On January 29 in Woodlawn, the evolution of Tyler Winchester as a basketball player reached completion.
The kid who could once spot up and shoot but do nothing else revealed himself as a finished product. Piece by piece, he’d added the ability to rebound, defend and pass. The last tool was beating a defense off the dribble.
“Definitely, it was learning how to dribble the basketball,” said Winchester. “It keeps a defense more honest with you.”
So with time expiring in overtime, Winchester picked that night, against a worthy opponent, to show off the final element of his game. He took a dribble handoff, beat his defender on a hesitation move and drained a runner in the lane as time expired.
Sesser-Valier won by two points in overtime, a result that presaged a postseason run that saw the Red Devils beat the Cardinals again for a 1A sectional title on their way to the SIU Super-Sectional.
For his role in that win and in leading S-V within a game of Peoria, Winchester is the Southern Illinoisan Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He becomes the first Red Devil to take the award.
“It’s shocking,” he said. “You look at all these good players and to be seen as one of those is a true blessing to have some talent given to you. I had a great coach and great teammates all four years. I don’t think words can express how much fun this season was.”
The only double-figure scorer on his team, Winchester pumped in 20.4 ppg while adding 4.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. He also canned 82 3-pointers, giving him 219 for his career. He scored 1,644 points in his career and grabbed 464 rebounds.
Beyond the numbers, Winchester provided leadership. Drawing on the lessons learned from former teammates like Lucas Gunter, Preston Launius and Jamie Lance, he led younger teammates by example and with words.
“When you get to postseason awards and recognition, offensive stats trump everything,” Sesser-Valier coach Shane Garner said. “To be an all-around player and do the things he was able to do in the last two years … he would guard the point guard or he could guard bigger players if we needed him to.
“People don’t understand how exhausting that is to guard the other team’s top scorer, then be your team’s leading scorer. It speaks volumes for how hard a worker he is.”
Winchester’s leadership was most obvious during the postseason. In their first three games, the Red Devils trailed in the second half. They rallied to eliminate Christopher, Steeleville and Cairo, erasing a 13-point deficit against Steeleville and winning in double overtime.
That led to a rematch with Woodlawn for the Gallatin County Sectional title. There were no dramatics this time. Sesser-Valier established a 15-point halftime lead and cruised to a 55-39 win, earning their first sectional crown in five years.
A 79-69 loss to Moweaqua Central A&M in the SIU Super-Sectional featured one final display of the Red Devils’ grit. Down 16 with just over two minutes left, they kept working the clock and had a chance to draw within two possessions with 25 seconds remaining before the odds finally caught up with them.
“To go out there with some of my best friends and accomplish something this school has seen just a few times is mind-blowing,” Winchester said. “We weren’t ready to be done. We wanted to keep playing. It showed the heart of all our guys.”
Winchester will continue his basketball career next year at Rend Lake. Garner says he will thrive without having to be the go-to man right off the bat.
“His ability to score and play at the pace and speed the game is going to be is going to open up a lot of things for him,” Garner predicts. “He won’t have to do everything any more. He can develop himself into that specific role.”
Only this time, it will be as an evolved player.