By Brent Schwartz
During pre-game warmups Friday, Evanston’s Nojel Eastern walked over to the Niles North bench to grab a cup of water from the Vikings’ Gatorade cooler. “Are you guys not playing?” Eastern asked two Niles North players sitting on the bench.
He then smiled, walked through the Niles North shootaround and returned to the Evanston side.
Some day, the Evanston-Niles North rivalry may turn bitter, but it’s not there yet.
Despite the schools being just four miles apart, Niles North and Evanston had played just once in the regular season during the previous five years. Because the Central Suburban League realigned, the Vikings joined Evanston in the South Division, and are now scheduled to play the Wildkits twice a season. Evanston won Friday’s game 72-59.
The relationship between the two schools does not lack story lines. Last year, Niles North’s season ended in the regional championship against Evanston Township.
Additionally, Niles North junior guard Dravon Clayborn transferred to Niles North from Evanston over the summer. Clayborn has been a factor for the Vikings, and chipped in 13 points in both games versus his former team.
Still, the playful interactions between players before and after Friday’s game suggest the rivalry is still forming.
Friday marked Niles North’s second loss to Evanston this season. After falling to the Wildkits in Evanston on Dec. 2 in a game where they trailed by 17 at the end of the first quarter, the Vikings began their home bout with a renewed sense of confidence.
“I liked 100 percent the way we came out versus the way we came out last time,” said Niles North coach Glenn Olson. “I think we came out tonight believing we could win, and I don’t think we did that last time.”
Junior forward Damaria Franklin scored 11 of his 16 points in the first quarter, as the Vikings held a surprising 18-11 lead at the end of the period.
Niles North stuck with Evanston for most of the game, which Evanston led by just two points with seven minutes remaining. Evanston then pulled away.
If history is any indication, Niles North could run into Evanston again if they make a deep postseason run. In addition to last year’s regional title game, Niles North also lost to Evanston in the 2012 sectional finals.
“Evanston has always had a great basketball tradition,” Niles North assistant coach Don Olson said. “They have a lot of good players that come in and out of that program.”
Evanston boasts seven players who are 6-foot-4 or taller, while Niles North has just one player in that category. Eastern, a 6-foot-6 guard and a Top 100 recruit who has signed to play at Purdue, tallied 20 points, including two dunks
“They’re really good where we’re not,” Don Olson said. “We’re so young, and they’re not. They’re also really big compared to us. They’re like trees.”
After being outmatched in the paint in the last game, the Vikings improved Friday. During one stretch in the second quarter, Niles North came away with six offensive rebounds in two possessions, but could not capitalize.
The loss brought Niles North to 13-8 on the season, while Evanston improved to 16-2. To add to Evanston’s impressive record, the Wildkits have not lost a game to an Illinois team this season, and are 6-0 in conference play.
Evanston has been the dominant team in the rivalry thus far, but Niles North is closing the gap.
“We’ve seen enough of this team to not be afraid,” Glenn Olson said.
They’ll be seeing Evanston a lot more.