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Sandburg's Niko Kogionis (4) has helped power Sandburg's offense in the absence of Malek Harris. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media
This was expected to be The Year for Sandburg boys basketball.
It was to be a season in which the Eagles would compete for conference supremacy in the SouthWest Suburban Blue and make a run at their first regional championship since 2003-04.
And — don’t laugh — there was even some chatter of a sectional championship and beyond for the Eagles.
And let me be the first to inform that the hype was justified.
Sandburg was returning four starters from a team that knocked off highly regarded Homewood-Flossmoor in last season’s regional semifinals.
Among those returnees was Malek Harris, a 6-7 stud who was ranked among the top 100 prospects nationally. Harris averaged 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season. Did I mention he committed to Marquette in the spring?
It’s debatable whether Sandburg ever had has a more talented player — ever — on its roster.
Combined with senior Niko Cahue and juniors Alec Martinez and Niko Kogionis, Sandburg had the makings of a preseason top 10 team.
And then, on an October day, it was announced that Harris was suspended for the season, allegedly for a third athletic code violation.
You know the sound a basketball makes when it’s being run over by an SUV in the driveway? Sort of like the sound of an M-80 going off.
Except, that was Sandburg’s much-anticipated season exploding.
Or at least that was the thinking.
If you’ll recall, Harris missed the first 11 games of last season for allegedly suffering a second strike. Sandburg lost all of those games. However, Harris returned and the Eagles finished strong, going 10-7 down the stretch.
That’s why optimism was overflowing for this season.
“No comment,” Sandburg coach Todd Allen said when asked about Harris.
Remember when I informed you that Sandburg was 0-11 without Harris last season?
This season the Eagles are 3-2, including a win over highly regarded De La Salle and a 21-point romp past Lincoln-Way East.
There’s more good news. Sandburg has scored more than 60 points twice, and even managed to reach 70. Last season, the Eagles scored 60 points once — and it took overtime to do it.
Beyond Cahue, Martinez and Kogionis, kids such as Eric Straka and Joe Ruzevich have stepped up to fill the hole left by Harris’ absence.
“We’re a work in progress,” Allen said. “I’m happy with the progress we’re making. These kids are resilient. They’ve been working hard and have done what they’ve needed to do.”
That includes putting the ball in the basket. On any given night, Cahue, Kogionis, Straka, Martinez and Ruzevich can provide scoring. There was a night when four of them reached double digits; another night, three had more than 10 points.
And whenever T.J. Vorva, a 6-7 transfer from Marist, returns from a sprained ankle, the Eagles should be even more dangerous.
“T.J. can defend and rebound and provide us with the size we are lacking,” Allen said. “I’d like to think we have five guys who can score. On any given night, these guys are capable of leading us in scoring.”
That’s a good thing. It makes it difficult for opponents to game-plan against.
It would have been easy for Sandburg to wave the white flag when it was announced Harris, who remains in school, wouldn’t return to the court. The Eagles, however, have showed great pride and resiliency in winning three of their first five games. Allen, as coach, has a lot to do with that.
The SouthWest Suburban Blue is a beast this season, with Stagg, Bolingbrook, Joliet Central and H-F all capable of taking top honors.
Allen is quick to include his team in the mix.
“Our two team goals were to win conference and win a regional championship,” he said. “I firmly believe they’re attainable. I think we can compete with anyone in conference.”
He might be right.