt scored in the final seconds of his last home game to pass 1995 graduate Gavin Schairer for the school record. He scored 490 points this season to set a new mark of 1,522 career points.

Likewise, Hampshire's Tyler Watzlawick became the all-time leading scorer at his school. The 6-foot-6 forward passed 2002 graduate David Ross on Feb. 16. Watzlawick went on to finish his four-year varsity career with 1,110 points.

Elgin High's tough-to-crack list of all-time leading scorers was rearranged by senior Kory Brown. He finished his three-year run on the varsity with 1,270 career points, good for fifth place all time, 22 points shy of No. 4 Rick Hopkins.

Round numbers: Two area coaches achieved notable career milestones.

Westminster Christian's Bruce Firchau added another feather to his cap with his 500th career victory in a playoff win over Faith Lutheran in a Class 1A regional game. Firchau's career spans 35 seasons and seven schools.

Hampshire coach Bob Barnett notched career victory No. 400 when his Whip-Purs knocked off Woodstock in January. Barnett has coached for 25 seasons, including stops at Franklin Center, McHenry and Hinckley-Big Rock.

Sold out: Few events in high school sports rival the excitement level of a high school boys basketball sectional championship game.

Unlike most supersectional games and the state finals that follow, sectional title games are still played in high school gymnasiums. It can be a tight fit shoehorning people in, but the cozy conditions lend an air of electricity to the proceedings.

According to Dundee-Crown athletic director Dick Storm, last Friday's sectional final marked the third sellout in D-C history. The last sellout was a boys basketball regional final on March 2, 2006, when the host Chargers upset Johnny Moran and rival Jacobs, 43-41.

The first sellout was a girls basketball game during the Dundee-Crown holiday tournament, which featured then-Naperville Central star Candace Parker.

Mended Hawk: One of the area's most talented players never laced up his basketball shoes this winter. Bartlett guard Lance Whitaker missed his entire junior season due to an ACL tear sustained in an AAU game in St. Louis last July.

Whitaker started as a freshman during Bartlett's run to the Class 4A Elite Eight in 2009-10 and was named all-UEC Valley and all-area as a sophomore.

"I feel good," Whitaker told me after he resumed basketball workouts in late February. "I'm doing everything I used to do. I look forward to playing again."

And you'd better believe Whitaker can play. As a sophomore, he scored 529 points in 32 games (16.5 avg.), the fourth-most points in a single season in Bartlett history. He also averaged 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, made 42 steals and blocked 39 shots.

Can't charge a Charger: Dundee-Crown drew a total of 33 charging calls this season. Senior guard Will Stupar was responsible for 18 of them, which set a new single-season program record. Stupar's next closest teammate drew 6 charging whistles.

Hardwood to hardball: Here are five basketball players who also play baseball. You don't want to pitch to any of them this spring. Ray Hunnicutt, Burlington Central (. 402 batting average); Dylan Kissack, Dundee-Crown (. 348), Max Meitzler, Crystal Lake South (. 348); Bryce Only, Huntley (. 333); and Tyler Crater, Hampshire (. 325).

Game of the year: There were several good candidates.

It's hard to pass over regional title victories by Elgin and Huntley as far as importance.

And Elgin's revenge win over Huntley at the Sears Centre in January was a fascinating matchup between teams that eventually combined to win 52 games and 2 regional titles.

But from a standpoint of pure excitement, nothing topped Elgin's Dec. 22 upset of prep school La Lumiere (Ind) to win the Elgin Christmas Tournament. It was Elgin's first title at its own tournament since 1999.

The Maroons were the underdogs twice this season - against Rockford Auburn in the sectional title game and against La Lumiere. Though the Lakers were admittedly missing their two best players due to family obligations (they weren't originally scheduled to play at Elgin but agreed to participate late), they still had three division I recruits on the floor, including a 7-footer.

Elgin hit its perimeter shots early and built a big lead against the stunned Lakers, then held off a late comeback. The student section mobbed the floor in celebration, rightfully so.

Looking forward: The balance of power in the city of Elgin may shift next season. The Maroons graduate 11 seniors from their roster of 16, including three-year starters Kory Brown and Dennis Moore. Point guard Arie Williams will return for his fourth varsity season, but few in the Elgin Class of 2013 saw even limited minutes.

Meanwhile, Larkin is on the verge of a breakthrough. The Royals improved from 4 wins in 2010-11 to 16 wins this season. At one point during the second Elgin-Larkin game, the Royals made a run to cut the deficit to 6 points. On the floor during that push were a junior, three sophomores and a freshman.

The Royals won't be quite so young next year, led by talented guards Quantice Hunter, Derrick Streety, Quentin Ruff and Kendale McCullum. Will they provide prep hoop fans with a season to remember in 2012-13? Or will another Fox Valley area team rise up to reclaim the sectional crown from the Rockford area?

It's almost a shame we have to wait until next Thanksgiving to start finding out.

jfitzpatrick@dailyherald.com