PLANO – Zac Schmidt and Nick Carpenter were eighth-graders watching from the Plano bleachers the last time Burlington Central won its tournament championship.
Fast forward four years.
Now seniors, they’re pillars of a seasoned group that’s perhaps the Rockets’ best team during its recent run of success. And they want their own hardware.
Burlington Central took a big step toward it Wednesday, in its biggest win this season. The third-seeded Rockets erased an early nine-point deficit against second-seeded Yorkville Christian, built their own 16-point lead, and then held on for an 80-72 win in the semifinals of the 58th Plano Christmas Classic.
The Rockets, tournament champs in 2017 and runner-ups to Peoria Notre Dame in 2019, will play two-time defending champ Notre Dame for the title at 8 p.m. Thursday. It’s the third meeting between the two programs in the last four tournament finals.
“It was nice to see when we were in eighth grade, but this is something we’re trying to win for ourselves,” said Schmidt, one of Burlington Central’s four senior starters. “Big win for sure. We haven’t had a big win like that when we’ve been the underdogs in a while. Good to get that win and on to tomorrow.”
Carson Seyller scored 19 points, 12 coming in the fourth quarter to help stave off Yorkville Christian’s late charge, and seven rebounds, Carpenter had 15 points and eight rebounds and Schmidt 15 points and eight assists for Burlington Central (11-2), which had five players in double figures. Gavin Sarvis added 12 and Trestan Wagner 10.
Schmidt’s 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first quarter capped off a 10-0 quarter-ending run for a 15-14 Burlington Central lead.
It grew to a 15-0 run on Seyller’s 3-pointer for a 20-14 lead.
“Very big shot, always big to hit shots at the end of quarters,” Schmidt said. “We knew it would be a dogfight.”
Yorkville Christian had led 14-5 early on the strength of three early steals off pressure, but never led after Schmidt’s shot.
“That game turned on a dime,” Mustangs coach Aaron Sovern said. “You have a quality team like that, you have them on the ropes, they start believing they can do it, they start hitting some shots and it’s tough to bounce back.”
Besides his scoring and playmaking, Schmidt’s biggest impact may have come on the defensive end guarding Yorkville Christian star Jaden Schutt, a Duke recruit.
Schutt missed his first five shots, and was held to 18 points on 5-for-20 shooting.
“Zac Schmidt, his ability to guard Jaden was outstanding,” Rockets coach Brett Porto said. “[Schutt] hit one three in transition and one off a stagger, really other than that held him to low teens. That hasn’t been done in a while.”
Carpenter, living up to his name, was big on the boards, with 10 of his points and five of his rebounds in the first half alone to help Burlington Central build a 36-30 halftime lead that grew to double digits in the third quarter.
The Rockets showed their toughness throughout – their best player, Sarvis, is after all a star football player. On one play Andrew Scharnowski ripped a rebound away from Schutt, leading to a Sarvis runout. Later, the Rockets crashed for four offensive rebounds on one possession.
“We work on it every single day in practice and we hold each other accountable,” Carpenter said. “Going for loose balls, making sure we’re the first one on the floor.”
Burlington Central won the matchup on the glass 42-19 with 13 offensive rebounds, an issue all season for Yorkville Christian (9-8).
“It starts in practice,” Yorkville Christian senior Tyler Burrows said. “We have to lock in and band together. We have to rebound from this point on because we’re a much better team than our record shows.”
Burrows scored a game-high 23 points for Yorkville Christian, 11 coming in the fourth quarter to lead a furious rally. The Mustangs, trailing 68-52, ripped off a 13-2 run fueled by Burrows, cutting it to 70-65 on Schutt’s 3-pointer with 3:25 left – his first field goal of the second half.
But the Mustangs missed three shots to draw closer, and never could close the gap.
K.J. Vasser added 15 points for Yorkville Christian, which shot just 9-for-26 from 3-point range.
“The kids scratched and clawed, and we always play to the end,” Sovern said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t make enough plays and that’s a good team. This environment is great, nose to nose, get punched in the mouth. This will pay dividends for us in the long run.”
I am the Sports Editor for Kendall County Newspapers, the Kane County Chronicle and Suburban Life Media, covering primarily sports in Kendall, Kane, DuPage and western Cook counties. I've been covering high school sports for 24 years. I also assist with our news coverage.