FISHER – Sam Estes normally pulls his car into the Casey's on Main Street, fills his gas tank and is on his way after a couple of minutes. Sunday, the Fisher senior guard was going through his routine but quickly found this was no typical trip to the gas station.
"It took about 30 minutes because I had to shake everyone's hand," said Estes, who's been sporting an ear-to-ear grin since Fisher knocked off Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley on Friday to win the Class 1A Parkland Sectional. "Everyone through town is so excited about this. It's been unbelievable."
That excitement about the Bunnies' basketball team is certainly on display throughout the town of about 1,600.
Windows of vehicles from U.S. 136 to Front Street have "Good luck" messages painted on them. And businesses such as Fisher National Bank, Fisher Lumber & Building Supply, and Flowers Etc., have their windows painted with similar messages in black and orange.
"It's been crazy around here and the town is so excited because our boys have never advanced this far," said senior cheerleader Sarah Hubbell, who braved the cold and rain Monday to paint the windows at Fisher National Bank. "It's just so awesome to see the whole town involved in this. We're seeing a lot more people wearing orange and black and dressing all crazy."
Hubbell and other members of the Fisher cheerleading squad also planned to go around town putting up signs, balloons, streamers, anything orange or black to show their support for the Bunnies.
The school spirit and enthusiasm is something the folks in Fisher haven't experienced since Matt Leng's football team reached the quarterfinals in 2005.
"It's just amazing to me how many people are coming to games now," said Brock Deer, a 2001 Fisher graduate and employee at Fisher Lumber. "People are even showing up at 6:15 for games that start at 7:30. We could definitely see this getting even bigger if they win (tonight)."
While the team practiced Monday afternoon, cheerleaders, parents and others were setting up shop in the school's cafeteria to sell "Elite Eight" T-shirts and tickets to tonight's game at Illinois State against second-ranked Warrensburg-Latham (29-1).
Ken Ingold, owner of All-Area Sports, said demand has been high for the shirts. He brought about 350 to sell at the school Monday.
"I don't think we'll have any problem getting rid of them," Ingold said. "I think we probably could have done more, but this is what we've got.
"This has been kind of a similar thing to the football team making the elite eight a few years ago, but it seems bigger because this was kind of unexpected."
Ingold is a former Fisher athletic director and boys' basketball coach. He is currently an assistant with the girls' team.
"This isn't a surprise to see all this support because this is how this community is," Ingold said. "We really get behind our people and our kids."
Deon Mennega is in his third season as the basketball coach at Fisher and has been overwhelmed at the support his team has received. He had a previous stint at Armstrong-Potomac where the Trojans reached the sectionals, but the support was nothing like it is for his Bunnies.
"There's not a whole lot of stuff to paint in Armstrong," Mennega said. "This is doing exactly what I hoped it would do; it's bringing the community together and it's just incredible community support right now. Mitch (Elkins) has been walking around like he's a rock star right now so it's been great."
For the players, concentrating on anything other than basketball – namely school work – has been difficult.
"The teachers have been OK with it for now but we've been trying to get out of tests and stuff because we've got a big physics test coming up," Estes said. "It's just so different because we've never felt like this before. No one playing Fisher basketball has ever felt like this before. It's just so special and it's a great time to be a Bunny."
Can the Bunnies slow Boyd?
If Friday's game is any indication, the Bunnies definitely have the ability to shut down a prolific scorer. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Cody Birky entered Friday's game averaging 17 points but was harassed all night by Fisher and finished with eight points on 4-of-15 shooting. Warrensburg-Latham's Zach Boyd averages about 24 points a game, and if Mitch Elkins, Jared Hayden or Sam Estes can get him off his game early, the Bunnies will have a chance to advance to Peoria.
Will Fisher be overwhelmed by the atmosphere?
Having never reached this level, the Bunnies will probably be a little nervous in the early going. The key will be for them to control the nerves and realize once the ball goes up, it's just a basketball game. They can't try to do too much and play too fast early. The advantage Fisher holds over the Cardinals is the Bunnies played two games on a college court in the sectionals, so getting familiar with the extra length shouldn't be an issue at Redbird Arena.
Which player will need a big game for Fisher to advance?
Seniors Hayden, Elkins and Estes have led Fisher all season and will certainly have some say in tonight's outcome. But the player who might put them over the top is Jacob Browning. The 6-foot-3 junior forward was impressive in the sectional win against GCMS, especially when Elkins – Fisher's leading scorer – went to the bench with foul trouble. If Browning can consistently get short buckets in the paint and complement the three seniors, the Bunnies might pull off the shocker.