Ever since Larkin High School was founded in 1962, its basketball teams have played in the shadow of bigger and tradition-rich district rival Elgin. It is like comparing Moraine Valley to Notre Dame.
Larkin hasn't won a regional championship since 2005 or a conference title since 2006. The Royals have never qualified for the state finals. Their only sectional triumphs were in 1971, 1991, 1992 and 2005.
By comparison, Elgin, which graduated its first class in 1872, has won two state titles, two seconds, a third and a fourth and made 18 trips to the state finals. Former Maroon coach Bill Chesbrough is a legendary figure in the community.
So much for the past. Larkin's time is now. Coach Deryn Carter, a Larkin graduate of 1998, has put together a team that is making history. The Royals are 14-2 and will carry a nine-game winning streak into Thursday night's game against St. Charles East.
Larkin defeated Elgin 76-73 in double overtime on its floor on Dec. 11 as Quantice Hunter scored 32 points. And the Royals won the Elgin Holiday Tournament for the first time.
"Beating Elgin means so much to anyone who went to Larkin," Hunter said. "It is more than bragging rights. People know we are the team that beat Elgin. It feels good to beat them.
"Winning the Elgin tournament said a lot to us. When we heard that Larkin had never won it, we wanted to make history. We have never beaten Elgin on their floor since I've been on the varsity. So we're looking forward to playing them at Elgin in February."
In his fourth year at his alma mater, Carter has come a long way from 1-26, 4-23 and last year's 16-12. His team could be 17-0. Its only losses were to Streamwood by three and Morton by one.
"Sure, we've been overshadowed by Elgin over the years. But I always thought Larkin was a sleeping giant," Carter said. "Knowing the history of the town and Larkin, the talent has never been a problem. This area has always produced talent. I wanted to get back here and show the area what Larkin really is.
"We are going on that path. We still aren't there yet. But I'm excited about where we are at. Historically, Elgin has been known as the basketball program in this town. People still don't have much respect for us. They think we aren't as good as our record."
Carter was a three-year starter at Larkin. He attended St. Louis University and Missouri-St. Louis, coached at Division II Missouri-St. Louis for six years, took a year off, then jumped at the opportunity to return to Larkin when the job opened up. "Not a lot of people were beating down the door," he said.
"Why Larkin? I lived on the West Side. Both of my older sisters went to Larkin and had good athletic careers. It was my turn to go to Larkin and put my stamp on the school. I'm big on trying to beat the best and become the best as opposed to joining them."
It has taken a while. Carter knew it would. He preached commitment and discipline, what it means to be a Larkin basketball player. He didn't cut any corners. He didn't take any shortcuts. He made sure his players knew it was a privilege to be a Larkin basketball player.
With four of the top six players returning from last year's 16-12 squad, Carter knew his program was on the brink of turning another corner. In the preseason, Larkin was picked to challenge St. Charles East for the title in the Upstate Eight's River Division.
"Last year, we maximized what we could get out of our players. You have to deal with the talent you have," he said. "I felt this would be a good season. I thought we had talent. I felt we could compete for the conference title. Our goal is to make history, to do what the school has never done. I think we are as good as any team in our sectional. Five or six teams could win it, including us. There is no dominant team."
If Larkin prevails, it will be because of depth, balance and defense. Some teams have one or two Division I players. No one on Larkin's roster is being recruited by a Division I program. But, as Carter points out, he has five or six players who can score 15 points on any given night.
The lineup features Hunter (17 ppg), a 6-foot-1 senior guard; Quentin Ruff (15 ppg), a 6-foot- senior guard; Kendale McCullum (8 ppg, 5 rpg, 6 assists, 5 steals), a 6-foot-1 junior point guard; Andrew Jones (7 ppg, 9 rpg), a 6-foot-4 junior; and Brayden Royse (4 ppg, 6 rpg), a 6-foot-5 junior. Derrick Streety (8 ppg, 5 assists), a 5-foot-10 junior guard, comes off the bench.
"We must stay hungry," Carter said. "We play better when we all are trying to send a message instead of thinking we have arrived and accomplished something. We are trying to bring the program to places we never have been.
"But nobody sitting in January is ready to play in March. We all have to get better. Rebounding is an issue with our lack of size. Every game in our conference is a test for us. Other teams have Division I players and superior talent. We don't have that. People still don't have much respect for us. They don't think we're as good as our record."
That's why Hunter chose to enroll at Larkin. "When I was little, I knew Larkin was the school I wanted to go to. I knew the program wasn't as good as it is this year. I wanted to change it. I heard about the success at Elgin. I wanted to play for Larkin and beat them," he said.
"It always made me mad that people didn't give us respect and always hyped up Elgin. I wanted to change the attitude and bring respect back to Larkin. Last year, we had all the pieces. And I was a piece of it. Now I have to be a leader on and off the court. I felt this would the year for Larkin."
According to Hunter, the key to this team's success is its togetherness and unselfishness. The players hang out together, either at somebody's house playing videos or at Woodfield Mall. "Everyone wants to be part of the program and no one is selfish or mad about playing time," he said.
"We come ready to practice every day. We don't have bad practices. We focus on what we need to work on. We buy into what the coach is telling us. We get better at whatever we need to work on, what we have to do to be a better team.
"Last year, even our friends didn't think we were very good. But this year the students and community believe in us. They know there is something special about this team. Everyone has high expectations. We like the support but we try to do what we have to do to win games."
Like beating Elgin.