When you think Monticello basketball history, you certainly start with the school’s three supersectional appearances, coming in 1977, 2003 and 2007. However, as the Sages begin the post-season this week, the 2015 brand is working its way into the upper tier.
A packed Miller Gym saw the Sages defeat St. Joseph-Ogden, 49-46, in a de facto Okaw Valley title game last Friday night with both teams entering the contest tied for first place. The win gave Monticello its first outright conference title since the 1980s and avenged a 20-point defeat three weeks earlier in St. Joseph.
The 70-50 loss to the Spartans on Feb. 3 was one of the few games not decided in the final minutes of the game for this Sages team. The wins have included squeakers against Sullivan (49-47), Argenta-Oreana (57-52), GCMS (51-50), Rantoul (60-57), Warrensburg-Latham (54-50), St. Thomas More (63-60) and SJO (49-46). Monticello also trailed at half to Maroa-Forsyth, which went winless in the league, before coming back to win by 15. In two of the five losses (to Riverton and Tri-Valley), the Sages led at the half.
The point being that in getting to a stellar 19-5 mark and claiming the conference title, these Sages have played in a host of close games and more times than not come out on top. In perhaps the most impressive win of the season, a 54-50 triumph over then No. 4 ranked and undefeated Warrensburg-Latham, the Sages withstood a charge by the Cardinals, giving up the lead late, but didn’t flinch in coming back to win the game, thanks in part to some clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch by seniors Nathan Mumm and Daniel Peterson.
What I appreciated about the 2003 sectional championship squad, which I contend is the best team the school has ever produced (winning a school-record 28 games and coming within an overtime of reaching the state tournament), was that all five starters averaged between eight and 11 points per game.
By contrast, the 2014-15 team has star-power. Just over 58 percent of the points have run through two players, juniors Zach Fisher (19.5 ppg) and Noah Freemon (15.2 ppg). St. Joseph-Ogden did everything they could to slow Fisher down, even face-guarding him, but still he managed 19 points. Fisher has become adept at hitting shots the buzzer and shattered the school’s single-season three-point record (now with 79), while shooting the three-ball at a scintillating 45 percent.
What’s enjoyable about this Sages team, however, has been how the team as a whole has responded to feeding the ball to its hot hands. The rest of regulars, which include six seniors, junior Tyus Welter and sophomore Isiah Florey, have understood that in order for the team to win, the offense must flow through those talented juniors. In turn, however, Fisher and Freemon have embraced the fact that the success hasn’t been about them. They have kept egos in check and have done a great job of feeding the other members on the floor.
Two of Monticello’s most impressive performances came against two former Okaw schools that have been thorns in the Sages sides throughout the years, the aforementioned four-point victory over Warrensburg and a 58-47 win over Meridian, a school that claimed one of the first Class 1A titles in the four-class era. That latter contest has been the best so far for Freemon as the star wide receiver on the gridiron exploded for 26 points in the comeback win.
Make no mistake about it: the Sages run this year has been a team effort, starting with a coaching staff that understands how to win. Head coach Kevin Roy continues a long line of successful head coaches at Monticello. Since 1953, the Sages have had just four head coaches – Tom Young (1953-72), 336-157, Bob Trimble (1972-94), 383-201; Randy Moss (1994-2006), 198-145; and Roy (2006-present), 165-86, with each of the coaches in the multi-class system taking a team to the Sweet 16. Roy’s biggest strength beyond as a tactician has been developing talent. Under Roy, several players have made tremendous strides during their sophomore years, and this year is no exception with Isiah Florey proving valuable late in games.
In Roy’s first year, the Sages advanced to the Macomb Supersectional and provided the only defeat (in football or basketball) to Maroa-Forsyth’s championship season. A guard on that successful team, Luke Marry, now coaches the freshmen. Kevin Feeney, who played on Xavier’s Sweet 16 team, volunteers on the staff that includes Monticello Hall of Famer Aaron Thais, who held the Sages’ single-season three-point record until Fisher topped the mark this year. No doubt the quality of the staff has been a big reason for molding this bunch into a successful team.
This year’s squad lacks size, but not toughness. The likes of Clay Becker, Peterson, Ryne Bunde and Florey aren’t afraid to attack the basket and challenge opponents’ physicality. In an eight-game winning streak against teams like Unity, St. Thomas More, Rantoul and Warrensburg, with taller players, the Sages out-rebounded opponents and didn’t foul a player out of a game. The Sages have often used Becker and Bunde at the same time to provide defensive support, while the post players have shot a combined 49.7 percent from the field. Florey has become fluid around the basket with a leaping ability to provide tip-ins as well as block shots.
The Sages are extremely deep at guard, especially after Mumm returned following a soccer injury. Whether it is starter Daniel Caldwell or Mumm and Welter coming off the bench, Monticello doesn’t lose a beat in terms of ballhandling or shooting efficiency. In fact, Caldwell hit perhaps the biggest basket in the win over SJO, a fourth-quarter corner three-pointer.
Admittedly, Monticello has had more talented teams than the 2015 edition, but few can match the heart and fight that this year’s edition has demonstrated. The Sages have not wilted under pressure and the squad plays with just enough of an edge to not back down against tough competition.
Monticello takes a 13-2 home record into Friday’s regional championship against Argenta-Oreana, who had the Sages on the ropes at the Holiday Hoopla. Another packed Miller Gym is expected. If the rest of the season is any indication, the contest will come down to another exciting fourth quarter. This is the time of the year where taking it one game at a time is more than a cliché, but one thing is for sure, the Sages will be worth the price of admission.