DECATUR -- When MacArthur faced Bolingbrook in last year's Decatur Turkey Tournament, Generals coach Ron Ingram thought his team would be able to keep pace with the Raiders team that would go on to win the tournament and advance to the Class 4A super-sectionals.
The Generals were instead blown out 93-53. That won’t happen again, says Ingram, who is conditioning his team for the 50th edition of the Turkey Tournament that begins Tuesday at Stephen Decatur Middle School.
“We need to get them strong and get them in shape," Ingram said. "When we played Bolingbrook, I thought we were in shape to play them, but when we played them I realized after the first quarter that we needed more conditioning. They were in top shape and we weren’t so we have been doing a lot of conditioning lately.”
The MacArthur team that is now running full-court sprints is much different than the 18-14 team that fell in last year’s wild overtime Class 3A regional final to Champaign Central by a point. Gone to graduation are scorers Keon Jones and K.J. Taliferro as well as 6-foot-8 center Kaeden Lawary.
Stepping up are a group of juniors in Qua Smith, Nick Spannaus and Ryan Barley to lead the Generals this season.
“Qua has improved a lot. He’s in the weight room a lot and he’s been working on his jump shot and he’s going to be a leader on the court for us,” Ingram said. “Nick is going to be very explosive for us this year. He will probably get about twelve dunks a game. Ryan will be a 3-point threat.
“All those juniors this year are going to see a lot of playing time right away. They are going to be the go-to guys for us."
Smith saw limited playing time as a sophomore with a large group of upperclassmen ahead of him, and he’s enthusiastic about Ingram turning point guard duties over to him.
“This year should be really fun. Coach told me that I will have the ball in my hand about 99 percent of the time. It’s a little bit of pressure with it being my first year of leading everything,” Smith said. “This year our team is going to be playing way different. Everybody is a scorer this year and everybody is hustling. I think our communication is way better, especially when we are playing defense.”
MacArthur will have that defense tested in their Turkey Tournament opening round game against Central State 8-rival Springfield Southeast. The Spartans advanced to the Class 4A super-sectionals last season and graduated nine seniors, including standout point guard Terrion Murdix, but are still a dangerous team.
“I think defensively they will still be tough and they still have guys that can still put the ball in the hole,” Ingram said. “I think my guys want to play Southeast first. When they found out about it they weren’t sad about it at all. They were excited.”
The Turkey Tournament is always an exciting event for the team early in the season.
“The tournament is a different thing," Ingram said. "It prepares our guys because they look forward to it. It is one of the biggest things to happen in Decatur and they will go in and get their school work done and go to class on time. They do everything right. They call me ‘Mr.’ and say ‘yes, sir' and ‘no, sir.’ They want to play."
Panthers adds some height
Rebounding was the key.
Last season’s 9-20 Eisenhower team featured a promising trio of guards in Brylan Phillips, Cam Rowe and RJ Walker but if their shot missed, the Panthers were often out-sized on the rebound.
“Rebounding was an issue for us last season. We really didn't have any bodies to throw it to down low. We just had guards down there and try to use their quickness,” Walker said.
This season, Walker hopes he has found his rebounding answer in an unlikely place -- the Panthers’ improved football team.
Tight end Caleb Patton and defensive end KJ Bond have traded the pigskin for the round ball and will provide the much-needed height for Eisenhower.
"Caleb played a lot of (junior varsity) last year and he had a great summer. Caleb down low will give us some size,” Walker said. “KJ is another good football with a body to push some guys around. I don't think we are going to get as hurt on the boards as we did last year.”
Panthers standout wide receiver Karon Shelley (722 yards receiving, nine touchdowns) will also make some noise on the court.
“Karon made some noise in football but I didn't know he had developed that much as a basketball player as well. From what I've seen in practice, he has really surprised me,” Walker said.
Sophomore Phillips, senior Rowe and junior RJ Walker all return with much higher expectations as the Panthers begin their season with a Turkey Tournament opening round game with Peoria.
“I think this year is going to be exciting. We took our bumps and bruises last year. We were the young team and we put up some fights last year. It's our turn now to be the big dogs,” said RJ Walker who will lead the team at the point. “I know what to expect going in and I know how to get my team prepared so basically I'm going to make sure everybody are being dogs on defense because that is what we lacked.”
As a player for St. Teresa, Rodney Walker attended the Turkey Tournament and cheer on his friends at Eisenhower and MacArthur.
“St. Teresa had just gotten out of the tournament so I never got to play in it. I always went and watch and support my friends.The only time I would play MacArthur or Eisenhower would be in the summer and then I would let them have it,” Walker said. “It would be nice for us to finally win (the tournament). Every kid gets excited to play in the Turkey tourney this time of year, especially some of the guys who are getting ready to leave us. I would like him to go out with a bang.”
Mount Zion begins new era
The Braves open their 2019-2020 season against Bolingbrook at the Turkey Tournament on Tuesday and it will be the first game at Mount Zion for former long-time Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond football and basketball coach Dale Schuring, who was hired in July.
The Braves will look to improve on last year's 4-27 season and will be led by senior forward Nash Mose' aggressive post play and junior forward Drew London, who had a strong season was a receiver on the football team.
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten