It doesn’t take much to get the small town of Okawville fired up about basketball.
Mix in an opportunity for the Rockets’ first state tournament trip since finishing second in 1987 and it’s easy to see why everyone in town is talking hoops these days.
“People are excited now because it’s been such a long time,” said Okawville coach Jon Kraus, whose 25-9 team plays Brimfield (31-2) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Class 1A Jacksonville Super-Sectional with a state tourney berth on the line.
Okawville was at home Friday for its 57-43 sectional championship victory over Carrollton as the Rockets won their 13th straight game.
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“The crowd was unbelievable here the other night, we had over 2,000 people in here,” Kraus said. “I would say that’s the most Okawville fans ever to see a Rockets game because years ago we never could have gotten that many people into the old gym.”
The old Luechtefeld Gymnasium is still there, full from floor to vaulted wood ceiling of many memories from so many successful Okawville teams throughout the decades. But the one thing that has escaped the program is a state championship, something which the current team would love to fulfill.
“It is a big deal,” said Kraus, himself a former star guard at Okawville and later at McKendree University. “Basketball has always been a really big deal here for a long time. Whenever the excitement starts to build, they come from everywhere and they’re excited.”
Okawville lost the 1987 Class A state championship game to Venice. The Rockets finished third at the 1980 state tourney and also made a trip in 1970.
This will be their ninth super-sectional appearance and first since back-to-back trips in 2008 and 2009. Both of those losses were at Carbondale and this year marks the Rockets’ first super-sectional trip to the historic Jacksonville Bowl.
Brimfield presents a major roadblock. The Indians have a 17-game winning streak and one of the top scorers in central Illinois in three-year starter Carson Cuevas, a 6-foot-3 senior guard who was a second-team all-state pick as a junior.
Cuevas averages 22 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals and is a 49.5 percent shooter from beyond the 3-point line. He had 21 points in the Indians’ 59-37 sectional championship win Friday over Springfield Lutheran and is headed to Illinois Central College on a baseball scholarship.
“He can get to the basket and he’s got a pull-up (shot) too,” said Brimfield coach Scott Carlson, in his 18th season. “He’s a strong player and a quick player. He’s hard to stop and has a scoring mentality.”
Kraus said the Rockets will approach Cuevas the way they have other star-level performers this season.
“We’ve guarded some good players all year,” Kraus saiad. “Our schedule is a huge factor in all this, in my opinion. They’re a very perimeter-oriented team, they shoot a lot of threes and (Cuevas) plays off a lot of ball-screen stuff. In reality it’s an OK matchup for us, I feel like we match up pretty well with them.”
Brimfield’s other top players are junior guard Jace Swietek (9 ppg), 6-4 senior Nate Wallace (9.5 ppg) and 6-8, 275-pound junior center Brad Novak (5 points, 7 rebounds per game).
Brimfield’s only defeats came on back-to-back nights to Elmwood and Delavan at a midseason conference tournament. This is the third super-sectional appearance for Brimfield, which lost to Carrollton in 2012 and reached the 1979 state tournament.
Kraus admitted his squad doesn’t see a lot of defenses like Brimfield’s 1-3-1 zone trap.
“They’re pretty active in that thing, but as long as we don’t turn it over I think we’ll get some big shots,” Kraus said.
One thing Brimfield may not be used to are scorers like Okawville sophomore guard Noah Frederking. The top scorer in the metro-east averages 22 points and 6.7 rebounds with 57 3-pointers, as effective inside as he is outside.
“They take care of the ball and they look like they know what they want offensively,” Carlson said. “They do have a lot of weapons. Frederking is obviously the main go-to guy, but they’ve got a good number of guys that can shoot the three.”
Kraus said the Rockets’ ability to clearly define roles has made a difference during this stretch run. That includes sophomore Shane Ganz (9.5 ppg, 31 3-pointers), Nick Strubhart (7.5 ppg), point guard Alec Wisneski (6.9 points, 3.1 assists per game) and Brad Fuhrhop (5.8 ppg, 23 3-pointers).
“It seems like somebody different has helped Noah every night,” Kraus said. “They also know that they’ve got to contribute and right now they feel pretty confidence in what we’re doing. Noah’s been there and he’s going to be there. Now he’s trusting his teammates a lot more and they’re trusting that when they’re open, he’s going to find them.”