Belleville West semifinal press conference
Belleville West is the best high school basketball team in the modern era, according to its well-traveled superfan from Pittsfield.
More than two hours away, the Maroons (33-4) made an impact on 75-year-old Mario Vitale in the infant stages of their run to the 2017 state championship.
“They have poise, they’re controlled, they play with determination, they’re extremely athletic, they’re not selfish. A lot of things I just mentioned are things some teams just can’t seem to overcome,” Vitale said on Friday night as he watched the Maroons hand Chicago Curie (34-2) its first in-state loss. “These guys play with team effort.”
It all started when Vitale watched Quincy beat Rock Island before the 2018 playoffs started. He met some similarly-aged men and they followed the Blue Devils to the Alton Regional. When they got there, Belleville West had a 41-11 lead at halftime but it wasn’t the score that impressed him. He said then that Belleville West would win the state championship, and now they’re on the cusp of winning a second straight.
“The thing that impressed him was we played Quincy and played really well, and I think we were up by 30 at halftime, but the way our kids acted and the way our kids played just made his heart put out for us,” Belleville West Coach Joe Muniz said.
Vitale traveled to a handful of Maroons games this year but the pinnacle was coming to watch a practice, getting an autographed basketball and a picture with the team. It was his 75th birthday wish.
Muniz said that he, and his administration, assumed Vitale was from Belleville. He was even more proud when he learned Vitale lived two hours away.
“When you make an impact on people’s lives that you don’t even know, that’s a special thing,” Muniz said. “That’s what high school athletics is all about.”
Vitale shared with the Maroons’ players experiences he’s had in his life, from his 1962 graduation from Springfield Griffin High School to his long career in architecture.
“He watched our whole practice and after practice he talked to us about how he was in the military, and how he wasn’t the greatest basketball player but he tried and he really loved playing basketball and we make him happy playing basketball,” reigning Mr. Basketball EJ Liddell said.
The speech was so impactful, Vitale admitted he was overcome by emotion. Muniz said he became emotional with his team.
“We had lost a tough game (44-43 to Alton) the night before,” Muniz said. “But I told them, ‘this mean more to me than winning a state championship is this man thought to drive two-and-a-half hours down to Belleville.’”
Belleville West hasn’t lost since. Perhaps, it was the focus and determination Vitale saw during that practice.
“These kids, they don’t have their phones with them, they go down there and have tasks that they do,” Vitale said. “Everything is set up on a timer, they run a clock and they have five or 10 minutes and have these drills, and the kids just do them.”
Vitale said he hasn’t been this impressed with a team since the 1974 East Chicago Washington team he saw as a student at Illinois-Chicago. All these years later, he happened upon Pittsfield in 1988 for great deer hunting in Pike County and in 2004 was persuaded to buy a farm there.
Retired no more, Vitale stays in shape by managing his farm, but still enjoys trout fishing in Missouri and deer hunting, which led him there in the first place.
“We could say he’s good karma for us,” Liddell said.