State Basketball -- Stew-Stras Reaches Elite Eight 1994-95


Published on January 26 2021 1:33 pm
Last Updated on January 26 2021 1:34 pm
Written by Millie Lange

Members of the Stewardson-Strasburg team were, starting at the top, left to right, first row, Christian Merriman, Ryan Moomaw, Brock Vonderheide and Brock Friese. Second row, left to right, Ryan Cox, Mark Giertz, Derrick York and Eric Roley. Third row, left to right, Phil Manhart, Scott Meers, Patrick Merriman and Craig Ogle. Bottom, Dustin Rothrock.

During the 1994-95 school year, boys high school basketball became an exciting adventure for one local town. And, according to everyone who knows him, Coach Monty Nohren couldn’t have been a nicer recipient of his Stewardson-Strasburg’s trek to the Class A State Tournament.

Coach Nohren, who wasn’t new to the area since he graduated from Windsor High School in 1956, had two different stints as head of the Comets program. This time around, his Stew-Stras squad was heading where no Comet squad had gone before.

“I think our team and coaching staff believed we could put together a pretty good run that season, especially after a decent showing the year before as a very young team,” said former player Mark Giertz. “But we definitely didn’t think when the season ended up that year we would have made it as far as we did. We set goals for winning the conference, regular season win totals and most likely taking a regional but from there we hit bonus markers taking a sectional and super-sectional that just put the icing on the cake.”

“I think we knew we were going to be ‘good’ but it was hard to conceive saying we would be going to State at that time,” said Ryan Cox, the Comets go-to guy. “We talked about going to State but it was more of a stretch goal.”
Members of the 1994-95 Comets included Giertz, Cox, Brock Vonderheide, Christian Merriman, Brock Friese, Ryan Moomaw, Derrick York, Eric Roley, Phil Manhart, Scott Meers, Dustin Rothrock, Craig Ogle and Patrick Merriman. Assistant coach was John Geisler.

“We had such a well-rounded team,” said Giertz. “Everyone played such a vital role in our success that year. Ryan Cox was obviously our guy looked to for having the most offensive presence but at any time, Brock Vonderheide and Christian Merriman could put up numbers that opposing teams had no answer for when they began to focus their attention on Ryan.

Also, Ryan Moomaw’s size and ability to rebound and help move the ball around to the perimeter allowed guys like Eric Roley to be a great threat from the three-point line. Brock Friese’s hustle and speed defensively gave him some of our toughest defensive jobs but never once did that guy back down from guarding guys several inches taller than him or bigger.

“One of the biggest things to me that year as the point guard was missing my running mate due to a back injury. Phil Manhart’s presence on the court, as during our freshmen and sophomore years, gave our team a pretty good one-two punch up top. Missing him was a piece I would love to have seen on that team that year. Even with him out most of the year, his inspiration and dedication to our team throughout our great run was something I’ll never forget.”

“Mark Giertz was a great ballhandler and great playmaker,” said Cox. “He would drive and draw the defense in and dish it off. Or, just when the defense thought he was going to dish off he would take it all the way in. I think Mark had a double-double every game with points and assists.

“Brock Vonderheide was always in the right position to get rebounds. He could maneuver in and around the crowd and be there for the rebound. I think Brock had a double-double every game with points and rebounds. Ryan Moomaw was a quiet, but solid center. He played very good defense and banged with the other team’s big guys. He rebounded great and usually produced some blocked shots in the paint as well as made shots down low to help the cause.

“Christian Merriman was quick and a great ballhandler. He could hit the outside shot so you really could not concentrate on any one guy on the team. He could also play some mean defense on the other team’s guards with quickness and aggressiveness. Brock Friese usually came off the bench and gave a breather to who needed a break or if we were not playing well. He was a spark plug and provided that spark to get us going.

“Derrick York was another player that supported the team coming off the bench and giving players a break. Phil Manhart had injured his back. He could only play the first game and then came back to play the last game.”

The two former players talked about games that stood out in their memories during the season.

“There were so many close and exciting games that year, but the one that stands out the most to me was our ‘come from behind’ victory over Ken Crawford and the Wooden Shoes in the regional championship,” said Giertz. “I remember being down possibly double digits midway through the fourth quarter and Coach Nohren didn’t like a particular call made by one of the officials. He proceeded to get a technical foul for his ‘disagreement’. 

“As I look back on this situation, I begin to see what coach was really trying to do. It had nothing to do with whether the call was right or wrong. It was the fact he needed something to fire us as players and also the fans up. From there we went on a huge rally to defeat T-town and take the regional title.”

“I would say T-town/Ken Crawford’s program that year was as good as us,” said Cox. “We just happened to have a little luck on our side and won the games that counted. If my memory serves me correct, we beat them two times and they got us once that year. After beating them in the regional, we just got hot and were firing on all cylinders.”

“I feel like the majority of our conference teams were a tough foe each night but without a doubt, between playing T-town and St. Anthony a couple of times that year, it made for quite a night of entertainment,” said Giertz. “Entering the sectional to face Fairfield followed by Lawrenceville makes you look back on the size of schools we faced as well. So, those two opponents were extremely tough going into that ‘95 sectional.”

The two talked about things that happened during the season and superstitions the team had.

“I can think back to our practices during the season,” said Cox. “I can recall that anytime we scrimmaged, Brock Friese (and in earlier years Jim Carroll) would guard me. They were quick and would stick to me like glue during our full court scrimmage. A couple of times Brock ripped my workout jersey, holding on to me as we played and I remember getting into a little argument with him at times. He always gave 110% even in practice.

“Looking back, because of this defense I experienced in practice, the games were easier. By practice end, we would be on the same page again and head out to our baseball offseason workout in my basement or in his room. I can honestly say that this team not only made me the basketball player I was, but the experiences helped me throughout my college and professional career.”

“We were pretty focused on the way to the games and coaches kept us prepared in that way,” said Giertz. “So, the road games were below-key but the team was pretty serious about pre-game music that either Ryan Cox or Phil Manhart had set for us.

“One superstition or ritual, I would call it, was that Brock Friese led the whole team in the locker room victory chant that goes back to the 70’s Stew-Stras basketball success. We never missed one of those moments and if it was a big game with a victory, it was really played up by Brock.”
The pair talked about the excitement in the community.

“I think the day we played at State, there was no one in Stewardson or Strasburg,” said Cox. “Everyone was at the Assembly Hall. I remember walking out on the court and seeing many green shirts in the stands. I feel like we lived the real life “Hoosier” movie.

“The other moment I remember is the excitement and the crowd rushing the floor after we won the regional/sectional/super-sectional games. The fans jumped onto a huge pile and of course we players were on the bottom. I got stuck at the bottom one time and could not breath. If it wasn’t for Jason Durbin pulling me out, I think I would have passed out.

“In all my sports career, including being on the same field with Barry Bonds and everything I did with baseball, this three week run to State was the greatest experience of them all.”

Cox played baseball for Southern Illinois University/Edwardsville where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame. Cox was a 1997 All-American, leading the Cougars to a fifth-place finish at the Division II College World Series and an NCAA regional championship. He completed his collegiate career with 26 victories on the mound, tying Hall of Famer Pete Delkus and Doug Fox for the all-time lead. He is SIUE’s career leader in strikeouts with 261 and was drafted in the fifth round of the 1999 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft by the San Francisco Giants and played in the minor leagues from 1999 to 2003.

“It is almost hard to explain in words the excitement we were watching as players in how the community just came together on every game night and filled the gym to capacity,” said Giertz. “It didn’t matter what team we were playing, those stands were maxed every night. As we got to the regional championship, things began to ramp up a bit. Cars around town began to change color to our green and white shade. Signs all over town were being put up in yards. The pep rallies within the school became crazy and we really saw how our community thrived on this team and brought people from all over that had once moved away back home to watch this run take place. It was truly amazing.”

Coach Nohren suffered a stroke in 2009 that left him with speech and comprehension problems. His wife Jolene talked with him and commented on the Comets run to State.

“At the time, we lived on Flame Street in Effingham,” said Jolene. “St. Anthony fans came over and decorated our porch and yard in green and white. We thought that was so nice.

“Also I was babysitting Dave Bartlett’s little boy Will. After we won to go to State, he dressed Will in green and white and said he never thought he’d do that.

“Monty always had prayer in the locker room before the game. Usually it was one of the boys who prayed.

“He scouted every team he played even if they had a bad record because he always said, ‘any given team can beat you at any given time.’ He saw that happen too many times.

“It was never about him, always about the boys and the team. He doesn’t even know what records his teams had.”

In several newspaper articles before his stroke, Nohren remarked about the 1994-95 Stew-Stras team, “Looking back the most memorable year would be our Elite Eight team, it was a high point in my career. It is kind of every coach’s dream to get to the state tournament. I had coached many years and we had been close and it kind of reaches a point to where you start thinking you might never get there then all of a sudden it happens and it is an experience you never forget.”

Nohren was named to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011.

“Coach Nohren brought a unique style of play to a very talented group of players that allowed so much freedom in an offense that was created for every player,” said Giertz. “So many offenses are set up for a fast-paced, perimeter play only, inside play only or even slow down and be methodical. Coach Nohren knew that he could mix it all together and found everyone’s strengths to where he trusted his athletes to run his system but gave us freedom to play it our way on the floor.

“He was very disciplined with practices, game preparation and having us know what we were up against each and every game. He never sugar-coated anything and told it to you how it should be. I respected that from Coach Nohren and I think it kept our team grounded and focused on our full season goals rather than personal success.

“I can’t say all this without giving credit to the Hall of Fame coach that was on our staff that year too, Coach John Giesler. Having both Giesler and Nohren as coaches for most of my basketball playing career, from junior high through high school, I can’t pass up this opportunity to say that my success is owed to John as well. There isn’t a player on our team in those few years that wouldn’t say we had two of the best coaches we could have asked for with the style of play we wanted to play. No doubt, we were blessed with two of the greatest coaches Stew-Stras had and at the same time.”

“Coach Nohren was a great coach and mentor,” said Cox. “Even when the game was tight or it was a crucial time, he always seemed to be calm and handle it with a clear mind and communicate to us what he wanted. I try to do the same, not only with the basketball and baseball teams I coach, but in life.

“Our assistant coach John Giesler was a great motivator. He would be the one with a little “fire” and push us during practice and game time.”

Cox now lives in Springfield with his wife Michelle and children, Makenna (15), Caleb (13), Camden (9) and Rylee (6). He received a degree in electrical engineering from SIUE after he retired from baseball and now works for Boston Scientific as Cardiac Rhythm Management Sales Representative where he programs, manages and supports the implantation and follow up of pacemakers and defibrillators.

Giertz and his family have been in the northern part of Illinois for the past six years where he has been an administrator of a K-8 district. His wife is a first grade teacher in a neighboring district. He has a daughter who is a senior at Seneca High School and his son is an eighth-grader.

Stew-Stras finished the 1994-95 season with a 26-4 record. The squad made the Elite Eight after beating Lebanon 64-53 in the super-sectional but then faced Kinderhook West Pike and lost 86-64 to see its magical season come to a close.