For the first time in school history, Luther North’s varsity teams will be competing in the IHSA’s Class 1A come playoff time.
The reclassification follows a slight dip in school enrollment from last year, in which both the boys’ and girls’ programs were categorized as Class 2A teams.
Despite the change, the excitement surrounding the programs has not wavered among the players or coaching staff.
In fact, both teams have their sights set on building upon last year’s post-season successes and re-establishing the Luther North basketball brand as a force to be reckoned with in the IHSA’s Northeastern Athletic Conference.
Here’s Northwest Passage’s look at this year’s Wildcat basketball season.
New talent key to Lady Wildcats playoff hopes
After winning his first playoff game in three years at Luther North last season, head coach Chuck Rombout is optimistic his Lady Wildcats can take things a step further this year and win a regional championship despite graduating seven seniors.
Rombout is counting on junior shooting guard Caitlyn Wheeler to fill the scoring void left behind by Lyndee Wright and Jennifer Jensen, who combined for an average of 25 points per game last season.
“We expect Caitlyn to have a big year scoring-wise,” Rombout said. “She’s a really good three-point shooter and defender, so she’s going to have to carry the load.”
Wheeler, a state qualifier in last season’s three-point contest, is more than ready to accept the challenge.
“I’m excited about it,” she said. “I like shooting, so it should be fun.”
Joining Wheeler in the backcourt is senior co-captain Kayla Bushey. After playing small forward last season, Rombout is attempting to convert the athletic Bushey to point guard, a position she has never played before.
Also an all-conference volleyball player, Bushey has the work ethic and veteran leadership skills necessary to guide the offense, Rombout said.
“I’m really going to focus on giving my teammates open looks and the chance to shine,” Bushey said.
Rombout is also expecting significant contributions from the rest of his starting five, which includes senior power forward and co-captain Kaitlyn Stetson, 5-foot-11-inch senior center Kate Van Tilburg and senior small forward Amber Wilczak.
The Lady Wildcats will have a better idea where they stack up against the rest of the state after they complete a daunting early season schedule that includes contests against Lisle, Immaculate Conception and perennial powerhouse Resurrection.
However, Rombout believes the challenging out-of-conference matchups can only help his squad in the long run.
“I continue to schedule these tough games so that we are prepared for the conference and the state playoffs,” he said.
After falling short of the Northeastern Athletic Conference title in 2010, the Lady Wildcats are optimistic about dethroning defending champion Christian Life.
“It’s wide open, and that’s what’s fun about the conference,” Rombout said. “Top to bottom we are so balanced – every night we’ve got to show up.”
Even if the Lady Wildcats are unable to capture conference, they will have a good chance of reaching their ultimate goal of winning a regional championship, Rombout said, citing the class change as a competitive advantage.
But the head coach doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, or put too much pressure on his team.
“Listen, if we go 0-30, that’s not what I’m concerned about,” Rombout said. “Did you give everything you had? Were you prepared? If you were, that’s ultimately what’s most important.”
The Lady Wildcats open their season Nov. 15 at Lisle High School.
Boys’ team gunning for conference rivals
Replacing last season’s third team all-state phenom Kente Mixon wasn’t something boys’ head coach Jason Tucker was looking forward to. But after conducting a week of practices, the second-year coach is thrilled about the depth of his 2011 squad and is hopeful they can make a serious run at both a conference and regional championship.
Last year, Mixon and fellow standout senior Zach Saunders averaged more than 38 points combined per game. Despite losing those star shooters to graduation, Tucker is confident the Wildcats’ multiple scoring options in this year’s spread offense will create more headaches for the opposition.
“There’s not one guy you’ve got to focus on, but seven or eight guys that could surprise you on any given night,” Tucker said.
One of those players is senior co-captain Sean Chapman. Standing 6-feet-3-inches tall and tipping the scales at 200 pounds, Chapman has been called a “hybrid with freakish ability” by assistant coach Rich Huy.
Tucker said Chapman should average a double-double in scoring and rebounding this season.
While the Wildcat star is ready to carry those weighty expectations on his shoulders, he knows his ultimate responsibility is to be the powerful voice in the locker room.
“I’m just trying to motivate the team and keep everyone up,” Chapman said. “We need to come to practice every day, work hard and get Ws.”
Also critical to the team’s success is senior co-captain James Mazzone. The 6-foot-1-inch swingman has the veteran intangibles every coach looks for, Tucker said.
“He is the glue of our team – he does everything” Tucker said. “Everything I’ve preached, he’s learned it and soaked it in like a sponge.”
The rest of the Wildcats starting lineup responsible for running Tucker’s “4-out-1-in” offensive scheme are senior point guard and defensive specialist Jimmy Cunningham, senior Jacques Gatlin and senior Esteban Vizcaino.
After finishing in the top half of the Northeastern Athletic Conference with a 5-3 record last season, Tucker said his team has the potential to take down both defending champions Rockford Christian and pre-season media darlings Christian Life, also hailing from Rockford.
“These guys are licking their chops to go back to Rockford this year,” he said. “If we can play the way we are supposed to play, we can squeak in and win the conference.”
But the Wildcats won’t be happy with merely exacting revenge against their rivals to the northwest.
“A regional championship is our ultimate goal, and I think it would be a bust season if we didn’t win one,” Tucker said. “I really like our chances. The sky is the limit with this team.”
The Wildcats kick off their season Nov. 21 in the Westminster Thanksgiving Tournament against St. Edward.