State Basketball -- St. Elmo Takes Fourth In 1987-88


Published on November 19 2020 9:36 am
Last Updated on November 20 2020 8:31 am
Written by Millie Lange

Although the 1987-88 basketball season started off a little rocky for St. Elmo High School . . . they were without a gymnasium floor for practices and the start of the season. . . the Eagles ended by thrilling fans with a trip to the Class 1A State Tournament for the only time in St. Elmo history.

“One of the weirdest things was we didn’t have a gym floor when we started the season,” said Greg Feezel, one of the co-captains. “They replaced our gym floor and there was a delay getting it done.”

“We had to practice at Brownstown High School and Vandalia Junior High School,” said the other half of the co-captains, Kevin Maxey. “So when the season started, we didn’t have a gym floor and it threw everybody off.”

“They had it down to the limestone underneath after the fall baseball season and I asked if I could go shoot and I did,” said Feezel. “The first time we got to play was against Stew-Stras and they had put the floor down but hadn’t sanded it yet. Coach (Dan) Denton said we were going ahead and play but I told him if we fell down, it was going to hurt.”

But that was a minor blip and once the Eagles started to play, area teams took notice.

“We had a good summer playing 50-some games,” said Feezel. “We had a lot of success. We were small town kids and didn’t have a clue what was going to happen. We knew we could possibly be pretty good. As a group we had had success through the junior high years.

“We were just a bunch of gym rats. Anytime we had a chance to play we did. Coach was good enough to open up the gym  if we wanted to play because he was a bigger gym rat than all of us. We’d do pre-season with cones and drills. There were times we purposely forgot those cones so we wouldn’t have to do it. We just wanted to play the game but not practice.”

Along with Feezel and Maxey as starters were Ed Moss, Rob Heckert and Ted Moss. Pat Mattix came off the bench as the sixth man.

“We weren’t really very big,” said Maxey. “I played point guard and the other four played all the positions. Ted was our biggest player which wasn’t saying a lot at 6-foot-3. I was only 5-8. We were really quick and we liked to fastbreak. We averaged about 80 points a game and played very uptempo.”

The pair remembered some of the tougher games or the ones that stood out during the season.

“The championship at our holiday tournament,” said Maxey. “Kinmundy-Alma was really good. I think they came in undefeated and we were undefeated. We thought it would be a really awesome game but we ended up beating them by over 20 points. That was a catapult that said we were really good.”

“Normally you look at St. Anthony and Teutopolis games,” said Feezel. “One of the wildest games we had we lost by 10 in the National Trail Conference Tournament against Teutopolis and then we turned around on the Tuesday after that and beat them at home.”

“I was sicker than a dog at the NTC Tournament and we ended up playing T-town for the championship,” said Maxey. “I was throwing up before the game and at halftime and it was one of my worst games of the season. But we ended up beating them after the tourney during the regular season and that kind of validated the fact that we should have won the NTC Tournament.”

“Our ball games with Kinmundy-Alma were always good,” said Feezel. “We lost to them after Christmas and we beat them in the holiday tournament and then they beat us on a last second shot. T-town and Kinmundy-Ama were the two losses during the regular season.”

The Eagles started postseason play and almost saw their season end in regional play.

“By all rights we should have gotten beat in the regional,” said Maxey. “Ramsey had us beat and they just had to make a couple of free throws. They missed and we ended up winning. In a championship type of season there is always that one game that you look back on and say, that could have been it, but wasn’t. We only beat Gillespie 55-52. That was a tough first game at the Vandalia Sectional and then we faced Trenton Wesclin.”

That game ended up with the shot heard round the world.

“With 10 seconds left in the game, we thought we had it, but I dribbled the ball off my leg and it went out of bounds,” said Maxey. “I thought it was over. But they missed their free throws and I got a chance for redemption. We were down by two and I hit the half-court shot and we ended up winning by one.

“What I loved about this team the most is that we wanted to win but we didn’t care who did what to win it. We were a team on the court and off the court. I wouldn’t have cared who hit that halfcourt shot, it didn’t matter to us who scored the most. There was no jealousy of any kind. I’m the one that hit that shot but I would have been just as happy if someone else on the team had hit it.”

From the sectional, the Eagles advanced to face Teutopolis at the super-sectional at Eastern Illinois University’s Lantz Gym.

“I remember we were up by four against T-town,” said Feezel. “Ted Moss hit free throws that put us up by four. I think Todd Kroeger might have hit a three at the buzzer making it a one-point win.

“I have never seen so many people in my life. Back in the 80’s they didn’t care about people standing in the walkways and they were all over the place. It was easier to play at the Assembly Hall than Eastern. It wasn’t quite as loud.”

From there, the Eagles had advanced to the Elite Eight and the Class 1A State Tournament at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.

“We were told if we could draw out of the northern part of the state we’d have a better chance,” said Feezel. “I think the Forreston team we beat had some really tall kids. They had one All-Stater and maybe two. We just had a nice game that day when we played. We went there to try and win it all. That’s the way we were built.”

“The last thing we wanted to do was lose right away and go home at Champaign,” said Maxey. “We played Forreston and they had some big boys and liked to run up and down like we did.”

The Eagles ended up with a 75-67 win over Forreston in the quarterfinals and they advanced to meet Pana.

“Both Greg and I had our worst shooting nights of our careers on the same night,” said Maxey. “It didn’t end well. Most of the time if I had a bad game, he would pick me up and if he had a good game, I would pick him up, or any of the others would pick us up. We had four players who averaged in double figures. We were a team that other teams couldn’t focus on one or two players.”

“We just didn’t shoot well against Pana,” said Feezel. “I think 30% was the best. If we would have shot well, but that’s the way the game goes sometimes.”

That dropped the Eagles into the third place contest against Melrose Park Walther Lutheran. Unfortunately, St. Elmo fell in overtime, 71-62 to finish fourth at the Class 1A State Tournament.

“It was a lot of fun and you hope even as a coach you get a chance to get back there,” said Feezel. “It’s also most gratifying that we did it in a system with two classes unlike today. We played against schools way bigger than we were. You have a few memories in March when it’s state tournament time again each year. The community was really behind us and other teams, they were rooting for us.”

Pana went on to win the state title by beating Pinckneyville, 62-58.

The Eagles were coached by Dan Denton who passed away at the age of 57 on October 20, 2011. Denton coached at St. Elmo from 1985 to 1995. When he died, he was teaching golf at Kankakee Community College and also coached girls basketball there.

“He was a great guy and a great motivator,” said Maxey. “None of us got in trouble much because he helped us out. He was just a player’s coach. As far as a basketball coach, you couldn’t ask for a better one. We teased each other. He would say he coached us to the state tournament but we always told him we made him and people wouldn’t even know him if it wasn’t for us. That was a standing joke.

“He started a bunch of us as sophomores over the seniors. How old you were didn’t matter to him. He looked to put the best team on the floor.”

“Coach Denton pushed us very hard and held us accountable for everything we did,” said Feezel. “He knew when he had pushed hard enough and he’d back off. We joked with him and we liked him. When it came time to work hard, he expected a lot out of us. I’ve watched and learned from him and other coaches just like him.

“He got us out and we saw the world. We went to Indiana and played and got to play against a couple of Illini players. That probably helped more than anything getting exposure in the summertime.”

St. Elmo was the smallest school to reach the Sweet 16 with 177 students and finished with a 28-4 record.

“We just had a great team and really good students,” said Maxey. “It was a great group of guys playing a sport that we loved.”