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Neuqua Valley's Jabari Sandifer puts up two against East Aurora on Saturday, February 2, 2013, in Naperville. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Taking time in early November to discuss his team’s prospects for the season, Neuqua Valley coach Todd Sutton laid out similar themes that have defined his 14 previous squads.
“They’re good kids. They work really hard. They’re pretty decent defensively,” he said on Nov. 8 of his 2012-13 team. “They’ll rebound pretty good, so most schools would do anything to win 18 games.”
Winning 18 games a year ago, the Wildcats failed to reach the 20-win mark for the first time since the 2003-04 season, snapping a streak of seven straight 20-plus winning seasons. That fell well short of the high expectations Sutton has established since being installed as the first coach in program history prior to the 1998-99 season.
Fast forward three months and 24 games later from Sutton’s November assessment, No. 17 Neuqua Valley sits at 22-2 overall with four games left in its regular season.
“It’s where we belong,” Sutton said last Saturday after his team clinched at least a piece of their first Upstate Eight Valley title with a 54-30 victory over East Aurora. “It’s right where we belong.”
Already staking claim to its seventh conference title in 15 years, a victory over South Elgin at home or a Metea Valley loss to Waubonsie Valley Saturday night would give Neuqua Valley (22-2, 10-1 conference) sole ownership of the Upstate Eight Valley title.
With its Upstate Eight Valley crown this year the program’s first conference title since 2009-10, getting the Wildcats back on top isn’t lost on some who have gotten it there.
“Oh, it’s really important. We had kind of a down year last year,” said senior Darien Miskel. “We wanted to have a really good year this year and we knew we had a good team. Winning a conference title means a lot. It’s a lot of momentum for us going to try to win a regional title and then a sectional title.”
The Wildcats’ attention now shifts to trying to secure their first regional and sectional titles since winning both the Class 4A Batavia Regional and Class 4A Oswego East Sectional in 2008-09 en route to finishing with a record 31 victories.
That quest has been made somewhat easier with Neuqua Valley receiving the third seed in the Class 4A Bolingbrook Sectional on Thursday.
Playing on the varsity since his sophomore year, postseason success has eluded senior point guard Jabari Sandifer as well as his teammates. But given what he and his teammates have achieved so far, he’s anxiously awaiting the state tournament in two weeks’ time.
“I’m just looking forward to that. It’s gonna be good, whoever we play. I’m just ready to play,” he said.
Running off 15 straight victories to start the season, while currently riding a 7-1 stretch following its first defeat at Metea Valley on Jan. 12, consistency has been there from the get-go for Sutton’s charges.
For one of the Wildcats’ senior leaders, the belief that this season could bring something more was evident as early as this past summer.
“I didn’t see it (coming), but I can’t say I’m surprised because this is a really good team,” Miskel said. “I could see it even in the summer. This is a team that plays together. We’re unselfish. We play really good defense and I’m not surprised that we’re 22-2 and had a 15-0 run to start the season.”
Depth throughout the roster is why one opposing coach believes the Wildcats can potentially lay claim to a sectional title.
“Oh, they’re good and I think they can make it all the way downstate. It’s one of the better teams that Coach Sutton has had here,” East Aurora coach Wendell Jeffries said. “A lot of people drop off after their fifth guy. They drop off pretty rapidly. But they stay (consistent). They go 10-deep and they run their system very well and they have a lot of balance.”