Polo falls to Eastland at 1A regional

Polo coach Matt Messer talks to an official after two of his starters Brock Soltow and Gus Mumford fouled out in the fourth quarter against Eastland on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024 at the 1A Forreston Regional championship game at Forreston High School.

FORRESTON – It’s been a long time since the Eastland boys basketball team last won a regional title. With a 48-38 win over Polo on Feb. 23 in the Class 1A Forreston Regional final, that drought finally came to an end.

“It feels great, man,” Eastland sophomore forward Parker Krogman said. “It’s been 10 years since our school’s gotten a regional for boys basketball, so it’s amazing.”

Top-seeded Eastland (25-9) will face No. 3 South Beloit in the River Ridge Sectional semifinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Polo (17-14) came out with red-hot shooting in the first quarter as it rolled to a 19-8 lead. Senior wing Brock Soltow led the charge with 11 points, including a deep buzzer-beater 3-pointer from the left wing.

“Our defense was doing a great job of limiting them to one shot. We were really active,” Polo coach Matt Messer about the hot start. “And then down here [on offense], we were patient, we were playing through Soltow, and he was making good reads whether it was getting to the rim or kicking out and finding people. And we were knocking down shots.”

A left-wing 3 by sophomore guard JT Stephenson stretched the lead to 22-8 early in the second quarter, but the Cougars came charging back. A 9-3 run over the last 6:02 cut the deficit to 25-17 at halftime.

Eastland opened the third quarter on a 16-0 run to take a 33-25 lead and stayed in front for the rest of the game.

“That’s how we expect to come out every game. It didn’t happen this game, so we had to make it happen in the second half,” Eastland junior guard Adam Awender said. “We just talked more on defense, got into gaps, got ball pressure, so they can’t make those easy skip passes for the easy shot.”

Awender sparked the surge with a layup on a baseline cut with 7:04 remaining and scored a fast-break layup off a steal and hit a left-corner 3 during the 16-point swing that spanned 5:23. A pull-up midrange jumper by Krogman gave Eastland its first lead of the game, 26-25, with 4:50 to go.

The Cougars led 36-29 at the end of the third quarter.

Polo rallied to within four points twice in the fourth quarter, but drew no closer.

Stephenson buried a left-corner 3 off a Soltow drive-and-kick to get within 36-32 at the 6:37 mark. Soltow fouled out with 4:48 to play as the Marcos trailed by six, but senior guard Carter Merdian hit two free throws to draw within four again – 38-34. Over the last 3:20, junior guard Peyton Spears went 8 for 10 from the free-throw line to keep the Cougars’ lead intact.

“This was probably one of our best [team efforts of the season],” Krogman said. “You go down the line, I can pick out something that each person did well tonight.”

Krogman totaled a game-high 18 points and four rebounds, Awender had 12 points and six rebounds and Spears chipped in 11 points and six rebounds for the Cougars. Sophomore forward Zyacn Haverland and senior forward Trevor Janssen each pulled down five rebounds for Eastland.

Soltow finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four steals and four assists, Stephenson scored nine points on three 3-pointers, and Merdian added six points and five rebounds for Polo. Junior guard Gus Mumford also had six points for the Marcos.

“It was a wonderful season. You saw these kids, win or lose, these guys played really hard,” Messer said. “They poured everything into just about every game. It hurts, it stings, but I hope when it’s all over they really realize how much the people and the town of Polo appreciated the way they played.”