'This was a very special group of kids'
There might have been moments when Richwoods coach Mike Ellis sat in his office and said to himself, “now what the heck am I going to do?”
Early in the season, his all-state guard Tylon Deal suffered a knee injury. For a couple days, he was not sure if Deal would be able to play again. A few weeks later, his versatile forward Tony
Frazier left the team to undergo anger management counseling. In February, his starting center David Anderson broke his wrist.
Fast forward to just a few days ago.
Ellis sat in his office with a state runner-up trophy and plenty of fond memories that he will not trade in for anything.
He sat down for an interview last week to reflect on the magical season, one that had some adversity, but one that will also be remembered as one of the best in school history.
“The thing that I will miss the most is taking the players on trips over the summer,” he said. “It was so much fun being around these kids. It was like taking your family to Disneyland. They are all good kids. I’m very proud of the way they played, and the way they represented this school.”
Undefeated? No way
Coming into this season, the Mid-State 6 Conference was billed as balanced and competitive.
Most “experts” thought a 5-3 record would win the conference.
Peoria Notre Dame had a senior-laden backcourt and the league’s best overall player, junior Max Bielfeldt. Central and Manual were loaded with talent. Woodruff had the top scorer in the conference.
Richwoods went 8-0 in the conference.
“The fact that we were able to go undefeated every Friday night in this conference, and beat Central a third time (in the Regional final) says a lot about how hard these kids worked,” Ellis said. “We said, ‘if teams have more talent, then we’ll just have to work harder.’ That’s what these kids did. They understood how hard you had to work every day in practice and how hard you had to play every Friday night.”
After going 3-1 at the Rock Island Thanksgiving Tournament, Richwoods won nine straight games before losing to Springfield Jan. 9.
Two weeks later, the Knights beat Champaign Centennial, the No. 1 team in the state, and took over the top ranking for themselves.
They did not lose again until the state championship game (18 wins in a row between Jan. 10 and March 19).
“I told them that the No. 1 ranking is like a bottle of cologne. It’s great to splash on, but it’s poison if you try to drink it,” Ellis said. “They handled the No. 1 ranking pretty well. They went out and showed people why they were the No. 1 team in the state, and they didn’t let it go to their heads.”
Toward the end of the regular season, as Ellis prepared his team for a deep postseason run, Anderson suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
“That was my most worried moment,” Ellis said. “Without David, we were at a disadvantage at two positions because we had to move T.J. (Cole) to the post, which is not his natural position. I thought we might have some trouble against bigger teams.”
Cole, however, stepped up his play in the postseason and the Knights beat bigger teams (Morton and Rock Island) to win the Ottawa Sectional.
“Losing David and losing that lead against Morton (in the final two minutes), and having to fight for our lives in overtime were just more examples of the adversity we had to overcome all year,” Ellis said. “Adversity was our comfort zone. These kids thrived in adverse situations.”
The fab five
After the loss to Hillcrest in the state championship game, Ellis had to say goodbye to eight seniors. Five of them — Mason Alwan, T.J. Cole, Aaron Davis, Tylon Deal and Tony Frazier — were starters.
Deal, a first team AP all-state selection, set the tone early on for the entire season.
“Our practices were so competitive this year, and a lot of that came from Tylon,” Ellis said. “He could not stand to lose. Even if it was just a drill in practice, he did not want to lose, and he worked so hard at every little thing. The whole team took on his personality.”
Davis was the more quiet leader and the one Ellis called “the most respected player on the team.”
“He didn’t say much, but, when he spoke, his teammates listened to everything he said,” Ellis said. “He is so non-abrasive. He has never had one argument with anyone. You won’t find anyone who has anything bad to say about Aaron.”
Alwan was the one who stayed positive through everything, Ellis said.
“I would get on him, and he’d give me a look like, ‘come on coach, quit picking on me.’ Then the very next time down the floor, he would look like you just gave him a huge compliment,” he said. “He was a very positive person, and that helped us get through some adversity. He didn’t let anything get him down.”
Ellis called Cole the perfect role model for the younger players.
“T.J. was so unselfish. He didn’t care about personal stats. No matter what we asked him to do, he went out and did it, and he never complained,” Ellis said. “He’s the kind of kid every coach loves to have on his team.”
Frazier was the most complex personality on the team.
He missed parts of his sophomore and junior seasons because his fiery temper hindered his ability to fit into Ellis’s strict team-centered environment.
In January, he missed two weeks while he underwent anger management counseling.
“After he came back to the team, he was a much better person,” Ellis said. “Is he where he needs to be? No. But, he took big steps ... Tony cares a lot about others. You just hope he continues to grow and make better decisions.”
One factor that might have been overlooked this season was Ellis’s leadership.
When asked if he deserved some of the credit for that giant runner-up trophy (his second in seven years at Richwoods), Ellis shrugged off the question.
“No. It’s not me. It’s the players. I just set high expectations and hold the kids accountable for their work ethic and how they treat their teammates,” he said. “They did all the work. I really can’t take credit for it.”
Then he was asked, “Yeah, but don’t you feel like you guided this team through a lot of the adversity you mentioned earlier? Without you, could this team have even made it out of the Regional?
“I don’t know,” he said, modestly, clearly not wanting to talk about himself any longer. “This was a very special group of kids on and off the court. I feel privileged to have had the chance to coach them.”