By RICK HAYES
MT. VERNON —
Two men close to the Mt. Vernon Township High School basketball program say the 1996-97 edition of the Rams were not overachievers — just a good group of kids who excelled beyond their years.
Primarily built around a group of sophomores, the team went 25-5 and qualified for the state tournament before being eliminated by Aurora West. West eventually finished as the state runners-up to Peoria Manual.
“The sophomores were the body of the group, built around senior Ryan Maurer and junior Coleone Hawkins,” said Ron Marlow, who has been at the scorer’s bench for most Rams games for years. Marlow is being inducted into the MVTHS Hall of Fame this year as a “friend” of the program.
The roster included nine sophomores, two seniors and freshman James Wilson.
“Hawkins was the best defensive player and was usually assigned to guard the opponent’s best offense player,” Marlow added. “It became a team known as Kent Williams and Company because that’s what it amounted to. They kind of played behind their years.”
Williams was a sophomore that season and joined Maurer and Hawkins, Jon Knoche and Scott Gamber as the starters. Wilson had some spot starts for the Rams, who defeated Alton in the super-sectional at SIU Arena in Carbondale. Jon Thomas was the remaining senior.
“There is not one person in Mt. Vernon, me included, that thought we could go down there and beat Alton. Everybody in Southern Illinois thought Alton had the better team,” Marlow recalls. “As that game went on to the fourth quarter, you’re not believing what you’re watching, and with about three minutes to go, I thought we might have a chance to win, and we did.”
Marlow said after the game, Rams fans were in a state of disbelief, and like Marlow, it didn’t dawn on them until the drive back home that ‘Hey, I’ve got to get some state tournament tickets.’
As a sidenote to the victory, officials at the arena played the song “We Are the Champions” while Rams players and fans celebrated. Marlow said, “That was one of those pinch-me moments.”
Marlow credits coach Doug Creel for bringing the young group together as a unit.
“I think everybody knew that Doug was going to have a heckuva group with these sophomores, but we didn’t expect them to go to state as sophomores. Williams got all the accolades that year, but Maurer had a decent year. Kent was one of those once in a lifetime players,” Marlow said.
Williams led the team with 574 points, Maurer contributed 297, Gamber 208, Knoche 198, sophomore Kris Morgan 188, Hawkins 181, junior Ryan Cross 46, sophomore Kyle McClure 37, sophomore Kenneth Knox 29, and Wilson 18. Sophomores Robby Dobbs, Randy Odle and Jeremy French rounded out the roster.
“I don’t think they overachieved because they had Doug Creel as their coach,” said Randy Odle Sr., a longtime scorekeeper at MVTHS. “Doug got the most out of whatever he had. People hated that slow down basketball, but they could run and gun with the best of them.”
Odle added, “You don’t have a team with Kent Williams on it very often, so it was definitely a good time for Mt. Vernon Rams basketball.”
Odle said he was among the minority of local folks who thought that team would be successful.
“Not with four sophomores starting,” he said. “Centralia was loaded then too. They had Luke Sharp and Ty Moss. They had all the talent in the world.”
Odle said of the 96-97 team that included his son, “They were just a good group of kids. They had been playing basketball together since they were in the sixth grade. You had 12 ballplayers there that you could interchange and not be hurt.”
The Orphans beat Mt. Vernon the following year early in the tournament, and in their senior season, the Williams-led Rams finished 28-1, eventually losing to Darius Miles and East St. Louis in the super-sectional.