It's no coincidence that as Mitch Vickers has heated up, so have the Streator Bulldogs.
A 6-foot-1 combination sharpshooter/slasher, Vickers came into his senior season surrounded by high expectations as the team's leading returning scorer after averaging 8.7 points per game in 2016-17. Things for both Vickers and the Bulldogs didn't get off to the start most were hoping for, however, as Streator limped to a 1-3, sixth-place finish in Ottawa's season-opening Dean Riley "Shootin' the Rock" Tournament and Vickers struggled to the tune of 20.5 percent (8-of-39) shooting from the field and just 6.0 points per game.
Since that opening week of the season, though, the tale of Vickers and the Bulldogs has taken on a vastly different direction.
"I wasn't making any shots at all. I just shot terrible at the beginning of the season," said Vickers, our pick as this week's Prime Times Player. "And then right before and at (the) Plano (Christmas Classic), I started making some shots, and that just started giving me confidence."
Streator's No. 3 has quite simply torn it up since that shaky season-opening tournament performance, including 25 more points Wednesday night in Peotone.
After a relatively quiet 10-point outing in a win over Seneca to open Interstate Eight Conference play, Vickers exploded for 29 the following evening against Putnam County, and despite a couple isolated single-digit scoring performances against Morris and Burlington Central has averaged a robust 17.0 points per game on 46.3-percent (113-of-244) shooting since that uncharacteristically quiet first week of the season.
"Mitch really started to find his stride that first game after Ottawa, at Seneca," said SHS coach Beau Doty. "I know he was disappointed in his start, but it was the first time he'd been asked to carry the load of being our best perimeter threat, a guy other teams are going to key on, and that takes some adjustments and getting used to. But I thought he had a really good week of practice that next week before Seneca ... and you could just see his confidence level rise.
"You know, Mitch is a guy we've had a ton of confidence in as a coaching staff for a long time — me personally since seeing him in sixth grade coming to our camps, knowing he had something special about him, his athletic ability, his ability to shoot the ball. He's come full circle to become a leader this year, and that has a huge part to do with our success.
"We're a senior-dominated group with a lot of guys who have played a lot of varsity minutes, with Mitch and Joey (Byers) and Johnny (Benckendorf) and Wes (Jolly) especially, but to see (Vickers) blossom into the leader he has and be as positive as he's been with his teammates, practicing as hard as he can, making plays defensively as the point of our zone, those things help translate into winning basketball."
Indeed, Vickers' improving fortunes have helped lead to improved results in the win column for the Bulldogs.
Streator has gone 16-4 since the Dean Riley Tournament — including a seven-game winning streak beginning with that Friday night win at Seneca — and after Wednesday's I-8 makeup game at Peotone is 17-7 overall and 7-2 on the Interstate Eight loop.
"In the beginning of the season we didn't really know how things were going to work," Vickers, averaging 15.1 points, 2.3 assists and 2.1 steals per outing, said. "We'd lost a lot of seniors from last year, and we'd been playing with them and depending on them since we were sophomores.
"After a few games, we started figuring it out, and we've been doing pretty well since. ... We all have very different styles of play, and at the beginning of the season we didn't know how it was all going to fit together, but we know now. ...
"We all work together well and do our part."
"Mitch has always shot the ball extremely well and has been a guy who can create his own shot," said Doty, "but now he's turned into a guy who has aspirations to play at the next level. He's starting to take visits and do that process, and that's something that we're really happy about about.
"We're thrilled with the success he's had individually and how that ties right in with our team success."