By Scott Taylor
Downers Grove South proved it was a much different club this year at the St. Charles East Tournament.
There the Mustangs went 3-0 in pool play before falling in the championship to St. Joseph 69-60 to take second place.
“It is the way you want to start,” Downers South coach Kris Olson said. “We’re playing well as a team. I think this is such a close group of friends, they do everything together. So, they are all in sync with each other.
“We’re a year older. It is a credit to all of their hard work, their skill and their team bonding. It is a testament to them, they have done all the work. They spent hours in the gym and the weight room working.”
The team suffered some growing pains last year but are a veteran team with several seniors and juniors with experience.
“We’ve been playing together for a long time,” junior guard Denis Alibegovic said. “We have all the experience we had from last year. We had a tough year last year but we want it bad. We have a lot of intensity with this team and we try to play our hardest. We have one goal to win this year and that is a state championship.”
“We’re super deep this year,” junior forward TJ Clifford said. “We can cycle through guys. It is nice. We’re trying to play faster, higher-paced games. We’ve stressed since June that we have to push the floor and be a transition team.”
One of their opponents’ coaches agrees that this is a different team from a year ago.
“They are definitely much-improved,” Plainfield East coach Branden Adkins said. “They were young last year and we knew they were going to be better. They are clicking really well.”
Among the differences this year is a faster pace and more pressure thanks to the depth of the team.
“Last year we weren’t deep enough and this year we are deep enough,” Olson said. “We’re pretty deep and pretty athletic, so we’re going to play fast.”
Overall, the Mustangs hope this was just the start of something special this year.
“We want to compete against the best and show that we are one of the best teams in the state,” Alibegovic said. “Playing in this tournament definitely shows that because we beat some very good teams that we lost to last year. This should help us for conference. We have a tough conference.”
“I think we have a good chance of going far. We have to stay together and play the way we have been. We have to work on our defense a bit,” Clifford said.
Going forward, the Mustangs know what they need to do to achieve their lofty goals.
“We want to play the way we did tonight and play hard and play the right way and see where that takes us,” Olson said after a win over Plainfield East. “I’m sure the players have their own team goals, but I want to compete and see where the chips fall. Rebounding, defense and team chemistry are big keys.”
“We need to play together,” Alibegovic said. “Coach always talks about togetherness. We need to play good defense and play hard.”
Alibegovic, Clifford and Sam Ebersold were named to the all-tournament team.
The Mustangs kept rolling to open the conference season, beating powerhouse Proviso East 61-58.