By SCOTT JACKSON
Courier sports writer
---- — PEKIN — Garrett Saunders has gotten pretty used to being part of winning teams at Van Buren.
During baseball season, Saunders was an integral part of the Warriors' first-ever state tournament qualifying team. That was followed up this past fall with a stint as the starting quarterback on the Warriors' first-ever state playoff football squad.
By this point, producing wins is something Saunders and his teammates are getting very accustomed to. On Thursday, Van Buren opened postseason play by producing a dominant 73-30 win over Sigourney in the second round of the Class 1A, District 10 tournament.
If the Warriors can produce three more wins this year, they’ll produce another reason for fans in and around Keosauqua to celebrate by producing the second trip ever to the state basketball tournament for legendary head coach Fred Parsons.
“This is the postseason. If you lose, you’re done,” Saunders said. “It’s time to go now. We’re going to come out and play hard against whoever we go up against.”
Thursday’s win was the 721st for Parsons, who is in his 53rd season at the helm of boys high school basketball in Van Buren County, saw his team accomplish one of its preseason goals with (also happened to be win number 720) earlier in the week. The Warriors beat Holy Trinity, 58-42, in a make-up game on Monday, clinching the Southeast Iowa Superconference south division title won over the likes of state tournament hopefuls Danville and Burlington-Notre Dame.
“It really helped having that game (on Monday) to get us prepared for the postseason,” Parsons said. “We certainly did not underestimate Sigourney. Frankly, we didn’t know all that much about them because we hadn’t seen them play.”
Despite having the opening-round bye, Van Buren played like a team that was primed for postseason action Thursday. Saunders hit his first shot of the night, a 3-pointer, to kick off a 10-0 start against the Savages.
Sigourney head coach Mitch Eslick talked about the length of the Warriors, which created several easier shots on offense by forcing the Savages into several turnovers throughout the contest.
“(Van Buren) really overwhelmed us with their zone,” Eslick said. “We noticed how hard they push the ball, so we emphasized going in on making sure to get back defensively. When you don’t take care of the ball and they’ve got 3-on-1 breaks, it makes it hard to get back.”
The Savages were not only forced into 25 turnovers on the night, including 10 in the opening quarter, but allowed several of those mistakes to lead to high-percentage shots for Van Buren. Saunders was the catalyst, collecting four of the Warriors’ 14 steals while quarterbacking the offense on the hardwood with a game-best seven assists.
Of course, Saunders was more than willing to take the shot whenever the opportunity presented itself. By the end of the night, the senior had scored 21 points on 8-14 shooting from the field, including a sizzling 5-8 effort from beyond the 3-point arc.
“(Sigourney) was playing really well, but it was just one of those nights were everything we shot was going in,” Saunders said. “We were also getting open looks. Anytime you’re shooting well and you get open looks, the basket looks about the size of a trash can.”
Van Buren hardly ever led by less than 10 points after jumping out to a 15-2 advantage. As a team, the Warriors shot over 50 percent in the first half and finished the night with 21 assists as a team.
“We didn’t get the ball inside as much as I would have liked, but (Sigourney) was giving us the outside shot, to we took it and hit it. What more can you say,” Parsons said. “We played hard. Our defense was really good. We stayed in front of the ball for the most part.”
The victory moved the Warriors to 19-3 overall during a season in which Van Buren spent time ranked in the top 10 in Class 1A, reaching as high as sixth midway through the season. It is not lost on Parsons that same core group of players creating this success are coming off a six-month swing of incredible play together in other Van Buren athletic uniforms.
“We’re kind of on a roll right now. The school’s on a pretty good high note,” Saunders said. “We’re all like family. We all go out there and play hard for each other and for ourselves. It’s a whole group effort. We play like a family out there.”
“It’s the same kids that play all the sports. It’s a group of nice kids, but also very competitive kids,” Parsons added. “They’re a good group to coach.”
Blaine Gretter led Sigourney with 13 points in the loss, which brings a rebuilding season for the Savages at 7-16. One year after winning a district title and coming within one win of a 1A State Tournament berth, Eslick hopes this year on the hardwood can help Sigourney regain some of that winning form in the near future.
“We won four of our last five coming into this game and I felt like we were playing some of our best basketball of the year so far,” Eslick said. “We didn’t really show it in this game, but the level of competition makes a difference. We lost five starters and we knew this would be a rebuilding year. I think we’ve got a good nucleus to build around for next year.”
Van Buren, meanwhile, will face either Twin Cedars or Fairfield Maharishi on Tuesday night in Centerville at 6:30 p.m. Winning that game would put the Warriors within two wins of state and could set up a huge area showdown for the district title in Bloomfield next Thursday against SEISC North champ Pekin.
After playing on the same floor as the Panthers last Friday in the SEISC Shootout, Tuesday in the district quarterfinals and on Tuesday in Centerville in the district semis, Van Buren is becoming very familiar with its potential postseason foe. At one point on Thursday, the statement "Pekin is watching" could be heard coming out of the Van Buren huddle.
“We can’t escape that. Pekin’s going to be there on Tuesday with us as well,” Parsons said. “There’s not much you can hide at this point from each other.”
“We know they’re watching us and they know we’re watching them,” Saunders said of Pekin. “If we both play good (on Tuesday), it should be a fun game on Thursday.”
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Class 1A, District 10 Second Round
VAN BUREN 73, SIGOURNEY 30
Sigourney 5 9 8 8 — 30
Van B. 24 20 14 15 — 73
Sigourney (30) — Blaine Gretter 13, Jordan Albert 5, Kevin Weber 5, Alex Stuhr 4, Colton Powers 2, Shane Swearingen 1. Totals 11-42 7-13 30.
3-point goals — 1-14 (Albert 1-2, Peyton Crawford 0-1, Gretter 0-1, Powers 0-1, Swearingen 0-2, Danny Bechert 0-3, Colby Kerkove 0-4). Fouled out — Crawford. Rebounds — 27 (Stuhr 8, Gretter 6, Crawford 3, Kerkove 3, Albert 2, Swearingen 2, Weber 2, Powers). Assists — 8 (Crawford 3, Swearingen 3, Albert, Kerkove). Steals — 7 (Kerkove 3, Powers 2, Albert, Swearingen). Blocks — 0. Total fouls — 17. Turnovers — 25.
Van Buren (73) — Garrett Saunders 21, Pedrick Garrett 12, Robby Laughlin 10, Will Mertens 10, Thomas Fitzsimmons 9, Tanner Smith 5, Brandon Plecker 4, Robert Barker 2. Totals 28-51 10-19 73.
3-point goals — 7-16 (Saunders 5-8, Laughlin 1-2, Mertens 1-3, Brayden Starnes 0-1, Plecker 0-2). Rebounds — 38 (Fitzsimmons 10, Garrett 5, Mertens 5, Smith 5, Laughlin 4, Saunders 3, Barker 2, Starnes 2, Drew Nolting, Plecker). Assists — 21 (Saunders 7, Plecker 5, Laughlin 2, Nolting 2, Smith 2, Fitzsimmons, Mertens, Starnes). Steals — 15 (Saunders 4, Mertens 3, Garrett 2, Laughlin 2, Smith 2, Fitzsimmons, Plecker). Blocks — 3 (Smith 2, Fitzsimmons). Total fouls — 12. Turnovers — 12.