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.”

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