This wide-open high school basketball season provided plenty of surprises. (Raise your hand if you had Benet and Lincoln-Way West playing in the 4A and 3A state championship games, respectively, when the season started.)
But the season did culminate with the state’s best team from start to finish, Belleville Althoff, winning a 3A title and a highly-regarded Curie team winning a Class 4A state championship.
Here is a rundown, a final curtain call, of all that went down this past weekend in Peoria.
➤ Best team, best two-year run
After a somewhat sluggish performance in a semifinal win over St. Joseph in the semifinals, Althoff showed everyone why the Crusaders have been considered the best team in the state, regardless of class, in a Class 3A title game romp over Lincoln-Way West.
Althoff’s energy was better and it really turned it up a notch in the romp over Lincoln-Way West to finish one heck of a two-year run. The Crusaders finished with a combined record of 62-6 with a state championship and state runner-up finish.
➤ Benet vs. Public League powers
It wasn’t a total surprise Benet reached Peoria. The Redwings were the No. 1 seed in the East Aurora Sectional, and the City/Suburban Hoops Report did pick coach Gene Heidkamp’s team to be playing in Peoria prior to the start of state tournament play.
But everyone believed Benet’s great March run would end in a loss to Simeon in the state semifinals. Instead, the Redwings pulled off the upset to make their second state championship game appearance in three years.
While Benet didn’t shoot it great –– the Redwings were just 6 of 19 from the three-point line –– it held its own on the glass, didn’t turn the ball over and used its balanced scoring to spring the upset.
Benet may not have passed the average fan’s basketball eye test all season –– i.e. size, athleticism, depth or Division I talent. But when looking at the peripherals, it’s a bit easier to understand why Benet won 31 games and finished second in the state. These ingredients, including an ability to space the floor, move the ball, knock down shots and play unselfishly and disciplined, are what made this team tick.
But the serious basketball observer saw something else from Benet all season, which is this team consistently played with a purpose.
Virtually everything Benet did –– big or small –– it did with a sense of purpose. There weren’t wasted dribbles or purposeless passes. Their cuts on offense meant something, their man help defense, their, their efficiency on offense, their rare but timely transition baskets … It was all with a purpose all season long, which is a tribute to Heidkamp instilling that into his program and to the players for believing in it.
➤ Legendary Gene Pingatore adds to legacy
Gene Pingatore, the person, is as good as it gets. He’s a down-to-earth, extremely respected man who just so happens to be the winningest coach in Illinois high school basketball history.
The Chargers dropped two games in Peoria this past weekend, but with 14 more victories next season, Pingatore will have win No. 1,000. That’s a crazy number. And it’s a coaching record that will surely never be broken in Illinois.
The fact he’s taken his last two teams he’s coached to Peoria at this stage of his career is, again, a reflection on his coaching. But those appearances in Peoria, along with his presence and status, should be appreciated by fans, coaches and media across the state.
The other three Class 3A head coaches in Peoria this past weekend have combined to coach 41 seasons. In those combined 41 seasons the trio of Manual’s Derrick Booth, Lincoln-Way West’s Brian Flaherty and Althoff’s Greg Leib have a total of 710 wins. Pingatore has 276 more coaching victories than those three combined.
With a state title last season and a fourth-place finish this season, Pingatore’s St. Joseph program now has six state trophies and has won 20-plus games a remarkable 32 times.
➤ Rare company for Nick Rakocevic
The amount of talent St. Joseph has churned out over the past five decades is a long and impressive list. The list, though, is very short when it comes to players who have helped lead the Chargers to back-to-back state appearances.
Sure, the four-class system was a clear benefit to St. Joe’s the past two seasons in comparison to, say, the vaunted teams Pingatore had in the 1980s. But Rakocevic is the only player in program history to help lead St. Joseph to state in back-to-back years and bring home two state trophies, including a state championship.
St. Joseph lost in the state quarterfinals in 1983 and then finished fourth in 1984. But the anchors of those two teams ––Darryl Thomas, Tony Reeder and Renato Williams in ’83 and Tony Freeman Chris Buchanan and Chris Funchess in ’84 –– were completely different.
The last player to play an integral part for a team with two straight state final appearances was Brian Molis in 1986 (lost in state quarterfinals) and 1987 (finished third) –– until Rakocevic, who put up 18 points and 11 rebounds in last year’s state title win.
➤ Peoria eye-openers
▪ Jordan Goodwin, Belleville Althoff. He’s the most successful, high-level producing player in the state –– and he’s only a junior. He put together big numbers for the second straight year in Peoria and capped off the individual performance with a state championship.
▪ Elijah Joiner, Curie. The City/Suburban Hoops Report favorite was ultra-impressive in the semifinal win over Rockford Auburn. The junior guard scored a game-high 22 points on just nine shot attempts (4 of 5 from beyond the arc) and led the team in rebounds with seven. While he’s played in relative obscurity, that’s why he’s been a fixture in the Hoops Report’s top 10 prospects in the junior class.
▪ Devin Gage, Curie. The DePaul recruit had a penchant for playing big in the second half of big games. He did it again in the state championship game. The 6-1 guard turned the game around with four three-pointers in the third quarter en route to a game-high 23 points.
▪ Treavon Martin, Curie. A promising looking sophomore with size and super activity around the basket, the 6-7 Martin was a difference-maker in the 4A final. He was a thorn in Benet’s side with 10 points and 14 rebounds in the title game win.
▪ Zach Norvell, Simeon. What would you expect from the Gonzaga-bound senior who has been so steady and consistent all season? The 6-5 guard put up 18 points and 10 rebounds in the semifinal loss to Benet and scored 22 in the third-place game win over Auburn.
▪ Nick Rakocevic, St. Joseph. Most importantly, the 6-11 senior ended his career on the big stage in Peoria and brought home more hardware to the Westchester school. Individually, Rakocevic had 43 points, 25 rebounds and nine blocks in two games.
▪ Marquis Walker, St. Joseph. He’s steadily improved and become a more trusted point guard over the course of his freshman season, but St. Joseph’s Marquise Walker opened eyes in Peoria with his play in a semifinal loss to Althoff. He scored 18 points while dishing out four assists and pulling down six rebounds in the defeat.
▪ Jason Towers, St. Joseph. He had one of the “Wow!” moments of the weekend with a thunderous baseline dunk in the semifinal loss to Althoff. But the 6-2 junior guard produced, scoring 12 points in the semifinal game and 13 in the third-place game. The improvement of Towers in the second half of the season played a big part in the Chargers winning a tough sectional and getting back to Peoria.
▪ Romon Douglas-Watkins, Peoria Manual. He doesn’t have the name teammate Da’Monte Williams has, but the 6-5 junior was terrific in defeat. He scored 18 points, pulled down seven rebounds and had four steals in the semifinal loss to Lincoln-Way West. His skills remain a bit unpolished, but he certainly has a chance to be a mid-major college player.
▪ Benet’s senior duo. They aren’t Division I basketball prospects, and they don’t put up big numbers or wow you with any one area of their game, but seniors Dan Sobolewski and James Dockery exude everything that makes a team like this succeed. Their stat lines were nearly identical in the two games: Sobolewski with 23 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists; Dockery with 23 points, 15 rebounds and 3 assists.
➤ Quick thoughts, facts, tidbits from the State Finals …
▪ Is this the first year since the four-class system began where the Class 3A champ was a better team than the Class 4A champ? The only other possible arguments that could be made would be in 2008 between Marshall (3A) and Richards (4A), and the Morgan Park (3A) and Simeon (4A) championship teams in 2013.
▪ The Lincoln-Way West crowd and student section brought a lot of life and excitement to an arena and an event that certainly had its dead moments. The very good opening game afternoon crowd on Friday, which included the strong contingent from Lincoln-Way West and the locals from Peoria Manual coming out, was outstanding. Then it quickly became a morgue for the second game between St. Joseph and Belleville Althoff.
▪ The AP’s Class 3A all-state team that came out this past weekend that didn’t include Fenwick’s Mike Smith? Come on! There is always debate and different opinions on all-state selections, but there were four absolute no-brainers for that 3A team: Althoff’s Jordan Goodwin, Morgan Park’s Charlie Moore, St. Joseph’s Nick Rakocevic and Smith. You can debate the fifth and final spot.
▪ They may not get the love other programs in the Chicago area or around the state do, but this number –– 26 –– should define Rockford Auburn more than any other. That’s how many wins the Knights have averaged a season over the past six years. How many programs can match that?
▪ Well, Simeon has averaged over 28 wins a season in 12 years.
▪ And while we’re on the topic of winning seasons, this was Benet’s seventh straight year of 20-plus wins. In those seven seasons coach Gene Heidkamp’s Redwings have averaged 26 wins a year.
▪ Curie was able to beat Young by two points, knock off Kenwood by two in overtime and hold off Rockford Auburn by two in the state semifinals because of better guard play than the Condors have had in the past. And having a go-to senior in Devin Gage helps. But Curie also beat Simeon by two, Bogan by two and Kenwood by one in the regular season.
▪ Prior to Benet’s arrival in Peoria, the Redwings had beaten 14 teams that were at one point ranked in the Chicago Sun-Times’ Super 25 rankings this season. The win over Simeon in the semifinals made it 15.
▪ He has an old-school game, but Marco Pettinato is the exact type of player you win and overachieve with.
▪ The Class 4A state championship game needs to start earlier than it’s “approximate” 8:15 p.m. tip. I think the meaningless third-place games can start at 11:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. rather than noon and 6:30 p.m.
➤ Classy in defeat
Although they are usually far and few between, there have been a few examples of individual coaches, players or teams who didn’t handle losing in Peoria in the best way.
Then there was Simeon coach Robert Smith and Lincoln-Way West star Marco Pettinato this past weekend.
Maybe it’s because Smith and Simeon have won so much? Or maybe it’s simply that Smith is a gracious loser? But stating your opponent “probably wanted it more” and your team was “outplayed,” as Smith did following his team’s semifinal loss to Benet, is one thing. Throwing in the “we were out-coached” in front of a big media contingent and on the state’s biggest stage?
Pettinato, the 6-2 junior guard and leading scorer for the Warriors, has received a lot of attention the past week, beginning with his team’s upset win over Morgan Park in the super-sectional when he scored 22 points. But how about the mature and respectful way Pettinato went out?
Following his team’s state championship game loss to Belleville Althoff, Pettinato offered up praise and admiration to his opponent, Althoff star Jordan Goodwin, during the post-game press conference.
“He’s pretty much me in a nutshell,” Pettinato said, “just a little bit more athletic and two inches taller. He did a good job. He forced me into a couple of mistakes. He’s a great player and you have to respect that.”
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