Posted Online: Jan. 07, 2014, 9:29 pm

Good competition helps Rockridge in undefeated start

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By Daniel Makarewicz,

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert/
Rockridge junior guard Luke Johnson drives to the basket against a Peoria Richwoods defender during a game last month in Edgington. Eight of the Rockets' 14 wins this season are against Class 3A opponents.
EDGINGTON -- When it came time to construct a schedule during the offseason, Rockridge boys' basketball coach Toby Whiteman believed the strength of it should trump the potential for victories.

Halfway through it, the Rockets actually have achieved both.

Building a schedule that was front-loaded with Class 3A programs, Rockridge knew maneuvering through it with perfection would bring some turbulence. With the stretch complete, everything remained smooth as the Rockets turn their attention to the Three Rivers Conference.

"The goal was trying to find as many teams as we could to push us, that would give us good games," said Whiteman, whose team earned the unanimous No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Class 2A poll. "We didn't care if we won or lost. We just wanted to play against good teams that would put us in situations to make us uncomfortable so we could learn from it."

The last two games prove his point.

Rockridge secured a 49-43, come-from-behind win over previously unbeaten Metamora in the Macomb-Western Holiday Tournament on Dec. 28. Exactly one week later, it needed to hold off a comeback attempt during a 63-60 win over Rockford East. Those two victories were the closest the Rockets came to defeat all season, but there is another common theme.

Both were Class 3A opponents.

"Very rarely do you run across a group of kids who have that attitude of 'anybody, anytime, any place,'" Whiteman said. "They love the game and love to compete. You can't ask for anything more as a coach."

How the Rockets handled the competition is an accomplishment. Eight of their 14 wins are against Class 3A foes.

"These games we're playing are extremely valuable," Rockridge senior forward Ethan Happ said. "We'll be more prepared."

Those eight victories are by an average of more than 18 points a game, with half coming by 20 points or more.

Obviously, most of the wins were dominant. All of them added legitimacy to this team.

"Going into some of these games, we did have question marks," Rockridge junior guard Luke Johnson said. "Now we have pulled these out -- some in better fashion than we thought. It will help us."

The situations they faced were more important than the outcomes.

"We learned valuable lessons," Happ said. "There are lots of things that went wrong. We would have taken them whether we won or lost."

Rockridge learned Happ or Bryan Heath do not have to be the key options in crunch time, with T.J. Martens spurring the comeback against Metamora with six fourth-quarter points. In wins over Canton and Rockford East, the Rockets showed poise in close games, holding a combined 37-32 edge in the fourth quarter.

When it comes to advancing in postseason, role players and winning close games are important. So far, Rockridge has shown the ability to do both.

The schedule made that possible.

"We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year," Whiteman said. "Playing tough competition put us in situations to do that."

Area boys' basketball outlook

Two Quad-Cities area clubs have just one blemish on their won-loss records -- Lincoln Trail Conference power Wethersfield (12-1) and West Central Conference leader Monmouth-Roseville (13-1).

Led by high-scoring senior guard Trevor Lay (nearly 30 points per game), coach Jeff Parsons' Flying Geese followed up their season-opening second-place finish at their own Wally Keller Invitational by not only advancing to the finals of Erie's Cliff Warkins Memorial Cardinal Classic for the first time, but taking the gold medal with a 77-69 win over Stockton.

Fellow senior Matt Jenkins provides extra scoring punch to complement the play of Lay, while the continuing emergence of such underclassmen as sophomore guard Tanner Nichols only adds to the strength of the reigning Class 1A regional champions.

Monmouth-Roseville's hopes of meeting former conference rival Rockridge in the Macomb-Western finals was derailed with a semifinal-round loss to Metamora, but the Titans' senior nucleus of guard Martel Hunter and forward Trayvon Smith helped Mon-Rose to a third-place finish to complement its season-opening title at the Orion Tip-Off Classic.

At Kewanee, the Boilermakers have rolled out to a 10-3 start behind super soph Donovan Oliver, and are coming off a first-place finish at the Marseilles Holiday Tournament. A strong supporting cast has added to the Boilermakers' strength as they have built an eight-game winning streak. Kewanee travels to Edgington Friday night to take on Rockridge in a key TRAC South contest.

Two other clubs looking to build on successful first halves are Fulton (13-3) and Ridgewood (9-4). The Steamers have more than doubled last year's six-victory output and have won their first two TRAC North games, while the Spartans have continued to progress from the potential they showed during last year's 16-win turnaround campaign.
-- Terry Duckett,