DIVERNON – After a winning season that saw the team finish in the top 16 of Class 3A in the Illinois Elementary School Association, the Vandalia seventh-grade boys have a bright future.
And it’s not necessarily because of wins and losses.
After the team lost 44-37 to Southwestern in the last Wednesday’s sectional, coach Mark Rinehart had nothing but praise for the way his team handled that game and the entire the season.
“One of the things I learned about this team is that we have some good scorers and some guys with good intangibles,” said coach Mark Rinehart. “If these guys stay together, keep improving and keep working, then when you put this group and the eighth-grade group together in a few years, you should have some players.
“We don’t do everything perfect, but that’s seventh-grade basketball. It’s not because they aren’t trying,” he said. “Work ethic is something that is going to carry these guys.”
The Jr. Vandals (16-9) fell behind by as many as nine points in the third quarter against Southwestern (22-3), and the Birds had a 10-0 run to end the first half.
But Vandalia never quit, getting back within three points during the final six minutes of the game.
Three months ago, Rinehart said, that may not have been the case.
“Early in the season, there were some games where the fire was put to us, and we didn’t respond very well,” he said. “But later in the season, and tonight, we stayed the course and kept fighting.”
“These kids have given everything they had. I am so proud of them, and they have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Playing at Auburn Junior High, Vandalia and Southwestern looked like they were going to have a back-and-forth affair, as there were four lead changes in the first half.
The Birds had the majority of those leads, but the Jr. Vandals were ahead 15-13 after a pair of free throws from Garrett McNary with 4:22 left in the second quarter.
But after that, Southwestern went on a 10-0 run, scoring half of those points off Vandalia turnovers, to take an eight-point lead to halftime.
“I really felt good about how we were playing up until the last two minutes of the half,” Rinehart said. “That’s probably the difference in the game, because we never could get back over the hump.
“But at halftime, I told them that it wasn’t over,” he said. “The only thing I was concerned about was if we were going to come out and allow six or eight more.”
Nathan Casey, whose 18 points led all scorers, nailed a 3-pointer nine seconds into the second half to stop Southwestern’s momentum, but the Birds hit a 3 on their next possession, and were leading 32-23 with 3:21 left in the third period.
Rinehart said he had concerns that the Birds were going to take a double-digit lead, so he called a timeout, and over a one-minute span, the Jr. Vandals went on a 7-2 run to get within four points.
A layup from Marcus Zimmerman, who scored 13 points, opened the fourth quarter, but the Jr. Vandals faced a seven-point deficit with 4:36 left in the game.
Zimmerman then tried to single-handedly take over the game, securing a three-point play about a minute later and stealing the ball just seven seconds after that.
Vandalia then had six offensive rebounds – three by Zimmerman – but were unable to score a basket, which would have cut their deficit to at most three points.
“We were always trying to scrap to catch up, but we could have very easily packed it in the third quarter,” Rinehart said. “Instead, we got tough on defense, but we missed some shots in the late stages.”
The Bird made a field goal and 3-of-5 free throws in the final two minutes to seal the victory.
“They are one heck of a team,” Rinehart said. “We tried everything. I played man, I played press, I played zone, I tried to face guard, and if we played them three or four times like Greenville, I think we could beat them.”
Wednesday, Jan. 30
at Divernon Sectional
Points: Casey, 18; Zimmerman, 13; McNary, 4; James Taylor, 2.
Rebounds: Zimmerman, 8; Ethan Bayles, 4; Casey, 4; Taylor, 4; Team, 3; Scott Shulman, 2; McNary, 1.
Assists: McNary, 3; Zimmerman, 2; Casey, 1.
Steals: Zimmerman, 4; McNary, 2; Casey, 1.