By Marty Farmer
Whether it's on the basketball court or football field, Riverside-Brookfield junior Zach Vaia has established a reputation as a prime-time player.
His most recent exploit came at the expense of Immaculate Conception on Jan. 26 in Elmhurst. The savvy point guard drained a three-pointer on a bank shot just inside the half-court line at the buzzer to lift the Bulldogs to a 47-44 victory.
"We drew up a play that was very well coached," Vaia said. "When we went to execute it, the play turned into a broken play. I just ran towards [the ball] to try and make something happen. I caught it, let it fly and the rest just happened."
Teammate Jason Bageanis dished out the assist on Vaia's game-winner.
"I saw Zach open so I gave it to him," Bageanis said. "It was a great shot. I don't even really know how he got it off, to be honest."
While Vaia (10 points, 7 assists) made the game-winning shot against IC, several players contributed in the Metro Suburban West win, with the last four baskets coming from Andrew Veon, Ryan Cicenas, Bageanis and Vaia.
"We have grown as a team and the experience of playing in close games on the road is only going to help us," RBHS coach Mike Reingruber said.
Bageanis scored 17 points and pulled down six rebounds for RBHS, while Veon provided timely scoring and hustle for the Bulldogs (13-9, 6-1).
"The win over IC was huge for us," Veon said. "It felt great to beat them at their place in a conference rivalry game. I thought we played great defense as a team and really shared the ball."
Kevin Cheng led IC with 16 points, while teammate Khalil Saunders recorded a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds.
RBHS led 15-9 after one quarter, 25-21 at halftime and 33-31 at the end of three quarters. In the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs and Knights exchanged the lead eight times.
In their first meeting Dec. 5, the Knights had defeated the Bulldogs 62-56 in Riverside.
"Our guys played tough," Reingruber said about the Bulldogs' rematch win. "Every time IC made a run, we responded. We played solid defense for most of the game and we were much mentally tougher this time around then when we played them back in December."
In another recent victory-- 81-57 over Chicago Christian on Jan. 19 -- Vaia had 15 points, 13 assists and no turnovers.
Since a 1-5 start, RBHS has won 12 of 16 games. The Bulldogs' improvement has put them ahead in a tight conference race. RBHS is 6-1 with Glenbard South, Wheaton Academy and Aurora Central Catholic all at 5-2. Immaculate Conception is 4-4.
RBHS saw its impressive run of consecutive conference titles snapped at 15 last season.
"I think it was just us getting used to playing together," Veon said about the team's slow start. "We had a couple of tough losses early, but overcame those and gained confidence to start playing at a higher level."
While Vaia and Cicenas comprise an excellent starting backcourt, RBHS has flourished with contributions from multiple players. Patrick Hanley, AJ Meindl, Reginald Loury, Veon and Bageanis have played well.
Cicenas leads the Bulldogs in scoring at 15 points per game while making 41 percent on three-point attempts. Vaia averages 12.1 points and 5.5 assists and Hanley is scoring 8.2 points per game. Bageanis leads the team in rebounding (5.7 per game).
"Our best games are when everyone is scoring and doing the little things," Cicenas said. "That's also when it's the most fun. It's the best when everyone is contributing."