By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
To many in the stands and around the game, there was so much more on the line than a regional championship when Rockford Lutheran and Belvidere got ready to tip in their IHSA Class 3A regional championship.
Lutheran was the top seed in the regional in their first trip up to 3A, after competing in 2A the year before. That was a bit of an upset to some, who viewed Lutheran, the second-place team in the Big Northern West, as an inferior team to Belvidere, despite a better record.
People would argue that Lutheran played smaller schools, an easier schedule and that the Big Northern West was just nowhere near the level of the NIC-10, which features bigger schools than the Big Northern. That Belvidere won the conference and was the No. 2 seed was an insult to those who felt the NIC-10 superior in every way.
So, as the ball was thrown up, not only was Lutheran trying to move on to sectionals, they were trying to defend their conference brethren in a big brother/little brother fight.
“I’m sure the kids talked about it in the locker room,” Lutheran Head Coach Tom Guse said after the game. “But we stressed to them that once the ball was tipped, it was just another basketball game.”
And that is exactly what it was for Lutheran, who has steamrolled every opponent one by one in another successful season. Lutheran dominated from the opening tip, jumping out to an 11-2 lead on their way to a 71-46 victory.
The result continues trends of what is going on at the college level trickling down to the high school level.
In the NCAA over the last five to 10 years, you have seen smaller schools much more easily compete with the bigger schools in basketball, which culminated in Butler making the championship game a few years back.
This year, what was thought to be a strong, balanced NIC-10, was exposed as balanced only. Many schools struggled outside of conference play in non-conference matchups or holiday tournaments.
Several factors appeared to be in play at the time, whether it was travel, injuries or facing top-level talent. In retrospect, it was more that the conference had been overvalued, assumed better because they were bigger.
The reality is that it is easier for smaller schools to compete in basketball. You only need five players, as opposed to 22 in football. And smaller schools have an easier time implementing their program at younger ages, getting players to come in and compete at the level they expect.
Lutheran proved that fact, relying heavily on juniors and sophomores in dismantling the Bucs, who relied on a lot of seniors and two juniors to make their amazing run to their first conference title in school history.
None of this is meant to diminish Belvidere or their season. They were a strong team that won the NIC-10 by two full games, only losing two games when some thought four losses may win the conference. Rockford Jefferson and Rockford Boylan both have real shots at a Super Sectional appearance, maybe even a state appearance in Class 4A.
What this shows is that the two best teams in the area reside in the Big Northern West. Lutheran showed their dominance against Belvidere, while the one team they couldn’t beat this year was Big Northern champions Winnebago.
Winnebago sits as the only undefeated team in the state entering their Class 2A Super Sectional matchup. They also beat the Crusaders twice in two of the best games played in the state all year.
Maybe Lutheran will fall short in the sectionals. Maybe they lose to a Peoria powerhouse in DeKalb in the Super Sectionals. Regardless of where their season ends, the Crusaders, along with Winnebago, have shown themselves as the best area teams this season.
From the March 6-12, 2013, issue