It's been a remarkable season for the Highland Bulldogs.
The Bulldogs (20-8, 10-0) swept through the Mississippi Valley Conference, posting their second undefeated league season in three years, and reached the 20-victory mark for the first time since 1996 when they were 25-6 and won a sectional title.
Highland wants to keep it going in front of its home fans. The third-seeded Bulldogs will play host to the six-team Class 3A Highland Regional, where East St. Louis is seeded No. 2.
First-round games Monday will be No. 8 Mater Dei (12-15) vs. No. 9 Central (12-16) at 6 p.m. and No. 6 Cahokia (12-14) vs. 11th-seeded Triad (14-14) at 7:30. The Mater Dei-Central winner will meet East St. Louis (13-10) at 7 p.m. Tuesday, with the Cahokia-Triad winner facing Highland at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The championship game is at 7 p.m. Friday.
"It's going to be tough, but that's why regionals are kind of special," second-year Bulldogs coach Brian Perkes said. "They're not supposed to be easy to win, and ours certainly is not going to be easy. Any one of the six teams could win it. They're all good programs and there's a lot of tradition with the teams in our regional. To me, it's up for grabs."
The winner of the Highland Regional will advance to the Centralia Sectional along with the champions of the Waterloo, Carbondale and Mount Vernon regionals.
At Waterloo, Alton Marquette (28-0) is seeded first. The Explorers will play at 7 p.m. Tuesday against the winner of the first-round game at 6 p.m. Monday between seventh-seeded Mascoutah (16-12) and 10th-seeded Freeburg (14-15). Fifth-seeded Columbia (17-11) will oppose 12th-seeded Waterloo (7-22) in the other first-round game at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Fourth-seeded Civic Memorial (18-10) will play the Columbia-Waterloo winner at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The title game is at 7 p.m. Friday.
Highland is 4-1 against the regional field, its only loss coming 46-29 at Central on Jan. 27. The Bulldogs have won five of their last six, the only loss to Alton Marquette.
The Bulldogs are 6-1 at home and also have noteworthy victories this season against Civic Memorial (twice), Okawville, Centralia, Columbia, Collinsville and Cahokia.
"We've picked it up offensively the last two weeks or so," Perkes said. "I think there is an advantage (being at home), but I don't think it's such a great advantage that it makes us the heavy favorite."
A 51-49 win over visiting Civic Memorial on Tuesday clinched the perfect MVC season and secured the 20-victory milestone.
"Both of those are special," Perkes said. "When we got to 16 and 17 wins, we started doing a little bit of research and realized it's been 22 years since we won 20 games. Going through the conference 10-0 is really difficult because the conference, from top to bottom, there's just not much separation. We played a lot of close games and got lucky a couple of different times."
Highland is a blue-collar team with no true star, although 6-foot-4 senior Sam LaPorta comes close. LaPorta is a rock in the paint and averages a team-high 10.9 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Other top players are 5-9 junior Brady Feldman, 6-3 junior Jake Kruse, 6-4 senior Steven Schniers and 6-8 junior Steven Torre. Feldman averages nine points, and Kruse is close behind at 7.9 points with a team-leading 48 3-pointers.
"It's a great group of guys," Perkes said. "They've had a lot of athletic success so far in their high-school careers, whether it's been on the football field or the basketball court or baseball field. They come to compete. On any given night, a couple of different guys can step up and be our leading scorer. That's a good thing for us.
"If teams says, 'Hey, we've got to stop this kid or stop that kid on Highland,' they're kind of missing the boat on us because we're well-rounded."
Perkes called LaPorta, a Division I prospect as a receiver in football, "the best athlete I've coached, by far."
"I don't know if he's the best basketball player I've coached, but just athletically, the kid is a freak," Perkes said. "He's a vocal leader in practice; he gets on guys if he doesn't think they're working as hard as they need to be. Sam certainly is the team leader. It's nice to have your best player be your hardest-working player."
Highland could face East St. Louis in the championship game. The Flyers are battle-tested against Class 4A competition in the Southwestern Conference. Terrence Hargrove Jr., a 6-7 junior averaging 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, is a Division I prospect. Joe Reece, a 6-8 senior averaging 15.2 points and 9.2 rebounds, has signed with Old Dominion.
"They're going to present many problems for whomever they play," Perkes said. "It's not a typical team that we're going to play on a Tuesday and Friday. We've already started working against some odd-man defenses to try to simulate some of the quickness we might see. We might see Cahokia on Wednesday. They would present the same type of problems that maybe East St. Louis would present on Friday."