How rare have the last two seasons been for the Elverado boys?
Consider that before going 21-9 and 18-12, the program’s last back-to-back winning years took place in 1973-74 and 1974-75, when the Falcons went 15-9 and 19-6. They have played basketball at the small Jackson County school for 55 years, and have finished north of .500 eight times.
Two of the better coaches in the area – Scott Burzynski and Todd Tripp – tried their hand at Elverado for five years. Burzynski went 10-15 in 1997-98. Tripp ran the program from 2000-04 and went 21-89 before succeeding in a big way at Goreville.
So what Jacob Emling has done with this program is nothing short of remarkable, and it should go on for at least another year. Four starters are back and three players who got good minutes off the bench have also returned.
In a season where perennial favorite Meridian is retooling a bit after losing four starters and its coach, it’s not impossible to see Elverado contending for or even winning the South Egyptian Conference title.
“These guys had four coaches in four years when I came in,” Emling said Monday, hours before the Falcons started the season with a 61-55 win over Crab Orchard in the Trojans' Thanksgiving week tournament.
“They’ve come into the gym, bought into the program and they’ve brought the community together. The kids have really enjoyed it and the community has enjoyed it. It just keeps snowballing.”
And with 5-10 senior point guard Aquntez Penn in charge of the offense, the snowball figures to gain momentum and heft. All Penn did last year was average 23.4 points and 4.2 assists per game, one of the best individual seasons in school history.
Entering the season with 1,427 career points, Penn needs just 350 points to hold the school’s all-time scoring record, and could reach the 2,000-point mark for his career.
“He’s super quick. Not too many people at this level are going to stay in front of him,” Emling said. “He can score and he’s also willing to pass.”
For Elverado to take the next step from contender to champion, someone will have to share the scoring load with Penn. There are candidates out there, such as 6-2 junior guard Samuel Alstat, who averaged eight points and a team-high seven rebounds per game.
Another possibility is 6-0 junior guard Dawson White, the team’s best 3-point shooter last year at 33 percent. There’s also 6-3 senior center Isaac Floyd and 5-10 senior forward Trey Bernardini, who figure to hold down the interior.
Floyd and Bernardini will be important cogs to the team’s plan to play an up-tempo offense. For Penn to be unleashed in the open floor, the Falcons must at least hold their own on the boards.
“Rebounding was probably our biggest fault last year,” Emling said. “We gave up too many second-chance points. We’ve focused in on that at practice, but until you get into a game, you can’t really tell if we’ve gotten better.”
This is how you can tell that Elverado has gotten better: No longer is the goal to merely be competitive. Emling openly speaks of playing for a regional championship with this team, taking his chances with an experienced side that has gotten used to winning.
The time is now.
“I know we’ve never won one,” he said of regional titles, “but I want to get there and maybe get a bounce or two, and see what happens.”