CHAMPAIGN — Diego Sanchez’s presence became a regular entity during Champaign Central boys’ basketball games as the 2019-2020 season wore on.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound athlete offered coach Jeff Finke’s Maroons a solid post option, both in providing layups and hauling down rebounds. Especially with fellow big man Khailieo Terry being pulled out to the point more often.
But Sanchez’s junior year with Central didn’t start with him consistently hopping off the bench.
So he sought to change that.
“I had to fight for minutes in practice,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t even touch the floor in the first few games, and I feel like I wanted minutes. So I had to fight for those minutes in practice. I eventually found myself in the rotation and starting a couple times, and that led over to this year.”
Now a senior, Sanchez has found himself in the starting lineup for the Maroons.
Central lost 55-36 on Tuesday night to Centennial during the Maroons’ first game in their new gym, with former teammate Terry now suiting up for the Chargers. But Sanchez was among the scoring leaders for the Maroons (1-1) with nine points. And even though he would’ve preferred a victory over anything else, Sanchez couldn’t ignore reaching a new personal plateau within the sport.
“It was a good feeling (to start). That gym is just insane. I love it,” Sanchez said. “To be a starter for the first game there, that’s just awesome.”
Sanchez also had a coach from the staff of Knox College, a Division III institution in Galesburg, watch Sanchez play against the Chargers and speak with him afterward.
“It was always a dream, but I never thought it would happen,” Sanchez said of being recruited. “I always told myself, ‘Man, if I started earlier, I wonder where I would be at now.’”
Sanchez ponders that idea because he didn’t take up basketball until sixth grade. He didn’t possess any significant reason for doing so, either, simply deciding he wanted to try out while in middle school.
Sanchez fell in love immediately.
“What really pushed me was going to the ARC,” said Sanchez, referencing the University of Illinois’ Activities and Recreation Center. “I went there every day for a summer and just shot and played with the older guys, and I feel like that toughened me up and I learned that older guys play more physical.”
Sanchez got to watch teammates like Terry, Jonte Coleman, A’Kieon Gill and Pryce Punkay lead Central’s program in his first three seasons.
Now, it’s Sanchez’s turn, and he drained a trio of three-pointers in the loss to Centennial.
A new aspect to his game he’s unearthing.
“It was something that I always had confidence in,” Sanchez said, “but … they didn’t need that from me, I felt like, because we had a great shooter, Pryce Punkay. … Shooting’s definitely one of my main points, and over the offseason it definitely got better.”
Sanchez also used an offseason extended by the COVID-19 pandemic to hit the weight room up to four times per week. He also participated in independent tournaments outside of Champaign alongside some of his Maroons teammates.
“Guys who were never playing varsity got some reps in,” Sanchez said, “and I saw how they played and I got to coach them through the process.”
Sanchez is carrying a clear future focus — beyond trying to help Central win some games — through his final prep season.
“If I were to play at the next level, I would be a guard,” Sanchez said. “So I want to work on that.”
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