When asked after practice recently to describe the roles of Riverside-Brookfield High School basketball players Mark Smith, Sam Johnson and himself, junior forward Paul Sitkiewicz paused and then launched into an animated, accurate and thoroughly entertaining depiction of the Bulldogs’ burgeoning frontcourt.
“All right, we got Big Mark [Smith] in the middle. He’s going to post up strong offensively, get us some rebounds and play good D. Then, we got Sammy J [Johnson]. Sammy J is going to stroke it from the three-point line all night and drive in for buckets. My role is locking down our opponent’s best guy and passing the rock to create scoring opportunities for my teammates.”
Courtesy of Sitkiewicz gushing all Dick Vitale about his buddies, the Bulldogs’ post players of the present (and future) officially need no introduction.
Of course, RBHS is far from a three-man show which suits head coach Tom McCloskey just fine. In fact, the Bulldogs’ lone seniors, 6-foot-7 Jack VandeMerkt and 6-foot-3 Will Kincanon, are their best all-around players and talented guards like Daniko Jackson and Kevin Fitzgerald have made a relatively smooth adjustment to the varsity level. Make no mistake, however, the versatile trio of Johnson, Smith and Sitkiewicz comprise 19 feet and 6 inches, collectively, of serious basketball upside.
“They are all so valuable for our team,” Kincanon said. “Sammy J does it all for us, Mark is getting better every day and Paul just plays to win. They’re also great guys off the court.”
Smith is a 6-foot-7 sophomore with growth potential (literally and figuratively) while Johnson checks in at 6-foot-6 and Sitkiewicz a sturdy 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds.
“Obviously, it’s great having such great size in our lineup,” Smith said. “The best part about it is that we all play differently. Most teams don’t have enough ‘bigs’ to guard us.”
Of the three, Johnson claims the most varsity experience. He bounced back and forth between the varsity and sophomore levels as a sophomore last season. However, the sharpshooting stretch 3-man is firmly ensconced in the varsity rotation this year. He’s led the team in scoring five games, including a 27-point outburst in the Bulldogs’ 80-68 loss against Rich Central in the season opener. He’s averaging 12.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game this season.
“I had an ankle injury in the summer [before his sophomore season],” Johnson said. “I didn’t use that as an excuse, but things just really didn’t work out. I went back to the sophomore team and had a good season. The adversity from last year made me just want to work harder and become the best player I can.”
A more aggressive approach about driving to the basket coupled with solid defense and rebounding have enabled Johnson to become a more effective player this winter.
Sitkiewicz does a little bit of everything (particularly the invaluable dirty work) to foster the team’s success. Whether it’s setting a solid screen, taking a charge or diving on the floor for a loose ball, Sitkiewicz’s unselfish play has paid dividends for RBHS. And don’t let the modest 4.9 points per game fool you, he can also score the basketball as needed.
“If I’m open, it’s my job to shoot the ball,” he said. “Guys like Jack and Will are our primary scorers, but it’s not like they are going to yell at me if I shoot because I can score, too.”
Smith is the youngest and perhaps most intriguing prospect among the three players. Primarily a post-up player at this point in his career, Smith is a wiry, strong center who runs the court well. He’s also a capable shot blocker (1.2 blocks per game) and rebounder. When he attended L.J. Hauser Junior High School, several high schools were keenly aware of Smith’s basketball ability.
“Fenwick and a couple of other schools were interested, but I always wanted to go to RB,” Smith said. “I really like RB a lot. Bullying always seems to be a problem at schools, but I don’t see that at RB. If you take the right classes it’s challenging academically. Everybody on the team is very close and we hang out together all the time.”
Athleticism also runs deep in the families of the Bulldogs’ “future” Big 3. Sitkiewicz’s siblings, Henry and Martha, were on the RBHS football and swim team, respectively, before competing in college sports. Johnson’s brother, Jake, played basketball for McCloskey and his sister, Sarah, was a cheerleader at RBHS. Mark’s younger brother, Matthew, is likely a future Bulldog.
The friendship between Johnson, Sitkiewicz and Smith developed as teammates via the RBHS Junior Bulldogs program, run by RBHS sophomore head coach Mike Reingruber. A truckload of summer games against elite competition at the high school level has further enhanced team chemistry.
“Junior Bulldogs was really cool, because we learned about each other’s games,” Smith said. “We played over 60 games together plus open gyms, so I already have a good feel for all the players on varsity.”
The short-term goals for the Bulldogs’ long front line are to secure another Metro Suburban Conference championship and ignite a spirited postseason run. RBHS has won 12 consecutive conference titles in a row, including seven in a row within the Metro Suburban.
“You don’t want to be the team that breaks our conference championship streak,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of young players gaining valuable experience so we’re only going to get better.”