PARK FOREST | If you so happen to be the "stud" of your team, the Forest Trail Wolverines will make sure you're the "dud" before the end of the third quarter.
"That's the strategy I find works the best at this level," said George Friel, coach of the Wolverines eighth-grade boys basketball team. "You determine who's the other team's best player, and then you go right at him and get him into foul trouble.
"If their best player is the center, you take hard to the hole against him. If he's the point guard, you trap and frustrate him ... maybe draw some offensive fouls."
The Wolverines employ other tactics and philosophies, such as having their offense feed off their defense.
"We run a 1-3-1 trap, and we have players with length and quickness who help create steals and turn them into easy baskets," Friel said.
Forest Trail is also conditioned to run teams off the court and into an oxygen tent.
"I have all my players run cross country," said Friel, who is also Forest Trail's cross country coach. "It makes a big difference."
At the Illinois Elementary School Association eighth-grade boys basketball finals, the Wolverines won the Class 4A title with a 54-49 championship win over North Ridge (Danville), Feb. 20 at Maroa-Forsyth High School.
Last year as seventh-graders, the Wolverines placed third.
"We were a lot more confident this year," said guard Vashawn Sims, who hit a clutch 3-point shot to tie the game at 44-44 late in the fourth quarter before the Wolverines finished strong for the title.
"We had a stronger team bond this season," said Eric Allen, who was an IESA individual cross country champion for Forest Trail last fall.
The Wolverines finished the season with a 31-1 record -- they were 26-2 as seventh-graders.
"They don't like to lose," Friel said of his team. "When we lost to Colin Powell (from Matteson) due to throwing the ball away with the lead, you could tell at the next practice that these guys were willing to address their mistakes and correct them.
"Last year, our guys pouted a little too much when things went bad. Not this year."
Though most of the Wolverines' victories were by wide margins, they did prove they can come through when things were nip-and-tuck.
"Antron Washington made six free throws in the final 45 seconds of the championship game," Friel said. "And our center (Clifton Jimerson) had the game of his life."
Jimerson led the Wolverines with a career-high 20 points and was able to contain his counterpart during the final.
Since taking over the program 10 years ago, Friel has led the Wolverines to nine South Suburban Junior High Conference titles, and five IESA finals appearances. This was the school's first IESA title.
Friel said the team will be broken up when the players graduate to high school.
"Some will go to Bloom Township, some will go to Rich East or Rich Central ... Crete-Monee ... or even Marian Catholic," said Friel, who is MC's freshman baseball head coach. "Yeah, many will be playing against each other."
Even though they will be gone, there is a talented group ready to take their place. Forest Trail's seventh-grade team also made it to the IESA finals and finished in the Elite Eight.
Friel is nearing 300 wins at Forest Trail, and said that he has had offers to take over several high school programs.
"But in high school the parents get too involved," said Friel, who had been a varsity assistant at Bloom, Hillcrest and Rich South. "Even after a big sectional win, they'll come up to you and say, 'You're not playing my son enough! How is he going to get a scholarship? His AAU coach says you're using him wrong!' "
Friel, who's also FT's athletic director, says he's happy where he's at, especially with the support from the school's administration, including superintendent Dr. Joyce Carmine, and principal Dr. Carolyn Stroud, who is retiring after the school year.
"We played our last game for (Stroud)," Friel said.