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Elgin's Arie Williams goes in for a layup during a game last season as Larkin's Quantice Hunter (left), Derrick Streety (2) and Quentin Ruff defend. | Kevin D. Sherman ~ For Sun-Times Media
Elgin and Larkin are both in the midst of busy stretches that include five games in nine days, but it’s safe to say one of those contests looms larger than the rest.
The house figures to be rocking Wednesday night when the Maroons venture to the west side to pay the Royals a visit in the first of two Upstate Eight River showdowns between the longtime rivals.
Solid starts to the season for both teams and noteworthy star power on both sides of town only add to the sense of anticipation as Elgin (4-3, 1-1) and Larkin (7-2, 3-1) prepare to clash for the 120th time.
“You can say what you want about looking at the next game and the game ahead of you being the most important, but the kids make a point of knowing when Elgin-Larkin is on the schedule,” Larkin coach Deryn Carter said. “We did a good job last weekend, but it would be unrealistic to think the guys weren’t looking ahead to Wednesday.”
Elgin’s dominance in jeopardy
The Maroons own a 79-40 lead in the all-time series and have enjoyed a decisive upper hand in recent years.
Elgin swept last season’s two meetings, giving it five straight victories against the Royals. The streak technically stands at eight in a row when a Larkin forfeit in 2009 is factored in, and dating to 2006 Elgin has won 13 of 15.
Times could be changing, though, as the Royals boast a deep and talented team expected to contend for the UEC River title. Meanwhile, the Maroons lack experience after losing four starters from last year’s 26-4 sectional finalist.
“It’ll be the first time in a long time where we’re the underdog, so it’ll be a little different for a lot of the kids,” Elgin coach Mike Sitter said. “Our guys read the paper about Larkin and know how talented that team is, and they know we’re going to have to pick up our play.”
While the Royals might be favored Wednesday, don’t expect Carter’s team to take lightly an Elgin squad led by four-year varsity standout Arie Williams.
“When you look at the league, everybody has a loss,” Carter said. “Elgin is sitting right where we’re sitting, and they are what we want to be. They are the returning conference champs back-to-back years.
“Our guys know that is a very good basketball team and there are guys over there that won a lot of games the last two years. The respect level is high from our guys to them.”
Talented guards abound
Dynamic guard play is the key to success for both Elgin and Larkin, and Williams heads the list of the city’s talented ball handlers.
A 5-foot-9 senior, Williams has been nothing short of outstanding so far this year while averaging an area-best 23.9 points per game. The sharpshooter has drained 28 three-pointers in seven games, including six in one quarter last Friday against Streamwood.
Junior guard Isaiah Butler has been a pleasant surprise in his first varsity season with the Maroons, averaging 13.6 points. Elgin boasts several other capable role players, but there is little doubt Williams is the engine driving the team’s success.
“For somebody who scores so much for us, Arie is still willing to give up the ball when it’s the right time to do so,” Sitter said. “He’s made good decisions with the ball 95 percent of the time, and that’s tough to ask a high school point guard to do.
“He’s like a coach on the court and he’s definitely exceeded my expectations, which is tough because I had high expectations coming in.”
While the Maroons have one player who carries the heaviest load, the Royals have an array of players capable of doing so.
Senior guard Quantice Hunter is a three-year varsity starter who averages 16 points per game. When opponents focus their attention on the well-rounded Hunter, it frees up senior Quentin Ruff, who drained 10 three-pointers in two games last weekend and has scored at least 15 points in six of nine games.
Juniors Kendale McCullum and Derrick Streety are two other talented guards in the rotation. Streety missed Larkin’s past two games with a groin injury, but he was a limited participant in practice Monday and could return to action Wednesday.
“The two Qs are scoring a lot of points for us right now, but we’re a balanced basketball team,” Carter said. “We’re not reliant on those guys (Hunter and Ruff) as much as they’re just carrying us right now because they’re playing well.”
Grueling schedule continues
Both Elgin and Larkin have three games on the schedule this week as they continue a busy first month of the season.
Before the Maroons can worry about Royals, they first must focus their attention on Tuesday’s nonconference game at Burlington Central. Elgin also has a UEC River clash at St. Charles North looming Friday.
“We had practice (Monday) and the word Larkin was never mentioned once,” Sitter said. “We’re not going to change what we do for our opponents. We’re just going to come out and play how we play. If we bring intensity and a good effort, I think we can compete.”
Meanwhile, Larkin has a big road trip coming up this weekend when it travels two hours southwest of St. Louis to play in the Route 66 Shootout in Waynesville, Mo.
The Royals landed a spot in the inaugural tournament thanks to Carter’s ties from his days as an assistant coach at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Larkin takes on Republic (Mo.) in its first game Friday before squaring off with Hazelwood Central out of suburban St. Louis on Saturday.
The trip marks Larkin’s last two games before the Elgin Holiday Tournament later this month.
The Royals are one of four teams to earn top seeds in the 16-team Elgin Tournament, joining Rockford East, Dundee-Crown and Las Vegas Centennial as the event’s favorites.
“It’s a good shootout and we’re going to have our hands full twice (in Waynesville), but it’s going to be a great experience for our guys,” Carter said. “It will cap off 12 games in less than a month. We’ve played a lot of games early in the season, so hopefully we can complete this week with some success on the court and then get back to practice and catch our breath a little bit.”