Nashville’s loss to Chicago on Orr Saturday night in the Class 2A finals put the wraps on basketball season in Southern Illinois. While the region might not have taken a state championship trophy this year, it certainly delivered more than its share of highlights and star players.
Today, as we did when we worked at previous stops in Richlands, Virginia, and Bristol, Virginia, we’ll try to distill those moments into one column. We’ll give out some awards, inject some levity into the matter and remember the top happenings from the season.
In short, we’ll call it the All-Bucky Team. There’s only one requirement for qualification: I’ve had to see you play, coach, officiate or whatever at least once during the season. That leaves out some good players, like Cobden’s Noah Franklin and Fairfield’s Brian Estes, but I don’t feel it’s authentic to rank something I don’t see with my four eyes.
All lists are compiled in alphabetical order. Let’s not waste any more time with the introduction. Here we go:
Top 5 Boys Players: Bryce Bultman, Nashville; Jackson Connor, Marion; C.J. Johnson, West Frankfort; Tyler Winchester, Sesser-Valier; Dawson Yates, Pinckneyville.
Bultman was the leader of the best team in the area, the guy who made things go. The Hornets didn’t play a fast pace, so Bultman’s numbers (14.6 ppg, 6.1 rebounds) were modest. But it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him averaging 20 with a team that played quicker.
Connor was terrific, guiding the Wildcats to 19 wins as their only returning starter and becoming downright unstoppable at times. Johnson led the Redbirds in scoring and helped them surprise Chester in a 2A regional title game with a superb defensive effort on Keith Kiner.
Winchester tallied more than 20 ppg for the Red Devils, who reached the 1A Super-Sectional, and Yates was drawing Player of the Year consideration before a back injury slowed him down late in the season.
Top 5 Girls Players: Libby Ahlers, Nashville; Haleigh Keeling, Vienna; Sami McCowen, S-V-W; Payton Sopczak, Goreville; Jeniah Thompson, Carterville.
Ahlers enjoyed a splendid postseason as the Hornettes reached the 2A supers, while Keeling was a force on both ends of the court for the Eagles. One could make the argument that no guard was as tough on the defensive end as her.
McCowen could score 20 any night if needed, but her real value was in running the Red Devils’ offense and keeping it mistake-free. Sopczak was the trigger to the Blackcats’ high-powered attack, helping them earn a spot in the 1A sectional finals.
As for Thompson, one area coach told me that she was hands down the best player around here. I’ve seen a lot of basketball for a lot of years, and that’s one assessment I won’t dispute. She can score, rebound, pass and defend in concert, and she wouldn’t look out of place in a Division I game.
All-Ref Team: Larry Barnett, Brent Garrison, Jay Miller, Robert Reeder, Spanky Smith. Saw a lot of good ones this year, even though they wouldn’t call “over the back” as some beseeched them to. But these guys consistently call a good game and handle situations well.
Player to Watch: Addison Bent, Vienna girls. Imagine being coach Jamie Kerley and knowing you get to build your next two teams around this 6-2 rising star. Bent can block shots, move her feet defensively to cover guards and is developing range on her jumper. I said on Twitter last month that she’s a Division I player in waiting, and I’ll stand by that until proven wrong.
Best Pep Band: Carbondale’s edges out Herrin, Murphysboro and Pinckneyville.
Best Hospitality Room: Call this one a copout if you wish, but I call it a delicious tie between Goreville and Marion. I would like a best-of-seven series to settle this one. And most of my colleagues would likely agree, forks and knives at the ready.
Most Dramatic Moment: Probably Hunter Riggins’ 3-pointer that enabled Pinckneyville to upset Nashville 31-29 on Jan. 4 in Pinckneyville. Panthers coach Bob Waggoner went four corners to counter the Hornets’ length and it paid off. That was Nashville’s last loss until the state finals.
Best Comeback: Carterville’s girls erasing a five-point deficit in the final 18.3 seconds of regulation Jan. 22 to nip Anna-Jonesboro 45-41 in overtime. The Lions’ chances of winning at that point were less than one percent.
MVPs: You readers, for making it to the end of this column.