SENECA — In the Grundy County Area there are certain programs that are expected to compete at a high level, based in large part on a history of success. Of course, there is Morris and Coal City football, Coal City and Minooka baseball, and then there is Seneca basketball.
However, the Redskins haven’t been to Champaign since 2007 and the Coalers haven’t been to state since 2005 in football and 2008 in baseball. For the Seneca Fighting Irish, it seems like just yesterday that the basketball team strung together 65 consecutive victories and added a state title and a third place trophy to their case, but the 2007 state championship team is coming up on its five-year reunion this March.
Five years removed from a title and two years removed from legendary head coach Doug Evan, current head coach Russell Witte is now entering his third year at the helm, and he’s hoping the 2011-12 Fighting Irish can get the program back to its winning ways after a 14-15 season and an early exit in last year’s regional.
“My first year was this junior class’ first year in the program, and I think we have improved every year. When I took over for Coach Evans that first year, we returned one player with any varsity experience,” Witte said. “Then last year we saw a little bit more success. We didn’t get as far as we would have liked, but we were competitive in every game we played – I think we dropped six or seven games by four points or fewer, and this year we are looking to take another step in the right direction.”
This year Seneca is still young, returning only one senior, but Witte does have three players returning with significant experience at the varsity level. Junior point guard Peyton Schrag, sophomore guard Conlan Callahan and junior forward Brian Bergeson will all be relied upon heavily for the Fighting Irish. Seneca’s lone senior, guard Jacob Klepk, also saw limited action last year at the varsity level.
“We actually spent a lot of our summer finding our identity,” Coach Witte said when asked about the youth of his squad. “We took that time to develop the system that we really wanted to use with this group, and our kids are very focused on what we want to do and who we want to be because of that.”
The Fighting Irish roster is admittedly guard-oriented according to Witte. Seneca only lists four forwards on their 13-man roster; however, captain Logan Pifer thinks that they will be able to use their talented backcourt to push the pace offensively.
“Basically (our strength) is pushing the ball. We’ve got a lot of fast, athletic type kids so we want to get down the court fast so we can get some quick buckets,” the junior guard said.
Pifer doesn’t have any varsity experience to this point, but he pegs himself as one of the team’s more vocal leaders. Schrag, Klepk and Bergeson join Pifer as captains of the 2011-12 Fighting Irish.
Seneca may have graduated six seniors from last year’s squad, but the Irish do return their second, third and fourth leading scorers in Schrag, Callahan, and Bergeson.
“Even though we graduated six kids, we bring back the core of our scoring. Our biggest threat, obviously Eric Adkins, graduated and moved on to St. Ambrose to play basketball, but we really bring back a lot of scoring,” Witte said.
As far as the expectations for Seneca in the 2011-12 season, Logan Pifer’s are plain and simple, “we want to win a regional. That’s where we want to get back to.”
For Witte, the goals are a little bit more pragmatic in 2011-12, as he hopes to see his team continue to get better and peak when the postseason starts in February. However, that journey starts with the Seneca Turkey Tournament which kicked off on Monday. Seneca’s action starts on Tuesday when the Fighting Irish take on Hinckley Big Rock.
“It’s going to be a tough tournament, but it’s one of those where we’re looking forward to the challenge. I know the kids really want to come out and play well, and really show everyone what they’re made of, and I just hope we can represent the school well,” Witte said.