Monday, January 23, 2012
Sports News

Railers reach .500 with twin wins at Meijer Winter Classic

By Jeff Benjamin

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[January 23, 2012] CHATHAM -- When the Lincoln Railers began their annual odyssey to Chatham for the Meijer Winter Classic, coach Neil Alexander and the Railers were hoping to go 4-1 at the very least. Primary of the goals was to even their season record at .500, and there is always the hope that a one-loss week would put them in position to walk away with their sixth title in the 10 years of the tournament.

Well, Saturday's doubleheader sweep over Rochester and Highland did allow the Railers to reach .500 at 11-11, but with Chatham Glenwood sweeping the week to capture their first title over the decade, Lincoln had to settle for second place, a showing that will hopefully propel the Railers down the stretch. Also by going 4-1, the Railers have never finished below .500 for the week at Chatham.

When the ball was tipped for game one, the Railers reached a milestone in Lincoln history as they were beginning game No. 2,500 in the rich tradition of Railer basketball. In that game, the Railers were hoping for a little payback against the Rockets.

Lincoln fell by two in Rochester in December, a game Lincoln could never get on track. This time, the Rockets would take the court without Seth McMinn, their leading scorer in the earlier contest with 17 points.

With McMinn out with a foot injury, the Railers took advantage. Down 4-2 early, the Railers ran off 10 in a row, led by Jordan Gesner's two 3s. Gesner, who struggled in the first two games, scored eight of Lincoln's first 10 points. The run culminated on an alley-oop dunk from Christian Van Hook, putting the Railers up 12-4.

The mid stages of the second quarter went back and forth as the Railers continued to lead Rochester. After another Van Hook basket put Lincoln up 17-9, the Rockets closed the gap heading into halftime, scoring five in a row to cut the Railer lead to 17-14. Coming out of intermission, the Rockets fought all the way back when Matt Yeck drained a 3 to tie the game at 17.

The second big run of the game put the contest out of reach. Van Hook scored a quick five to begin a 16-2 run to close the third quarter up 33-19. During the run, the Railers hit half of their eight 3s for the game, one each from Van Hook, Gavin Block, Will Podbelsek and Gesner. Entering the fourth, it seemed Rochester had already started thinking about their game later in the evening.

The Rockets were able to outscore Lincoln 7-6 in the fourth, but not even holding the Railers to one basket, another Gesner 3, could get Rochester close enough. After being put in the bonus with about two minutes left, the Railers connected on three of their only four free throws of the afternoon to pull away with the 39-26 win.

Gesner led the way with 14 points, followed by nine from Van Hook. Both seniors were the only representatives on the all-tournament team for the Railers. Podbelsek added seven points, with Austin Kirby and Block each hitting a 3. Max Cook, who continued his maturing play, hit both his free throws, and Jake Olson added one.

So, with the conference portion of the week done, Lincoln put their CS8 mark at 5-5. Next up for the Railers was Highland, a Bulldog team that suffered a surprising loss in the early game to Jacksonville.

One tendency the Railers have fallen into over the first two-thirds of their season is the inability to stay cohesive and consistent, especially on offense, when Van Hook is forced to the bench due to foul trouble. Against a bigger and stronger Highland team, the senior's presence would be needed to give Lincoln a chance.

After Van Hook scored the opening basket for the Railers, Lincoln caught a break when Highland's big man in the middle, Ben Sparlin, limped to the bench after suffering an ankle injury. For those thinking this would give Lincoln a big advantage, the tables were quickly turned at the 4:00 mark when Van Hook picked up his second foul, sending him to the Lincoln bench for the remainder of the half. With each team missing a huge presence in the middle, the squad that could make up for the loss would put themselves in a position to gain momentum.

And unlike previous games this year, the Railers took off. Thanks to the outside shooting of Podbelsek, who led the team in the contest with 11 points, Lincoln was able to fight to a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

As the second quarter started, another Podbelsek 3 and a jumper from Block put Lincoln up 15-0. Sparlin returned to the lineup, and he was quickly able to put Highland on the board at the 5:27 mark with the Bulldogs' first basket. To answer Lincoln's run at the start of the game, Highland ran off eight in a row to cut the Railer lead to seven.

Van Hook started the Lincoln scoring in the second half, putting the Railers up 17-8. After a Cook basket made the score 19-10, Highland got as close as they had in a while with four straight. Just when the Railers needed a big basket, it was the senior Gesner hitting two 3s wrapped around a pair of free throws from Block to put Lincoln up again by double figures at 27-16.

Highland showed they still had some fight by scoring five in a row at the end of the third and to begin the fourth to bring the game to 27-21. The seniors again came up big on the scoreboard, with a basket from Van Hook and another 3 from Gesner giving Lincoln an 11-point lead at 32-21.

Highland made their final push by outscoring Lincoln 9-2 to pull to within four at 34-30. Since Highland had committed many fouls in the half, the Railers were able to run down the clock while playing keep away as Highland tried to foul, forcing Lincoln to the free-throw line. Fortunately, Highland was not able to convert on the Railers' struggle at the line in the latter stages of the game as Podbelsek and Van Hook combined to go 2 of 5 from the line, leaving Highland to have hope, but unable to score the rest of the way, preserving the six-point win for Lincoln.

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It was certainly good to see the Railers win, but more important, to win a close game. It was the first game Lincoln had won all season in which the margin was eight points or less. It was also good to see the effort from Austin Kirby. The senior, who did not score in the game, played a key role.

The Lincoln defense has always put them in a position to struggle with weak-side rebounding. In the early stages, it was Kirby seemingly getting every rebound on the defensive end. There is never any shortage of intensity and effort on the floor with Kirby out there. Loose ball on the floor? Yeah, if he's out there, that floor burn sound you hear is probably from him.

For the first time this season, Podbelsek led the way with 11 points, with balanced scoring behind him. Gesner scored nine on three treys, with Cook scoring eight, and Block and Van Hook adding four each.

So, no title at this year's Meijer Classic, but after 10 years, Lincoln has done pretty well for itself in Chatham, going 43-6 with three different players capturing MVP honors in four years. The one thing about the end of Chatham week, other than the waistlines of many media members in need of lessening thanks to the hospitality room, is the season is rapidly coming to a close.

In the regular season, the Railers have only five more weekends of basketball, many of the games still in the conference. Toward the end of the season, coach Alexander always mentions how he tells the players how fast the season will go. This year is certainly no different.

Lincoln is back in action only once this weekend as they travel to Springfield Southeast on Friday night for a 7:30 tip at Scheffler Gymnasium. The Railers are hoping to steal one back after the Spartans beat Lincoln by three on Jan. 7 at Roy S. Anderson Gymnasium.




Gesner 5 0-0 14, Van Hook 4 0-0 9, Podbelsek 3 0-0 7, Kirby 1 0-0 3, Block 1 0-0 3, Cook 0 2-2 2, Olson 0 1-2 1, Hays 0 0-0 0, Bowlby 0 0-0 0. Team 14 3-4 39. 3-point field goals 8 (Gesner 4, Podbelsek, Van Hook, Kirby, Block).


Ferguson 8, Yeck 7, Grant 5, Houston 2, Ross 2, Fokum 2. Team 9 5-6 26. 3-point field goals 3 (Ferguson 2, Yeck).

Scoring by quarters:

Lincoln       7-10-16-6 39
Rochester   4-10- 5-7 26



Podbelsek 3 2-4 11, Gesner 3 0-0 9, Cook 4 0-0 8, Van Hook 2 0-1 4, Block 1 2-2 4, Kirby 0 0-0 0, Olson 0 0-0 0, Hays 0 0-0 0, Bowlby 0 0-0 0. Team 13 4-7 36. 3-point field goals 6 (Podbelsek 3, Gesner 3).


Sparlin 10, Welz 9, Hartleib 6, Melosi 3, McCloud 2. Team 10 7-8 30. 3-point field goals 3 (Melosi, Welz, Hartleib)

Scoring by quarters:

Lincoln     10-5-12- 9 36
Highland     0-8- 9-13 30


Jeff Benjamin's Railer basketball articles

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