NEW CHICAGO | Robert Burke had been here before. Well, sort of.
The first-year Lake Station boys basketball coach walked into a packed gymnasium at River Forest on Friday night and felt the thrill.
It was like looking at a scrapbook from the 1990s.
Burke played hoops at Hebron. The Hawks' biggest rival was Kouts. Even when he coached at Hebron from 2006 to 2010, Kouts was still the game that got his blood to boil.
“It's a little like that,” Burke said, comparing the Lake Station-River Forest neighborhood battle to a Porter County Conference tilt, “but it's a lot different, too.”
Both teams stayed in the locker room before the game, waiting for the other to come out. Mind games. To get one up before the first tip might mean something. After a delay, the host Ingots ran out first, followed by the Eagles.
“That's what the guys wanted to do,” Burke said. “That was their thing.”
This Greater South Shore Conference showdown was fantastic, just like all those other battles through the years in other leagues. When the two schools that are less than two miles apart clash, in anything, it means something.
But in basketball, the packed gym said one thing to all who were sweating inside. This is Hoosier Hysteria.
ESPN, the internet and 1,000 cable channels teach us to mostly look at the best and the greatest. Neither of these teams will be playing in Indianapolis at the end of March on TV.
That doesn't mean this Friday night wasn't a thrill.
Two good teams. Two good coaches. Two great fan sections.
Lake Station won the game 61-49, but the third quarter the Ingots played was chilling.
“They were hitting everything,” Lake Station sophomore Brian Patterson said.
River's Brandon Laas scored 13 of his game-high 21 points in the third. He hit three 3-pointers. Teammate J.J. Pennington added 14 and had moments of being a neighborhood bully.
Then Lake Station's defense went to another gear in the fourth, only allowing the Ingots seven points. Patterson had five of his game-high nine steals in the final eight minutes.
Dwayne Haden led Station with 16. Patterson and Elias Williams added 13. It was Williams who kept the Ingots at bay after they took a one-point lead in the third.
He was unstoppable in the paint.
“I came to Lake Station my freshman year and everyone told me this game was the biggest,” Williams said. “In every sport it's really intense.”
As the game was winding down, Eagles fans started chanting “Just like football.” The Ingots fans, wearing “Logan Lunatics” T-shirts, responded with “Let's play volleyball.” Then, Lake Station chanted “How about softball?”
You don't get this at a Duneland Athletic Conference game. Had the game gone overtime one of the student sections would've started chanting “Our fifth-grade speech club's better.”
That's why this shootout is always great.
“In the PCC everyone went to the games, but you only knew a few of the people, not all,” Burke said. “Here, these kids live on the same block. They went to the same grade school. They all really know each other.”
Burke had a big bag of stuff on his desk when he arrived in June. Bryon Clouse, who had built the program, left for Hanover Central. Then, after playing with the Eagles all summer, point guard Nathan Flores transferred to Marquette.
“When I got here everyone said Lake Station's down; they lost everybody,” Burke said. “I heard that from everybody — but my leaders stayed with me. We had the best week of practice we've had all year.”
Patterson said losing Clouse was like losing a father figure, but like the rest of the team, he knew they had to move on.
“Things happen,” Patterson said. “It took us awhile but we're starting to play good basketball.”
And, of course, win the biggest game of the year.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.