JOLIET — The record is deceptive. Joliet Catholic may be 10-13 overall and 2-10 in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, but the Hilltoppers are like Joe Frazier.
They keep coming at you.
This junkyard dog mentality left them in good stead Friday night, where they battled across 32 minutes in a 57-49 loss to Marian Catholic (19-6, 8-4). Trailing by 15 late in the third quarter, JCA rallied to cut the gap to seven points on three occasions before time ran out.
Optimism did not. Not with Tyler Surin, the blur who wears No. 3, contributing 22 points, and Anthony Birsa, the big fellow donning No. 33, wreaking controlled havoc in the lane in scoring 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Alas for first-year coach Adam DeGroot, both are seniors.
“Those two are incredible,” DeGroot said. “As good as they are on the court, they’re even more high-high-character young men. I’m cherishing every moment coaching them. They will be sorely missed.”
DeGroot’s big problem is the grinder of a league the Hilltoppers compete in. With the double-round robin league schedule this year, it means playing the formidables like Marian and Benet Academy twice. At least, DeGroot figures, it will get them ready for the playoffs, where they will play in the Class 2A postseason.
“Every game is an absolute battle right now,” DeGroot said. “We’re right there. It’s just a few too many turnovers that did us in. It’s been the story of our season. You can’t give them layups.”
Marian was led by guard Tre Davis’ 19-point showing. Zack Sharkey added 15 points, while Jonah Weathers scored 14 points, 10 in the second half.
“They’ve been top 25 most of the season and have one of the best defenses in the league,” Surin said of the Spartans. “They’re a closing team. We put up our best fight, but it comes down to missed shots and turnovers, things like that.
“Until late in the game, I didn’t figure out the faster I cut, the more open I get.”
Surin scored 13 of his points in the second half, shot 8-of-16 from the floor and 2-of-6 from three-point range.
Birsa, 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, is not the prototypical big man in the middle. He’s nimble, with good hands, better footwork, and is a beast to move aside in the lane.
“For him to be able to do what he does on the court; he’s able to do a lot, like ball-screens and passes,” DeGroot.
The one edge the Hilltoppers will have come playoff time is hosting a regional.
“There’s no other conference that will battle-test you like this one,” DeGroot said. “It’s an absolute buzz-saw. I’m not a big moral victory guy, but we’re competing. And we’ve got the best month of the season coming up.”