PEORIA — Tom Michael won a Class A state championship in 1989 at Carlyle.
It’s safe to say, though, that the former Illinois forward under Lou Henson who is involved in the athletic administration at Illinois now was more nervous Friday night.
Tom’s son, Nate, is a junior guard for the St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball team and a key reason why the Spartans were playing in Peoria for the first time in school history.
Nate eclipsed older brother Nick — who played on the SJ-O team that won a sectional title in 2007 — on Wednesday when the Spartans downed Riverton.
While he won’t get a chance to equal his dad’s accomplishment tonight, the run the middle Michael child and the rest of the Spartans have put on makes his dad proud.
“It’s been exciting and fun to see the kids have success like they had,” Tom Michael said. “That’s what all the hard work that you put in and all the rebounding that you do, this is what it’s all about.”
The Michaels had another reason to celebrate Thursday. Kylie, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph Middle School, helped the volleyball program win a Class 3A regional championship. Luckily for the Michael family, that game was in St. Joseph to sandwich trips between Springfield and Peoria.
“It makes it a little bit hectic, but it’s March,” Tom Michael said with a laugh. “That’s what you play for all year. Living in central Illinois, that’s what gets you through the winter is knowing that March Madness is coming around.”
SJ-O filled up nearly three sections — both lower and upper levels — Friday night at Carver Arena. The sight wasn’t lost on Tom Michael.
“When we moved to St. Joe 16 years ago, it’s always been a community that’s supported its athletics, and football has always been the king,” he said. “That’s probably still the case, but just the way they’ve rallied around this team is unbelievable. It’s just really special to be in a community that really supports athletics and what they do. I know these kids, too, and it’s just a great bunch of unselfish kids. They don’t care who’s in the spotlight.”
Father and son didn’t talk many specifics going into Friday night’s semifinal. The groundwork had already been laid in their offseason workouts.
“We talked about things just in terms of what to do in the summer and the fall to get prepared for this moment,” Tom Michael said. “You have to remember that you’re not finished yet. Just getting here isn’t the goal. It’s one of them, but the main goal is you have two games to play here. He’s pretty good mentally from a preparation standpoint. It was a little surprising to see how emotional he was on Wednesday, and he said, ‘When I realized that we were going here, you see that all that hard work pays off.’ I certainly appreciate that. “
SJ-O had three players receive Class 1A/2A all-state recognition from the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association. Junior forward Brent Schluter earned third-team all-state honors, while senior guard Chase Patton earned fourth-team accolades and junior guard Nate Michael earned a special mention nod.
“He’s absolutely amazing,” SJ-O junior guard Dalton Walsh said of Schluter. “We know we can get him the ball no matter what down low, and he’s going to make the post moves and he’s going to finish. He’s our go-to guy. He’s a great player.”
The same goes for Patton and Michael, who are threats from outside the three-point arc and aren’t afraid to take it to the basket or pull up for a midrange jump shot.
“You can’t say enough about them,” SJ-O senior forward Louis Acklin said. “We know even if they miss three or four in a row we’re coming right back to them with the same confidence we had with the first one. They knock down big shots for us every game and every day in practice, all the time.”
Cissna Park’s Cole Hasselbring was named fourth-team all-state, Salt Fork’s Max Stutsman, Blue Ridge’s Michael Plunk and Heritage’s John Taylor earned special mention, while Milford’s Alex Portwood and Bement’s Connor Gross received honorable mention selections.
The area did not have any representation in the three-point showdown in either Class 1A or 2A on Friday. Chrisman sophomore John Porter made six Thursday night in the preliminary 1A round, with all four qualifiers making 10. River Ridge sophomore Brenden Dauphin won the 1A three-point contest after he made 11 Friday afternoon.
In 2A, Hoopeston Area’s Brennan Crose was one of 32 shooters Thursday. The junior ended up making eight, one shy of the final qualifier. Kewanee senior Dayton Ince won the 2A finals Friday night in between the semifinal games.
St. Joseph-Ogden graduate and former Illinois fullback/tight end Zach Becker made his way to Peoria.
Becker — who battled numerous injuries and had multiple surgeries during his time at Illinois — was on the last SJ-O team to win a sectional championship before this season’s squad.
The Spartans ended their 2006-07 season at Redbird Arena in Normal after losing 48-43 to Maroa-Forsyth in a Class A super-sectional game.
“They didn’t even have Kreps in that game, and they still beat us,” Becker said with a laugh in reference to former Maroa-Forsyth standout Robo Kreps, who went on to play at Illinois-Chicago. “It was a lot of fun and eye-opening. We had never played on a stage like that before in basketball.”
Becker said he planned to attend Wednesday’s 59-47 super-sectional win against Riverton at Illinois-Springfield — which had former Illinois men’s basketball player (and Riverton alum) Mike Tisdale among the 2,900 in attendance — but missed it after the weather postponement pushed the game back a day.
He is glad to see what his former high school coach, Brian Brooks, has been able to accomplish with this season’s team.
“It always makes you proud when your alma mater can do well in sports,” Becker said. “It just brings back old memories of you and all your friends playing on the floor. It just brings you pride to watch those guys compete, especially when they’re successful. Seeing them having fun kind of reminds you how you used to feel on the court.”
Becker graduated from Illinois in December and will start physical therapy school in May at Governors State University in the Chicago suburb of University Park.
The Spartans’ program dealt with tragedy three summers ago. Mark Sjuts and his son Chason, along with Chason’s girlfriend, Brittany Pitts, all died as a result of a car accident along Interstate 74 near Danville in June 2010. The elder Sjuts was an assistant coach with SJ-O.
Emotions have poured out of several SJ-O players and Brooks during the postseason run. The memory of Sjuts is a big reason why.
“This was something he and I talked about,” Brooks said. “That’s probably the only thing missing from (these games).”