The Illini Central Cougars boy’s basketball team became the 2013 IHSA Class 1A State Champions Saturday afternoon when they defeated the Madison Trojans 55 to 44 at Carver Arena in Peoria. The win, under Head Coach John Giesler, brings a state championship to the consolidated school district that includes the communities of Easton, San Jose, and Mason City for the first time.
Following up on a third place finish last year, the Cougars entered the championship game with a 16 game winning streak and one clear goal in mind: the state trophy. That focus held them steady through a game that had its challenges.
Seven unanswered points opened the game for the Trojans. So many three point attempts by the Cougars fell short that one announcer was compelled to comment that they were “dying by the three-pointer.” Center Duncan McClure got into foul trouble early, limiting his floor time.
Nothing unsettled the IC Cougars or distracted them from their goal.
The fourth quarter belonged to Illini Central. Five points down at the start of the period, a lay-up by Jordon Bradshaw was followed by a Connor Martin steal and a three-pointer by Jarred Entwistle that tied the game and shifted the momentum. Another three-pointer, this time by Justin Onken, capped an eight-point run and gave the Cougars a lead they did not surrender.
Illini Central maintained their composure when the tide was against them. The Trojans seemed to falter under the same circumstances. In the end, it may be that small but significant discipline that brought the trophy home for the Illini Central Cougars and their fans.
Miles away, in Mason City, the Arlee Theater was broadcasting the game on the big screen thanks to IHSA.TV. The rest of the town was quiet. At the final buzzer, a tornado siren rang out across town, warning not of hazardous weather, but of an impending celebration.
The state champions and their entourage of “Cougar Crazies” stayed over in Peoria Saturday night, returning home Sunday to a rousing welcome. Horns blaring, police lights whirling, the IC Cougars were escorted through San Jose and Easton, where they were greeted by raucous fans, out despite the rain. The convoy of fire-trucks, busses, police cars and fan vehicles made a noisy lap through Mason City before arriving at Illini Central High School, where they were greeted by the community and ushered into the gymnasium for a congratulatory assembly before packed bleachers.
High school teacher Lance Giesler, the coach’s son, MC’d the event, announcing the cheerleaders, team members and coaches onto the floor. Principal Ed Jodlowski spoke, thanking the fans, the coaches, and those who offered support to the team.
Each player was given a few minutes to offer thanks and comments on the experience. Some highlights:
Willie Neundorf: “This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It was a real blessing to be part of it.”
Ean Albers: “I have a list of people I want to thank, starting with the parents….”
Noah Kirby: “The fans have been awesome, and I couldn’t have asked for better teammates….”
Connor Martin (who received a standing ovation when it was announced he was entering the service following high school): “It was the best feeling, coming out of that tunnel in Peoria, hearing the roar of the fans….”
Grant Bale: “These are going to be great memories. Even though the season is over, we’re still going to be a team….”
Justin Onken: “I want to thank my parents, especially for going to the games, and the fans, the best in Illinois…. What a way to go out….”
Duncan McClure: “After the win, sitting in the locker room, there were tears and laughter, love for each other and the game…. According to the stat sheet Madison should have won, but we refused to lose….”
Jordan Bradshaw: “I want to thank my family, the fans — the crazies, the coaches, and especially my teammates. I love you guys….”
Jared Entwistle (announced as all-state): “This is amazing, worth all the hard work. For the younger kids, I can’t stress enough, this is what all the work gets you…. Coach Giesler, thank you for pushing us and getting us to where we are now….”
Superintendent Lori Harrison read a letter from Aaron Schock, congratulating the team. Mayor Rickard spoke as well, commenting, “I’m proud of you not only because of your excellence in basketball, but the way you conduct yourselves on and off the court.”
Members of the coaching staff took the microphone for a brief moment:
Honorary Coach Justin Elbe: “I just want to thank coach Giesler for allowing me to tag along….
Asst. Coach Scott Francis: “This is a very special group of guys. Hard work is what gets this. Being from this community, this is something very special to me….”
Asst. Coach Tony Wherley: “I want to acknowledge the underclassmen, coming in here every day, having these guys work to make them better. As good as these guys are, they need someone to practice against…. I’m glad that (trophy) is sitting there, but I didn’t want this to end.”
And, finally, Coach Giesler, in his 11th year at Illini Central: “I want to second everything that’s been said here in thanking everybody…thank my family, Lance, my wife, my daughter for being a cheerleader. That was special, getting a hug from her out on the court.
“What a great group of young men. They were fantastic. They made me look good. They are good basketball players, but even better competitors. These guys are champions….
“To walk into this gym and see it full of people…that’s the best finish to this weekend. It’s been a fantastic experience, a fantastic season, memories we’ll never forget.
“We’re State Champs!”