It’s not a stretch to say that Aquntez Penn is the face of the golden age of Elverado basketball.
The first 2,000-point scorer in school history tries to keep his high school career and his team’s season going for at least one more game Wednesday night when the Falcons meet Steeleville at 7 p.m. in the semifinals of the Class 1A Sesser-Valier Regional.
Monday night’s 61-41 victory over Zeigler-Royalton extended Elverado’s school-record win total to 23. It is just the second 20-win season in school history, both occurring in the last three years, and Penn has been at the center of it all.
The 5-foot-11 senior is faster with the ball than most players are without it, and his quickness has become an even bigger weapon with the addition of a consistent 3-point stroke. Defenders have to honor his shot, yet can’t play him too tightly because he can get around them in a heartbeat.
“It’s given me a big boost,” Penn said of his improved jumper. “It’s allowed me to draw a defender out to guard me and when he does that, I can get around him. If he doesn’t, I can shoot the 3.”
Coaches talk all the time about the importance of staying in front of the ball on defense. It sounds simple, but Penn can make it look impossible. Basketball on this level can be more of a guard’s game, and Penn is perfectly suited for it.
Falcons coach Jacob Emling went from an 0-25 first year to 21, 18 and 23 wins the last three years with Penn on board. That’s an average of 20-plus wins for a school that in its 55 years of playing varsity basketball averages less than eight wins per season.
“It gives us a huge advantage to have someone like him that can get us a bucket almost any time he wants to,” Emling said. “When people focus on him, he’s got options like Dawson White and Sam Alstat to get it to, who are both tremendous shooters. It just makes our offense go.”
One of the goals for Emling going into this year was to get more help for Penn, who last year averaged 23.4 points for an 18-12 team. Penn’s average is down to 19.3 this year, but Elverado has improved its win total by five and is two wins away from its first-ever regional title.
Beating Z-R on Monday represents an important step forward for the Falcons, according to Penn.
“Every time we get to the regionals,” he said after practice last Wednesday, “we lose that first game. Our goal is to get that first win and go from there.”
Having Penn as a go-to player certainly helps in that regard. He enters Wednesday night’s game with 2,043 career points, and has averaged 18.4 ppg in his career. What’s more, he’s paced the team in assists the last two years.
Watching Penn in a December loss to Thompsonville when Elverado was playing without White and two key reserves remained a treat. Penn hunted his shot when necessary, but stayed committed to a team game, passing when the defense forced him to and finding open teammates.
Although the Falcons faded in the second half that night and lost 65-31, Penn still finished with 20 points and much respect from Tigers coach Pete Gordon.
“He came out and showed what he could do,” Gordon said. “I told the kids that it was going to take all of us to slow him down. I don’t know if you can even stop him.”
Penn appears to have a future beyond high school. Emling said junior colleges, including Rend Lake, have talked with Penn. Regardless, Penn has made an impact on the small Jackson County school that could be felt years from now.
“I think we’ve got a lot of kids in elementary school who look up to him,” Emling said. “It’s really a pretty cool story. It’s the winningest class in school history, and to go out like this is pretty special.”