“Everyone was selfless. Nobody cared who averaged more points, we just wanted to win”
By: Garrett Krohne
In the village of Okawville, there are just a couple things residents could be up to on a Friday night between late November and early March, assuming corn and bean harvest are going as planned.
“I feel like you’re either sitting at Eagles Nest watching Gunsmoke, or you are at a basketball game,” said Lane Schilling, a 2019 graduate of Okawville Jr. Sr. High School.
The basketball bloodline has always run deep in the town of 1,400, but in the Spring of 2018, it offered quite possibly its proudest moment in the form of a highly sought after State Championship trophy. Rewinding to the prior season. The Rockets returned to Okawville with open arms following a painful overtime loss to Effingham St. Anthony in the Class 1A State Title Game at Carver Arena.
“Our kids, we were crushed, I didn’t know how they’d react, it was a tough loss” said Rocket Head Coach Jon Kraus, who just finished his 24th season at helm.
Not that anybody was thinking a year in advance at the time, but the returning players knew they would have big shoes to fill. The team witnessed their two leading scorers, Noah Frederking and Shane Ganz, graduate two months later. The squad would also have to replace the production of starters Kirklen Meier and Josh Madrid. The Rockets too said goodbye to Drew Fredering and Logan Reichmann, two key contributors off of the bench.
“I really didn’t know to be honest. I knew we had a good nucleus and good experience coming back, we knew we had guys that were going to fight.” Coach Kraus said. “We lost our two dominant players, but we knew we had some good players.”
Senior Caleb Frederking was a returning starter while fellow seniors Luke Hensler and Payton Harre also found themselves playing big minutes during the stretch run. Will Aubel, Lane Schilling, Wyatt Krohne, and Payton Reichmann dressed during their sophomore seasons, but their playing time was limited due to a deep bench of upperclassmen. Coach Kraus noted being around a big game environment can help, even if you are not seeing minutes on the court.
“We had a lot of kids who were around the environment the year before; whether they were on the bench, in the locker room, or part of the student section,” Coach Kraus said.
From a player standpoint, there was never any doubt as to whether or not the team would be back at state the following season. The five starters for the team consisted of Frederking, Hensler, Harre, Krohne, and Aubel, while Schilling was the first person off the bench.
“That’s something I can say about this team, from the time they got back they went to work,” said the 24 year veteran. “I think the theme with a lot of our teams over the years is that nobody wants to be that team who didn’t get it done, they didn’t want to be that group. A lot of the guys worked hard on their own.”
As mentioned before, the team was losing their two leading scorers as well as a handful of key members, but the 2018 team refused to be written off.
“As soon as we lost the previous state game I knew we were going back,” said Frederking, a senior at the time.
Luke Hensler echoed those comments.
“We all had confidence and trust in each other, and we kind of felt we deserved to be back even when everyone else didn’t think so,” Hensler said.
Before the team was enshrined into the history books, the season did not go without some turmoil. There were a couple different games the group pointed to in regards to possible wake up calls. First came a sloppy 40 to 28 loss at Nashville.”Terrible” is the word most used to describe this particular game. The loss to the Hornets was a rocky one, but a 59 to 55 loss to Freeburg weeks later is the one most credited for the turnaround in the season.
“Going into that game, we had been playing better, we thought we really had something going. It was a good game, but we played terrible,” Coach Kraus said.
Will Aubel, who was a junior, described the mood in the locker following the loss.
“Everyone was just kind of looking around like what’s going on guys? Coach (Ryan) Heck isn’t really a person to ever get mad, but even he was pretty upset after that loss,” Aubel said. Harre continued to say “we knew we were in trouble.”
The next day at practice, Coach Kraus “old schooled them.”
“I just remember coming to practice that day and we did medicine ball drills for close to an hour,” Aubel said.
The team admitted it was the sense of urgency they needed.
“Heck yeah it was, he lit us up, but that was the day we found ourselves as a team” said Krohne, a junior at the time. Frederking’s comments were symmetrical. “I completely agree, we kept losing very winnable games. During that practice something just clicked.”
Following the practice, Hensler recalled a team meeting which took place.
‘We had our practice and had a team meeting with some of the guys and figured some stuff out on how we can play better as a whole for the better of the team,” Hensler said.
The eventual champs responded by winning their next five games of the regular season. An eight point victory on the road at Breese Central sent the Rockets into the postseason with a full head of steam. Harre feels “that’s the game where we knew how good we could be.”
Okawville, who was hosting the Regional, began their postseason with an eighteen point win over Lebanon. In search of their fourth consecutive Regional Championship, Lovejoy was the only hurdle left to jump over. Even though it ended up being a laugher free, the Wildcats surprised the Rockets in the first two minutes. Okawville found themselves down 9 to 0 before Coach Kraus signaled for a timeout. With a chuckle, Harre remembered the moment. “Kraus called timeout and we were like oh God.” Okawville outscored Lovejoy by 47 points from that point on to claim the Regional Title by a score of 72 to 35.
Four days later in the North Greene Sectional, Winchester gave the Rockets all they could handle in the opening round, but the team was able to prevail with a 44 to 41 victory. Madison was the only opponent standing in the way of the Rockets and their third trip to the Jacksonville Bowl in four years. The Rockets had beaten Madison by twenty earlier in the season, but the Trojans were without the services of a couple of their main players. For Schilling, the game was especially personal.
“When I was in fifth grade I watched them knock out my brother in the Regional Championship game.” Schilling continued “we were in a situation where I could say, I’m coming for you now.”
Schilling backed up his beef with the Trojans by scoring the first eight points of the second half while tallying 14 overall. Okawville was able to prevail with a 53 to 52 triumph.
“After that game I think our guys could smell it. During the course of the season, we had leads we lost, as the season went along we learned how to close out games,” Coach Kraus said.
The Rockets would have a chance to erase the memory of defeat in 2017, but would have to go through Peoria Quest to get back to Peoria.
“They were a very good team, we knew whoever won that game was probably going to win State,” Kraus said.
Although the group was where they expected to be, the massive chip on their shoulder remained at large.
“Peoria Quest, nobody thought we were going to get past Peoria Quest. We had one vote go back to state, one vote,” Krohne said.
After a see-saw battle, it was the Rockets who had the advantage with seconds remaining in double overtime, but it was Quest who would have the last shot with a chance to win the game down 65 to 64. Most people in the Jacksonville Bowl knew the ball was going to end up in the hands of the Gators’ best player, Terrell Walker, who was defended by Krohne for a majority of the game.
“I think Wyatt had been guarding him most of the game. One of the things we learned about him as the season went along was his ability to lock guys down, and people don’t realize how big that is,” Kraus said.
During the timeout, Kraus described what the defensive game plan was out of the break.
“We knew where the ball was going. We just told them to make them shoot a jump shot and not let them get to rim and crowd him,” Coach Kraus said.
The team did just that, and the Quest player was forced to throw up a shot with multiple defenders around him. Hensler was able to deflect the shot, Harre hauled in the rebound, and the ball was sent into the air with a combination of rejoice as well as relief.
“Yeah, that guy definitely wasn’t passing,” Harre said.
Of course, Okawville fans let out a celebratory scream, but it came after they let out a long awaited deep breath.
“Yeah, that guy definitely wasn’t passing,” Harre said.
The group’s first opponent in Peoria was the Goreville Blackcats. In the three days leading up to their second appearance at state, the boys were walking tall.
“I wouldn’t say the build up is more fun than playing in the game itself, but it has to be up there because it’s all everyone that likes basketball is talking about,” Harre said.
A group who had tasted state a year ago was back and more confident than ever.
“We were feeling pretty good, we liked our chances,” Coach Kraus said.
The team was able to get out to a big lead early and never looked back en route to a 48 to 33 Semi Final victory. Hensler led the way with 12 points and 15 boards to go along with 4 blocked shots. The Rockets kept their word, and they were back in the State Championship game. Okawville was matched up with Annowan, a team Coach Kraus knew would give them trouble defensively, but Okawville’s ability to spread the wealth had the potential to make life difficult for the Braves. As the Rockets watched Annowan from the stands the day before, the anticipation began.
“We were watching that game and we were thinking, okay guys we can really do this,” Coach Kraus said. “We actually started out pretty rough,” Harre said as the team went into the locker room tied at 24 apiece at halftime.
The Rockets were able to pick it up as the game went along, as did the lefty, Krohne. The junior guard shrugged off a 1-10 shooting day against Goreville and erupted for 18 points in the second and third quarters. Krohne’s five threes were a record for a 1A State Championship Game. He was named Country Financial MVP of the game.
“I guess I was feeling it, I had to come back stronger, I just kept shooting,” Krohne said.
Harre also threw in 14 points while hauling in 8 rebounds.
“For me, it really didn’t feel like a State Championship game, like I wasn’t even nervous,” Harre said.
Following an old-fashioned three point play by Krohne to close out the third frame, the Rockets took a 10 point lead into the fourth quarter. The team was able to hold off any hopes of an Annowan rally, and the team secured the first State Championship in team history. The dream was complete.
“As a coach, in those final seconds I just kept telling myself to watch the reaction from the kids. The kids are the reason we were there. Everytime I see them now, I think of their reactions from that game,” said Kraus. Hensler described the scene as “surreal.”
“It was pretty shocking and eye-opening to see what we all said we would do happen,” Hensler said. “It felt like a load off my shoulders to try and prove to everyone we really were a good team despite some of our downfalls.”
One of the qualities about the 2018 Rockets was their ability to share the ball and guard teams uniquely. The group also harped on their cohesiveness.
“Everyone was selfless. Nobody cared who averaged more points, we just wanted to win,” Frederking said.
Not only was this a group of players who developed a chemistry on the court, but they all credited their relationship off the court for their turnaround. “We were friends, we hung out, we knew each other,” Krohne said. Schilling agreed, “we were thick as thieves.”
“Everyone on the team contributed in some way or another even if they didn’t get in the game,” Hensler said. Aubel continued to talk about the role players who did not necessarily see the floor, but contributed in practice as well as in spirit during the games.
“Those guys accepted their roles, they guarded us really hard in practice and made us work. They are as big of part of this as we are,” Aubel said.
The exuberant unit consisted of Tyler Roesener, Jordan Green, Drew Reichmann, Payton Reichmann, Tommy Segelhorst, Carter Killion, Tyler Parsley, Jackson Heckert, Lucas Frederking as well as Managers Jarad Barnes and Nathan Lintker. Coach Kraus was assisted by Ryan Heck, Mike Frederking, Jackie Smith, and Cameron Obermeier.
“We’ve had a lot of really good players and really good teams in Okawville history. I feel honored to say we were the team that made history, but it’s not about us, It’s about the community of Okawville and all of the kids who want to be Rockets one day. I hope we showed them that anything is possible, and to work hard for their dreams,” Frederking said.