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Johnson: Morris-Seneca basketball game long overdue

SENECA – A 2005 boys basketball game between Morris and Seneca is a rare regular-season contest that I can vividly recall nine years after it happened.

Never before or since have I seen a crowd at Morris for a nonfootball sporting event as large as the one that packed the gym on Feb. 8, 2005. After arriving only a few minutes before tip-off, I remember being forced to park down near the swimming pool. Finding a spot to sit, or stand, to watch the action unfold was a difficult task.

And rarely, if ever, has the gym at Morris been as loud as it was that night. The game was a thriller, and there was a lot worn-on-the-sleeves emotion – on the floor and in the stands. The place turned into a madhouse when a late call – one that a few of my neighbors in Seneca are probably still shaking their heads about – went against the Fighting Irish. It was just as noisy when Seneca’s Marty Hetelle missed a last-second 3-pointer to preserve a 42-41 victory for Morris.

The teams have met twice in the years since then. They played the following season in the now-defunct Winter Classic, with Seneca winning 63-33 on its way to the Class 1A state championship. They faced off again for the consolation championship at the 2010 Plano Christmas Classic, where Morris was a 52-40 winner.

Until Saturday night, when Morris defeated Seneca, 46-42, in front of a decent but undoubtedly weather-thinned crowd at Seneca, that 2005 game was the last time Morris and Seneca had met outside of tournament play. I’ve heard from people that would know that Morris opted not to renew the teams’ contract after the game.

“If I’m Morris, do I want that game? Probably not. Same reason why I don’t want 1A games,” Seneca coach Russell Witte said Saturday. “It’s if you win the game, you’re supposed to win. If you don’t win the game, it’s an upset.

“Do I feel like that with Morris? Absolutely not. I feel like we’re same level. I feel like we can play with most anybody else when we’re playing hard. But for me, absolutely, I don’t wanna load my schedule with [teams from a lower class].”

Many of the principals are different now. Both teams have different coaches than they had then, and Morris has since changed athletic directors. And Saturday, both sides seemed happy to have renewed acquaintances.

“I think the last time our varsity played here was 1999-00. Two schools that close, that shouldn’t have happened,” Morris coach Joe Blumberg said. “I don’t know the history of it, but hopefully this is a rivalry that will be renewed and we’ll have battles like this every year.”

Witte wasn’t in the area the last time Morris and Seneca played a regular-season game. He was Hall High School’s head coach during the 2004-05 season. Yet he sought some form of belated revenge Saturday night on behalf of that Seneca team, which won every other regular-season game it played in 2005 and every game the following season.

“The first thing we wrote up on the board was 2005,” Witte said. “We talked about, had that game gone any differently, Seneca would have the longest winning streak in the state of Illinois for consecutive games.”

Seneca forward Austin Applebee admitted that the result of a game played when he and most of his teammates were 7, 8 or 9 years old gave Saturday’s game a twist most nonconference, early-January tilts would lack.

“We wanted this game really bad. I would say it’s a pretty big rivalry,” Applebee said, “and they beat us last time, in 2005. We just wanted to get back at them for that.”

Only one player from either side, Seneca guard Conlan Callahan, had previously been part of a varsity game between the two schools. Callahan played 26 minutes, tying the Seneca lead with nine points, as a freshman in that 2010 game at Plano. None of the current Morris players appeared in that game.

“We’ve never had the opportunity to play in it, like this group of guys,” Morris senior Brock Kukman said, “but it’s been a cool week playing up into it because coach told us about everything that’s happened in the whole little rivalry, and we wanted to finally take a part of it. We knew that coming in here, we were gonna have to play up to our best ability, and I felt like we did that tonight.”

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