By Jack Ankony, executive sports editor
The Prospect faithful was in a state of shock and despair as the final buzzer sounded in the IHSA class 4A regional championship game. The Knights faced off against the Lake Park Lancers on March 3 in the Jean Walker Fieldhouse.
Bodies outstretched on the ground, hands over head, silence. Junior David Swedura sliced through the lane on the Knights’ final possession of the game and left the final shot of the game just off the rim as he contorted his body through a field of defenders. Seniors Grant Zellmer and Matt Szuba were unable to corral a tip in, and the Knights’ season was over.
“I feel awful for our team,” Prospect head coach John Camardella said. “They put in so much work to it, and to have a night like this, it happened at the wrong time.”
The Knights fell to Lake Park 60-59 in overtime to put a screeching halt to a season that had so much promise. Prospect finished with a 23-6 record, the best in Camardella’s tenure as head coach.
Senior Michael Ritchie led the Knights in scoring with 18 points (5-9 FG, 6-7 FT), and Senior Frankie Mack finished with 13 points (3-10 FG, 6-7 FT). The Knights shot 29 percent from the field and 21 percent from three, compared to their season average of 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from three.
“We picked a bad night [to struggle shooting],” Camardella said. “Now credit Lake Park’s pressure defense, but, I mean, we had looks all night. It’s gonna happen, they are going to give you looks, and it’s a make or miss game, and unfortunately tonight, it wasn’t a night where they seemed to go in.”
Though Lake Park’s tough defense with early sell outs and double teaming ball screens and handoffs, the Knights were getting the looks they wanted, the shots just weren’t falling, according to Camardella.
“We would pass the ball to Matt [Szuba], he would have a guy in the corner, we would have wide-open stand-still open shots with no one within ten feet of us, then if we knock one or two of those down, they take off the traps, and all of a sudden we are back into our flow. It was because we couldn’t knock those down, it was a waterfall effect. It just turned in a way that we couldn’t get over the hump,” Camardella said.
Prospect got out to a 15-13 lead in a back and forth first quarter. It was Lancer Forward Daniel Spejcher who hit a buzzer beater three at the end of the second quarter to send Lake Park into halftime with a 33-25 lead and definite momentum.
Knights assistant coach Brad Rathe adjusted the team’s defense to a 1-3-1 for most of the third quarter that had the Lancers confused offensively, and contributed to a Knights comeback.
“We turned it on on defense,” Ritchie said. “We really didn’t give up at the end.”
In a game that had a combined 49 fouls between both teams, the Knights’ gritty defense and free throw shooting (24-28) kept them in the game and cut the deficit to 38-37 heading into the fourth quarter.
Camardella explains that the Knights never quit, an attribute he takes great pride in.
With 2:54 remaining in the fourth quarter, the score was knotted up, and both teams were looking for an answer offensively on a night where neither team shot well from the field. The Knights shot 29 percent from the field, and the Lancers 26 percent.
Mack was called for a charge as he drove in for a layup with 1:34 remaining – that would have tied the game at 49 if he made the ensuing free throw. However, met by a barrage of boos from Knights fans, possession was sent the other way and Lake Park took momentum with a 49-46 lead.
All hope seemed to be gone for the Knights after Lake Park junior Brady Olenek was sent to the line for two shots leading 53-50 with 13 seconds remaining. Olenek missed the first free throw, but hit the second to go up 54-50, leaving the door slightly open for the Knights.
Next came a play that could be remembered in Prospect basketball history for years.
Mack missed a three, but the ball was kicked back out to him after an offensive rebound. In desperation, Mack put up Prospect’s last attempt to save their season. His shot swished in as he was hit across the arm by a Lancer defender. Mack composed himself and hit a free throw to tie the game with 3.4 seconds in the game.
After Mack’s shot, Camardella had a bit of an unexpected reaction.
“[I felt] normal,” Camardella said. “You guys might think it is crazy, but if you watch our games, his shot against Stevenson, the shots he makes with guys draped all over him, he has done it his entire career. I’ll go all the way back to when Frankie [Mack] was a sophomore over at Lyons [Township], he hit 6 of 7 threes and everybody is like ‘Who is this?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s the kid I have been watching since he was in 6th grade’.”
With The Underground rocking, it seemed as if the Knights had all momentum going into overtime.
In an up and down, foul-heavy overtime period, the score was tied 59-59 with 21.3 seconds left, the Knights with the ball. Choosing not to hold the ball for the final shot, Swedura saw an open lane to the hole and used his speed and explosiveness to get to the basket.
His runner hit just hard off the backboard, and as Mack crashed for the rebound, he picked up his fifth foul, again the call met with disapproval from Knights fans.
Lake Park guard Garrett Fant, who led all scorers with 27 points, went to the line for two shots. Fant sunk the first, but after missing the second, senior Matt Szuba ripped down the rebound and quickly outletted the ball to Swedura with 6 seconds remaining.
Using his speed, Swedura sliced through the lane, but his contested layup was just short.
The Knights’ season was over.
Though the promising season ended sooner than the Knights had hoped, Camardella is still proud of the season and shared a few meaningful takeaways.
“How they approach basketball – if they can approach their lives and their professions and their family life the same way they are going to be highly successful,” Camardella said.
In a locker room full of despair, Camardella shared an important story.
“I have been telling our guys for a long time – it is posted in the locker room – being a history teacher, I am a big fan of Teddy Roosevelt [and] one of his famous speeches is ‘Man in the arena’,” Camardella said. “It is not the critic who counts; it is the guy in there who is striving for something great. That is my mantra. It is how you approach each day, how you are going to approach each day, that not everything is going to go your way.”
Camardella also hopes the players’ thoughts aren’t all results based, because of how much they grew as a team throughout the season.
“Hopefully when they wake up in the morning they can be proud of themselves,” Camardella said. “They can be proud of the preparation, and not just be focused on the results.”
Lastly, Camardella reflected on what the seniors meant to not only the program, but himself personally, too.
“I really don’t have words to describe Frankie and the rest of the seniors and what they have meant to me, what they have meant to my family, what they have meant to this high school, what they have meant to this program,” Camardella said. “I owe these guys a lot. I have two daughters at home, and I’m not old enough yet to consider 17 and 18 year old guys my sons, but definitely my brothers, and that relationship deepened this year and will continue to in the future.”