HERSCHER — At the beginning of last week, the Coal City Coalers were 0-6 versus Morris and 0-2 in postseason play under third-year varsity basketball coach Brad Boresi.
What a difference five days can make. The Coalers are now above .500 in playoff games under Boresi after going 3-0 to win the 3A Herscher Regional. Their winning percentage against Morris is still just .143 during his tenure, but the Coalers finally broke through against a team they have played, and lost to, often with a 49-47 win in Friday's championship. It is their first regional title since 2001.
To get their third crack at Morris this season, the fourth-seeded Coalers defeated fifth-seeded Herscher 52-50 in a play-in game last Monday and upset top-seeded Pontiac 50-42 on Wednesday. Boresi says that the title run did not surprise him, though he knew getting past Herscher, which the Coalers defeated 41-40 at home in mid-January, would prove difficult.
"Actually, no, I wouldn't call it a surprise. Once we got our pairings and saw who was in our regional, we thought we would have a good shot, though we expected some tough games along the way," Boresi said Monday.
"The opening night against Herscher worried us, especially with the game being on their home floor. We had a good feeling that if we could get past Monday, we were confident we would be playing Friday night. With no disrespect to Pontiac, having seen them earlier, we felt there were some things we could take advantage of, and we could get to Friday night."
Three years ago, when Boresi and many of his current players made their debuts with the varsity, the Coalers could hardly count on beating any opponent, in any setting. They went 3-23 overall. Two of their losses were to Morris — 50-41 in their own Thanksgiving Tournament, and 60-41 during the regular season. Coal City made a quick exit from the 2A Reed-Custer Regional with a 52-49 loss to Wilmington.
Coal City improved to 7-20 in 2011-12, but it fared no better against Morris or in the postseason than the year prior. The Coalers lost to the Redskins 39-37 at their Thanksgiving Tournament and 48-39 later in the year, but were blown out 47-32 by Reed-Custer at the 2A Seneca Regional.
While the Coalers are now 19-12 this season, before Friday, their fortunes against Morris had not changed. In fact, the scores were more lopsided than a year ago, as the Redskins won 56-45 at the Thanksgiving Tournament and 65-58 on Dec. 18.
“We’ve been playing against them forever, and it seems like and they always come out on top. I guess the roles were switched this time,’’ junior Coal City center Nick Peters said Friday.
"I've been on the varsity since my freshman year. The last game was the first time I felt like we out-played them, and we still lost by 7. Now, as we're making the jump up (to Class 3A), for us to come out and beat them and win it all is a testament to our own hard work, and a testament to the great job done by Coach Boresi."
The win was Coal City's first over Morris, which it has played at least once per season, since Jan. 8, 2008. Morris had won eight straight in the series.
"Winning was a great feeling anyway," Boresi said, "but knowing coming in that we had a chance to do it against Morris, who we hadn't won against since I had taken over, and knowing that our record since we started playing them hasn't been the greatest made it a little extra special."
Morris coach Joe Blumberg has faced many of the same Coaler players during the past several seasons. In 2010-11 — Boresi's rookie year — many current Coal City upperclassmen like Peters and Jon West, who hit the winning basket Friday, were already playing big varsity minutes.
"I do want to say that I'm happy for Coach Boresi," Blumberg said Friday. "That group, from their sophomore year to their senior year, has improved tremendously."
To Morris forward Ben Ortiz, who had a game-high 23 points Friday, the Coalers' improvement has not just spanned the past several seasons, it has also been apparent over the past several weeks.
"From the beginning of the year until now, the way we approach playing them and the amount of respect we have to give to certain things they do has changed quite a bit," Ortiz said Friday. "They've improved a lot. They've done a great job of getting better."
A 59-35 loss to Plano in their final game at the Plano Christmas Classic dropped the Coalers to 5-8 in late December. They have now won 14 of their last 18 games.
"After Christmas, with us at 5-8, it probably seemed extremely difficult for anyone, even me, to believe we could get to where we are now," Boresi said. "Throughout the year, with our goals, we've had to keep adjusting them, just because we would surprise ourselves a little bit."
Boresi said the Coalers would approach tonight's game with Rich East at the Rich South Sectional with the expectation of winning, but admitted that they would be able to reflect positively on their accomplishments even after a loss. The Coalers will continue to cherish Friday's victory, regardless of what happens the rest of the way.
"It's the perfect win for us, and the perfect opponent to do it against," West said Friday.