Seconds before tipoff of the regional championship game, Concordia Lutheran junior D.J. McCall gathered the four seniors who join him in the starting lineup and spoke from the heart.
“I don't want this to be our last game,” McCall said.
It was simple and direct and reflected the camaraderie that exists between McCall, a high-flying offensive star, and the Cadets' senior-laden team.
Call them “D.J. & the Seniors” or maybe “The Swingin' Cadets, featuring D.J. McCall.”
As Concordia (22-4) prepares to play Andrean (22-3) in the Class 3A semistate about 3:15 p.m. Saturday at Huntington North, the Cadets look to continue a cohesive rhythm of play that seven seniors and one honorary senior (McCall) have established as a winning formula.
“(The seniors) are so much fun to be around and play with,” McCall said. “They are so unselfish. I might score more than them some games, but I wouldn't be able to get those points without them.”
McCall has been part of the Cadets senior group since he was a fifth-grader and they were sixth-graders. They played summer ball together. They learned each other's styles. They learned how to work as a unit. They became a team.
“All of us get along like we're brothers,” senior point guard Ryan Gross said. “There's never an argument over playing time or bitter feelings. It's almost like we've all had the same roles for the past six or seven years.”
McCall, the team's leading scorer at 17 points per game, fits right in, Gross said.
“My and D.J. are best friends,” Gross said. “I'm not there to take his points. I'm there to get him the ball. I try to stay out of his way and get him the ball in transition and let him do it. He's unstoppable when he gets in the zone.”
The other seniors around McCall know their roles well and embrace them. Thomas Starks Jr. can play power forward or shooting guard. Ryan Gremaux is a pure post presence. Marq Rogers is the defensive stopper, always drawing the opponent's best player. The seniors off the bench (Austin Harris, Acie Curry and Brandon Webb) contribute on and off the court.
“We always thought it was either state or break our senior year,” Gross said. “Last year, we wanted to get further but we lost in the sectional championship game. This year, we're not satisfied, but we feel good about where we are and we're playing pretty good ball right now.”
The 6-foot-5 McCall has come into his own as an offensive player, coach Josh Eggold said. He wows the crowds with his forceful dunks, but he's expanded his game to encompass a variety of skills.
McCall, who has been offered a scholarship by Chicago State and has drawn interest from other colleges, entered the regional title game against Norwell shooting only 27 percent from three-point range. But he hit two threes to help Concordia establish control early.
“He's shooting it better and better and he makes plays for the other guys,” Eggold said. “His variety of skills allows you to put him in any position and he seems to do OK. I think he's gotten hungrier as the season went on. For a long time, he deferred to these seniors, now his body has caught up with theirs and athletically, he's coming into his own.”
Yet the Cadets remain very much a team-first bunch, which is as much a credit to the seniors who embrace McCall as it to McCall's appreciation of his older teammates' leadership.
“The seniors are all so positive,” McCall said. “They might be down, when we had losses in the season, but they pick me up and they pick each other up. If I had to pick one word to describe them, it would be positive.”