Jacob Sheldon was there for part of the long Western Big Six losing streak. He was there for last year’s losing season. And he was there for all four quarters of the Mercer County regional championship Friday, plus overtime.
When all was said and done Sheldon had scored 19 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and overtime, to help the Pioneers pull off a 67-63 win Friday for their first regional title in six years.
“It meant so much to us,” said the 6-foot-3, 165-pound Sheldon, who plays small forward for the Pioneers. “We’ve worked so hard throughout the entire year. Every practice means so much. We’ve put in so much hard work. Coach does, too. And he cares about us so much.
"We are just trying to keep our momentum going and see how it goes.”
Momentum has been on the Pioneers' side ever since they got thumped by United Township at Augustana's Carver Center on Jan. 20 by a 70-41 score.
Since then, the Pioneers are 4-3 with all three losses by a combined total of 12 points against the likes of Rock Island, Moline and Galesburg. They lost to Moline at Wharton 51-49 on a last-second shot.
The Pioneers (14-13) are hitting their stride at the right time ahead of Wednesday's Class 2A sectional semifinal against Rockford Christian at Byron.
“We’re there every single time,” Sheldon said. “This end of the season, we have been right there, every single team, even for the losses. We’ve been doing good. Our confidence is there. We aren’t losing any hope.”
The Pioneers have welcomed back Will Mihm the last five games, a 6-3 junior who can play most positions. Even when he’s not scoring he draws attention away from other players.
“He’s a scoring threat, very savvy, smart player, handles the ball well outside the perimeter,” said Alleman coach Patrick Rangel. “He can rebound and bang inside. He’s a nice 6-3 three-man, who it’s tough to guard inside or out. It just gives us another option.”
Along with options like power forward Nathan Graves, and guards Ryan Hodge, Andrew Barrett and Collin O’Keeffe, all of whom can shoot, it opens the door for a player like Sheldon, who has taken advantage.
“In the regional championship, obviously they were focused on Nathan Graves and our two shooting guards,” Rangel said. “We just said, 'OK, let them focus on that and we’ll make sure we get Jake the ball and see what he can do.' He stepped up for us big-time.”
Sheldon has improved “tremendously” in the last year, Rangel said, especially in terms of basketball smarts. Sheldon added eight points in the regional semifinal win over Orion.
“He’s just learned to be a smarter player, take advantage of what was given to him and limiting bad shots and things of that nature,” Rangel said. “In the beginning, he was forcing a lot of action.”
Next up is a Rockford Christian (19-8) team where Rangel said, Sheldon will likely be guarding one of its big men. Kewanee awaits in the sectional final after the Boilermakers defeated Winnebago 57-51 on Tuesday.
“We have to come prepared like any other team,” Sheldon said prior to a Pioneer film session, “and be ready.”