Schlarman girls' basketball fans bringing the noise to state

Schlarman girls' basketball fans bringing the noise to state

DANVILLE — Schlarman Academy may be the smallest school competing in this year's girls' basketball state championship, but students, staff and fans predicted they would have one of the loudest cheering sections when the Final Four tips off today in Normal.

And they proved it at a pep assembly for the Hilltoppers.

"I want you to be the loudest, craziest fans," athletic director Phil Sexton said, causing the entire North Campus student body, staff and community members to erupt in cheers and applause. "We've already got a state banner. We want a championship."

The first girls' team in the school's history to make it to the state playoffs will play at 12:45 p.m. today at Redbird Arena. Win today, and they'll play for the Class 1A state title on Saturday.

Fans said there has been a lot of excitement surrounding the team all season. But it has boiled over since its 43-36 win over Annawan in Monday's super-sectional at Pontiac.

"It's what everyone's talking about," senior Maddy Sermersheim said, adding drama teacher Judy Turner even postponed a test that was scheduled for today so that students could attend the game. "She said, 'You guys aren't going to focus on it anyway.'"

"It's as if the whole town has rallied around this small team," said Principal Gail Lewis. "I had an Oakwood teacher post on Facebook that he was going to stream the game. And numerous county principals have emailed their congratulations on our win (Monday) and showed their support. It's been amazing."

Lewis said school will be in session until 10 a.m. today. Then all fourth- through 12th-graders who want to attend the game will board buses and head to the arena courtesy of the Schlarman Foundation.

"They're paying for the buses and admission so that anyone who rides the bus can attend for free," she said.

At this week's assembly, announcer Chris Hightower introduced each player and assistant coach Jerry O'Neill. Then senior Elijah Williams — dressed as school mascot Topper — did flips across the floor as fellow cheerleaders led the crowd in a cheer.

The only disappointing bit of news: Sexton announced that the Topless Toppers — a group of male students who go shirtless at games, paint letters on their chest that spell "Toppers" and lead the crowd in a mix of traditional and improvised cheers — have to wear shirts.

"That is the state rule in a state championship series," he said, adding the boys could wear white T-shirts and paint them.

Before the assembly ended, senior star Anaya Peoples and junior Destiny Dye thanked everyone for their support.

"We really appreciate it," added junior Janiah Newell. "We're proud of ourselves and that the community has really come together to support us. We want to put Danville on the map, not just for basketball but for girls' basketball."

Prior to the assembly, Todd Damilano — whose daughter, Cece, is a sophomore guard — watched students and community members fill the gym bleachers and talked about how the school and community support has grown as the team has. Damilano — who is also the team's scoretaker — recalled standing in the gym with Coach Keith Peoples' wife, Tricia, seven years ago.

"Keith was in his first year, and the gym was empty," he said. "We stood here talking about how we hoped the program would get rolling, and we'd be playing in front of a packed house someday. It's happening."

"Just the electricity in the gym this year has been phenomenal," added Jennifer Martindill. Her three kids are Schlarman alums, and she worked in the athletics department.

"The number of people who have come out to the games and the enthusiasm of all of the people, it's been wonderful to be a part of," said Martindill, who will meet up at the game with her daughter, Natalie Tassio, who graduated in 2007.

Fans said the team has been fun to watch because the players are quick and athletic on the court. But that's not the only reason they're rooting for them.

"I've watched these girls for the last five years, and their heart is on the court," Lewis said. "The one thing many people don't realize is they're as amazing in the classroom. ... They are the whole child. Everything you could want — really athletic and smart and humble. A lot of them won't talk about the games in the classroom."

Retired English teacher Francee Davis echoed Lewis' sentiment.

"These girls are so very special to me," she said. "They all have impeccable character, and they are wonderful diplomats for our school. I have sons, so I would take any of them as my daughters."

Davis, who only missed one game when she was sick, said she and husband Gary, another "one of the team's biggest fans," will be sitting in the cheering section today.

"We're so proud of them. They represent our school well."