After historic regular season, Sages prepare for state tournament series

Calvin Fisher goes in for breakaway. (Photo courtesy of Mike Heiniger).

You have to go back to 1974-75 to find another Sages team that finished the regular season with just one loss. The 1965-66 team is still the only one to finish the regular season unblemished. That of course was in a one class system. Although I don’t remember either of those teams (or the two teams in the 1930s that took one loss into the post-season), a solid argument could be made that the 2017-18 Sages team was the greatest in school history.

This year’s Monticello team finished the regular season 22-1, undefeated inaugural champions of the Illini Prairie Conference,  and ranked No. 4 in the state in Class 2A. It has wins over two teams ranked in the top eight at the time they played them, a decisive 53-36 victory at St. Joseph-Ogden and a 56-53 triumph in a slugfest against Bloomington Central Catholic, a team that at least one expert believed could give top-ranked Chicago Orr a run for its money. The two-week stretch in early February also included a 56-52 victory at Quincy Notre Dame in a rematch of the 2017 Supersectional. QND is traditionally one of the toughest places this side of Teutopolis for a road team.

Listen to the full Kevin Roy Interview

“There was a lot of anticipation going into the season,” said head coach Kevin Roy, who has a 228-104 record with six regional and two sectional titles in 12 seasons at Monticello. “However, there is no more pressure on the kids than what they put on themselves. They do enough of that. They want to be successful.”

Monticello has been playing in front of capacity crowds all season, including a standing room only crowd against Bloomington Central Catholic.

Certainly no Monticello team can boast a better defense. Monticello has given up an average of just 37.1 points per game. The Sages are out-scoring opponents by an average of 22 points per game. The dominance has been consistent as opponents have scored in double figures in just 40 of 92 quarters vs. Monticello this season. In the last two games of the regular season, the Sages have given up a TOTAL of 40 points.

Monticello has been able to adjust between an extreme ball pressure attack, which has befuddled teams with less than average guards to a more intensive straight up man-to-man, which has to date shut down teams with strong three-point shooters. The Sages limited St. Joseph-Ogden, a traditionally torrid shooting program, to just four three-pointers, while holding its top scorer Jordan Brooks to just two points. Monticello is averaging around three blocked shots per game and many more shots altered.

While defense has been a hallmark of this year’s team, so has the efficiency in the offense. Few teams in Class 2A have had the depth of scoring Monticello possesses and the patience to get the best shot possible. Of course a team that has 6-6 Calvin Fisher, 6-4 Luke Stokowski, and 6-3 Benton Singleton with 6-7 Cameron Dyson coming off the bench usually manages to get to the rim. The Sages are shooting 55 percent for the season from the field, that includes late-season performances of 60 percent (24 of 40) vs. St. Joseph-Ogden, 61.8 percent (21 of 34) vs. QND, 58 percent vs. BCC (22 of 38) and 70 percent vs. Unity (23 of 33).

Unlike many of the Monticello teams of the past that has relied on three-point shooting, the Sages have attempted an average of 7.3 three-pointers per game. That combined with the reliable defense has made the Sages less vulnerable to the off game.

You’ll be hard pressed to find many better point guards in Sages history than Johnny Dawson. A standout on the football team as well, Dawson has the ability to get deep into the defense, make short jump shots, and dish.

Monticello boasts a pair of brothers of former Sages stalwarts in Fisher, whose brother, Zach, is having a breakout season at Millikin University, and Stokowski, whose brother, Nick, was a starter for the 2013 team regional championship team. The duo are this year’s teams double figure scorers. Stokowski is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field.

Singleton has stepped in as a force offensively, netting a season-high 17 points vs. Rantoul and knocking down big shot after big shot en route to a 14-point, 6-rebound performance at QND.

Balance and experience key to success

Like many good small school teams who have had successful seasons, this year’s Monticello team includes a group of athletes who have played together for a number of years. The five seniors – Fisher, Stokowski, Dawson, Dyson and Noah Wright, have been together since grade school. The rest of the rotation includes talented juniors Singleton, who has stepped into the starting line-up this year after the graduation of Isiah Florey, Alek Bundy, and Devin Graham, who posted a career-best 10 points in the season finale at Olympia.

“We have a great group of guys,” Wright said. “Even if one person is not having a good night, there are seven or eight other guys behind them. Everyone can contribute on a given night. It is very rare that you get that on a basketball team.”

Hard work paying off for Fisher

Listen to the full  Calvin Fisher Interview

Fisher enters the post-season just 12 points shy of 1,000 for his career, a great accomplishment for sure, but far behind the top four scorers in Monticello history, Tom Eller (1,798), Jim Williams (1,561), Aaron Thais (1,551) and Thad Trimble (1,546), all of which are in the Monticello Athletic Hall of Fame. But Fisher, a potential all-stater, deserves mention among the all-time greats.

Because of an unbelievable supporting cast and an unselfish attitude, Fisher has sacrificed scoring for team success, but there aren’t many players in the state that have drawn as much attention from opponents trying to stop him. One team even used a box and one to try to shut down the senior.

“He is great team player,” head coach Kevin Roy said of Fisher.  “He makes his teammates better just being on the floor, whether he is scoring or not. He has the ability to pass the ball and see the floor so well. He gives the ball up when he should give the ball up. That’s what makes him so good. He could average more points, Johnny could average more points, Luke could average more points. The fact that they’re willing to give up more points for themselves makes (coaching them) so much fun and exciting.”

Calvin has been the beneficiary of a growth spurt, the size no doubt contributing to the fact that he is hard for opponents to guard, but behind the scenes, he has put in the hard work that has given him a dynamic set of skills that has attracted college scouts.

“My dad harps on me about playing too many video games, but you’ve got to be in the gym before you can play video games every day,” Fisher said.

It is more than that motivation, though, that drives Fisher to get the most of himself. Besides playing AAU ball last summer and practicing on the weekends in Metamora, Fisher has taken advantage of each day to get some work done in the gym.

“I worked the night shift at Monicals,” Fisher said. “So each day I can wake up, lift, and get in the gym and get shots up.”

As if Fisher’s overall success isn’t enough, every great player needs that performance that makes him legendary. He has had two in February, a 24-point performance against Bloomington Central Catholic, including a couple of fourth quarter threes that help swing the momentum back to Monticello. But his 20-point performance at QND will long be remembered.

With games on back-to-back nights more than two hours away from home, Monticello decided to turn the first weekend in February into an overnight weekend trip. After dismantling Illinois Valley Central on Friday night, Fisher began not feeling well.

Even after a long bath, lots of sleep, both in the hotel and in the more than two-hour ride from Peoria to Quincy, and some medication, Fisher was still feeling the effects as game time approached.

“As a staff, we talked about Calvin not starting,” Roy said of the QND game. “We talked about what adjustments we needed to make and knew we needed to be prepared to go either way. As he’s going through warmups, I told him I was going to check with him about 3 or 4 minutes in and asked him to give me the thumbs up or the thumbs down. He gave me the thumbs up and said he was going to go. He was just mentally focused and zeroed in.”

“I drove too far not to play and I knew I had Sunday and Monday to rest,” Fisher said of his decision to give it a go.  “On my first three jump shots in warm-ups, I couldn’t even see the rim. It took me a little while to get into my rhythm, but I made a couple of threes — I don’t really know how those went in. The fact that I don’t jump a lot on my jump shot meant I wasn’t spending energy there. I couldn’t talk and clapped at my teammates just to get their attention.”

Fisher finished with 20 points, grabbed four rebounds, and made 8 of 14 from the field, including 3 of 5 from three-point range. His three-pointer at the third quarter buzzer gave Monticello a 41-39 lead and the momentum going into the decisive quarter.

“The kids were talking about Michael Jordan’s flu game and how Calvin kind of resembled that type of gutsy performance,” Roy said. “When your body is like that, sometimes you get a little sharper in the mind, knowing you have to be efficient with everything you do. That’s how he played that game.”

Fisher has gotten a lot of looks from many of the top teams in the CCIW, but another postseason run could give him the attention of coaches at a higher level.

Wright’s steady effort key to Sages success

Noah Wright has been a lockdown defender for the Sages. (photo courtesy of Mike Heiniger)

Listen to the full Noah Wright Interview

Last year, Jarron Roy gave Monticello a steady effort defensively, and he made enough shots to keep the defenses honest. That role this year is being played by senior Noah Wright. A solid contributor off the bench for last year’s state 4th place team, Wright has stepped into a starter’s role this season.

A top-notch golfer who has signed to play the sport at Grace College and the grandson of former Monticello basketball coach Bob Trimble, the school’s all-time wins leader, Wright has been playing round ball since he was three.

“Being one of the smallest players on the team, I take defense very seriously,” Wright said. “I try to lockdown whomever I’m guarding and have good help-side defense. If we are having an off night, I try to get the guys going the best I can.”

“Noah has that senior mentality on the court,” Roy said. “Besides his effort, he doesn’t make mistakes. We have had to encourage him to take the open three when he has it. That’s just the unselfish side of him. You have to tip your hat to a senior who is willing to play his role and accept it.”

Post-season looms

After an historic regular season, Monticello sets its sights on the post-season. Taking it one game at a time is not just a cliché in this case. The road to Peoria could mean a first-round rematch against either Bismarck-Henning or PBL, a potential date with Holiday Hoopla champion GCMS, another date with traditional power SJO, a battle with top-10  Bloomington Central Catholic, and a Supersectional against another top-10 foe (West Hancock, Williamsville or QND).

Monticello has had its share of great teams who have stumbled in the post-season and it took last second shots by Dawson against Unity and QND and a banked three-by Fisher in the sectional title game vs. PBL to get the Sages to Peoria a year ago.

Make no bones about it though, Monticello is the favorite to make it back to state. Mental toughness has been a hallmark of the Sages the last two seasons, giving fans plenty of optimism for another long post-season run.

“Last year’s experience has helped this group continue to grow and mature,” Roy said. “Over the last couple of weeks, the way the season has been set up, they have been challenged mentally and emotionally and have had to be able to execute on both ends of the court. The maturity they show is great. Down the stretch, I have confidence in them. They play unselfishly and want to win. There’s no individual out there.”

“We’re able to establish the fact that we’re a really good team and we’re able to play as a good team,” Fisher said. “We’re able to recognize the fact that people are going to bring their best game against us and we have to play our best if we want to win. Everyone says we should make it back to Peoria. The goal is to win the two games in Peoria this year.”

Monticello Sectional Notebook: This Sages team ‘banks’ on comeback over PBL

A packed Monticello Middle School gym watched the Sages take down PBL in the sectional final

Although it’s too soon the paint hasn’t even dried on Monticello’s thrilling 41-32 overtime win over PBL, as seasons pass in Sages basketball history, fans could simply refer to it as “The Bank.” Trailing most of the game and down 32-29 with 1:25 left in the game, Monticello’s Calvin Fisher lined up for a three-pointer from just right of the key. The ball sailed over the rim, off the glass and through the hoop to tie the score.

“I’m sure he called bank on that three,” quipped head coach Kevin Roy. “It was a huge momentum swing and carried us through the overtime.”

“When I shot it, I jumped high,” Fisher said in describing the shot. “Normally I don’t jump that high, but for some reason, I did this time when I let it go. About halfway, I said to myself, ‘That might make it.’ It was kind of ugly, but it went in. I looked up and it was a tie game. I said, ‘We’ve got a ball game now.’ I was like, let’s forget about the bank and just keep going.”

In a single moment, the Sages, who had trailed for nearly 27 of previous 30 minutes of play, seized the momentum. The game needed overtime, but PBL never scored again and Monticello tallied all nine points in the extra session to claim the fourth sectional title in school history.

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The comeback was nothing new to Monticello this year. In fact, if you had to describe the 2016-17 Sages in one word, it would be resilient. On Friday night, the Sages trailed by as many as seven points in the first half. Down 30-24 with four minutes left, it looked like PBL was the team headed for its first Sectional title in 20 years. But Monticello defense went on lockdown, holding the Panthers to just one basket the final eight minutes (four minutes in the 4th quarter and four minutes in OT).

“I told the guys (Thursday), the game was going to be in the 40s,” Roy said. “After the first half, I thought the first team to 40 was going to win. We barely got there, but we’re going to take it.”

“I was just trying to make sure to front the post and make it difficult for them to get the ball inside,” said junior forward Luke Stokowski.

PBL held for the last shot of regulation, but was called for five seconds with just 10 seconds remaining. The Sages never were able to get off a shot, but as the game went into OT, a confident Monticello team took the floor.

“Right when it went to overtime, we all sat down and sad, ‘We are going to do this,’” recalled Stokowski.

“The key to overtime was getting defensive stops early,” Roy said. “We had to scrape and battle to get every shot throughout the game, but we knew we our strengths were getting out in transition as well as taking advantage of the speed and quickness of Isiah (Florey). I thought the overtime was also an extra opportunity for Calvin.”

After a defensive stop, Florey tipped in a miss on Monticello’s first possession of OT and after a quick PBL miss, the Sages worked the ball to Fisher, who drained a turnaround shot from the right baseline.

Stokowski worked the game plan on defense, stepping in front of a pass to the post for an interception and was fouled. Stokowski let out a big shot and the purple side of the packed house erupted.

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The atmosphere was electric inside the Monticello Middle School gym. Both sides packed the building to the rafters providing the backdrop for the dramatics happening on the stage of the hardwood. Although until Tuesday’s win over Bismarck-Henning, the Sages hadn’t played a game in the gym, they had experience in middle school, but nothing like Friday night.

“If you go back to the 8th grade days, just the middle section was full,” Fisher said. “The atmosphere was amazing in here. Half the time, I had to yell, ‘Johnny (Dawson)’ five times, just to get his attention.”

The Monticello School Board is evaluating renovation plans for the high school. One of the biggest debates has been over the size of the gymnasium. Friday night demonstrated just how important a gym big enough to host a Sectional is to the success of its students.

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The victory improved Monticello to 22-5 on the season and into the Springfield Supersectional. In three of the four post-season victories, Monticello has trailed late in the second half. But that resilience has shown through time and again.

“It shows just how hard we worked to come back,” said Dawson, who not only hit a buzzer-beating lay-up in the Sages 46-45 win over Bismarck-Henning on Dec. 2, but came through again with a clutch baseline jumper as time expired in a 44-42 victory over host Unity in the Regional semifinal.

In the Regional final, Argenta-Oreana used hot shooting to overcome a 16-point first-half deficit to take a 57-53 lead late in that game. Only to see the combination of Florey and Fisher spark the Sages offense to a 66-59 victory.

The season has been filled with those moments. Besides the Bismarck game, Monticello led for just seven minutes in 54-50 victory over former Okaw Valley rival Warrensburg-Latham. The Sages trailed 48-44 with three minutes to play in that one. They held St. Thomas More scoreless for the final 3:40 of overtime in a 63-59 squeaker in Champaign. Fisher’s late three sent the final meeting with Okaw Valley champion Rantoul into overtime before the Eagles pulled out the win. After trailing most of the game in the season finale vs. SJO, Fisher hit a trey late in the third quarter to give the Sages the lead for good, as the hosts held on to win by four after a hotly contested fourth quarter.

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Monticello has won 22 regional titles in its history, but just four sectionals – 1977, 2003, 2007, and now 2017. One of the hallmarks of those championship teams has been strong point guard play. Assistant coach Luke Marry played the role on the 2007 with 152 assists in 32 games. Jeremy Stevens was a steady force both on offense and defense in in 2003 on a team with five 10-point scorers.

Without question, this year’s team doesn’t get to where it is without the play of junior point guard Johnny Dawson. What sets Dawson apart is his ability to create scoring opportunities for either he or his teammates, averaging 9.6 points per contest. He has hit two game-winning shots and on Friday night had eight rebounds, five, assists, and two steals. He has been a lockdown defender, holding St. Joseph-0gden’s Brandon Trimble to just 14 points in the season finale.

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GCMS head coach Ryan Tomkins had a front row seat for Friday night’s game. His Falcons were familiar with both teams. They missed a last-second three in a 43-40 home setback to PBL in the Regional final and handed Monticello one of its five losses, a decisive 66-55 victory over the Sages at Holiday Hoopla in which the Sages were outscored 21-5 in the fourth quarter.

That was the first of a three-game winning streak for Monticello and a gut check period for Monticello.

Much has changed in approach since that stretch around the first of the year. No doubt a big difference for the Sages has been the play of Fisher. In the first two meetings against PBL, Fisher scored a combined 19 points, but starting with a Jan. 31 game against St. Joseph-Ogden, Fisher has been on a tear.

Taking advantage of his length and outside shooting ability, he has been a tough match-up for the opposition. Fisher nearly had a triple-double against the Spartans with 25 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists. Just once over the last 10 games has Fisher scored less than 18 points. That included a 26-point effort in an overtime loss to Rantoul, the last setback for the Sages this year, 27 points in the season final against SJO, an emotional 50-46 victory, and 23 points in the Sectional Final in which Fisher scored 16 points in the 2nd half and in overtime.

Fisher is quick to point out that his progression is just a piece of the Monticello late-season success.

“I’ve had a good end of the season, where I’ve been putting points up,” Fisher said. “That’s what everyone sees, but quite honestly, we’re just clicking as a team right now.”

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At 6-5, Fisher is the tallest of three Illinois forwards. While many Monticello teams in the past won with the ability to knock down threes (case in point last year when Zach Fisher was lighting up the nets), Monticello has relied on its inside game to anchor this year’s team.

What sets them a part is just how different each are. Fisher has proven to be able to knock down shots from the outside and penetrate the lane. Stokowski is the classic five player with post-up skills (he’s shooting 67 percent from the field on the season). Florey, meanwhile has a little of both with a strong mid-range game. Outside of Fisher’s banked three, perhaps Florey provided the game’s most pivotal play with a tip-in to start the scoring in overtime.

All three have the ability to beat defenders baseline, a major cog in the late-game rally Friday night.

“Whether it’s Isiah, Luke or whoever gets the ball on the baseline, our attitude is rip and go,” Fisher said.

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Ask any coach of a championship team and they will tell you the success in the post-season is due to work in the off-season.

“In the summer, we did a good job of getting good competitive games,” Coach Roy said. “I just continued to see them grow as individuals and more importantly as a team. The heart of the guys on the floor was just relentless. They just continued to improve. We play a competitive schedule and that has helped prepare us for where we are.”

A couple of summer games gave the staff a glimpse of just how mentally tough the Sages were going to be. The team battled to an overtime victory over Rantoul in the Mahomet summer league as Jarron Roy connected on the game-winning free throw. The Sages won a physical battle with Bishop McNamera, a team still alive in the postseason, in the semifinals of the Illinois Wesleyan Shootout en route to taking the team title.

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Monticello has had just four head coaches since 1953-54 and all four have been ultra successful – Tom Young winning 336 games in 19 seasons from 1953-72, Bob Trimble a school-best 383 games in 22 years from 1972-94, Randy Moss 198 games in 12 years from 1994-2006 and Roy now 205 in 11 years from 2006-07.

Roy, whose teams have averaged nearly 19 wins a game, becomes the first Monticello coach to take multiple teams to the Supersectional and first to an Elite Eight. The Sages will be looking for their first state tournament appearance in school history on Tuesday night.

The Neoga native has proven to be a masterful strategist, this year with help from two men who played on his first team – Marry and Kevin Feeney, which won the other sectional in Roy’s tenure.

One of the hallmarks of Roy’s success is how he has brought players up through the program. He has a history of working in sophomores to the rotation to give them a taste of varsity experience without putting pressure on them to perform. Two of his most recent examples – Fisher and Dawson saw increased minutes last year, no doubt an experience that helped prepare them to become starters this year. Dawson got to spell Noah Freemon some at the point, while Fisher got to get his feet wet as an outside threat in 2016.

This year is no different. The Sages will graduate just two seniors in Roy and Florey, but will bring a strong nucleus back next year. Two of this year’s sophomores, Devin Graham and Ben Singleton, along with junior Noah Wright, promise to play even more prominent roles for Monticello in 2017-18, a team that should be another contender.

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Speaking of Wright, there is perhaps no prouder person in the crowd Friday night than Bob Trimble. For the second year in a row, he has seen a grandson advance to the Elite Eight. The long-time Monticello coach, saw grandson Brandon Trimble lead St. Joseph-Ogden to the Class 2A state title last year. Now grandson, Noah Wright, is a big piece to the Sages success

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If Monticello is to advance further, it must beat go through a series of private or non-boundaried schools. Taking nothing away from SJO’s success last year, but they did so in a down year for small school Chicago teams. That isn’t the case this year as Orr, a quarterfinalist in the Chicago Public League playoffs, is considered one of the top 10 teams in the Chicagoland area regardless of class.

Of the eight teams remaining in Class 2A, only two are public schools with definite boundaries — Monticello and Mt. Carmel. The Sages semifinal football team saw its season end to a private giant in IC Catholic, while the girls’ basketball team was blasted by eventual state runner-up Bloomington Central Catholic. The boys’ basketball team now faces what many believe to be the best team in the state in Quincy Notre Dame, another private school. The Raiders, who overcame a 50+ game from Trimble in winning the State Farm Classic, in December, will be looking for their first state appearance since placing third in Class A in 2004.

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Whatever happens on Tuesday, this year’s team has raised the bar for the program, which has won Regional titles in four of the last five years. Both the 7th and 8th grade teams won Regionals this year with the 7th grade team advancing to the State Tournament. A strong group of six-graders follows behind.

No one has had a closer look at the growth of the program than Jarron Roy, a starter, who has been beside his dad during his 11 years at the helm.

“We are hopefully setting the standard for years to come,” he said.