By Brian Nielsen
Injured floor leaders watching from the bench are in the rearview mirror.
For the record, Mattoon is 12-17 and Decatur Eisenhower 12-19 after injury-riddled regular seasons, but wipe the slates clean as the two start their postseason meeting in a 7 p.m. Wednesday semifinal of the IHSA Class 3A Mattoon Boys’ Basketball Regional.
“You definitely can’t look at our record,” Eisenhower coach Rodney Walker said. “We were sitting close to the top of the ladder when R.J. Walker got hurt and missed seven games and we dropped every one of them. He came back and we never truly recovered, but we’re trying to regain our momentum now.”
While the son of the former professional player and now Eisenhower coach makes the Panthers’ record deceiving, Mattoon fans do not need to be lectured about how an injury can disrupt a season.
The Green Wave stood 4-5 when point guard Meade Johnson, who was averaging 12.8 points through nine games, suffered an injury sidelining him for nearly two months.
After losing Johnson, Mattoon lost six of its next seven games before recovering to go 7-6 in the last 13 games.
Johnson has worked his way back into action the past three games with hopes of being ready for the regional.
“He says he’s full go,” Green Wave coach Ryan Ghere said. “I think he’s fine, but getting back into the speed of the game is the hard part. He’s not in top shape, yet but we like having him back. He’s a leader on the floor.
Cam’Ron Thomas, another junior guard and the Wave’s leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, suffered an injury in the game where Johnson returned. But he is now back, giving Mattoon a relatively full strength it hadn’t had this calendar year.
Now Mattoon has to deal with the likes of R.J. Walker, who is averaging 17 points and five assists and as a junior is receiving some interest from colleges including New Mexico State, where is dad played before a 10-year professional career overseas.
“He’s a different kind of player,” said the coach Walker, who was called “Sky Walker” and averaged 31 points per game at Decatur St. Teresa in 1990-91. “His basketball IQ and range is much higher than mine. He doesn’t have my athletic ability yet.”
The younger Walker brings his talents to the Mattoon gym where this season Mahomet-Seymour’s Grant Coleman racked up 44 points in a 73-37 win over the Green Wave and Taylorville’s Jase Bergschneider erupted for 51 when the Tornadoes beat Mattoon 77-54 this year.
“He’s as good of a shooter as we’ve seen,” Ghere said. “He’s as good of a shooter as Coleman and better off the dribble. He’s probably more like the Bergschneider kid. We didn’t do a very good job against either one of them.”
Eisenhower also has sophomore Brylan Phillips averaging 16 points per game while Cam Rowe is also part of the mix. Coach Walker said, “My big three dogs are all guards.”
Mattoon looks to feed its own big dog – 6-foot-9 sophomore Samual Bradbury, who averages 10 points while shooting at a .767 clip and grabbing a team-high 5.2 rebounds per game.
That adds another dimension for a Wave squad where the driving Thomas averages 14.1 points, senior outside shooter Dalton Compton averages 12.6 and Johnson is at 10.0.
Rodney Walker is also well aware of Mattoon’s 6-6 senior Alex Yardley, who in the past played for the Eisenhower coach’s AAU team and shares time in the post with Bradbury.
“I know (Mattoon is) big,” Walker said. “But every team we play is bigger than us.”
Eisenhower’s Panthers counter with athletic ability and a fast pace.
“I saw them play Lincoln and Chatham Glenwood,” Ghere said. “They’re good. They’re athletic. The coach’s kid is a 1,000-point scorer and he’s only a junior.”
This used to be an annual meeting between two Big 12 Conference teams before Mattoon moved to the Apollo and Eisenhower to the Central State Eight.
This season they have had a couple of common opponents. Eisenhower has beaten Mount Zion 60-42 and 55-50, and Mattoon swept the Braves 75-39 and 68-48. Eisenhower lost 79-41 to a Lincoln powerhouse that beat the Wave 70-52 and 68-22.
Eisenhower started this week hoping for a Friday regional title game berth and third chance at the Lincoln Sectional’s top-seeded Springfield Lanphier, which beat the short-handed Panthers 75-65 and 69-48 in Central State Eight games but Walker said his fourth-seeded team cannot overlook the sixth-seeded and regional host Wave.
“We never had a full team against Lanphier,” the Eisenhower coach said. “I think we can play with them, but I’m just looking at Mattoon. In 2017 we looked past Mount Zion and didn’t ever get to play Lanphier.”
Meanwhile, Mattoon is looking to extend this opportunity to play in front of a home crowd in its regional. The winner of Wednesday’s game is to play in the 7 p.m. Friday championship game for a berth in next week’s Lincoln Sectional.
Lanphier defeated Mt. Zion Tuesday night.
“Postseason games at home are a big deal,” Ghere said. “Dave (Vieth, Mattoon’s athletic director) does a good job getting as many postseason games at home as he can. Some ADs don’t want to do that because it’s too much work.”