ROCHELLE — Basketball isn’t the sport that Johnny Beck is supposed to have weight on his shoulders.
The Western Illinois baseball commit has his work cut out for him on the hardwood before his senior season as a pitcher on the diamond even begins. He’s the only returning starter for coach Tim Thompson and Rochelle basketball. Even though Beck returns averaging 18 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks, the rest of the Hubs team will be subject to trial by fire.
“Johnny being a three-year varsity player, he's going to have to lead the way and take a little bit of the pressure off it,” Thompson said. “We're going to have to weather the storm a little bit as we get our juniors up to speed."
Thompson estimates that Beck will have to average around 25 points per game and double figures in rebounds for the Hubs to be successful this season. He also touted the 6-foot-8 senior’s ability to block shots and rim protect without fouling. Three-point shooting and dunking are where Beck’s skillset really grabs the eye. He was first-team all-conference in the Northern Illinois Big 12 and honorable mention all-state last year for a reason.
Thompson has had to turn away lower Division I and Division II basketball coaches. Beck made up his mind long ago to go the baseball route. While striving to improve his skills on the mound, baseball started to feel almost like work. Basketball and Thompson gave him an outlet.
“I feel like just the fact that I play another sport helps me take a break from baseball,” Beck said. “That makes me enjoy baseball a lot more. Basketball, Coach (Thompson) is a awesome. Even if I didn't want to play this year, I would have to just because of how much he's done for me."
Rochelle (16-11 in 2017-18) lost six seniors from last season. New juniors from a sophomore team that finished 21-5 will mix with seniors that played minimal minutes a year ago. Thompson has placed extra emphasis on three-point shooting after noticing the strength in his team.
"I think the thing that will give us an edge is how well we shoot the ball,” Thompson said. “I think if we shoot the ball from 3 like those guys did at the sophomore level, we're going to be able to score with other teams as we learn how to play defense. That's our biggest weakness right now.”
The Hubs won’t be able to employ one of their best defensive players until January. Senior guard Noah Knight, also a defensive back on the football team, broke his fibula in the team’s final playoff game against Sycamore while making a tackle. Knight’s assessment of the situation explains why Thompson was disappointed to lose the guard for a stretch. He leads by example.
"It really didn't hurt that bad,” Knight said. “I was able to walk off the field. I thought it was just a sprain or something, just a little bump. And then our trainer said it probably wasn't going to happen that night, going back in. It was kind of hard. It was an emotional night.”
With Knight’s absence and an abundance of youth, Thompson plans to possibly switch to a 2-3 zone rather than Rochelle’s usual man press depending on depth. Immediate contenders for time include junior guard Landan Martin, who Thompson anticipates will start at point guard and junior guard Austin Brown, who pushes tempo and is one of the Hubs’ better defenders.
The Hubs' youth movement will be joined by junior swingman Seth Gould, who can play both inside and outside, and sophomore Garrett Burdin, a 3-point marksman.
Rochelle’s conference season ramps up against three-time defending conference champion Sterling on Friday.
Jeffrey Helfrich: 815-987-1389; firstname.lastname@example.org
Coach: Tim Thompson (8th season, 79-119)
Last season: 16-11 (7-5)
Returning starters: Johnny Beck (6-8 Sr. F).
Other key players: Noah Knight (5-11 Sr. G), Austin Brown (5-8 Jr. G), Seth Gould (6-2 Jr. F), Landan Martin (6-1 Jr. G), Garrett Burdin (6-0 So. G)
Strengths: Three-point shooting, star power, speed, youth
Weaknesses: Experience, leadership, a second big, lack of floor general at guard
Outlook: Forward Johnny Beck is going to have to carry the load for the Hubs, more so initially in the season. But if development is made in secondary rebounders and three-point shooters around Beck, the young up-tempo Hubs could find themselves contending for a regional title once again.