By Marty Farmer
When a game is on the line, the Riverside-Brookfield High School boys basketball team wants the ball in Zach Vaia's hands.
Known as the reigning Metro Suburban Conference MVP and as the Bulldogs' floor general, perhaps the best title for Vaia is closer.
The playmaking senior guard has a knack for making decisive plays, exemplified by his game-winning shots against Immaculate Conception and Fenwick last season. In those memorable outings, Vaia hit a 30-foot shot at the buzzer to edge IC 47-44. Two games later, he made a fadeaway jumper with two seconds left to upset Fenwick 67-65 in the Bulldogs' signature win of the season.
"As a kid you always picture yourself in those last-second moments," Vaia said. "I just love those types of games. That's when the game of basketball is so much fun. Whether it's to shoot the ball or find the open person, I want the ball in my hands in those situations. I feel very confident in my ability to make something happen."
RBHS coach Mike Reingruber appreciates his point guard's affinity for crunch time.
"Zach has a knack for hitting bit shots," Reingruber said. "In addition to the buzzer-beating shots he hit against IC and Fenwick last year, he also had a buzzer-beating assist to Andrew Veon against York in the regional. He could have easily forced that shot, but Zach was willing to make the extra pass to his teammate for the win."
This season, Vaia is averaging 14.8 points, 5 rebounds, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game in leading the Bulldogs to a 16-4 record highlighted by a 6-1 mark in conference. He's led the team in assists 13 games and in scoring six games this season.
"I think we are having a better season so far than last season," Vaia said. "I've been playing with our senior class guys since about fourth grade. The chemistry is there on the court for us."
Vaia was picked as the co-MVP with Veon at the 16th Annual Bill VandeMerkt Thanksgiving Classic earlier this season. Vaia's best game (31 points, 7 assists) at VandeMerkt occurred against their toughest opponent, Morton. Tied with the Mustangs at 60-60 late in the fourth quarter, Vaia scored seven points in a row to secure a 69-63 victory. RBHS won the tourney title with a 4-0 record.
A three-year starter, Vaia is the latest in a long line of outstanding guards at RBHS. His backcourt predecessors include Ryan Cicenas, Jalen Clanton, Daniko Jackson, Damonta Henry, Ryan Jackson and Sean McGonagill.
The commonality they share is a well-rounded skill set.
Vaia averaged 14 points, 5.2 assists, 4 rebounds and shot 40 percent on 3-pointers and 91 percent from the line last season, which earned him MVP recognition in the Metro Suburban Conference last season.
The Bulldogs won their 16th conference title in 17 seasons and finished 19-11 overall in a bounce-back season. In 2017, player defections and injuries paved the way to a disappointing 12-16 campaign in Tom McCloskey's final season as the Bulldogs' coach.
During the coaching transition from McCloskey to Reingruber, Vaia provided levels of continuity and stability.
"Zach has been an instrumental player in our program the past few years," Reingruber said. "When you have a three-year starter at point guard, it makes you sleep easier as a coach, knowing he is an extension of you on the court."
Vaia's leadership and talent should translate well to college basketball if he chooses to continue his athletic career.
"Zach is one of the top small-college point guard prospects in the area," Reingruber said. "He has a ton of interest from Division III and NAIA schools, and I know he is in the process of narrowing down his list. I think Zach would be a tremendous college basketball player."
In addition to Vaia, the Bulldogs feature an array of players that are all-conference caliber performers. Veon, Charles Terry, Patrick Hanley, Reggie Loury and Ryan Cermak are all capable of leading the team in multiple statistical categories on any given night.
"I think that's definitely what makes our team special," Vaia said. "Anybody on our team can get a hot hand, step up in a big moment and lead our team. And what's cool about that is even when one guy scores 20 points, the rest of our starters are usually in double digits scoring as well."
Since an overtime loss against Aurora Christian, the Bulldogs appear back on track with three straight wins. In two victories against Bishop McNamara and St. Francis, Hanley scored 48 points, Veon pulled down 28 rebounds and Vaia dished out 14 assists, collectively. RBHS defeated Marshall over the weekend as well.
"We have bounced back nicely and closed out some tough games since our overtime loss to Aurora Christian," Reingruber said. "We would like to close out the season on a positive note. Currently, we are tied for first in the league with five league games to play. Hopefully, we will perform well in those games and win a conference championship."