There might be some people left in the sleepy Washington County town of Okawville this weekend, but they might be hard to find. With their beloved Rockets playing in the boys basketball state tournament for the first time in 30 years, there won’t be much activity around town.
The majority of the town will make the nearly three-hour trip to Peoria as Okawville’s team attempts to win its first state championship.
The Rockets (31-3) will square off against Newark (28-4) in the Class 1A state semifinals at 12:45 p.m. Friday in Peoria. A win Friday would put the Rockets into the state championship game for the second time in school history.
Back in 1987, the Dave Luechtefeld-coached Rockets went 29-7, falling to Venice 56-54 in the title game in Champaign.
How big is hoops in Okawville?
Big enough that when the school district built a new school a few years ago, they built the facility around the old high school gym, which is named after Luechtefeld. He won more than 700 games and guided the Rockets to two state trophies, including a third-place finish in 1980, over a 38-year Hall of Fame coaching career.
In 2000, Jon Kraus took over the program from Luechtefeld. In 17 years, he’s won more than 300 games. The Rockets have passed the 20-win mark for six straight seasons and now have the town ready to head north for some March Madness.
“There is a lot of excitement in the school,” Okawville principal Keith Senior said Thursday morning before the team left for Peoria. “(The students) are really amped up. They are all wearing Okawville gear and can’t wait for the state tournament. Yesterday, we had a little bit of buzz in the building, which was nice.”
Senior may have underestimated the buzz a bit. He and other school administrators sold more than 1,000 tickets for this weekend’s state tournament during a three-hour window. All 75 of the school’s student-ticket allotment was sold out. Considering there are just over 1,400 people who call Okawville home, it’s easy to see why the town may feel a bit empty.
On Thursday morning, the nearly 600 students who attend grades K-12 in Okawville filled the halls of the school building to give the team a raucous send-off. The team made a victory lap of sorts, giving their fellow students high-fives along the way as “We Are The Champions” played over the school’s public-address system. A few dozen parents and fans also showed up to show the team off at about 8:30 a.m.
Kraus, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, is thankful for all of the support.
“I’ve been told by so many people that it will be something that I won’t forget,” said Kraus, who is making his first state tournament trip as a coach. “I already can see that after Tuesday night. (Wednesday) night, I tried to reminisce about Tuesday night and soak it all in and enjoy those things.
“This is why you do what you do. This is why you coach those kids: so they can have this experience. It’s for those kids and the work they put in.”
The Rockets punched their ticket to state with a 46-40 victory over Mendon Unity in a supersectional in Jacksonville. The team’s 31 wins this season is the most in school history. The Rockets are hopeful to boost that win total to 33 by the end of the weekend.
“We’re in a good spot, and we’re ready to go,” Kraus said.