High School Sports

All eyes are on Central as it enters postseason

BREESE With the start of the postseason less than 48 hours away, the Central Cougars seem poised for another long playoff run which they hope will end in three weeks with a trip to the Class 2A girls state basketball tournament at Redbird Arena in Normal.

Veteran coach Nathan Rueter isn’t looking that far ahead.

“The kids have high expectations and I want them too. But by the same token, we just need to focus on one game at a time right now,’’ Rueter said. “We’re capable of making a run deep in the playoffs. But we’re just as capable of not. With as challenging as our (Carlyle) regional is, we’re capable of going out and having a bad night, as anybody is.

“We just need to continue to work hard and do whatever it takes to suvive and advance.’’

Ranked third in the Class 2A state poll, the Cougars (23-3) begin their postseason Tuesday at the Carlyle Regional, when it plays either fourth-seed Carlyle or fifth-seeded Marquette at 6 p.m.

A probable title-game matchup with second-seed Wesclin awaits the Cougars on Thursday, with the regional winner advancing to the Wesclin Sectional next week.

Central is led by 6-foot-2 junior all-stater Kendra Wilken.

One of four juniors in Central’s starting lineup for much of the season, Wilken has been nearly unstoppable despite drawing double and triple team coverage on a nightly basis. The DePaul University recruit averages 19.9 points per game while playing stellar defense and dominating on the backboards.

Others such as senior Sophie Rickhoff and juniors Alicia Book, Kaylee Schrand and Grace Yaunches also have had their moments this season. But with the exception of Wilken, the Cougars offense has been somewhat inconsistent.

But after losing several players to graduation from a team which lost to Teutopolis at the Salem Super-Sectional last year, Rueter expected it would take a while for many of his players to become consistent offensive threats.

Now, 26 games into the season, Rueter is still waiting.

“I think all of our guards are capable of having that break out scoring performance, but for whatever reason, that just hasn’t happened consistently.’’ Rueter said. “On those occasions where Kendra has come out and played at her high level and two of the other kids come out and have big scoring nights, we’re going to be tough to beat.

“I think we need to get some of the other kids more involved in the offense. We certanly have the kids who are capable of doing it. Sometimes we look for (Kendra) and that’s all we look for. We need some of the other kids to step up.’’

The pressure for Schrand, Rickhoff, Yaunches and Book to pick up their offense will be even more intensified from here on out as defenses focus even more of their attention on Wilken.

Put simply, teams are going to make players other than Wilken beat them.

“It’s going to intensify even more now,’’ Rueter said.

The Cougars also have had to make adjustments on the defensive end of the floor. A firm believer in man-to-man defense, Rueter has had his team in a zone more than in several seasons.

“Defensively, we’ve had to be more creative this year than we’ve been in the past. We’ve had to play a little more zone and while I’m a big believer in playing man-to-man, but if it’s going to get us beat, I’m not going to do it,’’ Rueter said. “Our kids take a lot of pride in how we play ‘D.’ Is it one of the best defensive teams we’ve had? No, But I still think its one of our strong suits.’’

The Cougars postseason road won’t be an easy one and Rueter knows it.

Wesclin, in the midst of one its finest seasons in recent years, has a pair of elite players in Zoe Christopher and Carrie Rakers. West Frankfort or Carterville could be a sectional semifinal foe with either Benton or Nashville a possible opponent in the sectional title game.

“That’s still a long way off. Right now, we’re concerned with playing Carlyle for a fourth time year and on their home floor. Then we could have a very good Wesclin team in the regional final. They’re having a great year, they are physical and they are very well coached,’’ Rueter said. “We just need to continue to work hard in practice and be ready to play each night.’’