TUSCOLA — The high fives seemed to proliferate with each classmate Colton Musgrave passed on Wednesday afternoon inside the hallways at Tuscola High School.
Along with the encouraging words from teachers at the Douglas County school with an enrollment of 290 students.
“It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had in high school so far,” said Musgrave, a junior on the Warriors’ boys’ basketball team. “Everybody’s telling us, ‘You guys are going to win Friday.’ It’s just been awesome.”
Winning in March has those effects on high school boys’ basketball players in Illinois. Especially because Tuscola (28-6) is only two wins away from reaching the Class 1A state tournament at State Farm Center in Champaign.
The possibility of a 21-mile trip for Tuscola from its small-school gym to the 15,544-seat venue on the University of Illinois campus still exists.
But the Warriors have to focus on Meridian (27-7) first at 7 p.m. on Friday in an Effingham St. Anthony Sectional championship game at the Enlow Center, a fellow Central Illinois Conference team they’ve split their first two games with this season.
And then either Steeleville (27-6) or Christopher (24-8) would await at 6 p.m. on Monday in a super-sectional game at the Banterra Center in Carbondale.
Having a Division I talent in Jalen Quinn is one reason why Tuscola will play in its first sectional championship game since 2005 on Friday night.
So is having a player like Musgrave. The 6-foot guard isn’t physically imposing. Doesn’t possess a gifted scoring touch like Quinn. Only has 54 points on the season. And saw more time sitting on the bench than playing in games during the first two months of the season.
“I was just waiting for my number to be called,” Musgrave said.
Spot No. 10 in a Tuscola uniform on Friday night, and chances are Musgrave is guarding Meridian senior guard Graham Meisenhelter. Much like Musgrave has had the responsibility of defending the opposing team’s best player nearly every time he’s on the court since he broke into Tuscola’s starting lineup in late January.
“The No. 1 thing is just his competitive desire that every single possession means something to him,” Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth said. “It’s like he’s got personal pride on the line every time he guards someone. He covers up some things just because he’s so competitive. We’re thankful to have him.”
The good vibes and buzz swirling around Tuscola these days weren’t present two months ago when the Warriors lost 50-34 to Monticello in the title game of the Monticello Holiday Hoopla on Dec. 29. A game where the Sages put together one of their trademark stalwart defensive performances and frustrated Tuscola. Musgrave got in at the end of the game for a few possessions with the outcome well in hand, but otherwise, wasn’t much of a factor.
“That Monticello game showed us something because Monticello defended at a championship level,” Bozarth said. “They got in our shorts. They closed out hard. They contested every shot. They wouldn’t let us get into the paint. We knew as a team that we weren’t going to win championship games if we couldn’t defend. I’m not sure we’re at a Monticello-defensive level yet because they’re so good, but Colton has established us with an identity that defensive possessions mean something to us now. A lot of it is his ownership in that stake.”
Quinn knows first-hand what it’s like having Musgrave annoy, fluster and frustrate players with his defense. Before Musgrave became one of Tuscola’s starters, he mainly guarded the 6-3 Quinn every day in practice, using his quick hands, quick feet and quick anticipation to the best of his ability.
“We’d have some competitive practices earlier in the year, and he’d always be on me trying to better himself and better me,” Quinn said. “That’s what makes us a good team. We get each other better.”
Musgrave could have sulked this season. Could have checked out and turned his attention toward baseball season, where he’s the Warriors starting catcher. Become a distraction to his team. Instead, he kept working. Kept waiting for his opportunity.
And it came when he started his first game against Sullivan on Jan. 29 in the quarterfinals of the CIC tournament after a few injuries to fellow guards Easton Cunningham and James Parsley. Since then, it’s hard to keep Musgrave off the floor.
“I knew early in the season we had a lot of talent on this team,” Musgrave said. “I always just stayed ready, worked hard and had faith good things would happen.”
Which is why he was in position to make a critical steal from St. Anthony forward Kyle Stewart in the fourth quarter against the Bulldogs on Tuesday night and help spark Tuscola’s 51-48 comeback win. Stewart finished with a team-high 17 points for the Bulldogs, but only scored two points in the fourth quarter with Musgrave primarily defending him.
Quinn poured in a game-high 33 points to continue his spectacular season. The Loyola Chicago signee is averaging 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.8 steals while shooting 55 percent from the field, 39 percent from three-point range and 78 percent from the free-throw line going into Friday night.
But Bozarth was quick to credit the effect Musgrave has had on the entire boys’ basketball program with his defensive prowess just as much as Quinn’s all-around playmaking.
“He’s a guy who can be a star in one sport and then star in a role in his secondary sport,” Bozarth said. “The best small-school teams have these guys.”
The Warriors have one in Musgrave. It’s why Tuscola fans will travel in droves on Friday night to Effingham to see if the Warriors can win the seventh sectional title in program history and continue their March run.
If they do, expect Musgrave to have a leading role. With more high fives and encouragement on the way.
Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at email@example.com.