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Neuqua Valley's Jabari Sandifer shoots two points against Plainfield East during the Class 4A regional final at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., on Friday, Mar. 2, 2012. | Corey R. Minkanic~For Sun-Times Media
Losing 12 games last season, Neuqua Valley recorded double-digit losses for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
After going through an up-and-down 2011-12 campaign, the focus moves toward building off last season’s 18 victories.
“They’re good kids. They work really hard. They’re pretty decent defensively,” Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton said of the 15 players that will comprise his 2012-13 team. “They’ll rebound pretty good, so most schools would do anything to win 18 games.”
That task starts with senior point guard Jabari Sandifer. Sandifer, ticketed for Western Illinois next fall, is the team’s only returning double-digit scorer at 10.7 points per game, along with a team-high 5.1 assists last season.
“He’s going to go down as one of the best to ever put on the uniform here,” Sutton said of Sandifer.
His presence is magnified even more with the graduation of Tyler Sutton, who has moved on to North Central after leading the Wildcats in scoring last year (16.4 points per game).
But with Neuqua Valley battling toe-to-toe on its home floor last March in a regional final with top-seeded Plainfield East, the 6-foot-1, 150-pound Sandifer showed a glimpse of the production and leadership he’ll be asked to provide this year by scoring a team-high 16 points while keeping the Wildcats in the game before losing, 48-45.
Sandifer’s potential game-tying layup in the game’s waning seconds hit the rim several times before eventually falling off. That near-miss was just another lesson that he hopes to put to good use this season.
“I learned a lot this season. I’m just gonna work hard over the summer and come back next year and play better,” Sandifer said in the immediate aftermath of the loss to the Bengals.
Surrounding Sandifer on the perimeter will be senior guard Trevor Davis, junior guard Josh Piotrowski and sophomore Connor Raridon, brother of former Neuqua standout Derek Raridon.
“I think we’ll do it by committee. We’ll have a bunch of guys chip in,” Sutton said. “The defense and rebounding will be our No. 1 priorities, but we try to score some points by committee. We have a lot of guys (who) are all not great but pretty good on the perimeter and they can score.”
Seniors Darien Miskel and Pat Kenny (team-high five rebounds per game) will be asked to provide a presence inside the paint.
With 2011-12 scoring averages of 9.6 and 8.5 points, respectively, Miskel and Kenny should be able to provide that presence in the post after being the team’s two leading rebounders last year.
“We just know they’re very solid, they’re very strong, they’re very tough kids,” Sutton said. “It’s a great place to start, yes.”
Sutton admits that the group he’ll lead into this season as he enters his 15th season at the helm of Neuqua Valley’s basketball program is a lot like the one he had last year.
But last year’s returnees are ready and anxious to try and put the Wildcats back to where they’re used to being — competing in the Upstate Eight and playing deep into March.