By Joe Henricksen
As Simeon gears up for yet another trip to Peoria, this time boasting the state's best player in Jabari Parker and a supporting cast featuring high-major college prospects in senior Steve Taylor and junior guard Kendrick Nunn, there is no debate that coach Rob Smith's Wolverines are the favorite.
While no one will dismiss the idea that unbeaten Proviso East, with its stellar guard play, could pull off a surprise Saturday night in Carver Arena, fans, coaches and media members fully expect Simeon to go about its business and claim a state record sixth state championship. And, yes, Bloom and Rockford Auburn hope to have something to say in the state semis.
However, there have been plenty of great, no-way-they-can-lose-type teams who were expected to bring home a title but came up short once reaching Champaign or Peoria over the past four decades. The 31-0 Quincy team, featuring Mr. Basketball Bruce Douglas, was stunned at the buzzer in the state semifinals by Mendel Catholic in 1982. Remember Kevin Garnett and Ronnie Fields teaming up together for Farragut in 1995 only to lose to Thornton in the state quarterfinals? And how about the Eddy Curry-led Thornwood team in 2001, which was upset by Schaumburg in the state championship?
Those are just three of several heavy hitters who were upset when so many penciled them in as state champs. Then there is the 1997 Thornton team. Yes, it fell short, too. And it will never be remembered as a state championship team. But when the loaded 1997 Thornton team's quest for a state title ended, it was a little different.
Coach Rocky Hill's team entered the season having lost in the state championship in each of the previous two seasons, falling to Peoria Manual both times, while finishing up the two years with a combined 61-3 record. The 1996-97 season was another shot at the title and, more importantly, one last shot at the Manual juggernaut.
"I remember being in survival mode, just not wanting to get upset before we got another shot at Manual," says Hill. "We wanted that opportunity to play them again, and I remember being so worried about not making it back to get that chance."
But making it back with the talent Hill had returning became a foregone conclusion once the season got rolling. The Wildcats, as expected, were just too good.
This was a team featuring a personnel that was both gifted and unique. There was size in 6-10 Melvin Ely, who went on to play eight seasons in the NBA. There was raw strength and athleticism in rugged 6-5, 210-pound Napoleon Harris, who went on to star in the NFL for the Raiders, Chiefs and Vikings. There was the sleek, athletic and versatile 6-5 Erik Herring, who put together a terrific college career at George Mason.
And then there was Antwaan Randle El, the speedy and tenacious point guard. He was a winner, defender and playmaker. He embarrassed opposing point guards with his suffocating ball pressure. Randle El in transition with those big, fluid athletes filling the lanes on the wings or trailing behind was a thing of beauty and intimidation.
Randle El was a draft pick of the Cubs in baseball. He enjoyed a record-breaking, All-Big Ten football career at Indiana, while also playing a little hoops for Bob Knight. And he went on to a terrific NFL career.
But this was a basketball team. Thornton was hungry, played every game like it truly mattered, competed and got after it for 32 minutes. The Wildcats crushed people. There were only two games throughout the entire regular season that were within 15 points. In 25 regular-season games, Thornton outscored its opponents by an average of 27 points a game.
"Our defense was incredible," says Hill, who went an amazing 93-4 in his first three years on the job. "You had Randle El with that great ball pressure. You had Ely, who was dominating defensively in the lane at 6-10. And then you had Napoleon Harris, who was just a grizzly bear. We had three guys who were absolute monsters defensively. We took every team out of what they wanted to do."
In addition to the unique talent, which included two future NFL stars and a NBA player, it was a team that lived up to the hype. This team actually did meet expectations, yet never could call themselves champions. This wasn't a special, gifted team that disappointed in the end. It's not a team that is remembered as a failure or one that was stunned in one of those memorable, still-talked-about-today upsets.
No, Thornton didn't get upset. Ever. Thornton did everything right, did everything a typical state championship team does. The Wildcats rolled into the Elite Eight that year with a perfect 30-0 record--and 91-3 in three years to that point. But there sat Peoria Manual, a team for the ages. It was a team that was blessed with chemistry, leadership and every other attribute imaginable that a legendary team possesses. Plus, it had dominant talent in four-year varsity performers Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin, along with budding superstar junior Frank Williams. In addition, this was a Peoria Manual team that also played the final three state tournament games on its home turf in Peoria's Carver Arena.
"I will go to my grave thinking that we were the better team that year," says Hill of his 1996-97 group. "The year before, I did think Manual was the better team. But that 1997 team ... Those were two great teams, two of the all-time best. They just had our number."
If there had been no Peoria Manual dynasty at that time, or if Thornton had found a way to get past its March nemesis and beat Manual in 1997, this Thornton team would be talked about as one of the all-time greats.
"Looking back, I just feel unbelievably blessed to have been in that position," says Hill, who reached Peoria in each of his first three seasons as head coach. "Our chemistry that year was off a bit. There was just so much hype surrounding our program around Chicago after reaching the title game the two previous years. I'm not sure we did the best job handling it all. We had to manage some issues and, at times, it divided us. I don't think Peoria Manual had those issues."
But that one state semifinal loss, which resulted in a third-place finish and 32-1 record, prevents that Thornton team from formally being invited into an exclusive club. The Hoops Report will always remember that team differently.
With two more victories, how will this Simeon team be remembered? Will it be the great team that fell just short or one that capped off a magical three-year ride with a record-breaking sixth state title?
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