Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

A few years ago some friends from France visited the United States.

They spent several weeks touring the Midwest and Southwest, driving historic Route 66. They wanted to see more than the glitz and glamour our country has to offer. They wanted to see America through the eyes of the common people.

If they had been here on Friday night, I would have taken them to the championship game of the Sesser-Valier Holiday Tournament.

The event embodied small town America. Several media outlets were there covering the game between Sesser-Valier and Goreville. But, the game deserved more than newspaper, radio and television coverage, it deserved Norman Rockwell.

The scene deserved to be memorialized on canvas.

Sesser-Valier fans packed the east bleachers. Goreville fans jammed the west side.

Except for the referees, members of the media and a few unaligned fans, all the clothing in the gym bore combinations of maroon and white or black and gold … and, there was no intermingling of the two.

The gates opened at 6 p.m. Sizeable lines had formed by 5:30 p.m.

At precisely 6 p.m. fans began streaming into the gymnasium. By 6:05 p.m. nearly half the seats were taken. By 6:15 p.m.? Well, good luck finding a seat.

Goreville took the floor first and the black and gold side of the gym stood and cheered wildly while their sons, grandsons, nephews and neighbors shot layups. By 6:30 p.m. there was a palpable sense of urgency in the gym.

Yeah, I enjoy Major League Baseball. I love the intensity of NHL games. And, it’s hard to beat the pageantry of college athletics.

But, small-town high school basketball? It’s genuine. It’s basic. It’s Americana – at its best. We’re talking tradition here.

Consider the two coaches – Todd Tripp, Goreville’s coach, wore Goreville’s black and gold back in the day. Sesser-Valier’s Shane Garner? You guessed it, he played a leading role for the Red Devils a decade or so ago.

If that doesn’t make you want to dust off the old 'Hoosiers' DVD, nothing will.

Oh, and the game?

It lived up to its billing.

Goreville fell behind by 10 points in the middle of the third quarter. However, it started raining black-and-gold 3-pointers, allowing the Blackcats to tie the game, sending Goreville fans into a state of near delirium.

It came down to the final seconds. And, we even have a redemption story here.

Peyton Geyman had a critical turnover in the closing seconds that looked like it might cost the Blackcats the game. Geyman redeemed himself by rebounding a missed shot on the Red Devils’ ensuing possession.

His outlet pass set up Tanner Dunn’s winning basket in a 65-63 victory.

Hollywood would scoff at that script. It’s too hokey. It couldn’t happen.

It did. I was there. I’m glad I was. It’s an endearing part of American culture.

LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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