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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.