By PAUL HINES
MT. VERNON —
The 1996-97 Mt. Vernon boys basketball team set the table for a historic three-year Rams run.
The squad was built around a trio of sophomores that included the school’s all-time leading scorer and finished 25-5 overall. The Rams made a postseason run that ended in the Elite Eight. Sophomores Kent Williams, Scott Gamber and Jon Knoche all started along with senior Ryan Maurer and junior Coleone Hawkins.
The team is being inducted into the Mt. Vernon Township Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013.
“If I had to sum up that team and why we were successful, it’s because our better kids were our toughest kids and practiced hard all the time,” coach Doug Creel said. “There was no letdown, and you don’t have that much anymore.”
Other players on the squad were: Jon Thomas, Ryan Cross, Kris Morgan, Kyle McClure, Kenneth Knox, Robby Dobbs, Randy Odle, Reed Backes, Cory McGee, Micheal Tolin, Jeremy Frerick and freshman James Wilson.
The Rams started that season with a pair of early loses, but the team gelled quickly and lost just once at the Centralia Holiday Tournament before taking second place to Edwardsville at the Salem Invitational Tournament. After Salem, the team’s only blemish came in the playoffs against Aurora West, who went on to finish second in the state.
“Just looking back, it was just one of those things that you never really realize what you were doing until it was over because the expectations were low and none of us had done anything like that before,” Gamber said. “So all of it was pretty new. We were too young and naieve to know that we should be nervous.”
Williams described a throwback nature the team possessed. It was a Rams team defined by toughness and grit in addition to talent.
“We took charges. We dove on the floor,” Williams said. “We were a little nasty when we played, and I think that the fans just really ate that up and loved it.”
The intensity of the team wasn’t simply showcased on game days. It happened in practice and even just in a driveway during pickup matchups between teammates.
That’s how we all were from day one,” Williams said. “If we went over to Jon Knoche’s house, and we played in his driveway if it didn’t end up with a couple guys getting mad at each other then it probably wasn’t a good game. That’s just the way we were. It wasn’t like we were arguing and bickering over little stuff. It was just competing, getting after it.
“I think it helped raise everybody’s level that way.”
Some of the team’s strength came from how they related to each other. Ryan Maurer was a senior playing with three sophomore starters. Williams described Maurer as a player who could impact the game without scoring. Creel had more praise.
“I heard somebody say something about Ryan Maurer the other day and said he was the nicest guy in America,” Creel said. “And that’s what he is.
“There was no jealousy.”
As the wins piled up, so did the crowds. Droves of fans traveled to away games creating a home away from Changnon Gymnasium.
“It got to be where we would get home from a regional or a sectional game and fans would start camping out that night for tickets that wouldn’t go on sale until at earliest the next morning and in some case two mornings from then,” Gamber said.
The foundation of the team was laid in the earliest years. Williams said every player knew their place within the team and most roles had been the same since youth basketball. The group’s goal of winning never wavered either.
“Our goal was to put a banner up there one day because we did it everywhere we went,” Williams said. “We put banners (up) in grade school, junior high Wherever we went we won.”
The winning mindset manifested into a confidence among the players.
“The Lakers could have walked out on the floor, and we wouldn’t have won but our kids would have thought, ‘Hey, we’re supposed to win.’ They expected to win. They expected to play well,” Creel said.