Belleville West receives state championship trophy
The year after celebrating a century of high school basketball in Belleville, the West Maroons made history of their own.
West won its first state championship in the program's 101-year history with a defeat of defending Class 4A champion Whitney Young on Saturday in Peoria. The win was No. 32 on the season, a school record that ties the 2015-16 state champion Althoff Crusaders for the most in city history.
And EJ Liddell, whose performance in the state tournament is making him an emerging candidate for Mr. Basketball in Illinois, also established school records for career and single-season scoring.
But what can these Maroons do for an encore?
Three seniors, including starters Malachi Smith and Curtis Williams, depart. But most of the core — Liddell included — and plenty of depth will return for another run.
Still standing in the glow of the program's biggest moment, coach Joe Muniz isn't looking that for ahead.
"We've got a lot of guys coming back next year, and they are going to get better," he said. "The thing I don't want to see happen to the kids is for them to change who they are and what they've done because of this moment. What you want is for them to want to strive to get back here for the chance to do it again.
"The biggest thing I'd be worried about is complacency and that it's over."
Muniz saw a hint of that Jan. 20 at the Chick-fil-A Classic at Belleville East, whre the Maroons suffered their second loss of the season, 81-77 to Chaminade.
"The Chaminade defeat was so good for us," he said. "I'm not sure we win this game ... I'm not sure we're here if we don't lose to Chaminade. At that time of the season we weren't practicing really well, and we were kind of believing we were special. That loss woke us up, and those kids came to work every day and got better."
Liddell says there's no chance he'll permit that kind of letdown to happen again, not now that he's tasted this level of success.
"I'm going to get better and everybody is going to get better, and we're going to come back next year to do it again," LIddell said. "There are guys on our bench who are going to step up and other guys who will keep us deep. We'll come back with a chip on our shoulder and get back after it."
The biggest hit to Muniz's roster next year will be Smith, whose transfer from Belleville East might have been the final cog in the Maroons' title run. He averaged 15.5 points and 6.1 rebounds to earn a scholarship to NCAA Tournament-qualifier Wright State. Curtis Williams, who had 35 steals, and Zion Woodie, who hit 9 of 31 3-point attempts off the bench, also graduate.
Muniz says Liddell will only get better, as will junior Keith Randolph Jr., who averaged 10 points and 6.9 rebounds heading into Saturday. His 18 points and game-high 12 rebounds helped the Maroons pull away from Elgin Larkin in the the semifinals Friday.
"This last half of the season, he's learned to take what the defense gives him and realized he's an offensive rebounding machine," Muniz said. "Heck, he'll go out and guard a point guard. I'm really proud of him."
Following West's championship win at the Centralia Holiday Tournament, Randolph said he was leaning toward pursuing basketball in college. He's since received a flood of Division I football scholarships. There were seven over a four-day span in late January.
Randolph says he'll be in the weight room this summer instead of playing AAU basketball, but football won't keep him out of a maroon and white tank top come November.
"Especially not after this because I've got to get a two-peat," Randolph said. "That's the goal. We're not going to do anything but get better over the summer, and these guys have shown they'll do what they've got to do to get better."
West also will bring back guard Lawrence Brazil III, a 38.6-percent shooter from 3-point range who averaged 10.5 points. Jaylin Mosby (5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds) and Marcellus Romious (2.8 points) also return having contributed meaningful minutes to the championship drive.
"I'm going to enjoy this right now and I'm going to miss our seniors because they helped me become a better person and a better player," said Brazil, who scored 18 points in the championship game. "But we have other guys ready to step up. We can do it again next year."