Winning a tough game on the road was just what the Okawville Rockets coveted as they prepared for the Class 1A postseason.
The Rockets (20-8), seeded No. 1 seed in the Okawville Regional, won 55-47 on Friday at Central. Coach Jon Kraus hopes the confidence they built from that victory, combined with being on their home floor for the regional, will jump-start an extended stay in the playoffs.
"Our game at Breese Central was a really big game for our kids," said Kraus, whose team placed second in the state tournament last season. "Last year, we won that game at home, and I thought that was a big factor in us making a postseason run.
"So I think with that win Friday night, on the road, Senior Night at Central, our kids got some confidence. That's what you're looking for at this time of year. And we'll be playing at home. That's always a positive for us. We have a pretty good advantage there, we feel like."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Okawville is 9-2 at home, with the losses coming in back-to-back games in January against Class 2A power Wesclin and Class 3A opponent Columbia. The Rockets' victories at home have come by an average margin of 23.3 points.
"I'm fairly confident; I think our kids are confident," said Kraus, in his 18th season. "But our kids also realize that every game has to be taken (seriously). At this time of year, it's one and done, so every game has to be taken with the utmost respect for the other team."
Okawville's first game in the regional will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday against eighth-seeded Lebanon (11-18) or ninth-seeded Marissa (10-17), who meet in the first round at 6 p.m. Monday.
The other first-round game Monday, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., pits No. 5 Valmeyer (14-14) against No. 11 New Athens (5-19). Like Okawville, fourth-seeded Lovejoy (16-14) earned a first-round bye and will oppose Valmeyer or New Athens at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The championship game is 7 p.m. Friday.
Lebanon and New Athens are the only teams in the regional that Okawville has played. The Rockets won at Lebanon 69-35 on Jan. 27; they defeated visiting New Athens 75-36 on Feb. 6.
"We haven't played the other schools, but I'm familiar with them from past year," Kraus said. "I'm familiar with (Valmeyer) from last year's regional. I know they have a lot of kids back. We've done background work on teams and we know what we have to do. If we show up and play well, I feel like we have as good a chance as anybody in our regional. But I also know those other teams are coming into Okawville with nothing to lose."
Okawville graduated leading scorer Noah Frederking, a freshman at the University of Evansville. But balance has helped the Rockets absorb Frederking's loss.
Luke Hensler, a 6-foot-7 senior, averages 14 points, 5.9 rebounds and has 28 3-pointers. Seniors Payten Harre (9.2 points, 42 3-pointers) and Caleb Frederking (7.3 points) and juniors Wyatt Krohne (nine points, team-high 52 3-pointers), Will Aubel (8.2 points, 24 3-pointers) and Lane Schilling (6.2 points) keep defenses honest. Frederking plays the point.
"The coaches, before the season started, were kind of sitting around and saying, 'OK, who's going to be our leading scorer,'" Kraus said. "We all kind of agreed that we could have four or five guys average (at least) seven points a game, and that's kind of where we're at. ... We're dangerous that way in that you can't key on one guy. We have a lot of weapons."
Coming oh-so-close to a state title last year could provide Okawville with an extra dose of motivation. Aubel, Frederking, Harre, Hensler, Krohne, Schilling and senior Tyler Rosener were with the team last year when it fell to Effingham St. Anthony in the championship game in Peoria.
"I'm hoping the experience they got last year in the state tournament is something that will drive them," Kraus said. "I think it has a lot this year. They've waited all year long for this time right now. They know what it felt like last year to go through these two, three weeks.
"We lost Noah Frederking, Shane Ganz, Kirklen Meier, Drew Frederking — seniors from last year. But this team wants to make its own mark and let people know, 'Hey, those guys graduated, but there's still guys here at Okawville that are wanting to do the same thing.' We get to this time of year and our kids, our program, expect to win. That's what you want."
Mount Olive Regional
Madison, seeded second, Metro-East Lutheran (third) and Father McGivney (10th) will be among the teams battling for the Mount Olive Regional title.
Father McGivney will face seventh-seeded Hardin Calhoun at 7 p.m. Monday. Metro-East Lutheran will play 13th-seeded Bunker Hill at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Madison will oppose the Father McGivney-Hardin Calhoun winner in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
The Metro-East Lutheran-Bunker Hill winner will play sixth-seeded Mount Olive or 12th-seeded Brussels in the other semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The championship game is 7 p.m. Friday.