Sabers turn to ex-Charger Figueroa

CHAMPAIGN — When the bell rang at 3 p.m. to signal the end of the school day at St. Thomas More, a message was relayed over the high school's intercom system for all the boys' basketball players to report to the library. When they entered the room, they were greeted by their new coach, Anthony Figueroa.

"I didn't know who it was going to be," senior-to-be Kevin Carroll said. "Right when I came into the room I saw him, and I was pretty happy with that."

Figueroa, a 1995 Centennial graduate who played on back-to-back Big 12 championship teams as a junior and senior, was hired to replace James Kinney, who led the Sabers to an 18-10 mark and a Class 2A regional final in his only season. Kinney replaced Todd Anderson, who went 63-56 in four seasons.

Principal Mike Scholz and athletic director Dan Hennessey declined to give a reason for Kinney's removal from the position.

When Scholz introduced Figueroa to the players, he used the term "basketball junkie" more than once in describing the new coach.

"We just needed to go a different direction, that's just what we needed to do," Scholz said. "We've been very lucky here. The individuals who have coached here have been tremendous people, really good people. I think we have the combination of an outstanding young man and a basketball junkie. He wants to give the time to develop what it takes to make a program.

"I wanted a basketball junkie, somebody who lives, eats and breathes basketball and kind of transcends that to our kids, and I think we found that."

Figueroa, 34, played at Chicago State before finishing his career at Millikin. He began his coaching career at Centennial as an assistant in 2003-04 and from there coached four seasons on the staff at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa. Figueroa returned to central Illinois in 2008-09 to coach at Millikin and spent last season as an assistant on Tim Lavin's staff at Centennial.

"It's just one of those things where I saw the job opened up, I contacted some people, made a phone call, talked to them a little bit to see if what they were looking for was something I could provide," said Figueroa, who works in the Champaign school district at Stratton Elementary. "(Scholz) kept using the term 'basketball junkie,' and I kind of pride myself on being one, so I thought it was a good fit, and I'm glad they thought I was a good fit.

"I'm just hoping to build on the tradition that Coach Anderson and Coach Kinney have built so far over the last few years. We're going to work hard every day."

STM returns eight players from last season's team, headlined by 6-foot-4 All-Area guard Jaycee Hillsman. As a sophomore this past season, Hillsman led the Sabers in scoring at 17.5 points per game.

"I think we've got some talent here," Scholz said. "I think we're a sleeping giant, and with the right person the giant will awaken."

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