Even with no high school boys’ basketball games going on in Illinois right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we still wanted to get the lowdown from the experts.
So we had preps coordinator Colin Likas ask nine individuals associated with the game — four players (Urbana senior Jeremiah Hamilton, Tuscola senior Grant Hardwick, Villa Grove/Heritage senior Jake Eversole and Georgetown-Ridge Farm junior Cale Steinbaugh), three coaches (La Salette’s John Spezia, Paxton-Buckley-Loda’s Adam Schonauer and Rantoul’s Ryan Parker), one director of operations (Champaign Central’s Floyd Fisher) and one official (Champaign native Keith Johnson) — their thoughts on a variety of topics.
Athletes: Cale Steinbaugh (Jr., Georgetown-Ridge Farm); Grant Hardwick (Sr., Tuscola); Jeremiah Hamilton (Sr., Urbana); Jake Eversole (Sr., Villa Grove/Heritage).
Coaches: John Spezia (third year at La Salette); Adam Schonauer (seventh year at Paxton-Buckley-Loda); Ryan Parker (second year at Rantoul).
Official: Keith Johnson (out of Champaign; Class 3A/4A state finals official, Illinois Basketball Officials Association past president).
Director of basketball operations: Floyd Fisher (19th year at Champaign Central)
Who is your team’s biggest rival?
Cale Steinbaugh (Georgetown-Ridge Farm junior): “Every team in the Vermilion Valley Conference is a rival, but the game with the most hostility is against Chrisman because either the closeness of towns or because our head coach (Rob Lorenzen) is from there.”
Grant Hardwick (Tuscola senior): “Our biggest rival for basketball is Unity. Every time we play, our games are always competitive and the crowd is always into it.”
Jake Eversole (Villa Grove/Heritage senior): “The Tuscola Warriors and Villa Grove Blue Devils have always had a bit of a rivalry. We definitely carried that on with the co-op at Heritage.”
Jeremiah Hamilton (Urbana senior): “Mahomet, because their crowd gets me going and drives me to play all out.”
John Spezia (third-year La Salette coach): “At Notre Dame La Salette Academy, it is Arthur Christian. They have established a traveling trophy, with each team playing a home-and-home series. This was established by Father Michael McMahon. At Milford, it had to be Cissna Park, Hoopeston and Watseka. When I first went to Milford, they told me, ‘If you can beat Hoopeston, Watseka and Cissna Park, you will keep your job.’ At Schlarman, I am not sure — maybe Bismarck-Henning, Westville or Oakwood. At Sheldon, it would be the Donovan Wildcats.”
Adam Schonauer (seventh-year Paxton-Buckley-Loda coach): “We have had some really great games over the last five or six years with St. Joseph-Ogden and Monticello, but I am sure the people in our community would say without a doubt our biggest rival is Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley. We played each other in the regional championship in 2017 at GCMS, and the atmosphere was electric. Lines going out the doors as we pulled up on the bus, and the gym was full before the three-point contest even began.”
Ryan Parker (second-year Rantoul coach): “Since we’ve switched conferences so much over the years, I’d say our biggest rivals were Urbana in our Big 12 days, Mahomet in our Corn Belt days and I’d have to say St. Joseph-Ogden since we’ve been in the Illini Prairie. Fans can really make a rivalry, and no matter home or away, we’ve had some very lively crowds recently against these opponents.”
Floyd Fisher (Champaign Central director of operations, 19th year): “Centennial. Our gym is always packed for them, and their gym usually has a very big crowd as well. The guys have all grown up together, and it is always a wild atmosphere.”
What’s the biggest on-court rivalry you’ve seen?
Keith Johnson (Champaign native, longtime referee and past president of the Illinois Basketball Officials Association): “While I’ve seen a lot of them in my 45 years of officiating, the Champaign Central/Centennial rivalry is one of the best. You can throw out the records because they don’t mean anything. I’ve probably officiated close to 10 of these games, and three or four of them went overtime, including one regional battle at Rantoul that I think went double-overtime.”
What’s the most memorable high school basketball game you’ve been a part of?
Steinbaugh: “Last year at Salt Fork, when the crowd was chirping at me the whole game. I finished the game with 31 points and Georgetown won.”
Hardwick: “The 2019 Monticello Holiday Hoopla championship game. Us and PBL played our tails off, and not only was it a good game, there was not a seat left in the crowd. It was also the first Holiday Hoopla championship in Tuscola boys’ basketball history.”
Eversole: “My sophomore year we won the BSN Classic tournament on our home court. This was my first year back from Charleston, and I had to work hard to get into a talented starting lineup.”
Hamilton: “The first time we as a team won regionals (in 2019), for the first time in almost 30 years. That day gave me a feeling of hope and made me want to go even further and shoot for a higher target.”
Spezia: “At La Salette, it was beating Arthur Christian and St. Mary’s (Kan.). At Schlarman, beating Westville and my old buddy, coach Jeff Millis. At Milford, winning the regional tourney over Cissna Park. We were down three with 4 seconds left, and Alex Portwood hit a three and sent the game into overtime. Also, winning the Watseka Tourney twice. At Sheldon, beating South Newton (Ind.), as former Danville Area Community College player Todd Hammel and former North Judson (Ind.) coach Stew Hammel had sons and grandsons playing.”
Schonauer: “The sectional in 2016, when we upset No. 1 and undefeated Warrensburg-Latham. Great atmosphere, standing-room only and student sections were going crazy.
We got down 15 or 16 points early in the second quarter and were able to get the lead down to seven or eight going into half. We came out and played a great second half and made clutch free throws down the stretch. Our kids showed such a competitive spirit and resiliency in that game to come back against that type of team in that situation. It is still very special.”
Parker: “Dec. 27, 2019, against Rochester. First victory as head coach leading my alma mater after taking over the program a week prior. We had everyone making plays to capture the W.”
Johnson: “Tough question because there have been a lot. I don’t remember the year, but we hadn’t started three-man crews. I was officiating a sectional final between Prairie Central and St. Anne at Prairie Central. I was fortunate to work with my regular partner.
The place was packed when we arrived. It was a triple-overtime game and a thriller from wire to wire. It was sad that one of the teams could not continue on in the tournament. What made it the most memorable was that in the mayhem of trying to get off the court, the St. Anne coach caught up to us (normally not a good thing) and stated, ‘That was the best basketball game I’ve ever seen officiated. And, by the way, my team lost.’”
Fisher: “The 2008 sectional championship against Decatur Eisenhower at Mt. Zion. Eisenhower was undefeated and had beat us earlier in the year. They were ranked 19th in the nation by USA Today. They had started to pull away, and we came back. Ducky Stewart hit a shot with about 1 second remaining that touched every part of the rim before going in to get the victory for Central’s first sectional title since 1969.”
Where’s one location you always look forward to visiting?
Steinbaugh: “I look forward to playing at Chrisman because of the atmosphere.”
Hardwick: “One place I always look forward to playing is Meridian. Meridian’s gym reminds me of a college gym, and it’s an amazing atmosphere.”
Eversole: “We always have exciting games at Cerro Gordo. Their fan section makes the games really interesting, so I always look forward to playing against them.”
Hamilton: “I wanted to play at Wisconsin again. The first time we went up there (on Jan. 25, 2020, against Nicolet (Wis.)), it was fun and I learned a lot about myself that game. I wanted to show my skill development the next time we went over there.”
Spezia: “Obviously my favorite was Danville Area Community College, but high school it would be Milford and Notre Dame La Salette. Very strong backing from administration and school spirit. There is no better school spirit then the Notre Dame La Salette Coliseum Crazies and the facilities. It truly is a throwback to old-time basketball. Everyone is down on top of you the same way at Milford, even though the old gym — the Plastic Palace — was a very unique place to play, with the sport court and walls jetting out on the floor.”
Schonauer: “T-Town (Teutopolis) is a cool place to coach, with the history and trophy cases as you enter. Always a good, loud crowd with a competitive team. They have always been gracious, well-organized hosts as well.”
Parker: “RTHS gym. Nothing like coaching in front of our great fans.”
Johnson: “For a long time, I had a goal of working the state tournament at the Assembly Hall (now State Farm Center). Unfortunately, that never happened. Even though I was able to officiate games in the state tournament, they were played at Peoria.”
Fisher: “The Centralia Holiday Tournament. The tournament is usually packed with very good teams, and there is a very strong basketball tradition in Centralia. Trout Arena is nicer than most small college gyms. It is always fun to go against great competition in a great basketball atmosphere.”
Where’s one location you haven’t visited but would like to?
Steinbaugh: “State Farm Center, because they host the state tournament.”
Hardwick: “St. Joseph-Ogden. They have passionate fans and have a nice gym.”
Eversole: “I’m hoping we get the chance to play in the new gym at Villa Grove. It’s a beautiful new facility, and I’d love the chance to play there at least once.”
Hamilton: “One location I would like to go is Carbondale. I heard that they have some good competition. I always like a little challenge.”
Spezia: “In Illinois, maybe Quincy or Lincoln, or possibly T-Town. Tradition and school spirit.”
Schonauer: “Peoria Civic Center and now Assembly Hall, because that means we have made it to the state tournament.”
Parker: “State Farm Center. Every coach wants to take their program to the state tournament. That’s the goal.”
Johnson: “I’ve officiated a lot of U of I team camp games at the State Farm Center and even a couple of the Illini Orange and Blue games. I would still relish the opportunity to officiate a boys’ state final game at State Farm Center.”
Fisher: “The Bowl in Jacksonville. Old gym with the bowl surrounding the playing court on all sides. I have always enjoyed the pictures I have seen of that gym.”
Which player currently or formerly on your team are you lucky you don’t have to compete against?
Steinbaugh: “Cameron Ford, because he sets good, hard screens.”
Hardwick: “Jalen Quinn. He can not only score at will but makes the game easier for everybody on his team. He’s an amazing competitor and an even better teammate. I would hate to play against him.”
Eversole: “There are a lot of guys on my team I wouldn’t want to play against, but if I had to pick one, it’d be Blake Smith. If you’re playing against Blake, it’s going to be a long game. He’s so quick. He’s going to come after you the whole game.”
Hamilton: “The reason why I’m so grateful to not play against Jermale Young is because the way he passes the ball and creates shots amazes me every time.”
Spezia: “At Notre Dame La Salette, it would be Manny Garcia. He is a competitor, rebounds, take charges and scores. He has college potential. At Milford, Alex Portwood. Best basketball IQ I have ever coached at the high school level.”
Schonauer: “Gavin Coplea, because if we lost to his team, I wouldn’t hear the end of it.”
Parker: “Senior guard Jaxson Freeman. Great shooter who can put a lot of pressure on the D with his range.”
Fisher: “All five of our returning seniors have a chip on their shoulders and feel like they have something to prove. If I had to choose one, I would go with Henry Hamelberg. Henry is probably the biggest unknown of the returning seniors. He is coming off a very successful AAU season. He has good size and a good shot. He feels that he has a lot to prove to people in the Big 12 Conference.”
Which player in your career has been hardest to officiate?
Johnson: “Unity’s Brian Cardinal. Brian was one of the most fierce competitors I have ever seen. He never took a play off. He just pushed everything to the limit. Give him a little and he’d take advantage of you. His aggressiveness at the high-school level was something not seen by most opposing coaches, and they insisted he should have more fouls. As an official, you were constantly talking to Brian to let him know the limits.”
Which player on an opposing team is or was always tough to play against?
Steinbaugh: “All the teams that have doubled-teamed me since my freshman year.”
Hardwick: “Central A&M’s Connor Heaton. He is lengthy, fast and can score at will, which makes it tough to plan for him.”
Eversole: “Ross Hemmen from Cumberland. We got the chance to play them in the conference championship game and a regular-season game shortly after that. He guarded me both games and put up an impressive performance. “
Hamilton: “The player that I have a problem guarding would be Centennial’s Jaylen Bryson. He’s almost 7 feet and can shoot a little bit.”
Spezia: “Cale Steinbaugh at Georgetown-Ridge Farm, as he can score in many ways.”
Schonauer: “Tuscola’s Jalen Quinn, because of his ability to get to the rim and finish through contact but also be able to see the floor well and hit open teammates. His shot has improved and is more consistent, and that just adds another problem to guard.”
Parker: “This area is loaded with talent. Out of all the great players, I’m going to say Jermale Young Jr. from Urbana. Great point guards who can break down your defense keep coaches up at night. He’s a very quick and talented guard.”
Fisher: “A toss-up between Zach Cleveland of Normal Community and Landon Moore from Bloomington. Both players are next-level players. Zach’s size at 6-foot-7 with a great jump shot makes him a very difficult player to guard. Landon’s drive and intensity makes him hard to stop.”
Which player in your officiating career would be hardest to play against?
Johnson: “Simeon’s Jabari Parker. Jabari showed up at the U of I team camp, with Simeon coach Robert Smith, just two weeks out of grade school. Jabari was gangly at 6-foot-4 and maybe 170 pounds. Playing against kids four years older than him, he was impressive with his defense, rebounding and overall game, even though he was not a scorer then.
I remember walking over to Illinois assistant coach Jay Price and saying, ‘You should offer that kid a scholarship right now, because he is going to be an unbelievable player.’ Jabari did just about everything well at a young age.”
Which player in your school’s history do you hear the most about?
Steinbaugh: “My brother, Conor Steinbaugh, because he scored 45 points against Chrisman and shot 12 of 12 from the field against Bismarck.”
Hardwick: “Nick Bates. Nick was an incredible athlete as well as a leader. He was fun to watch.”
Eversole: “I hear a lot about the legend John Greger and how he was the best scorer to come through Villa Grove. John is my stepmom’s grandpa, so I’ve heard a lot about his legacy. His son, Marc, has taught me a lot about the game of basketball.”
Hamilton: “I hear about Chris Cross and Bryson Tatum the most. Those two have made an impact on our team when they were here last year. They also showed me a little more about the game of basketball itself.”
Spezia: “At Notre Dame La Salette, probably Mike Middemore, Yves Nkomba and Manny Garcia. At Milford, Alex Portwood and Wade Fox. At Sheldon, Brian Bell and Blaine Smitley.”
Schonauer: “I have been really blessed to have coached some talented players in my short time as head coach and even as an assistant coach at PBL.
The names that everyone asks about are Corey Fox and Dylan Overstreet. I coached Dylan on the freshman team my first year at PBL, and you could tell even at that age he had that ‘it’ factor. He was a natural leader and was so competitive and coachable that the bigger the game, the better he played.
One kid I constantly refer back to every year is Josiah Martin. Josiah was a good basketball player that just played behind some better basketball players, and when he did get some playing time early in the year, he struggled. But he kept working.
Finally, on senior night, I started him as one of our five seniors and he played great. He was always a great on-ball defender, and he created havoc that night on defense. Our players rallied behind his effort. A few nights later we were playing GCMS, and it was kind of a slow game. We weren’t playing great, and he came in off the bench and provided a spark and continued to play well the rest of the year. I talk to our kids constantly about the ‘Josiah Martin effect’ and how the basketball season is a grind, and at some point we’re going to need that ninth, 10th, 11th guy on the bench to provide a spark and carry us through some games or even practices when things aren’t going right.”
Parker: “I use quite a few examples, but the one guy who comes out the most is 2016 graduate Duck Gibson. He’s the exact ‘real model’ we want our guys to look up to. High character, great work ethic and never let the outside influences take him down.”
Fisher: “Verdell Jones III. V is pretty much a local legend, hitting the full-court shot to win a state championship for Franklin in middle school. He led a resurgence in basketball at Central when he joined up with the likes of Jordan Lee, Spencer Johnson and Bubba Chisholm that carried over for several years.”
Which opposing team’s mascot do you most like?
Steinbaugh: “Westville’s Tiger, because it is at every game.”
Hardwick: “St. Teresa’s Bulldog. I’ve always liked bulldogs and thought it was a cool mascot.”
Eversole: “Bismarck Blue Devils. My family has lived in Villa Grove for generations. They have all been Blue Devils. I have never had the opportunity to be a Blue Devil in my athletic career, but I will always love the Blue Devils.”
Hamilton: “Champaign Central’s Maroon. The reason why is it has left me trying to figure out what a maroon is. I don’t know whether it’s an animal or a person, but the fact the school chose a maroon is unique and kind of cool.”
Spezia: “Hoopeston Cornjerker. Now that is obvious. It used to be Schlarman, when Buzz Cassidy ran the sideline.”
Schonauer: “Cornjerkers. Very unique, but I also like how it ties back to the town’s history and the Sweetcorn Festival. It is not just some generic name chosen, but has some history behind it.”
Parker: “I’ve got to go with the Grey Ghosts of Chillicothe IVC. Very unique mascot.”
Johnson: “No strong opinion here. The Prairie Central Hawk was always respectful over the years.”
Fisher: “There really aren’t a lot of mascots roaming the sidelines in our conference. However, Peoria Richwoods has a really cool knight in armor in their front hall.”
What do you miss most about not getting to be involved with high school basketball right now?
Steinbaugh: “I miss going out there with the guys and the atmosphere.”
Hardwick: “I miss a lot of things about playing basketball, but the thing I most miss would probably be competing and making memories with my teammates. These are my brothers on and off the court.”
Eversole: “I miss everything about not playing high school basketball. It’s my life. It’s what I look forward to the most during the start of the year. This is my last year of high school, and we might not have a season. It’s very disappointing since we have been looking forward to our senior year season since we started playing together as kids.”
Hamilton: “Team chemistry. You get to see every individual grow as the days go by, whether it’s a coach or my teammates.”
Spezia: “The spirit of our Coliseum Crazies and seeing what you taught in practice carried over to game competition. The coaches’ camaraderie and the spirit of the game.”
Schonauer: “I miss the grind. The studying game film, forming practice plans and building a team’s offense and identity. I miss the camaraderie of the other coaches. Most of the other coaches in the area are great guys.
Without a doubt, though, I miss the practices with the players. I love the relationships with the players. I enjoy seeing them progress throughout the year and watching them have success and overcome adversity. I miss those daily interactions out on the floor. The basketball court is a sacred place, and a special bond is formed over the days in the gym.”
Parker: “I miss the everyday grind with our players, building those relationships and watching them compete on game nights. The state of Illinois has the best high school basketball in the country. We need it back.”
Johnson: “The camaraderie with my regular partners and our pregame and postgame discussions regarding the games. Since we normally ride together, we have time to discuss the teams, coaches, key players, style of play to expect and so on. After the game, we talk about what went well and if there are any improvements or adjustments we might need to consider.”
Fisher: “The competition and atmosphere of games.”
Why is being involved with high school basketball important to you?
Steinbaugh: “Basketball is important to me because it builds lifelong friendships with my teammates.”
Hardwick: “Playing high school basketball is important to me because I get to represent my school, my family and my community. You don’t get to do it forever; you only have a couple years. That’s why it’s important for me to make the most out of it.”
Eversole: “High school basketball is so important to me because it gives me something to look forward to and enjoy each and every day. Being a senior, all I can think about are relationships I’ve created with my teammates over a lifetime. I’m really hoping we can get out there and play together one more time. It would be a great way to wrap up our senior year.”
Hamilton: “It gave me a life skill of working with others and problem solving. It also kept me in shape and my grades above a ‘B.’”
Spezia: “It is seeing young people grow mentally and physically from what you are trying to teach them. It truly is the purity of the game. Being able to put a whole program together — from junior high through high school, from fundamentals, discipline and seeing that process take place — for years to come.”
Schonauer: “I have always been a sports junkie my whole life. I knew at a young age I wanted to be involved with sports in some capacity as a career. I had some great coaches and great experiences as a player and look really fondly back on those times. I built great friendships through sports, and I have always been competitive.
Coaching provides all of that after your playing days are over. I get the competition through the games. You develop those friendships with other coaches. You develop those relationships with players, and you enjoy watching them grow up after they are done playing and hearing about their successes.
I have gained so much from the players I have coached and become a better person because of them, and you hope they are able to look back on their high school careers as a positive experience. Coaching is a lot of time and work, but it is probably the second-most rewarding job other than being a parent.”
Parker: “Molding and helping young men become successful is what coaching is all about. Being able to use the game I’ve loved my whole life to try and achieve that is something I’ll never take for granted.”
Johnson: “What started out as a way to earn some beer and pizza money in college has grown to an avocation that I will miss when retirement comes in a few years.
Over the years, I have worked with a lot of great officials and developed wonderful friendships. I have helped many officials get started and done a great deal of mentoring over the past 15 to 20 years. I wish people could understand and appreciate that officiating is a difficult profession that takes a lot of sweat and hard work to be successful at.
It has been an extremely rewarding experience for me that has left me with lots of cherished memories. We must always remember that the players are the ultimate beneficiaries of our profession.”
Fisher: “The relationships I have made through high school basketball. The friendships I have formed with the coaches that I have worked with. The relationships that I have formed with coaches throughout the state. The relationships I have made with media members in the area.
Most importantly, the relationships I have made with players. Watching them grow into men. I have been blessed to attend weddings, patronize businesses owned by former players and have great conversations with former players as they talk about what they remember about being part of the program.”