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Rich East's Nick Horne runs the ball during their game against Bloom Township on Saturday, October 13, 2012, in Park Forest, IL. | Chandler West~For Sun-Times Media
Jan. 1 didn’t just ring in a new year for Rich East boys basketball, it rang in a new Nick Horne.
The one who averaged 5 points and 1.5 assists per game, he was left behind in 2012.
In 2013, this Nick Horne is averaging 13 points per game and 2.5 assists.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” the 6-foot-1 senior guard said. “I just want to win games, put my play in the best place.”
Maybe he’s just trying to prove a point.
After all, when he first entered Rich East, Horne fancied himself a basketball player first and a football player second.
Then one of the football coaches told him he had the formula backward.
“It kind of made me sad,” Horne said with a chuckle. “I don’t like it when people don’t agree with me. What I say usually goes.”
Horne had Division II college coaches courting him after a senior football season in which he earned All-Area honors as a linebacker, wide receiver and fullback. The winner was Winona State University in Minnesota.
While his focus in the near future will be on football, he’s still making his final basketball impression a good one.
When Rich East twice had Bloom on the ropes in the final seconds of regulation and the first overtime in a Feb. 1 meeting, it was Horne who put them there by making clutch free throws and totaling a team-leading 17 points. Only a pair of prayer three-point shots by Bloom’s Jared Johnson stole the headline away from him.
Jan. 12 against Plainfield East, Horne led the way with 23 points. In a contest against Farragut he dropped in 20.
Horne’s basketball resurgence didn’t just come out of nowhere.
Rich East coach George Leonard increased Horne’s backcourt duties during the McDipper Tournament when starting point guard Washawn Watson suffered a broken wrist.
“It was exciting because I could actually put more responsibility on my back,” Horne said. “I actually like being a leader. I like people to trust me.”
Horne has a history of turning opportunity into offense.
A wide receiver and linebacker on the football team, Horne was moved to fullback for the Oct. 6 game against Rich South when starter Carleto Jackson was injured. In his first time at the position, Horne rushed 22 times for 213 yards. The following week against Bloom, he rushed for 74 yards and two touchdowns.
His impact on the basketball court equally has been remarkable.
Through their first 10 games, the Rockets were averaging 54 points per game. With Horne in the starting lineup they’ve averaged 78 in the 10 games they’ve played since Jan. 8, including a 104-point explosion against Eisenhower.
“A lot of that has to do with Nick,” Leonard said. “He’s attacking the basket about as good as any player has in the six years I’ve been here. He’s also making good decisions, all the while upping his assists and rebounds.
“Right now he’s a very serious basketball player. His No. 1 focus has been to help this team win. And that’s something, considering the pressure he’s had with the football recruiting.”
Horne said it was pretty special getting letters from prospective colleges regarding football, but what was in the mailbox was not a concern when he stepped into the Rich East gym.
“That’s another life,” he said. “I don’t bring my problems (deciding) to the games. When I play basketball I play basketball. Even though I’m not pursuing it after high school, I’ve been there (in the program) since my freshman year. We were 25-2 as sophomores. I hang with the guys on the team outside of school, everywhere.”
Rich East is 8-2 since the new year and still hanging around in the Southland Conference race at 6-2, one game behind Bloom. And the Rockets are doing it with one of the leaders they really didn’t have before Leonard found Horne under his Christmas tree.
“I don’t know if it’s because he’s realizing the urgency of this being his last season of playing basketball in high school,” Leonard said. “But we’ve needed a leader to step up and he’s filled that role for us.
“But it’s not just Nick. The whole team is playing better. Guys like Russell Wright and Don Henderson have been making huge contributions for us as well.”
Horne, who also will run track for the Rockets in the spring, isn’t concerned with figuring out why.
“That’s a good compliment to me,” Horne said of Leonard’s praise. “I just want to win games and put my game in the best place. My hope is that we can go far in the playoffs. Our goal is to win state.”