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Lake Forest's Ben Simpson (left) looks to pass around Mundelein's Sean O'Brien. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
Guard play is often the lifeblood of championship basketball teams.
Four years ago, the Lake Forest boys won North Suburban Conference and regional titles on the backs of shooting guard Matt Vogrich and point guard Kevin Berardini. Vogrich is now a member of Michigan’s basketball team — ranked No. 1 by the Associated Press — and Berardini plays for Illinois.
There are no Big Ten recruits in this year’s backcourt. Instead, the frontcourt of highly-recruited sophomore Evan Boudreaux and Yale-bound senior Sam Downey is garnering most of the headlines.
But watch closely as the calendar turns to February. If Lake Forest is to win another conference and regional championship, the Scouts will need senior guard Ben Simpson.
“He does everything for our team. He’s an energy boost, creates well for others,” senior guard Carter Bass said. “He’s a valuable asset.”
At 6-foot-4, Simpson has the height needed to play multiple positions. He can guard posts, but is most effective up top, using his pelican-like wing span to act as a barbarian-at-the-gate defender.
“I feel like its my responsibility to guard the other team’s best player,” Simpson said. “It’s a good challenge how (far) I can help this team.”
Added Downey: “He gets deflections on passes, plays in transition that many other players in (the) league can’t make. His versatility is exceptional.”
Against Mundelein Jan. 24, Simpson faced one of his greatest challenges: guarding the Mustangs’ 6-7 swingman Sean O’Brien. O’Brien — who has committed to Southern Illinois — was unstoppable in the game’s first half, netting 15 points. By the fourth quarter, Simpson and the Scouts had adjusted. They prevented O’Brien from catching the ball, and when he did, they forced him to get rid of it quickly. He scored just one basket in the quarter.
Another in-game development forced Simpson to act more offensively, showcasing his versatility. When senior point guard George Quall fouled out midway through the final quarter, Simpson took over and promptly drove for a basket (he finished with 12 points) to tie the game at 45-45.
“We were running a play with a ball screen with Sam (Downey) or Evan (Boudreaux),” Simpson said. “I had an opportunity to score off the ball screen. I tried to be aggressive, felt we needed a big score.”
When feeding the ball inside, Simpson has an easy chemistry with Downey. Having played with or against each other since the fifth grade — Simpson attended Lake Bluff Middle School, Downey went to Deerpath — there is a rhythmic cadence to their two-man game. Multiple times against Mundelein, Lake Forest ran its bread-and-butter high-low play. Downey would flash near the low block, and Simpson would hit him with a perfect pass in stride for a layup or sky hook attempt.
Although Lake Forest lost to the Mustangs 62-56, the game showed Simpson’s importance. The Scouts might only go as far as Boudreaux and Downey carry them, but as former UCLA coach John Wooden said, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”
Simpson embodies this principle.
“He’s one of our most important players. He does things no one else can do,” Downey said. “Ben’s the x-factor for our team.”