ST. JOSEPH — Aaron Woller planted extra-base hits in area outfields last summer for the Rantoul Senior Legion baseball team.
He lifted weights in preparation for his senior football season at St. Joseph-Ogden.
And he played basketball. Lots of basketball.
The SJ-O senior guard and his teammates put in the offseason work while handling multiple sports to make tonight’s 8:15 date with Harrisburg in a Class 2A state semifinal game come to fruition.
In fact, SJ-O coach Brian Brooks had his squad play last June at The Recreation and Athletic Center on the campus of Illinois-Springfield. It’s the same venue SJ-O beat Riverton 59-47 on Wednesday night to secure its spot at Carver Arena.
“We knew we were going to come back later,” Woller said with a smile. “We knew it was going to happen. At least that’s what Coach Brooks said.”
Brooks confirmed the motivational ploy.
“We knew there was a good chance (UIS) would host the super, and we wanted to give our guys the mind-set that this is where we wanted to be back in March,” Brooks said.
“It wasn’t that we were predicting we’d be here necessarily. You can’t get to Peoria unless you get there first, so we came here this summer to get on that floor.”
The offseason work, however, can only go so far. The challenges still need to exist during the regular season. Needless to say, SJ-O had them.
The Spartans have seen various styles of play throughout the state this season against opponents from nearly all corners of the state in nearly every type of environment.
They beat Cissna Park, which advanced to a 1A super-sectional game, four times. Two of the Spartans’ three losses came against state-ranked 2A foes in Teutopolis (on the road) and Pleasant Plains (at a neutral venue at Riverton). The other loss — against Class 3A foe Prairie Central in the first game of the State Farm Classic in Bloomington — ended a 9-0 start.
But SJ-O faced eight teams this season that either played in a 1A or 2A regional championship game and played three 3A schools. The Spartans traveled to Pinckneyville, Riverton and Tolono for shootouts while hitting the road for a rare nonconference mid-January Friday night game at Teutopolis, one of the more prestigious small-school programs in the state.
“It was huge,” Brooks said. “We’ve been in so many situations this year, and the schedule put us in every situation we could. It was a big part of us getting here.”
SJ-O guard Nate Michael agreed.
“It helped a lot, especially with grinding out possessions and knowing you’re not going to score every possession,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure you get stops every possession.”
SJ-O senior guard Chase Patton said the high-pressure moments the Spartans have found themselves in numerous times throughout the season have rewarded the squad with its record-setting season.
“We’ve been in big-game situations before,” Patton said. “Coach keeps us calm, and we stress staying together when times are tough. That’s a dream as a kid to go to Peoria and play at state, so we’re going to take advantage of it.”
The four-year plan
When the current senior class entered St. Joseph-Ogden, basketball was flat at the school. “When we were freshmen, most of us didn’t play on that varsity team, but it was embarrassing for our school,” SJ-O senior forward Louis Acklin said of the 2-25 team. “We made a commitment right then and there that we were going to try and work hard to bring our program back. I say we have.” Acklin’s words ring true. Here’s a look at the last four seasons:
Ending: Will come Saturday night. At worst, SJ-O finishes fourth in the state out of 175 schools that started 2A postseason play more than two weeks ago.
Ending: Spartans lost 57-32 to Robinson in sectional semifinal game on their home court with former Illinois big man (and Robinson alum) Meyers Leonard watching.
Ending: Spartans had top seed but lost 61-55 to Rantoul on home court in regional title game, giving Eagles their first postseason hardware since 1990.
Ending: Three seasons removed from a Class A sectional title in final season of two-class system, Spartans lost 49-46 to Urbana Uni High in regional quarterfinal at Unity.