COAL CITY – On Jan. 27, 2011, Coal City and Reed-Custer faced off in their final game at the Interstate Eight Conference varsity boys basketball tournament.
The matchup didn’t merit the figurative big stage schedule-wise – it was played a day before the championship and third-place games, and tipped at 5:45 p.m. – or the literal one – it was played in Coal City’s auxiliary gym rather than its new competition gym. A sparse crowd gathered to watch Reed-Custer defeat Coal City, 60-44, and render the winless Coalers the worst team in the tournament.
Brad Boresi was then a first-year varsity coach for Coal City, and freshman Brennen Shetina a first-year varsity guard.
“After that loss, I told [Shetina], ‘Four years from now, we’ll be hosting this tournament again, and we’ll be the ones playing in that final game,’ ” Boresi recalled Friday night.
Friday night, the Coalers did play in the tournament’s final game, facing – who else? – Reed-Custer for the championship. The crowd was large and (to say the very least) engaged, and the neighbors/rivals delivered plenty of drama, going into the fourth quarter tied at 49.
As the Coalers went on to make program history, Shetina was in the middle of it all. He scored eight of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Coalers win, 75-66, and capture the tournament title for the first time.
“Brennen Shetina was fantastic,” Boresi said.
It’s not as if the Coalers’ worst-to-first turnaround happened overnight. They finished that 2010-11 season 3-23 overall. Though they were seeded 12th in the 2012 I-8 Tournament, they finished ninth as part of a 7-20 season. In 2013, they were fifth in the tournament; by the end of the season, they had 19 wins and a Class 3A regional championship.
In November, I’d not only have considered the Coalers winning the I-8 tournament possible, I’d have deemed it likely.
But it sure didn’t seem likely that the Coalers would win the I-8 tournament for most of the past five weeks. Seeded third and undefeated going into the 51st annual Plano Christmas Classic, the Coalers went 1-3 and placed eighth. Boresi said the low point came Jan. 7, when they lost, 50-30, to a Morris team with which they’d split two earlier close games.
When the tournament began, the Coalers were 10-5 and losers of five of their past eight games. Their last game before the tournament was a 78-68 loss to Reed-Custer.
Friday night, I asked center Nick Peters if he thought, going into the tournament, that the Coalers would emerge as champions.
“You look at who you’re gonna play – the winner of the 5-12 game, so if the five [Peotone] wins, that’s roughly a team very similar to yourself. It’s gonna be a dogfight every game you play,” Peters said.
“We don’t really try to look ahead, ever. We try to look at who we’re gonna play the next game. We do a great job of, coach Boresi tailors our drills, how we’re scrimmaging to the team we’re gonna play against. We just took it one game at a time and really played well every night.”
I think everyone who follows Coal City basketball would have agreed going in that, if the Coalers were going to succeed, Peters and Shetina would have to play well. They did. They, justifiably, both made the All-Tournament team.
Yet, I thought the key of all keys to the Coalers’ run was the way the players around Peters and Shetina performed. When I saw them at Plano, they too often devolved into a two-man show, or maybe a 2 1/2-man show, as Lane Cowherd also created some offense. Never in four games there did anyone other than Peters, Shetina and Cowherd score in double figures.
Peters, Shetina and Cowherd were the three leading Coal City scorers in a quarterfinal win over Peotone, but when Shetina was held to four points by Seneca in the semis, Cowherd delivered 15 points and Segal Arias had seven. And there were plenty of points to go around among the five starters Friday. Arias led the way with 22 points, with Shetina getting 20, Peters 16, Cowherd 10 and Nick Micetich seven.
“I’m playing better individually. We’re playing better as a team,” Peters said. “You mentioned Segal, and also Lane. They’re really settling into their roles that they have on this team of being finishers, being always ready at the basket because me and Brennen command a lot of attention. Segal took the ball great tonight, went hard to the basket a lot, finished a lot. Lane did the same.
“Really the whole tournament, we’ve really played well as a team, and I think that’s what set us apart from where we were at when we had the little skid, the first couple losses. We’re really playing well as a team.”