Twenty-five years ago, they were high school seniors with buzzcuts trying to win a state basketball championship at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.
They were an extremely talented and fun-loving bunch, colorful characters known as Goose, Hoosh, Fish, Chew and Brent.
The Wesclin Warriors were 30-3 in 1989-90 and packed gyms around the state with an ever-growing fan base that swelled to rock concert tour proportions by the end of the season. The starting five included a future Division I basketball player and coach (Paul Lusk), a future major league baseball player (Brent Brede), two prominent business executives (Matt Fridley and Matt Brandmeyer) and a school superintendent (Mike Brink).
But on a memorable March night in 1990 with a state title on the line, the Warriors found themselves with their best player and all-stater on the bench after Lusk fouled out with 2 minutes, 50 seconds remaining.
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With seemingly all of Trenton and New Baden among a crowd of more than 13,500 at the arena — and many more listening back home — the Warriors dug a little deeper. They overcame a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter and knocked off previously unbeaten Prarie Central 83-78 in double-overtime to win the state title.
“Any time we see each other it’s like we’ve never been apart for a day,” Fridley said. “It’s a unique relationship and a unique bond that we were able to experience together. When you saw one of us, you saw five of us. That was a big piece of it.
“We were always together.”
Lusk, now the head coach at Missouri State, agreed.
“There’s no doubt when you see the guys, it’s like you haven’t missed a beat,” he said.
They relied on a magical 36-point, 13-rebound performance that night from Brede, clutch shots from Fridley and Brink and an incredible display of teamwork. Brede exploded for 26 of his career-high 36 points in the second half and overtime, going 15-of-24 from the floor.
After sinking a late free throw he knew had likely clinched the state title, Brede lifted both fists over his head.
“The thing I remember most about the game is you had an 18-year-old in Brent Brede who was just fearless,” said Brandmeyer, Wesclin’s undersized 6-foot-2 center who did a lot of the dirty work in the lane and was an integral part of the title. “Every possession he was looking for the ball and we tried to run plays to get him open.
“Seeing him post up in the lane with two guys on him, with him just wanting the ball so badly because he knew he could score, it was incredible.”
Fridley had 19 points and Lusk and Brink each had 12, but as the Warriors proved all season it would take contributions from all five starters and a few bench players to get things done.
Wesclin coach Paul Lusk, now retired, said he never saw Brede play any better.
“If he wasn’t an all-stater I’ve never seen one,” Coach Lusk said. “Every one of them played super after my boy fouled out. You can’t forget Fridley and you can’t forget Brink, how those two kids really played above almost their capabilities.”
Brede went on to play in the major leagues with Minnesota and Arizona, but still cherishes the state title.
“I’ve watched the game maybe a dozen times since 1990,” he said. “When my son became old enough to understand what was going on, I really had a great time enjoying the game again with him. Now that he’s even older, he has a little more appreciation for the game and what it meant.”
A shot from Fridley tied it at 71 and sent the game into overtime. Brink tied it again near the end of the first overtime, but Prairie Central needed only a free throw to win the state title with 0.5 seconds remaining.
Darin Bazzell missed it, giving the Warriors new life. They took charge down the stretch of the second overtime and won the title, with Coach Paul Lusk anxiously working the officials and barking out strategy.
Lusk’s son, Paul, who scored 34 points in the semifinal win over Aurora Christian, praised his teammates for the way they worked together in his absence.
“It was a crazy game, we were playing an undefeated team (Prairie Central was 31-0 at the time),” the younger Lusk said. “I foul out and it was looking like we might be in trouble. We just found a way to get it done in dramatic fashion, in double overtime. To see those guys rally and pulling it out was unbelievable.”
Brandmeyer said his entire senior season was memorable.
“Those times when we were really clicking, it just felt like we couldn’t be stopped,” he said. “We could do a lot of things; we were quick, we had good shooters, we had a full-court press. We had so many different ways of scoring and when we were firing on all cylinders it was a pretty incredible thing to be part of.”
Laying the groundwork
Fridley’s father was in the Air Force and the family moved to the Wesclin school district when he was in seventh grade. He had no idea what to expect, but quickly found a friend in Lusk at Wesclin Junior High baseball tryouts.
Brink, the point guard, also moved in during seventh-grade. Brede and Lusk were lifelong friends whose fathers were both teachers and coaches at Wesclin.
“I remember in eighth grade, a Wesclin (varsity) group that we really liked had to walk off the Vandalia Sectional floor and couldn’t advance,” Brede said. “I remember Little Paul saying we can’t let that happen to us in high school. We didn’t have any idea at the time what we were talking about.”
Their talent on a basketball court was obvious to anyone who saw them play, from junior high all the way through high school. But prior to their arrival, no Wesclin team had ever won a sectional championship, let alone made a trip to state.
They came close to going to state as sophomores, losing to St. Elmo in the Vandalia Sectional championship on a halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
“My brother was a starting guard in ’88 on that team,” Brandmeyer said. “It was heartbreaking.”
But it also provided motivation.
“Just getting out of that Vandalia Sectional seemed like a hard thing to do because it had never happened at Wesclin,” Brede said, recalling the shock of losing on a long buzzer-beater. “We had it in our hands and that guy took it away from us. We began to wonder is this ever going to happen?”
As juniors, the group lost to state tourney qualifier Assumption in the sectional. That left only one more season — 1989-90.
“I do remember thinking we’ve got one more shot,” Brede said. “That’s all we’ve got.”
Fun with the Warriors
Away from the court, the Warriors’ seniors were a tight-knit group. They liked the heavy metal music of Guns ’n Roses, staying up late and being part of a state-ranked basketball team.
“Every night after a big game, we would literally get done with the game, go out to eat, go to somebody’s house and we would stay up until the newspapers came out the next day to read what they wrote about us,” Fridley said. “We’d wait till about 5 o’clock and go to the Handee Mart there in town.”
Before the playoffs that year, the group hit the local barber shop and got military-style buzzcuts. The haircuts were such a hit that many of the team’s fans followed suit, especially the youngsters.
“Everybody knew us wherever we went,” said Coach Lusk, whose team didn’t lose after being defeated at the Vandalia Holiday Tournament in late December. “We were rolling and we were entertaining and had some awful good players.”
Most of the games that season were also rebroadcast on the local cable access channel with local announcers that included the New Baden police chief, so they watched those too, critiquing each other’s games.
Andrew Pape was a young soccer player from Edwardsville that year who was in the car with his father and friends traveling home from a tournament in Tennessee. As they got closer to Illinois, they picked up the Wesclin-Prairie Central state title game on the radio.
“We listened to the entire game on radio,” Pape said. “I followed Paul Lusk his entire career just from the two hours in that car when he became my hero. I didn’t even know where Wesclin was at that time, but my dad said we had to root for them to represent Southern Illinois. I was on the edge of my seat the entire car ride home and will never forget how proud I was for the little guys to finally bring home the state title.”
Their coach was a giant of a man who had starred in basketball at Madison High and later Mineral Area College. Few coaches were more intimidating and few worked their teams harder, but few commanded the type of respect Coach Lusk enjoys to this day.
“He was so good at knowing and instilling in us the kind of effort it would take to be successful, whether it was in practice or a game or on your own in life,” Brede said. “Playing for that guy, I always knew that we were better prepared than other teams. We didn’t always win of course, but underneath I had the confidence that this guy knows what’s he’s doing.
“We played as hard as we possibly could — and that carried into my life, my athletic life, anything I did. There’s a price to play for success and he instilled that in us.”
Brink, now a middle school superintendent in Nashville, will never forget his time playing for Coach Lusk.
“They broke the mold with that guy,” Brink said. “I have never, ever met anyone like him and probably never will again. You either loved him or hated him, there was no in-between. Aside from my parents, he has probably had the greatest impact on my life.”
Bringing it home
With his team down by nine in the fourth quarter of the state championship, Brede poured in 18 points in eight minutes to keep the Warriors hanging around.
The game almost never reached double-overtime as Bazell missed a free-throw with 0.5 seconds remaining in the first OT that would have won it. Brede and Brink hit the free throws that clinched the state title.
“That’s kind of an unbelievable storybook ending,” Coach Lusk said after the title game. “Under these circumstances, the kids would not be denied regardless of what went on on the floor.”
There were a lot of big wins and incredible memories that season. But the one mentioned most often by the players was a group hug shared on the court right after winning the state title. After receiving the trophy, the group of seniors carried it to a smiling Coach Lusk.
“The bond that was created between our group, of all the things from that season ... today I’m 43 years old and it’s still incredible,” Brede said. “When we see each other, there’s a smile on our face. It really doesn’t have as much to do with winning a state championship, it’s something that we experienced. It has brought all of us together like I don’t know what else could.”