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Looking for their voice, young Spartans ready for forging

St. Joseph-Ogden head coach Kiel Duval watches the Spartans during first half action in their home game against Williamsville in 2019. After undergoing COVID-19 protocols resulting in the cancellation of one contest and rescheduling of another last week, he and the SJO squad are ready start playing basketball tonight.
Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

Game day.

With barely a month left in an already shortened basketball season season due the pandemic, tonight the St. Joseph-Ogden boys basketball team will finally be able to run the floor, drill three-point shots, haul in rebounds and foul a couple of players.

Are they ready to play? You bet.

"It's exciting. I'm excited for the kids," said head coach Kiel Duval. "They have been waiting for this for a long time. It has been a roller coaster year for them to say the least. I told them tonight - there will be nerves. We are going to make mistakes."

The delay from the typical November start, COVID protocols, wearing masks and a canceled week of competition will be unforgettable in the lives of tonight's players.

The lads from SJO open their season against Rantoul at home tonight. The Eagles with two games under their belt, both resulting in losses, dropped their first game 64-42 to Champaign Central and suffered a 68-37 loss to Prairie Central last night.

"I do think this will be a game they remember for a long time because of the road it took to get here," Duval said. A math teacher at the school, he was a three-sport athlete for the Spartans.

Is there a reason to be a little nervous at this point?

Sure. With hours to go until the opening pass - there are not tipoffs under COVID rules, a positive test from one or more player on either team between now and then could jeapordize tonight's conference game between the two schools. Fingers are cross tightly, for whatever good it will do, there are fans, players and coaches hoping that it doesn't happen.

The first interview of the season, I asked Coach Duval what I should be writing about or looking at that no one else is talking about. Here is what he said:

Ty Pence is going to draw a lot of attention every night. The guys that are out there with him are starting to understand that his attention he draws will give them opportunities. What will be interesting to me is what guys step up to be "Robin" each night.

Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. There are multiple guys that can score, but which one it will be on a given night - I have no clue. The next question that we have been asking ourselves is which guy is going to be our "lockdown" defender. We've always had one. Every team as far back as I can remember. It has been what has made this program special over the years. We are searching.

We have ideas of guys that have the ability. It comes down to if they want to do it for 32 minutes consistently. That part is tough. "How bad do you want to be really good?" is a question we ask them all the time.

The Spartans is a team full of youth. There's going to be some aches and pains as inexperienced varsity players and their cohort matures.

"We have a lot of guys that need to figure out how to play at a varsity level. It is very different going from freshman to jv to varsity," Duval explained. "The transition is huge. I think our goal should be to make strides and improve each day. For us to have a chance to be successful at all in the future our guys need to grow together now. This time together is critical."

Andrew Beyers see action for the Spartans during the team's 2019 home game against Paxton-Buckley-Loda, who will join the Illini Prairie Conference this fall. Duval expects down the road, opponents will be intimidated by his speed and quickness.
Photo: PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks

The departure of the Class of 2020 took left ten openings for the 2020-21 season. Only two players, Ty Pence, whose play has already earned him an offer from Western Illinois University in Macomb, and Cameron Costa.

"We do not have a lot of varsity experience," Duval said. "In my mind, we have 7 starters."

The seven, who hope to become magnificent this season are Ty Pence, Andrew Beyers, Lukas Hutcherson, Jackson Rydell, Evan Ingram, Cameron Costa and Hayden Brazelton. Duval said the goal for him and his coaching staff is to help all seven "find their voice."

"There will be other guys that will have roles that will likely grow throughout the year, but these seven will likely play significant minutes early," Duval said highlighting the talent on the team. "They all have strengths individually, but they are figuring out in practice they are much better when they play together.

"When they communicate. When they pick each other up. Show leadership. I'm hoping by the end of the year they grow as leaders and develop toughness that will help them far past basketball."

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In addition to Pence, there are three players Duval is anxious to measure, mold and see mature.

"Hutcherson will handle the point guard spot for us most nights. He has really looked like a senior in practice," he said. "He is very easy to root for."

Then there is a "quiet and reserve", 6-2 junior forward to watch.

"Andrew Beyers is a kid that is very skilled, but you would never guess it. When he really gets his basketball legs under him, people will hate guarding him," Duval said about Beyers' future and the potential impact he will have on the program. "He has a refuse-to-quit mentality on the offensive glass."

Then, there is another junior, Evan Ingram, who "has the makings to be a very good high school basketball player".

Duval said, "We are still working on him everyday to understand all the aspects of the game to be great. He has grown. He has become more coachable each day."

A junior varsity game starting at 6:30p will precede tonight's 8pm varsity game. Both St. Joseph-Ogden and Rantoul fans can watch both Illini Prairie Conference games via live stream on the NFHS network.

This story originally reported St. Joseph-Ogden's opening game as a home game. An oversight on the editor's part, this game was originally scheduled and played as an away game. We regret this error.

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