More than nine months have elapsed since the last time the St. Joseph-Ogden High School boys’ basketball team played a game.
More than nine months to analyze how a successful regular season ended abruptly in the postseason, with the Spartans losing 58-55 to Tuscola in a Class 2A regional semifinal game that served as SJO’s one and only postseason game from last season.
But now it’s time to move forward. And focus in on the upcoming 2019-2020 season. SJO, which finished 19-10 last season, tips off the season at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday against Georgetown-Ridge Farm during the Toyota of Danville Classic in St. Joseph.
Second-year coach Kiel Duval is ready. So are his players, led by returning starters in 5-foot-10 senior guard Chance Izard and 6-1 senior guard Payton Cain.
“We are excited,” Duval said. “We’ve had a great first few weeks of practice, but we are getting to the point now where they are ready to play against other people rather than their teammates.”
Normally, the six-team Toyota of Danville Classic that SJO hosts is held a week or two before Christmas. But this year, the 15-game round-robin tournament that features SJO, Cissna Park, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, La Salette, Schlarman and Watseka and takes place Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this week, will serve as the season-opening week for the Spartans.
“It is always nice to start the season at home,” Duval said. “It’ll be different to start the season with a tournament atmosphere of the Classic, but it is nice to have it at home.”
After Tuesday night’s opener against G-RF, the Spartans will play La Salette at 8 p.m. on Wednesday and Cissna Park — the defending Class 1A state runner-up — at 8 p.m. on Friday. This all sets up two games this upcoming Saturday for SJO, with Duval’s team facing Schlarman at 11:30 a.m. and concluding the tournament with a 7 p.m. game against Watseka.
“The tough part of the Classic, and we have talked about it as a group, is adjusting to new scouting reports in a short time span,” Duval said. “We may have to adjust the way we guard on the defensive end or offensive approach based on scouting reports. There are times we may even have to adjust lineups because of matchups.”
While Izard and Cain bring back the most starting experience among the Spartans, Duval can rely on several veterans this season. Payton Grimsley, and Jordan Kelly, a pair of 5-9 senior guards, can add depth to the backcourt, while 6-8 senior center Braydon Rupert, 6-3 senior forward Conner Hodge, 6-0 senior forward Luke Renfrew and 6-1 senior forward Drew Coursey give the Spartans some options in the frontcourt. Keep an eye on 6-4 freshman guard Ty Pence as well.
Along with the Toyota of Danville Classic, SJO will also take part in the 16-team small-school State Farm Holiday Classic that runs from Dec. 26-30 in Bloomingon-Normal, along with the Christie Clinic SJO Shootout on Jan. 11, the IPC/Sangamo Shootout on Feb. 8 in Tolono and the Riverton Shootout on Feb. 15. SJO will host Farmington at 8 p.m. as part of the Christie Clinic SJO Shootout that will feature seven games on the day.
SJO will also play Rantoul (7 p.m., Dec. 13), Tri-Valley (3:30 p.m., Dec. 14), Cissna Park (7:30 p.m., Jan. 3), Williamsville (7:30 p.m., Jan. 7) and Paxton-Buckley-Loda (7:30 p.m., Jan. 14) at home in nonconference games. The Spartans will hit the road for nonconference games at Champaign Central (7:30 p.m., Dec. 17), Teutopolis (7:30 p.m., Jan. 17) and Westville (3:30 p.m., Feb. 1) this season.
“Our nonconference schedule is very good,” Duval said. “We try to play a very tough schedule to prepare for a tough postseason. We are playing a number of great basketball programs this year in nonconference games, along with a very tough State Farm Holiday Classic field.”
The Spartans begin their nine-game Illini Prairie Conference slate on Jan. 21 with a 7 p.m. game at home against St. Thomas More. Other Illini Prairie home games for SJO, which went 8-1 in league play last season, are against Prairie Central (7 p.m., Jan. 31), Monticello (7 p.m., Feb. 4) and Chillicothe IVC (7 p.m., Feb. 14). SJO will hit the road for five Illini Prairie games: Olympia (7 p.m., Jan. 24), Unity (7 p.m., Jan. 28), Pontiac (7 p.m., Feb. 7), Rantoul (7 p.m., Feb. 11) and Bloomington Central Catholic (7 p.m., Feb. 21).
“The Illini Prairie is going to be good this year across the board,” Duval said. “A lot of teams bring back key contributors from last year and also mix in young talent. Every night will be a battle in this league. We are looking forward to that challenge.”
Along with trying to win a regional championship for the 18th time in program history. Last season was only the fourth season this decade the Spartans failed to bring home any sort of postseason hardware. Duval, an assistant coach on SJO’s team that won a state championship in 2016, knows first-hand what outside expectations are for the Spartans.
“As a coaching staff, we embrace those high expectations,” Duval said. “This is why we can have high expectations for our players. This is why we can challenge them and push them to be the best players they can be. The players push to continue the success that past teams have demonstrated.”