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Mooseheart's Makur Puou towers over Nickley-Big Rock defenders, Zack Michels and Andrew Klambauer on Wednesday, Dec. 05, 2012. | Donnell Collins~For Sun-Times Media
At 6-foot-1, Hinckley-Big Rock center Zack Michels rarely looks the player he’s defending in the eye.
Being undersized for his position is nothing new for the three-year starter for coach Bill Sambrookes’ Royals, but it hasn’t stopped him from again putting up good numbers. He averages 9.2 points and a team-best 6.6 rebounds for 23-4 H-BR.
“I’ve been playing post my whole life and I’ve never been the biggest kid out there. I have to throw my weight around,” said Michels, one of five seniors on the current team who were promoted to the varsity as sophomores for the 2010-11 season.
It went 16-13.
“We were young and getting used to the speed of the varsity and were playing a lot of good teams (including eventual Class 1A state champion Newark),” said Michels. “That senior class (in the Little Ten) was really good. I think that helped us a lot as we got older and played that good competition.”
They were 23-7 last year, winning the Little Ten Conference regular season and conference tournament titles.
Guards Bernie Conley (5-7) and Jared Madden (6-0) and frontliners Mitch Ruh (6-0) and Michael Bayler (6-3) join Michels as starters with 5-11 Andrew Klambauer usually the first player off the bench this season, and they’ve matched last year’s regular season. Although, Friday’s two-point loss at Paw Paw meant they had to share the regular season league title with the Bulldogs.
And they’ve done it without 6-3 senior Mitchell Hemesath, who started about half of last year’s games and was a key contributor off the bench when he didn’t start. In this year’s opener, Hemesath tore his ACL and broke a bone in his leg requiring surgery.
Recently, junior guard Tom Sanders has joined seniors George Thompson, Nick Gentry and Mack Carls in coming off the bench to give the team a lift.
H-BR is the top seed in this week’s seven-team Westminster Christian Class 1A Regional and opens Wednesday against the winner of Monday night’s game between No. 4 seed Harvest Christian Academy and No. 5 Alden-Hebron.
If it goes as expected, the Royals will meet 20-win and second-seeded Mooseheart for the title on Friday. The Red Ramblers, of course, feature three towering junior Sudanese transfers — 6-7 point guard Mangisto Deng, 6-10 forward Makur Puou and 7-0 center Akim Nyang — who were the focus of an early-season eligibility controversy that has since been resolved to the IHSA’s satisfaction.
“All that got stirred up,” Michels said of the teams’ meeting in December, won by H-BR 58-51. “It was a good game. We went on a run and then they went on one early. We kept pushing inside, we didn’t want to let them get the best of us. We wanted to show that we could beat them and that we were the better team.”
As for the publicity, he added, “I think it was blown out of proportion but I think it’s toned down a lot.”
Can the Lilliputian-like Royals answer another tall order?
“They’re 6-7, 6-10, 7-0. They’re all a foot taller than us, but height isn’t always the best thing,” said Michels.
Bayler said, “You can’t really prepare for their size. It’s a tough matchup but it should be an interesting contest. We’ve both had a lot of time to get better (since the first meeting).”
Sambrookes said Deng and Puou give Mooseheart a very strong game inside and outside. He was glad his team last week got to play Plano, winning 61-46, and getting to compete against a team with a similar — albeit shorter — combo in Reapers guard Elijah Wallace and equally athletic, shot-blocking 6-6 post Udo Agomo.
“Zack (Michels) is used to guarding bigger players. It’s usually the case,” said Sambrookes. “I’m glad to have him.”