CHAMPAIGN — Almost from the beginning, Chris Mennig broadened the scope of expectations within the St. Thomas More girls’ basketball program.
A former collegiate assistant in the sport, he didn’t buy into the ultimate goal as the chance to win a conference championship or to be one of the best schools in this section of the state.
“I sat in front of the team in my second year (fall of 2006) and told the girls, ‘There is enough talent sitting in front of me to win a state title sometime in the next four years,’ ” Mennig recalled. “There wasn’t a girl that won’t tell you now that they thought I was nuts. Parents included.”
The Sabers haven’t — yet — captured a state championship, but they are moving closer to the ultimate pinnacle of success.
On Thursday, Mennig’s team handled Watseka 55-32 in a Sangamon Valley Conference contest between schools with one loss apiece.
St. Thomas More (10-1) is the first in the area to hit the 10-win mark this season. Watseka is 8-2.
“That (2006-07) group may not have won a state title, but they put the program on the state map, and to see that a tradition was created, not just a team, is very special,” Mennig said.
The current group is on the verge of a special season. Tori McCoy, a 6-foot-4 freshman, has joined a unit that includes sophomore All-Area standout Lexi Wallen and junior All-Area standout Randa Harshbarger. Junior Jade Brinkoetter is another player capable of scoring in double figures on any given night.
Talking about winning a state title is not a subject Mennig approaches with trepidation.
“One of the best lines I learned from Coach (Theresa) Grentz (while assisting at Illinois) was, ‘If you can’t talk about championships, how do you expect to win one?’ ” Mennig related.
Anyone can talk. Not everyone can believe.
“The eyes of the athlete don’t lie,” Mennig said. “You can tell if they truly believe they can achieve the goals they are talking about or if they are just saying it because their coach wants to hear it.”
The Sabers have developed a confidence that comes from playing a challenging schedule. Six of the first seven games for the state’s third-ranked Class 2A team were against Class 3A or 4A opposition.
There will be more tests. St. Thomas More canceled a scheduled Saturday game this week against Oakwood (2-7) to be available for a Jan. 12 home date against Class 4A top-ranked Chicago Whitney Young, the defending state champion.
“If you’re coaching for the won-loss record, the career victories, players scoring 1,000 points playing against ‘cones,’ then you are missing the great that can be learned by challenging and competing at a higher level than your team really is,” Mennig said. “How you approach those challenging games will largely determine your success as a coach.
“To lose your mind when you play a superior opponent is not how to raise the bar of your program. Explain the challenges before them and present to them an opportunity for greatness. During the course of the game, just push them to not make the same mistake twice.”
After the Sabers won the school’s first regional title in girls’ basketball (2007), Mennig scheduled his varsity to face the Whitney Young incoming freshmen (and two top 100 national recruits) in a summer contest.
“Our girls at the time thought I was nuts, and the eventual outcome was a 20- to 30-point loss,” Mennig said, “but during the course of the game, our girls settled down and made some shots and realized they put their socks and shoes on the same as we do.”
In little more than a month, the Sabers will play Whitney Young’s nationally ranked varsity team, which is led by Kentucky recruit Linnae Harper, a News-Gazette All-Stater.
“The goal isn’t always to win the game but to see them embrace the challenge,” Mennig said. “Every lecture I do, every parent-player meeting to start a season, I tell them the two things I love about this sport is it will teach you how to compete and how to handle adversity.
“Everyone talks about the lessons of teamwork, discipline and communication skills, but as a coach, it is our job to teach them these other two skills as those will be invaluable for their success in life.”
Like many coaches, Mennig will play the percentages and hold the ball for a final shot in a quarter, but he will never advocate a delay game from the opening tip.
“We wonder why downstate basketball doesn’t get any respect,” he said. “We teach them to play keepaway instead of basketball.
“What coaches don’t realize is you are intrinsically teaching them they aren’t good enough to win playing the game. You are silently telling them, ‘Don’t compete, just hold the ball.’ Maybe they can eke out a ‘W,’ but is it really a victory?”
Thursday’s leaders against Watseka are the ones St. Thomas More has learned to rely upon. Wallen, who ranks in the top 10 areawide in scoring, put up a game-high 22 points. Harshbarger, the area leader in steals, continued to force turnovers, collecting three steals and scoring 11 points.
“She is the heart of our defense and one of the best teammates I’ve coached because she is so unselfish,” Mennig said.
Brinkoetter scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds, as did McCoy.
McCoy, who had scored in double figures in her first six varsity games, was held scoreless but provided a first-half defensive spark. She entered the game with the Sabers trailing 11-6 with 4:51 left in the opening quarter. When the quarter ended, St. Thomas More was in the midst of a 14-0 run.
Because of McCoy’s first-half defense, “We were able to limit the quality of their possessions,” Mennig said.
The touted freshman, who is earmarked to be one of the top 20 players nationally in the Class of 2016, finished with five blocks.
Watseka’s leaders were Trisha Martin with 10 points and Devin Curry with nine.