When the Lebanon Greyhounds step onto the court at Redbird Arena in Normal on Friday for their Class 1A state basketball tournament semifinal against Danville Schlarman, they'll carry the memory of the late Kerry Allen and everything he taught them about basketball.
The longtime coach, who led the 2013-2014 Lebanon Junior High School team to a state title, died in April 2015 from multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. He was 58.
All five starters from that team — including sisters Kendra and Krista Bass, sisters Emily and Abigail Reinneck, and Madison Schoenfeld — will now play for a high school state championship this weekend.
"Coach Allen would want us to stay positive no matter what. He would want us to play hard, do our best and most of all have fun playing the game," Kendra Bass said. "He is in our minds and in our hearts. He taught us a lot about basketball, but he also taught us about life. He believed in hard work and doing the right things, and treating people right.
"Coach Allen will be with us. You better believe he'll be watching."
The Greyhounds (31-1), who defeated Lewistown 59-32 on Monday to reach the state tournament for the first time in school history, will take on Schlarman (31-1) beginning at 12:45 p.m. The Hilltoppers defeated 2017 Class 1A state champion Annawan 43-36 to win the Pontiac super-sectional Monday to earn its first trip to the state tournament.
Stockton (31-2) will take on Bethany Okaw Valley (29-4) in the first semifinal at 11 a.m. Friday. The state championship game will be at 12:45 p.m. Saturday. The third-place game is at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Allen also coached the Lebanon High School girls basketball team from 2005-2011 and AAU basketball through the program at the Family Sportsplex in Belleville.
Dick Ogden, grandfather of the Reinneck sisters, assembled the current group of Greyhounds as a volunteer summer league coach when they were in the third grade. He died in 2012. Current girls coach Chad Cruthis has picked up where Ogden and Allen left off, leading the Greyhounds to a 107-12 record over the past four years.
But he said the foundation for this season's state title march was laid long ago.
"The bottom line is you have to have the players. These girls have worked hard since they were in third, fourth, fifth grade," he said.
"The late Kerry Allen was a great junior high coach for us and took these girls to a state championship ... when they were in eighth grade. I wasn't given the keys to a Pinto. I was given the keys to a '69 Chevy Camaro that needed a little body work and a little bit of sprucing up."
Diagnosed with cancer prior to the 2014 season, Allen led the Lebanon junior high team to a 27-1 record that culminated with a 48-47 overtime win over Okawville in the state championship game.
It was Emily Reinneck, then a seventh grader, who took the ball up the court and hit an 8-foot jumper as time expired.
Four years later, Reinneck is still hitting jump shots for her hometown team.
"I remember when it went in, we all jumped on each other. We were so excited," she said. "(Coach Allen) was more than a coach. He was such a good man who really cared about us as people. He wanted the best for us."
And his players loved him dearly.
"Kerry never wanted anybody to know he was hurting," Cruthis said, his voice choking with emotion. "I remember the day he passed. His wife called me, and he was out mowing when they rushed him to the hospital, and she called to tell me he was gone. I was sitting at my desk in my office.
"A few minutes later Kendra (Bass) came in my office. I guess she had seen it on Facebook or something. She looked at me and said 'Please, please tell me it isn't true.' Then I held her in my arms as she cried. These girls loved coach Kerry Allen."
But Allen's influence extended beyond the basketball court.
"Kerry was more than a coach to these kids. He was a mentor," Cruthis said. " He was a good person. In our African-American community, he was that bridge for our young black and white kids who needed someone.
"He was there to let them know that sports was an avenue, but you also had to do the right things, too. You had to make the grades in the classroom, and you had to stay out of trouble. He didn't tolerate that kind of stuff. Our community suffered losing him because of what he stood for."
Schoenfeld said that on the basketball court, Allen also stood for doing the right things.
"Coach Allen was big on teaching the basics and learning the fundamentals of the game," Schoenfeld said. "He taught us to work hard and always stay disciplined. That hard work has helped us overcome a lot of obstacles, and here we are. We're going to end our season by bringing home a big trophy no matter what, and we're making history."
The Greyhounds will take the floor Friday as the underdogs against a Schlarman team that features at least three NCAA Division I recruits. The Hilltoppers are led by junior Anaya Peoples, who is 15th in the nation in the 2019 HoopGurlz recruiting rankings.
Peoples, a 5-foot-10 point guard, has given a verbal commitment to attend and play basketball at Notre Dame in two years.
Kendra Bass said the team is feeling no pressure heading to Normal.
"We're going there to win. But we're also going to have fun playing at the state tournament," she said. We want to enjoy the experience of playing here together for the last time."