By STEVE JOOS
Chicago, including (and maybe more importantly) the Collar Counties.
East Central Illinois, mainly Springfield and Decatur.
Rockford and Freeport.
If anyone wants to get a clue as to why the Peoria area has struggled for the most part during the era of classification in Illinois high school boys’ basketball, one need only look, or may want to start by looking, at the history of one-class hoops in the state.
The above-mentioned areas were the hotbeds of boys’ round ball during the first 64 years of the “Original March Madness” and that prowess has been demonstrated often during the 36 years of two-class hoops (1972-2007) and in the expansion to four classes since 2008.
For instance, Southern Illinois, especially schools like Collinsville, Centralia and Mount Vernon, produced a number of powerhouse teams from the 1920’s through the 1960s, winning between them nine state titles. Then there’s Marion, Johnson City, Mount Carmel and Herrin, each of whom took the crown once.
Another Southern heavyweight program, Pinckneyville, is the only Class A program to boast a one-class titlist.
It was almost appropriate that the first Class A state championship game featured two teams form Southern Illinois (Lawrenceville and Mounds Meridian) and that the first Chicagoland winner (the 1979 New Lennox Providence Celtics) hailed from a Collar County (Will), since with a few exceptions, Chicago had to bask in the glow of the exurbs for most of the tournament’s first 50 years.
Illinois’ answer to the Milan High School team which inspired the move “Hoosiers”, the 1952 Hebron Green Giants, were the seventh Collar County school to with a state title during the first 45 years of the tourney, two years before a Chicago Public League school (DuSable) even made it to a championship game.
Mount Pulaski, Shelbyville, Maroa-Fosyth, Pana, Findlay, Normal U-High and Pleasant Plains all took state championships in the Class system after years of being stymied by Decatur and Springfield under one-class, as were Pittsfield and the Hancock County schools which had trouble getting out of Quincy before the late 1990s.
Legendary coach Dolph Stanley directed the 1936 Mount Pulaski Hilltoppers to fourth-place finish at Huff Gym, 40 years before Ed Butkovich mentored the 1976 Toppers to the first state title won by a non-Southern Illinois school. And who stood in the way of Mount Pulaski for most of those years? That’s right, the (four-time one-class state champion) Stephen Decatur Running Reds.
The little schools around Rockford and Freeport that never had a chance haven’t been that well-represented in the class system, except for Rock Falls in 1999, and they may have been on the borderline with the Quad Cities, but they still had a title in the two-class system.
Manual’s 1994-97 Class AA four-peat exceeded the total number of state championships won by Peoria schools combined (three) up to that time. When Central brought the 1977 AA title back to the River City, the Lions not only snapped a streak where Chicago and suburban Cook County schools captured 10 titles in 11 years (bridging the one- and two-class eras), it also ended a 47-year dry spell for Peoria, although the city could bask in the glow of fellow Mid-state Nine member Pekin and Dawdy Hawkins’ 1964 and 1967 champs.
The ’64 Dragons broke the rest of the state’s heart by ending Cobden’s Cinderella run in the championship game, which leads to another thing about Peoria basketball which may or may not have some bearing on the area’s one-class and later multiple-class bridesmaid’s status. As far as I can see, there was no Cobden- or Hebron-like school to get through Peoria during the one-class years, other than Lewistown in the early 1940s and Chuck Rolinski’s 1967 Toluca Wildcats, a team which did not come out of the Peoria Sectional.
Pinckneyville was one of seven schools to win a Class A state title and also place in a one-class tourney. Four of those schools were located in (you guessed it) Southern Illinois, while two more couldn’t get around Decatur.
After not catching the brass ring for the entire two-class era and the first five years of four-class ball, the Peoria area finally broke through in 2013, when Illini Central brought a state championship to Mason City and glory to a consolidated school that can trace its lineage back to a pair of Mason County schools which got through to Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse in the one-class days: the 1969 San Jose Red Devils and the 1970 Mason City Huskies.
There have been schools which have done well at the small school tournament from around Peoria, as well as Galesburg and the Quad Cities, two other regions known mostly for producing silver and bronze medalists, along with fourth-place finishers, but only Illini Central and Brimfield, both in the last four years, have worn the crown as state champions.
Why is that?
Maybe the days when it was just one class might be a good place to start.
Steve Joos is a retired sports writer who currently resides in Peoria, IL.
I was hoping to make this my first blog post, but I started blogging long after basketball season had ended. The hoops season is almost half over, so I guess I’d better post this. Hope you learn something.