‘A special year’: Parade, pep rally celebrate Althoff basketball and dance teams

Nate Brutto, manager of Althoff High School’s boys basketball team that fell 67-63 to Westchester St. Joseph in the class 3A IHSA state championship game Saturday, said coming back to Belleville to a cheering crowd, parade and pep rally takes the edge off of a title game loss that he said “still hurts.”

The Sunday afternoon parade and pep rally celebrated both the basketball danceteam, whose 30-4 season that ended with the second-place finish was the best any Belleville team has ever done at the state tournament, and the girls dance team, who earned a state championship of their own on Valentine’s Day.

“This has been a special year,” Brutto told a cheering crowd after the parade, newly shaven after sporting a bushy playoff beard he kept during the team’s playoff run. “Next year, we’re going to bring that (first-place trophy) home.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Mayor Mark Eckert, who helped escort the squads as they rode along Main Street atop one of the fire department’s ladder trucks.

“You make us very proud,” he said. “I would anticipate next year we’ll be carrying that first-place trophy.”

Junior basketball player Brendan Gooch, who will return next season with many of the same teammates who came just two baskets shy of a first-place finish Saturday, said his team has “a great chance at coming back” to the tournament in 2016.

Gooch almost didn’t have a chance to predict his team’s future success at all. When the fire truck left for the parade route shortly after noon Sunday, teammates realized Gooch wasn’t aboard — he didn’t have a ride to the school. A teammate’s mother drove to collect Gooch and then raced downtown to deliver him to the parade in progress.

He didn’t have any hard feelings, and said he and the other returning teammates were motivated to work hard and “probably should” ask the state champion dance squad how it’s done before making a return trip to Peoria.

Dance head coach Jackie Gasaway praised the group of girls whose season she said “doesn’t have a start or finish.”

“They work hard the entire year,” she said, highlighting a season where the team — as well as individual dancers — gobbled up awards and accolades en route to the February tournament that saw them take class 1A runner-up in the poms competition in addition to the 1A championship trophy for their jazz routine. The pep rally crowd was treated to an encore performance of that winning routine after the girls disembarked the fire truck and made a quick wardrobe change.

“There’s no better feeling,” junior dancer Mary Schallert said of winning the championship. “It was validation for all the early-morning practices, the literal blood, sweat and tears.”

Senior captain Taylor Weir agreed. She said the dance season can be grueling, but “I think it’s worth it when you’re with people you love.”