Sabers nearly at their destination
CHAMPAIGN — Expectations don’t always follow the projected path to reality.
St. Thomas More’s boys’ basketball program is the perfect example.
Two years ago, the school won a regional championship. Four of the 14 varsity members were sophomores.
One stood 6-foot-5. Another was 6-4.
The future looked bright.
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Here it is two years later. The Sabers are one of the state’s final surviving Class 1A teams and play Heyworth on Tuesday (7 p.m.) in a super-sectional game at Illinois State University’s Redbird Arena in Normal.
While the big picture from 2012 was indeed accurate, the road to the current success was filled with twists and turns.
That 6-5 athlete, Chris Caulfield, transferred to Centennial.
The 6-4 player, All-Area first-teamer Jaycee Hillsman, transferred to Chicago Simeon and is regarded as one of the state’s top 20 unsigned seniors.
One of the other 2012 sophomores, Kyler Jones, missed the first dozen games this season while recovering from a soccer injury.
In the meantime, Matt Kelley became the third head coach in three years prior to the 2012-13 school year.
When Jones returned to the lineup, Kelley said “he added to what was already a very good team. He’s another senior and a very good ball handler.”
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Kelley came to the Sabers from Bloomington Central Catholic, where he had been an assistant for five years. While two underclassmen were gone from the previous team, he also had a newcomer. As a junior last year, Storm Joop returned to basketball. He stepped right in as the point guard.
From the outset, Kelley had a good feeling.
“When I first got there, I realized how hard they worked, how competitive they were and how well they all seemed to get along,” Kelley said.
His first team compiled a 16-11 record, but without any postseason titles. As preparations for this season began, a strong senior nucleus was in place as leaders.
It became clear early that freshmen Doug Wallen and Clavin Davis were ready to become prime-time contributors.
“That can become a problem, but it hasn’t been,” Kelley said. “It’s not a concern. Our seniors don’t care who does it. That’s a testament to how good our seniors are.”
The freshmen fit right in. “At the beginning of the year, we never thought they were out of place,” Kelley said.
Their combined improvement and development goes beyond the play on the court.
“Mentally, they’ve come a long ways,” Kelley said.
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The senior nucleus features Jones and Joop along with third-year varsity member Mike Plecki and second-year varsity player Keaton Davis. Each of the four is in the starting lineup.
All coaches like depth, but it often can be difficult to achieve. Kelley, however, was forced into using untested players during the first half of the season. He now has multiple contributors on the bench.
“Joel Yumba and Clavin Davis got a lot of minutes, which was a great confidence boost for them,” Kelley said.
Clavin Davis is one of STM’s three double-figure scorers (12.8). Wallen (17.0) is the leader, followed by Plecki (12.9). Yumba is a sophomore who’s had a high game of 12 points.
Making the team’s run more unexpected is the fact that basketball is not all of the players’ primary sport. Joop was the Area Player of the Year in football. Jones was one of the area’s top soccer players. Plecki and Joop are standouts in baseball who could play their first game two days after finishing basketball if the Sabers advance to state.
“It’s good that they play other sports so they don’t get drained by one,” Kelley said. “They came to summer stuff when they could and split time (between the activities).”
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Heyworth (23-7) and STM (23-7) are mirror images.
“We like to get out in transition, and we run the same motion offense,” Kelley said. “Defensively, we pick each other up.”
The Sabers have hit their peak for the stretch drive.
“We’ve been playing our best the last 10 games,” Kelley said. “The two teams we beat at sectional (Arthur-Lovington and St. Anne) were great teams.”
The STM boys are trying to follow in the footsteps of the STM girls, who were unbeaten at Redbird Arena two weekends ago en route to the Class 2A state championship.
“There have never been any jealousies,” Kelley said. “It has been a very good thing. Our guys saw it could be done.”
STM is getting the job done without a physically imposing presence inside. Clavin Davis, Jones and Wallen are the tallest of the squad members in the regular rotation. They each are 6-3.
“We rebound well and push the ball in transition,” Kelley said. “They’ve been able to push the ball up the court.”
Tuesday night, the push will continue. This time, the destination is state.
That goal has not been a prominent part of discussions for the coaches.
“When you look too far ahead, that’s when you get beat,” Kelley said. “That’s the good thing about having a lot of seniors. They know you can’t get to the next step without this one.”