As noted pro wrestling champion Ric Flair once said, “In order to be the man, you have to beat the man.”
Flair could easily have been talking about the Class 2A Carlyle Regional, which has the type of high-end talent that WWE kingpin Vince McMahon could use to fill one of his “Wrestlemania” main events.
This regional includes three teams ranked in the top nine in the state, last season’s 2A second-place finisher in Nashville, and a No. 4 seeded squad in Wesclin that boasts a 20-8 record.
Top-seeded Nashville (25-3) has beaten No. 2 seed Mater Dei (19-10) twice and No. 3 seed Central (22-6) twice and also owns win over No. 4 Wesclin and No. 5 Carlyle. Nashville is ranked third in the state, Mater Dei is seventh and Central is ninth.
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“It’s tough. When you play all these guys and you do have three of the top nine teams in the state ... it’s a great draw for the fans and everything, but from a coaching standpoint it’s tough,” Central coach Jeremy Shubert said.
While the talent overload might seem excessive, seeing these same teams in the regional isn’t overly surprising because of their geographical proximity and traditional rivalries.
“That’s what I remember it used to be years ago,” Mater Dei coach Ron Schadegg said. “(All the talent) was not a big issue. We don’t get caught up in all that, the games are scheduled so you’ve got to play them anyway. Everybody knows each other extremely well.
“We understand that it’s going to be a difficult task. I guess that’s why we scheduled the way we did. Everybody’s been telling us all season it will pay off.”
Nashville coach Brad Weathers’ squad is used to adversity with teams taking aim at them all season. Three starters return from a team that lost the 2014 Class 2A state title game to Bloomington Central Catholic in triple overtime and the Hornets are eager to make a return trip.
This minefield of a regional won’t make it easy.
“You can’t worry about what you can’t control,” Weathers said when asked about the Illinois High School Association’s decision to place all these teams in the same regional. “The sad part about it is some regionals are stacked, others are not. We’ve seen that over and over.
“The fairest way would be to have some sort of sectional complex, whether you separare the top four teams in different regionals or however you want to do it.”
Nashville’s only losses are to Teutopolis, Carterville and Columbia. The Hornets are led by 6-foot-7 junior Royce Newman (14.2 points and six rebounds per game), 6-7 senior Dylan Mueller (11.3 ppg), seniors Daniel Thorson (8.8 ppg) and Hunter Cooper (6.7 ppg) and Brady Bultman (6.3 ppg).
Nashville’s long-armed 3-2 zone defense and size inside basically dares teams to try to beat then from the outside.
“I think we’ve been extremely balanced offensively,” said Weathers, whose team will face the Wesclin-Carlyle winner in the semifinals Tuesday. “We’ve had six different people lead us in scoring at some point of the season.”
If playoff experience matters, the Hornets are stacked.
“We didn’t have that last year, we got hot at the right time and played our best ball then,” Weathers said. “The fact that you’ve been involved in those games can help.”
Round 3 of the Mater Dei-Central rivalry this season is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday in the semifinals. Mater Dei beat Central 51-35 and 47-40 earlier and the Knights rely on their incredibly tall lineup and inside-outside attack.
“When we committed to playing defense is when we turned things around about mid-season,” said Schadegg said. “That’s what got us over the hump and really created some easier offense for us, which gave us more confidence and more of a lift.”
The Knights lost their final two regular-season games to state-ranked Centralia and Okawville, but have several big wins down the stretch including Belleville West.
“Their size is something we definitely don’t match up with at all,” Shubert said. “They push the ball, they can get up the floor and with (Brendan) Timmermann back they’re playing as good as anybody.”
Mater Dei’s 6-8 senior Nolan Gerling (16.1 points, 6.7 rebounds per game) is the top offensive focus, but there is plenty more firepower with seniors Ben Lampe (13.1 ppg), Zach Haake (10.3 ppg, 37 3-pointers) and Zack Deiters (7.6 ppg, 62 3-pointers).
“It’s been pretty balanced,” Schadegg said. “We got exactly what we expected out of most of them. Nolan’s kind of surfaced as one of the go-to guys that we have and he’s been very effective and efficient down in the low post.”
Central can’t be overlooked here because of its defensive effectiveness and the scoring of junior guard Logan Kohrmann (19 ppg, 56 3-pointers), junior Chase Schneider (9.1 ppg, 61 3-pointers) and sophomore Jack Strieker (7.4 ppg). The Cougars recently pounded state-ranked Greenville 74-59 and have won eight of their last nine games.
“(Kohrmann) has attacked the basket a little bit more,” Shubert said, noting his guard’s more frequent trips to the foul line. “A lot of that has to do with him taking the ball to the hole more and being able to finish or getting fouled.”
If Wesclin gets past Carlyle, the Warriors must rely on their effective 3-point shooting to advance further. They have some long-range gunners in junior guards Jarad Steenbergen (11.2 ppg, 66 3-pointers) and Jared Timmermann (10 ppg, 56 3-pointers), plus more scoring from senior Brendan Bernhardt (11.4 ppg), 6-7 junior Jake Stephens (9.4 ppg) and senior Justin Goff (9 ppg).