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Former coaches revel in West's championship

The last five coaches of the Belleville Township/Belleville West boys basketball teams attended the celebration of the state-championship Maroons of 2017-18 on Sunday at the high school. Clockwise from back left are Bill Schmidt, Roger Mueller, Jerry Turner, Joe Muniz and Dave Shannahan.
The last five coaches of the Belleville Township/Belleville West boys basketball teams attended the celebration of the state-championship Maroons of 2017-18 on Sunday at the high school. Clockwise from back left are Bill Schmidt, Roger Mueller, Jerry Turner, Joe Muniz and Dave Shannahan. Submitted photo

The four former boys basketball coaches at Belleville Township/Belleville West shared in the enjoyment of the Maroons winning the Class 4A state championship last weekend in Peoria.

Roger Mueller, who coached the Maroons from 1973-88, had a front-row seat to West's title-clinching 60-56 overtime victory over Whitney Young at Carver Arena. Mueller, 72, remains an assistant on Joe Muniz's staff and has been with the program 41 years.

Mueller said he was thrilled when he went to bed Saturday night. On Sunday morning, the emotions had changed slightly.

"There was a sense of satisfaction, but I was very much aware of what little separates great celebration and happiness from great disappointment," Mueller said, noting the thin margin for error between West and Whitney Young. "I was very much aware of how we could have been feeling very differently Sunday morning. In a matter of one possession, one brief element change in that game, we were on the short end rather than winning.

"So I was quite happy to be feeling the way I was feeling. But I was very much aware of what a narrow margin you work at in competitive basketball, how everything matters, every possession matters."

There were many key moments in the game, of course, but perhaps the biggest came when West junior Lawrence Brazil III stole the ball from Dolphins senior Xavier Castaneda and turned it into an easy layup that nailed down the victory.

Maroons senior Malachi Smith, after hitting a free throw to put West ahead 58-56 with 8.7 seconds remaining in overtime, missed his second attempt. Whitney Young senior Justin Boyd controlled the rebound and quickly fed Castaneda, who was turning to move up the court when Brazil swept in and made the defensive stop of the game and turned it into two points.

No one will ever know whether the Dolphins would have gone for the win with a 3-pointer or attempted a tying basket.

"If he doesn't get that steal, they had plenty of time to go down and put the ball in the air," Mueller said. "One little thing, one way or another, could have had them getting the first-place trophy and have us with dejection. That's the nature of basketball. We were fortunate enough to get the right things done at the right time."

Jerry Turner, who coached the Maroons from 1959-66 and led them to a third-place finish at state in his final season, called West's championship "fantastic."

"They're a great basketball team and they had great community support," said Turner, 84. "It was an event that will forever (be remembered) in the lives of those that participated in it."

Turner followed the championship game on his phone.

"My heart was flopping constantly as results came in, and of course, my hopes were high," he said.

Turner's team in 1966 came the closest to winning a championship. It defeated Joliet 74-72 in the quarterfinals, then dropped a 65-64 heart-breaker to Galesburg in the semifinals before rebounding with an 84-57 thrashing of Stephen Decatur.

"The team that placed third was probably second-best in the state, at least," Turner said. "Memories of those events still last not only with me, but with players and fans. It's a fantastic thing. Back then, everybody was in one class; there were 700-some teams. There was no 3-point shot. The game has changed quite a bit, but the really good players have not changed very much."

West's current star is 6-foot-7 junior EJ Liddell, who has 13 offers from Division I programs. Liddell was the best player in the tournament, as he had 41 points, 13 rebounds and 14 blocks. He had seven blocks in both games; no other player in the history of the Class 4A tournament had recorded more than four blocks in a game.

Liddell on Friday became West's career scoring leader. His encore Saturday was becoming the Maroons' single-season scoring leader.

"His future appears to be unlimited," said Turner, who also was the principal at West from 1968-92. "He is a great talent. Clearly, he's one of the great players in all the ages of Belleville West basketball."

Turner said the state-champion Maroons have a few things in common with his 1966 squad, led by Joe Wiley.

"We wanted to work as a team, and of course, defense was stressed greatly," Turner said. "There were times we had to outscore people, too."

Dave Shannahan replaced Turner as coach in 1966 and remained at West through the 1972-73 season. Shannahan, who is living in the metro-east again after many years in Arizona, was a frequent observer of Maroons games this season and was in Peoria for the tournament. Shannahan also was at the sectional final in Pekin and the super-sectional in Normal.

"It was a good experience," said Shannahan, 83. "I've seen them a lot. I probably saw 15, 16 games this year. I hadn't seen any games in Illinois for 22 years.

"The one guy I really thought did a great job was (Keith) Randolph. He kept them in the (title) game. He was the most valuable player, probably, although the little guard (Brazil) was high-point man in that game."

Randolph had 18 points and 12 rebounds Friday in the semifinals against Elgin Larkin, a 64-53 victory by the Maroons. In the championship game, Randolph had 13 points and six rebounds. Brazil had 18 points against Whitney Young in addition to his memorable steal, one of four he had in the game.

Shannahan said the Maroons were "close-knit kids." Liddell, Randolph and Brazil all return next season.

"Somebody said, 'Well, they'll surely win again next year,'" Shannahan said. "I said, 'You know, it's a long year.'"

Bill Schmidt coached the Maroons from 1988-04 and led West to the Class AA state-tournament quarterfinals in 2003. Schmidt, the commissioner of the Southwestern Conference, remains attached to the program and saw most of the team's games, including the ones in Peoria.

"It was unbelievable, surreal," said Schmidt, 61, the former athletics director at West. "It was a super experience. I was very proud for that Belleville West basketball team out there and I was very proud for the coaching staff because I know how hard everybody works to get there. And I was proud of the area of Belleville West and the Southwestern Conference. I love to see our conference go to these state tournaments and show people we play pretty good sports down here."

Mueller has been with Muniz for all of Muniz's 14 seasons with the Maroons. The two have a special bond, and Muniz often credits Mueller for being a mentor and playing a huge role in any success enjoyed by West. The Maroons' other trusted assistants are Jesse Swift, Chuck Lugge, Alex Schobert and Doug Schieppe.

"I'm very happy for Joe and the team," Mueller said. "They had worked very hard. They had high expectations and people were expecting a lot of them. I was very pleased they were able to come through. It was a satisfying victory. It was something they had pointed to and worked toward since last summer. It's good to have your dreams realized. It was a special moment. The satisfaction of the moment will increase with time for the players and coaches."

Mueller said the "lack of egos" and "the ability to share the basketball with the trust they had in one another" were two of the important elements of the Maroons' drive to the championship.

Liddell, a candidate for Mr. Basketball in Illinois. But his supporting cast of Smith, Brazil, Randolph and senior Curtis Williams never wavered. Smith is a Division I player headed for Wright State. Brazil will likely wind up playing basketball in college, and Randolph is a force in the paint whose future will be on the football field at some Division I school.

"You can't watch this year's team without seeing the brilliance of EJ Liddell," Schmidt said. "He's a great, great high-school basketball player who I believe is just touching the surface of what he's going to accomplish in this game."

Schmidt, however, said it took everyone for West to realize its goal.

Williams was a defensive stopper and a dangerous shooter from beyond the arc, while bench players like senior Zion Woodie and juniors Jaylin Mosby and Marcellus Romious were always ready when called upon.

"I woke up Sunday and said, 'That really did happen, didn't it?'" Schmidt said. "What I was so thrilled about it Whitney Young was a very good basketball team. That championship game was played in a (Chicago) Public High League mode. That was a battle out there, and Belleville West played that style and beat them. It's a testimony to how great great athletics are in the Southwestern Conference. It is a fabulous basketball conference, and that helped them out, I know for sure."

West's team-first approach, Mueller said, carries over to the former coaches.

"They've all been very loyal to their successors, very loyal to the program, very interested in the success of the program," Mueller said. "I think that's very special about Belleville West and the sense of family we've always had."

Turner agreed, and even includes the coach he replaced, Ray Freeark, in the discussion. Freeark coached the Maroons from 1951-59 and died in August 2000.

"Belleville West High School, in my opinion, is unique," Turner said. "Our basketball coaches, our principals and others, do much more than last a year or two. They last a long while and it's more a family than it is a school."

Schmidt is proud of the linkage between coaches.

"Jerry Turner hired me as a teacher and a head coach, and I played for Dave Shannahan and Roger Mueller," Schmidt said. "Those three had a profound impact on me. (Muniz) coached with me and (Mueller) is helping Joe. I guess my point is, we're a little club and we help each other out. There's just pure happiness for all the people involved.

"For all the time I was at Belleville West, the one word I kept hearing over and over again the whole time, as a coach and as AD, was 'tradition.' There's a tremendous amount of tradition at Belleville Township, Belleville West. Everybody helps each other out."

With no jealousy or bitterness.

"Every one of us coached fantastic teams," Schmidt said of himself, Turner, Shannahan and Mueller. "But this year's team finished the job. As people who have come before them, all we can do is tip our hats."

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