Center & Guard: 'Who Was The Best?' Provides Escape From Quarantine Blues

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Just over a week ago, I threw out a question on social media that I hoped would draw some discussion: If you went to school in Montgomery County, what year was the best boys basketball team in your school’s history and why?

I had a couple ideas for projects, but mostly I just wanted to see what people thought. I chose boys basketball, mainly because it was the sport when I was in high school at Lincolnwood in the late 90s.

The responses I got were really fun to go through. Regardless whether the team was from a few years ago or way back in the 1940s, the passion for their pick was evident.

Roger Brooks mentioned the 1948-49 Hillsboro team, proudly stating the roster (Stan Wallace, Buzz Ott, Charley Boston, George Demas, Bill Helfer, Dick Sturgeon, Roscoe Sydnor, Bud Kelley, Bill Dowell, Dick Mormino and Coach Fred Ewald) and the fact that he saw every game of a team that finished 25-7 and second at the IHSA state tournament.

Chris Boston also noted the 1948-49 team, saying that her uncle Charley Boston played on the squad before going on to play basketball and baseball for Bradley University.

Kent Sturgeon submitted Litchfield’s 1954 squad, who went to state, the Panthers’ only trip to the big dance in boys basketball, and finished 28-5 under Bob Horton. Sturgeon mentioned Ron Purcell and Wayne Sawyer were on that team, with Wayne’s wife Nona adding that Wayne served as an assistant coach under Buzz Ott at Hillsboro a few years later.

Lancer fans chimed in regarding the 1960s and 70s. Former State Journal-Register scribe Dave Kane mentioned the 1965 Lancers, who were led by Rusty Bergman, Lincolnwood’s leading scorer for 44 years before Kyle Snyder broke that record in 2009, only to have his brother Tate usurp him in 2014.

Kane also mentioned the 1970-71 Lincolnwood team who beat both Southeast and Griffin high schools in the single class regional at the Springfield Armory.

“I was in middle school in 1971, when the Lancers’ win over Southeast left an impression,” wrote Kane, who is a Southeast grad.

One of the first teams on that come to mind when Lincolnwood fans talk about their best ever is the 1971-72 squad, which finished third in the first year of the two-class system.

“Great coaching and no one could stop Dave Hobson,” said Joe Poggenpohl, who graduated from Lincolnwood in the 90s, but comes from a family that has been around Montgomery County’s panhandle for generations.

Longtime Nokomis scorekeeper Monte Epley mentioned a handful of teams that were among the Redskins’ best, chiding me for asking an unfair question.

“The ‘75 team that lost to eventual champs Venice in Vandalia in the sectional championship. The ‘83 team that went to the Elite 8 and lost to McCleansboro. The ‘97 team that went to the Elite 8 and lost to eventual champs Warsaw,” Epley listed. “(The) 2006 team that went 30 and 3 and lost to T-Town in the supers at Eastern, when it was still a two class system. The 2008 team that finished second in state, the first year of 4 classes, they played hard! And the 2013 team that finished third at state, fun to watch.”

Epley said that the 2006 team that his nephew Blake Johnson played on was one of his favorites, saying they played hard and well as a team. Johnson added that the Redskins started the year 2-2, then rattled off 28 straight wins before falling to the Wooden Shoes.

I echoed one of Epley’s picks, the 2008 squad, which is probably the best I’ve seen since I started at The Journal-News in the fall of 2007. Experiencing state in any sport is special, but getting to cover the basketball state tournament from the baseline is particularly cool.

A couple friends had fond memories of that team.

“We were one of their losses that year, (but) we beat them in the Litchfield Tourney,” Anthony Robinson of Litchfield remembered. “They were really good that year.”

So were Robinson’s Panthers, who had 22 wins with a third place finish at Carlinville and Litchfield and a championship at the Metro-East Lutheran Tourney.

“My daughter was a senior and a cheerleader,” Rosalind O’Malley said. “I have some adorable pics of our Ayden sleeping at every postseason game - on us, in bleachers, wherever.”

That reminds me of taking my daughter Grace, who always had the innate ability to fall asleep in a gym, no matter how loud it was.

Ryan Patterson, another Lincolnwood alum, mentioned the 1994-95 Lancers, another team that was close to my heart. It was my eighth grade year and the second of three straight regional championship teams for the Lancers.

“We finished 27-3 which I believe is still a school record,” Patterson said correctly. “The only two regular season losses were to a ridiculously good Nokomis team, each by one point. Then unfortunately we lost in the sectional final to a very tough Lebanon team.”

Patterson was right, except Nokomis’ record books said that one of the two losses was by two points (48-46 at Morrisonville). Tyson Snyder was a big part of that team and still may be the best player I’ve seen, at least through the rose colored grasses of an eighth grader.

Kyle Bishop of Litchfield mentioned the Panthers from the same era, citing that the 1994 Litchfield squad was undefeated in conference play, going a perfect 10-0 for the first time in school history.

Some other teams that were mentioned were the 2008-09 Lincolnwood team by Spencer Price, who played for Litchfield and handed the Lancers one of just seven losses on the year; and the 2017-18 Nokomis boys, who went 24-8, by Connor Engelman. The Skins scored 65 points or more in 14 games (that’s a lot for anyone, but especially for a disciplined and defensive-minded Nokomis squad) and didn’t lose to a Class 1A or 2A team until their season ended in the sectional championship.

The team that drew the most conversation though was the 1999 Hillsboro Hiltoppers, who went 30-1 before falling to Carmi-White County at super sectionals.

“As an 11 year old watching my ‘brothers from another mother’ play, those dunks were so fun to watch!!” Ali Luckett said, refering to family friends Tim Tolle and Aaron Golitko. “I rode to the super sectional game with Aaron’s parents and his sister.”

“I am also biased, but 1999 simply brought the entire community together,” said Shonda Ronen, younger sister of 1999 standout Luke Kasten. “They signed autographs for younger students and the entire town rallied. They didn’t get any of the glory from a state run due to the upset in the Super Sectional. Luuuuuuke!”

“I may be biased, but they were such a fun team to watch,” Zach Wygal said. “Should’ve won state. I still weep when thinking about the Carmi-White County game.”

I also remember the Toppers from that year, but from the other side of the bleachers as they ended Lincolnwood’s season in the regional championship on the Lancers’ home floor that year. I was in the student section for the game, which may have doubled the population of Raymond that night as fans were lined up in every square inch of the gym.

“I remember that we got embarrassed by that team twice and then hung in there in that awesome regional game, but I bet the final score was still bad,” said Tod Meisner, who was a junior in 1999, when the Lancers lost by 30 and 27 to the Toppers in the regular season. “As I recall, coach had a pretty great pre-game speech for that one about our gym being filled with their fans, etc. and the first half was at least close. That team of theirs may be one of the three best in Mont County history.”

After the comments, I looked up Mike Plunkett’s article from the Hillsboro Journal in 1999, just to see how bad my memory was, because like Meisner, I believed the game was close before the Toppers pulled away.

It turns out it was pretty good. Lincolnwood trailed 23-13 after the first quarter, but hung with the Toppers in the second quarter to keep the gap at ten points. The Lancers rallied in the third quarter, even taking a brief (like 19 seconds brief) lead before Hillsboro rallied for a five point advantage going into the fourth at 54-49. The fourth quarter started with an 8-1 Topper run and that was it. The final time I would see Lincolnwood play in my high school career, they would lose 75-62.

The Lancers were in good company though. Of Hillsboro’s 30 wins that year, 26 came by double digits, including a 24-point win over Bunker Hill in the sectional semifinal and a 10-point win over Freeburg in the sectional championship.

The thread I posted with photos of the write-up took on a life of its own, with former players sharing their memories and even Lincolnwood’s coach at the time, Craig Davelis, posting a photo of the Lancers’ game plan for the contest.

Andy Beal, another junior starter for the Lancers, posted a few screenshots from the video of the game, with people lined up two to three deep along the baseline. Beal’s parents recorded all of his games, even putting headphones on the speaker so they featured the WSMI broadcast as well.

The video, which Beal had converted to DVD, gave me an idea for a reunion of sorts. We have no time table and no firm plans, but the idea of showing the game, then having the players and coaches who could attend from both teams talk about it was warmly received.

During the basketball season would probably be the best time frame, which seems like a long time away, but with everything going on, it might be a long time before something like this can happen.

Even if it never does, the original question did exactly what I wanted it to. It took people’s minds off the quarantine, even for a minute or two, and helped them focus on better times.

That’s the beauty of sports some times. It’s an escape.

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