Cinderella story for Chargers not easily forgotten

Cinderella story for Chargers not easily forgotten

Centennial boys' basketball entered the 2009 Class 3A state tournament the top-ranked team.

Thirty victories versus one defeat. Triumphs against Peoria Manual, Lincoln (twice), Hillcrest, Peoria Richwoods, Normal Community, Springfield Southeast (twice) and Belleville Althoff — all regional champions with 20 or more wins on the season.

It was this resume that had coach Tim Lavin's Chargers atop the 3A field entering a March 20 state semifinal game with North Lawndale, the reigning 2A champion.

Ten years down the road, though, discussions with those closest to the best-ever squad in Centennial hoops history paint a different picture.

They don't remember a group lauded for carving up an impressive schedule.

Ask Bryson Davis-Johnson, a 5-foot-9 senior guard who specialized in lockdown defense.

"They do this dinner thing the day before you play (at state) ... and they play a little video up on the board for everybody to see," Davis-Johnson said. "All these Chicago teams are in there, and we pop up on the screen. The state's number one team.

"You could kind of hear rumblings in the back, like, 'Number one team? Who are they? Champaign? What is that?'"

Ask Jordan Johnson, a 6-1 senior guard who also hassled the enemies' best competitors.

"It was a kid from Chicago (at my table for the pre-state dinner). ... They were just going over and showing highlights of every team," Johnson said. "It got to us, and I just remember ... the guy was like, 'Who?' And I was like, 'Wow.' I think we were ranked in the state at that point, too. It's just like they never heard of us."

Ask Brian Easter, Centennial's athletic director at the time of this run.

"We didn't have a chance to beat (North Lawndale), if you read all the publications," Easter said. "On the scoreboard there, they had us as Champaign Central instead of Centennial."

Or ask Lavin, who recently finished his 18th season in charge of the Chargers.

"We were overlooked," Lavin said. "In fact, we were so overlooked, it was either the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times after we beat Chicago North Lawndale, they listed Champaign Central beating North Lawndale."

The story of the 2008-09 Centennial boys' basketball team storming to its first — and, to this point, only — state title features a gifted and tightly-knit group of athletes, led by a knowledgeable and balanced quartet of coaches.

It's also a Cinderella story Champaign is unlikely to ever forget.

★ ★ ★

Funny thing is, this tale starts not with Centennial hoops, but with its rival over at Champaign Central.

In 2008, the Maroons defeated the Chargers in a regional title game en route to a spot in Class 3A's final four.

"I remember going down to Peoria, watching them play both games," said Davis-Johnson, now an assistant boys' basketball coach at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis. "We just talked about it like, 'We could be down here next year.' I think we had our minds made up that we wanted to go to state from that point on."

James Kinney II, a 6-1 senior guard who led Centennial in scoring entering the 2009 state semifinals, recalls an even more definitive belief.

"Coach Lavin, he kind of gave me a bit of a hard time for all but guaranteeing we were going to be in Peoria," said Kinney, who now plays professionally in Slovakia. "I felt we had a nice group."

That sentiment was shared by assistant coach Marc Changnon, the Chargers' third-year freshman team coach in 2008-09.

After he selected guys like Rayvonte Rice, Jeff Johnson and Tiger O'Neil for the 2006-07 ninth-grade unit, Changnon dealt them a powerful message.

"I said, 'Before you graduate, your group has the talent to win the state tournament,'" said Changnon, who still lives in Champaign and now a motivational speaker with Coach ADYB. "You can ask a number of the players. They would probably remember that talk."

Fast forward two seasons, and those kids were juniors playing alongside Kinney, Davis-Johnson and Jordan Johnson.

They'd piled up a 21-8 record as sophomores and juniors, but fell short versus the aforementioned state-bound Central squad when it mattered most.

"We had bigger expectations of ourselves than anyone could place on us," Kinney said. "We knew we could do it because Central went and got third that year. We knew we could get the job done."

★ ★ ★

Lavin and Changnon knew right away that they, Sonny Walker and David Hansen — Lavin's other two assistant coaches alongside Changnon — wouldn't need to demand effort from this crop of youngsters.

"I never had to get on them about working hard," Lavin said. "Now we challenged them at making a name for yourself and (making) sure that when we go in there, people know that we're the better team. Challenges like that. But the chemistry was great, and their work ethic was great."

"(The 2006-07 freshmen) would look for each other all the time and really work together," Changnon added. "Then mix in James Kinney, Bryson Davis-Johnson and Jordan Johnson ... oh, my goodness, it was a tremendous group of kids."

And they all got along, too, according to the players.

"There were opportunities throughout the summer where ... we'd go out to one of the campus gyms and just play," Jordan Johnson said. "We were all friends with each other, so we were always hanging out if we weren't playing basketball."

Rounding out Centennial's perfect storm: These Chargers were really good at the sport.

Kinney, Rice and Jeff Johnson each averaged between 13.5 and 17.4 points per game. Kinney added 6.7 assists per night. Rice and Jeff Johnson each hauled in 7.3 rebounds per game.

All the while, Davis-Johnson and Jordan Johnson stifled opponents' best players and provided some buckets when needed. Sophomore Josh Piper and junior Jimmie McDonald hopped off the bench and filled in as requested.

"There was so much talent ... but everybody knew their role, and nobody cared who scored, who did what," Davis-Johnson said. "It was all about winning."

★ ★ ★

And that's pretty much all Centennial did on its way to Peoria's Carver Arena.

The Chargers opened 5-0 in a powerful Lincoln Tournament, defeating the host along with Manual and East St. Louis.

"We knew it at the Lincoln Tournament," Changnon said, "that that (group) was going to be pretty special."

Centennial was flawless through its first 13 regular-season games. During the 13th, on Dec. 30 against Peoria Woodruff in the Kankakee Holiday Tournament, Jordan Johnson went down with an ankle injury.

By Lavin's admission, it was the only legitimate piece of bad luck the Chargers experienced before the state semifinals.

But it stung in the short term, as Centennial lost 50-48 to Chicago Hope on New Year's Eve.

"Just giving us that hit in the mouth to wake us up a bit," Kinney said, "we needed that."

"It rubbed a lot of those guys the wrong way, especially the seniors," Lavin added. "It just bothered them, and so they wanted to make sure afterwards that it wasn't going to happen again."

Changnon termed the setback "a very positive thing" because it "renewed our spirit" entering the back half of the regular season.

The effect was noticeable to Lavin, specifically in following road victories against Hillcrest — the 2010 Class 3A state champion — and Normal Community. During both games, the Chargers rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat quality foes.

"To win at those two places the way we did was really good for our team," Lavin said. "Really good for them to see and gave them a ton of confidence."

★ ★ ★

Changnon wasn't present for portions of Centennial's playoff schedule. He was tasked with working ahead, scouting future opponents.

This probably added some time to Changnon's lifespan, versus those of his fellow coaches.

After the Chargers blitzed Urbana 87-49 in a regional semifinal games at Central's Combes Gym, their next four tilts across the regional, sectional and super-sectional rounds each were decided by nine or fewer points. One of them, a sectional semifinal with Springfield Southeast at Decatur Eisenhower, went to overtime before the Chargers won 73-69, backed by 20 points from Rice.

Changnon's advance planning, directed by Lavin, brings up another important element of this Centennial team: the coaching staff.

During Lavin's third season with the Chargers, in 2004, he guided them to their first regional crown since 1984. They repeated the process the following campaign.

Changnon had the winning mentality in his blood, with grandfather Stanley pushing Mt. Vernon to state hardware in 1949 and 1950. Davis-Johnson described Hansen as a "phenomenal coach." And Walker starred for Centennial basketball in the 1990s as an all-Big 12 Conference guard.

"People would say 'Lavin doesn't like certain guys.' That's only because he held guys 110 percent accountable for what they're doing off the court," Kinney said. "That translated on the court. Words can't describe how much they helped us."

★ ★ ★

Changnon remembers bumping into a North Lawndale coach as each side provided some pre-tournament information to IHSA officials.

"He says, 'Who are you?' I say, 'I'm an assistant coach for the Champaign Centennial basketball team,'" Changnon said. "And he says, 'Oh. I hope you enjoy your stay.'"

The Phoenix graduated just one senior, Thristian Crittle, from the 2008 Class 2A championship squad — and he wasn't even a top-four point scorer for Lawndale.

Things started well enough for Centennial, though, when the Chargers and Phoenix finally took the floor at approximately 12:15 p.m. on March 20, 2009.

Before the first whistle, North Lawndale was assessed a technical foul for a jersey violation. Jeff Johnson hit one of two free throws to give the Chargers the first point of the state semifinal game.

"I just remember hearing a lot of, we didn't deserve it because of the whole jersey technicality," Kinney said. "But my response was, 'They had the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter.'"

The Phoenix was in front after each of the first three quarters, in fact and led 55-45 entering the last stanza.

"It looked pretty bleak," Easter said. "I was down on the floor. I couldn't sit still. I was all over the place. But I know that the mood was a little somber."

For Centennial, this was merely a recall of those regular-season games versus Hillcrest and Normal Community.

"We just never got flustered no matter what," Davis-Johnson said. "That was a trait we had throughout the season: No matter if we were up, we were down, we were taking the team's best punch."

Changnon said the Chargers turned to pressure defense, and North Lawndale committing five of its 13 turnovers in the last eight minutes confirms this was an effective decision.

A Rice layup with 41 seconds remaining in regulation put the Chargers ahead 64-63. Terry Johnson responded with two free throws to restore North Lawndale's one-point edge.

That's when Rice seized control.

"We had Ray on isolation with Kinney on the wing, and we thought Ray could go by his guy, and he did," Lavin said, "and the guy on the wing stayed and Ray made a play."

Rice missed his first shot with five seconds left, but corralled the offensive board and swished it home with 3.1 seconds left for the final points of a 66-65 thriller.

"It was kind of a surreal moment," Davis-Johnson said. "We felt like rock stars."

"Our section went nuts," Easter added. "It was quite exciting. ... To be honest, the championship game to me felt a little anticlimactic because we felt like that was the championship game."

Centennial did have to turn around the next afternoon and face Oswego, which advanced to the final via a 56-55 victory over Chicago Leo, capped by a Jordan Mitchell buzzer-beating three-pointer.

In that Saturday matinee matchup, the Chargers came out hot and led 36-28 at intermission. That advantage, however, turned into a 47-all tie just one quarter later.

Enter Kinney and Rice. With Centennial now behind 59-57, Kinney was fouled on a drive with 16.3 seconds left and sank both free throws

The Chargers' last act in this championship performance was the product of one of Changnon's scouting reports.

"Oswego had to run a play at the end of the game against (Leo) to win, and I wrote that all down," he said.

"We double-teamed the kid (Andrew Galow) we knew they were going to throw the ball in to," Lavin added, "and Ray knocked it away from him. It worked out well for us."

Rice stole a cross-court pass from Mitchell with 11 seconds left, drove to the basket and was fouled with 6.5 seconds remaining. Two free throws later and after a turnover by Oswego before the Panthers could get a shot off, the ball wound up in Rice's hands. He took a few dribbles while the buzzer sounded and then flung the ball to the rafters at Carver Arena. And that was it. Centennial had just won a state championship.

★ ★ ★

The Chargers had reached the top of the mountain.

"You see that picture in the paper you guys took of Ray and James looking like, we won. We're state champs," Changnon said. "I've got that framed in my basement of my basketball room. ... That will never go away."

For Kinney, the immediate aftermath of Centennial defeating Oswego made him flash back to an 8-20 freshman season.

"I just remember me and Lavin hugging, and all I could think about is 2006," Kinney said. "I couldn't make a shot as a freshman on varsity. ... I had seen the lowest of lows, I feel like, and then I saw the pinnacle."

Hours later, as the Centennial travel brigade scooted within a few miles of Champaign, a police escort took the victors the rest of the way.

"We were kind of excited, like, 'Oh, my god,'" Jordan Johnson said. "Just riding into Champaign, we see people standing on the sidewalk cheering us on It was an amazing moment."

That feeling transferred to a rally at the high school. Even with students on spring break, Easter described gymnasium bleachers packed full of adoring fans.

"It was amazing and overwhelming and exciting," Changnon said. "It's a memory that's embedded in my mind."

Lavin's players can say the same.

Kinney, Davis-Johnson and Jordan Johnson all said they keep in touch with several of their former teammates. Considering how close the Chargers were in their youth, it's no surprise they continue to be bonded by their shared high school experience.

"When's the next time a team from Champaign, when's the next time they'll win a state championship?" Davis-Johnson said. "It's not easy to do. It's going to take a special group. It's going to take a selfless group. So we're definitely in rare air when it comes to winning it all and doing it the way that we did."

Easter may have the best description for this historic Centennial hoops lore.

"Everything ... that had happened along the path to get there," he said, "kind of just felt like destiny."

What a march

Before Centennial standouts James Kinney and Rayvonte Rice graced the cover of The News-Gazette sports section on March 22, 2009, the Chargers had to take down these foes in order to win the program's first-ever state championship:

March 2, 2009

Centennial 87, Urbana 49

Despite committing 19 turnovers, the Chargers cruised past the Tigers in a regional semifinal win at Combes Gym in Champaign. James Kinney led Centennial with a game-high 17 points.

March 6, 2009

Centennial 70, Central 61

The Chargers took down the host Maroons, recording a school-record 27th win and winning a regional title in the process. Rayvonte Rice (17 points, 12 rebounds) paced Centennial.

March 10, 2009

Centennial 73, Springfield SE 69

A breakaway dunk by Rice (team-high 20 points) late in overtime turned out to be the game-winning basket as the Chargers survived a sectional semifinal game at Decatur Eisenhower.

March 13, 2009

Centennial 49, Lincoln 45

Stout defense and balanced scoring — Kinney (17 points), Rice (12 points) and Jeff Johnson (11 points) — at Decatur Eisenhower helped carry the Chargers to their first sectional title since 1984.

March 17, 2009

Centennial 65, Althoff 60

Spurred on by Kinney's game-high 26 points and 16 more from Rice, the Chargers captured a spot at state with a super-sectional win at Springfield's Prairie Capital Convention Center.

March 20, 2009

Centennial 66, North Lawndale 65

A late offensive rebound putback by Rice capped a fourth-quarter rally in the state semifinal win in Peoria. Rice and Kinney each had 22 points in Centennial's first-ever state tournament win.

March 21, 2009

Centennial 61, Oswego 59

Rice (21 points), Kinney (19 points) and Johnson (12 points) all make critical plays in the fourth quarter as the Chargers conclude their storybook season with a coveted state championship.

Where are they now?

Here's a look at what each varsity athlete and coach on the 2008-09 state champion Centennial boys' basketball team is doing today:

PLAYERS

No. 10 Jimmie McDonald (Jr., G) — Lives in Champaign, working for the Champaign Park District.

No. 11 Marcell Kelly (Sr., G) — Lives in Denver and is the founder/CEO of 5280 Dynamic Athletes, a nonprofit for training basketball players; also is an assistant boys' basketball coach at Bear Creek High School.

No. 12 Travon Porter (Jr., F) — Lives in Champaign, working as a crisis counselor while studying for his master's in clinical/counseling psychology.

No. 20 Tim Weaver (Jr., G) — Lives in Peoria, working as a pharmacist.

No. 22 Bryson Davis-Johnson (Sr., G) — Lives in Indianapolis, working as an assistant coach for Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis.

No. 23 James Kinney II (Sr., G) — Plays basketball for Basketbalovy klub Inter Bratislava in the Slovak League.

No. 24 Rayvonte Rice (Jr., F) — Former Illini plays basketball for Petrochimi Bandar Imam in the Iranian Basketball Super League.

No. 30 James Mihm (Jr., F) — Lives in Chicago, working for J.P. Morgan.

No. 32 Jordan Johnson (Sr., G) — Lives in Washington, D.C., after earning his master's at Georgetown; is transitioning into a career in sports administration.

No. 34 Tiger O'Neil (Jr., G) — Lives in Champaign.

No. 40 Laziriss Baker (Jr., F) — Lives in Champaign, working at Carle as a sterile processing technician.

No. 42 Jeff Johnson (Jr., C) — Lives in Urbana after graduating in 2014 from Eastern Kentucky, for whom he played basketball.

No. 44 Cliff Meece (Jr., C) — Lives in Champaign.

No. 55 Josh Piper (Soph., F) — Lives in Champaign after graduating in 2015 from Eastern Illinois, for whom he played basketball.

COACHES

Head coach Tim Lavin — Recently finished his 18th season leading Centennial boys' basketball and picked up his 300th career victory back in 2017.

Assistant coach Marc Changnon — Works as a motivational speaker with Coach ADYB and serves as a volunteer coach for Centennial boys' basketball.

Assistant coach Sonny Walker — Physical education teacher and sophomore boys' basketball coach at Centennial.

Assistant coach David Hansen — Retired from teaching, working part time at Prairie Gardens in Champaign.

 

-