All athletes strive for it, but few reach perfection. With its 102-39 win over Alton on Thursday, the Edwardsville Tigers senior class put the finishing touch on an accomplishment likely never seen before in Southern Illinois basketball.
Four straight undefeated Southwestern Conference championships. In simple terms, the Tigers senior basketball class finished their careers with a 56-0 record in SWC play.
"It's an amazing accomplishment considering how strong this (Southwestern) Conference has been and continues to be,'' Tigers coach Lori Blade said. "This is a fun-loving group of kids who have learned over the years to work very hard. They had good leaders in front of them and I think they're very proud that they've been able to carry on the tradition.
"To win 56 straight over four years and 61 straight SWC games overall is just crazy. Until somebody mentioned it a few days ago that this senior group had not lost a league game, we weren't aware of it. We've taken it one game at a time. One of our goals was to win the SWC, but to sustain this for as long as we have is really quite remarkable.''
Starting Tuesday, the Tigers will begin their march toward the one accomplishment that has eluded them -- a Class 4A state title.
Ranked second in the Class 4A state poll, Edwardsville (27-0) faces Alton once again -- this time in the Alton Regional in Godfrey beginning at 6 p.m.
In the other semifinal, Springfield (25-3), ranked sixth in Class 4A, will take on Quincy at 8 p.m., with the two winners playing for the regional title at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Other Class 4A regionals are being hosted by Collinsville, Peoria Richwoods and Bradley-Bourbonnais. The four regional winners advance to the Normal West Sectional, beginning Feb. 19.
Senior all-state selection and University of Louisville recruit Emmonnie Henderson has led the way for the Tigers on both ends of the floor. The 6-foot, 2-inch Henderson averages 15 points per game and along with junior 5-10 Aalyah Covington has dominated the backboards and on the defensive end of the court.
Junior guard Kortney Dunbar (14.7 points per game) is one of the state's top-ranked juniors and, along with seniors Lauren White and Sydney Bloch, has given the Tigers stability and leadership in the backcourt.
Kennedy Martin and Morgan Sharpe also have played well for the Tigers in reserve roles.
"Before the season I was concerned about our depth, but Kennedy and Morgan have stepped up and we've had other kids do a good job when called upon as well. I see no reason for that to change,'' Blade said. "I'm pleased at where we are right now. Sydney (Bloch) is back at almost 100 percent and that's a plus for us.
"I like this group and I've enjoyed this group all year. All you can ask for in the postseason is to be healthy and not be sick. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to do that."
Second in the Class 4A State Tournament to (Chicago) Whitney Young a year ago, Edwardsville could face a tougher road to Redbird Arena in Normal and the state finals.
Obstacle No. 1 should come in the form of Springfield in the regional final. The Senators, a perennial Class 3A power, have moved up to Class 4A and figure to give Edwardsville a battle.
Springfield had reached the Class 3A state tournament each of the last four years, posting two third-place finishes and twice placing fourth.
"Of course I've seen them. Springfield has a great program, which in one respect has had more state tournament experience than we do in recent years,'' Blade said. "They create matchup problems for us and we create matchup problems for them.''