While it might seem like Okawville has always been a basketball town, that’s not necessarily true.
The love affair really began in the mid-1950s, especially after Rich Herrin showed up for his first high school coaching job. That’s right, the same Rich Herrin who won 616 games at Okawville and Benton before going on to win 225 more games at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
He posted an incredible 95-17 record at Okawville from 1956 to 1960, and the legendary Herrin is still coaching at Morthland College. And yes, the Okawville Rockets are still winning.
Okawville (31-3) makes its first state final appearance since 1987 against Newark (28-4) at 12:45 p.m. Friday in the Class 1A semifinals at Carver Arena in Peoria.
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“That’s everyone’s goal at the beginning, and we’ve kind of heard that the last two years now,” said Okawville senior guard Shane Ganz, who also has made two state tourney trips with Okawville’s baseball team so he understands the accompanying pressure. “We’ve been better this year at zoning it out. We just wanted to do it for this town, and it feels great.”
The town definitely loves its basketball.
“The interest in Okawville basketball really started with Rich Herrin. That was his first coaching job out of college,” said Dave Luechtefeld, who played two seasons under Herrin, played basketball and baseball at Saint Louis University and then won 738 games coaching at Okawville from 1963 to 2000.
Since John F. Kennedy was in the White House, Okawville has had only two basketball coaches — Luechtefeld and current coach Jon Kraus. That’s two coaches in 54 years. Even Kraus still calls Luechtefeld “Coach.”
“I’m so proud of Jon,” the 76-year-old Luechtefeld said. “He does a great job of coaching and that makes it even better.”
A former Rockets standout like Luechtefeld before him, Kraus’ teams have compiled a 339-215 record in 17 seasons. Kraus and Luechtefeld are also next-door neighbors in Okawville.
“We’ve really not had a lot of coaches,” said Luechtefeld, a retired Illinois state senator who regularly attends practices and games and still talks to the players and coaches. “It’s been fun. The community backs us 100 percent, and there’s a lot of good parents, a lot of good families. You can do a lot with kids from good homes who will listen — and who will work.”
Maybe that’s the secret to Okawville’s winning formula.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for that consistency with some of the success we’ve had and the continuity of having the same type of person there,” Kraus said. “I think that’s why Coach (Luechtefeld) had so much success.”
Kraus and Okawville assistants Ryan Heck and Mike Frederking played for Luechtefeld. So did Central head coach Jeremy Shubert.
Okawville has been an independent since 1972 and in most years plays against many larger schools. At one point, the Rockets were playing Belleville West and Althoff every season and competing against larger teams in tournaments at Mater Dei and Benton.
“I always thought we had the toughest Class A schedule in the state of Illinois,” Luechtefeld said. “I’ve been around Okawville basketball since 1954 except for four years in college, but even then I was around it because my brothers both played.”
Dave Luechtefeld played college basketball and college baseball at Saint Louis University, but baseball was always his first love. An arm injury between his junior and senior year at Okawville changed that plan, but he went on to coach baseball at Okawville for 28 seasons.
“That was my life’s ambition,” he said of his desire to play professional baseball. “My first 20 years of life, that’s what I thought about every moment I had free: being a major-league baseball pitcher.”
Breaking down the game
Kraus described Newark as a team a bit like the Rockets, but perhaps a bit more reliant on a perimeter game.
The Norsemen have a balanced scoring attack led by 6-foot-4 senior Will Clausel (15.3 points, 5.2 rebounds per game), 6-7 senior Cameron Myre (13.2 points, 5.1 rebounds per game, 61 3-pointers), 6-1 junior Dylan Patrick (11.9 ppg) and senior Steve McGrath (10.5 ppg).
“They’re similar to us in some ways,” Kraus said. “They spread the floor a little bit and try to drive and kick. There’s a lot of perimeter-oriented matchups. They’re trying to get to the paint and the middle of the lane and be creative in there.”
Clausel is active and gets to the foul line often (137-for-198 on free throws).
Okawville is led by 6-4 senior guard and University of Evansville recruit Noah Frederking (21.5 points, 8 rebounds per game, 66 3-pointers), along with Ganz (13.1 ppg), junior guards Payten Harre and Caleb Frederking and 6-5 senior Kirklen Meier (5 ppg).
“We didn’t do a great job of rebounding Tuesday (in the super-section win),” Kraus said. “That was the emphasis in that game, so we’re going to re-emphasize that and make sure our guys are doing a great job.”
Newark, which won the 2011 state title, knocked off top-ranked Colfax Ridgeview 43-42 Tuesday in the super-sectional. The Norsemen have won six sectional championships and a state title during coach Rick Tollefson’s 11 seasons.
Okawville is on a 14-game winning streak while Newark has won eight straight.
The Rockets have done a lot of things in basketball, and their girls basketball program owns two state titles (1994 and 2000).
The town and its legions of fans are still looking for that elusive boys state basketball championship.
“We’ve had some awfully good teams, and the last three years, they had a shot at it,” Luechtefeld said. “That would put the icing on the cake.”
Class 1A State Tournament
at Carver Arena, Peoria
Friday, March 10
Game 1: Chicago Hope (28-3) vs. Effingham St. Anthony (28-5), 11 a.m.
Game 2: Okawville (31-3) vs. Newark (28-4), 12:45 p.m.
Saturday, March 11
Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 11:15 a.m.
Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 1 p.m.
Okawville Rockets (31-3)
Head Coach: Jon Kraus, 339-215 in 17 seasons
State Tournament History: Second place at 1987 Class A state tournament; third place at 1980 Class A state tournament; advanced to state in 1970
Last Year: 28-5, lost to Gibault in sectional final
Scoring Leaders: 6-4 sr. Noah Frederking (21.5 points, 8 rebounds per game, 66 3-pointers), 6-3 sr. Shane Ganz (13.1 ppg), 5-9 jr. Payten Harre (6.6 ppg, 54 3-pointers), 6-2 jr. Caleb Frederking (5.4 ppg), 6-5 sr. Kirklen Meier (5 ppg)
Newark Norsemen (28-4)
Head Coach: Rick Tollefson, 252-86 in 11 seasons
State Tournament History: won 2011 Class 1A state championship
Last Year: 29-2, lost in super-sectional
Scoring Leaders: 6-4 sr. Will Clausel (15.3 points, 5.2 rebounds per game), 6-7 sr. Cameron Myre (13.2 points, 5.1 rebounds per game, 61 3-pointers), 6-1 jr. Dylan Patrick (11.9 ppg), 6-0 sr. Steve McGrath (10.5 ppg), 6-3 so. Beau Brown (8.3 ppg)