Fred Kroner: STM learned to enjoy the ride
NORMAL — St. Thomas More made it look easy.
There is not a better testament to the greatness of the state’s Class 2A girls’ basketball champions than in their ability to make a difficult challenge seem effortless.
Those who have followed the team throughout the journey know it was anything but simple, even though the final scores show otherwise.
In seven postseason tournament games — six against opponents with at least 18 wins — no team was closer to STM than 20 points. Their average winning margin was 36.4 points per game.
At state, STM beat the second- and third-place teams.
“This is one of the more emotional roller coasters that I’ve been on,” head coach Chris Mennig said. “That joy you see now is not close to what you saw in December.”
As the season approached the midway mark, the Sabers were winning games but playing for a driven coach who was demanding more.
“It took me looking in the mirror, saying my mea culpa and laying off the hammer,” Mennig said. “I was coaching them like a college team.”
He didn’t back off from providing detailed scouting reports and accounting for every minute of practice, but he allowed the love of the game — and thus the fun — to return for the team. He wound up with a squad that was loose and relaxed before tipoff — singing in the locker room — but focused and intense thereafter.
It resulted not only in a state championship but also in a high performance level. In Saturday’s championship game against a Prophetstown team that had no one score more than six points, STM’s primary ball handler, Randa Harshbarger, had no turnovers.
“You hope your team plays its best when the lights are on,” Mennig said. “They were crisp.”
Best of the best
St. Thomas More (33-2) joined Sullivan’s 1991 state champions (35-0) as the only ones from the area to capture state titles in girls’ basketball.
The two squads are similar, starting with detail-oriented coaches who devoted hours to watching game film. Mennig and Sullivan’s Scott Thomas also willingly allowed a media presence in their locker rooms for pregame and halftime discussions throughout their state tournament runs.
They correctly assumed that the media would blend into the background rather than serve as an intrusive distraction at one of the season’s most critical junctures.
At halftime of the 2A state championship game, STM was more than halfway to a title-game scoring record. In case Mennig wasn’t aware of the needed point total, someone — outside of the media — texted him with the record (75).
He didn’t give a moment’s consideration to pursuing the mark, telling his team, “Respect your opponent. Listen to my guidance. We’re not here to embarrass them. We’re here to do what we do.”
Mennig didn’t just talk the talk. No starter played more than 22 minutes. His 14th player entered the game with 4 minutes, 6 seconds remaining.
For the coach, Saturday ended with a championship medal dangling around his neck. It started in a much different vein.
Arriving at Redbird Arena two hours prior to game time, he said, “I can’t keep anything down. I think it’s food poisoning.”
He continued to adhere to a philosophy of former UI coach Theresa Grentz, who gave the Sabers a pregame pep talk for the second consecutive day.
“ ‘T’ always said, ‘There’s 365 days a year. How can you have a bad day on game day?’ ” Mennig related.
He agreed to wear a microphone so WCIA television could document his in-game comments. “I guess I’ll have to be on my best behavior,” he said.
Mennig’s pregame message to his team ended with a simple thought.
“You don’t have to be better than Whitney Young. You don’t have to be better than Neuqua Valley. You just have to be the best team in this gym (Saturday),” he said. “That same energy and focus you brought (Friday night), if you bring it again, you’ll wind up on top.
“They have not seen our kind of ball pressure.”
Bringing it all together
While similarities abound in the area’s two state championship girls’ basketball teams — both had dominating centers, a versatile sharpshooter, a premier point guard and exquisite role players — a major difference existed.
Sullivan’s nationally ranked team prepared for the high school season by playing a 40-plus-game summer schedule, traveling to Maine West, Bradley University, Lake Land College and St. Joseph, Mo. Virtually every player was at every event.
STM’s team prepared during the offseason, but not collectively.
“Our first game was the first time our starting five had played together,” Mennig said.
They had to mesh as a unit as the season progressed, as they dealt with the bull’s-eye on the back that was associated with their No. 1 state ranking, and they managed to click down the stretch.
St. Thomas More added to its school record with its 23rd consecutive win in the finals, a streak that covered the entire portion of the 2014 calendar. The championship-game appearance was the school’s second in succession, but the outcome was different.
“To win is something new, and we love it,” sophomore Tori McCoy said.
“I’m overwhelmed with excitement and joy,” Harshbarger added.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s executive sports editor. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5235, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
The largest point-spread victories in girls’ basketball state championship games during the 38 years the IHSA has held title contests:
YEAR SCORE CLASS MARGIN
2009 Richwoods 56, Freeport 19 3A 37
1996 Carlyle 86, Carthage 50 1A 36
2014 St. Thomas More 70, Prophetstown 34 2A 36
1990 Teutopolis 62, Nashville 29 1A 33
2001 Fenwick 65, Neuqua Valley 32 2A 33
2012 Quincy Notre Dame 62, Breese Central 31 2A 31