PEORIA — A pep rally and community celebration to honor the St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball team will take place at 1 p.m. today at the high school gym.
SJ-O athletic director Dick Duval said after consulting with SJ-O coach and principal Brian Brooks the decision was made to hold it today so it would not interfere with anyone’s work schedule during the week.
“We didn’t want to interrupt school any more than we have,” Duval said with a laugh in reference to last week’s chaotic schedule, “and he just wanted to have something the whole general public could come to.”
Duval has a vested interest in this SJ-O team. The longtime AD and football coach’s son, Kiel, is an assistant coach to Brooks. Kiel Duval has had the responsibility all postseason of signaling in different offensive sets to the Spartans on the court when the crowd noise becomes a factor.
“It’s a great feeling for me,” he said. “I keep on telling him he may never get this chance again, so he needs to soak it in. It was similar to the first time I went to a state championship game (in football), I never thought I was going to do it again. You never know. You may never get another chance.”
The elder Duval — who coached SJ-O players like Chase Patton, Corbin Hesterberg, Louis Acklin, Aaron Woller, Dalton Walsh and others this past football season — is pleased with the way the students at SJ-O have embraced the success.
“This has kind of electrified the school,” he said. “Every game the student body got more excited and built it up more and more each game. The kids get wrapped up in it and take ownership of it.”
St. Joseph mayor B.J. Hackler said he is proud of the success the Spartans have had this postseason and bringing home the school’s first state trophy to SJ-O in boys’ basketball.
“They are ambassadors to St. Joseph,” he said.
Hackler said St. Joseph markets itself based on location, education and safety, but many mayors have told him they should market the village on their sporting traditions.
“They want to know what we are feeding these kids and what we put in the water here,” he said. “I tell them we start training them as soon as the diaper comes off.”
Hackler said the community has become emotionally invested with this year’s squad.
“The fan base is very high here,” he said.
Ogden mayor Jack Reidner said he was also proud of the Spartans’ accomplishments during the past four months.
Reidner said the schools in the St. Joseph-Ogden area not only have routinely had athletic success but academic success that all communities that form SJ-O can take solace in.
“For them to do this, it shows the hard work of the players and the coaching that they have received from the high school and its feeder schools — St. Joseph Grade School and Prairieview-Ogden,” he said. “Win or lose, they will remember their success.”
Just like Duval, Jim Acklin has more riding on an SJ-O game than just the final score.
The SJ-O superintendent’s son, Louis, is a senior forward who helped make possible the Spartans’ run to Peoria.
“The last few games have been emotional,” Jim Acklin said prior to Saturday night’s game. “He started playing organized basketball when he was a third-grader. I’ve literally watched him play for 10 years. Although he’ll play baseball in college (at either Illinois Wesleyan or Millikin), basketball’s done. That’s a little sad for me.”
Jim Acklin, who coached the SJ-O girls’ cross-country teams to a state title in 1991 and then accomplished the same feat with the Spartans boys’ cross-country teams in 1992 and 1993, said he has a 12-hour window after games where he tries not to dispense any advice to his oldest son.
“That’s my own rule,” Jim Acklin said. “I won’t try to say anything that could be construed as coaching. I will try to say to him, ‘Hey, you rebounded the heck out of the ball.’ I’ll say positive things. He doesn’t want me to be the coach, and he doesn’t need me to be the coach.”
Jim Acklin has kept the scorebook for SJ-O the last four years and estimates he has missed five games in that time span, but none this season. He had a prime spot for both of SJ-O’s games at Carver Arena, finding himself smack dab at midcourt along the scorer’s table.
“It’s been fun to be behind the scenes and get to see things the ordinary parent, even the superintendent, doesn’t get to see by being the scorekeeper,” Jim Acklin said. “They joked when they first got me doing this Louis’ freshman year it was to keep me out of trouble. Occasionally if someone makes a great shot, I might let myself go, but you really can’t say anything, even if you don’t agree with the officials. That’s probably the toughest thing for me is to dial down my fan part and my natural exuberance in wanting to get after them.”
Kyle Smith didn’t score the most points for SJ-O this season. Didn’t log the most minutes. Didn’t start the most games.
Yet the senior guard’s contributions for the Spartans went beyond the numbers he produced.
“It’s invaluable,” Brooks said. “I told our guys on Senior Night that we’ll have high expectations next year, but we won’t be very good unless we have a Kyle Smith. He’s 100 percent committed every day. We watched film on Thursday night, and he was probably more talkative than anybody in the room, and there’s a kid that’s not getting a whole lot of playing time, but he acted like an assistant coach in there.”
Smith, who gave SJ-O key minutes off the bench during his brief action Friday night against Harrisburg, saw limited minutes again Saturday.
Even though he didn’t play much or see meaningful minutes during his career at SJ-O, Smith never thought about quitting.
“I would never want to quit this team,” Smith said. “The four other seniors I’ve played with four years, and I would never give up on them.”
Smith said setting foot on Carver Arena fulfilled a dream he’s had since he started playing basketball as a youth.
“When we got here, it was pretty amazing,” he said. “It took me a little bit to get used to it, but it was incredible.”
Smith felt the same way about the fan support SJ-O received during the past two weeks.
“During sectionals I made the comment before the national anthem when they say, ‘Will everyone please rise?’, I said, ‘Will the town of St. Joe please rise?’ ” Smith said. “Our fans have been great. It’s been a great experience, and one I’ll never forget.”
Smith wasn’t the only senior who might not have scored the most points, but one the Spartans will have a tough time replacing.
Hesterberg injured his ankle during a practice last Sunday and came off the bench Wednesday night against Riverton at the Illinois-Springfield Super-Sectional game. The postponement of the game actually benefitted Hesterberg’s recovery time.
“Right after it happened, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to play Tuesday night,” said Hesterberg, who credited SJ-O athletic trainer Casey Hug for making sure he could play this weekend after receiving ice and electrical stimulation treatment. “I wanted to play no matter what though. It’s pretty sore right now, and I can already feel it. It’s got a lot of color on it.”
Matt Daniels, Nora Maberry-Daniels