By Jim Cotter
Thursday night will be one members of the St. Joseph Middle School and Prairieview-Ogden seventh-grade boys’ basketball teams will cherish.
For quite some time.
Both teams, separated by only 10 miles, will play in state championship games in their respective classes.
St. Joseph (21-5) will vie for the Class 3A state title against Taylor Ridge Rockridge (21-1) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday in Wenona at Fieldcrest Middle School. At the same time, PVO (22-4) will play for a 1A state championship against Lincoln West Lincoln-Broadwell (28-1) at East Peoria Central Junior High School.
St. Joseph earned its place in the title game with two wins this past Saturday, defeating Piasa Southwestern 30-26 in the state quarterfinals before holding off a pesky Williamsville squad 34-32 on Saturday evening in the state semifinals.
James Barron scored a team-high eight points in the win against Southwestern, with Tanner Siems (seven points), Kendrick Johnson (six points), Collin Thomey (five points) and Kyler Swanson (four points) all chipping in.
Siems scored a game-high 16 points in the win against Williamsville, with Thomey (12 points), Barron (two points), Johnson (two points) and Logan Mills (two points) also denting the scoring column.
St. Joseph, who is coached by Wes Miler, is making its 13th trip to the state tournament in school history, but has never won a boys’ basketball state championship.
According to Miller, the days leading up to the championship game have been exciting, but preparation continues in the same fashion.
“We really haven’t done anything different than normal, except work on preparation for our opponent, such as what (Rockridge) runs, who is guarding whom and so forth,” Miller said.
Many of the Panthers have played together since they were in third grade on a travel team established several years ago.
This has given these young men a chance to gel as a team, while getting better in the process.
“We just take each game one at a time and not try to get too high or too low,” Miller said. “I don’t think that any of our boys are caught up in the moment, but it still will be an exciting time for them to represent their school and play for a state title.”
Siems said playing with many of his current teammates from a young age has led them to this successful season.
“We’ve been playing together since we were in second grade, and we would always play teams that were a year older and in the beginning, we would lose by 50 points on some occasions,” Siems said, “but every time we went out there, we learned something so that the lopsided losses became few and far between, and we began to have success.”
Besides Barron, Johnson, Mills, Siems, Swanson and Thomey, Jared Altenbaumer, Hayden Coffey, Jude Coursey, Jackson Ennis, Owen Knapp, Jefferey Kuchenbrod, Gabe Mata, Carson Sarnecki and Carter Turner are on the St. Joseph team.
PVO, meanwhile, earned its way into the state championship game with two wins this past Saturday, defeating Kewanee Visitation 40-31 in the state quarterfinals and edged Normal Epiphany 36-35 in a thrilling state semifinal.
Coy Taylor scored a game-high 15 points to pace PVO against Kewanee Visitation, with Logan Lackey (11 points), Kodey McKinney (eight points) and Parker Fitch (six points) rounding out the scoring.
Lackey produced a game-high 15 points in the win against Normal Epiphany, with Taylor (14 points), Fitch (four points) and McKinney (three points) also contributing.
The Mustangs, coached by Chase Gilliland, are making their ninth state tournament appearance. But, just like St. Joseph, are vying for their first-ever state title.
“We finished second in 2009, and there have been a handful of times that we have gone to state, but this team is special because of the makeup of this team,” Gilliland said. “We’ve been working on a lot in practice this week preparing for our opponent. This group has worked really hard this season.”
Gilliland helped his dad, Duane, coach on his way up the ranks, and the elder Gilliland still coaches the fifth and sixth grade teams at PVO. Chase said he has learned a lot from his dad coaching, and it’s been exciting being on this run with players that he has coached before them moving up.
“Most of the time, the players will be done with organized basketball once they graduate eighth grade, but for this team, I see a lot of promise for their future, especially when they move into high school and join the St. Joseph boys on the court,” Gilliland said. “SJO fans should be happy about what is about to come for the basketball program.”
Along with Fitch, Lackey, McKinney and Taylor, other team members are Tayton Gerdes, Ray Graham, Brodie Harms, Coy Hayes, James Huisinga and Vance McComas.