SPRINGFIELD — They’ve won state championships in softball.
Boys’ cross-country. Girls’ cross-country.
Boys’ track. Girls’ track.
Played in state championship games in football.
Now it’s the St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball team’s turn.
The Spartans downed Riverton 59-47 in front of an estimated 2,900 fans Wednesday night during the Class 2A Illinois-Springfield Super-Sectional. The win clinched SJ-O’s first super-sectional victory and puts the Spartans in Peoria for the first time in school history.
“To be a basketball team at a football school that makes a Final Four,” SJ-O junior guard Nate Michael said, “it’s very, very special to us.”
The special times will continue at 8:15 p.m. Friday for SJ-O (29-3) against Harrisburg in a 2A state semifinal at Carver Arena.
“This is just awesome with everybody out,” SJ-O senior forward Louis Acklin said. “I’d celebrate out here all night if I could. It’s surreal. I’m just trying to soak it all in. It’s so tough to get to Peoria.”
The Spartans are there. SJ-O coach Brian Brooks said the Spartans will leave the high school about 9:45 a.m. today to have an hourlong practice at Illinois Wesleyan University before finishing the rest of the trip to Peoria and have a 4 p.m. shootaround scheduled at Carver Arena.
It’s a trip that started when the senior class of Acklin, Chase Patton, Aaron Woller, Corbin Hesterberg and Kyle Smith were freshmen. The Spartans were 2-25. A trip to a super-sectional game — heck, let alone a regional championship game — seemed the farthest thing from reality.
“That was a brutal year for everybody,” Woller said. “To see it progress over the four years to this is pretty awesome.”
Brent Schluter was a key reason why Wednesday.
The junior forward led all scorers with 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting and added six rebounds. He showed a deft shooting touch around the basket all game but stepped out to hit a three-pointer with 1:31 left in the third quarter to extend SJ-O’s lead to 40-32.
“It’s a great feeling, and when we walked out and saw all the people in the crowd, we knew we had to come out and play for our hometown,” Schluter said. “We certainly did that tonight, and it feels really good to be going to Peoria.”
Another three-pointer by Michael (17 points, 15 in the second half) from the right corner gave the Spartans a 43-32 lead into the fourth quarter, and Riverton (26-4) never cut its deficit to fewer than eight points the rest of the game.
The Spartans went with a different starting lineup than usual, with Brooks inserting junior guard Dalton Walsh in favor of senior forward Hesterberg. Hesterberg injured an ankle in practice this week, but Walsh — making his first start of the season — made up for the defensive stalwart’s limited minutes with seven points and three steals. A traditional three-point play by Walsh with 3.7 seconds left in the first quarter tied the game at 18. SJ-O never trailed the rest of the way.
“I worked in with the first team a little bit more and felt good,” Walsh said. “I was a little nervous, especially in a big-time game like this.”
Nerves weren’t on display much for the Spartans in the fourth quarter. Riverton amplified its pressure, but SJ-O only turned the ball over three times and only ended up with nine on the night.
Michael, Patton (11 points, three three-pointers), Woller and Walsh helped keep the Hawks at bay with their deft ball handling. The Spartans were able to enjoy the moment when both teams pulled their starters from the floor with less than a minute left, and the party began. Tears, smiles and hugs were plentiful in the 30-minute celebration on the floor of The Recreation and Athletic Center on the UIS campus.
“Words can’t express how happy I am for our kids,” Brooks said. “We just wanted to be able to have this experience. We talked about the fact we were going to get this program there at some point, and I just could not be happier for these kids.”
Ask the expert
We asked staff writer MATT DANIELS for his take on the Class 2A Final Four in Peoria:
Harrisburg will have had one extra day of rest and preparation over the three other 2A schools at Carver Arena. The Bulldogs beat Teutopolis 77-66 (the Wooden Shoes are one of three losses St. Joseph-Ogden has suffered this season) on Tuesday at SIU Arena in front of a reported 8,000 fans. SJ-O only played in front of 2,900 fans Wednesday night, but The Recreation and Athletic Center on the Illinois-Springfield campus was nearly full. So playing on the big stage shouldn’t intimidate either squad.
Harrisburg boasts a future Illinois baseball player on its roster in 6-foot-3 senior guard Ryne Roper. Roper is the younger brother of current Illinois baseball player Reid Roper and quarterbacked the Bulldogs to a Class 4A state semifinal football appearance last fall.
Either way, a team south of Interstate 80 will play in the 2A state title game Saturday night. Seton Academy — which Illinois coach John Groce is familiar with after his point guard at Ohio, D.J. Cooper, led the Sting to a 2009 2A state championship — will square off against unbeaten Winnebago in the first semifinal game Friday. If SJ-O can contain Harrisburg senior guard Tyler Smithpeters (son of Bulldogs coach Randy Smithpeters), the Spartans have to like their chances of playing for a state title and accomplishing another milestone.