Central Catholic High School's basketball team is ranked No. 14 in the state, has won 12 games in a row and is coming off its best performance of the season.
While Coach Jeff Wulbrun feels good about all of that, there is a humbling reality heading into the Fieldcrest Class A Sectional.
"At 24-4, we have the worst record in the sectional," Wulbrun said. "That shows the strength of the sectional."
The four teams are a combined 102-10, the fewest losses of any sectional in the state. Factor in that three of Central's defeats were to Class AA teams, and no wonder Hartsburg-Emden coach Josh Nauman called the field "loaded."
Nauman's 16th-ranked team is 26-3 and faces Central Catholic in Wednesday's semifinal. But first, host Fieldcrest (26-1) meets Maroa-Forsyth (26-2) tonight, with the winners playing Friday for the championship. All games start at 7:30.
"It's just going to be a fabulous sectional," Fieldcrest coach Matt Winkler said. "It has to be the toughest and best in the state. You have to give a little bit of a nod to Central Catholic because they're playing so well and they have such powerful weapons. But I really think anybody could win it."
The survivor advances to the Normal (ISU) Super-Sectional on March 7 against the Watseka Sectional champion. The favorite there is top-seeded and No. 12-ranked CPCI, which takes a 15-game win streak into tonight's semifinal against Tolono Unity.
At Minonk (Fieldcrest)
Fieldcrest avenged its only loss by downing Tremont, 75-54, in the Eureka Regional final. The Knights contained Tremont's standout guards, and will face a similar test against Maroa-Forsyth.
The Trojans are led by 6-foot-3 senior guard Austin Peebles, who is drawing Division I interest, and 6-0 junior guard Robert Kreps, who has orally committed to Illinois-Chicago. Peebles averages 21 points per game and Kreps 19.
"I thought we did an excellent job of defending Tremont. Hopefully, that will prepare us for this game because their (Maroa-Forsyth's) guards are good, too," Winkler said. "Their defense really gets their offense going. They put a lot of pressure on the guards. They make you turn the ball over and score points that way.
"We're going to have to really take care of the ball and take care of our entry passes to the wing and to the post."
Fieldcrest will look to get the ball into 6-4 junior Logan Park, who has produced 12.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Junior guard/forward Kiel Melvin has an area-best 83 baskets from 3-point range and a team-high 13.1 scoring average. He is followed by junior guard Jake Martin (10.7) and senior forward Jarrod Cook (9.0).
"The Park kid is a real good post player," Maroa-Forsyth coach Chad Cluver said. "We have to do a good job inside on him, but we can't let Melvin get hot outside. We'll have to put a lot of pressure on the ball.
"Our team is pretty darn quick, so we try to use that to our advantage as much as we can. We like the transition game."
Maroa-Forsyth, seeking its first sectional title since 1957, will play its second straight game on the opponent's home floor. The Trojans beat GCMS 67-54 Friday at Gibson City.
"I think our kids almost like that," Cluver said. "They almost thrive off of it."
Central Catholic and Hartsburg-Emden nearly met in the State Farm Holiday Classic championship game. However, Central lost to CPCI in the semifinals after the Timberwolves' Justin Steffen made a 70-foot shot at the buzzer to force overtime.
Hartsburg-Emden went on to win the title, led by senior forward Scott Ubbenga.
The 6-3 Ubbenga paces the Stags with 22.2 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Six-three sophomore center Dakin Bolen adds 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds, while junior guard Gary Rademaker scores 10.1 per game.
"We know Ubbenga is one of the best players we'll face all season," Wulbrun said. "He strokes it from 3, he's good around the basket and he's just a very skilled player for his size.
"They have excellent leadership at the point guard spot (senior Curtis Conrady) and they're big. They match up with us very well. You have to gear your defense to stopping the team and not one or two individuals."
Central shot 71 percent in its 81-48 regional final win over Tri-Valley, including 86 percent the second half. Freshman guard Tom Norton hit 5 of 6 from 3-point range and had a team-high 19 points. The Saints have six players between 7.1 and 13.0 points per game, led by 6-8 senior Justin Safford.
"Hopefully, they got all those shots out of their system and they won't be making any on Wednesday," Nauman said. "They have a lot of size and they have shooters. They're a tough matchup."
Both coaches expect an up tempo game.
"Both teams are very well balanced. When you have weapons like that, it lends itself to a higher possession game," Wulbrun said.
"I don't think they're going to try to slow us down, and we haven't tried to slow anybody down all year," Nauman said. "I don't think we'll change what we're doing."
Coach Kevin Long sensed his CPCI players couldn't wait for the postseason to arrive. They reinforced that notion with a 91-69 blitz of PBL in the regional final at Paxton.
"The last three or four weeks of the regular season we struggled a little bit offensively," Long said. "(Against PBL) we really broke out and shot the ball well. We had great scoring balance and 21 of our 32 field goals were assisted."
Jordan Hurliman scored 25 points, Andy Leppard 20, Patrick Doggett 18 and Justin Steffen 15 in CPCI's fifth win over PBL this year. Seniors Hurliman and Steffen lead the Timberwolves (27-2) at 13.5 points per game.
Long expects second-seeded Tolono Unity (19-8) to be "very deliberate and make you defend." The Rockets posted a 39-36 win over Salt Fork for the Villa Grove Regional title.
"They'll bring a solid man-to-man defense," Long said. "They're going to be fundamentally sound and physical. They prefer a slower tempo."
Long is comfortable with any pace, saying, "In the postseason, you have to be able to win by speeding up the tempo or playing a halfcourt game. We've practiced and worked on both."
Third-seeded Armstrong (21-7) and fourth-seeded Bismarck-Henning (24-7) meet in the other semifinal. CPCI defeated Armstrong, 72-58, on Dec. 2 at Cissna Park.