Belleville West junior EJ Liddell on Thursday was recognized as the Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois.
The 6-foot-7 Liddell, who has 13 Division I scholarship offers, is the second metro-east player in two years to win the honor. Edwardsville's Mark Smith earned the award last year and later was named Mr. Basketball in Illinois.
Liddell was ecstatic when he received the news.
"I'm going to be honest," he said. "In the morning, I was still sleeping. My parents (Eric and Michelle) walked into my room and they told me to check my email. I checked my email and I saw it. I didn't believe it, though.
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"So I went to Twitter and saw the video posted, and I just got up and started dancing immediately. Usually, I'm a hard morning person, but I got really excited when I saw that."
Liddell is just the second junior since 2005 to win the Illinois award.
Jon Scheyer, of Glenbrook North, won as a junior in 2005 and as a senior in 2006. Jabari Parker, of Chicago Simeon, won as a junior in 2012 and as a senior in 2013. Parker, who plays with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2012.
The winner of the national award is announced each April.
Liddell received congratulations from Smith about the award, and he's proud that the honor is staying in the metro-east.
"I think we're getting a lot of recognition now," Liddell said. "Usually, it's the Chicago people that always get the awards. But since Mark and I have gotten it, it's brought a lot of attention to the 618."
Maroons coach Joe Muniz said the award is particularly meaningful because it also considers a player's constitution.
"This is a Player of the Year for his basketball play, but Gatorade takes into account your character, what type of kid you are, what type of student you are, what type of community service you do. This goes beyond basketball. It's about life. That's what I'm most proud of. He qualifies, definitely, on the basketball floor. But I don't think everybody realizes how great a person he is off the floor."
Liddell is averaging 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, six blocks and 2.9 assists. He has 22 3-pointers and is shooting 58 percent from the field (206 of 355) and 78 percent from the free-throw line (191 of 245). Liddell has recorded 12 double-doubles and two triple-doubles.
"I set a lot of goals for this year, and this is one of the goals that I accomplished," Liddell said. "I'm really proud of myself for playing my hardest and getting this award. ... There are a lot of great players in the state. Me being recognized as one of the best players in the state and getting the Gatorade Player of the Year award is really great.
"I couldn't have imagined myself, when I was a kid, getting this."
Liddell has led the Maroons (28-2) into the championship game of the Class 4A Pekin Sectional. West will play Moline (19-7) at 7 p.m. Friday, with the winner advancing to the Normal Super-Sectional on Tuesday against Bolingbrook or West Aurora. The Normal Super-Sectional would be Tuesday at Redbird Arena, followed by the state tournament March 16-17 in Peoria.
As sweet as the award is, Liddell said it's all about the Maroons at this juncture.
"I'm really focused on trying to get to the state championship right now," Liddell said. "I got this award because of my teammates. Individual awards mean a lot to me, but for me and my team, we want to go out there and win every game starting (Friday)."
Liddell has scored 30 or more points in a game four times and 20 or more points 17 times. His single-game rebounding high is 14, accomplished three times. He had 13 blocks in a Dec. 8 game at Belleville East.
Liddell has offers from Illinois, Missouri, Ohio State, Northwestern, Iowa, Iowa State, Florida, Saint Louis University, Marquette, DePaul, Kansas State, Illinois State and Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He is the 42nd-best prospect in the Class of 2019, according to rivals.com.
West is ranked No. 2 in the Class 4A state poll.
"This is an individual award, but without our team and the success of our team, he probably wouldn't get this award," Muniz said. "The thing you want him to do is remain humble, keep working, not be satisfied with where he's at and keep striving for bigger and better things. ... For our school, this is something special."