Of the 15 players on the team, 12 of the players were on the roster
at the end of last season, a squad that finished 28-5, losing in
heartbreaking and controversial fashion in overtime to Glenwood in a
sectional semifinal. However, that is all in the rearview mirror,
and the latest version of the Railers begin the 2013-2014 campaign
Monday (tonight) on the first night of the Eaton Corporation
Tournament at Roy S. Anderson Gymnasium.
This Lincoln team returns over 80 percent of its scoring,
3-pointers, rebounds and assists. The only piece from last year's
team puzzle not returning is Will Podbelsek, the graduated
"dictionary definition of hustle." His leadership, intensity and
knack for hitting that much-needed big shot will have to be
replaced, but a roster featuring six seniors and lots of depth will
have plenty to draw from to fill that void.
The top three scorers from last year – Max Cook (11.5), Edward
Bowlby (9.4) and Gavin Block (9.0) – return, leading a veteran squad
into a season that many hope will eclipse the finish from last
season. All three are capable of having "one of those nights,"
something that will make it difficult for opponents to focus on one
or the other.
The more the ball is in Cook's hands, the better things usually
run for the Railers. It is no wonder Cook is drawing interest in his
basketball skills after his high school career is done. He led the
team last season in scoring and assists, was second in rebounds, and
hit over 42 percent from 3-point range. A good season could see him
draw close to, if not reach, the plateau of 1,000 career points.
However, Cook, like the rest of his teammates, does not project the
air of "what's in it for me." This is a team game, and the win
trumps personal accomplishments. Glad to say that Cook is on this
team. If you let him set up and shoot, he can go on a roll from
either inside or outside. Let him distribute and he will find the
open teammate. On many nights, as Cook goes, so the Railers go.
Block is certainly continuing to improve. With all the things
he's done on the court, it is hard to believe this is only his
junior season. The leading rebounder on last year's team also had a
team high in steals and was second in assists. He also carries no
fear of stepping in to take a charge. Block is becoming one of those
players that teams have to account for in their game plan. If he
delivers on his potential, great things are ahead for him and this
In my opinion – which, thanks to the readers of Lincoln Daily
News, I get to share with you again this season – the most
unassuming, yet calming influence may be Bowlby. The senior has
proven time and again the ability to hit a critical shot. I think
opponents look at Bowlby and do not see him as an outside threat,
but Railer Nation knows what he is capable of when he steps behind
the 3-point line. Third on the team in rebounds, he seems to have
the ball find him at just the right time. If throughout the season a
big shot is needed, you should feel pretty good if it's Bowlby
taking that shot. Like Block, Bowlby is also not afraid of taking a
charge or doing what is needed defensively.
Going into the 2012-2013 season, the aforementioned three were
about the only known commodities for the Railers. As the year
progressed, however, others proved their value and worth. Tyler
Horchem (7.5) returns as a dangerous 3-point threat. Who can forget
the six first-half 3s he sank against Urbana on the second day of
the Schnucks Holiday Classic in Collinsville?
We can all hope for an injury-free season for Joey Olden. The
senior missed 14 games last season with a broken arm suffered in the
third game. Olden (3.1) may not be expected to provide much of an
offensive punch, which he can contribute as needed, but it is on the
defensive end where the senior makes his mark. Ask other teams about
the nightmares he has caused with his pressure.
A winning team usually needs some toughness. On this squad, the
leader in that category is Austin Krusz. Fresh off his season as
quarterback for the football Railers, Krusz will do all the dirty
work, whether it is diving on the floor, grabbing rebounds or
setting the needed screen. You don't expect much scoring from the
senior, but any coaching staff will tell you that without a player
like Krusz, you won't be as successful as you hope.
The Railers will have a presence down low this season in 6-foot-7
Adam Conrady. The junior played in only 14 games last year, but he
will definitely be counted on to produce offensively and defensively
on a more full-time basis. He may not be seen as much of a scoring
threat, but size alone will make him critical to what the Railers
want to do on each end of the court. His overall play may be the key
to how far this team can go.
[to top of second column]
Coach Neil Alexander is entering his 24th season at the helm
for the Railers, and he has a good problem to have. Along with
the players already mentioned, Lincoln can expect contributions
from senior Bobby Dunovsky; juniors Will Cook, Payton Ebelherr
and Jordan Perry; and sophomore Aron Hopp. All contributed at
times last season, and that experience, along with their
competitive nature, will force Alexander to find the right
balance for playing time for everyone. The depth should be a
positive, as there was too much reliance on the starters for
scoring last year, with 90 percent of the points coming from the
The new additions to the roster this season are sophomores
Garrett Aeilts and KJ Fry and freshman Bryson Kirby.
Yes, the majority of the players on this year's team experienced
the 28-5 season last year, but do you realize how different that
record could have been? Lincoln lost those five games by a total of
19 points, with three of those games in overtime. With a total of
seven games that went into overtime, including three of their last
five games, if it gets close this year, the Railers have been there
before and should know how to handle it. Keeping it close was a
specialty of the Railers, as in only three games did the team fall
behind by more than 10 points. By the way, they came back to win two
of those contests.
The 28 wins last year mark the 10th time in head coach
Alexander's Lincoln tenure that his squads have hit 25 or more wins.
Those wins have helped "Coach Al" to his 685 career wins, putting
him just 15 from 700, a milestone he should easily reach, hopefully
by midseason. How long has he been at Lincoln? When he takes the
bench tonight, he will coach in his 700th game at Lincoln (526-173).
This could be a special season for the Railers, but don't worry
about the team looking too far ahead. Alexander and his coaching
staff will make sure the players focus on one game at a time.
The season that begins Monday night is also a little bittersweet
as it relates to the Central State Eight. This will be the final
year Taylorville is in the conference, leaving for the Apollo next
year. Next season, Decatur Eisenhower and Decatur MacArthur will
join the league. No word on if there will be any name change, but
based on college math, the Big 10 and Big 12 haven't matched those
numbers of teams for a while.
So, back to tonight, as the Railers tip off the season against
Champaign Centennial at 8 o'clock. The Chargers will bring with them
University of Illinois recruit Michael Finke, a member of last
year's Eaton all-tournament team. Last year, the Railers knocked off
Centennial 53-48, with Podbelsek scoring 15 and Bowlby adding 13 in
a game when the Railers never trailed. Finke joins Max Cook,
Cahokia's Darius Austin and Carleton Rivers, along with Danville's
Denzel Smith as returners from the all-tourney team.
There are many reasons why the experts, whoever they may be,
consider this tournament one of the toughest Thanksgiving
tournaments in the state. For the last 11 straight seasons, at least
one team that has participated in the Lincoln tournament has
advanced to qualify for the state tournament (Elite Eight or
better). Add to that, in six of the last seven seasons, the team
that has won the Lincoln tournament has been a team that has
qualified for state. It may not be a guarantee, but if your team can
win this tournament, it is a good measuring stick that you might
have a special team on your hands.
Hope to see you at the game tonight, but if not, you can read
about it here on Lincoln Daily News. I want to thank the kind folks
at LDN for giving me this forum to give you my thoughts and views of
the Railer season. As I have always said, any comments or thoughts
about the stories, both good and bad, are appreciated.
I'm ready for a season to remember, How 'bout you?
[By JEFF BENJAMIN]
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