By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
Nothing about the situation was good for the Rockford Jefferson J-Hawks. After defeating the Rockford East E-Rabs on a last-second shot to reach the IHSA Class 4A Regional Championship, a brawl ensued that not only involved players, but saw fans come from the stands.
In the aftermath, five Jefferson players were suspended, as well as Head Coach Todd Brannan. It was a harsh punishment that saw the J-Hawks lose their leading scorers and set them up for a major uphill battle against Huntley.
“You win the game, but you lose,” Jefferson Assistant Coach Chris Dixon said. “It was a win-lose situation. “
Huntley, to their credit, didn’t let the situation become a distraction for them. They led 26-5 after the first quarter and cruised to a 77-29 victory behind 21 points from Belmont University recruit Amanze Egekeze.
“That wasn’t really our concern,” Egekeze said of who would play. “They changed the time of when they would announce the decision two or three times. We prepared as if they would have their guys. As a team, we just had to make sure we stayed committed to what we wanted to do, regardless of who they had on the floor.”
That was a tough situation, because the IHSA did not announce until Friday morning before the game who would miss the game. That left the J-Hawks relying on players who had not seen much playing time this season.
“Not knowing who would be playing, we were just going through the motions,” Dixon said. “So, it was tough trying to get every player prepared. Trying to prepare them to be ready and even trying to uplift the kids who couldn’t play.”
Jefferson showed up to win, but they knew it would be tough. The fallout of the fight with East was about so much more than the game for Jefferson. And they spent much of their time trying to help kids move on.
“It’s more than just basketball,” Dixon said. “We have a lot of mentors on our coaching staff. There was a lot of mentoring of each and every kid that is a part of this. All the kids were upset. And only time heals wounds. Hopefully, over time, wounds will heal, and it will build a fire for next year.”
Through it all, Dixon said the coaching staff was trying to help the kids find as many positives as they could out of the situation, as tough as that may be. One lesson was an overriding theme.
“We told our kids, ‘Always play with class,’” he said. “I told the kids, ‘Make sure you can control your destiny; you don’t want to leave it in someone else’s hands.’”
And while the end of the game was not in question for long, the Jefferson crowd showed up in full force and supported the players who did play. Even better was the group that waited for the players after the game to give them a standing ovation.
At the end of the day, Jefferson made the best of a tough situation. And while they did lose, they played hard on the court and gave the crowd plenty to cheer about.
“Our kids played hard tonight,” Jefferson Athletic Director Todd Zimmerman said. “To the very end, they made us proud.”
From the March 12-18, 2014 print edition