By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
Both championships were expected. One had been counted on for years, while the other was nothing but a dream two years.
Rockford Auburn and Rockford East are both back-to-back regional champions in class 4A and 3A, respectively, and both have established themselves as the top programs in the conference right now.
For Auburn, it was the expected championship, the one handed to them before they even played. But despite having an all-time great player and playing at home, nobody was ready to hand the Knights their crown.
Early deficits to Machesney Park Harlem in the semifinals and Rockton Hononegah in the finals made Auburn earn their championship. And when Auburn earns it, they earn it at the defensive end.
“Once we calmed down, and got the jitters out of us, we took care of business,” Auburn guard LaMark Foote said. “Defense is always key, that’s what Coach [Bryan] Ott always preaches to us.”
During the championship game, All-State guard Fred Van Vleet became the all-time leading scorer in Rockford public school history. But the Knights will not fade away after his departure.
Auburn’s sophomore team was undefeated this season in conference play, often winning their games in bigger margins than the varsity team was winning. With a mix of sophomores and freshmen contributing to that team, the future is bright for Auburn.
But before they get to that distant future, they are extremely focused on making the most out of the immediate future.
“Always happy for another win, but, of course, there is unfinished business,” Foote said after the regional championship. “We have to knock that door down in super sectionals and get down state, and that is the goal. But we have to take it one game at a time and not look ahead.”
For East, the second of their regional championships was expected. But the first last year was not, especially coming off a season where they had only won one conference game the year before.
But a special group of seniors led by Steve McNease, Javon Henderson, Darshawn Pumphrey-King, Andrew Lantz, C’Vontez Johnson and Diante Hunter have them poised to possibly win a sectional crown.
McNease, who struggled at times early in the season, has firmly entrenched himself as the second-best player in the conference behind Van Vleet. He proved that with double-doubles in both regional games, really controlling both games on the offensive glass.
East, like Auburn, has reason to look ahead to the future. Juniors Austin Young, Devion Smith and Jontrell Robinson will again have talent from the sophomore class joining them.
East, however, does have something else in mind. Last season, they were a basket away from joining Auburn in DeKalb for the super sectionals in what likely would have been a large, pro-Rockford crowd with both teams there.
This season, that is what they have in mind. Unlike last year, when they were the unknown, they will enter the sectional this year as the favorite, like Auburn.
If both teams can make the super sectionals, the crowd at Northern Illinois University will be amazing — and maybe that crowd, along with a special group of players, will be enough to give Rockford two teams down state.
From the March 7-13, 2012, issue